Pig V. Putin can inflict a costly revenge on Ukraine
President Pig Putin's latest war games do not mean Russia is planning a military intervention, but the Kremlin has plenty of other options
theguardian.com, Wednesday 26 February 2014 23.58 GMT
Events in Ukraine are accelerating fast. On Wednesday, there were skirmishes in Crimea between pro-Russian demonstrators and Muslim Tartars. Over in Moscow, meanwhile, the Pig, ordered his military to conduct exercises in Russia's western district, a region which – coincidentally or not – borders Ukraine.
The rhetoric has grown more heated, too. Russian officials have claimed the rights of Russians in Ukraine are being severely infringed. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has dismissed opposition protesters in Kiev who turfed out president Viktor Yanukovych as ultra-nationalists and "pogromists". Prime minister Dmitry Medvedev has said Ukraine's new rulers are not legitimate.
Still, the Pig's latest war games do not mean Russia is planning a military intervention in Ukraine. Such a scenario is unlikely, but the Kremlin has plenty of other options short of full-scale invasion to stir up trouble for Ukraine's new European-leaning interim team, unveiled on Wednesday evening in Kiev, and to destabilise the government before it has even started.
The most obvious is to encourage pro-secessionist forces in Crimea. On Monday, pro-Russian demonstrators in the port of Sevastopol – the home of Russia's Black Sea fleet – staged their own "counter-coup", installing a Russian citizen as mayor and demanding union with Russia. The mood is febrile. The spectre is of Ukraine splitting up.
But Russia's simplest instrument of control is economic. As Andrew Wilson of the European Council of Foreign Relations puts it in a new briefing paper, Ukraine is on the verge of economic collapse. Ironically, he notes, this dire situation is "entirely self-inflicted". Foreign reserves are dwindling fast. The Ukrainian currency, the hryvna, is tumbling precipitously against the dollar, the graph of the two currencies resembling a ski-slope. But it isn't trade sanctions from Moscow that have taken Ukraine to the brink. Rather, Wilson argues, it was corruption by Yanukovych and his entourage, which sucked an estimated $8bn to $10bn from the economy between 2010 and 2013.
As a result, Ukraine is now staring into a fiscal black hole. Last December, Russia promised to bail out Ukraine with a $15bn bond-buying scheme plus a 30% cut in the country's gas price. In return Yanukovych scrapped plans to enter into a trade association with the EU, a move that sparked the street demonstrations which led to his overthrow two months later. Only $3bn of the loan was ever delivered. Moscow won't now pay the rest.
The International Monetary Fund has promised assistance, as have other EU states including the UK. But any new tranche of aid is only likely to materialise following elections for a new government in May.
In the meantime, the country, now run by a disparate, untested group of opposition politicians, hurtles towards default. The new acting president Oleksander Turchinov has indicated that his country needs $35bn for the next two years to avoid running out of cash.
"Ukraine is now broke and Russia can hit it hard," Wilson writes. "In the new situation, with Russian leaders already questioning the legitimacy of the new authorities, the most likely levers of Russian economic pressure – higher gas prices, reduced lending, call-back of loans and export restrictions – can cause immense damage. At this stage, Russia is weighing which options to use, but the pressure will undoubtedly be felt soon."
The Kremlin's most significant weapon is gas. Twice, in 2006 and 2009, Moscow halted the supply of gas exports to Ukraine in bitter disputes with the country's then pro-western orange leadership. Russia's Gazprom could now demand that Ukraine settles its outstanding gas import bills – about $1.6bn so far for 2014 and 2013. It could also insist that Ukraine pays its bill promptly, or in advance.
Moscow might also justifiably claim that Kiev has broken the controversial contract agreed by the then prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in 2009, which commits Ukraine to paying for huge volumes of gas – 34bn cubic metres a year – whether it uses it or not. This winter it has used significantly less.
In this game of brinkmanship, Ukraine has a few cards of its own. Between 60% and 80% of Russia's natural gas exports to the EU transit via Ukraine. The last energy war in 2009 choked off supplies to much of Europe, badly damaging Gazprom's reputation with furious EU clients.
