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« Reply #10590 on: Dec 11, 2013, 07:48 AM »

Hollande arrives in Central African Republic after two French troops killed

French president flies directly from Nelson Mandela's funeral as operation with African Union to disarm militia continues

Kim Willsher in Paris, Tuesday 10 December 2013 19.12 GMT   

The French president, François Hollande, flew into the Central African Republic on Tuesday evening following an announcement earlier confirming the deaths of two French soldiers in clashes with militia forces they had ordered to disarm – the first losses in the French campaign in its former colony.

On his arrival in the capital, Bangui, the French president described the mission as "necessary but dangerous".

Hollande had flown directly from Nelson Mandela's memorial service in South Africa to CAR, where around 1,600 French troops have been deployed, alongside 2,500 African Union soldiers, to try to stop the bloodshed between religious factions.

The two soldiers, from the 8th regiment of marine infantry parachutists, based at Castres in southern France, had been part of a team inspecting an area east of Bangui's airport close to midnight on Monday before a disarmament operation, according to a French military spokesman, Colonel Gilles Jaron, speaking in Paris.

Gunmen fired on the French patrol, which returned fire, he said. Two Frenchmen were wounded and taken to hospital, where they died. It was unclear whether anyone else died in the clash.

In a statement, Hollande's office praised their bravery and said the men, who died five days into Operation Sangaris, had "lost their lives to save many others". The Elysée palace said: "The president of the republic has learned with profound sadness the deaths in combat of the two soldiers … the head of state expresses his profound respect for the sacrifice of these two soldiers and renews his full confidence in the French forces deployed, alongside the African forces, to re-establish security in the Central African Republic, to protect the population, and to guarantee access to humanitarian aid."

Tensions flared up again on Tuesday in the CAR as a mob of young men set fire to a mosque in the Fou area of Bangui. Smoke billowed from vehicles nearby, and men used pickaxes and whatever tools they could find to try to tear down the walls of the mosque.

French troops were sent to the country having been given the go-ahead by the UN security council on Thursday after more than 450 people, many of them women and children, were killed in a series of massacres.

They began disarming former rebels and militias who had carried out a series of bloody reprisals over recent weeks and sown terror among the population of the CAR, especially in the capital.

Rebels known as the Séléka, a mostly Muslim coalition, overthrew the government of the majority Christian nation nine months ago.

The Séléka and other armed groups had been given an ultimatum by the French to return to their bases and hand over their weapons.

Jaron told journalists that most armed groups had been cleared from Bangui's streets. The military spokesman said: "There was no fighting in Bangui. At no moment did these groups try to engage in combat against us."

He said French troops had come up against "furtive firing" and had briefly fired back, but he said these exchanges had now stopped.

* French-soldiers-in-Bangui-003.jpg (6.72 KB, 140x84 - viewed 47 times.)
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« Reply #10591 on: Dec 11, 2013, 07:53 AM »

December 10, 2013

Rights Lawyer Among 4 Abducted in Syria; 2 Journalists Are Also Being Held


BEIRUT, Lebanon — A Syrian human rights lawyer who was one of the most vocal early leaders of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad was abducted along with three colleagues in a suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Tuesday by masked men, according to antigovernment activists, who pointed fingers at an Islamist rebel faction that she had criticized.

The abduction of the lawyer, Razan Zeitouneh, came hours after relatives and colleagues of two Spanish journalists kidnapped by Islamist extremist fighters in September in northern Syria made their plight public after months of secret attempts to free them stalled. One of the captives is Javier Espinosa, an experienced correspondent for the newspaper El Mundo, who has taken grave risks to cover the Syrian conflict, returning many times after surviving the government bombardment that killed two fellow journalists, Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik, in the central city of Homs in February 2012.

The two abductions contribute to fears that the most violent side of the Syrian insurgency is silencing advocates of the freedom and political rights that were the original demands of those protesting against the Assad government in early 2011 and is playing into the hands of the government, which portrays itself as the only alternative to extremist rule.

Ms. Zeitouneh and Mr. Espinosa are two prominent examples of those who have risked the most to document the Syrian uprising and the government crackdown against it — Mr. Espinosa through his writing, and Ms. Zeitouneh through her organization, the Violations Documentation Center, which compiles data on human rights breaches.

El Mundo said it believed that the Spanish journalists were being held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, an affiliate of Al Qaeda. Press freedom organizations say at least 30 journalists are missing in Syria, including 20 foreigners.

An Iraqi journalist, Yasser Faisal, was fatally shot last Wednesday after being abducted by the Qaeda affiliate while reporting on dissatisfaction with the group, according to colleagues. They said Mr. Faisal had wanted to document Syrians’ struggles with extremists in part because they reflected those of his hometown, Falluja, which during the American occupation of Iraq was for a time dominated by the group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the organization that gave rise to some of the jihadist factions now in Syria.

Antigovernment activists say the figures on missing journalists are dwarfed by the number of Syrian civilians being held by the government, which they place in the tens or even hundreds of thousands.

The abduction of Ms. Zeitouneh, a secular advocate of nonviolence who has received numerous international human rights awards, was heavily symbolic for activists who feel as if they are increasingly fighting on two fronts: against the government and against Islamist extremists. Taken with her were her husband, Wael Hamadeh; Samira Khalil, the wife of a prominent activist, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who recently fled the country after extremists took over his hometown, Raqqa; and Nazem Hamadeh, who was running relief activities in the Damascus suburbs, according to the Local Coordinating Committees, a constellation of civilian councils that administer rebel-held areas, and other activists.

Mr. Hamadeh is considered “one of the first people who joined the revolution,” said Fares Mohamed, an activist in the town of Douma, the rebel-held suburb where the rights advocates had worked.

Activists said the Army of Islam, a rebel group that has come to dominate the area, had been hostile to Ms. Zeitouneh because of her secular views.

Invoking the memorial service on Tuesday for Nelson Mandela, the Local Coordinating Committees issued a statement calling on international leaders to push for her release.

“These activists were inspired and informed by Mr. Mandela’s work, and were promoting concepts of nonviolence and civil resistance in Syria even at a time when the regime is violating every possible tenet of human rights,” the committees said in a statement.

The families and friends of Ms. Zeitouneh, Mr. Espinosa and Ricardo García Vilanova, the photographer abducted alongside him, issued anguished pleas for their captors to remember that they had aimed to help Syrians.

“Javier and Ricardo are not your enemy,” Monica G. Prieto, Mr. Espinosa’s wife and a freelance journalist, said at a news conference in Beirut. “Please, honor the revolution they protected, and set them free.”

She wore a head scarf, apparently to make her speech more likely to be viewed by Islamist jihadists. Ms. Prieto, who, like her husband, reported from Homs during government bombardments there, said they both felt a responsibility to Syrians, and hoped that Syrians would now feel a responsibility toward them.

“I reminded him that our children needed him alive,” she said of Mr. Espinosa, “and he replied by telling me that the children of Syria needed the world’s attention.”

Ms. Prieto said that after many weeks of trying to mediate with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, efforts had reached an impasse. Mr. Espinosa, 49, and Mr. García Vilanova, 42, are believed to be alive and well, and the kidnappers have made no requests for ransom or other demands, advocates said. The journalists were abducted at a checkpoint near Tal Abyad in northern Syria on Sept. 16 along with four fighters from the rebel Free Syrian Army and taken to facilities of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in the province of Raqqa.

Rebel factions have continued to clash with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in recent days, accusing the group of killing two officers from the loose-knit, relatively secular Free Syrian Army. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria also executed a father of three in the northern Syrian town of Saraqeb for blasphemy, activists said, after he was asked why the diesel fuel he was selling was not pure and he answered: “How would I know? Am I the god of diesel?”

In a rare breakthrough in attempts to deliver humanitarian aid to hard-to-reach areas in Syria, the United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday that it was preparing to make its first deliveries from Iraq to Syria this week, but it remains unclear whether this will prove to be a regular channel of assistance.

An airlift of 12 flights is to start on Thursday and last until Sunday, delivering food and other assistance to Kurdish areas of Syria’s northeastern Hasakah Province, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Relief agencies believe that 50,000 to 60,000 people are in need of assistance in Hasakah, where conflict, primarily in recent months between Islamist and Kurdish fighters, has obstructed access.

In addition to the security challenges in delivering assistance, international aid agencies have complained of bureaucratic obstacles and delays from the government in obtaining approval for relief convoys destined for populations trapped by fighting, and the agencies have pushed for more cross-border access from neighboring countries.

Nick Cumming-Bruce contributed reporting from Geneva, Hwaida Saad from Beirut, and Raphael Minder from Madrid.
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« Reply #10592 on: Dec 11, 2013, 07:56 AM »

It’s official: Uruguay legalizes production and sale of cannabis

By Jonathan Watts, The Guardian
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 21:48 EST

Government experiment reaches new heights as it attempts to regulate marijuana business and find alternative to war on drugs

The world’s most far-reaching cannabis law was passed by the Uruguayan parliament, opening the way for the state to regulate the production, distribution, sale and consumption of the planet’s favourite illegal drug.

The law, effective from next year, will: allow registered users to buy up to 40g of marijuana a month from a chemist’s; registered growers to keep up to six plants; and cannabis clubs to have up to 45 members and cultivate as many as 99 plants.

A government-run cannabis institute will set the price – initially likely to be close to the current black market rate of $1 a gramme – and monitor the impact of the programme, which aims to bring the industry under state control and push illegal traffickers out of business.

Julio Bango, one of the politicians who helped draft the bill, said it would probably be four months until the first harvest of legal cannabis, by which time the government would have a licensing system in place. “We know this has generated an international debate and we hope it brings another element to discussions about a model [the war on drugs] that has totally failed and that has generated the opposite results from what it set out to achieve.”

Before the passage of the bill, president José Mujica called on the international community to assist in what he admitted was an experiment aimed at finding an alternative to the deadly and unsuccessful war on drugs. “We are asking the world to help us with this experience, which will allow the adoption of a social and political experiment to face a serious problem – drug trafficking,” he said earlier this month. “The effects of drug trafficking are worse than those of the drugs themselves.”

If the results of the law prove negative, Mujica has said it could be rescinded. The current illegal market in Uruguay is estimated to be worth $30m (£18m) a year, according to Martin Fernández, a lawyer working for the Association of Cannabis Studies, who says one in five Uruguayans have tried marijuana. The government estimates 115,000 people are regular users.

Consumption of marijuana has been permitted for many years in Uruguay – one of Latin America’s most tolerant nations – but production and sales are prohibited and largely run by gangs who smuggle drugs in from Paraguay.

The government is taking a political risk by trying to regulate the business – a move not supported by most voters. Opposition politicians have demanded a referendum.

“Public perception, reflected in public opinion polls, is that this measure is the wrong way to address a serious problem,” Gerardo Amarilla of the National party said.

Drug rehab workers have mixed views about the likely risks and benefits. Nancy Alonso, a psychologists who runs an addiction treatment centre, believes the law will create social and health problems.

“Marijuana is highly addictive. It’s 15 times more carcinogenic than tobacco. It produces psychological disorders like depression, anxiety and – for big consumers – schizophrenia,” she said. “As a healthcare agent, I think the social harm will be huge.”

However, staff at the government-funded Crudadela treatment centre are more upbeat. “I think the law is a positive step,” said Pablo Anzalone, a programme co-ordinator. “State regulation will reduce problematic consumption. We also hope that it will generate more money for us and other treatment centres.”

Growers were ecstatic that their pastime will no longer get them thrown in jail. To celebrate, several planned what they called “a final march with illegal cannabis” through the streets of Montevideo.

Marcelo Vazquez said he now had the opportunity to fulfil an ambition. “It’s a utopia,” he said. “I want to work, pay taxes and grow cannabis for clubs, for medicine, for whatever.”

Juan Guano, who runs a small shop selling growbags, heat lamps and books on cannabis cultivation, said he expected his market to expand. More hopefully, he predicted the measure could help Uruguayan and world society.

“Uruguay doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone, but obviously the outside world will be watching how this works. We are not regulating marijuana with the aim of encouraging others to follow our lead, we are doing it because this is what we need as a society. But one possible positive is that, if things go well, other countries in the region could take this as a model for marijuana regulation.”

Additional reporting by Mauricio Rabuffetti in Montevideo

© Guardian News and Media 2013

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« Reply #10593 on: Dec 11, 2013, 08:00 AM »

Stolen radioactive material found in Mexico cornfield

Farmer treated for radiation exposure after handling cobalt-60 from obsolete medical equipment dumped by truck thieves

Associated Press in Mexico City, Wednesday 11 December 2013 08.47 GMT

A shipment of highly radioactive cobalt-60 has been safely recovered after sitting in the cornfield where it was found a week ago dumped by thieves in central Mexico, according to the country's nuclear safety director.

Juan Eibenschutz, the director general of the National Commission of Nuclear Safety and Safeguards, said a robot was used to scoop up the dangerous material and deposit it in a safe container for transporting to a nuclear waste treatment facility.

"It's been recovered, and it's on its way to the waste site," he said.

Earlier on Tuesday, Eibenschutz had said the cobalt-60 was still in the field because emergency workers had not been able to get the robot close enough due to bales of corn stalks in the field.

"Things turned out well," he said a few hours later. "The operators of the robot prepared everything and were able to secure the material."

A federal police force statement added that 100 federal police, marines and local officers were still guarding the area.

Eibenschutz said a farmer was being checked at a hospital after showing signs of radiation exposure. The man, who lives in the nearby farming town of Hueypoxtla, told authorities he handled the material after finding it in the field and started feeling sick soon afterwards.

The cobalt-60, which came from obsolete medical equipment used in radiation therapy, was being transported to a waste facility by a truck that was stolen at gunpoint on 2 December when the driver stopped to rest at a petrol station in Hidalgo state.

Two days later, authorities found the truck abandoned in neighbouring Mexico state. The thieves had removed the cobalt-60 from its protective container and left it in the field about half a mile (1km) from Hueypoxtla, a town of about 4,000 people.

On Monday, a federal judge ordered five people to be held for 40 days under house arrest pending possible charges


Mexican Senate debates allowing foreign firms to drill for oil

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 18:30 EST

Mexico’s Senate opened a debate Tuesday on controversial legislation to break the country’s oil monopoly by allowing foreign firms to drill for crude for the first time in 75 years.

The bill — which has sparked demonstrations — is the centerpiece of President Enrique Pena Nieto’s sweeping reform drive, which has led to new laws in tax collection, telecommunications and education in an effort to revitalize Latin America’s second biggest economy,

The latest reform would let private firms explore and extract oil and gas as well as share profits, production and risks with state-run energy giant Pemex, ending a ban cemented in the constitution.

The legislation was sent to the full Senate after three committees gave general approval in a 24-9 vote on Monday.

But leftist opponents vowed to fight what they see as a bid to privatize a symbol of national sovereignty. Protesters have held demonstrations outside the Senate for days.

The proposed constitutional changes stem from a deal between Pena Nieto’s centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the conservative opposition National Action Party (PAN).

The bill proposes a contract and licensing schemes that fall short of more controversial concessions.

But the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) equates the plan to treason and submission to US oil companies.

PRD Senator Dolores Padierna sought to suspend the vote until Mexicans can hold a referendum on the reform, but the Senate committees rejected her proposal.

Supporters of the reform deny that the legislation would privatize the sector, insisting that the oil would remain the property of Mexico and that Pemex desperately needs it to reverse a drop in production.

Changes to the oil sector strike at the heart of modern Mexico’s national identity.

In 1938 then president Lazaro Cardenas nationalized the foreign-operated oil industry, a wildly popular move that asserted Mexico’s right to its own mineral wealth.

The government also founded Pemex, which despite its many problems remains one of the country’s most important sources of income from exports.

The PRI and PAN say the reform is needed to reverse a downward trend in oil production, which has dropped from 3.4 million barrels per day in 2004 to 2.5 million bpd today.

But the two parties disagree on a PAN bid to oust the powerful union from the company’s board.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #10594 on: Dec 11, 2013, 08:04 AM »

Mexican Senate debates allowing foreign firms to drill for oil

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 18:30 EST

Mexico’s Senate opened a debate Tuesday on controversial legislation to break the country’s oil monopoly by allowing foreign firms to drill for crude for the first time in 75 years.

The bill — which has sparked demonstrations — is the centerpiece of President Enrique Pena Nieto’s sweeping reform drive, which has led to new laws in tax collection, telecommunications and education in an effort to revitalize Latin America’s second biggest economy,

The latest reform would let private firms explore and extract oil and gas as well as share profits, production and risks with state-run energy giant Pemex, ending a ban cemented in the constitution.

The legislation was sent to the full Senate after three committees gave general approval in a 24-9 vote on Monday.

But leftist opponents vowed to fight what they see as a bid to privatize a symbol of national sovereignty. Protesters have held demonstrations outside the Senate for days.

The proposed constitutional changes stem from a deal between Pena Nieto’s centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the conservative opposition National Action Party (PAN).

The bill proposes a contract and licensing schemes that fall short of more controversial concessions.

But the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) equates the plan to treason and submission to US oil companies.

PRD Senator Dolores Padierna sought to suspend the vote until Mexicans can hold a referendum on the reform, but the Senate committees rejected her proposal.

Supporters of the reform deny that the legislation would privatize the sector, insisting that the oil would remain the property of Mexico and that Pemex desperately needs it to reverse a drop in production.

Changes to the oil sector strike at the heart of modern Mexico’s national identity.

In 1938 then president Lazaro Cardenas nationalized the foreign-operated oil industry, a wildly popular move that asserted Mexico’s right to its own mineral wealth.

The government also founded Pemex, which despite its many problems remains one of the country’s most important sources of income from exports.

