The Christian Science Monitor
Massive leap in search for habitable planets
By Pete Spotts, Staff writer / December 19, 2013 at 7:59 pm EST
Researchers have found a way to tease information about an extrasolar planet's mass from an underappreciated source: its atmosphere.
The approach, described in a paper set to appear Friday in the journal Science, could help speed the pace at which scientists are able sort among planet-candidates to identify those potentially hospitable to, or even hosting, life.
"This is an exciting new result," says Mark Swain, a researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who studies exoplanet atmospheres.
It's particularly significant for planets orbiting red, small, dim stars known red dwarfs, he says. Other methods of trying to gauge the mass of a planet orbiting one of these stars "presently don't work very well."
Mass is crucial for estimating the bulk density of a planet – rocky, gaseous, predominantly water in some form, or a mix. If one is hunting for other Earths, the holy grail for planet hunters, it's not enough for a planet to orbit within a star's habitable zone, where in principle liquid water can pool and remain stable on a planet's surface. It's important to gauge its bulk composition as well.
Virtually all of the entries in the various rosters of planets beyond the solar system have mass estimates tied to them. But these estimates typically represent either a minimum or maximum mass, depending on the approach used to discover them. The radial velocity technique, which looks for the wobble in a star's spectrum an orbiting planet introduces, provides a minimum mass. The transit method, which looks for the shadow a planet casts as it passes in front of its host star, yields a maximum mass.
Ideally, researchers would like to make both types of measurements on the same planet, but often that's not possible. The new method could help improve the accuracy measurements for transiting planets.
As a planet passes in front of its sun, the star becomes a back light for the atmosphere. Scientists can detect what's called a transmission spectrum as elements and molecules in a planet's atmosphere absorb the light passing through the atmosphere at specific wavelengths.
Scientists then use models to tweak various traits about the atmosphere – such as how temperature and pressure change with altitude as well as the average mass of the molecules in the atmosphere – until they find the best fit for the observed transmission spectrum.
Julien de Wit, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, was developing one of these models when he realized "while writing the equations that there might be a way to get mass," he says.
At the time, he was designing a model that would incorporate the presence of biologically generated gases in the spectrum of an extrasolar planet's atmosphere, so he didn't give his work on mass much thought. But when he showed his calculations to Sara Seager, a planetary scientist at MIT, she immediately recognized the importance, he recalls.
It works because one of the features affecting the changes in an atmosphere's pressure with altitude is gravity. In his equations, de Wit recognized that gravity could be defined in terms of a planet's radius and mass, so he added that approach to his calculations.
Since the transit method yields a good estimate of an extrasolar planet's radius, that would be an untweakable component of the calculations. This left mass as an additional "knob" the model could adjust to help generate a best-fit spectrum. As a result, the mathematical approach de Witt and Dr. Seager devised now allows researchers to back a mass estimate out of the models, in addition to the other data of interest.
"Why nobody saw this before, I don't know," says Dr. Swain, who observes exoplanet atmospheres. "But it's a really good insight, and it's going to help us out a lot."
How well does it work? De Wit and Seager used the approach on an exoplanet 63 light-years away, HD 189733b, that has been measured with radial velocity techniques to estimate its mass. Radial velocity measurements put the planet's mass at 1.14 times Jupiter's, give or take 6 percent. The new approach delivered an estimate of 1.15 times Jupiter's mass.
They also calculate how the approach will perform with two highly anticipated space telescopes: NASA's James Web Space Telescope, which will be able to observe the atmospheres of transiting planets orbiting stars in the sun's neighborhood; and the Exoplanet Characterization Observatory, a mission under study by the European Space Agency. De Wit and Seager estimate that between the two, astronomers should be able to characterize the atmospheres and nail down the masses of Earth-size and super-Earth-size planets out to about 326 light-years from Earth.
Swain adds that the approach also may play well with NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, slated for launch in 2017. TESS will be hunting for transiting planets around 500,000 of the nearest stars. These include 1,000 of the closest red dwarfs, which are so dim that some planets orbiting such stars in only four to six days would be in the habitable zone.
The Christian Science Monitor
Alien planet almost exactly like Earth, except that it's covered in lava
By Mike Wall, Space.com Senior Writer
A puzzling alien planet is the closest thing to an Earth twin in size and composition known beyond our solar system, though it's far too hot to support life, scientists say.
The exoplanet Kepler-78b, whose supertight orbit baffles astronomers, is just 20 percent wider and about 80 percent more massive than Earth, with a density nearly identical to that of our planet, two research teams report in separate papers published online today (Oct. 30) in the journal Nature.
"This is the planet that, in many respects, is the most like Earth that's been discovered outside our solar system," said Andrew Howard, of the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Institute for Astronomy and lead author of one of the studies. "It has approximately the same size. It has the same density, which means it's made out of the same stuff as Earth, in all likelihood." [The Strangest Alien Planets (Gallery)]
Studying a lava world
Kepler-78b, whose discovery was announced last month, orbits a sunlike star in the constellation Cygnus, about 400 light-years from Earth.
The alien world circles 900,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) or so from its parent star — just 1 percent of the distance between Earth and the sun— and completes one lap every 8.5 hours. Surface temperatures on Kepler-78b likely top 3,680 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 degrees Celsius), Howard said.
The planet was found by NASA's prolific Kepler space telescope, which has spotted nearly 3,600 potential exoplanets since its March 2009 launch. (Kepler was hobbled in May of this year when the second of its orientation-maintaining reaction wheels failed, but scientists are still sifting through the instrument's huge databases.)
Kepler flagged alien worlds by noting the telltale brightness dips they caused when passing in front of, or transiting, their parent stars from the spacecraft's perspective. Kepler's measurements allow researchers to estimate an exoplanet's size but not its mass, meaning that other strategies are required to get a handle on a world's density and composition. [Gallery: A World of Kepler Planets]
One such method is the radial velocity technique, which measures the wobble in a host star's light induced by the gravitational pull of an orbiting planet. Both new studies employed this method to investigate the Kepler-78 system, with Howard's group using the HIRES spectrograph at Hawaii's Keck Observatory and another team, led by Francesco Pepe of the University of Geneva, relying on the new HARPS-N instrument on the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands.
The two teams came to very similar conclusions. Howard's group determined Kepler-78b's mass to be 1.69 times greater than that of Earth, while Pepe's team calculated it to be 1.86 times higher than Earth's. The results of the Pepe-led study suggest a density of 5.57 grams per cubic centimeter for Kepler-78b, while those of Howard's team imply a density of 5.3 grams per cubic cm.
These numbers agree to within the error range independently estimated by both teams, suggesting that they are quite accurate, Howard said.
"The fact that we agree to within our errors — in science, that's basically as good as you can do," Howard told SPACE.com.
Earth's density is about 5.5 grams per cubic cm, so Kepler-78b probably has an Earth-like composition, complete with a rocky interior and an iron core, both studies suggest.
A mysterious origin
The extremely tight orbit of Kepler-78b puzzles astronomers. According to prevailing theory, the alien world shouldn't exist where it does, because its host star was significantly larger when the planet was taking shape.
"It couldn't have formed in place because you can't form a planet inside a star," Dimitar Sasselov, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a member of the Pepe-led team, said in a statement. "It couldn't have formed further out and migrated inward, because it would have migrated all the way into the star. This planet is an enigma."
What is clear, however, is that Kepler-78b's days are numbered. The planet will continue circling lower and lower until the immense gravity of its host star tears it apart, likely within 3 billion years or so.
"Kepler-78b is going to end up in the star very soon, astronomically speaking," Sasselov said.
The search for another Earth
The hellishly hot Kepler-78b is not a good place to hunt for alien life. But the determination of its density marks a milestone in the ongoing search for a true "Earth twin" — a planet very much like Earth in size, composition and surface temperature.
"The existence of Kepler-78b shows that, at the very least, extrasolar planets of Earth-like composition are not rare," astronomer Drake Deming, of the University of Maryland, writes in an accompanying commentary article today in the same issue of Nature.
Deming points to NASA's upcoming Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite mission, or TESS, which is slated to launch in 2017 to hunt for transiting planets around nearby stars (as contrasted with Kepler, whose gaze was more distant).
"By focusing particularly on small stars cooler than the sun, TESS should find exo-Earths whose mass can be measured by trading the close-in orbit of Kepler-78b for more distant orbits around low-mass stars, approaching orbital zones where life is possible," Deming writes. "That trade-off probably cannot be pushed to the point of measuring an Earth twin orbiting once per year around a sun twin, but it will allow future scientific teams to probe habitable planets orbiting small stars."
Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on SPACE.com.
In the USA...United Surveillance America
December 20, 2013
N.S.A. Spied on Allies, Aid Groups and Businesses
By JAMES GLANZ and ANDREW W. LEHREN
Secret documents reveal more than 1,000 targets of American and British surveillance in recent years, including the office of an Israeli prime minister, heads of international aid organizations, foreign energy companies and a European Union official involved in antitrust battles with American technology businesses.
While the names of some political and diplomatic leaders have previously emerged as targets, the newly disclosed intelligence documents provide a much fuller portrait of the spies’ sweeping interests in more than 60 countries.
Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, working closely with the National Security Agency, monitored the communications of senior European Union officials, foreign leaders including African heads of state and sometimes their family members, directors of United Nations and other relief programs, and officials overseeing oil and finance ministries, according to the documents. In addition to Israel, some targets involved close allies like France and Germany, where tensions have already erupted over recent revelations about spying by the N.S.A.
Details of the surveillance are described in documents from the N.S.A. and Britain’s eavesdropping agency, known as GCHQ, dating from 2008 to 2011. The target lists appear in a set of GCHQ reports that sometimes identify which agency requested the surveillance, but more often do not. The documents were leaked by the former N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden and shared by The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel.
The reports are spare, technical bulletins produced as the spies, typically working out of British intelligence sites, systematically tapped one international communications link after another, focusing especially on satellite transmissions. The value of each link is gauged, in part, by the number of surveillance targets found to be using it for emails, text messages or phone calls. More than 1,000 targets, which also include people suspected of being terrorists or militants, are in the reports.
It is unclear what the eavesdroppers gleaned. The documents include a few fragmentary transcripts of conversations and messages, but otherwise contain only hints that further information was available elsewhere, possibly in a larger database.
Some condemned the surveillance on Friday as unjustified and improper. “This is not the type of behavior that we expect from strategic partners,” Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, said on the latest revelations of American and British spying in Europe.
Some of the surveillance relates to issues that are being scrutinized by President Obama and a panel he appointed in Washington that on Wednesday recommended tighter limits on the N.S.A., particularly on spying of foreign leaders, especially allies.
The reports show that spies monitored the email traffic of several Israeli officials, including one target identified as “Israeli prime minister,” followed by an email address. The prime minister at the time, in January 2009, was Ehud Olmert. The next month, spies intercepted the email traffic of the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, according to another report. Two Israeli embassies also appear on the target lists.
Mr. Olmert said in a telephone interview on Friday that the email address was used for correspondence with his office, which he said staff members often handled. He added that it was unlikely that any secrets could have been compromised.
“This was an unimpressive target,” Mr. Olmert said. He noted, for example, that his most sensitive discussions with President George W. Bush took place in person. “I would be surprised if there was any attempt by American intelligence in Israel to listen to the prime minister’s lines,” he said.
Mr. Barak, who declined to comment, has said publicly that he used to take it for granted that he was under surveillance.
Despite the close ties between the United States and Israel, the record of mutual spying is long: Israeli spies, including Jonathan Jay Pollard, who was sentenced in 1987 to life in prison for passing intelligence information to Israel, have often operated in the United States, and the United States has often turned the abilities of the N.S.A. against Israel.
Mr. Olmert’s office email was intercepted while he was dealing with fallout from Israel’s military response to rocket attacks from Gaza, but also at a particularly tense time in relations with the United States. The two countries were simultaneously at odds on Israeli preparations to attack Iran’s nuclear program and cooperating on a wave of cyberattacks on Iran’s major nuclear enrichment facility.
A year before the interception of Mr. Olmert’s office email, the documents listed another target, the Institute of Physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an internationally recognized center for research in atomic and nuclear physics.
Also appearing on the surveillance lists is Joaquín Almunia, vice president of the European Commission, which, among other powers, has oversight of antitrust issues in Europe. The commission has broad authority over local and foreign companies, and it has punished a number of American companies, including Microsoft and Intel, with heavy fines for hampering fair competition. The reports say that spies intercepted Mr. Almunia’s communications in 2008 and 2009.
Mr. Almunia, a Spaniard, assumed direct authority over the commission’s antitrust office in 2010. He has been involved in a three-year standoff with Google over how the company runs its search engine. Competitors of the online giant had complained that it was prioritizing its own search results and using content like travel reviews and ratings from other websites without permission. While pushing for a settlement with Google, Mr. Almunia has warned that the company could face large fines if it does not cooperate.
The surveillance reports do not specify whether the interceptions of Mr. Almunia’s communications were requested by the N.S.A. or British spies. Nor do the reports make clear whether he was a longstanding surveillance target or swept up as part of a fleeting operation. Contacted by The Times, Mr. Almunia said he was “strongly upset” about the spying.
Ms. Hansen, the spokeswoman for the European Commission, said that it was already engaged in talks with the United States that were “needed to restore trust and confidence in the trans-Atlantic relationship.” She added that “the commission will raise these new allegations with U.S. and U.K. authorities.”
In a statement, the N.S.A. denied that it had ever carried out espionage to benefit American businesses.
“We do not use our foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of — or give intelligence we collect to — U.S. companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line,” said Vanee Vines, an N.S.A. spokeswoman.
But she added that some economic spying was justified by national security needs. “The intelligence community’s efforts to understand economic systems and policies, and monitor anomalous economic activities, are critical to providing policy makers with the information they need to make informed decisions that are in the best interest of our national security,” Ms. Vines said.
Spies have a freer hand with economic targets in Britain, where the law permits intelligence gathering in the service of the “economic well-being” of the country. A GCHQ spokesman said that its policy was not to comment on intelligence matters, but that the agency “takes its obligations under the law very seriously.”
At the request of GCHQ, The Times agreed to withhold some details from the documents because of security concerns.
The surveillance reports show American and British spies’ deep appetite for information. The French companies Total, the oil and gas giant, and Thales, an electronics, logistics and transportation outfit, appear as targets, as do a French ambassador, an “Estonian Skype security team” and the German Embassy in Rwanda.
Germany is especially sensitive about American spying since reports emerged that the agency listened to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone calls. Negotiations for a proposed agreement between Germany and the United States on spying rules have recently stalled for several reasons, including the United States’ guarantee only that it would never spy on the chancellor — a promise it has refused to extend to other German officials.