Lilit Gevorgyan, senior economist at IHS Global Insight, says: "Ukraine is not just a victim. They can create problems for Gazprom. There can be interruptions in gas supplies to the EU."
A Ukrainian default would also damage Russian investments in Ukraine, she adds. Russian banks have pumped substantial sums into Ukraine's defence, nuclear and agricultural sectors, and will not want to lose their capital.
So the country's new temporary leaders faces a series of impossible choices. If they pursue IMF-friendly policies, this will make them extremely unpopular. If they do not, the economy faces meltdown.
"The situation is dire. If the IMF insists on austerity it will destabilise the country anyway. Things will get worse before they get better," Gevorgyan says. "The question is if the country will accept this when people are not united. Is it really the right time to carry out reforms?"
Merkel Set for Historic UK Visit
by Naharnet Newsdesk
27 February 2014, 07:21
German chancellor Angela Merkel will make an historic speech to Britain's parliament on Thursday before holding EU talks with Prime Minister David Cameron and taking tea with Queen Elizabeth II.
Merkel is expected to speak in German when she addresses lawmakers from the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the first time a chancellor of a reunited Germany has addressed both houses.
She will also meet with Labor Party leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat chief Nick Clegg before rounding off her visit with a trip to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
But the eyes of Europe will be trained on her meeting with fellow Conservative Cameron.
The British prime minister is rolling out what the British press called the "reddest of red carpets" for Merkel in a desperate bid to win support in his fight to reform the European Union ahead of a possible referendum on Britain's membership in 2017.
Despite Merkel's general sympathy towards Cameron's views and the pair's good personal relationship -- reported to have been bolstered during a Cameron family visit to her country home last year -- experts warn that he is unlikely to extract any meaningful concessions.
"Merkel is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand she would like to help Cameron out of the corner, as Germany wants Britain in rather than out," explained Almut Moeller of the German Council on Foreign Relations thinktank.
"But in effect, her real game is the eurozone and therefore she will not keep Britain in the EU at all costs. And the rest of Europe will listen carefully to what she says in the British parliament."
According to Thursday's London Times, Merkel will back freedom of movement for workers within the single market, but will echo Cameron's concerns over so-called "benefit tourism".
- Treaty renegotiation 'not an option' -
Cameron hopes to win over voters in the country's in-out referendum by securing reforms that would dilute Europe's influence over domestic policy, but is finding support hard to come by.
Gunther Krichbaum, chairman of the commission on European affairs at Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, told the Guardian that renegotiating treaties was "definitely not an option."
The 90-minute lunch talks are also expected to address EU-US trade talks and the identity of the next European Commission chief following Jose Manuel Barroso's departure in 2015.
Cameron is hoping for a like-minded appointment, but the Times reported Merkel was about to back former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who Britain fears may be too federalist.
"This isn't a meeting where they will be going through people's biographies, but you could expect them to discuss the kind of qualities they are looking for in a commission president," a British official told the Financial Times.
Merkel's speech to members of both chambers of parliament is the first by any German leader since president Richard von Weizsaecker did so in 1986.
US President Barack Obama and French ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy are among the other foreign leaders to have spoken to the Houses of Commons and Lords.
Angela Merkel has Britain's future in her hands
If she picks her moment, the German chancellor could make a huge and positive difference to the British debate about Europe
The Guardian, Wednesday 26 February 2014 20.20 GMT
In the past half-century only two continental politicians have ever found themselves in a position to have a major positive influence on the British relationship with Europe. The first was Jacques Delors, the European commission president whose speech to the TUC conference in 1988 was pivotal in persuading Labour leaders and voters to embrace a social Europe in which some of the workers' rights that were being dismantled by the Thatcher government could be re-established on a European scale. Such was the impact of the Delors speech that it provoked a chorus of Frère Jacques from his audience.