The PRI and PAN say the reform is needed to reverse a downward trend in oil production, which has dropped from 3.4 million barrels per day in 2004 to 2.5 million bpd today.

But the two parties disagree on a PAN bid to oust the powerful union from the company’s board.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #10595 on: Dec 11, 2013, 08:13 AM »

Robotic mission to Mars announced to pave way for first human space colony

Mars One lander mission will provide information ahead of human settlers' planned landing on one-way ticket

Ian Sample, science correspondent, Tuesday 10 December 2013 18.47 GMT      

A Dutch company that plans to send a crew of amateur astronauts on a one-way mission to Mars has lined up two major companies to work on a robotic mission to the planet.

Slated for launch in 2018, the Mars One mission aims to pave the way for the volunteer crew by testing technology they will need should they reach the red planet in good enough shape to start the first human space colony.

The US aerospace company, Lockheed Martin, which has worked on scores of Nasa missions, has agreed to draw up plans for a lander based on the US space agency's Phoenix probe that touched down on Mars in 2008.

The lander will launch with a communications satellite that will go into orbit over Mars and provide video and data links from the surface of the planet back to Earth. The UK company, Surrey Satellites (SSTL), has signed a contract to work on the communications probe.

If the launch goes ahead as planned, it will mark the first privately funded mission to explore another planet. "That is really, really cool," said Ed Sedivy, a chief engineer at Lockheed Martin who was spacecraft manager on Nasa's Phoenix mission. "This is the dawn of a new era of space exploration."

Bas Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One, told reporters at a press briefing in Washington DC on Tuesday that the robotic mission was "the first step in Mars One's overall plan of establishing a permanent human settlement on Mars".

Lansdorp believes the human mission to Mars would cost as little as $6bn, but Michael Listner, an expert on space law has put the total bill at closer to $1tn. Most of the cost must be paid for by philanthropists, sponsorship, and broadcast rights: the Mars One business model turns space travel – and a real risk of death – into a reality TV show that will follow the astronauts through their mission.

Should the first human mission go ahead, Mars One hopes to send further crews every two years. None will expect to come home, but instead would remain on the planet as the first extraterrestrial colony. Lansdorp said the company had received more than 200,000 applications from people who wanted to be among the first to fly to Mars. Each application costs as much as $75. Those who go through to the next round of assessments will hear by the end of the year, he said.

The proposed Mars lander would test video cameras and shoot 24/7 footage, while an onboard experiment would demonstrate how water can be made on the surface of the planet. Another experiment will test how well thin film solar panels can harvest power from the sun.

Speaking by videolink to the press briefing, Sir Martin Sweeting, founder of SSTL, said the company would draw on work for Europe's version of GPS – the galileo navigation satellites – for the Mars communications satellite. "This has been a dream for us at Surrey for many years," he said. The company "has been interested in driving the cost of exploration down and increasing the tempo of exploration for many years."

Mars One plans to run a number of competitions with schools and universities for room onboard the lander, either to conduct experiments, or carry items to the planet, such as a letter for any future crew to read. Mars One hopes to crowdsource part of the funding for the mission.

A human mission to Mars would be fraught with danger. The radiation levels will be intense on the journey and on the surface of the planet. The weak gravitational field of Mars would require radical adapting to, and those who stay would likely lose so much bone and muscle that they would not survive back on Earth. And the psychological impact could be devastating. Even trained astronauts have suffered mental health problems, seriously disturbed sleep, and stress after being cooped-up in mock long-duration space missions that never left Earth. One such trial in 1999 hit a low point involving an unwanted sexual advance, a punch-up and blood-spattered walls.

"We're moving closer to our destination. It's going to be a difficult and bumpy road, but I'm confident with a lot of help from people around the world we will finally make it," said Lansdorp.


Bas Lansdorp Q&A: 'I hope to go to Mars myself one day'

As Mars One teams up with Lockheed Martin to send an unmmaned spacecraft to the red planet in 2018, CEO Bas Lansdorp answers questions about the challenges of the mission, which will prepare the ground for sending humans on a one-way trip to Mars in 2025

James Kingsland, Tuesday 10 December 2013 18.00 GMT   

Given the difficulty of landing safely on Mars – and the high failure rate on previous attempts – how confident are you that Mars One can pull it off in 2018?

Mars missions have a reputation for a high failure rate, but this is bad statistics. Of all Nasa missions that attempted to land on Mars, one has failed and seven were successful. For our 2018 lander, Mars One is partnering with Lockheed Martin, which has a distinct legacy of participating in nearly every Nasa mission to Mars. It will be based on the very successful 2007 Nasa Phoenix. For the Phoenix mission, Lockheed Martin designed, built, tested and operated the lander for Nasa. Lockheed Martin will build the 2018 lander and our larger lander, which we will use for the cargo missions and the human missions.

What system will the craft use to brake its descent through the planet's thin atmosphere?

The exact design will be determined by Lockheed Martin in its studies, but the 2018 lander will use a heat shield to decelerate in the top layer of the Martian atmosphere. Parachutes will decelerate the spacecraft further and finally the lander will make a propulsive descent.

How will your robotic mission with Lockheed lay the ground for a future manned mission?

The robotic mission will demonstrate some of the technologies that are required for permanent settlement on Mars. A power experiment will demonstrate the use of thin film solar panels on Mars and test them on the surface. A water experiment will demonstrate producing liquid water on Mars. Water will be evaporated from the soil and then liquefied.
Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp Bas Lansdorp at a press conference in April to announce the launch of astronaut selection for the 2022 one-way mission. Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty

What do you think humankind will gain from having a colony on Mars?

If you study history you will find that technological advances are made in times of war and times of exploration. Going to Mars will trigger a whole series of new technologies, for example in recycling and solar cells. But the most important thing Mars exploration will give us is a common goal for all mankind and the inspiration of achieving the impossible.

Are you confident you can deliver the promised launch date of 2022 for the manned mission?

Mars One has announced a two-year delay to make sure we have enough time to develop the two spacecraft for the 2018 mission. We are confident that we can keep the rest of the programme on track, landing the first team on Mars in 2025.

What criteria will be used in the selection process?

While good health and a good skill set are important, our biggest challenge will be to find teams that are able to leave everything and everyone behind on Earth. They will live together in their small group of four for almost three years before the second crew joins the settlement.

Are you looking for volunteers without any family ties or partners on Earth?

When people migrated across the globe, there were no phone connections. Many people left fathers, mothers but also sons and daughters behind. The drive to explore is strong. We will not disqualify people with family ties on Earth. Don't forget that from Mars you can email, voicemail and videomail your friends and family at home. You are never more than 40 minutes away.

How will Mars One prepare the volunteers for a life of isolation and confinement?

Mars One will select the applicants carefully, but will also test and train them. Before they leave for Mars in 2024, they will spend extended periods of time in a copy of the Mars outpost here on Earth every year. Teams that do not pass these tests successfully will be eliminated from the astronaut corps.

How would the astronauts be shielded from radiation during the six-month journey to Mars?

The Curiosity rover measured radiation on the way to Mars. The astronauts would receive about 400 millisieverts on the way to Mars or about 40% of what Esa allows for its astronauts. Galactic cosmic rays are very hard to shield against on the way to Mars. We will protect against solar radiation by providing a hollow water tank in which the astronauts can take shelter during solar storms.

How will the they avoid extreme boredom during the seven-month journey in a confined space?

The inability of a person to be bored will actually be an important selection criterion. Even though they are in a brand new little space station on the way to Mars, there will be plenty to do. They are the first crew leaving the Earth forever: they will be in constant communication with a lot of people on Earth. They will also still study to prepare for their stay in the outpost. What helps is their goal: Mars. The relatively boring trip is not the goal, Mars is. And they will be waiting full of anticipation to arrive there.

How will they occupy themselves on the red planet?

The astronauts will spend a lot of time on construction of the settlement, on growing food and on research. To relax, they can do most things we can do here on Earth indoors: playing games, watching TV, communicating with friends.

How will the astronauts exercise?

On the way to Mars they will use exercise machines. Living on Mars will be hard work, but there they will also have access to exercise equipment.

What will they eat? Won't they get bored with typical astronaut rations?

On the way to Mars they will eat the astronaut rations, but on Mars they will grow their own food. Besides vegetables and other plants they will grow algae and insects. Of course they will have emergency rations in case something goes wrong with food production.

What kind of research will they do?

Their trip to and stay on Mars will be a very interesting research topic in itself for physiologists. Another interesting topic will be the history of the solar system, because there are locations on Mars that have much older rocks than the oldest rocks on Earth. Martian life will be another interesting topic. The fields of research will also depend on the interests of the settlers.

What happens when they get ill? What kind of medications will they take with them?

They will take a medical kit that will allow them to perform a wide level of procedures and a set of medicine. The exact details are still to be determined. They will be trained to perform a range of procedures and can receive instructions from Earth for procedures that they were not trained for.

What type of mental health support will the colonists receive from Earth? Will their training include psychotherapy techniques?

The training will include learning skills to deal with all kinds of situations. On Mars they will exchange regular video mails with the support team on Earth.

How will Mars One be funded in the long-term, and how much of the financing is dependent on selling television rights?

Other sources of financing are sponsorships and partnerships and revenues from intellectual property rights. Mars One will become co-owner of the IP [intellectual property] that our suppliers create when designing and building our systems.

Have any TV companies shown an interest in getting involved in the mission?

We're in advanced negotiations with a major studio for an overall deal for film and television properties.

Have you had any advice from Nasa?

Some of the advisers you find on our advisory board are still active in Nasa or are former employees. At this moment there is no official business relationship between Mars One and Nasa.

Would you go to Mars if you got the chance?

I hope to go to Mars one day, but I am certainly not the right material for one of the first crews.

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« Reply #10596 on: Dec 11, 2013, 08:39 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

NSA Is Using Google Cookies To Track Online Activity

By Susie Madrak December 10, 2013 7:27 pm

Just when you thought it was okay to go back online...

We've all had that creepy feeling that Google is watching us, right? ("How did you know I was looking at boots? I only looked for, like ten seconds!") Turns out they're not the only ones!

    The National Security Agency is secretly piggybacking on the tools that enable Internet advertisers to track consumers, using "cookies" and location data to pinpoint targets for government hacking and to bolster surveillance.

    The agency's internal presentation slides, provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, show that when companies follow consumers on the Internet to better serve them advertising, the technique opens the door for similar tracking by the government. The slides also suggest that the agency is using these tracking techniques to help identify targets for offensive hacking operations.

    For years, privacy advocates have raised concerns about the use of commercial tracking tools to identify and target consumers with advertisements. The online ad industry has said its practices are innocuous and benefit consumers by serving them ads that are more likely to be of interest to them.

    The revelation that the NSA is piggybacking on these commercial technologies could shift that debate, handing privacy advocates a new argument for reining in commercial surveillance.

    Cookie monster

    According to the documents, the NSA and its British counterpart, GCHQ, are using the small tracking files or "cookies" that advertising networks place on computers to identify people browsing the Internet. The intelligence agencies have found particular use for a part of a Google-specific tracking mechanism known as the “PREF” cookie. These cookies typically don't contain personal information, such as someone's name or e-mail address, but they do contain numeric codes that enable Web sites to uniquely identify a person's browser.

    In addition to tracking Web visits, this cookie allows NSA to single out an individual's communications among the sea of Internet data in order to send out software that can hack that person's computer. The slides say the cookies are used to "enable remote exploitation," although the specific attacks used by the NSA against targets are not addressed in these documents.

    The NSA's use of cookies isn't a technique for sifting through vast amounts of information to find suspicious behavior; rather, it lets NSA home in on someone already under suspicion - akin to when soldiers shine laser pointers on a target to identify it for laser-guided bombs.   

    Separately, the NSA is also using commercially gathered information to help it locate mobile devices around the world, the documents show. Many smartphone apps running on iPhones and Android devices, and the Apple and Google operating systems themselves, track the location of each device, often without a clear warning to the phone's owner. This information is more specific than the broader location data the government is collecting from cellular phone networks, as reported by the Post last week.

    "On a macro level, 'we need to track everyone everywhere for advertising' translates into 'the government being able to track everyone everywhere,'" says Chris Hoofnagle, a lecturer in residence at UC Berkeley Law. "It's hard to avoid."


December 10, 2013

Capitol Leaders Agree to a Deal on the Budget


WASHINGTON — House and Senate budget negotiators reached agreement Tuesday on a budget deal that would raise military and domestic spending over the next two years, shifting the pain of across-the-board cuts to other programs over the coming decade and raising fees on airline tickets to pay for airport security.

The deal, while modest in scope, amounts to a cease-fire in the budget wars that have debilitated Washington since 2011 and gives lawmakers breathing room to try to address the real drivers of federal spending — health care and entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security — and to reshape the tax code.

For a Capitol used to paralyzing partisan gridlock, the accord between Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Senator Patty Murray of Washington, chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, was a reminder that even fierce political combatants can find common ground. Mr. Ryan praised the deal in the most elementary terms as a way to “get our government functioning at its very basic levels.”

Both negotiators promised an end to uncertainty and the lurching from crisis to crisis, at least for a year. But both parties sought to preserve their ability to force another showdown over fiscal matters; the government’s statutory borrowing authority will lapse as early as March, another potential crisis.

The budget deal also allows Republicans to remain focused on attacks on the health care law. And party members who are thought to have White House ambitions — like Mr. Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida — are likely to use this agreement, and future fights over money, to further their prospects in 2016.

Still, the announcement drew praise from House Republican leaders, who are likely to put it to a vote by Thursday.

“While modest in scale, this agreement represents a positive step forward by replacing one-time spending cuts with permanent reforms to mandatory spending programs that will produce real, lasting savings,” Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said in a statement.

President Obama also weighed in. “This agreement doesn’t include everything I’d like — and I know many Republicans feel the same way. That’s the nature of compromise,” he said. “But it’s a good sign that Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to come together and break the cycle of shortsighted, crisis-driven decision making to get this done.”

The proposal quickly drew fire from conservatives who saw it as a retreat from earlier spending cuts and a betrayal by senior Republicans. Some excoriated Mr. Ryan, the party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2012, for rolling back immediate spending cuts in exchange for promised savings that may never materialize.

“We need a government with less debt and an economy with more good paying jobs, and this budget fails to accomplish both goals, making it harder for more Americans to achieve the American dream,” Mr. Rubio said. “Instead, this budget continues Washington’s irresponsible budgeting decisions by spending more money than the government takes in and placing additional financial burdens on everyday Americans.”

The agreement, which would finance the government through Sept. 30, 2015, would eliminate about $63 billion in across-the-board domestic and military cuts. But it would provide $23 billion in deficit reduction by extending a 2 percent cut to Medicare providers through 2023, two years beyond the cuts set by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

For Democrats and their negotiator, Ms. Murray, the deal is a turning point in the spending wars that have dominated the Capitol since Republicans swept to control of the House in 2011.

For Republicans and their negotiator, Mr. Ryan, the deal should mean the political focus can remain on Mr. Obama’s health care law and not on another round of budget brinkmanship next month with the government moving to another possible shutdown.

While the agreement had the backing of senior House Republicans, Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation and a group influential with rank-and-file House Republicans, came out against the deal even before it was announced, as did Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, and Koch Industries, the conservative brothers’ energy and paper conglomerate.

“We will hold members accountable, Republican and Democrat, if they go forward and vote to raise spending above sequester levels,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. He was referring to automatic, across-the-board spending cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, who is up for re-election next year, also expressed reluctance to reverse those cuts if a broader, multitrillion-dollar deficit reduction deal could not be reached.

“I remain convinced the Budget Control Act has done what it was supposed to do,” he said. “We’ve reduced government spending for two years in a row for the first time since right after the Korean War.”

Under the agreement, military and domestic spending for the current fiscal year that is under the annual discretion of Congress would rise to $1.012 trillion, from the $967 billion level it would hit if sequestration spending cuts were imposed next month. Spending would inch up to $1.014 trillion in the 2015 fiscal year.

The figure for this year is about halfway between the $1.058 trillion passed by the Senate this spring and the $967 billion approved by the House.

Military spending would be set at $520.5 billion this fiscal year, while domestic programs would get $491.8 billion. The $63 billion increase over the next two years would be spread evenly between Pentagon and domestic spending, nearly erasing the impact of sequestration on the military. Domestic programs would fare particularly well because the 2 percent cut to Medicare health providers would be kept in place, alleviating cuts to programs like health research, education and Head Start.

The increase would be paid for in part with higher airline fees that underwrite airport security. Higher contributions from federal workers to their pensions would save about $6 billion. Military pensions would see slower cost-of-living increases, a $6 billion savings over 10 years. Private companies would pay more into the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

States receiving mineral revenue payments would have to help defray the costs of managing the mineral leases, saving $415 million over 10 years. Deepwater, natural gas and other petroleum research programs would end.

Democrats gave up their demand that the deal extend unemployment benefits that expire at the end of the month, but they hope to press for an extension in a separate measure.

For Republican leaders, the deal would erase the threat of another government shutdown on Jan. 15, when the stopgap spending measure that reopened the government in October runs out. It will now be up to Mr. Ryan to sell the accord to wary congressional Republicans.


December 10, 2013

Political Fight on Farm Aid and Food Stamps Hits Home in the Delta


BELZONI, Miss. — Thomas Bond, a cotton grower whose onetime 8,500-acre partnership of farms received $4 million in federal subsidies in the last seven years, thinks that many residents in the surrounding Mississippi Delta need food stamps. But he says the program is too big and rife with fraud.

“There are a lot of people on food stamps who shouldn’t be,” Mr. Bond said in a recent interview at the Yazoo Country Club. “They could be working, but don’t.”

Attitudes like that anger Monica Stokes, who works as a clerk at a local check-cashing store and has been cut off from $167 a month in food stamps because her income rose slightly.