Multiple United Nations Missions in Geneva are listed as targets, including Unicef and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. So is Médecins du Monde, a medical relief organization that goes into war-ravaged areas. Leigh Daynes, an executive director of the organization in Britain, responded to news about the surveillance by saying: “There is absolutely no reason for our operations to be secretly monitored.”
More obvious intelligence targets are also listed, though in smaller numbers, including people identified as “Israeli grey arms dealer,” “Taleban ministry of refugee affairs” and “various entities in Beijing.” Some of those included are described as possible members of Al Qaeda, and as suspected extremists or jihadists.
While few if any American citizens appear to be named in the documents, they make clear that some of the intercepted communications either began or ended in the United States and that N.S.A. facilities carried out interceptions around the world in collaboration with their British partners. Some of the interceptions appear to have been made at the Sugar Grove, W.Va., listening post run by the N.S.A. and code-named Timberline, and some are explicitly tied to N.S.A. target lists in the reports.
Many of the reports, written by British teams specializing in Sigint, shorthand for “signals intelligence,” are called “Bude Sigint Development Reports,” referring to a British spy campus on the Cornwall coast. The reports often reveal which countries were the endpoints for the intercepted communications, and information on which satellite was carrying the traffic.
Strengthening the likelihood that full transcripts were taken during the intercepts is the case of Mohamed Ibn Chambas, an official of the Economic Community of West African States, known as Ecowas, a regional initiative of 15 countries that promotes economic and industrial activity. Whether intentionally or through some oversight, when Mr. Chambas’s communications were intercepted in August 2009, dozens of his complete text messages were copied into one of the reports.
Referred to in the transcripts as “Dr. Chambers,” he seems to have been monitored during an especially humdrum day or two of travel. “Am glad yr day was satisfying,” Mr. Chambas texted one acquaintance. “I spent my whole day travelling ... Had to go from Abidjan to Accra to catch a flt to Monrovia ... The usual saga of intra afr.”
Later he recommended a book, “A Colonial History of Northern Ghana,” to the same person. “Interesting and informative,” Mr. Chambas texted. The high point of his day was receiving an award in Liberia, but soon he was busy working out logistics for future appointments.
“Where is the conference pl? Didnt get the invt,” he texted another contact. He discussed further details before adding, perhaps wistfully, given his grinding travel schedule: “Have a restful Sunday.”
Katrin Bennhold contributed reporting from London, David E. Sanger from Washington, and Ethan Bronner from New York.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 20, 2013
An earlier version of this article misidentified the office held by Angela Merkel of Germany. She is chancellor, not prime minister.
December 20, 2013
Weary Obama at Break, Hoping for a Breakthrough
By JACKIE CALMES
WASHINGTON — President Obama’s news conference on Friday was full of banter and holiday wishes, in keeping with the year-end White House ritual. But Mr. Obama’s demeanor and words were often downbeat, leaving no doubt that the gathering was not, as he said at the beginning, “the most wonderful news conference of the year.”
That was fitting — 2013 was far from the most wonderful of Mr. Obama’s five crisis-filled years. And though he held out hope as he parried with reporters for more than an hour that “2014 can be a breakthrough year for America,” he offered little hint of new ideas or strategies to advance his once-ambitious agenda past hostile Republicans.
“The end of the year is always a good time to reflect and see what can you do better next year. That’s how I intend to approach it,” Mr. Obama said. “I am sure that I will have even better ideas after a couple days of sleep and sun.”
It was as if the president could already smell the exhaust fumes of Marine One, which within hours would whisk him and his family from the South Lawn of the White House on the beginning of their annual holiday trip, a full two weeks in Hawaii. “I know you are all eager to skip town and spend some time with your families. Not surprisingly, I am, too,” he said.
Mr. Obama, from his opening remarks, stressed the economy’s signs of growth, and he said that building on such progress is “going to be where I focus all of my efforts in the year ahead.” But while he could cite specifics about improving economic indicators on employment, growth and deficits, he did not give details about his agenda, even as he said that “2014 needs to be a year of action.”
The impression conveyed was of a president as manager, one without much of an agenda or the political wherewithal for new initiatives that could make it through a Congress where Republicans are more determined than ever to thwart him before next year’s midterm elections. He ends the first year of his second term — typically the best chance for policy achievements before lame-duck status sets in — with his approval ratings having hit a record low and many Democrats disillusioned by the controversies over the health insurance law and disclosures about widespread intelligence surveillance of phone records.
From the news conference’s first question — “Has this been the worst year of your presidency?” — Mr. Obama offered a sobering review of a year that had begun, after his decisive re-election, with the expansive language, high hopes and summons to political unity contained in his second Inaugural Address. “For now decisions are upon us,” he said in wrapping up that speech, “and we cannot afford delay.”
Eleven months later, Mr. Obama was prepared as reporters drilled him on the disappointments he has suffered since that January celebration. He laughed at that first question, and said that reporters had chronicled “at least 15 near-death experiences” during his tenure. He maintained a game face, if a haggard one, as he acknowledged the frustrations and failures on immigration, budget policy, gun violence and health care that were part of his second-term agenda — one that, while ambitious, was not nearly as sweeping as his first.
The closest that Mr. Obama came to making news was in hinting that he may support a review panel’s recommendation to curb the National Security Agency’s collection of telephone records by allowing telephone companies — not the government — to hold the data until intelligence officials need access on a case-by-case basis.
Several times he sought to reflect optimism about policy prospects for the year ahead, but — ever the pragmatist — not too much.
The Republican-controlled House might have stopped the Senate’s bipartisan bill to overhaul the immigration system and provide a path to citizenship for about 11 million people who are in the country illegally, but Mr. Obama cited “indications” that it would act on immigration legislation in 2014. “And the fact that it didn’t hit the timeline that I’d prefer is obviously frustrating,” he added, “but it’s not something that I end up brooding a lot about.”
Months of talks with Senate Republicans in the first half of the year failed to yield an elusive grand bargain on the budget that would reduce annual deficits while increasing public investments. So he was left to applaud Congress for sending him a far more modest two-year deal this week, though “it’s not everything that I would like, obviously.”
“It’s probably too early to declare an outbreak of bipartisanship, but it’s also fair to say that we’re not condemned to endless gridlock,” he said. Yet Mr. Obama sounded purposely unconvincing when he suggested that congressional Republicans surely would not put up a fight over the next budget deadline — the need to increase the government’s borrowing limit by March — as they have threatened to do.
“Now I can’t imagine that, having seen this possible daylight breaking when it comes to cooperation in Congress, that folks are thinking, actually, about plunging us back into the kinds of brinkmanship and governance by crisis that has done us so much harm over the last couple of years,” he said.
Mr. Obama volunteered his disappointment that Congress did not pass a law to require background checks for gun buyers, a priority after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., a year ago. Yet he made no suggestion of reviving that cause in the face of opposition from the gun lobby and lawmakers in both parties.
A year ago, administration officials defended the relative paucity of new ideas for the second term by saying that the president would be putting into effect his first term’s achievements, chiefly his hallmark Affordable Care Act. Yet on Friday, Mr. Obama was once again forced to acknowledge that his administration had bungled the Oct. 1 introduction of the website where Americans shop for the health insurance that the law requires them to have, even as he boasted of improvements since then.
There are, he said, “a couple million people, maybe more, who are going to have health care on Jan 1.”
“And that is a big deal,” he added. “That’s why I ran for this office.”
“It’s not that I don’t engage in a lot of self-reflection here,” Mr. Obama said at another point about the health insurance program. “I promise you, I probably beat myself up, you know, even worse than” reporters do.
“But,” he said, “I’ve also got to wake up in the morning and make sure that I do better the next day and that we keep moving forward. And when I look at the landscape for next year, what I say to myself is: We’re poised to do really good things.”
Republicans Have Cut Funding So Deeply That Government Employees Can’t Do Their Jobs
Friday, December, 20th, 2013, 7:31 pm
Any business owner is acutely aware the key to success of their enterprise is a workforce dedicated to their job and content in the knowledge that if they perform well, their job is secure and they will be properly compensated for their services. Even though the government is not a business, it does depend on dedicated employees who, as public servants, deserve security in their mission oriented jobs that are crucial to the secure continuity of the government providing for the “general welfare of the people.” For the past five years, Republicans have campaigned on, and profited from, an anti-government platform, and chief among their victims have been government employees at both the state and federal level.
Last year, as is their annual practice, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) surveyed federal workers across the government regarding their satisfaction at work that this year included nearly 400,000 federal employees from April through June. The survey was underway just as the sequester’s furloughs began affecting many workers and well before Republicans shutdown the government. In conjunction with OPM, the Partnership for Public Service (PPS) produced a report on the survey from data compiled by OPM, PPS and consulting firm Deloitte who issued their annual “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” report released Wednesday with some very “troubling” responses. Not surprisingly, due to budget cuts to government agencies, furlough days, and wage cuts, satisfaction in the federal workforce declined for the third year in a row to their lowest since rankings were first published ten years ago.
The CEO of PPS, the report’s publisher, Max Stier said “We continue to dig a deeper and deeper hole because the workforce that we have in government is a mission-oriented workforce. They want to do their jobs. They’re there because they want to make a difference for the public. The most damaging thing you can do for someone who’s mission-oriented is tie their hands behind their back and say, you can’t help.” Stier was referring to consequences of lawmakers in Congress (Republicans) who continually refuse to cooperate and cited employee dissatisfaction driven by uncertainty and consequences inherent in agencies’ budget uncertainties driven by perpetual spending cuts and the sequester.
During the shutdown, President Obama sent a letter to federal workers apologizing that they have been treated like a “punching bag” where civil servants were portrayed as spoiled compared to private-sector workers. The President wrote, “None of this is fair to you. And should it continue, it will make it more difficult to keep attracting the kind of driven, patriotic, idealistic Americans to public service that our citizens deserve and that our system of self-government demands.” Unfortunately, the Ryan-Murray budget agreement deals another blow to federal workers because their pensions were raided to prevent tax reform to close the rich and corporations’ unfair loopholes. Stier gave a fair appraisal of why government employees were under attack from Republicans and the effect their assaults were having on the government; he said “they are dismantling the capability of our government; it should be really worrisome to anyone who cares about our country.” It is hardly a surprise Republicans do not care about America, and what is seriously worrisome is that their perpetual cuts have severely hampered the one agency tasked with protecting democracy; the Federal Elections Commission.
A report by the Center for Public Integrity recently cited staff departures creating case backlogs and staffing levels dropping to a 15-year low, combined with political infighting as a serious impediment to the FEC’s ability to monitor the big money influencing elections since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. In fact, curiously in October when the shutdown furloughed all 339 agency employees, hackers took advantage of the absence and crashed computer systems that publicly disclose how billions of dollars are raised and spent each election cycle by candidates, parties, and political action committees. The minimum measure for keeping someone on the job was that it was “necessary to the prevention of imminent threats” to federal property; including public campaign finance disclosures, and yet all 339 FEC employees were furloughed at the precise time hackers crashed computers containing crucial public disclosures.
Besides cuts keeping staff levels at a 15-year low, there is gridlock because now-departed Republican commissioner Don McGahn abhorred regulations and believed the agency should ensure corporations’ rights included raising and spending big money to either promote or lambaste political candidates, and FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub (Democrat) believes the agency’s duty is to be a strong regulatory force that checks the political influence of corporations and wealthy donors. With a dearth of employees doing the people’s work to ensure campaign financing and elections are fair and legal, the electoral process, and democracy itself, is in jeopardy of malfeasance.
It is really irrelevant which federal agency, or part of the government, is understaffed or staffed with employees who are dissatisfied, worried about job security, or under attack for doing their jobs. Republicans have been on a mission to, as Max Stier said, “dismantle the capability of our government” that should concern every American, but they have made little secret that is their intent whether it is their tax pledge to Grover Norquist or Boehner’s oath to the Koch brothers to “get government out of their way.” In lieu of eliminating agencies and departments such as the EPA, Internal Revenue Service, Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), Education, NLRB, or Department of Housing and Urban Development, Republicans have cut funding to such a degree that employees in those departments and agencies can hardly do the jobs they are tasked to do, and yet they continue serving the people admirably.
Republicans have campaigned on an anti-government platform for the past two elections and they have succeeded in hampering the government through their spending cuts and their precious sequester. Perhaps their drive to keep the sequester in place for nine years is more than just cutting domestic programs to harm vulnerable Americans, and maybe it is more about neutering the government to prove their longstanding contention that government is incapable or working. However, if they believe that is the case, they should fully fund the government and let the results speak for themselves, but they know that with a fully staffed and properly compensated federal workforce, their argument that government does not, and cannot possibly, work would fail worse than it consistently does. To their great credit, federal employees’ dedication and commitment guarantees the government works for the people regardless if they are dissatisfied with the way Republicans treat them and they deserve better, but they should not feel singled out because Republicans treat all Americans badly.
Republican Budget Cuts Are Literally Causing People to Freeze to Death In the Streets
Friday, December, 20th, 2013, 10:33 am
In Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s State of the Union address in 1944, he suggested America adopt a second bill of rights to guarantee every American six fundamental rights as citizens. Besides a decent job, education, Social Security, medical care, and freedom from monopolization, Roosevelt believed every American deserved housing. Seventy years later, Republicans are eliminating decent jobs, freedom from monopolization, and are attempting to eliminate medical care, education, and Social Security. Unfortunately, in 2012 their policies were responsible for keeping well over 640,000 American citizens without housing and their precious sequester will increase those pathetic numbers for the next nine years. It is appalling that, like ravaging hunger and poverty, the richest nation in the world has any homeless Americans, but that is the state of the nation with Republicans setting economic policy.
Accompanying the depressing statistics that hundreds-of-thousands of Americans are homeless is the seriously disheartening number of homeless citizens that perish every year because they lack housing. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, approximately 700 homeless Americans die every year from hypothermia; typically on the East Coast and Midwest because of harsh winters. But this year while temperatures have repeatedly dipped below freezing in California, thousands of homeless people were in danger of dying and sadly in the Bay Area, seven American citizens froze to death because they lacked housing.
Last week, a 50-year-old man who wanted to work but was only able to find occasional odd jobs that prevented him from affording a place to live was forced to sleep outside in freezing temperatures because there were no available emergency shelters for single men. The man, a father and grandfather, who had lived on the streets for several years, was looking forward to permanent shelter because he moved up to second place on a list to get permanent supportive housing after waiting in line for months. On December 10th the man was found dead in an old city hall courtyard wearing only a hoodie and shorts because he had been robbed of a new winter coat his sister had sent him less than a week before. Police said the man’s death was weather related after temperatures fell below freezing the day he died; he was the seventh homeless person to die of hypothermia (freezing to death) since a cold spell hit the region around the end of November. As tragic as the number of Americans freezing to death for lack of shelter is, it is the number of Americans who are homeless that should shame politicians into taking action, but as Americans know, Republicans are incapable of being shamed as they are barbaric and inhumane toward American citizens.