The second is Angela Merkel. Tomorrow Merkel pays an important if brief visit to London, and it is generally being reported in the narrow context of the Conservative party's internal management of the EU issue. The German chancellor is far from being an irrelevant player in that partisan context. That is, after all, largely why the red carpet is being so ostentatiously rolled out for her by David Cameron.
But Merkel is also in the position, should she want it, to play a tantalisingly influential role in the wider British debate about Europe. If she chooses to grasp that opportunity, and if she does it well and consistently, she could be more influential than Delors in shifting UK attitudes. But is that what she wants?
We should not get ahead of ourselves. Today's visit is not Merkel's date with British destiny, and is being hyped far beyond its immediate significance. Merkel's invitation to address a joint meeting of both houses of parliament, followed by an audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, marks the chancellor as a political A-lister. But she is not getting the ultimate accolade – granted to Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Barack Obama, or her countryman Pope Benedict – of giving a joint address in Westminster Hall. Instead, like Willy Brandt 44 years ago, Merkel gets to speak in Westminster's Royal Gallery, where a painting of Wellington meeting Blücher at Waterloo – a great Anglo- German achievement of yesteryear, the work of Maclise – looks down on her.
More important than the protocol is the stubborn fact that Merkel's visit cannot possibly deliver what Cameron wants it to. Number 10 has marked Merkel down as the Tory leader's most important potential ally in his attempts to deliver a "yes" vote in the referendum about Britain's renegotiated EU membership he hopes to hold in 2017. But although there is a common Merkel-Cameron interest in British membership, the massive gulf over Europe between the two leaders has not suddenly disappeared.
Yesterday, it was reported that Merkel is ready to offer Britain special opt-outs in any revised EU treaty, strengthening the institutions and harmonising the processes of the eurozone countries. That would be good news for Cameron if it were to happen. But it was simultaneously reported that Merkel's speech will call for a much more effective EU, stressing that changes must be carried out in order to strengthen – not weaken – the EU as a whole. That might not suit Cameron quite so well.
This gulf is exceptionally hard to bridge. Merkel wants a stronger EU with more shared approaches and bigger global clout. Cameron actually wants the opposite – a weaker EU with much greater internal flexibility that plays only a limited role on the world stage. Each position reflects the respective politics of the two nations.
Germany is comfortable with the idea of subsidiarity – decision-making at the most appropriate level. This reflects Germany's long simultaneous commitment to regional, national and European levels of decision-making. Britain, on the other hand, takes something closer to a zero-sum approach: the more power resides in the nation state, the less that can be allowed to either local government or the EU.
Then there is a further unignorable gulf: Merkel may not be the most committed proponent of her country's social market model in modern German history, however, her CDU party retains a distinct place for the social dimension in its vision of what a good Germany and a good Europe should look like. Look at her government's programme if you doubt that.
In any case, Merkel also leads a coalition government with a social democratic party that would not countenance the scrapping of the EU's social dimension. Yet that is fundamentally what Cameron and most modern Tories seek to do – to roll back the Delors settlement and leave Europe as a single market with as few social commitments as possible.
That is not to say that Merkel and Cameron would not be able to agree a package of EU competences. But it cannot spurn social Europe. It must, after all, also be sold to the EU's 28 members. So unless the two governments were better able to share a public commitment to where this was all leading, an accord might not last long. In practice, that can only mean the Conservative party leader openly committing to the long-term desirability of Britain participating as effectively as possible in Europe, social dimension and all, not to a grudging "OK, we're staying – but now leave us alone". But who expects that to happen in the modern Tory party?
The crucial test for any Cameron-Merkel project for Britain and Europe would be whether both sides could deliver on their side of any bargain. Both would find it difficult, particularly Cameron. Merkel has no incentive to start offering concessions this side of a UK general election that Cameron may not win. And even if he does win, a large part of his party wants to quit Europe anyway and under all conceivable circumstances. Tragically for the Tory party, Cameron has never shown great bravery on this issue. Who can suppose that this self-described Eurosceptic is suddenly going to change and become, at the eleventh hour, the new Heseltine that the Tory party so clearly needs?