“Maybe I should go out and plant me a couple acres so I can get some of that money the farmers get,” she said as she took a smoke break on a recent morning outside the store, in Belzoni, the seat of Humphreys County. “The farmers make a lot more than I do, and they still get money from the government. How is that fair?”

This fertile alluvial plain, once home to the plantations that made it one of the richest cotton-growing regions in the country, is now at the epicenter of the acrimony over a new farm bill in Congress. The conflicting views of residents about cutting food stamps and overhauling the farm subsidy program mirror those in Washington, but here the talk is more about real lives than government policy.

Since 1995, farms in Humphreys County have received about $250 million in subsidies, which puts Humphreys close to the middle in a list of counties that get the payments. At the same time, nearly half of the county’s 9,100 residents receive food stamps, one of the highest rates in the nation.

As a result, Humphreys has one of the greatest disparities between the poor, who face food stamp cuts under proposals in the new farm bill, and farmers, who stand to gain more in subsidies.

The bill, a 1,000-page measure that sets the nation’s food and nutrition policy and is typically renewed every five years, includes both the food stamp program and the subsidies paid to farmers. Competing versions of the new bill in the Senate and the House remain mired in partisan gridlock. Farmers are operating under an extension of the existing farm bill, which is due to expire at the end of this month.

Farmers here would greatly benefit from a proposed expansion of the $10-billion-a-year crop insurance program in both the Senate and House versions of the new bill. But a proposal by Republicans in the House version would cut about $40 billion from food stamps, which would result in the removal of five million people nationwide from the program, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning research organization. The Senate is insisting on a much lower reduction in food stamps.

The House version also includes new work requirements and drug tests for food stamp recipients.

It is unclear how hard the proposed cuts would hit residents in Humphreys County, where unemployment hovers around 13 percent, but local recipients and state officials say they are concerned. Food stamps were already cut by up to $16 a month for many residents after a provision in the 2009 economic stimulus bill expired on Nov. 1.

“Anything that reduces the program further will have an impact and could result in families’ going without the benefits that get them over the hump every month, particularly in a county like Humphreys,” said David Noble, the state operations director at the Mississippi Department of Human Services, which administers the food stamp program here.

Food stamp recipients in Humphreys County readily agree. Frank Baity, an unemployed worker who was shopping on a recent morning at West Side Grocery in Belzoni, said the few hundred dollars a month his family received in food stamps typically lasted a few weeks. Like Ms. Stokes, the clerk at the check-cashing store, he is resentful of the farmers. “Why are they getting all that money from the government?” he said.

Lenora Holmes Sutton, the recently elected mayor of Belzoni, takes a middle road in the debate over food stamps and farm subsidies. In an interview, she said that further cuts to food stamps would have a devastating effect on the area, but that support for agriculture, which accounts for nearly 30 percent of commerce in the county, was essential.

“We are a poor area, and we will take whatever we can get,” Ms. Sutton said.

In the view of Mr. Bond, the cotton farmer, growers well deserve the subsidies and are hardly getting rich from them. Until recently, he was a partner in Martin Lightcap Box Farms, the 8,500-acre partnership, which includes six farms of cotton, soybeans and wheat in Midnight, an unincorporated area in Humphreys County.

“When you have six farms, no one is making a killing off this,” he said. “And when you add in the cost of equipment, seeds, fuel and other stuff, we sometimes barely break even.”

Since 2006, the farm partnership has averaged about $600,000 a year in subsidies, mostly for cotton, Agriculture Department records show. The partnership was dissolved last December, but Mr. Bond said he continued to farm on a smaller plot with his son.

Mr. Bond said farm subsidies, particularly programs like crop insurance, were vital. Under the existing program, farmers can buy insurance that covers poor yields, declines in prices or both, allowing them to guarantee about 85 percent of their income. Under proposals in the Senate and House versions of the new farm bill, farmers would be able to guarantee about 90 percent of their income.

“Farming is a risky business,” Mr. Bond said. “Farmers need a safety net.”

But the crop insurance program has drawn criticism from a range of groups, including the left-leaning Environmental Working Group and the conservative Heritage Foundation. The two research organizations say that the costs need to be reduced, and that the program mainly benefits insurance companies and wealthy farmers.

Farmers’ net income for 2013 is expected to be $131 billion, the highest total since 1973, adjusted for inflation, Agriculture Department figures show. Critics of the crop insurance program say the record profits show the need for changes to the program.

Leaving aside the critics, Mr. Bond just wants Congress to pass the new farm bill. Without it, he said, it is difficult for farmers to plan.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, and that’s not good when you’re a farmer,” he said. “Banks are reluctant to loan us anything when they don’t know how they are going to get their money back.”

Ms. Stokes said there was also uncertainty among residents here who receive food stamps. “People are uncertain about where their next meal might come from,” she said.


December 10, 2013

With Filibuster Threat Gone, Senate Confirms Two Presidential Nominees


WASHINGTON — The Senate slowly began working its way through a backlog of presidential nominees on Tuesday now that Republicans are virtually powerless to block confirmations, approving a once-stalled judge to a powerful appeals court and a new director for the agency that oversees federal home lending.

But Republicans, still seething over a power play last month by Democrats to curtail the filibuster significantly, have settled on a strategy for retribution: Make the confirmation process as time-consuming and painful as possible for Democrats.

“There’s a price that has to be paid when people abuse the rules,” said Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah. “And let’s face it. These guys have completely obliterated the rules.”

And so the tone was set for the final days of the 2013 Senate session, a period that promises to be longer on acrimony than on productivity.

With little actual legislation expected as the Senate winds down before its Christmas recess in less than two weeks, Democrats, who control the action on the floor, have decided to use their new power to push through dozens of presidential nominees for everything from high-profile positions like the secretary of homeland security to more obscure ones like ambassador to Albania.

But the two-century-old Senate rule book still offers the minority party plenty of avenues to stall even if the filibuster is not an option. Like a losing team using up all its timeouts before the end of a game, Republicans have started to take advantage of those alternatives and vowed on Tuesday to continue doing so as long as they could.

“It’s very important that we do what we think is necessary to bring home the point that they broke the rules,” said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. “They have basically violated everything I’ve known of as a member of the United States Senate. For us to say that’s fine, business as usual, is not something that we could possibly do.”

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said flatly, “If the majority can’t be expected to follow the rules, then there aren’t any rules.”

Republicans have employed several tactics already, including one on Tuesday that forced the abrupt adjournment of the confirmation hearing for President Obama’s choice to lead the Internal Revenue Service, John A. Koskinen. They also forced the Senate to burn through all four hours of mandatory debate time on the nomination of Representative Melvin Watt, the North Carolina Democrat picked to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Often senators will reach an agreement to yield that time.

Mr. Watt’s nomination was ultimately confirmed Tuesday by a vote of 57 to 41. The nomination of Patricia Ann Millett to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit also cleared the Senate, 56 to 38.

Democrats said they saw Republican efforts to slow down the confirmation process as an exercise in venting frustration. “It’s retaliatory,” said Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa. “It’s revenge,” he added, noting that Democrats had a way of making things unpleasant themselves: by forcing Republicans to be on the Senate floor while they draw things out.

“They’re going to have to keep speaking for four hours or eight hours at a time,” Mr. Harkin said. “And I don’t think they’ll have the stomach to do that on Fridays and Saturdays.”

Some Republicans are reluctant to dwell on nominations too long out of fear that it will distract from their efforts to focus attention on the problems with the Affordable Care Act.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, has vowed to keep the Senate in session right up until Christmas if he needs to. But Republicans have shown no signs that they are bluffing. Many of them are still in shock that Mr. Reid resorted to the rule change — so divisive it is known as the nuclear option — when he used a parliamentary tactic to alter the filibuster rules with a simple majority vote. Ordinarily, Senate rules changes require a two-thirds majority, or 67 votes.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt any worse about the institution as I do today,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who said Republicans should make their displeasure as clear as they could. “I don’t know where this all ends,” he added.


December 10, 2013

Obama Smacks Down The Republican Hysteria Over the Castro Handshake

After Republicans like John McCain embarrassed themselves with outrage over the Castro handshake, the White House put out a statement that made them look like even bigger fools.

Sen. McCain was asked what he thought of the Obama/Raul Castro handshake at the Mandela memorial. He answered, “It gives Raul some propaganda to continue to prop up his dictatorial, brutal regime, that’s all,” He was asked if Obama should have shaken hands with Castro. He said, “Of course not.” “Why should you shake hands with somebody who’s keeping Americans in prison? I mean, what’s the point?” After a pause, McCain let his bitter jealousy out, “Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler.”

GOP Rep. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) yelled at Secretary of State Kerry over the handshake, “Mr. Secretary sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant. Raul Castro uses that hand to sign the orders to repress and jail democracy advocates.”

Sen. Marco Rubio said, “If the President was going to shake his hand, he should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba.”

The White House had a simple explanation for the handshake that has whipped the right into a frenzy, “Nothing was planned in terms of the president’s role other than his remarks,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with Obama. “He really didn’t do more than exchange greetings with those leaders on his way to speak, it wasn’t a substantive discussion.”

Republicans are outraged because President Obama was too polite to Raul Castro at a memorial service. I guess the appropriate response in the Republican mind would have been to ignore the lessons of Mandela, and treat Cuba like a lifetime enemy.

It is silly that the White House had to put out a statement about this, but the media and Republicans ran with it. Republicans went ballistic, because to them this handshake was proof of Obama’s communism. (McCain’s motive was different. He is still bitter over 2008, so he goes out of his way to criticize the president’s foreign policy leadership.) Republicans are petty children who will use anything in their endless attempts to delegitimize this president’s leadership.

Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but the Republican barbarians don’t understand manners, so be prepared for lots of talk of this being proof of Obama’s commie ways.


New Poll Finds America Hates Congressional Republicans More Than Ever

By: Sarah Jones
Tuesday, December, 10th, 2013, 11:23 am   

Merry Christmas, Republican Scrooges, America hates you. They hate you even more today than they did yesterday.

Only 22% of voters approve of the job the Republicans in Congress are doing. Seventy-four percent disapprove, and 4% have either never heard of them or are unsure how to rate them, according to a new Marist Poll out today.

In fact, the government shutdown and shock and awe obstructionism of the GOP has brought all of DC down. The public hates Congress and doesn’t think as much of the President either. But they hate Republicans the most. Even more than yesterday.

According to Marist, “The Congressional Republicans previously experienced their highest level of voter dissatisfaction in April when 71% said their performance was subpar.” But there is nothing Republicans can’t do when they set their minds to it, and so they set out to prove that April subpar was nothing compared to a summer of subpar super.

So Republicans shutdown the government over the funding of a law vetted by the Supreme Court and the people — a law that benefited the people. A law that allowed the people access to affordable care. Republicans had no alternative to offer. And their insurance is paid for by the people. But apparently they don’t think You People are worthy.

Republicans refused to sit down for budget conference all summer. Instead, they led witch-hunt after witch hunt designed to do what this poll shows- take the President and Congressional Dems down with them. Misery loves company.

Just 33% approve of how Congressional Dems are doing their job while 64% disapprove, and 3% have either never heard of them or are unsure how to rate them. You can thank the media for at least half of those numbers, since they seem incapable of fact-checking Republicans and instead serve as stenographers for every desperate new pretend scandal the GOP can manufacture. Fourth estate indeed.

For proof that the media isn’t doing much, while 48% blame Congressional Republicans for the gridlock on the budget, 37% point a finger at President Obama. Seriously. Maybe if the media asked Republicans why they were avoided budget conference yet again…

This is the Republican dream – to get voters to distrust government, so that they can sell their “less government” mantra that lets corporations off of the hook because it means no one will regulate or monitor them at all.

Republicans have always achieved this goal of proving government doesn’t work by being obscenely incompetent at their jobs in government (see George W Bush or Senator Ted Cruz or half term Governor Sarah Palin). They’ve done it again!

The thing Republicans weren’t banking on, however, is that the thing they’ve made the centerpiece of their Hate the Government Meme is going to end up being the short term demise of that argument.


As we have been saying here for months, while the mainstream media fed you troll concerns over a glitch in a website that granted, did suck, but wasn’t the END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT, or even the END OF THIS PRESIDENT, or even the END OF OBAMACARES, everyone wants insurance that won’t drop them when they get sick.

This need for access to healthcare is pretty primal, and it eclipses political ideology. This wasn’t difficult to predict or sort out. Imagine a loved one is really sick and then ask yourself if you would want them to be uninsured and sick. Of course not.

And this is the part that the beltway missed, and Republicans are still missing. Republicans don’t want to be without insurance either! But they simply never thought that you might feel the same.
It is natural that they are entitled to insurance, you see, but to think that you might also feel entitled to live has never crossed their minds.

In their minds, the rest of you don’t deserve to live because you must be a lazy taker if you don’t have insurance. That’s how out of it Republicans are – they don’t care that mom and pop businesses and independent contractors couldn’t afford insurance or that the insurance people did have would drop them when they got sick.

So once again, reality bites Scroogey Republicans and the media in the bum. It’s coal for the incompetent accusers with no plan of their own.


Eric Cantor Takes Steps to Give Netanyahu Power Over American Middle East Policy

By: Rmuse
Tuesday, December, 10th, 2013, 9:48 am   

For over two centuries it was fairly established that in America, the people elected a president with the authority to set the nation’s foreign policy. That all changed when the people elected an African American man as President. In early 2009, Republicans, in concert with Democrats loyal to Israel, gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu control of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor took steps to reassert Netanyahu’s power over American Middle East policy to thwart the P5+1 agreement that halts Iran’s alleged nuclear weapon program. It is important to clarify right away that Netanyahu is not an American citizen, not an American elected official, and has not been appointed by any president’s administration as Secretary of State or Middle East policy advisor, and yet Republicans obey the foreigner explicitly.

Even before an agreement was reached between America, Germany, Russia, France, England and Iran to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Netanyahu let it be known he would veto the deal through his surrogates, and after it was reached he said was a “historic mistake.” Ever the obedient American, and knowing Netanyahu demanded Republicans correct the “historic mistake,” Eric Cantor is pushing hard for legislation in the House to levy stricter sanctions on Iran to break the conditions necessary for the agreement to move forward.  In fact, shortly after the historic deal was announced, Cantor reiterated Netanyahu’s warning that “this interim deal with Iran is, in fact, dangerous. It is a deal which brings Iran closer to becoming a nuclear power.” It is also a deal that Cantor is determined to thwart and among the reasons is that Netanyahu cannot allow it.

There are several reasons Cantor is obeying Netanyahu and attempting to force America to renege on its part of the agreement with Iran besides allowing Netanyahu to dictate America’s Middle East policy. It puts President Obama in his place and subjects him to Netanyahu’s leadership, creates conditions for American involvement in another Middle East war, satisfies the religious right’s quest to bring about the war of  Armageddon and recall Jesus to Earth, signals the defense and oil industry their fortunes are about to rise, and gives neo-cons another opportunity to kill Muslims. Republicans have been disgusted with President Obama’s foreign policy of diplomacy over pre-emptive war,  and it was only a matter of time before they found a suitable way for America to go back on its agreement and reestablish Iranian mistrust of the United  States and set a path for war.

Cantor wasted little time setting up opposition to the historic agreement and began spreading lies about it as it related to the Non Proliferation Treaty and Iran’s legal right to enrich uranium as a signatory of the NPT. Cantor wrote that, “The text of the interim agreement with Iran explicitly and dangerously recognizes that Iran will be allowed to enrich uranium when it describes a ‘mutually defined enrichment program’ in a final, comprehensive deal. It is clear why the Iranians are claiming this deal recognizes their right to enrich.” Cantor’s pretext is that Iran has no right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes as a Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory, and because the agreement fails to deny Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purpose, their claim to that right automatically means it is a “bad deal.” However, according to Article IV of the NPT, “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty.” Despite Cantor’s lies, Iran has every right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes as written in the historic agreement, but he is aware that the majority of Americans will never read the agreement or the NPT.

Cantor’s attempt to draft a bill narrowly defining what is, and is not, acceptable (to Netanyahu and Republicans nothing is acceptable) in a final nuclear deal with Iran is not his first foray into asserting Netanyahu’s control over America’s Middle East policy. In 2009, Cantor and Democrat Stenny Hoyer sent a letter (curiously deleted from the public record) to the President to prevent Obama’s efforts to ameliorate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and seek a peaceful resolution. The gist of the letter was that as far as the Middle East is concerned, “we stand with Netanyahu; you, Mr. President, know your place and butt out.” Not too surprising, was that an email copy of the 2009 letter still had the title, “AIPAC Letter Hoyer Cantor May 2009.pdf” informing even half-intelligent human beings that Israel controls a large portion of the United States Congress; including many Democrats. It is also not surprising that the first Democrat Cantor gave his draft legislation for stronger sanctions to scuttle the historic deal was none other than Stenny Hoyer whose spokesperson said, “Cantor has a bill, and it’s being reviewed by our office, no decisions have been made.” The fact the bill is even being reviewed is a sign Hoyer’s loyalties do not necessarily stand with the President or that he supports the diplomacy over confrontation.

A naïve American may ask; why does Netanyahu want to scuttle the five-nation diplomatic deal with Iran and avoid war? Netanyahu wants to bomb Iran, elicit a retaliatory strike against American forces in the region, and draw America into what neo-cons claim will be a “very substantial war” to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities in their entirety. Israel is intent on being the only nuclear capable nation in the region to maintain its dominance. It is noteworthy that Israel refuses, unlike Iran, to sign on to the Non Proliferation Treaty, acknowledge it has a substantial number (200-400) of nuclear weapons, or allow inspections of its nuclear bomb-making facilities. Cantor, and most Republicans, are determined to aid Netanyahu’s path to war regardless the consequences to America, and creating conditions to force the U.S. to renege on its agreement with Iran is the fastest way  to achieve Netanyahu’s goal.