About 62,000 (13%) of all homeless persons are veterans, and these men and women who put their lives on the line for their country, these heroes that men like compassionate conservative Paul Ryan calls “takers,” are living on the streets because they cannot find work or affordable housing. President Obama and Democrats attempted to create a jobs and housing assistance programs to help them, but Senate Republicans prevented a vote on both jobs and housing programs using their favorite weapon the filibuster; as Republican Pat Toomey said, “some on my side did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it.” It was also likely because as Republican Tom Coburn said, “We ought to do nothing now that makes the problem worse for our kids and grandkids,” which is just one of the GOP’s phony reasons to withhold spending for anything to help any Americans. Such is the state of America, and why tens-of-millions of Americans living in poverty and face the very real prospect of not only being jobless and hungry, but sick and homeless as well.
Even for Americans finding low-paying jobs Republicans claim is why they are ending unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans, a full-time worker with a family earning minimum wage could not afford fair-market rent for an apartment anywhere in the U.S. according to estimates from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It leaves hardworking Americans to make a hard choice of whether to feed their family and live on the streets, or put all their pay into meager shelter and let their families and themselves go hungry. They can hardly count on food assistance anymore because Republicans intend to slash more from food stamps to keep pace with their cuts to housing assistance because depriving “takers” from their right to nutrition is on par with keeping them homeless in Republican circles.
The Republican sequester drastically cut housing assistance for Section 8 candidates, and many of those on waiting lists were informed earlier in the year their prospect for finding affordable shelter was so remote that counselors began warning new, prospective, and existing recipients not to sell their vehicles because they would need them for shelter. Sadly, many homeless people suffer from mental illness as a result of Republican man-turned-god Ronald Reagan who not only emptied every mental hospital flooding California streets with homeless mentally ill residents, but he and Republicans eliminated President Jimmy Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act before the ink had barely dried on the legislation.
This is the America Republicans began creating thirty years ago when they initiated their crusade to shrink the government that exists to serve the people; particularly those who are in need through no fault of their own. Over the past five years, they ramped up their assault on domestic programs at the behest of groups headed by the Koch brothers who will see their “vision of a transformed America” to fruition one way or another and despite the cost in Americans’ lives. As many Americans are witnessing, that vision includes poverty, hunger, and hundreds-of-thousands of American citizens living on the streets with no prospect of ever having a decent job, healthcare, education, Social Security, or even housing; basic rights that Roosevelt attempted to procure for every American 70 years ago. Sadly for Americans, Republicans have spent all 70 years attempting to eliminate those basic human rights and tragically they are nearing the point of victory.
Pig Putin is outflanking the west at every turn
The Russian president runs rings around the supposed liberal leaders of the west as he advances his authoritarian agenda
The Observer, Sunday 22 December 2013
This has been the year of Pig Putin's ascendancy. The Russian president has made Barack Obama look like a conman's stooge – a lame duck president so weak that he can barely waddle to the pond. The Pig has managed to protect his client dictatorship in Syria – even after it broke one of the few taboos limiting man's inhumanity to man by using chemical weapons. He has Edward Snowden, perhaps the most damaging leaker in recent history, under the vigilant eyes of his secret police in Moscow. He has out-manoeuvred the pro-European demonstrators in Kiev and bought off the Ukrainian government.
At home, his control over the state and civil society is so complete that he can afford to play the merciful tsar and release dissidents and his former rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Forbes magazine was not making a mistake when it called Pig Putin the world's most powerful person in 2013. However, the Centre for Strategic Communications, a thinktank for the Kremlin's pet intellectuals, assessed his power more precisely last week when it acclaimed him "world conservatism's new leader". If you can rid yourself of the idea that being a conservative means merely supporting private enterprise, you will see what it meant.
Nineteenth-century radicals loathed Russia above all other states because it had a quasi-religious mission to preserve autocracy at home and promote reactionary regimes abroad. To true believers, the "Third Rome" of Christian tsarism defended the divinely ordained old order against the threats of liberalism, socialism, nationalism and modernity.
Pig Putin is giving every sign that he wants Orthodox Russia to repel the satanic west again. He has appointed Dmitry Kiselyov to control the state's media network. Kiselyov earned the Pig's admiration when he declared that gays "should be prohibited from donating blood, sperm. And their hearts, in case they die in a car accident, should be buried or burned as unfit for extending anyone's life."
In his state-of-the-nation address last week, Pig Putin sounded like the most slavophile of patriarchs when he derided the liberal west as "genderless and infertile" and promised he would fight the western elite's "destruction of traditional values from the top".
If you think that makes him sound like a Christian Coalition or Muslim Brotherhood cleric, well that thought has struck others too. The leathery old American conservative "Pat" Buchanan, who has been involved in every foul movement on the American right since Richard Nixon's day, knows a potential collaborator when he sees one. Pig Putin could be the leader of "conservatives and traditionalists in every country", he said, and lead the fight against the "militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite".
Brian Whitmore of Radio Free Europe quotes Moscow journalists talking of Pig Putin's Russia replacing the old Communist International with a new "conservative international" that unites the religious and the repressive in a common front. You can see its work already. When Ukraine seemed close to reaching agreement with the EU, an advertising campaign, apparently financed by an oligarch close to the Pig, warned that joining Europe meant allowing gay marriage. Fear of queers was used to keep Ukrainians in line.
Homophobia, the authoritarianism of the religious right – are these not the very vices that Obama and his "progressive" supporters have dedicated their lives to fighting? At home maybe. But abroad? Obama's conservative critics say he is the most "leftwing president ever". To my mind, no honourable definition of the left or of liberalism can exclude an awareness of the suffering of others – "internationalism" as we used to call it.
By this measure, not always popular in leftish circles, Obama's foreign policy is the most right wing since Nixon's, and not just because of his fondness for bugging half the planet. His indifference to human rights beyond America's borders matches Tricky Dicky's. The New York Times painted a depressingly believable picture of his boredom at having to deal with Syria, the greatest humanitarian crisis to date in the 21st century. "He often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum." He no more cares about Syria that he cares about the demonstrators in Kiev, Moscow or Tehran.
You may say "so what?" Public opinion in America and the west is against intervening in Syria or anywhere else. When Obama in Washington or, to a lesser extent, Ed Miliband in London spent three years arguing against every option – arming moderate rebels, enforcing a no-fly zone, carving out humanitarian corridors – they were doing what their electorates wanted. "Shrug your shoulders and turn your backs," the people said. "Get involved and you may help militant Islamists or drag us into a wider war."
The relevant historical parallel may explain their mistake. In the Spanish Civil War, Britain and France's refusal to help the legitimate government in Madrid repel the attack by General Franco produced the result they most feared. It was not just that Hitler and Mussolini had no qualms about "illiberal intervention" in Spain, any more than Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia have qualms about illiberal intervention in Syria today. The fascist forces were strengthened for the wider conflict of the Second World War, but so too were the communists. Britain would not intervene in Spain in the 1930s because it did not want to help Stalin. Its very inaction helped him. The fact communists were willing to go to Spain and fight bolstered the prestige of communism. At least they preferred fighting to running away, people said.
History is repeating itself, or at least rhyming. As Saudi analyst Fahad Nazer says, for Sunnis around the world "exactly who ousts Assad is immaterial. If it is the Islamists, or even the terrorists of al-Qaida, then so be it."
I do not know what would have happened if western powers had imposed no-fly zones and safe havens three years ago. But I know al-Qaida is back from the dead and militant Islamists from Britain and across Europe have gone to Syria, as the International Brigades went to Spain, and we will have to have them back one day. I know that the war is spreading and that Europe will not be able to keep out its refugees for long. I also know that a supposedly "progressive" American president who bows his head to a Russia that announces itself as the head of a global reactionary movement is no progressive at all. And that those who shrug and turn their backs also have blood on their hands.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: I will not challenge the Pig
Freed tycoon rules out political career and says he won't return to Russia while he faces the prospect of being re-arrested
Luke Harding in Berlin
theguardian.com, Sunday 22 December 2013 12.55 GMT
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's most famous political prisoner, has said he harbours no ambition to challenge Pig Putin and go into politics, adding that he will not return to Russia while he faces the prospect of re-arrest there.
Speaking 36 hours after he was freed from a Russian prison and flown to Berlin, Khodorkovsky said he had not had time to decide where he will live. He immediately ruled out a political career, or a return to business, but said he would be a "public figure".
Asked whether he felt personal gratitude to the Pig, who signed a decree on Friday pardoning him, he said: "It's very hard for me to say I'm grateful to him. I've thought for a long time about what words I should use. I'm glad of his decision."
Khodorkovsky met a small group of western journalists, including the Guardian, on Sunday at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin – a symbolic venue. Dressed in a blue suit, he looked relaxed, smiling, and answered questions without rancour. He even managed a few jokes.
Asked how he had changed in prison camp, his home for the past 10 years, he replied: "The biggest change is that I'm 10 years older." Once Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky said he did not know how much money he had left – most of his assets were seized – adding: "I won't be buying a football club."
Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 after financing opposition political parties. His imprisonment was widely regarded as a political punishment by the Kremlin, and by Pig Putin personally. The tycoon was convicted twice on fraud and tax evasion charges. His oil company, Yukos, was broken up, sold off, and given to state oil company Rosneft, headed by Putin's ally Igor Sechin. On Sunday, he described the cases against him as "phantasmagoric".
Khodorkovsky said his refusal to enter politics would not stop him from campaigning for the release of his friend and Yukos colleague Platon Lebedev. Lebedev, his co-defendant in two trials, remains in jail. The former oligarch said he would not go back to Russia while a civil claim arising from his first trial still hangs over him. If he were to go back he could be re-arrested at any moment, he said.
The oil tycoon said the idea of a pardon was first floated back in 2008 by President Dmitry Medvedev. But he refused to apply for one because this would have meant admitting his guilt – potentially implicating his Yukos colleagues, who might then face extradition to Russia, he said.
Then on 12 November his lawyers brought a proposal from former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Genscher, who had held secret talks with Putin, said he should write to Russia's president asking for pardon. "I looked at it. There was no demand I recognise my guilt," Khodorkovsky recalled.
The prison governor woke him at 2am on Friday with the pardon and asked if he wanted to leave for Germany. "They didn't offer me an alternative," he said. Khodorkovsky knew his mother was being treated in a Berlin clinic. He was flown to St Petersburg in a helicopter before being whisked out of the country and into exile by private jet.
His exit from Russia was "in the best tradition of the 1970s", he said, a reference to the practice of bundling Soviet dissidents such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn out of the country. On Saturday, Khodorkovsky was reunited with his family – his parents Marina and Boris, who flew in from Moscow, and his son Pavel from New York. His wife Inna is wrapping up paperwork in Moscow and will join him soon.
Asked whether he had missed them, Khodorkovsky paused, struggled for words, then said: "I was only allowed family visits for four years out of the 10, and then only for a few minutes once a month." He said he was unable to answer many questions – such as whether foreigners should now invest in Russia – because he was deprived of proper information.
He told the Guardian the forthcoming Sochi Olympics may have been a factor in his sudden release. More broadly, he added: "I think it [my release] is a symbol that the Russian government and the Pig personally are seriously worried about the country's image." But his freedom didn't, in his view, signify Russia was heading for "deep" or meaningful reforms, he said.
The tycoon suggested there was not likely to be a change in Russia's leadership soon. "Pig Putin is healthy", he observed. "He could carry on for a long time." Russia's opposition remained weak, he said. The core problem was that political awareness within Russian society was still feeble, he said – though better than 10 years ago when he went to jail.
Bulgaria's president: 'Don't play on fear. Stop attacking us'
Rosen Plevneliev says David Cameron needs to be part of an honest discussion on EU migration
Daniel Boffey in Sofia
The Observer, Saturday 21 December 2013 21.03 GMT
For months, a dark blue armour-plated police van has been parked outside Sofia's only mosque, the 16th-century Banya Bashi, in the city centre, a stone's throw from the synagogue and Catholic and eastern orthodox cathedrals.
The four officers standing outside it, nursing polystyrene cups of hot coffee in the freezing Balkan winter, are at the frontline of what is a growing crisis: a clash between the country's natives and an influx of people forced from their homes by war or poverty.
Over the last two years, around 11,000 people from Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Mali and Morocco, among others, have come to Bulgaria, many through a porous border with Turkey. It is the first wave of immigration in Bulgaria's modern history, and has come at a time of immense hardship. The country's unemployment rate doubled from about 5% of the labour force in 2008 to more than 11% this year. In the same five-year period the country's GDP contracted by 5.5%.
The result has been a bitter rightwing backlash, with one of the main parties, Ataka, which means attack, enjoying a resurgence in its membership through championing "Bulgaria for Bulgarians". An even more hardline splinter group, making allegations of rape, assault and thievery by immigrants, has been organising a civilian militia to harass and intimidate people around the centre of the city and the mosque, in particular, where refugees mill around for want of anything else to do.
The organiser of the militia, or what he describes as "civilian patrols", Boyan Rasate, told the Observer: "In the next year there will be 50,000 to 200,000 refugees in this country. We are organising for the sake of women and children because the refugees are abusing their rights."
One immigrant, who arrived two months ago from Israel, Mohammad Kamal, 22, said it all: "I had a woman scream at me to 'go home'. I'm going to next week. Israel isn't that bad after all."
There are no militia forces roaming the streets of Sheffield or Birmingham, but sitting on a sofa in his presidential offices, a short walk from the Banya Bashi mosque, Rosen Plevneliev sees clear parallels with Britain – indeed in states across Europe – and he is deeply worried. Plevneliev, who is not a member of a political party but whose election two years ago was supported by the centre-right, said: "There is something in common here – this wrong debate, which to me is playing with people's fears or addressing people's fears and not having an honest debate."
He is appalled by what is happening in his country, where parliament recently voted to ban foreign nationals from buying agricultural land. And he is disturbed by all he has read and heard from Britain about what could happen when the barriers on Romanian and Bulgarian people coming to live and work in the UK are lifted on 1 January. The east Europeans will deliver a crime wave, it has been reported; they will scrounge off the benefits system and create untold trouble for Britain's creaking welfare state, be it hospitals, schools, or indeed prisons.
Last week leaked documents revealed that home secretary Theresa May wanted to cap the number of EU immigrants to the UK and even stop people from countries with a GDP lower than 75% of Britain's from coming here to work at all. The benefits system has been tightened so that those without work who come from abroad are blocked from claiming until three months after their arrival and they can only claim if they prove that they can speak English.
The timing, Plevneliev says, gives the clear, but inaccurate, impression that people from Romania and Bulgaria will, first, flock in huge numbers and, second, be coming for welfare handouts. It is, he says, a cynical attempt to answer fears and anxieties whipped up by Nigel Farage's Ukip and others. He points out that Finland and Sweden, with their much more generous welfare systems, lifted barriers to Bulgarians and Romanians two years ago.