Which leaves the question of Merkel's role. If she seriously wants to intervene in the British debate about Europe – and not just to do her bit in the Tory party's manoeuvrings – Merkel could make a huge and positive difference. She would need to pick her moments – a speech to the CBI or the TUC in 2015, perhaps, or a Dimbleby lecture then or in 2016. But if she – the only widely admired European politician of the age, leading what is the most admired European nation of the modern era – was to set out her vision of the new Europe and Britain's role in it, the British argument over Europe might suddenly look and feel very different indeed. She has our future in her hands.
Angela Merkel to exhort Britain to remain in EU
German chancellor set to address UK parliament amid fears in Berlin that Britain may be on way to exit
Nicholas Watt and Philip Oltermann in Berlin
The Guardian, Wednesday 26 February 2014 22.35 GMT
Angela Merkel will use a high-profile visit to London on Thursday, in which she will address a joint session of parliament and have tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, to plead with the British people to remain members of the European Union.
Amid genuine fears in Berlin that Britain may be on a trajectory towards exit, the German chancellor is expected to say that Britain benefits from its membership of the EU. But Merkel is also expected to say that the EU benefits from Britain's open approach to trade and markets.
Her visit, which has many of the trappings of a state visit rarely offered to a head of government, contrasts with the low key reception for the French president, François Hollande, at the Anglo-French summit last month at RAF Brize Norton. Hollande faced embarrassing questions about his private life at a press conference with David Cameron and then sat through an awkward and short lunch with the prime minister at a nearby upmarket gastropub.
Merkel will address a joint session of parliament at midday before having lunch with the prime minister in Downing Street. They will hold a joint press conference before Merkel holds separate meetings with Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband.
Cameron has invested a great deal of capital in Merkel in the belief that she will be the pivotal figure if he wins the 2015 general election and seeks to renegotiate Britain's EU membership terms. He tried to help Merkel in her re-election campaign last year by offering to give her the full red carpet treatment in London before the election. But Merkel said she would rather wait until this year.
The German chancellor advised Cameron last year to cast his landmark speech on the EU, in which he pledged to hold an in/out referendum on Britain's membership of the EU by the end of 2017, as a campaign to reform the EU as a whole. Merkel has told the prime minister that – if he acts in that spirit – she would be prepared to offer help if the Lisbon treaty were revised to underpin new governance arrangements. A senior Berlin official has said that assurances could be introduced during modest treaty revisions to ensure that the interests of Britain and other non-euro members are protected in the European single market.
But one senior coalition figure said any concessions offered by the Germans would amount to "chickenfeed" that would not satisfy Tory eurosceptics. "David Cameron will get some concessions but it will lack powder and shock. There is an interesting parallel with Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan before the 1975 referendum, who trotted round the capitals of Europe getting a packet of matches rather than a cigar and hailed this as a great triumph."
"David Cameron is caught. He goes to Brussels and gets chickenfeed – that won't satisfy the eurosceptics. He goes there and argues for something more than chickenfeed and his bluff is called."
Willy Brandt was the last German chancellor to address both houses of the British parliament, delivering a speech in 1970 hailed in a Guardian leader as "an unqualified success". Summing up Brandt's visit to Britain on 2 March 1970, this newspaper wrote: "It is doubtful if relations between Britain and Germany have ever been better – not on a basis of overflowing sentiment, but in terms of quiet trust, patience and understanding."
It is unlikely the British media will be championing Merkel's visit in similarly euphoric tones by the end of the week. For a start, Britain was then trying to negotiate its way into the EEC. When Merkel speaks in Westminster on Thursday lunchtime, many of those on the benches in front of her would prefer Britain negotiate its way out.
Those wanting Britain to stay in, such as the prime minister, will be hoping that Merkel will throw them a lifeline, a trophy those wanting to stay inside Europe can produce as evidence for having successfully renegotiated Britain's relationship with Brussels.