It is unclear precisely why Republicans like Cantor are so dedicated to serving the interests of Israel, but American taxpayers already contribute more money to Israel’s defense budget than Israeli taxpayers. President Obama has stated time, and time again, that America is Israel’s ally and defends its ability to defend itself, but apparently that is not enough for Netanyahu or Cantor. It is likely that besides a path to war with Iran and devotion to Israel, Cantor will go to any lengths to undermine President Obama’s foreign policy successes founded on diplomacy over warmongering; even if it means doing Netanyahu’s bidding or a war with Iran. This President’s diplomatic efforts helped convince Syria to abandon its chemical weapons and sign the Chemical Weapons Convention without going to war, and the prospect of Iran abandoning its alleged nuclear weapons program and signing the NPT through diplomatic efforts is too much for Cantor and Republicans to bear. Besides, Netanyahu will not allow it, and because America’s Middle East policy is the purview of a foreigner with his legislative arm firmly ensconced in the United States Congress, what Netanyahu wants, AIPAC will deliver; likely courtesy of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.


The Tea Party Trembles; There Seems To Be No Denying the Presidency to Hillary Clinton

By: Dennis S
Tuesday, December, 10th, 2013, 8:51 pm      

I’m thoroughly convinced that the Democratic power structure supports Hillary Clinton. They want to keep their modern-day record of groundbreaking candidates for the nation’s highest office intact. There’s already the first black president, Barack Obama (pure hell for the poor guy) who will be followed by the first female president, Hillary Clinton (more pure hell, if elected, from the same sources).

After all, Hillary has been through all this primary business before. She’ll hit the ground running (already has). She’ll announce mid-summer. Andrew Cuomo might jump in, maybe even Elizabeth Warren or possibly an unconnected interloper, but, by any definition, Hillary, at this point, has it sewn up.

The Republicans cannot find her distaff equal for the top of the ticket. There are a couple of strong lady prospects for the number two slot and I’m not talking about a repeat of the Palin embarrassment. New Mexico’s governor, Susana Martinez would suit the party just fine if Marco Rubio doesn’t capture the nomination (he won’t). She’s Hispanic and you know how Teapublicans adore Hispanics. The good governor may appear more moderate (expanding Medicaid) than she really would be in national office, given the blue nature of New Mexico.

Then there’s Condoleezza ‘Condi’ Rice. A dandy pianist and ice skater, she’s the right hue to connect with a few black voters, possesses a sparkling resume and has demonstrated the ability to flip-flop on certain issues. “YES, Iraq has WMDs.” ‘Er, NO, Iraq doesn’t have WMDs.” Iraq is SHOPPING for WMDs.” And I thought only John Kerry flip-flopped.

But we’re here to talk about Hillary and whether she should be president or even the Democratic nominee. I’m going to approach this from a practical progressive perspective of the pluses and minuses as Hillary Clinton seeks to capture the nomination this time around. There’s a big difference between running in a primary and actually winning a primary.

Ambition has consumed this woman’s life from the moment she set foot on the Wellesley College campus where she served as student body president and not incidentally, president of student Republicans early on. I’ve read several Clinton chronicles, for and against Hillary. Gail Sheehy’s “Hillary’s Choice” takes a chronological journey beginning with Hillary’s early exposure to issue politics driven by her father, a right-wing Republican ideologue.

Sheehy traces certain male influences impacting Hillary in her youth. Perhaps surprising to some, religion played a larger role in her young life than one would suspect. One of her male influences led Hillary to an eventual liberal epiphany in meeting Martin Luther King. The Rodham/Clinton print pilgrimage takes us from Park Ridge through Wellesley, Arkansas, Bill’s dalliances, her Rose law firm days and the ups and downs of being Hillary.

Sheehy is convinced that the one man who did and does matter politically, and in every other sphere that counts, is not MLK or a preacher, but Bill Clinton. Chaper 5, “Prude Meets Passion” is a bit tabloidish, but gives you a spot-on read of what made the relationship. If you are really into a possible Hillary Clinton presidency, I recommend a discounted Amazon visit or a trek to your local library for a copy of “Hillary’s Choice.”

You certainly don’t have to read the book to find info on the candidate-in-waiting. Type in her name and Google will spit out 170 million results. As for Hillary’s ambition, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; obsession is. Naysayers insist Hillary is obsessed with occupying the oval office. I’m not sure. Lord knows her life’s CV is a living testament to her extraordinary drive and intelligence. Entering her golden years, does she want or need more?

There are sacrifices inherent in an ascendancy to the presidency. Closest to home, it’s time away from the spouse. Laser focus on a goal can often leave the latter behind emotionally and otherwise. Repugnant as Bill’s sexcapades were, maybe there was just a sliver of wanting to be recognized and appreciated in the mix. There are also ethical sacrifices for intense resolve in any walk of life. This is where a Clinton candidacy is at least slightly worrisome.

The right-wing personal destruction machine will be cranked up full bore (they’ve always hated her) if Hillary captures the nomination. Sure to re-open old wounds is an issue that, by the 2016 election, will be over 37 years old. That won’t stop the Teapublicans from exploiting it. I refer, of course, to the massive good fortune of a complete commodities neophyte being able to drop a grand into the Cattle Future’s pot and, as she put it, “walk away from the table” $100,000 to the good. Two male friends actually set that table.

Then there are the Rose law firm questions and losing things that someone of Hillary’s intelligence and experience would never lose. The McDougal/Whitewater connection, now decades old, is also highly questionable. Let’s not even get started on the Vince Foster “suicide.” And for something just slightly more current, the matter of 4 Washington Post Pinocchio’s earned 12 years after the fact of her 1996 Bosnian hyperbole of being fired upon by snipers and running for safety with “our heads down.”

These ancient peccadilloes will be ballooned into multiple hundreds of millions of dollars worth of political commercials where Hillary will be condemned repeatedly and relentlessly in all critical media markets.

It’s odd that current events should have little impact on a Clinton run. Benghazi has no legs and everybody already knows that. In addition to the right’s genetic hatred of Hillary, they agree with nothing she supports anyway, so their attacks will be largely moot. That’s why Hillary has a better than even chance of capturing the White House.

What will lock the nomination and subsequent general election down are women, minorities and the poor and infirm who love her as much as her detractors hate her. You need only to visit this page of Clinton quotes and Senate votes to understand why.

The only real roadblocks are the limitations of the passing years and health. She’ll be the same age Ronald Reagan was when he first ran and sadly, by his second term, appeared to show symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Son, Ron, claims the first clues appeared even sooner, three years into his first term, fumbling and losing words in a debate with Walter Mondale. Michael Reagan, the political polar opposite of liberal Ron, is the adopted son of the elder Reagan and his then wife, Jane Wyman. Michael insists that his dad was in full possession of all his faculties throughout his two-terms as president. Most objective observers are not as charitable. Comparisons are inevitable, though Hillary remains highly intellectually active.

As for her physical health, Hillary had a fainting, concussion and blood clot scare in 2012 and even Bill has reportedly shown some reservations about risking a stroke or heart attack.

But Hillary will run and all the other stuff notwithstanding, her iconic 1995 First Lady speech at the United Nation’s 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing best defines the sum of her personal and political parts. It’s a brilliant and holistic recognition of women’s role in the U.S. and the world.

Warts and Halos; your next president!

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« Reply #10597 on: Dec 12, 2013, 06:37 AM »

Ukraine still intends to sign EU pact, says Ashton as US considers sanctions

Viktor Yanukovych made intentions clear to me, says top EU envoy amid US condemnation of crackdown on Kiev protesters

Shaun Walker in Kiev, Thursday 12 December 2013 10.15 GMT   

The EU's top foreign policy official said Ukraine still intends to sign an association pact with the bloc, as the US considers sanctions against the Ukrainian government over the crackdown on protests that have paralysed the centre of Kiev in recent week.

"[Viktor]Yanukovych made it clear to me that he intends to sign the association agreement," said Lady Ashton in Brussels on Thursday, after returning from a two-day trip in which she met the president twice and spent time talking to protesters in Independence Square.

Crowds have gathered there in protest against Yanukovych's not to sign the association agreement and instead turn towards Russia for financial help.

Thousands of riot police moved in on Independence Square on Wednesday to remove barricades erected by protesters. Though there were fierce struggles, the violence was isolated and the Ukrainian government said its main goal was to remove roadblocks rather than attack protesters. Nevertheless, the move drew consternation from across the globe.

"All policy options, including sanctions, are on the table, in our view, but obviously that still is being evaluated," said the US state department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki. "We're considering policy options. There obviously hasn't been a decision made. Sanctions are included. But I am not going to outline more specifics."

Psaki did not give further details.

Many European politicians have made a point of showing solidarity with the protesters, some of them speaking from the stage on Independence Square. Others have vocally backed the protesters online. The Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, called the clashes "repression versus reform; power versus people".

The US has taken a trenchant stance, with the assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland, in Kiev for talks with Yanukovych, handing out biscuits on the square the morning after the crackdown. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, has described America's "disgust" over the government manoeuvres.

"The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest … with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity. This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy," he said.

After securing the square on Wednesday morning, the police then retreated from the streets, and aborted an attempt to regain control of city hall, occupied by protesters. The barricades were promptly rebuilt, twice as high, and up to 20,000 people spent Wednesday night at the square with not a police officer in sight.

If Ukraine does go ahead and sign the EU association and free-trade pact it will take the sting out of the protests, although in the past weeks they have also taken on a personalised air, with opposition leaders demanding Yanukovych resigns and call snap presidential and parliamentary elections.

The country's prime minister, Mykola Azarov, said on Wednesday he had asked the EU for €20bn (£17bn) to help the Ukrainian economy recover from the short-term losses of the integration process, a figure many times higher than what is likely to be on offer.


Ukraine protesters rebuild barricades after police assault

Co-ordinated attack by officers reinvigorates flagging demonstration and brings siege atmosphere to Kiev square

Shaun Walker and Oksana Grytsenko in Kiev
The Guardian, Wednesday 11 December 2013 20.03 GMT   

Kiev's Independence Square had the atmosphere of a medieval tent camp preparing for siege on Wednesday evening as thousands of protesters worked in battalions to shovel snow into sandbags and rebuild barricades while the national anthem rang out.

The redoubled effort to secure the square came after an extraordinarily misjudged night-time assault by thousands of riot police, which achieved nothing except to re-energise a protest that had been flagging.

The co-ordinated attack on the barricades around the square in the early hours of Wednesday morning was a determined and unexpected crackdown on protesters who have occupied the centre of Ukraine's capital for the past fortnight. President Viktor Yanukovych has struggled to contain protests since he ducked out of signing an integration agreement with the EU last month.

The EU's top foreign policy official, Catherine Ashton, who visited the square after meeting Yanukovych on Tuesday, expressed outrage at the attempt to clear it.

"I really do condemn the use of force, it's totally unacceptable," said Ashton, who held an emergency meeting with ambassadors of EU countries in Kiev on Wednesday. "Especially when I had a chance to see how people are demonstrating peacefully. I think people of this great country deserve better."

The prime minister, Mykola Azarov, claimed that the police action was simply meant to clear roads. "No force will be applied against peaceful protesters. Do you understand this? Calm down," he said at a government meeting.

But there was condemnation from around the world. Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, wrote on Twitter: "Eurasia versus Europe in streets of Kiev tonight. Repression versus reform. Power versus people."

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, released a strongly worded statement expressing "disgust" at the government moves, and on Wednesday morning Kerry's deputy, Victoria Nuland, visited Independence Square and handed out biscuits to protesters.

The protests, now in their third week, culminated on Sunday in the biggest demonstration in Ukraine since the 2004 Orange Revolution. Hundreds of thousands of people paralysed the centre of Kiev, and the city's statue of Vladimir Lenin was toppled and hacked to pieces.

A Ukrainian delegation is expected in Brussels on Thursday to discuss renewing negotiations on the integration pact. Azarov said he had asked the EU for €20bn (£17bn) in aid to help Ukraine's economy through the integration process, a figure many times higher than what is likely to be on offer. Russia is believed to have offered aid and cheaper gas if Kiev abstains from signing, and financial woe if Yanukovych does put pen to paper on the deal.

Although Ukraine is split between the Russian-speaking east and the more pro-European west, Yanukovych's corruption-riddled government is unpopular across the country. The EU deal simply provided the lit match sparking broader protests against the government. Independence Square, hub of the Orange Revolution, has become the focal point of discontent, with pitched tents, food stands and a stage blaring out music and revolutionary speeches.

Wednesday's storming of the barricades came in the dead of the coldest night this year as temperatures plummeted to -13C . Shortly after 1am, battalions of police approached the vast square from all sides and began to dismantle the makeshift barricades that had been erected by protesters.

Several officers confirmed they had been given orders to clear barricades from the boundaries of the square but not remove the tent camp that has sprung up inside the space.

The fiercest battle came on the north side of the square, where hundreds of black-helmeted riot police struggled for several hours against lines of protesters wearing orange helmets distributed by organisers, in scenes that threatened to descend into all-out pitched battle.

Many police were trapped behind protester lines during the scuffles, and were saved only by the relative restraint of protesters, who set them free and even handed back their shields, only for police to launch new assaults. Eventually chainsaws were used to clear the barbed-wire-topped wooden barriers and hundreds of riot police moved into the square itself.

The barricades were removed and hundreds of police took up positions on the square as dawn broke. However, they soon disappeared entirely from the city centre, leaving protesters to rebuild the barricades that had been dismantled just hours earlier.

At Kiev city hall, which has been occupied by protesters for 10 days, buses packed with riot police drove up mid-morning on Wednesday prepared to reclaim the building but were repelled by protesters spraying them with water, using fire hoses from first-floor windows. A huge crowd gathered outside taunting the riot police, who remained stuck in their buses for an hour before driving away to joyous chants.

"I am completely sick of this government and this president," said 42-year-old Mykola Levchenko, who on Wednesday evening was helping to put the finishing touches to a new barricade of snow-filled sandbags and metal railings at one entrance to the square. "We are going to stand here until he resigns."

Tension remained high in Kiev throughout Wednesday, and police briefly closed both the city's airports and the main train station after receiving bomb threats. Yanukovych said he was ready to talk with the opposition, but Vitali Klitschko, the former heavyweight boxing champion and one of the main opposition leaders, said that only the president's resignation and snap parliamentary and presidential elections would suffice.

"This was the most stupid thing the authorities could have done," Klitschko told the Guardian early on Wednesday morning. "To clear out the square when Catherine Ashton is in town. People here are determined not to live in a police state."


Ukraine demonstrations: 'we are asking for a better future'

Thousands of protesters have taken part in anti-government rallies in Ukraine's major cities for the last fortnight. Demonstrators in Kiev tell us why they're continuing to protest despite police crackdowns and freezing weather conditions

Carmen Fishwick and Nassos Stylianou, Wednesday 11 December 2013 18.09 GMT   


It feels a bit weird to call it a peaceful demonstration when we're surrounded by hundreds of police riot forces. However, I've never seen a fight myself and I don't feel it's the demonstrators who are provoking the violence.

We are asking for a better future, a country where the rule of law exists and where more than 3 per cent of people trust the police. Unfortunately, not many people understand the protest action plan including myself. At the moment, one of the demands is to free those innocently arrested. So I go to the demonstrations, known as Euromaidan, to support those Ukrainian heroes.

It is incredibly cold here, but this is the best part of Euromaidan as it shows Ukrainians in their best light. People bring food and drinks to those taking part with some even providing generators to produce electricity. There are more than 1500 volunteers who help prepare and distribute food. The warmness is from the people who are sharing views and willing a brighter future.

I am not sure what will happen to be honest, and it is quite sad. It would be extremely frustrating if people went back to being depressed and not motivated to shape the future of the country. The important thing is that more and more people start being proactive and realising that Europe starts from us.


I've been at the demonstrations from last Sunday until yesterday morning so, unfortunately, I missed yesterday's demonstration. I'm returning this evening to help other demonstrators save Euromaidan as there may possibly be another attempt to destroy it.

From the very beginning, this protest was caused because Ukrainians wanted to join the EU but now there are other reasons and we are now asking for the president and cabinet of ministers to resign.

Some people have become angry because the government used force to break up the demonstration which resulted in lots of students being injured. There are thousands of police everywhere but we're starting to get used to them.

The most frightening issue is the cold weather as there is no possibility to stay safe and warm at -15C, especially at night. We drink hot tea, walk around checking the barricades and stand around improvised fireplaces.

I will only stop protesting when Yanukovich and the cabinet are gone and Ukraine starts its association process with Europe. I hope everything will be fine as we insist on the demonstrations being peaceful.


Sometimes I feel brave and proud and sometimes scared or nervous. Action at the demonstrations fluctuates, sometimes it is quiet with people talking and sharing opinions but sometimes a siege is just one step away. I've spent a couple of hours at Euromaidan after work, attended the massive demonstrations on three consecutive Sundays and I also witnessed the riot at Bankova Street on 1 December.

Although, the issue has been in the air for a while already, no one knows what the next step will be. A minority say that violence by the government on 30 November, 1 December and 9-11 December will only be counteracted by using violent methods like the siege of president’s administration building. To me this seems like a very minor possibility as the demonstration is generally free of violence and built on a common vision. You see protestors sharing tea near the fire barrels at the barricades, exchanging viewpoints and discussing strategies. The freezing weather has bonded people.

I'm taking part because I'm hurt for being not heard, for my decisions not being considered and my own, or other people’s, freedoms being violated and neglected. I believe a European Ukraine must be built on the foundations of democracy, and I do not think the current Ukrainian government can support this.