"You know what happened? Nothing," he says. "You see, of course, Great Britain will make its planning and will take its decisions. But some of them could be right, some of them could be wrong. Some of them are bold and some of them are, I would say, not long-term orientated decisions.
"You want to make a plan for a better future for your citizens in Great Britain. In the past 20 years immigrants in Great Britain contributed heavily to its prosperity, and that is a fact. The only thing that is important is not to listen to populist politicians who play on people's fears but to listen to the wise men in Great Britain.
"Listen to the institutions who are giving the facts. University College London has very clear data showing that in the past 20 years immigrants contributed 34% more than they took out. You guys are making profit out of this. So that is really great. Keep it like that."
Instead, he says that David Cameron is six months ahead of the European elections, battling for votes with Ukip on their terms, damaging Britain's internationalist reputation and in danger of writing himself into the history books as an isolationist. The debate, he says, is toxic and familiar to others in the mainstream of European politics but for all its familiarity it is no less concerning.
And he now harbours worries for the safety for Bulgarians already in the UK: "What I have read in the British tabloids was beyond any imagination. There are no facts, no reason to do it, but to play with people's fears. I don't understand such politics, or conduct such politics.
"We have our Bulgarian tabloids, and it is not so different if you look at the way they point at Syrian refugees. Unfortunately it is not objective and it is not solving anything.
"Bulgarians are raising a lot of questions about the democratic, tolerant and humane British society. Is it possible that you can attack in such an intolerant way a nation that did nothing? Let us remember that 77% of Bulgarian people living in Great Britain have a job, 72% of British people do, and 65% of non-EU immigrants. This has to tell us something."
None of this is to say that Bulgarians will not come to the UK – and in their thousands, most agree. Bulgaria is deeply troubled. Endemic corruption among the political parties, media and industry was exquisitely exemplified six months ago when the socialist government appointed the 32-year-old son of a media magnate, who owns much of the newspaper and television market in Bulgaria, as its head of national security.
The decision sparked protests on the streets involving up to 100,000 people, many of whom were students. Tents still stand outside parliament where, every morning and evening, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of protesters vent their anger in the direction of the new barricades that have been erected between them and their politicians.
Sofia University has also been occupied by students who now live in its large domed auditorium, known as the Aula Magna. And many students here want to leave their country, see the world and see if they can build a better life elsewhere. But there is also a reluctance on the part of many to give up on Bulgaria.
Adelina Dyulgerova, 20, a linguistics student from Varna on the Black Sea, who has slept in the university for a month, said: "I will have to see how Bulgaria is, but I'm involved in this protest because I don't want to leave. I want to build my future here. I think the most disappointing thing was when the head of the university of national economics came to speak to us and said: 'If you don't like it, there's the airport'."
Rounen Stoev, 23, a law student who has been organising the occupation, said: "We were all talking about this last night before we went to sleep. And we don't want to go. We want to change things here, though I worry that if things don't then we will have to leave."
Plevneliev believes that the numbers coming to the UK will be no higher than 10,000 a year, around the same as those who came on work permits last year. Those who do emigrate, he says, will be the "young, bright minds" his country needs. It is a message he delivered personally to Cameron three weeks ago.
"I asked, 'prime minister, what about all these actions, and language and plans of the British government? About the tabloids it is clear to me because we have Bulgarian tabloids, but what about the government?' "
"He said, 'president, just yesterday I had an article in the Financial Times and said everything in written form, in an honest way so that the British people and everyone could read it. Have you read that?' I said, of course, I read your article.
"He said, 'Well then you understand that we are not discriminating against Romanians or Bulgarians.'
"He assured me that whatever he will do it will be synchronised with EU regulations, and legislation and will be for all member states. This is what he said. I said, 'Thank you so much for sharing your plans with me, David, but of course politicians are judged by what they do, not by what they say.' "
The wider world will be watching too.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER 1 JANUARY?
Bulgarians and Romanians gained the right to visa-free travel to the UK in 2007, when their countries joined the EU.
Employers had to apply for work permits and migrants for an "accession worker card". Low-skilled workers were restricted to existing quota schemes in the agricultural and food processing sectors. All the restrictions will be lifted on 1 January, having been extended to the maximum period of seven years. Bulgarians and Romanians will also be entitled to claim the same benefits and treatment in the NHS as other EU citizens.
Fears of Britain enduring a huge influx of migrants, including some who will claim benefits, have been provoked by the thinktank Migration Watch, which forecast 50,000 migrants a year coming to the UK. The government does not believe this figure, but wants to avoid looking complacent. It has been tightening the benefits system and highlighting looking again at the free movement of people between EU states.
Bulgaria issues fierce rebuke to David Cameron over migrants
UK faces isolation, president warns, as prime minister is accused of 'pandering to nationalists'
Daniel Boffey, policy editor
The Observer, Saturday 21 December 2013 21.00 GMT
The president of Bulgaria has made a stinging intervention in the UK's immigration debate, attacking what he calls David Cameron's attempts to pander to nationalists – and warning the PM to consider how history will judge him.
In an exclusive interview with the Observer, less than two weeks before the lifting of all restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians seeking work in the UK, Rosen Plevneliev called for Britain to stay true to its legacy as "a great global power that pioneered integration" and not play on people's fears. In a direct warning to Cameron, he said: "Isolating Britain and damaging Britain's reputation is not the right history to write."
In recent weeks, the British government has rushed through a series of changes to its welfare system and even stepped in to temporarily prevent Bulgarians and Romanians from receiving student loans, before the lifting of immigration restrictions on 1 January.
On Friday, the prime minister also threatened to veto new EU members unless sweeping curbs were introduced on freedom of movement in Europe. The moves follow claims by some thinktanks that 50,000 people a year will come to the UK from Romania and Bulgaria, the two states which joined the EU in 2007. Workers from both countries have been restricted in their right to work across the EU for the last seven years.
Plevneliev, who was elected president two years ago, said the forecasts were wrong and that it was up to mainstream politicians to fight those who played on people's fears at a time of economic trouble rather than be led by them, adding: "Bulgarian people are raising a lot of questions today about the democratic, tolerant and humane British society. Are we in Great Britain today writing a history of a switch to isolation, nationalism and short-term political approaches?"
"Of course, Great Britain will make its planning and will take its decisions. But some of them could be right, some of them could be wrong. Some of them are bold and some of them are, I would say, not long-term-orientated decisions."
Plevneliev added: "Politicians should be ready to say the inconvenient truth and fight for unpleasant but necessary decisions which, in the short term, will bring our ratings down but, in the long term, preserve our values and keep the history of our proud tolerant nations as they are."
The president, who said he now had concerns for the safety of Bulgarians already in the UK, revealed he had confronted Cameron at an EU summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, at the end of last month, demanding an explanation of the British government's "actions, language and plans". Plevneliev said he had received assurances that his citizens would not be discriminated against. "I said, 'Thank you so much for sharing with me your plans, David. Of course, politicians are judged by what they do and not by what they say'."
The president said he feared that poll results for Ukip and its leader Nigel Farage were forcing Cameron into acting in the Conservative party's short-term interests and against those of the UK.
He said: "Let's make sure that what was done in the 20th century, those old-fashioned politics of building walls and iron curtains, will remain in the 20th century. We should learn from the mistakes of this century and understand that every one of us, no matter whether Bulgaria or Great Britain, is weak when he is isolated. The 21st century is about not building walls, but bringing them down, linking peoples, cultures, economies, industry."
Plevneliev said Cameron should consider how history would judge him and forecast that, across the continent, the coming elections for the European parliament would be a clash of those who are "for Europe and against Europe".
He said: "Mr Cameron should address the daily agenda of British politics. But he should never forget that a politician is remembered in history not with the everyday business. A politician is written in history with a maximum of one or two sentences. The judgment comes years later and probably from the next generation. Prime ministers and presidents should make everyday decisions but never forget long-term priorities and values."
In comments that will inevitably be controversial, Plevneliev also claimed Britain could learn from how Bulgaria had adapted to the first wave of immigrants in its modern history, with some 11,000 people arriving from war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East in the last two years.
He said: "We might even be able to give a lesson to Great Britain. As a country that is not so rich and not so powerful, we are trying to understand not so much how many could come to Bulgaria but how we can integrate them."
Vince Cable warns Tory leaders against stoking anti-immigration panic
Business secretary tells Andrew Marr the reaction to Ukip threat is creating a dangerous attitude to towards migrants from the EU
Patrick Wintour, political editor
theguardian.com, Sunday 22 December 2013 13.00 GMT
The business secretary, Vince Cable, has accused the Conservatives of creating an anti-immigration panic in a doomed and damaging attempt to ward off the UK Independence party. He said the Tories were stoking an atmosphere similar to that created by Enoch Powell with his "rivers of blood" speech in the 1960s.
Cable confirmed the Liberal Democrats would not be supporting a cap on EU migrants coming to Britain, saying the policy was "not only illegal but impossible to implement".
He was echoing Nick Clegg, who has pledged to block any fresh attempts to curb immigration from the EU, insisting "this is where we draw the line".
Clegg dismissed as "pointless" Home Office proposals for a 75,000 cap on EU migrants and claimed without freedom of movement the NHS would "fall over".
The issue is certain to be one of the dividing lines between the parties at the next general election, and David Cameron will need to work hard to show he would be able to construct a viable coalition in the EU for a policy of national caps on immigration from within it.
Anna Soubry, Conservative public health minister, said she was not opposed to the Cameron plan but warned newspapers against creating fear of "stranger danger" in difficult economic times. She said some newspaper headlines on immigration made her stomach churn, adding that the majority of migrants came to Britain to work and often do work that UK nationals reject.
Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, Cable said: "The Conservatives are in a bit of a panic here because of Ukip. Reacting in the way they are, it is not going to help them politically but it is doing a great deal of damage. The responsibility of politicians in this situation is to look at the facts and the simple point is that there is very little evidence of benefit tourism of people coming form eastern Europe. All the evidence is that they put far more into the economy in tax than they take out in benefits.
"It was right to stop abuse of the benefit systems. Freedom of movement, albeit constrained as it is in the European treaty, is an absolutely basic principle a lot of British people take advantage of.
Referring to the proposed immigration cap of 75,000 a year from the EU, floated last weekend by Theresa May, the home secretary, Cable said: "It is not going to happen and Nick Clegg has made it very clear it is not going to happen. There is a bigger picture here. We periodically get these immigration panics in the UK. I remember going back to Enoch Powell and the 'rivers of blood' and going back a century there was panic over Jewish immigrants coming from eastern Europe. The responsibility of politicians in this situation when people are getting anxious is to try to reassure them and give them facts and not panic or resort to populist measures that do harm."
In an article for the Sunday Times, Clegg wrote: "Sticking a big no-entry sign on the cliffs of Dover may be politically popular, but at a huge economic cost. What would happen if tonight every European living in the UK boarded a ship or plane and went home?
"Are we really that keen to see the back of German lawyers, Dutch accountants or Finnish engineers? Do we want the NHS to fall over and the City of London to grind to a halt?"
He said the issue was "the biggest dividing line in politics today" and that plans for a cap are arbitrary, pointless and distracting.
Cable admitted there was "quite a lot of tension" around the issue in the coalition, saying "there are big differences over fairness, tax and immigration and we will argue our corner.
"It's not just illegal, but I do not see how you implement a cap when you want people's skills and investment coming to this country. There are an awful lot of British people that benefit from the right to circulate in Europe's single market."
He added he was still fighting a battle over the rights of skilled migrants from outside the EU to come to the UK: "What we have got to stop is damaging policies that do harm." He said the measures discouraging overseas students and visa restrictions were so tight they were stopping people from China and India from doing business.
Soubry said: "The overwhelming majority that come here come to work, but clearly there are some that don't. They are a small number and they are going quite rightly going to be discouraged. The majority come to work and they benefit the country. In certain parts of the country they do the jobs that others unfortunately are not doing. Some of the headlines of some newspapers make my stomach churn. There is a fear of immigration, but we are not getting all the facts. When times are tough there is a danger we blame the stranger and history tells us that is very dangerous."
Should Britain fear a surge of east European migrants?
With only 10 days to go until our labour market is opened to Romanian and Bulgarian workers, Alp Mehmet and Jonathan Portes put forward their opposing views on immigration
The Observer, Saturday 21 December 2013 21.00 GMT
Alp Mehmet: 'The issue around migration is now not just about economics, if it ever was'
The opening of our labour market to workers from Romania and Bulgaria in 10 days' time has attracted enormous attention from the media. Some say that this is just the tabloids blowing the whole issue out of proportion while being blind to the economic benefits of immigration as well as to the political advantages of stabilising eastern Europe.
We at Migrationwatch take a different view. We believe that this moment brings together, indeed encapsulates, two major issues affecting the whole future of our society – the scale of our population and our continued membership of the European Union.
Last January, Migrationwatch published a paper in which we concluded that immigration from Romania and Bulgaria could be around 50,000 a year over the first five years following full access to the labour market. That amounts to an extra population roughly the size of the London borough of Tower Hamlets. There will not be thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians queuing at the airports ready to rush to the UK at midnight on 31 December; the process will be gradual but this is what we expect in the medium term.
Our forecast was based on the number who have already arrived in recent years and on a comparison with the Polish precedent. This time, other major countries – Germany, France and the Netherlands – are opening their labour market simultaneously. On the other hand, there are now nearly a million Romanians in both Spain and Italy who might transfer to the UK. According to European Union figures, 30% of Romanians in Spain were without work in 2011.
Critics of our forecast have vacillated between saying that it wasn't possible to make a forecast, that those who are going to come were already here, or that the number coming didn't matter because they would be mostly young and fit and intending to work rather than to claim benefits.
We have looked carefully at the economic incentives and found that even at the UK minimum wage, a single Romanian or Bulgarian worker in the UK would earn four or five times what he would earn at home. For a family, that would be almost nine times. Even a family earning an average wage in Bulgaria and Romania could be three or four times better off in the UK on the minimum wage.
It is very hard to know whether any of the 2.5 million Roma in these two countries will seek to migrate westwards in any numbers. Their situation is worse than that of their compatriots because they are often unable to access social welfare in their home countries. To do so, they need to have a national insurance number, which can only be allocated to people with a fixed abode – difficult for Roma, who tend to move about even within their own countries.
I know from having lived and worked in Romania and having visited Bulgaria many times that the Romanians and Bulgarians who come to this country will mostly be decent and hard-working people.
I like and admire the Romanians. However, the issue around immigration is not just about economics, if it ever was. The Office for Budget Responsibility reported recently that, after reviewing the "vast literature" on the impact of migration, most of it indicated that immigrants have a positive, although not significant, impact on productivity and GDP.