But at the top in Germany there is a growing concern this week that British expectations have grown far too high for the chancellor to meet. The room Merkel had to voice her support on Thursday was limited, said Almut Möller of the German Council on Foreign Relations thinktank. "Merkel is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand she would like to help Cameron out of the corner, as Germany wants Britain in rather than out. But in effect, her real game is the eurozone and therefore she will not keep Britain in the EU at all costs. And the rest of Europe will listen carefully to what she says in the British parliament."
Just over a year ago, Cameron's Bloomberg speech, which highlighted the need for European reform, found a surprising number of open ears in Germany, even among Social Democrats. "Not more Europe, but a better Europe" is a phrase you often hear in Berlin these days. German politicians openly talk of the need to reform the EU, something they share with few European countries apart from Britain.
The prime minister is being warned that he needs to be careful not to misinterpret Merkel's approach, as he did in late 2011 when he tabled a series of demands for the City of London at a Brussels summit. These were rejected by Berlin, forcing Cameron to veto the new eurozone fiscal compact. "Cameron's interpretation of Merkel's stance is partially based on a misunderstanding," said Stefan Kornelius, foreign editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung and author of an authorised Merkel biography. "He took her support of his stance in the EU budget debate as a statement of blanket support for Britain's renegotiation strategy. One priority for her speech will be to readjust expectations of what she can deliver."
While banking union and further economic integration in the eurozone will require some changes to the treaties, the German government would prefer to do so without having to reopen old agreements entirely: Vertragsanpassungen, "treaty modifications" rather than "treaty change", is the phrase her party uses. "Reopening the Lisbon treaty and having to get it ratified by all member states is the last thing Merkel wants," said Kornelius.
"Renegotiating treaties is definitely not an option," Gunther Krichbaum, the CDU chairman of the commission on European affairs, told the Guardian. "These treaties already are compromises – we'd end up where we started."
In any concession she can make to Britain on Thursday, Merkel will be restrained by her coalition agreement with the Social Democrats, who would never accept reopening the Lisbon treaty and deleting the phrase "ever closer union", as some British Conservatives would like to.
She will also have to take into account her own party's European manifesto, which is set to be presented at the CDU party conference in April. While the current draft hints at some common ground with the Tories over making it harder for EU migrants to access benefits, it also treats it as an issue to be addressed by national parliaments, rather than a problem that requires a wholesale revision of the freedom of movement principle.
Merkel and her speechwriters will be aware of the historic dimension of her visit. While British parliamentarians shouldn't expect rhetorical fireworks, it's possible she will add a personal flavour to her speech, as when she spoke in front of both chambers of the US Congress in 2009.
"Merkel is good at presidential speeches," said Möller. "There are plenty of things she can wax lyrical about without getting into tricky areas: the upcoming first world war centenary, the need for a more global outlook in the economy, the inspiring achievements of British parliamentary democracy." But whether that will be enough to appease Cameron's backbenchers is doubtful.
David Cameron shouldn't bank on Angela Merkel to sort out his EU issues
The two leaders may share views on where the union should be headed, but they represent parties with different world views
theguardian.com, Wednesday 26 February 2014 14.54 GMT
Angela Merkel and David Cameron didn't get off to the greatest of starts: one of his earliest decisions as party leader was to pull Conservative MEPs out of Merkel's party's group in the European parliament. But their relationship seems to have improved markedly since he became prime minister, so much so that the German chancellor's trip to the UK is being treated, especially by those Conservatives who hope the EU can be reformed rather than abandoned, as the visit of an ally and not an enemy.
Wishful thinking, warn some of Cameron's more candid friends, as well as his dedicated band of Europhobe detractors. Merkel may be the most powerful person in Europe, but that doesn't mean she can perform miracles. She also leads a country that, like any other, will ultimately act in what it perceives to be its national interests. For most Germans, this means preserving a political economic union that has helped deliver peace, prosperity and democracy. Besides, Cameron mustn't forget that she governs alongside the centre-left SPD, and they make our own Labour party look like a bunch of wild-eyed sceptics.