Ukraine: on the edge

Through the smoke and confusion of the street battles it is clear that the EU and IMF deals are still on the table

Guardian G logo
The Guardian, Thursday 12 December 2013   
President Viktor Yanukovych's last minute decision to back out of years of negotiations with the European Union has split the country. Much of the centre of the capital and the government quarter is in contention between armed police and demonstrators protesting against Yanukovych's choice, with the constant possibility that, by accident or design, the skirmishes between them will again degenerate into serious violence.

European and American envoys have rushed to Kiev in the hope of containing the crisis, while the Russians are naturally also trying to shape events to suit their interests. Through the smoke and confusion of the street battles at the forefront of the news, two important things are clear. One is that the European Union's proposed deal, together with a parallel arrangement with the International Monetary Fund, are both still on the table, and that President Yanukovych has not yet definitively rejected the European option. The other is that his belief that he is in a position to conduct an auction of Ukraine's allegiance in exchange for massive financial help – help that will, and not incidentally, rescue his own political position – continues to be at the root of his country's problems.

The EU has never provided budgetary support to countries seeking a closer relationship. Its rules would not permit it to offer financial aid of that kind even if it wished to, and the most that could be expected would be that the EU would use its influence with the IMF to secure slightly better terms for IMF help. The IMF, for its part, remains insistent that help is conditional on reforms, the more so since it has experience of Ukraine committing itself to reform in the past and then not delivering.

Yet Mr Yanukovych believes, against all the evidence, that the rules can be bent to accommodate him, and that if they cannot, he can then easily turn to the Russians. This misguided view bedevilled the negotiations leading up to the failed summit in Vilnius last month because Europe was never going to be able to provide the bailout he wanted, while a sudden plumping for Russia was going to inflame at least half of the population. Polls have shown majority support for the European deal, well ahead of the number of Ukrainians favouring the Russian connection.

Now Mr Yanukovych seems to think he can begin the auction all over again. He may already have succeeded in getting a promise of a discount on Russian gas supplies if Ukraine signs up for the Eurasian Union, and he has also secured some investment deals with China. It is possible that he could get slightly better terms in a second round of negotiations with Europe. The EU will not change the offered package, but it could supply various inducements on the side. Yet that will not much alter any final result and, in any case, the political argument in Ukraine has moved on from the European issue considered in isolation.

The demonstrators in Kiev are now complaining about almost everything, about governmental incompetence, corruption, about the difficulties faced by small businesses, and about the personal failings of the president. They will not be satisfied by a change of tack on Europe, although they might be appeased by a change that put in place a government of national unity, although still under Mr Yanukovych, whose term lasts until 2015.

Nothing like that is so far on offer. A round table of previous presidents convened to advise him has made no public statements or suggestions. In the absence of a political solution of that kind, the danger is that the government, which has veered in recent days between repression and appeals for negotiations with the demonstrators, will go for harsh measures, with tragic consequences.

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« Reply #10598 on: Dec 12, 2013, 06:47 AM »


Pig Putin defends anti-gay laws as bastion of global conservatism

President says Russia stands on international stage in defence of traditional values against 'fruitless so-called tolerance'

Leonid Ragozin in Moscow, Thursday 12 December 2013 11.51 GMT    

Pig Putin has defended Russia's anti-gay laws in his annual address to both chambers of the Russian parliament.

In an apparent reference to the laws banning "propaganda of non-traditional relations", the Russian president said that on the international arena Russia sees itself as a defender of conservative values against what it is considers as an assault of "genderless and fruitless so-called tolerance" which Pig said "equals good and evil".

Pig said Russia will oppose attempts to impose foreign political ideology on sovereign countries. Such attempts, Putin stressed, often lead to destruction and bloodshed, citing events in the Middle East and North Africa as an example.

In a typically wide-ranging speech, the Pig portrayed Russia as a force for peace and morality that had no desire to be a global superpower.

Pig Putin said he was counting on Ukraine to find a political solution to its crisis over President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to spurn a free-trade agreement with the European Union in favour of closer economic ties with Moscow.

"I very much hope that all political forces will manage to reach an agreement and resolve all problems in the interests of the Ukrainian people," Pig Putin told the Russian parliament.

Speaking about Syria, Pig pointed out that Russia made a major contribution to the prevention of foreign intervention, setting this country 'on the path for dialogue' and putting its chemical arsenal under international control.

The Pig also praised the progress in Iran, pointing out that it has the right to develop peaceful nuclear technology without putting international stability, and in particular Israel's security, at risk. Nodding towards the US and Nato, Pig remarked that although the perceived Iranian threat has diminished, plans to develop missile defences in Europe, which Russia sees as a threat to its nuclear shield, continue to be implemented. Pig warned the west against developing non-nuclear strategic military technology which could upset the global balance and lead to a new arms race. Pig said Russia was closely watching these developments and ready to respond by developing similar technology.

The Pig said that a customs union treaty will be ready for Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan to sign by 1 May, with accession roadmaps being drawn up for Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.

On the domestic front, Pig announced a major improvement in the country's demographic situation. Pig  said natural population growth in Russia has been registered for the first time since 1991. But admitted that this trend could be reversed as those born in the 1990s come of age.

Responding to broad public concern, he touched the sensitive issue of interethnic relations, blaming 'footloose people from southern republics' , 'ethnic mafia', corrupt police and Russian nationalists for increased tensions.

Most of the speech focused on the economy. the Pig conceded that although Russia feels the impact of the global economic crisis, its main problems are internal. He stressed the need to increase productivity, where Russia badly lags, Putin said.

Pig pointed out the fact that many Russian companies remain registered in offshore zones, citing the recent sale of TNK-BP outside Russian jurisdiction as an example, He suggested that legislation should be adopted which forces such companies to pay taxes in Russia, even if they wish to remain registered abroad. He also stressed the need to increase transparency of regulation bodies and reduce their pressure on businesses.


24-hour drone surveillance part of Soviet-style security to be imposed on Sochi Olympics

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 12, 2013 7:07 EST

The spider-like helicopter can whirr up straight into the sky, hover over cars and people, zoom in on a license plate and then take a close-up of a man’s face in the crowd.

If there is suspicious movement at Russia’s Sochi Winter Olympic Games next year, surveillance drones positioned over stadiums, roads and railroads will be there transmitting the images live to Russian security services.

The use of drones is part of a package of security measures that are severe even by standards of recent Olympics and remind many Russians of the draconian lockdown imposed for the 1980 Moscow Games in the Soviet Union.

Authorities will record the Internet and phone connections of all visitors and traffic will be strictly controlled in a huge zone around Sochi.

Meanwhile, critics of the Kremlin are already being harassed.

“There will be 24-hour-drone surveillance,” said Nikita Zakharov, the deputy director of Zala Aero, a company that has provided drones and necessary training to the police and other agencies that will use dozens of them to monitor the area.

“The main thing is that you cannot see or hear a drone,” Zakharov told AFP, calling them an economical solution to various challenges.

Along with the helicopter drones, all-weather machines with speeds of up to 100 kilometers (60 miles) an hour will zip through the gorges of the Sochi mountains bordering the turbulent North Caucasus region.

Police in Sochi’s Krasnodar region had been using Zala’s drones to catch traffic violators and pinpoint illicit marijuana crops in cornfields.

Drones have also been supplied to the border service, a subsidiary of the Federal Security Service (FSB) that patrols the mountains bordering Georgia’s rebel region of Abkhazia — an area that will be closed off as a restricted zone starting next January.

Instead of covering the vast snow-covered area with manpower in tough winter conditions, the service can now equip drones with an infrared scanner and observe the video feed comfortably from an operations center.

The Games in Sochi, to be held February 7-23, are meant to showcase the best of modern Russia — a country steered into the 21st century by President Pig Putin.

But observers say that many security measures in fact hark back to 1980, when authorities closed off the capital Moscow to hold the Summer Olympics.

Declassified documents about the Moscow Olympics show that KGB officers impersonated cleaning personnel in hotels, that 6,000 foreigners were on a blacklist, and that police were instructed to prevent “unwelcome persons” from coming to Moscow.

Hundreds of kilometers from Sochi, road signs went up last month warning about “limited access” to the city of 300,000 from January 7.

Sochi will also host the Paralymic Winter Games, March 7-16, and until March 21 every arrival will have to go through a checkpoint, while cars registered in other cities will be banned.

People with Olympic accreditation, including journalists, athletes and judges, will have records of their phone and Internet connections stored in a database for three years and available to the security services on an as-needed basis, according to a recent government decree.

“Take the situation when activists come and phone up journalists to tell them about a protest,” said security analyst Andrei Soldatov, who has written critically about pre-Olympic measures.

“The list of these connections will be stored, and they can do with this information whatever they want.”

“They are using old Soviet approaches, only combining them with huge amounts of money,” he said.

Security in Sochi has been on high alert over fears that Islamist militants may stage attacks on the city. The warlord Doku Umarov in July called on jihadists to “exert maximum efforts” to disrupt the Games with attacks.

Local residents in Sochi over the past month have reported seeing armored vehicles and other machinery delivered to the city on freight trains.

Russia’s federal security service also held several mock counterterrorist operations in the city to prepare for possible unrest during the Olympic event.

Last month they staged a drill simulating a situation in which groups of militants in “terrorism training” went through the area, with police using mock descriptions of the criminals to intercept them.

In a statement published in state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the FSB told the Krasnodar region to “view with understanding” efforts to catch the 50 terrorists aged 22 to 35.

Many people’s patience however was tested when the exercise paralyzed Sochi’s already gridlocked traffic for two weeks in November.

Meanwhile, activists with the group Environmental Watch on North Caucasus told AFP that their members had been targeted during the drill, and its deputy coordinator Dmitry Shevchenko was searched and questioned at the Krasnodar airport for four hours.

Police have also visited the homes of activists in the region, saying the FSB has given them lists of “suspicious persons” that may do something during the Games, activists said.

“They came because of the Olympics and said that I’m on some sort of list,” said Anna Mikhailova, an opposition activist in Krasnodar who is also a member of Environmental Watch.

She was not at home, but police told her father they would be keeping an eye on her, she said.


The truth about Russia's Winter Olympics city – it's subtropical!

With The Sochi Project, Rob Honstra and Arnold van Bruggen give a startling portrait of a troubled place that never gets cold. And they've just been banned from Russia because of it

• Kalashnikovs and striptease: inside the real Russia

Sean O'Hagan, Thursday 12 December 2013 11.53 GMT   

"I have been working in Russia since 2003 and I love the country, the culture and many of the people," says photojournalist Rob Honstra, who won last year's World Press photo prize for The Sochi Project. For the last five years, Honstra and writer/film-maker Arnold van Bruggen have been looking at the complex Sochi region, where the 2014 Winter Olympics are scheduled to take place.

Last month, the Moscow News reported that Hostra was denied a Russian visa for a proposed trip to Moscow. "I have friends there who I can't visit any longer," he says. "I really regret the decision of the Russian government and I don't understand it. I mean, how bad are we? We are part of our stories, and this is completely in line with the stories we tell."

Sochi is near Abkhazia, where civil war broke out in 1992 after it declared independence from Georgia. To the east, across the Caucasus Mountains, are other poor and troubled republics such as North Ossetia and Chechnya. "Never before have the Olympic Games been held in a region that contrasts more strongly with the glamour of the Games than Sochi," Van Bruggen writes in his introduction to the project.

If all goes according to plan, however, Sochi will be transformed into a winter wonderland in time for the Olympics. This may take some doing for, as Van Bruggen points out, Sochi is "a small piece of subtropical Russia where no snow falls in the winter". Or, as writers Boris Nemstov and Leonid Martynyuk put it in the tantalisingly titled Winter Olympics in the Subtropics: An Expert Report: "Russia is a winterly country. On the map, it is hard to find a spot where snow would never fall, and where winter sports would not be popular. Yet Putin has found such a spot and decided to hold the winter Olympics there: in the city of Sochi."

The report makes for salutary reading, from its opening chapter, The Olympics of Lawlessness and Corruption, to one titled The Most Expensive Project of the Most Expensive Olympics. Under the heading Risks of the Olympics, you find no fewer than seven subheadings, including Climate, Terrorist and, alarmingly, "Hospitality" (the inverted commas are all-important). It is this hinterland between the real and the absurd, vaulting nationalist ambition and grim reality that Honstra and Van Bruggen negotiate in The Sochi Project.

Honstra describes their process as slow journalism, and the material they've amassed has involved deep research and countless interviews. "For me, slow journalism is really the same as documentary. The starting point is always [to ask] why things are happening rather than what is happening. It is very important to have a substantial amount of time to investigate somewhere, then have more time to think about experiences when we come back."

These stories have appeared in newspapers, photobooks and online over the past five years. Now, Aperture has published a hefty book with the provocative subtitle, An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus. It brilliantly merges journalism and storytelling with found photographs and formal portraits to create a profile of a potentially dangerous region.

Honstra and Van Bruggen have also shown their findings in various photobooks along the way. Some, like The Sochi Singers, are lighthearted glimpses of a place where old traditions – folk songs – endure, even if they are now mostly belted out by amateurs in piano bars. Honstra cites another of their recently published photobooks, The Secret History of Khaiva Gaisanova, as a perfect example of their process. To illustrate the history of "disappearances" in the region, it uses the story of one woman from the village of Chermen, in the North Caucasus, whose husband vanished without a trace in 2007.

"We met Khaiva on the side of the road and started talking. It was only 10 months later that we came up with the idea to build the book around her, and a year later we went back to ask if she wanted to be the main character. Some people might say we are lazy or slow, but I believe we needed that time to digest things and finally see that this coincidental meeting with Khaiva was the perfect example of our working in the North Caucasus. We simply need a lot of time to truly understand things."

Next year, The Sochi Project will travel as a touring exhibition through Europe, America and Canada. A show planned for the Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art, in Moscow, this month has just been pulled. "I am sure the gallery started worrying the moment my visa was refused," says Honstra. "They didn't cancel the exhibition, but they threw up a sustained series of bureaucratic obstacles in the two weeks before the opening. We had been working together for 18 months. I think [people at] Winzavod panicked after they heard about the refusal."

Honstra and Van Bruggen have also created a more democratic exhibition, made entirely of newsprint, that can be shown on the walls of small galleries with no budget for framed prints or video installations.

For me, the work really comes alive online, not least because it provides a vivid example of how photojournalism can work brilliantly in the digital age. Honstra and Van Bruggen are storytellers, and the many forms in which their stories appear reflect the fractured time we live in, as does the sprawling nature of their multimedia project. Whichever way you look at it, The Sochi Project is an incredible piece of journalism, both visual and written, and a glimpse of the medium's future.

• Antwerp's FotoMuseum is holding a retrospective of The Sochi Project until 2 March

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« Reply #10599 on: Dec 12, 2013, 07:08 AM »

Hungarians must face their Nazi past, not venerate it

A new statue of Admiral Horthy – Hungary's war-time ruler and Hitler's ally – symbolises a refusal to face up to the country's darkest history

András Schiff   
The Guardian, Wednesday 11 December 2013 19.32 GMT          

Last month in Budapest a new statue was unveiled to a dangerous man. Right in the heart of the city – in Szabadság Tér (Freedom Place) – there now stands a monument to one of Hitler's closest allies: Admiral Miklós Horthy, the "regent" who ruled Hungary from 1920 to 1944.

The bust stands in the church of the notorious Calvinist minister Lóránt Hegedüs Jr, an incurable antisemite and admirer of the British historian and Holocaust denier David Irving. Hegedüs was the first person to bless the Horthy statue; then Márton Gyöngyösi, an MP of the extreme-right Jobbik party, addressed the congregation, declaring Horthy to be "the greatest statesman of the 20th century".

The mind boggles. Historians have taught us that the Horthy era was one of the darkest chapters of Hungarian history; this is common knowledge. His present-day glorification is scandalous. The disgraceful anti-Jewish laws, the deportation of more than half a million Jews to the death camps, sending the entire Hungarian second army to be annihilated by the Russians – all these and many other crimes are connected to him. He was one of Hitler's closest associates and stayed loyal till the bitter end. Neither God nor the radical right can ever whitewash his name.

How shocking it is that a large proportion of Hungarians ignore and deny these facts. To them it's simply an issue of freedom of speech and thought: if someone wishes to erect a monument to Horthy or to Ferenc Szálasi (the leader of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party, and head of state from 1944 to 1945) in their church, vegetable garden or shed, it is considered his or her private affair. Some people claim that the bust of Horthy – at the top of the stairs leading to the Hegedüs church – is, in fact, on private property.

Antal Rogán – a spokesman for the governing Fidesz party – is worried about Hungary's negative reputation abroad. He has every reason to be troubled, because the country is responsible for some of the worst news within the European Union. Let's face it, there are no Hitler statues in Germany, and in Austria they are constitutionally forbidden. The same is true of Mussolini in Italy, Pétain in France, Ion Antonescu in Romania or Josef Tiso in Slovakia. None of them is being commemorated and extolled.

True, there were a few hundred demonstrators in Szabadság Tér who protested against the ceremony, many wearing the yellow star. They deserve our gratitude and admiration for their courage. If only there were more. Members of the congregation and the mob told them to go to Israel, Brussels or the Danube, referring to the events of 1944-45 when Szálasi's Arrow Cross thugs shot several thousand Jews so that they fell into the freezing river.

History cannot be erased, nor forgotten. Discovering and understanding the past is the duty not only of governments and political parties, but also of the people, the whole nation. We must face it together – even when it is not pleasant – and try to learn from the consequences. Hungarians have not yet been through this process.