The issue is now political, indeed highly political. The British public is already deeply concerned by the mass immigration of recent years. Net foreign immigration under the previous government was very nearly four million. This took place against the frequently expressed views of the public and has left a legacy of deep mistrust. According to a Sky News-Survation poll in September, 67% of respondents agreed that the UK population is already too large and that the government should take drastic action now to reduce migration.
The government has made some progress. Non-EU immigration, the element that they can control, is now at its lowest since 1998. Furthermore, this has been achieved while the number of overseas students at our universities has increased by some 7% and the number of business visitor visas and work permits has also increased. Britain has remained open for business.
My feeling is that welcome as the measures recently announced by the government were, presumably intended to dissuade some Romanians and Bulgarians from coming, they will make little difference to the numbers. Few can disagree with making the process of accessing benefits a bit more rigorous than it is. I agree, too, with the removal of beggars, the beefing up of the habitual residence test, by which claimants have to show that they intend to live in this country and that they are willing and able to work; hence the relevance of a reasonable grasp of English. I welcome, too, higher fines for employers who pay less than the law requires. These measures are what polls have consistently shown the British people want. Indeed, most people (80%) want restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians to continue beyond 1 January.
The wider picture, however, is that net migration must continue to be firmly and successfully tackled. If it is allowed to drift back up to its 10-year average of 200,000 a year it will drive our population to about 70 million in a dozen years and 80 million in 2060. At least 60% of the increase will be due to immigration, which will also account for one-third of the requirement for new homes and add to the existing pressures on schools and public services. The impact on our society will be enormous, especially in areas of high immigration. The latest official forecasts have the population of such places as Kingston upon Thames and Tower Hamlets increasing by about 20% in just 10 years.
EU migration will be the main obstacle to achieving control of the numbers. Migrants from the first eight east European countries have been adding 100,000 to our population every year. If Romania and Bulgaria add anything like another 50,000 a year, it is hard to see how our population increase can be reined in. That is not to speak of the downward pressure on low wages that nobody denies or the added competition for the one million young Britons struggling to find work.
Those who are opposed to our continued membership of the EU are using the issue as a battering ram. The war cry is that to remain in the EU is to surrender control of our borders. In present circumstances, they may well be right.
We do not know how the numbers will develop in the three years or so before a referendum in 2017. Some are already suggesting that we may have to find some way of restraining the immigration of workers from existing member states. That would run contrary to the principle of free movement and would undermine the single market. It would split British politics and generate a fundamental clash with our European partners. So, perhaps, the outcome of Romanian and Bulgarian immigration is, indeed, something we should be concerned about.
Alp Mehmet is vice chair of MigrationWatch UK and former British ambassador to Iceland
Jonathan Portes: 'Politicians need to start offering a positive vision of Britain as an open, liberal nation'
According to one Terence McLeod, a self-described "passionate Conservative" from St Albans, I'm an "east European immigrant", and so is my "religious buddy" (that is, fellow Jew) Ed Miliband. I've no doubt today's Conservative party is embarrassed and disgusted by such attitudes. But subtler forms of prejudice can be found even in my profession: Paul Collier, a well-respected development specialist and professor of economics at Oxford University, complained in his recent book Exodus that "indigenous" people – which he defines as "white British" – are now "a minority in their own capital".
Of course, the vast majority of those who are concerned about the full opening of the UK labour market to citizens of Bulgaria and Romania would be horrified not just at McLeod's antisemitism, but at Collier's view that black, Asian or even mixed-race people born here to British parents aren't "real" Londoners.
That revulsion serves as a useful reminder that every significant wave of immigration to the UK has been relatively unpopular at the time, but later has come to be accepted by most, whether grudgingly or enthusiastically, as the perceived downsides have faded and the benefits become more apparent.
That was the case with Jews in the early 20th century and again in the 1930s, West Indians in the 1950s and 1960s, east African Asians in the early 1970s and, most recently, Poles and other eastern Europeans in the 2000s.
So it is no surprise that recent research by Christian Dustmann at University College London shows that new migrants from the EU since 2000 pay a third or so more in taxes than they cost in extra spending on public services and benefits; and that a public opinion study by ICM Research for British Future, a thinktank, shows that large majorities think that Polish people work hard and make a positive contribution to Britain. It may not seem like it just now, but both the UK economy and society are, over the longer term, actually rather good at dealing with immigration.
It is in this light that we should evaluate the measures that the government reannounced last week to combat "benefit tourism", a phenomenon for which the government has conceded there is no "quantitative evidence".
Four weeks ago, government sources told the Daily Mail that the prime minister would announce that "new arrivals would have to wait a year, up from three months, to get benefits". But two days later, he wrote in the Financial Times: "We are changing the rules so that no one can come to this country and expect to get out-of-work benefits immediately; we will not pay them for the first three months." So he's changing the rules to the ones we've already got (which, while complex, are broadly fair, both to migrants and to taxpayers).
This is not xenophobia, as European commissioner László Andor suggested. Rather, it is a confused attempt to confuse the public, by pretending that there is a problem, and then pretending to do something about it.
If the government actually wants to be taken seriously, it should publish the data it holds on the number of migrants who claim benefits within three months of registering for a national insurance number. Their failure to do so suggests ministers either already know their policies will have little or no impact in the real world; or they simply don't care, since the policies were always about perception rather than reality.
Far better than this charade would be for the government to address real problems, particularly around exploitation and abuse.
Labour is wrong to apologise for its decision, in government, to open the UK labour market in 2004 to the new member states, but it did make a significant error in not addressing potential abuse of the posted workers directive, which has been used to get around labour laws and minimum-wage provisions, not just here but elsewhere in the EU. Last week, EU labour ministers discussed this: our representative, Esther McVey, was in the forefront of resisting efforts to reform the directive.
But, more broadly, immigration is mostly a red herring when it comes to concerns about the UK labour market.
Youth unemployment was stubbornly high even before the recession and labour market prospects for young people without skills and qualifications are likely to remain bleak even in recovery. There's plenty to be worried about. But not one credible economic analysis suggests migration from the EU has had a negative impact on the employment or unemployment rates of native Britons. Indeed, youth unemployment actually rose faster during the recession in areas that experienced lower immigration rates.
And while the evidence is mixed on wages, with some evidence of downward pressure for the lower paid, the impacts are very small compared to more important factors such as technological change and the minimum wage.
Claiming that keeping out Romanians and Bulgarians (or other immigrants) would do anything significant to improve the life chances of young Brits isn't just wrong, it's delusional and a distraction from policies that might make a real difference.
Similar issues arise in public services. Take education, where the children of new migrants have certainly placed extra burdens on schools, a problem greatly exacerbated by poor planning.
Despite this, it turns out that children who don't speak English as a first language don't drag down the performance of their fellow pupils – if anything, the opposite. The extraordinary improvement in the performance of London schools, especially for poor kids, may or may not be related to the increased numbers of migrant children.
But what we do know is that native children have benefited as well – poor white kids do far better in London than elsewhere. The worst performing local authorities in the country, from Knowsley to the Isle of Wight, generally have few migrants.
What about wider economic impacts? Some have argued that immigration has little impact on per capita GDP. But this ignores much of the recent economic research on this topic, which suggests that immigrants can boost innovation and raise productivity; and that, perhaps as a consequence, countries more open to immigration, like countries more open to trade, seem to have higher productivity growth.
We all know that in the things Britain is good at – from football to finance to universities to the creative industries – immigrants don't just compete with Britons for a fixed pot, but help drive up standards and make us more competitive globally.
What does that mean for politicians? After the nation was told by Nick Robinson on Wednesday that there wasn't a constituency in the country that would elect me (and he's probably right, thank God) perhaps I'm not the best person to ask. But I would say that more important than specific policy changes is a change of attitude and mindset.
Politicians need to stop telling people that they're going to stop all sorts of imaginary bad things happening and, instead, start offering a positive vision of Britain's economic future – as an open, liberal, successful, trading nation, in the EU and beyond. If that vision is convincing, voters will recognise that it is also one of a country that welcomes immigrants and benefits from migration.
Jonathan Portes is director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research
December 21, 2013
Vandals in Sweden Target Christmas Goat
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Vandals in Sweden have, for the 27th time, burned down a giant straw goat meant to symbolize Christmas spirit.
The 43-foot, 3.6-ton straw goat was engulfed in flames early on Saturday after unidentified assailants attacked it in Gavle, 90 miles north of Stockholm.
The straw goat is a centuries-old Scandinavian yule symbol that preceded Santa Claus as the bringer of gifts.
The tradition of erecting the giant straw goat in the town square was introduced in 1966. Since then, in their own tradition, vandals have made it a regular target.
December 21, 2013
Irish Try to Eradicate Ghosts of a Housing Crash
By SUZANNE DALEY
ATHLONE, Ireland — The demolition getting underway here recently was in a housing complex where a 2-year-old, probably chasing a dog, had climbed through a fence last year and drowned in a pool of water behind a dozen partly constructed homes.
John Burke, hired to do the job, marveled that the half-built houses he was about to bulldoze once carried a price tag of more than $450,000. He estimated that he was about to grind $500,000 worth of abandoned construction into gravel.
“You can’t do anything with these houses,” he said, as his workers made neat piles of the billboard posters surrounding the complex that once promised idyllic living. “The cost to finish them would be too high. There is no market like that here. There are no jobs. And leaving them unattended is dangerous.”
Nothing more typified Ireland’s roaring economy a decade ago than its housing market, which saw prices and construction surge. And nothing better illustrates the costs and complexities of cleaning up after the bursting of that bubble than what to do with the thousands of homes that were never finished or, if they were occupied, have proved to be substandard.
Other countries with similar problems, like Spain, are also dealing with the issue, but none have gone as far as Ireland, which is aiming to tear down about 40 troubled developments by the end of next year, with more demolitions possible in the future, officials say.
But in a nation that by the government’s estimate still has 1,300 so-called ghost estates and possibly hundreds of thousands of unoccupied new homes, the razing program is only nibbling at the problem. The pace of development was so huge in the 2000s that at one point, per capita housing completions were four times as high as in the United States.
During that time, Ireland allowed a kind of honor code building inspection. The result is that many people paid high prices for houses that are fire hazards or sinking in bogs or are built with faulty foundations or missing drainage systems, a problem that is even harder and more expensive to solve.
In nearby Ballymahon, Debbie Cox paid about $255,000 for her semidetached house in 2005. But when it rains hard, the smell of sewage outside her home has sometimes been overwhelming. She gave away her garden furniture because it kept sinking into the mud in her backyard. Her water pipes, buried too close to the surface, have frozen in very cold weather.
Mrs. Cox doubts she could get more than $95,000 for her property today. Most of the other homes in her housing complex, Hawthorn Meadows, about two hours by car from Dublin, have been rented for about $500 a month, while she pays about $1,100 a month just for her mortgage.
“I don’t think Ireland is fixed, “ she said one recent evening. “Not at all. What about people like us?”
Over all, Irish property prices remain nearly 50 percent below their peak in 2007. Even on the outskirts of Dublin it is easy to find housing developments with many vacancies. Most of those who do live in them are renters. In many cases, they have views of half-built houses surrounded by chain-link fences.
Not all the news about Ireland’s real estate market is bad. As Ireland becomes the first euro zone country to officially emerge from an international bailout program later this month, experts say that demand for homes is up in Dublin, particularly for houses in certain neighborhoods.
But most of the ghost estates are in western or central counties including Cavan, Donegal, Roscommon, and Longford, often in the countryside where developers received tax incentives to build and where the aftereffects of the economic crisis are still plain to see. Village main streets are full of boarded-up stores. And the local authorities are frustrated.
County Longford, where Mrs. Cox lives, received about $1.4 million from the central government to make repairs in developments like hers last year. But Brian Ross, the county’s senior executive engineer who is in charge of troubled housing complexes, says he needs at least 10 times that much to “sort out half of it.” The county’s jurisdiction is only over the public spaces. And there is no money for issues inside the homes, like a lack of insulation.
An estimated 12,500 homeowners are also dealing with pyrite damage, a substance that creates destabilizing cracks and deep fissures in foundations, walls and ceilings and was widely used during the boom. The bill for the 1,000 worst cases is expected to be about $70 million.
The National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth concluded in 2010 that there were more than 300,000 vacant new homes in Ireland, and 621 housing developments with more than 12 houses that were either unoccupied or not fully built.
More recently, government officials identified about 2,000 unoccupied or incomplete developments. Since then, officials said, remedial measures have reduced the number to about 1,300. About 40,000 households live in them. But even when housing complexes have been identified as unlikely to ever be completed or inhabited, tearing them down may not be so easy. Many of them are tangled in lawsuits and bankruptcy proceedings.
At the height of the boom, only 12 percent to 15 percent of new developments were ever visited by inspectors, experts say, compared with 100 percent in the United States and most of Europe. Most experts believe the cost of clearing up the problems will most likely fall to the taxpayers. “The developers are not going to tear these things down,” said Rob Kitchin, the director of the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis. “They are bust or they probably would have finished them.”
In Longford, troubled housing complexes abound, Mr. Ross said. One part of a development sinking into a bog has already been torn down. But nearby, the rest of it looks in sorry shape. Even from the outside, the houses of Gleann Riada show signs of mold. Tall weeds are growing in some of the gutters.
One homeowner there said that the local authorities had recently paved the road and put in surveillance cameras. But for a time, he said, the sewage system was in such a bad state that methane gas was collecting under the houses. There were two explosions, and residents were told not to close their windows, even in winter, and not to light any fires.
“What can you do?” the homeowner said, declining to give his name because his neighbors might be angry at him for talking about problems in the complex. “You just have to make do.”
Experts say some owners of substandard homes may eventually stop paying their mortgages, causing more problems for the country’s troubled banks. The number of people falling behind in the mortgage payments on their homes continued to grow last quarter, to 99,189, up 1,315 during the three months ending in September, according to Ireland’s Central Bank.
Some Irish homeowners have moved to Britain to take advantage of easier bankruptcy laws there. Recently, Ireland made its bankruptcy laws easier as well, though still not as easy as Britain’s. Jan O’Sullivan, Ireland’s housing minister, said that in many cases the banks were simply going to have to offer debt forgiveness to homeowners.
In the meantime, Mrs. Cox and her husband said they felt abandoned and were not sure what their next step would be. “It’s been such a huge disappointment,” she said. “The show house was so beautiful.”
Douglas Dalby contributed reporting.
December 21, 2013
Turkish Premier Blames Foreign Envoys for Turmoil
By TIM ARANGO
ISTANBUL — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday continued his embrace of what has traditionally been the strategy of Turkish politicians facing a crisis: Blame foreign powers, in this case the United States.
On Saturday morning, four pro-government newspapers featured the American ambassador on their front pages, suggesting that the United States, a strong ally of Turkey, was behind an escalating corruption investigation that has ensnared several businessmen and others in the prime minister’s inner circle. One headline said, “Get out of this country.” Other media reports also suggested a plot by Israel.