Put bluntly, then, the argument is that while Merkel may well agree with a lot of what Cameron would like to do to the EU, she is constrained by country and coalition: she would if she could, but she can't. What all this forgets, however, is that there is another equally important reason why Germany's chancellor won't ride to the rescue of Britain's PM: ideology.
It is all too easy to think that just because Merkel and Cameron head up centre-right parties, those parties think pretty much alike. But if that were the case, then why, for instance, did so many Tory MEPs feel so uncomfortable in the Merkel-allied European People's party-European Democrats grouping? It wasn't just about differences on EU integration; it was because they were Conservatives in an alliance dominated by Christian Democrats. Cameron's Conservatism and Merkel's Christian Democracy represent related but in the end fundamentally different world views.
For the contemporary Conservative everything begins with the individual, whereas for the Christian Democrat, people are profoundly embedded in the collective – most obviously in associations and interest groups including (whisper it softly) trade unions. The job of the state, for Christian Democrats, is actively to bring together, reconcile, regulate and harmonise the needs and demands of the so-called "social partners" in more or less corporatist fashion. Not for them the stripped-down, hollowed-out affair which is the aim of all-too-many contemporary Conservatives. Nor for them the excessive centralisation which, for example, prevents local government raising and spending most of its own money, or sees schools run direct from Whitehall. Or, indeed, the social exclusion that comes with poverty wages, lack of youth training, and a welfare system run on the cheap by the state for the supposedly deserving poor rather than by stakeholders for everyone.
Christian Democracy – the clue is in the name, as well as in the insistence of those who profess it, that they are a centre rather than a rightwing party. Yes, they embrace private property and the market. But with affluence comes responsibility: the market is still the social market, and there is more to life than materialism.
And there is also a limit to the demonisation of outsiders. Of course immigration should be controlled – and successive Christian Democratic governments can hardly be held up as shining examples when it comes to the treatment of Germany's Turkish (and therefore predominantly Muslim) population. But there remains at the heart of their worldview the desire "to turn strangers into friends", to treat those fleeing poverty and oppression with Christian charity and compassion. Likewise, Christian Democracy is an inherently transnational rather than nationalist creed. For its adherents the EU is not simply a marriage of convenience but a statement of faith – the embodiment of the ideal, harmonious, federal polity writ large.
One can of course argue that there has been a degree of convergence in recent years. Some of the talk from Conservatives about the "big society" sounded pretty Christian Democratic. And for their part, Christian Democrats have moved towards a more liberal conception of the market and been obliged to come to terms with aspects of the secular, permissive society that many – though clearly not all – Conservatives were much quicker to embrace.
But there are limits, and they will only become more and more obvious as Cameron embarks on his mission to change Europe or else leave it. He and Merkel may not be chalk and cheese, but they'll never be birds of a feather.
Cyprus Coalition Splits over Peace Drive
by Naharnet Newsdesk
27 February 2014, 12:07
The junior party in Cyprus's governing coalition pulled out early Thursday over disagreement with President Nicos Anastasiades on his handling of new peace talks with the Turkish Cypriots.
In a marathon session that began on Wednesday and ended before dawn, the centre-right DIKO party's leadership decided by 97 votes to 81 to withdraw from the administration.
The move means an imminent reshuffle with four DIKO ministers set to resign from the defence, energy, education and health portfolios.
Government spokesman Christos Stylianides said the administration respected DIKO's decision and would fill the cabinet vacancies.
DIKO leader Nicos Papadopoulos is a staunch opponent of a joint statement agreed by rival Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders on February 11, which allowed for the resumption of long-stalled peace talks.
He accuses Anastasiades of granting too many concessions to the Turkish side, arguing that the statement paves the way for two separate states rather than a reunited federal Cyprus.
Nicos Papadopoulos is the son of the late former president Tassos Papadopoulos, who famously urged Greek Cypriots to vote a "resounding no" in a 2004 referendum on a UN blueprint for reunification.
An overwhelming 75 percent of Greek Cypriots voted against it, meaning a divided Cyprus entered the European Union a week later, despite Turkish Cypriots voting "yes" to the UN plan.