Last month in the city of Miskolc, in north-east Hungary, a group of fascist youngsters participated in a spectacular book-burning ritual. Among the works consigned to the flames were the collected poems of Miklós Radnóti.

Radnóti was a wonderful lyric poet, one of the giants of Hungarian literature. On a forced march to the Nazi death camps in 1944, he was brutally murdered. His killers' successors are now murdering his works. Why? Because he was a Jew.

And the police were standing by, doing nothing.

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« Reply #10600 on: Dec 12, 2013, 07:12 AM »

French officials can monitor internet users in real time under new law

Clause lets police and other agencies spy without authorisation, weeks after France expressed outrage at NSA revelations

Kim Willsher in Paris, Wednesday 11 December 2013 18.18 GMT   

French intelligence and government officials will be able to spy on internet users in real time and without authorisation, under a law passed on Wednesday.

The legislation, which was approved almost unnoticed, will enable a wide range of public officials including police, gendarmes, intelligence and anti-terrorist agencies as well as several government ministries to monitor computer, tablet and smartphone use directly.

The spying clause, part of a new military programming law, comes just weeks after France, which considers individual privacy a pillar of human rights, expressed outrage at revelations that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had been intercepting phone calls in France. The president, François Hollande, expressed his "extreme reprobation".

Article 13 of the new law will allow not just the security forces but intelligence services from the defence, interior, economy and budget ministries to see "electronic and digital communications" in real time to discover who is connected to whom, what they are communicating and where they are.

Despite concerns over the infringement of personal liberties, and the possibility of abuse of the blanket justification for snooping for the "prevention of crime", the military programming law cleared its final hurdle on Wednesday after members of the Sénat, the upper house of parliament, voted by 164 to 146 on Wednesday. The bill was earlier approved in the lower house, the Assemblée Nationale, by a similar majority.

An amendment rejecting article 13, tabled by senators from the Ecology party, was thrown out.

Government officials say the measure is necessary to combat terrorism, organised crime and economic or scientific espionage, and to protect national security. The defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, insisted "public liberties will be covered" in the new law.

Until now, demands for phone taps or data intercepts had to be authorised by a judge of the National Commission for the Control of Security Intercepts.

The government says the spying will be overseen by an "independent authority and by parliament", but technology firms belonging to the Association of Internet Services Communities (@SIC), including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Skype and AOL, have criticised the scale of the proposed snooping.

In a statement @SIC expressed concern that the new law was an opening up of previously controlled "exceptional" security measures used to fight terrorism and crime, and allowed officials to tap into data under the blanket "prevention of crime" clause in the bill.

It said even now there was no "clear picture" of how surveillance of internet users was being conducted in France, nor on the amount of demands [for surveillance] made each year.

"When civil society and many others are alarmed at the daily revelations over this question [of surveillance] it is inconceivable that the French government should launch itself into this wild race to extend what were exceptional measures and offer numerous officials real-time access to internet users' data," it said.

It also criticised the "inaction" of the quango supposed to protect individual liberties in such cases, the Commission Nationale de l'Informatique and Liberties. CNIL says while it was asked to urgently report on other elements of the legislation, it was "not consulted" on article 13, but was reassured that there would be safeguards.

Opponents are considering whether to refer the legislation to the constitutional court, France's highest legal authority, over the question of public freedom.

Loïc Riviere, Secretary General of the French Association of Software and Internet Solutions Editors (AFDEL), which represents 350 French software and internet companies said: "We understand the need to fight the explosion of cyber-criminality and we're certainly not against those trying to ensure national security, but this [law] is not legally clear and is worrying.

"There is a suggestion that the government is only putting into law practices that already exist but there is concern that there are no concrete legal safeguards and that the only controls will be from administrators or ministers.

"It means for the surveillance services anything is possible and I fear this could be used for political ends, which has happened in the past."

Riviere added that the law was doubly worrying for his association's members.

"Recent scandals have already made [internet] users wary, and this law does nothing to reassure them. What worries our members is that if data confidentiality is not assured users might put their data elsewhere in the world where security is more lax."

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« Reply #10601 on: Dec 12, 2013, 07:24 AM »

Europe is finally starting to tackle prostitution in the right way

Survivors of sex trafficking back the increasingly popular Nordic model, which involves criminalising demand

Lauren Hersh, Thursday 12 December 2013 11.33 GMT   

Zsolt stands in front of St Stephen's basilica in Budapest's city centre every night from 8pm until the early hours. His job is to direct passing tourists towards a nearby "gentleman's club". He earns 300,000 forint (£830) per month in a country where the average wage is less than half this amount. He speaks five languages and is happy to answer questions during what he says is a "slow" evening. Even so, he talks to 12 English-speaking interested men within a 20-minute period. The commercial sex industry is not legal in Hungary, but it is tolerated and exists largely in plain view.

Hungary is a key "source" location for women and girls being trafficked to countries where prostitution is legal, such as Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. In those countries, women and girls are brought in to supply the legally sanctioned demand.

Those who support the legalisation and decriminalisation of prostitution often do so with the intended goal of making prostitution better and safer for those involved. Yet, survivors of sex trafficking have repeatedly stated that legalisation and decriminalisation of the commercial sex industry does just the opposite.

A statement signed by 177 verified sex trafficking survivors from Sex Trafficking Survivors United (STSU) suggests that: "Without the buyers of commercial sex, sex trafficking would not exist. If we start penalising and stigmatising the buyers, we could end sex trafficking in our lifetime … prostitution is not a victimless crime; it is a brutal form of sexual violence."

Europe is finally starting to listen. A new trend is emerging – criminalising the buyers, traffickers and pimps that fuel the commercial sex industry, while decriminalising and providing services and exit options to people in prostitution.

Starting in 1999, Sweden, Norway and Iceland implemented this "Nordic model" of prostitution policy. These laws aim to reduce all demand, recognising that due to the widespread coercion within legal prostitution sectors, it is simply not possible to differentiate the demand which is exploitative from that which is not.

France has recognised this and its assembly voted in favor of adopting the model last week; Ireland is due to follow shortly; Finland's Ministry for Justice has called for the same.

The Netherlands and Germany – which attempted to regulate prostitution in 2000 and 2002 respectively – are beginning to backtrack from their failed experiments, with politicians pushing for new laws to criminalise the purchase of sex from a victim of trafficking or coercion.

In the United Kingdom, we hope that Theresa May MP's "modern slavery bill" will include provisions that tackle demand specifically. If Ireland follows France's lead by adopting the Nordic model – and the UK fails to criminalise demand – it may have to respond quickly as traffickers move across borders to a legislative environment which is more favourable. This European trend towards criminalising the purchase of sex and decriminalising people in prostitution echoes Mary Honeyball MEP's recommendation in her European parliament report that the Nordic model be implemented throughout the continent. It is also consistent with the legal obligation of all EU member states to tackle the demand that "fosters all forms of exploitation related to trafficking", as emphasised by EU anti-trafficking co-ordinator, Myria Vassiliadou. It reflects too the recommendation by EU commissioner for home affairs, Cecilia Malmström, for countries to take action to reduce the demand for sexual exploitation.

Back in Budapest, Zsolt does not realise that he is part of the reason why sex trafficking continues to flourish. He does not know that the 14-year-old girl from his home town, who can't speak English or Dutch and thinks she is going to work in a hairdresser's in Amsterdam, ends up in a window in a Nyíregyháza street, purchased for sex by "red light visitors".

We urge the UK and all European governments to implement the Nordic model throughout the continent. This will not only ensure that the lives of countless women and girls are improved, it will also send a strong signal to people like Zsolt, who do not fully appreciate that by enabling the commercial sex industry, they are concealing the exploitation and violence which is at its core.


Prostitution in the Netherlands: 'Paying for sex? It's strictly business'

Men who pay for sex in the Netherlands see no need to criminalise trade as other European countries consider change

Sabine Cessou in Amsterdam, Wednesday 11 December 2013 16.00 GMT

Few tourists know this red-light district in Ruysdaelkade, a canal street behind the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which is much smaller than the main one next to the central station. A continuous flow of men goes past the block, while young women in black and red underwear pose on high stools behind windows with red awnings.

A short man in a wool cap steps out of the building. An Indian immigrant in his 40s, he has lived in Amsterdam for 13 years. "Prostitution is not bad," he says. "Women do it for money, €50 [£42] for each client. They look happy. I don't believe they are trafficked or forced to do it."

Rob, a British man who manages the coffee shop next door, says: "We see some of these guys every day. They buy sex compulsively. I have a little contempt for them." He knows some of the girls, who come to his place to buy soft drugs. "They work 12-hour shifts. Most of them come from eastern Europe. Some do it willingly, some are forced."

The Dutch system allows landlords to charge €120 to €150 per room per shift.

There is no trouble here. Police cameras, set high on electric poles, watch constantly. "No problem for the neighbours either," says Rob. "Some have kids, but people are tolerant here. For them, this is ordinary street life in Amsterdam."

An armed robbery has been the only incident over the past few months. A man pretended to be a client and then held two women up at gunpoint to get their money.

"The girls come to my bar and are treated like any other person," says Jan, who owns a cafe at the street corner. "They look happy and are well dressed. I've never seen a bruise on them, or a black eye."

Plans in other European countries such as France to criminalise the men who pay for sex sound unnecessary to him. "In Amsterdam, we have very few sexual crimes, because the girls are out there in the open. Criminalise, what for? It will always be there, if you try to suppress it, it will come back in one form or another and it will be harder to control."

Peak hours on Ruysdaelkade are from noon to 5pm. Some men stand on the other side of the street to get a better view of the women.

A man with long hair hurries along the street, taking quick glances at the women. Does he believe some of them have been trafficked from Hungary, Romania or Albania? "Look, we're not here to have a conversation. Where they come from, what they do with their money, this is not my problem. I come, I pay and that's it. It's strictly business."


UK urged to follow Nordic model of criminalising prostitution clients

MPs, women's groups and EU officials say government should make buying sex, not selling it, an offence

Alexandra Topping   
The Guardian, Wednesday 11 December 2013 16.00 GMT   

Britain risks becoming a magnet for prostitutes and sex buyers because its policies on sex work are increasingly out of step with those in the rest of Europe, according to MPs, women's groups and EU officials.

A coalition of MPs, peers and women's groups has warned the government that it is has been wrongfooted by other countries such as France that are pushing through laws to introduce the "Nordic model", where the purchaser but not the seller of sex faces criminal action.

In a move likely to inflame debate around prostitution before a human trafficking bill is published this month, Mary Honeyball, the European parliament rapporteur on gender equality, urged the government to introduce the Nordic model, following France's example. Last week French politicians overwhelmingly voted to clamp down on the market for prostitution, approving a bill that would make it illegal to pay for sex.

But Britain's top police officer in tackling prostitution said such a measure would be impossible to police and sex work activists warn it would put women in the sex trade at greater risk. Selling sex is not illegal in the UK, but certain associated activities - soliciting, kerb crawling and running a brothel are.

A Home Office spokeswoman confirmed there were no plans to review prostitution laws, putting the country at odds with a growing consensus in Europe, according to Honeyball.

"It is clear that there is growing support of framework where the purchasers of sex are criminalised, rather than the people selling sex, not just in Scandinavia, but in France, Northern Ireland and others – while there is a growing disillusionment in places where it has been legalised, such as Germany and Holland," said the Labour MEP. "We need an EU-wide model, otherwise we risk encouraging sex tourism, which I think no government would want to see. If it is not taken seriously then I think we could find Britain becomes a real target."

Europe is shifting its approach on prostitution because of the transformation in the industry in recent years, with many more prostitutes now trafficking victims from overseas. A recent European parliamentary report estimated there were about 880,000 people living in slave-like conditions in Europe, of whom 270,000 were victims of sexual exploitation.

Sweden pioneered the approach of criminalising the user and police say the number of street prostitutes working in the country has fallen by two-thirds, to about 1,000, since the law prosecuting sex buyers was introduced in 1998.

Norway followed suit – as did France last week. Belgium and Ireland are considering moving in the same direction and even the Netherlands, famously permissive and home to the best-known red-light district in Europe, is making a shift to tighten laws around prostitution. Currently prostitution is allowed anywhere unless the municipality restricts it with a licence, but a new proposed law trying to make it past the senate would make it illegal to have a premises for prostitution unless a permit was granted by the local authority - turning the current situation on its head.

Corinne Dettmeijer, the Dutch rapporteur on trafficking, called it a "huge change". She said:

"The Dutch pragmatic model was based on Dutch adult women working freely, now we have seen a shift and the women working don't necessarily have that freedom of choice, quite a lot do not."

The British government is attempting to get to grips with trafficking and modern-day slavery with Theresa May's much-trailed slavery bill, but critics say it ducks the key problem: prostitution. Sources suggest the bill is not a substantial piece of legislation but a first step in bringing together existing slavery laws and introducing an anti-slavery commissioner.

Gavin Shuker, Labour MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution, said: "All the indicators suggest Theresa May's trafficking bill is going to completely ignore prostitution." He noted that two-thirds of people identified under the national referral mechanism, which records trafficking incidents, were victims of sexual exploitation. "This is a piece of legislation with a massive hole in it," he said.

A consultation from the group, due to be published in the new year, found only 2% of respondents – including sex workers, charities, punters and police – considered the law effective and consistent.

"I'm amazed that no one has yet brought forward legal action against this government because current policy on prostitution does so little to live up to our own EU commitment on trafficking," he said. "We have to recognise that prostitution is a deeply exploitative trade that has a massive impact on gender equality. We have to change social attitudes, but in my opinion you can't do that without changing the law."

The security minister, James Brokenshire, said the government was committed to eradicating modern slavery in all forms. "This includes sexual exploitation, which is one of the most common types of abuse identified with trafficking victims in the UK," he said. "We have made combating trafficking central to our Serious and Organised Crime Strategy and a priority for the new National Crime Agency. The introduction of a modern slavery bill, the first of its kind in Europe, will send a strong message, both domestically and internationally, that the UK is determined to put an end to modern slavery."

The British government has already signed up to the 2011 EU anti-trafficking directive, which insists that governments put in place policies to tackle the demand for exploitation. "It is difficult to see how we can tackle the demand for trafficked victims without tackling the demand for prostitutes," said Andrea Matolcsi of Equality Now. "Certainly if we look to Germany and places were prostitution is legal it is hard to see how having mega-brothels and pimping will help reduce demand."

Myria Vassiliadou, the EU anti-trafficking co-ordinator, however, refused to take a didactic approach. "We as a commission say prostitution is different to trafficking but there are links," she said. "The debate is heated and I welcome the discussion, but I am not telling member states the law they should implement. They are obliged to take action to reduce demand, how they do that is not important to me."

Assistant Chief Constable Chris Armitt, the national police lead on prostitution in England and Wales, who takes a pragmatic approach to prostitution in Liverpool, recording any violence against prostitutes as hate crimes, said the introduction of the Nordic model would be hard to police. "I personally think it would be very unhelpful. Instead of street prostitutes operating in quiet areas of the city they might have to operate in dark, unsafe areas," he said. "Also, it might be enforceable at a street level but as far as escorts are concerned it would be virtually unenforceable. If there is sex happening between consenting adults, I am not sure why the police would want to get involved."

Criminalising clients would put sex workers at more risk, said Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes. "Criminalising clients will not stop prostitution and won't stop the criminalisation of women who work as prostitutes. All it will do is make it more difficult for women to protect themselves and stigmatise sex workers even further," she said.


Prostitution: why Swedes believe they got it right

Country held up as model for reform across Europe after targeting the men who pay for sex

Hazel Thompson in Stockholm, Wednesday 11 December 2013 17.00 GMT   

Kajsa Wahlberg remembers well the reaction when she helped lead efforts to introduce Sweden's now-famous laws criminalising the purchase of sex. "It had enormous interest. People were laughing in 1999 at Sweden and saying it can't be done. A German police officer told me, 'You're crazy sweetie, you can't do that, you cannot prohibit men from buying sex, it's totally impossible.' But he said if you can reduce the amount of trafficking cases with your legislation I wish you good luck, because in Germany it's grown out of proportion."

Nearly 15 years on, Sweden believes it has. Police say the number of prostitutes has dropped by two-thirds. A report by a Swedish academic says that by tackling demand, Sweden provides some of the best protection to trafficking victims.

"There is more that could be done, for example when it comes to implementation there are big gaps so far, but it seems that in Sweden we have much lower levels of trafficking for prostitution than other countries and this is probably one of the main reasons," says Marta C Johansson, author of a five-nation study called Still Neglecting the Demand That Fuels Human Trafficking.

Simon Haggstrom, an officer in the prostitution unit of Stockholm police, is on the frontline of this push to stop men from paying for sex. "My job is to arrest as many men buying sex as possible and I think I have arrested about 700 men since 2007. [They] should know that they are taking a huge risk: they are considering going out into the central parts of Stockholm actually buying another human being. We will go after them."

He says the number of prostitutes has dramatically decreased since the law was introduced, from 2,500 across Sweden in 1998 to about 1,000 today.

Sweden is held up as a model for European reform on prostitution law. Last week, France moved in the same direction, bringing in fines for people who pay for sex. Politicians and police officers from several countries have visited Stockholm, wanting to know what impact the law has had. But the debate is highly polarised. Many experts argue that only by regulating the sex trade and bringing it into the open, as has been done in Germany and the Netherlands, will women get the protection they need.

Linda's story illustrates the complexity of the challenge facing those tackling sexual exploitation. Linda was just 10 when she began a conversation with a 37-year-old Swedish man online. Bullied at school and with her parents divorcing at home, she was an easy victim to his promises of love. Within a few months she considered him her boyfriend and agreed to meet a friend of his in a hotel for dinner. The man took her to her room where he violently raped her. Her boyfriend had sold her, and so strong was his control over her that he was able to do so again and again.