Then in a series of speeches on Saturday, Mr. Erdogan threatened to expel foreign ambassadors for what he called “provocative actions.”
Mr. Erdogan did not specifically mention the United States, but referring to unnamed “ambassadors” he said, “We are not compelled to keep you in our country.”
“If our ambassadors in your countries were involved in these kinds of games, tell us,” he continued. “You do not need to send them away. We would take them back. We would take back our own ambassadors.”
In response to the newspaper headlines — but before Mr. Erdogan spoke — the American Embassy in Ankara, the Turkish capital, posted several messages in Turkish on its Twitter account.
“The United States has no involvement in the ongoing corruption probe,” one said.
“All allegations in news stories are lies and slander,” another said.
Trying to tamp down tensions with an important ally, a spokesman for Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said Saturday that the ministry had accepted the embassy’s statement as “sufficient,” and that there was no effort to expel the American ambassador, Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., or to summon him to a special meeting, as some Turkish media reports said Saturday.
The conspiracy theories advanced by the pro-government media — which resonate with certain segments of the population because both anti-American sentiments and anti-Semitism are widespread in Turkey — center on the fact that one of the targets of the investigation, the state-owned bank Halkbank, has in the past been accused by the United States of helping Iran evade sanctions over its nuclear program.
The widening inquiry has unfolded over several days and has quickly become a political crisis for Mr. Erdogan, perhaps the worst he has faced in more than a decade in power. Commentators and government officials have linked the investigation to a popular imam who lives in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gulen, whose followers are said to have taken up high-level positions in the Turkish police and judiciary over the years.
Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gulen, who represent different Islamic traditions in Turkey, were once allies, and they teamed up to push the military from politics through a series of trials that landed a number of generals and officers in prison in recent years.
Mr. Gulen, who rarely speaks to the news media, denied any involvement in the corruption case in a statement released by his lawyer last week. On Saturday, though, he released an emotionally charged video in which he appeared to denounce the government’s efforts against his supporters, raising the stakes in what has become an epic fight between the two former partners.
At times he waved his arms and in impassioned language said, “May those who don’t see the thief but go after those trying to catch the thief, who don’t see the murder but try to defame others by accusing innocent people — let God bring fire to their houses, ruin their homes, break their unities.”
Mr. Erdogan has simultaneously blamed foreigners — as he did during mass protests in the summer against what opponents called his government’s heavy-handed efforts to raze a park — and begun a purge of the police forces, removing dozens of officials said to be involved in the corruption investigation.
The inquiry has led to the detentions of dozens of businessmen and officials, as well as the sons of three cabinet ministers. On Saturday, the general manager of Halkbank, the sons of the interior and economy ministers, and 13 others were formally arrested in the case.
Ceylan Yeginsu contributed reporting.
Vikram Seth: India's gay sex ban is against our tradition of tolerance
'Incensed' author says Indian supreme court reinstatement of law curtailing LGBT rights is an attack on millions of people
Jason Burke in Delhi
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 16.20 GMT
Speaking to the Guardian on the day a mock police mugshot of him holding a slate inscribed with the words "Not a criminal" appeared on the front of one of India's biggest-selling, English-language magazines, Seth said the court's judgment showed "intellectual shabbiness and ethical hollowness" which went against the true culture of an enormously diverse country.
"We are each of us in some way – by caste, gender, sexuality, language or religion – a minority, and the great achievement of the Indian polity over three generations is that somehow or other we have kept together as a nation," Seth, 61, said.
The legal decision to reinstate Section 377 of India's penal code – the law banning "sex against the order of nature" which dates back to the colonial era – prompted outrage in India and across the world. On FridayYesterday, the government, led by the centre-left Congress party, asked for a request for a judicial review petition of the supreme court's ruling.
But new legislation, which constitutional experts say is probably necessary to overturn the judgement, looks very unlikely. It would be unusually bold for an administration widely seen as weak to take on such a controversial issue months before what promises to be a tricky battle to retain power at a general election due next spring.
The opposition Bharatiya Janata party, which has roots in deeply-conservative Hindu religious and cultural organisations, has supported the reinstatement of the ban.
The fierce debate over the judgement, at least among metropolitan elites in India, is a further example of how sexuality has become a battleground in India, often revealing cultural splits between generations, between urban and rural dwellers and between those who invoke a "traditional past" contaminated by western influences and those who stress a local history of pluralism and tolerance.
Seth, whose 1993 work A Suitable Boy sold more than a million copies in the UK alone and won a string of prizes, said that homosexuality had long been part of Indian culture – and that Section 377 was a foreign imposition. "You find homosexuality in the Kama Sutra … In the Hindu tradition, the Muslim tradition, the syncretic [tradition] … there has never been intolerance of this kind," he said.
In an essay in India Today magazine, he attacked "the plausible priest, the blustering baba, the menacing mullah, … the political party that whips up the mob in the search for votes, the enforcers and justifiers of unjust laws."
The author, who was born in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, said he was speaking as "an Indian citizen."
Seth, who is currently working on a sequel to A Suitable Boy, told the Guardian: "It is all the people who … are willing to kill, maim, disfigure, cast out. These people are not speaking with the tradition of Indian tolerance … with the sense of getting on with each other, which is at the heart of Indian-ness."
Seth said he had been "incensed" by the supreme court judgement. "The thing that bothers me most is the misery [it means] for people who live in small towns, who have come out, or if they have not … and their families … telling them not just that this is against our religion and our beliefs but also against our law and that they are criminals. It will increase their isolation, their loneliness, their unhappiness," he said.
Gay rights activists say that gay people face significant discrimination and police harassment, even if prosecutions for same-sex activity have been rare. Criminalising gay sex makes them vulnerable to blackmail, they say, and causes misery for many who already face prejudice from even close family members.
Defenders of the supreme court decision said the objections of the judges to the repeal of section 377 were "constitutional and legal, not moral".
However, critics said that the wording of the judgment – which refers to the "so-called rights of LGBT persons", describes same-sex relations as "against the order of nature" and says that "lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders constitute only a miniscule fraction of the country's population" – reveals deep prejudice.
Seth said the idea that the idea the supreme court would "not bother" to act if there were insufficient numbers of people to justify its intervention was very dangerous.
"They say a 'miniscule number of people are involved'. Even 5%, and there are possibly more, of a billion people, and that is rounded down, is still 50 million people and that is the size of England, or France, or [the Indian states of] Karnataka or Rajasthan," Seth said.
December 21, 2013
Chinese Security Official Is Focus of Corruption Inquiry
By EDWARD WONG
BEIJING — One of China’s top security officials is being investigated by the Communist Party for “suspected serious law and discipline violations,” according to Xinhua, the state news agency.
The report said the official, Li Dongsheng, a vice minister of public security, is the subject of an inquiry by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s internal anticorruption investigation agency. The Xinhua report, which appeared Friday, also said the agency had noted that Mr. Li was vice head of a leading group for the prevention and handling of cult-related issues.
The Xinhua report was brief and did not give further details.
Mr. Li has ties to Zhou Yongkang, the former member of the ruling Politburo Standing Committee who oversaw the powerful domestic security apparatus from 2007 to 2012, according to several people with knowledge of party politics. The anticorruption agency recently opened a corruption investigation into Mr. Zhou, the first time since the Communist Party took control of China in 1949 that an official of such high stature has been the target of a formal anticorruption inquiry.
For many months, investigators had been looking into the activities of officials linked to Mr. Zhou. Those officials include people in the security apparatus, at a state-owned oil company and in senior party and government posts in Sichuan Province. All are domains in which Mr. Zhou has worked and held sway. Mr. Zhou and his wife, Jia Xiaoye, have been held under a form of house arrest in their home in central Beijing. Mr. Zhou was also an ally of Bo Xilai, a former Politburo member, who was sentenced in September to life in prison. Party insiders say Mr. Bo’s spectacular fall last year helped fuel the actions taken against Mr. Zhou by other party leaders.
Mr. Li, the subject of the latest investigation, has held his vice minister post since 2009, according to an official biographical outline. It was his first job in the security apparatus. Before that, he served in various party propaganda posts and worked at China Central Television, the state network. He graduated in 1978 from Fudan University in Shanghai after studying journalism and is from Shandong Province in eastern China.
The investigation into Mr. Li will not necessarily result in a criminal charge. If the anticorruption agency finds that Mr. Li has violated party discipline, he can be punished internally by the party. But the case can also be handed to the courts and prosecutors, and that could lead to a criminal charge and a trial, which is what happened with Mr. Bo.
The party chief and Chinese president, Xi Jinping, has been promoting an anticorruption campaign since he took power in November 2012. Mr. Xi has asserted that he will go after “flies and tigers,” meaning low-ranking officials as well as people in the top tiers of the party hierarchy. Some analysts are asking whether Mr. Xi’s carrying out of investigations into Mr. Zhou and other senior officials is motivated more by a sincere effort to root out corruption or by a desire to consolidate power and weaken rival factions inside the party.
Richard McGregor, the author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers,” said on the Asia Society’s ChinaFile website recently that Mr. Xi was motivated more by power politics since corruption investigations had not been opened into other party leaders whose family members had amassed enormous wealth.
“So while we shouldn’t shed any tears for Zhou Yongkang — it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, as the saying goes — let’s equally not pretend Xi is ushering in a new era of fearless prosecution of graft,” he said.
Chinese military reacts angrily to Japan swelling defence force
Tokyo deal for naval destroyers, drones and jet fighters described as aggression harking back to cold war mentality
theguardian.com, Saturday 21 December 2013 11.23 GMT
The Chinese army has criticised Japan's plans to increase defence spending, accusing Tokyo of raising regional tensions under the pretext of safeguarding national security.
Geng Yansheng, a spokesman for China's ministry of defence said in a statement posted on Saturday on the ministry website that it resolutely opposes the five-year defence plan.
Under the arrangement adopted on Tuesday, Japan would purchase its first surveillance drones, as well as more jet fighters and naval destroyers, and set up a unit of marines.
China's strongly worded statement reflects the increasingly hawkish stance taken by its military amid a bitter dispute with Japan over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
Geng accused Japan of maintaining a cold-war mentality that runs counter to the trends of peaceful development, co-operation and mutual benefit.
Geng said that on the one hand, Japan claimed that it respects freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, but on the other hand, it repeatedly denied its history of aggression during the second world war, challenged the postwar international order and hurt the feeling of the people of the war-victim countries.
"As a nation that can not reflect on its history, what qualification does Japan have to speak about freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law? How can the country make contributions to the world peace?" he said.
"Japan has on the one hand claimed to strengthen international co-ordination, safeguard peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, and make efforts to ensure security and prosperity of the international community, but on the other hand it sticks to the cold war mentality and beefed up military alliances with relevant countries."
Geng also accused Japan of trying to woo other countries to create regional confrontation and enflame the regional situation.
Fleeing workers tell of brutal killings as South Sudan edges towards civil war
Foreign oil workers in Juba tell of a power struggle that is taking the new nation to the brink
Daniel Howden in Juba
The Observer, Saturday 21 December 2013 21.42 GMT
A long line of evacuees stretched from the departures area of Juba airport into the baking sun of South Sudan. Meanwhile, the dented doors of the arrivals building slowly disgorged dazed and exhausted oil workers in filthy overalls. They had fled to the capital from the further reaches of the world's youngest country, on the first leg of journeys home, bringing with them news of factional fighting that has taken the country to the brink of civil war.
Many of them such as Hassan Ali, a Pakistani engineer, with dark circles around his eyes, had just escaped from Unity state with terrifying accounts of killing in the vast oil fields that feed oil production in both Sudans.
For the last three days terrified oil workers have listened to the carnage beyond the perimeter.
"It was Sudanese killing Sudanese," he said. "They were killing each other with stones and knives," said one of his colleagues before making a cut-throat gesture. A third man, who gave his name as Dabeer, spoke of one attacker whom he had seen chopping the hands from victims. The men said that at least 16 people had died, many of them ordinary South Sudanese out of uniform. On their way to the airstrip in Unity town they had seen scores of scorched huts.
"There were more than 20 burnt to the ground," said Ali.
Unity state, which provides much of the crude on which South Sudan's fledgling economy relies, has become the centrepiece of a power struggle between government forces and an emerging armed opposition. A stream of defections by senior military officers has split the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), with Major General James Koang Choul, commander of the division that controls the state, emerging as the latest to turn his back on President Salva Kiir yesterday.
Heavy fighting between ethnic Dinka, who hail from the same tribe as the president, and the Nuer kinsmen of the fugitive former vice president Riek Machar have been struggling for control of the oil which is pumped by Chinese and Malaysian companies.
With a haze coming off the rough concrete blocks, outside Juba's squalid airport snaking lines of hundreds of Chinese oil workers tried to hide from the sun by putting coats and T-shirts over their heads. Song Liu had been waiting for nearly four hours for his company, the China Petroleum Engineering & Construction Corporation (CPECC) to get him out via Dubai to Beijing.
"There are some people who have died up there," he said of the fields in Unity. "We are all leaving."
All around him men and women in their khaki overalls with CPECC badges trudged slowly forward while foremen barked orders.
Nearby Saeed Mansour, an Indian freshly arrived in Juba from Unity state, spoke of emergency shutdowns at four oil facilities in the state while fighting raged around them.
One week on from a dispute in South Sudan's presidential guard that escalated into street fighting in the capital and accusations of a coup, thousands of foreign nationals have crowded the airport to escape with RAF flights and US airforce transport planes, while oil companies scramble to evacuate personnel.
Meanwhile, an attempted airlift by US forces from the restive state of Jonglei ended in their aircraft being fired upon by militia loyal to the rebel commander Peter Gadet.
US helicopters were en route to an evacuation site near the state capital of Bor when they came under fire with four American personnel wounded. "The aircraft diverted to an airfield outside the country and aborted the mission," the US Africa command said in a statement.
In the red dust outside the airport among the throng of soldiers, oil workers and South Sudanese waiting to leave Juba, James Marial Achak was still struggling to comprehend his own good fortune. He was one of the lucky few to catch the last flight out of Akobo, a tense outpost to the far east of South Sudan where a UN base was overrun on Friday, resulting in the deaths of two Indian peacekeepers. An ethnic Dinka, he was in the UN outpost just hours before it was stormed by a mob of two thousand Nuer youths, many of them armed.
"If I hadn't got on that plane I would have died," said the aid worker. "My children would have been orphaned."
His friend and fellow Dinka, Deng Majok was not so fortunate. When the crowd swarmed around the small base firing weapons, the Indian peacekeepers were forced to let them in.
The UN soldiers were then tricked into gathering nearly two dozen Dinkas, mainly local government officials into one place with assurances that they would be protected from the mob. Once in the same spot several men opened fire on the peacekeepers, killing two of them and hitting a third in the chest. Then they massacred the Dinka. Majok survived by covering himself with the corpses of the others and not responding when one of the crowd trod on him. He was later smuggled out of Akobo as far as Malakal, in Upper Nile state.