The coalition split comes a year after Anastasiades came to power in February 2013 on a mandate to agree a bailout to save the eurozone country from financial ruin.
He has now turned his attention to the peace talks with the Turkish Cypriots after winning praise from international lenders for putting debt-ridden Cyprus back on track.
The international community has welcomed the new peace initiative, with greater input from Washington seen as enabling a breakthrough after two years of stalemate.
The two largest Greek Cypriot parties -- the ruling rightwing DISY and opposition communist party AKEL -- both support the UN-brokered peace push.
The east Mediterranean island has been divided since Turkish troops invaded and occupied its northern third in 1974 in response to an Athens-engineered coup aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece.
Greek shipping tycoons threaten to set sail over tax privileges
Austerity-hit government has called an end to preferential tax treatment for industry built by tycoons including Aristotle Onassis
Helena Smith in Athens
theguardian.com, Wednesday 26 February 2014 19.53 GMT
They are some of the wealthiest people in Greece, the owners of the world's largest commercial fleet with bank accounts and property portfolios that, even by the standards of the super-rich, elicit awe. But in the high-risk business of trading the high seas, Greek ship-owners – in line with international maritime tradition – have also been granted special tax status on their vessels.
This week, the cash-strapped government in Athens insisted the preferential treatment – enshrined in the Greek constitution and respected by every government since the 1940s – was finally over. And shipowners are up in arms.
As it tries to steer Greece out of its worst recession on record, prime minister Antonis Samaras' fragile two-party coalition has suddenly found itself at war with the influential plutocrats who control one of the few thriving sectors of the Greek economy.
The imposition of extra taxes on the industry amounted to nothing less than a "constitutional deviation" warned Theodore Veniamis, the president of the Union of Greek Shipowners. "A negative climate has been created for any type of business investment in Greece," he said.
Samaras' conservative-dominated alliance rushed legislation through parliament, imposing a triple tax on ships managed out of Greece, as the 300-seat House held its last session before the Christmas break in December.
This week, the country's merchant marine minister said that the levy was an emergency measure that would last no longer than the next three years.
But while ordinary Greeks have been hit by a barrage of taxes since the debt-stricken nation was forced to accept international aid to avert bankruptcy, the country's famously secretive shipping community is digging in its heels.
The new tax law overturned a previous accord, signed after several months of talks last year, that had allowed ship-owners to make voluntary tax payments to help the nation's economic recovery. Most of the shipping companies run out of Athens' port of Piraeus – the industry's base in Greece – had agreed to back the voluntary scheme.
With unemployment at a record 28%, the highest in the European Union, and worsening social and economic marginalisation, the legislation has won praise. In its fourth year of bailout funds from the EU and International Monetary Fund, Greece faces fiscal shortfalls this year and next. Samaras has refused to take further unpopular spending cuts to plug the gap.
In a rare display of concord with the government, Giorgos Stathakis the shadow minister for development in the radical left main opposition Syriza party told the Guardian: "It's a positive step."
Yet the strength of reaction from shippers appears to have taken the Samaras administration aback. The industry, which provides up to 200,000 jobs and sustains close to 500,000, has warned that the new tax regime could force it to move elsewhere – potentially wreaking havoc on the economy.
"The fear is that the lack of trust between the maritime community and our legislators may lead to an exodus from the Greek flag and perhaps Greece itself," warned Haralambos Fafalios, who chairs the London-based Greek Shipping Co-operation Committee.
As a pillar of the Greek economy, shipping rivals tourism in attracting foreign exchange: experts estimate it has brought over ¤140bn (£115bn) into the country in the past decade alone.
"The shipping industry is a significant contributor to Greece in terms of jobs, cash and economic activity, and it stands to lose all three if it changes the regime for attracting shipping companies to the country," said Vassilis Antoniades, managing director of the Boston Consulting Group, which recently conducted an in-depth study into the impact of shipping on the Greek economy. "To a great degree the Greek economy thrives on the shipping industry."