"He guilted me [saying] that if you don't do this next time better or longer, I am going to leave you. This was only three months after our first contact and he had already broken me down so far and so much that I would die for him.''

Over the next five years she was abused and raped by, she believes, about 600 men who were making payments to her boyfriend. "It's almost like a takeaway meal, they are in the hotel room, I come to them, they use me and I leave. The rapes became more and more violent, more and more sadistic. There is a lot of weird porn out there, a lot of very sadistic things. When you watch lots of this kind of porn I can in some way understand that normal sex is not so much fun. This is epidemic and the thing is, we don't really talk about it – not in schools, not at home. I think you need to educate people."

Eventually, Linda's mother discovered what was going on and contacted the police, finally ending the abuse.

Johansson argues that there is not enough protection for young people exploited domestically in Sweden, compared with the UK or the Netherlands, where all minors forced into the sex trade are seen as victims of trafficking. But she believes that criminalising all buyers is the most effective way to stop men knowingly or unknowingly buying sex from a trafficked woman.

"It's important Europe focuses on the issue of demand as it is what fuels human trafficking by making it profitable. It is insufficient to focus only on the traffickers while ignoring those paying for the services of victims – the market must be tackled."

One of the main arguments of those who oppose any attempt to criminalise prostitution is that it simply drives the industry underground, putting the sex workers in a more vulnerable position.

Pye Jakobsson a spokeswoman for the Rose Alliance, representing Swedish sex workers, says: "You can't talk about protecting sex workers as well as saying the law is good, because it's driving prostitution and trafficking underground, which reduces social services' access to victims."

She doesn't believe police figures suggesting prostitution has decreased, saying the numbers represent those women selling sex on the street, not the 50% who work indoors. And she is dismissive of Sweden's pioneering role in European prostitution reform. This law, she says, "is about Sweden selling its ego, showing how brilliant and smart they are, a perfect democracy and country in Europe that others should aspire to".

But in her office, where she surveys the constant flow of evidence of sexual exploitation, Wahlberg believes that the Swedish way is the best chance of helping the most vulnerable women.

"We have a small group of pro-prostitution lobbyists that are very powerful. The sex purchase act was not passed for them; it was passed for the majority of women who suffer from prostitution. If women want to be in prostitution and don't want any help, we don't interfere. But it bothers me that they make themselves spokespersons for these women we are trying to protect because they don't have a voice, where is their voice?"


Irish activists step up campaign to criminalise paying for sex

Justice department's review of prostitution laws and concerns over women being trafficked boost campaign for criminalisation

Harriet Grant, Wednesday 11 December 2013 19.00 GMT   

Ireland appears to be moving inexorably towards the "Nordic model" on prostitution, with cross-party support for moves to target punters by criminalising paying for sex.

Recent research suggests that on any given day there are about 800 sex workers online in Ireland. But the industry has changed hugely in recent years: about 90% of women working in indoor prostitution in Ireland are migrants, raising concerns about the crossover between prostitution and trafficking.

Sarah Benson, chief executive officer of Ruhama, a group that represents migrants working in the sex trade in Ireland, said: "Sex trafficking and prostitution are inextricably linked, it's an incredibly harmful environment for anyone to be in."

Her views represent those of a powerful coalition of non-governmental organisations called Turn off the Red Light, which has been leading a campaign to criminalise paying for sex in Ireland.

There is now cross-parliamentary support for this approach after a review of prostitution laws by the Department of Justice. In his report, the chair of parliament's justice committee, David Stanton, referred to evidence on the reduction of demand for prostitution in Sweden since buying sex was banned in 1999. He said: "Such a reduction in demand will lessen the incidence of harms associated with prostitution and – particularly in view of the predominance of migrant women in prostitution in Ireland – the economic basis for human trafficking into this state."

Benson agrees this indicates higher levels of abuse. "Very few of the migrant women come here by themselves, they arrive here with debt, [and] they are immediately exploited," she said.

Some sex workers worry that the move to criminalise demand will ignore the women who choose to sell sex. "This movement is sweeping from the US across Europe, it's become a modern crusade," said Teresa Whitaker, of the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland.

"Those women who do get coerced or tricked need proper services and compassion, but the women choosing this work need human rights. The dangers are that this gets driven underground."

However, former prostitutes are among those leading the call for reform. Rachel Moran worked as a prostitute for seven years and is a fierce opponent of any kind of liberalisation. "The act of being bought and sold is hugely damaging in itself, even if a woman rarely or never experiences violence – because prostitution itself is violent.

She said men who use prostitutes needed to take responsibility for their role in exploiting those women who are being forced to sell sex. "I met a young woman, she was kidnapped in the streets of London at 18 and spent five years in Irish brothels, used by too many men to count; men who were quite content to look the other way and pretend not to see her obvious misery."

Whitaker acknowledges that she is on the losing side of the argument, a fact she attributes partly to the religious feeling that underpins Irish society. "If you had a referendum and asked 'Should Ireland criminalise clients of prostitutes?', there would be a yes vote. It's a Catholic country, and the constitution is based on family and marriage."

But for Moran, a moral judgment on prostitution is exactly what she wants to see. "I think that the reason people want prostitution stripped of morality is because if we viewed it through a moral prism it would collapse, and they know it," she said.

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« Reply #10602 on: Dec 12, 2013, 07:29 AM »

12/12/2013 01:14 PM

Tepid Welcome: Germany Struggles to Lure Skilled Workers

By Maximilian Popp and Janko Tietz

Germany must look abroad to make up for its shortage of highly skilled workers. But a series of obstacles, including daunting bureaucracy, stand in the way of foreign specialists looking to relocate.

At first glance, immigrating to Germany seemed rather straightforward to Enio Alburez. When the engineer from Guatemala heard last spring that he could acquire a visa to look for work in Germany, he booked a flight to Berlin and went to the German embassy in Guatemala City.

There, Alburez asked for the special visa -- but the embassy staff members merely shrugged their shoulders. They had never heard of the "jobseeker visa," which has existed since August 2012 for non-EU citizens, but promised to look into the matter. A week went by, then another. For six long weeks, Alburez waited in vain for news from the embassy. Then the 25-year-old, who had learned German at the Austrian School in Guatemala, traveled to Germany as a tourist. After all, his flight was booked.

When he arrived in Berlin, he was contacted by the embassy in Guatemala: The jobseeker visa had now been approved, they said, but unfortunately Alburez had to fly back to Guatemala to have it glued into his passport. Without the visa, he says, he had no chance of receiving a residence or work permit in Germany.

"It was pretty crazy that I had to explain to the embassy staff what opportunities existed in Germany," says Alburez. So he flew back to Guatemala City, picked up his jobseeker visa from the German embassy and returned to Berlin. He applied to a number of companies and received an offer from the automotive supplier Continental in Hanover. He rented an apartment and exchanged his visa for a long-term residence permit.

Immigration Policies

Germany has only just begun to transform itself into animmigration country, and politicians are gradually lowering the obstacles for newcomers. Armed with the jobseeker visa, foreign college graduates can look for work in Germany for half a year -- and anyone who can prove that they've found a position with a gross annual salary of over €46,000 ($63,000) can remain in the country.

In 2012, the governing coalition of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) lowered the limit by €20,000 to prevent dumping wages. The government also passed new employment regulations that made it easier for foreigners without a college degree to work in Germany.

The new grand coalition of the CDU/CSU and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) intends to continue on this course: The coalition agreement pledges additional offers for immigrants, focusing primarily on improved information and consulting services from government agencies.

According to the OECD, Germany now has one of the most liberal immigration laws for highly qualified candidates, and yet it rarely succeeds in attracting young talented individuals like Alburez from Guatemala.

Lack of Skilled Workers

In 2012, over 1 million people moved to Germany, the largest number of newcomers the country has experienced in many years. But nearly two-thirds of these immigrants came from EU countries. Many of them are fleeing the economic crisis in their home countries. Experts anticipate that this influx will subside as soon as the situation improves in southern Europe. The current immigration of European refugees who are fleeing the crisis won't last, says migration researcher Klaus Bade. He argues that this merely belies the fact that Germany urgently needs to recruit more immigrants from non-EU countries.

In 2012, there were 155,000 vacant positions in Germany for highly skilled workers like technicians, engineers and computer scientists. According to estimates made in 2010 by the Nuremberg-based Institute for Employment Research (IAB), Germany's workforce will decline by 6.5 million people by 2025.

Demographic researchers predict that Germany will only be able to maintain its economic strength if there are annually 400,000 more immigrants than emigres. Between August 2012 and June 2013, though, merely 2,500 highly qualified individuals immigrated to Germany from non-European countries -- with the help of the EU Blue Card. Only 25,000 foreign workers from non-EU countries settle in Germany every year. In Canada and New Zealand the corresponding per capita immigration rate is roughly 10 times as high.

Daunting Bureaucracy

"We have to get away from the idea that droves of highly qualified workers are just waiting for an opportunity to immigrate to Germany," warned Armin Laschet (CDU), the former integration minister of the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, in 2011. Despite its enormous economic power and high standard of living, Germany is simply not competitive enough when it comes to recruiting talent from around the world, says the OECD. And the experts point to four main reasons for the country's poor performance.

The first reason is Germany's daunting bureaucracy. If there's one thing that Yvonne Anders doesn't like, it's German forms. The paperwork is nightmarishly complex and requires a wealth of information, with endless pages and extra documents. Sometimes translations are required, sometimes not. In fact, she no longer sends the papers off without consulting an expert. Anders works as the human resources manager for Adidas. She is looking for skilled workers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. These days, even a company like Adidas rarely finds new employees in Germany, especially IT experts and designers.

Whenever Adidas is interested in a promising candidate, Anders launches into a struggle with the bureaucracy. Even she has problems keeping on top of all the terms, such as jobseeker visa, limited residence permit, or unlimited residence permit. "If this is too complicated for us, how are people from China, Russia or Serbia supposed to deal with it?" she asks.

Employing Specialized Agencies

Many large companies hire specialized agencies to navigate the legal and bureaucratic maze for their foreign employees, because keeping abreast of the latest laws and regulations and maintaining contacts to German authorities would actually cost them more time and money.

Oliver Clapham has run a relocation agency near Frankfurt for a number of years. He handles all of the formalities for his clients, from acquiring visas to renting apartments, but even he is occasionally dismayed with the situation. Clapham says the immigration authorities and employment offices are understaffed, leading to long processing delays for his applications.

"I often wait for months just to get an appointment to have a residence permit issued," he complains. Clapham says that some candidates are forced to enter the country as tourists until they receive resident status -- or they opt to go to another country.

The OECD is urging the German government to promote labor migration. Some experts are calling for a point system to govern immigration, similar to what exists in Canada and Australia. This would make things equally transparent for international students and potential immigrants alike, and, for example, would spell out the desired criteria on a central website. Points could be awarded for having certain professional qualifications, a university degree or language proficiency -- and anyone who has gathered the requisite number of points can live and work in Germany.

Difficulting Recognizing Qualifications

The second reason for the country not making more gains lies in the difficulties recognizing foreign qualifications. Germany's Recognition Act, which came into effect in April 2012, was intended to guarantee a transparent process for evaluating foreign professional qualifications. During the first year, some 30,000 people applied to have their degrees evaluated. But 10 times as many people could benefit from this legislation. Nonetheless, German Education Minister Johanna Wanka (CDU) says that the law makes "an important contribution to securing skilled labor."

But integration expert Bettina Englmann sees things differently. "The German government has made a lot of promises, but the results are disappointing," she says. In 2007, Englmann paved the way for new legislation with her "Brain Waste" study. She argues that the law is by no means applicable to all professions, and is not uniformly applied throughout Germany. The federal government is responsible for occupations that require training, such as in trade and industry, while the states are responsible for teachers and engineers. There is still widespread chaos throughout the system.

And even where the law applies, for instance in the health professions, there is a lack of clear guidelines for how degrees could be recognized in Germany, as the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration (SVR) criticized in a recent report. The SVR also pointed to a lack of administrative personnel.

"For outsiders," the system for the medical professions is "practically inscrutable," the SVR argues. The conservatives and the SPD also see a need for action. The coalition agreement says the potential of immigrants "still remains largely untapped."

The third reason the country has had difficulty recruiting foreign talent is the sluggish implementation of reforms. The "welcoming culture" that German Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) fondly refers to has not yet been established in many government agencies. Hardly any of the officials have a good command of English or another foreign language, and immigrants are shuffled back and forth by stone-faced bureaucrats.

Tale of Demoralization

Last June, Martin Zeil (FDP), who was then Bavaria's minister of economic affairs, took part in a panel discussion at the University of Passau titled "Study and stay in Bavaria." He praised Bavaria's excellent institutions of higher education and the outstanding conditions for foreign students. After Zeil's speech, Carlos García, 27, a student from Venezuela, stood up and nervously took hold of the microphone. He said the authorities treated him as if he were unwanted, adding that they did everything they could to get rid of him.

García had come to Passau 10 years earlier as an exchange student. He said he spent a so-called "voluntary year" working in the community, attended a preparatory university course in Munich, and started studying economics in Passau. He noted that he felt at home in Bavaria and had made friends.

But García said the harassment that he suffered at the hands of immigration authorities had "demoralized" him. His residence permit was extended for only a few months at a time. Otherwise -- at least according to the authorities -- he could have taken advantage of German generosity and tried to work in the country. García said that when he applied for permission to do an internship, he was told that he was in Germany to study, not work.

García sent a letter to the mayor of Passau. He wrote that he dreamed of becoming a German citizen and establishing a company. "For me, the future is here," he wrote. "I would like to be able to move about freely and earn a living." The mayor -- who is a member of the SPD -- responded that he unfortunately could do nothing for García. He said students like him were expected to return to their home countries.

Reluctant Companies

The fourth reason that the country has not attracted more foreign workers is that German companies have been reluctant to recruit them. According to an OECD study, between July 2010 and July 2011 nine out of 10 German companies had vacant positions, but only one in four extended their search for personnel outside of Germany. When it comes to small and medium-sized companies, only between one and two out of 10 considered looking abroad. Many companies feared that it would be difficult, risky and expensive to recruit employees from foreign countries.

"Small and medium-sized companies can't afford this kind of thing," says Volker Steinmaier from the Südwestmetall employers' association in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg. He represents companies like manufacturers and small engineering firms that are currently having difficulties filling vacancies for skilled workers. It's far too difficult and costly to look abroad, says Steinmaier. He says that there are "hardly any companies that have the resources" to attend job fairs in foreign countries, build networks with foreign colleges and universities and establish contacts with foreign employment agencies.

Big companies like Allianz have less trouble doing so. The insurance and financial services giant organizes "Welcome Days" at its Munich headquarters. New employees are assigned so-called buddies who help them settle in and get acquainted with the firm. "Companies and politicians have to improve the general conditions for those who can contribute to Germany's competitiveness with their knowledge and expertise," says Werner Zedelius, who is a member of the board at Allianz.

Germany has to learn to woo immigrants. This requires nothing less than instilling a new culture in German society -- in government agencies and among politicians and personnel managers.

Allianz executive Zedelius says this includes marketing Germany's advantages. That "has perhaps not yet been properly" done, he admits. "The German government is acting far too defensively," agrees Christine Langenfeld, the SVR chairwoman. She says the country lacks modern "immigration marketing," and argues that far too little has been done to get the word out about programs that make it easier to work in Germany, like the EU Blue Card. "The reforms belong in the display window," Langenfeld says, "and not under the counter."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen.


12/11/2013 03:15 PM

EU Wrangling: Berlin Plays It Safe on Banking Union

By Gregor Peter Schmitz

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble met with his EU colleagues until midnight on Tuesday to discuss Europe's planned banking union. Berlin is playing it safe in the talks, but its hesitancy threatens to derail the project's core ambitions.

If there's one notion at the core of the planned European banking union, it's that of playing it safe. The union has been designed to ensure that the financial markets will become more stable and that shareholders and creditors will be held more liable than taxpayers. And it is meant to ensure that Europe will be better armed if the European Central Bank comes across unexpected holes in balance sheets when it conducts stress tests this spring on the euro zone's 130 largest banks.

But when German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party appeared before journalists just before midnight in Brussels on Tuesday, it became clear that things, once again, are anything but secure. Schäuble negotiated for close to 14 hours with his counterparts in Europe over the banking union, which many champions of the European Union believe is as epochal an event as the launch of the euro.

In the end, though, the issue was delayed until Dec. 18, when the finance ministers will meet again just before the regularly planned EU summit. "We're on the way towards achieving this," Schäuble told reporters, but the "political decision" can only be made in the coming weeks.

By then, it is highly likely that he will be installed again as finance minister in the new German government, to consist of a coalition of the Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democratic Party. Still, it remains uncertain whether he will be able to present the banking union as some kind of gift marking the start of his new term in office by the end of the year.

Details Still Unclear about Liquidation Fund

The fact that the time frame is so narrow isn't just Schäuble's fault, although he is partly to blame. Tuesday's marathon negotiations were only the latest example of tactics by Berlin to block progress on EU issues. Annoyed EU representatives used the term "Germany's eternal litany" to describe negotiations on Tuesday.

The German government has recently signaled willingness to compromise on the issue of which body would be responsible for deciding if a bank needs to be liquidated. Initially, a newly created committee with representatives of national authorities would assume this responsibility, but the formal decision could then be left to an EU body like the European Commission. In disputed cases, the European Council, the powerful body that includes the leaders of the 28 member states, would be brought in to arbitrate.