"There was nothing the peacekeepers could do," said Marial Achak, who had reached his friend by phone on Friday night. "The Nuer were so many and they were so few."
In Juba itself a form of calm and normality has returned to some parts of the city. Shops have reopened and civilian traffic has returned to the streets where only a few days ago battles raged between different army factions. But there are signs everywhere of what has passed. A battle tank is parked next to the entrance to the president's residence and a trio of pick up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns are parked on the corner.
Only a few hundred metres away, the residence of President Kiir's rival, Riek Machar, is pockmarked with craters from heavy calibre bullets and a corner wall has been demolished by artillery.
"This calmness is ambiguous," said Patrick Kapukha, a Kenyan aid worker with four years' experience in the country. "A cycle of revenge and fear is building momentum."
He said that his staff were relaying reports of large-scale mobilisation among different ethnic communities intent on revenge for what they see as targeted killings.
"The leaders have got to come together and do so on television or this is going to get much worse," he warned.
South Sudan rebels fire on US military planes, say government officials
President's aides blame renegade soldiers for attack on American aircraft on mission to evacuate US nationals
Staff and agencies
theguardian.com, Saturday 21 December 2013 16.02 GMT
US aircraft came under fire on Saturday on a mission to evacuate Americans from spiralling conflict in South Sudan and four US military service members were wounded.
Nearly a week of fighting threatens to drag the world's newest country into an ethnic civil war just two years after it won independence from Sudan with strong support from successive US administrations.
The US aircraft came under fire while approaching the evacuation site, the military's Africa Command said in a statement.
"The aircraft diverted to an airfield outside the country and aborted the mission," it said.
Hundreds of people have been killed in the fighting that pits loyalists of President Salva Kiir, of the Dinka ethnic group, against those of his former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer who was sacked in July and is accused by the government of trying to seize power.
Fighting that spread from the capital, Juba, has now reached vital oilfields and the government said a senior army commander had defected to Machar in the oil-producing Unity State.
After meetings with African mediators on Friday, Kiir's government said on its Twitter feed that it was willing to hold talks with any rebel group. The United States is also sending an envoy to help with talks.
South Sudan's foreign minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, told Reuters the African mediators had now been given the go-ahead to meet with Kiir's rivals, including Machar and his allies. They were due to make contact on Saturday.
United Nations staff say hundreds of people have been killed across the country the size of France this week and 35,000 civilians are sheltering at their bases.
Information minister Michael Makuei told Reuters that an army divisional commander in Unity State, John Koang, had defected and joined Machar, who had named him the governor of the state.
The United Nations said on Friday at least 11 people from the ethnic Dinka group had been killed during an attack by thousands of armed youths from another ethnic group on a UN peacekeeping base in Jonglei state. Two Indian peacekeepers died.
South Sudan: not yet a state
Control of the bureaucracy and armed forces is a matter of constant contention for different tribal groups and their leaders
Guardian G logo
The Guardian, Friday 20 December 2013 19.34 GMT
South Sudan is a disparate collection of tribes that does not yet truly deserve the title of a state. Indeed, the state is at the root of the problems of South Sudan. Control of state organs, of the government, the bureaucracy and, above all, of the armed forces is a matter of constant contention between different tribal groups and their leaders. Those in the ascendancy, or seen to be in the ascendancy, are accused of taking too much of the resources, money and jobs to which government gives access.
Those who feel deprived revolt, often violently, and those revolts are put down with even more violence. It is a vicious circle from which it is difficult to escape. The roots of these inter-tribal conflicts go back to well before South Sudan's independence from Sudan in July 2011. Lesser tribes resent what they see as the joint dominance of Nuer and Dinka, resulting in serious clashes in many regions.
The Dinka and the Nuer, or their leaders, themselves fall out, and this can then involve other tribal groups as a chain of alliances and a pooling of grievances takes effect. The divisions constantly threaten to split the Sudan People's Liberation army, or SPLA.
The crisis now gripping the country seems to have begun in the armed forces. Some kind of trouble was predictable after president Salva Kiir, a Dinka, dismissed his vice-president, Riek Machar, as well as the whole of his cabinet in July. Then Kiir, earlier this week, accused Mr Machar of having tried to stage a coup, using disaffected soldiers, and said the attempt had been foiled. But the fighting has continued in Juba, the capital, and elsewhere, notably in Akobo, in Jonglei province, where a UN base has come under attack, and two peacekeepers have been killed. The situation is now threatening enough that various countries have sent, or will soon be sending, military or charter planes to bring out their citizens, while the United States has dispatched a small force of soldiers to protect its embassy staff. The UN has sent helicopters to re-establish contact with its Akobo base. Civilians have as usual taken refuge in international compounds. There may be combatants among them, which might explain the attack on the Akobo base.
There is some hope that the crisis can be defused. An African peace delegation led by the Ethiopian foreign minister, Tedros Adhanom, has been having talks with the president, who says he is ready for discussions with Mr Machar. He, however, is still insistent that the president step down from power. Even if the rift is patched up, a tactical deal would only be a very small step toward a real cure for the jealousy and mistrust that poison the relations between South Sudan's peoples.
Israel condemns US spying revelations
Officials call on US to stop spying on Israel amid renewed calls for release of Jonathan Pollard, jailed in 1980s for spying
Associated Press in Jerusalem
theguardian.com, Sunday 22 December 2013 12.03 GMT
Senior Israeli officials have called on the US to stop spying on Israel, following revelations that the National Security Agency intercepted emails from the offices of the country's former leaders.
It was the first time Israeli officials have expressed anger since details of US spying on Israel began to trickle out in documents leaked by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The scandal also spurred renewed calls for the release of Jonathan Pollard, a former American intelligence analyst who has been imprisoned in the US for nearly three decades for spying for Israel.
"This thing is not legitimate," the Israeli intelligence minister, Yuval Steinitz, told Israel Radio. He called for both countries to enter an agreement regarding espionage.
"It's quite embarrassing between countries who are allies," the tourism minister, Uzi Landau, said. "It's this moment more than any other moment that Jonathan Pollard [should] be released."
Documents leaked by Snowden – and published last week in the Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times – revealed that British intelligence agency GCHQ worked with the NSA from 2008-11 to target email addresses belonging to the offices of then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and the defence minister, Ehud Barak.
Amir Dan, spokesman for Olmert, played down the revelations. He said the email address targeted was one meant for queries from the public and was not used for sensitive communications. "There is no chance there was a security or intelligence breach caused from this email address," he said.
Barak could not immediately be reached for comment.
Leading Israeli officials work on the assumption that they are being monitored. Officials use special secure lines for certain types of communications, and for the most sensitive matters, issues are discussed only face to face in secure rooms.
Even so, Israeli officials reacted with uncharacteristic anger toward the US, Israel's closest and most important ally. Nachman Shai, a member of Israel's parliamentary foreign affairs and defence committee, which deals with intelligence matters, called for an urgent briefing on the reported spying.
Shai called for a "full report about what we know, what we have done, and just to find out". He added that he was "really surprised that my government, which is very easily responsive on any given issue, on this we keep silent, which is not the right policy and right behaviour".
Espionage is a sensitive subject between Israel and the US because of the Pollard affair. Pollard, a former civilian intelligence analyst, was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for passing classified material to Israel. Israeli leaders frequently call for his release and say his nearly three decades in prison are punishment enough. But opposition from the US military and intelligence community has deterred Barack Obama and his predecessors from releasing him.
Since Pollard's conviction, Israel has promised not to spy on the US. Israeli ministers said on Sunday that Israel does not spy on the US president or defence secretary. "I think we should expect the same relations from the US," Steinitz said.
The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, issued a more subdued reaction, saying that Israel continues to press for the convicted spy's release.
"This is not conditional and not connected to the latest events, even though we gave our opinion about these developments," Netanyahu told the Israeli cabinet.
Mahmoud Abbas accused of being traitor over rejection of Israel boycott
Palestinian president angers activists who have been demanding international sanctions
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
The Observer, Saturday 21 December 2013 19.13 GMT
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has been accused of being a traitor by activists after publicly rejecting calls for a boycott of Israel.
His unambiguous statement, made in the aftermath of Nelson Mandela's death, has fuelled a bitter debate on the legitimacy and efficacy of sanctions over Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
However, Abbas distinguished between Israel's borders and its settlements in Palestinian territories. "We do not support the boycott of Israel. But we ask everyone to boycott the products of the settlements."
His comments infuriated the boycott movement, which after Mandela's death has been boosted by comparisons with the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa and the decision last week of the American Studies Association (ASA) to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
The boycott movement claims it is on a roll, citing a recent EU prohibition against giving grants or funds to bodies with links to settlements, a warning by the British government that firms risk damaging their reputations if they have dealings with Israeli enterprises across the Green Line, and the decision by a Dutch company to sever links with the Israeli water company, Mekorot.
This year Stephen Hawking declined an invitation to a conference in Jerusalem. Even the British consulate in East Jerusalem, home to her majesty's representative to the Palestinian Authority, operates an informal boycott policy, declining to serve settlement wines, water or other produce at functions.
However, the call for sanctions against Israel and/or its settlements has prompted comparisons with the boycotts of Jewish businesses by the Nazis and their supporters in the 1930s. Some opponents argue that boycotts aimed at the Jewish state can never be free of the taint of anti-semitism.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, set up in 2005 by more than 170 Palestinian civil society organisations, expects next year "to cross even higher thresholds in its drive to isolate Israel, just as South Africa was isolated under apartheid", said Omar Barghouti, one of its founding members.
The ASA's decision was "fresh evidence that the BDS movement may be reaching a tipping point on college campuses and among academic associations", he added. Two other US academic bodies – the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association and the Association of American Asian Studies – have also backed the boycott movement.
Barghouti said: "Any Palestinian official who lacks a democratic mandate and any real public support who today explicitly speaks against boycotting Israel only shows how aloof he is from his own people's aspirations for freedom, justice and equality, and how oblivious he is to our struggle for our inalienable rights."
Samia Botmeh, a lecturer at Birzeit university in the West Bank and a leading member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, said restricting a boycott to settlements was to focus on the consequences, rather than the origins, of the occupation. "Palestinians are angry and feel let down by Abbas's comments," she said. "He is contradicting the popular will of Palestinians."
However, thousands of Palestinians do business with Israel, work in West Bank settlements or in Israel and buy Israeli goods. Imports to Palestine from Israel are worth $800m a year.
"Of course we deal with Israel – everything in our life is controlled by Israel," said Botmeh. "But there are choices we can make, and we can call on the rest of the world to act."
Many who abhor Israeli policies towards the Palestinians reject the idea of individual and institutional sanctions. Fania Oz-Salzberger, history professor at Haifa University and daughter of novelist Amos Oz, said she was opposed to "any kind of academic boycott, whether it be of Israel or the settlements, including Ariel [Israel's settlement university] or any other academic institute in the world, barring extreme situations such as North Korea. Academic and intellectual exchange should operate above political considerations."
Noam Chomsky supports a settlement boycott, but has said a boycott of Israel was "a gift to Israeli hardliners and their American supporters".
Many observers expect the boycott movement to gain momentum should peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians fail to produce a deal. Andreas Reinicke, the outgoing EU envoy to the Middle East, warned last week that momentum in favour of a settlement boycott would grow without a peace agreement.
Less than two years ago, only two EU countries – Britain and Denmark – backed the labelling of goods originating in settlements as such in order to allow consumers to make informed choices. Now 14 EU states support the move. "There is movement in this direction," he said.
In Abu Dhabi, they call it Happiness Island. But for the migrant workers, it is a place of misery
Off the coast of Abu Dhabi, a stretch of sand is being turned into a cultural hub of global renown, featuring a new Louvre, Guggenheim and New York University. But the migrant workers creating it are being paid a pittance and living in squalor
Glenn Carrick in Abu Dhabi and David Batty
The Observer, Sunday 22 December 2013
Link to video: The dark side of Abu Dhabi's cultural revolutionhttp://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/dec/22/abu-dhabi-migrant-workers-video
It is one of the world's largest construction projects – to turn a desert island, known only for its turtles and soft sand dunes, into the greatest intellectual and cultural powerhouse of the Middle East.
Saadiyat Island ("Happiness Island" in Arabic), a once uninhabited stretch of coastal desert close to Abu Dhabi's city centre, is steadily being converted by tens of thousands of migrant workers into a $27bn (£16.5bn) cultural metropolis. The centrepieces will be a New York University campus, a $1.3bn Jean Nouvel-designed Abu Dhabi Louvre and the Frank Geary-designed Guggenheim. Close by, the British Museum is chief partner on the Zayed National Museum, created by Norman Foster. Along with 600,000-year-old cave art and abstract expressionism, the National Museum will include glass cases of memorabilia dedicated to the founder of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed al-Nahyan. Already, the growing hub is surrounded by five-star hotels and hundreds of luxury villa and apartments.
But amid the splendour, opulence and massive investment, there is a dark side to life on Happiness Island, particularly if you are unlucky enough to be one of the foreign legions of migrant workers charged with building the dream. In a three-month investigation, the Observer has uncovered evidence of intimidation, strike-breaking, mass riots and an employment system trapping thousands of labourers on poverty pay.
It was not supposed to be like this. At the outset the Louvre, Guggenheim and New York University paused before agreeing to become involved in the Abu Dhabi projects, fearing the Gulf's reputation for harsh working conditions would cause uproar among board members, donors and students. It was insisted that worker rights would be guaranteed. The cultural institutions involved point to an independent audit of working conditions commissioned by the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), the main developer on Saadiyat. A second audit report is expected to be delivered this month.
The first, which was published in December 2012, found that, while the TDIC "faces significant challenges ... in a region with established practices and norms" when it comes to working conditions, there had been improvements – for example, in relation to allowing workers access to their passports. New York University, the only non-TDIC project on Saadiyat, said it had its own independent auditors to assess compliance with agreed standards.
Meanwhile, to reassure its foreign partners, the UAE has built the world's greatest labour camp, complete with manicured cricket grounds, a chess centre, a multilingual library with works by Ayn Rand and Barack Obama, the UAE's first multi-denominational prayer hall, film screening rooms, tug-of-war competitions, a coffee shop and landscaped grounds. Regular government press releases show groups of smiling dignitaries who have come to admire the Saadiyat Construction Village, while promotional videos show smiling workers playing cricket in spotless whites.
"The only thing these men lack is room service," Nabil al-Kendi, chief development officer for TDIC, told an international conference last year.