Berlin has also agreed in principle to calls for a liquidation fund for failing financial institutions that would have a capacity of €55 billion ($76 billion) within 10 years. But the EU member states are supposed to agree among themselves on how these funds can actually be used, with greater voting weight being given to more populous countries. This idea hasn't gone over well with some governments, because they fear that Berlin, working together with a few small countries, would be able to block decisions. In addition, the money in the fund would not be available for use until it is transformed into an official EU instrument in 10 years' time.

Under the "liability cascade" plan being promoted by Schäuble, however, bank shareholders will be required to pay part of the costs for liquidating a bank starting in January 2016. Owners and creditors would first be required to cover any liquidation costs before any taxpayer money could be brought in. Berlin has had success so far in negotiations on this point. The German government had wanted to introduce this rule as early as 2015. But other member states like Italy pleaded for it to start at the earliest in 2018. They fear the move to start in 2015 might frighten investors.

And there's one additional play to safety: Germany continues to oppose using the European Stability Mechanism, the permanent euro-zone rescue fund, as a backstop for fledgling banks. Other countries have suggested employing the fund's billions of euros as part of a future banking union resolution mechanism.

'Institutional Skirmishing'

The amount of caution being exercised in Berlin, as well as the many fundamental legal questions the banking union has created in recent months, has surprised experts. "These details are of course important to Berlin, which fears (the union) could be challenged at the German Constitutional Court," Jacob Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Amid the institutional skirmishing, it appears as though Berlin has lost sight of the core idea of a banking union."

Among those ideas are that national banking supervisory authorities would no longer monitor national banks -- a principle that would be buried if Germany's savings banks and credit unions are excluded from EU supervisory as Berlin is planning. The second goal was to finally break the fatal link between banking crises and national crises. When Spain and Ireland were forced to back their financial institutions with billions of euros, the moves ruined their government budgets.

So will the planned scope of the banking union be able to fulfil these expectations? That's unlikely. The rescue of Anglo Irish Bank, which isn't particularly big, alone cost some €30 billion a few years back. A bailout on that scale would exhaust a huge chunk of the liquidation fund. "Even if these difficult negotiations finally end next week, what we will get at first is a mini-solution," said Kirkegaard.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble met with his EU colleagues until midnight on Tuesday to discuss Europe's planned banking union. Berlin is playing it safe in the talks, but that hesitancy threatens to derail the project's core ambitions.


12/12/2013 12:47 PM

Nightlife Crisis Averted: GEMA Strikes Fee Deal with Clubs

Nightlife organizers have finalized an agreement with performers' rights organization GEMA about controversial fee increases for rights to play songs. The previously proposed increases had been seen as a threat to Berlin nightlife.

After months of negotiations, German concert organizers and club owners have finalized an agreement with the controversial performers' rights organization GEMA about how much they should pay for the rights to play songs in concerts and clubs. GEMA, an organization that charges fees for the public use and reproduction of music on behalf of artists, had threatened in 2012 to drastically heighten its rates. The new fee structure had drawn widespread ire and prompted protests in Berlin, because many saw it as an existential threat to the city's famous -- and highly profitable -- nightlife scene.

GEMA, which has existed since 1903, is one of the largest performers' rights organizations in the world. Under German law, it is entitled to collect fees for all use of copyright-protected music wherever it is played, everywhere from retirement homes to "erotic film booths." The organization's intent is to make sure the originators of a piece of music are compensated for their work, a task which, it argues, has become increasingly difficult in an era of widespread online piracy.

Danger to Berlin Nightlife

In early 2013, the organization proposed a dramatic increase to the fee so that, among other changes, nightclubs would have to pay 10 percent of their ticket revenue to GEMA in exchange for the music they played for their guests -- a change which, for some clubs, would have amounted to an increase of approximately 1,000 percent. According to the owner of Watergate, the famous Berlin techno club, the new structure would have meant going from paying approximately €10,000 per year to €140,000.

Although the proposed fee would have varied depending on the type and size of the venue, many nightclub owners and nightlife organizers, especially in Berlin, argued it would have forced them to close their doors. It was another source of anxiety for a sector of the German capital that is struggling to maintain its underground appeal in the face of encroaching gentrification and the rise of mass tourism.

The rough-and-tumble image of Berlin nightlife is, ironically, extremely valuable to the city. According to a study by Berlin tourism organization, one third of the 11 million tourists which come to Berlin every year do so because of the nightlife. The industry brings €1 billion in revenue to the city every year.

No More 'Existential Threat'

The new agreement, which was finalized earlier this week, was hailed by Ernst Fischer, the head of the German Association of Music Event Organizers (BVMV). He said that the negotiations had let to "moderate" fee increases that would be introduced gradually over the course of several years. According to Tagesspiegel newspaper, the long-term increases for clubs will amount to somewhere between 29 and 64 percent. In the short term, however, the increases will be much lower.

The group's business head, Stephan Büttner, said there could be no more talk of the fees being "existential threats" to nightclubs, and that he didn't expect clubgoers to have to pay more in the future. In many cases, he argued, the fees, which will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2014, would actually decrease as a result of the new agreement.

Another ongoing fee dispute between GEMA and Google, which has led to many songs and videos being blocked on YouTube in Germany -- and made the organization highly unpopular among young people -- remains unresolved.

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« Reply #10603 on: Dec 12, 2013, 07:30 AM »

12/11/2013 05:00 PM

Self Defense: Protectionism Rules in EU Arms Industry

By Gordon Repinski, Christoph Schult and Gerald Traufetter

German Chancellor Angela Merkel loves to preach economic prudence to her European Union partners. But she looks the other way when it comes to the bloc's wasteful defense policy, and Europe's citizens are footing the bill -- to the tune of at least €26 billion a year.

In February 2010, a group of German Air Force Eurofighter jets took off from Germany on a trip to the East. They were accompanied by a refueling aircraft, along with a cargo plane and a transport plane filled with engineers. The Germans' target was India, where their objective was to hammer out a deal on behalf of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), which manufactures the Eurofighter. The government in New Delhi planned to buy 126 fighter jets, in a deal valued at up to €14 billion ($19.3 billion). An Indian newspaper described it as the "mother of all defense deals."

The counterattack didn't come from the United States, but from Germany's partners within the European Union. The French launched their own promotional campaign for their national prestige jet, the "Rafale," while the Swedes advertised their jet, the "Gripen," made by Saab.

The German Air Force pilots spent days thundering across the Indian subcontinent. The campaign cost about €20 million, but it was unsuccessful. The Indians chose the French jet instead.

This is what happens in the European defense industry: Whenever a major contract is in the offing somewhere in the world, the European nations compete against one another. But when they are the ones procuring military equipment, they isolate themselves and ignore all rules of reason and the market in the interest of protecting the domestic defense industry.

With too much competition for foreign contracts and no functioning domestic market within the EU, the national governments are essentially engaging in what they refer to on paper as "joint security and defense policy." "The fragmentation of the European defense market is a big problem," says Austrian General Wolfgang Wosolsobe, head of the EU military staff. "If we don't change our ways, it raises the long-term question of whether we, as the EU, can preserve our autonomy in defense policy."

United States Dwarfs European Defense

This misguided policy adversely affects European taxpayers. Large sums in the billions are wasted year after year because EU governments cultivate their own national idiosyncracies instead of acquiring systems that already exist or could be produced more cost-effectively as part of a collaborative effort.

The confusion also harms the defense contractors. "We didn't create the EU so that we could have uniform light bulbs, toilet-flushing mechanisms and banana sizes," rages EADS CEO Tom Enders. "We created the EU to solve major, vital issues together and to give Europe a suitable role in the world, between America and Asia."

But the reality doesn't look like that. Without the United States, Europe would be a dwarf in terms of military policy. During the war in Libya, the French and the British soon ran out of ammunition, and it is left up to the initiative of individual capitals to react quickly to crises. Even the EU Battlegroups, which are supposed to be ready for deployment within a few days, have never been allowed to leave their barracks since they were established in 2003, because the one thing that's missing is political will on the part of all Europeans.

EU leaders had intended to make defense policy an important item on the agenda at their Brussels summit at the end of next week. But the summit agenda is now so tightly packed that if all goes well, the only slot left for the leaders to discuss security policy will be shortly before the final luncheon. More than a few declarations of intent are not expected, but at least some of them will be headed in the right direction, that is, toward more market and more competition. EADS chief executive Enders warns: "If words are not followed by actions this time, our relegation to the third league will become unavoidable."

Shrinking Budgets

There is a need for action. The national defense budgets in Europe have declined significantly in the last 12 years. The euro debt crisis has dashed all hopes among defense ministers that this trend could be reversed in the coming years. In 2001, the EU member states spent a combined €251 billion on defense. By 2012, their total defense budget had declined to only €190 billion. Although the EU still spends more money on defense than China, Russia and Japan combined, most of it is spent on personnel costs, while too little is spent on equipment and research.

A method known in military jargon as "pooling and sharing" was long viewed as a solution in both the EU and NATO. It involves individual countries specializing in certain military capabilities and then making them available to the others. But the much-lauded concept is still in its early stages of development. So far, pooling and sharing has accounted for €300 million in savings. In the same time period, the defense budgets were slashed by €30 billion, or 100 times as much.

The greatest amount of waste results from the domestic market in the defense sector being virtually invalidated, writes the Academic Service of the European Parliament in a current study. The 88-page analysis, titled "The Cost of Non-Europe," bluntly outlines the shortcomings of European defense policy, with "wasteful excess capacities, duplication, fragmented industries and markets" at the top of the list. According to the study, 73 percent of procurement plans are still not being advertised throughout Europe. "Cooperation remains the exception," the experts write.

According to a conservative estimate, this creates additional costs of at least €26 billion a year. The squandered taxpayer funds could amount to as much as €130 billion. The EU countries could save €2 billion on ammunition for their armies alone, if they acted in a truly European fashion. This has long been possible from a legal standpoint. But governments generally invoke an exception clause of the EU Treaties, which permits limitations on competition if the "national security" of a country is affected -- an anachronism in times of common defense policy.

The Americans are a prime example of how to apply a defense budget more efficiently, as a look at the aviation industry illustrates. The development of the three European fighter jets the Eurofighter, Rafale and Gripen cost €10.23 billion more than the development of the American Joint Strike Fighter. The Americans also produce larger numbers of their jets with lower development costs. The manufacturers of the three European aircraft build 1,205 jets, which is 1,800 fewer jets than the Americans.

Paying More for Less

Not surprisingly, European defense policy has a miserable cost-benefit ratio. There are 16 large shipyards building warships in the EU, compared with only two in the United States. There are 16 different classes of frigate in Europe, even though only two are actually manufactured. For years, even Germany, which preaches economic prudence to other EU partners, has contributed to European taxpayers paying more money than necessary for inefficient defense projects, specifically for projects for the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr.

In the case of Europe's large-scale Eurofighter project, for example, the four manufacturing countries, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain, have always focused on the interests of their own industries instead of efficient shared production. The result has been an appalling amount of waste due to duplication.

For instance, the production of the twin-engine fighter jet has been divided up among the partner countries from the beginning, with almost no regard to economic criteria. Four different production facilities were even developed in the four countries for final assembly. This alone is responsible for a loss in the hundreds of millions.

Because of the desire that exists in all four countries to participate in decision-making processes related to the Eurofighter, high administrative costs are also incurred. Dozens of committees discuss key strategic issues associated with the Eurofighter, but decisions must be reached unanimously. In some cases, hours, days and weeks go by before simple decisions are made, because of the need to obtain the approval of each individual partner.

There are many examples in the European defense industry of how countries are competing instead of cooperating. From battle tanks to frigates to cruise missiles, more sensible agreements could save billions across the board. A few years ago, there were 16 different procurement programs in Europe for armored personnel carriers alone. But because each party has only its own interests in mind, there has been little improvement.

The defense contractors already contend with shrinking defense budgets in Europe. The consulting firm AlixPartners does not anticipate any new major defense projects being launched in Europe in the foreseeable future, and it warns that the industry is losing its potential for innovation. This also affects the conglomerate that was once established by politicians committed to the European idea: EADS. In the next four years, EADS expects its order volume to plummet from €48 billion to €31 billion. The German defense ministry alone has cancelled €4 billion in fixed contracts.

The number of humiliating defeats associated with international defense projects has been on the rise. NATO member state Turkey is threatening to buy its air defense system from China, South Korea has spurned the Eurofighter and Brazil has shut EADS out of a deal worth €6 billion.

Germany Blocked Defense Merger

A new chapter in the inglorious history of the European defense industry is being written this week, as EADS CEO Tom Enders announces the complete restructuring of his defense division. In future, it will only be an appendage of civil aviation subsidiary Airbus. And in yet another humiliating blow to the company's proud engineers, Enders will also officially unveil the company's new name: Airbus Defence & Space.

As is usually the case with such restructuring efforts, jobs will be cut and entire facilities shut down, including a plant in the Bavarian town of Unterschleissheim. In Manching, north of Munich, where the Eurofighter is built, employees are also nervous. According to EADS officials, the future of their jobs is directly related to the question of whether the German government will buy additional Eurofighters from the latest 3B tranche.

The spring cleaning at EADS is seen as a reaction to the fact that the German government thwarted a merger between EADS and the British defense company BAE Systems over a year ago. The chancellor herself intervened in the planned merger, fearing that it would lead to her country losing influence over a group with such strategic importance. Merkel was particularly concerned about jobs at EADS subsidiary Airbus.

EADS officials still haven't forgiven the government for obstructing the deal. "This is what they get," they are quietly saying, referring to the job cuts. "Growing challenges are clashing with declining budgets everywhere," Enders explains. "It's obvious that we can only guarantee Europe's security and defense jointly."

Flame-Resistant Underwear?

The A400M transport aircraft is an example of how joint European defense projects can falter. Fundamental questions have hampered production recently, because the company lacks joint European approval of the necessary legal underpinnings. The European Parliament and the European Commission should have created the necessary legal conditions. But this has been held up by the fact that no country is willing to relinquish its sovereign rights. Now the situation is coming to a head, as Germany is expected to receive its first A400M in 2014. Officials at the defense ministry are now constantly in crisis mode because the licensing procedure remains unclear.

This has led to absurd consequences. The ministry is currently establishing an aviation office for the Bundeswehr, a new agency with more than 400 employees, whose primary task will be to develop licensing guidelines for the A400M. To make matters worse, they will only be developing German rather than European guidelines. But at least the EU leaders have included the problem of Europe-wide licensing in the agenda for their upcoming summit. In late November, the EU Council of Ministers called for "tangible measures for standards and certification" in order to "reduce costs."

In practice, however, such resolutions often raise significant concerns, even with the simplest of products.

For example, the German Defense Ministry has already considered the question of whether buying undershirts and underpants in larger numbers could substantially reduce costs, which could be achieved by purchasing the same models for all soldiers in EU countries. But then it emerged that Bundeswehr standards prescribe that underpants must be flame-resistant up to a specific temperature. It is unclear whether this regulation has ever saved a soldier's life, such as when there is a fire in a tank. Other countries lack this regulation, and yet the Bundeswehr insists on keeping it in place.

But if even underpants are an issue of national security, the odds are truly against a common European defense policy.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #10604 on: Dec 12, 2013, 07:33 AM »

Bulgarian man who died saving British girl's life is awarded bravery medal

British ambassador to Sofia praises Plamen Petkov as 'true Bulgarian hero' for jumping into sea to save five-year-old

Nicholas Watt, Thursday 12 December 2013 12.42 GMT   

A Bulgarian-born man who died while saving a young girl from drowning in West Sussex has been posthumously awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal for bravery.

Plamen Petkov, 32, was hailed by the British ambassador to Sofia as a "true Bulgarian hero" after he dived into the sea at West Wittering beach last year to rescue a five-year-old girl who had been dragged out on an inflatable rubber ring.

Jonathan Allen said Petkov, an electrician with joint British-Bulgarian citizenship, was the only person on the crowded beach who answered desperate cries for help from the girl's mother. Petkov, from Sutton in Surrey, who had been walking on the beach with his partner, reached the girl and made sure he held her head above the water as he swam back to the shore.

But Petkov was dragged under the waves and suffered a suspected heart attack after handing the girl back to her distraught mother on the beach. People on the beach administered CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) for 40 minutes and an air ambulance was called. But he could not be revived.

In a statement the British ambassador in Sofia hailed Petkov's "exemplary bravery". Jonathan Allen said: "Many people were on the beach on the West Wittering on that sunny day in May, but only Plamen Petkov responded to the pleas of the distraught mother and found the inner strength to jump into the treacherous waters. His indomitable courage and complete disregard for his own safety saved the life of the little girl, but unfortunately resulted in his own demise.

"Plamen Petkov's noble act moved deeply the British people and the coroner's officer that dealt with the matter attested to his bravery saying that in her five years on the job that was 'the most unselfish act she had seen'.

"No words will ever be truly worthy of this deed. And no honour can ever fully repay Plamen Petkov's sacrifice. But on days such as this we can pay tribute and we can express our gratitude that there are people like him. Plamen Petkov is a true Bulgarian hero. The United Kingdom honours his heroism and his sacrifice."

Petkov's mother has been invited to receive the medal on his behalf.

Eight awards were made on Thursday. PC Ian Dibell, an off-duty police officer who was shot dead while trying to disarm a gunman near his home on Clacton-on-Sea last year, was posthumously awarded the George Medal. PC Colin Swan was awarded the Queen's Commendation for Bravery after he evacuated 66 women and children from a burning coach on the M3 motorway while off duty. PC Jonathan Henry was awarded the Queen's Commendation for Bravery after he was stabbed in Luton in 2007 while trying to disarm an assailant. Andrew Bilton and husband and wife Brian and Joanne Keane were awarded the Queen's Commendations for Bravery for rescuing two drivers from a car that caught fire after a collision in Dorset in June this year. PC Claire Murphy was awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal for rescuing a woman who had fallen into a river last year.

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