So far, so admirable. But to encounter an alternative reality, one needs only to travel 20 miles from Saadiyat village, along sandy desert roads, to the most remote corner of the Mafraq industrial area, the location of Al Jaber Construction's Worker City No. 1. Here, workers are surrounded not by landscaped gardens, but by a trail of rubbish trucks snaking their way around the camp to the city tip next door. Next to the tip, on top of a hill, sits the city's sewage treatment plant, where lorries dump raw human faeces, the stench of which wafts down to the camp on the warm evening air. At the back of the camp is a large stretch of desert wasteland, where workers cut up raw meat and fish surrounded by piles of rubbish, stepping on shaky planks of wood to avoid the streams of polluted water running down from a nearby industrial reservoir.
The company insists it has tried to shut this place down many times but the men would not listen. Meanwhile, workers complain of bad food and needing somewhere to cook their own meals.
The tales from inside the camp are poignant and pitiful. Take the case of Mohammed Arif, whom the Observer finds climbing the stairs using a cheap, ill-fitting artificial leg donated by the Red Crescent. His stump is red and bruised and Arif is in constant pain, but the company refuses to move him from the cramped third-floor bedroom he shares with eight other men.
"My big hope is to go back to India, to Jaipur city. They make good artificial legs. I want one of those legs, they are light, not cheap like this one," he says.
Arif got his Red Crescent leg only in November after his employer, Al Jaber Construction, refused to pay for one. For a year he had to get around on one leg and a pair of crutches he bought in Abu Dhabi. "I could not balance on one leg, I fell down the stairs many times," he says.
He shows the spot at the back of his head that smashed into the stairs in his worst fall. "My head was bleeding, but I still went to work."
Arif lost his leg in November 2012 – he claims a barrel of waterproof chemicals fell on him in a store room on Saadiyat, where Al Jaber is building more than 1,000 luxury villas. The company is adamant that Arif had a pre-existing condition that led to the loss of his leg.
Al Jaber has refused all requests by Arif and a supervisor to allow him to sleep in ground-floor accommodation. He has also fought an unsuccessful court case to try to get the company to pay for his artificial leg and medical bills.
"Why don't they just let him on the ground floor? All year we see him on one leg trying to get to the top of the stairs," said one Al Jaber official who wished to remain anonymous.
A short drive from Arif's camp, past sheets of sand that frequently cover the road, lies the sprawling, featureless complex of Worker City No. 2, home to hundreds of workers on the Louvre site, along with over 20,000 other men.
Here, we meet Hamdan (whose name has been changed to protect his identity). Hamdan is from the mountains of Pakistan. His face is worn with care. He paid $1,624 (£1,000) to a Pakistani recruiter who told him he would have a job with the UAE's largest construction firm, Arabtec, as "a carpenter in Dubai", earning between $217 and $300 a month. When he arrived in Dubai, he was placed in a vast industrial zone outside the city, where he learned he would be working six days a week on the "museum site" in Abu Dhabi, earning just $160 a month. Arabtec had already taken his passport and he was trapped. His only choice was to work for 10 months – 11 hours a day, with an extra two hours' travel time, to repay the agent before he could start to save anything for his family.
"They cheat us," he says. "I would tell anyone not to come here." Beside him sits another Arabtec worker, "Omar". He says he was assaulted by a camp boss just days earlier, after they discovered he had made a complaint to the police. "He was very angry. He hit me hard in the chest and he said: 'You never go the police. Not even if you are being killed. Never'."
Living conditions for migrant workers elsewhere can be even worse. The Observer followed one bus coming out of the New York University construction site, the only non-TDIC project on Saadiyat. It led to a filthy, overcrowded camp housing 43 Bangladeshi workers at the heart of the polluted, industrial Musaffah area, next to car repair and welding businesses. There the men, hired to paint the campus, complained of being trapped by recruitment fees that exceeded a year's salary and of the high cost of even the most basic healthcare. Some, hired from myriad unregulated subcontractors, had to pay for their own work clothes on a salary of £149 a month.
The men were crammed nine or 10 to a windowless room measuring 13x14ft, and had to put up a sheet over the corridor toilet for privacy. All said they hated the camp and had been tricked by their recruiters. One man said: "Look how we live. We are no better than animals. That is all we are to them. Sheep that are to be sold, and nobody in the world is listening."
Challenged by the Observer to explain why the evidence suggested that only a small minority of the workers on the island appeared to be living in the Saadiyat village, a TDIC spokeswoman said that "in principle" all workers are housed on Saadiyat.
Last May, the frustration and resentment felt by Abu Dhabi's migrant workers boiled over. In a country in which trade unions, strikes and protests are strictly prohibited, thousands of Arabtec workers went on strike.
For a full day, the Louvre site fell silent. By 2am, workers could be seen gathering in groups of 30 or 40 in the Saadiyat Construction Village, listening to strike leaders, while police were assembling at the camp entrance. By the next morning a combination of the Labour Ministry, the police and Arabtec bosses had confronted the workers head on. The strike leaders were arrested and mass deportations began. Arabtec warned that "this unwarranted stoppage was instigated by a minority who will be held accountable for their actions".
Dubai police estimated that more than 460 workers were "helped to go home", but the Arabtec workers said the real figures are much higher.
In an apparent effort to divide the men, the deported Bangladeshi workers were replaced by Pakistanis, which soon became a new source of strife. In August, riots broke out between rival groups. Workers described men being beaten with lump hammers and stabbed with spears in the dining halls. Golf carts, normally used to carry diplomats around on tours, were being used to ferry injured workers to ambulances. Video smuggled to the Observer from within the camps shows men jumping out of windows to escape the onslaught, while police fire into the air to try to stop the rampage.
One Louvre worker said he was sure he was going be killed. "I was hiding in my room, praying to God for mercy. I could hear the screams outside. They came to our room and we could see they were Pakistanis. I shouted in Urdu: 'We are Pakistanis. Don't kill us!' Don't kill us!"
Three months later, the cream of the global art industry gathered for Abu Dhabi Art, a festival that showcases work on the Louvre, Guggenheim and Zayed National museums. Red carpets were rolled out for dignitaries and Asian waiters carried canapés to the milling crowds. Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong said the museum was working closely with its partner, TDIC, to provide "exemplary" treatment of workers.
Louvre Abu Dhabi architect Jean Nouvel said he had not visited the Saadiyat Construction Village, but had visited the Louvre site the previous day and saw nothing unusual. "I saw very good conditions at work today," he said.
Both the Louvre and the Guggenheim talk of constructive and continuing dialogue with the TDIC over working conditions and point to the employment practice policy for Saadiyat workers, which they say sets high standards.
As the recent festival took place, however, Louvre worker Amraz Shadrat and 19 other Arabtec men were being led under tight security to Abu Dhabi airport to be sent home to Pakistan for refusing to work for wages which left them struggling to pay the recruitment fees to the agents who took them to Abu Dhabi in the first place.
It was an unusually wet night, after the worst storm Abu Dhabi had seen in years, and large puddles filled the mud outside the Worker City No. 2 camp, as Hassan hugged his fellow labourers to say goodbye. At the airport the Arabtec men said they were not allowed to go the toilet in case they tried to escape. Hassan managed to have a brief conversation with the Observer. Tired and frustrated, he said that, after discovering he would make only $160 a month, he had demanded better pay to compensate for more than $2,000 he paid to an agent.
"I was three months in this country, three months with no money," he said. How can I work for this? I would spend a year trying to make the money. The whole thing is cheating."
***********Conditions for Abu Dhabi's migrant workers 'shame the west'
Calls for urgent labour reform after Observer reveals construction workers face destitution, internment and deportation
The Observer, Sunday 22 December 2013
Trade unions, human rights activists and politicians have called for urgent labour reforms to protect the thousands of migrant workers building a complex of five-star hotels and museums on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates, including a new Louvre and the world's largest Guggenheim.
The International Trade Union Confederation and art activism group Gulf Labor have urged the western institutions involved in the project, including the British Museum, to take active steps to address the workers' welfare and press the UAE government to improve their conditions.
The calls come as an Observer investigation found evidence that the emirate's tourism development and investment company (TDIC), which runs Saadiyat, is failing to uphold its own employment policies, with workers left destitute, confined to their quarters and sent home for taking strike action. Migrant labourers building New York University's Abu Dhabi campus on the island were found to be suffering even worse mistreatment.
The investigation reveals that:
■ Companies are withholding the passports of migrant workers, trapping them in the UAE.
■ Thousands of workers are living in substandard or squalid conditions elsewhere in the UAE in apparent breach of the TDIC's pledge to house them all in its model Saadiyat accommodation village.
■ Dozens of workers were deported this year for striking over pay and conditions.
■ Workers decorating the university live in squalid conditions, with 10 men to a room, no free healthcare and some trapped because they have to pay back huge recruitment fees.
■ Mobile-phone video footage of a riot at the SAV in August shows dozens of men roaming the camp armed with metal spears and planks spiked with nails. Men are seen jumping out of windows to avoid the conflict.
■ A worker who claims he lost his leg while building luxury villas has been forced to live on the top floor of a migrant camp for a year. He only received a prosthetic leg last month and has been reliant on the Red Crescent for medical support. His claim for compensation and request for ground-floor accommodation have been rejected.
■ Louvre workers are having to work for nine months to a year just to pay back their recruitment fees. One worker who went on strike over poor wages was kept in his camp unpaid for three months and then sent back to Pakistan with 19 others.
The European council held a meeting on 4 December to discuss the growing concern about migrant workers' rights in the UAE and its neighbour, Qatar. The chair of the European parliament's subcommittee on human rights, German MEP Barbara Lochbihler, said migrant workers in the UAE, including those on Saadiyat Island, were exploited "on a daily basis".
She said: "Minimum labour standards are not respected, there are systematic complaints about poor accommodation and sanitation, salaries and medical services are withheld, and both experts and the migrants themselves report excessive police force and situations of forced labour. This is unacceptable.
"I therefore call on the UAE government, but also on all companies involved in the Saadiyat project – including [the] Louvre, British Museum and Guggenheim – to ensure that any form of mistreatment is addressed and that all migrants can fully enjoy their human rights."
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, said the organisation was "deeply concerned by the abuses of workers' rights on Saadiyat island".
The findings reflected that labour abuses were a systemic problem in the UAE, with migrant workers suffering "extreme exploitation", including unpaid wages and excessively long working hours, she added.
Although the UAE is a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) it has not ratified the UN body's convention on freedom of association, which allows for industrial action. Burrow also warned the international institutions involved in the Saadiyat project that they shared responsibility for the workers' welfare. She said: "Clearly their reputations are at risk. International institutions need to be aware that if they associate their name with developments they must insist on full respect for ILO standards."
Azfar Khan, migrant specialist at the ILO, said the body was aware of the situation on Saadiyat, said although the UAE had not ratified the specific convention on strike action, it was still potentially in breach of the ILO's rules. "Even if countries have not ratified the convention they are obligated by the ILO's constitution that as member states they will not go against the article of the convention."
Nicholas McGeehan, Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: "These revelations should be a reality check for anyone who has been fooled into believing that the UAE is making progress on migrant workers' rights and they should anger the high-profile institutions who have set up on Saadiyat."
Gulf Labor, a coalition of international artists which is mounting a year-long protest against the mistreatment and exploitation of migrant workers on Saadiyat, said the findings should shame the western institutions involved.
British artist Guy Mannes-Abbott said: "The Guggenheim's image is certainly soiled. The Louvre banks millions of dollars every year for use of their 'brand', while its new museum is being built by what Human Rights Watch describes as 'forced labour'. The British Museum's role has so far escaped notice, but it should consider gifting or returning items that they will be stuffing the Sheikh Zayed National Museum with on lucrative loan agreements."
A Guggenheim spokeswoman denied that its brand had been tarnished. "We visit the workers' village each time we are in Abu Dhabi. We are satisfied with the conditions observed."
She said the museum's director, Richard Armstrong, had raised the issue of workers' rights and conditions in his most recent meeting with the TDIC last week and would continue to do so. The museum would not be discussing details of the meetings with the media as this was "a matter of cultural diplomacy," she added.
A spokeswoman for the Louvre said that, under the terms of the deal between the French and UAE governments, the TDIC held responsibility for construction and working conditions. She added that the French authorities were "particularly attentive" to social conditions on Saadiyat and would continue efforts to ensure they met high standards.
The Observer understands that the British Museum held an emergency meeting about the situation on Saadiyat to deal with adverse publicity. Attending staff were warned not to speak to the press. A spokeswoman said they would continue to review workers' rights in their regular meetings with the TDIC.
A TDIC spokesman refused to comment to the Observer. The second annual audit of worker welfare for the company by PricewaterhouseCoopers is due to be published on Sunday. Construction firms Al Jaber and Arabtec also failed to respond to inquiries.
An NYU spokesman said the university and its Abu Dhabi partners "have put into place a methodical monitoring, compliance, and enforcement system".
December 21, 2013
Morsi to Stand Trial on Role in ’11 Uprising
By KAREEM FAHIM and MARWA NASSER
CAIRO — An Egyptian judge on Saturday ordered ousted President Mohamed Morsi to stand trial on charges that he colluded with foreign militants in an elaborate plot to free prisoners and “spread chaos” during the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak.
It was the second time in less than a week that the Egyptian authorities had charged Mr. Morsi with capital crimes, in what appeared to be an escalating effort by the military-backed government to eradicate Mr. Morsi’s Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.
The indictments have amplified longstanding accusations by the Brotherhood’s opponents that the movement has been plotting with militants with the Palestinian group Hamas to destabilize Egypt. Prosecutors have yet to offer any detailed evidence for the allegations, and human rights workers have described the plots as far-fetched. Mr. Morsi is facing a third trial on accusations that he incited the killing of protesters when he was president.
The latest charges center on Mr. Morsi’s escape from Wadi Natroun prison in early 2011 during the 18-day uprising against Mr. Mubarak, when large numbers of prisoners escaped.
Mr. Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders were imprisoned there in the early days of the uprising, when Egyptian officials were blaming the Brotherhood for the popular revolt. At the time, Mr. Morsi said he was broken out of his cell by people he did not know, including some who appeared to be other inmates.
In a statement on Saturday, the judge, Hassan Samir, accused Mr. Morsi and more than a hundred other people — including senior Brotherhood officials and members of Hamas and of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah — of carrying out “hostile” acts, including kidnapping police officers, using heavy weapons and stealing poultry from jails.
The statement also appeared to highlight the selective nature of prosecutions by Egypt’s judiciary. The judge accused the defendants of seeking to “destroy the Egyptian state and its institutions” — at a time when millions of protesters were trying to topple Mr. Mubarak’s government. Reda Marai, a lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, called the charges “highly politicized” and said a fact-finding committee had previously found that the prison was not stormed by anyone.
And the tone of the judge’s accusations, which suggest a foreign role in the 2011 uprising, is also troubling, Mr. Marai said. “This brings back the memory of the narrative that was spread to defame the revolution,” he said. “This is exactly the same talk as Mubarak.”