Since the 1960s, shipping tycoons, such as Aristotle Onassis (pictured), have established airlines, shipyards, refineries and hotels in Greece. Indicative of their pre-eminent role in a sector now worth about $660bn (£400bn), this year Greek shipowners placed a record number of orders to build new vessels in shipyards around the world, outstripping any of their global competitors.
With earnings from shipping accounting for around 7% of GDP, fears are growing that the government's step could ultimately be counter-productive – even if, in poverty-stricken Greece, many also accept that may also seem rampantly unfair.
"There are alternatives with other countries offering competitive tax regimes. People will simply register their ships elsewhere," said shipping expert David Glass, who said that the sector had been unfairly reviled. "Shipowners give a lot to this country. They've built half the hospitals on the islands. They're the ones building schools and handing out over 50,000 meals to the needy every month. People forget that."
Germany rules to abolish 3% threshold quota on European elections
Andreas Vosskuhle says entry hurdle violated constitution and had prevented parties from getting a fair hearing
Philip Oltermann in Berlin
theguardian.com, Wednesday 26 February 2014 19.39 GMT
The European parliament could become a squabbling ground for "loonies and lobbyists", observers warned after a German court on Wednesday ruled against a voting threshold at European elections.
The president of the federal court, Andreas Vosskuhle, ruled on Wednesday that the 3% entry hurdle violated the constitution and had stopped parties from getting a fair hearing. The ruling will come into effect immediately and apply to the European elections in May, where Germany will elect 96 MEPs for the next parliamentary term – the highest number of seats of all member states.
Sixteen out of 29 EU countries, including Britain, have no threshold quotas for European elections, but the issue is an unusually politically loaded one in Germany: a 5% hurdle was introduced for the national parliament in 1949 with a view to making the raucous parliamentary squabbles of the Weimar Republic a thing of the past.
Germany's proportional system has encouraged the creation of an unusually high number of smaller parties. While the Pirate party, the anti-euro Alternative für Deutschland and the far-right NPD are the three most prominent parties likely to gain from the changes, a number of smaller splinter groups and single-issue parties will be hoping for seats in Strasbourg and Brussels too.
The head of the Pirate party, which is currently represented in the European Parliament via its Swedish branch, said the decision would guarantee that citizens' votes "wouldn't again fall under the table".
The NPD, over whom the upper body of the Germany parliament is currently seeking a ban, called the court's decision a "phenomenal victory" and confidently announced on its website that its entry into the European parliament was now "not just likely, but a certainty".
At previous European elections, German parties had to overcome a 5% hurdle, which the federal court had ruled unlawful in 2011. Last year, the German parliament had proposed replacing the 5% hurdle with 3%, but after complaints by 19 smaller parties this compromise too has been dismissed by the courts.
Had there been no threshold at the last elections in 2009, seven additional parties would have gained seats, including the Free Voters, the far-right Republicans, the animal rights party Human Environment Animal, the Pensioners party, the Family party and the anti-growth and pro-family Ecological Democratic party, whose chairman Sebastian Frankenberger told the Guardian that the court decision was "a victory for democracy and for the citizens whose votes will no longer be wasted." The satirical party known as The Party has also announced its intentions to win a seat in May.
But some commentators warned that the court's decision could condemn the European parliament to irrelevance. "The danger is that it could encourage lots of individuals with an axe to grind to set up their own party," said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Otto-Suhr-Institute for Political Science. "You won't just get loonies, but loonies who can pretend to have a political career without wielding any real political power."
Others were less pessimistic. "I don't think there will be a big chaos," said Nils Diederich of Berlin's Free University. "The big parliamentary groups will work more closely together, and there will be new alliances between smaller parties. Making decisions may take longer, but that's not necessarily a bad thing."
The party that will be affected most directly by the decision to scrap the 3% hurdle is Angela Merkel's CDU. Until now, the Christian Democrats have tried to counter the threat posed by the anti-euro party Alternative für Deutschland by allowing their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, to opt for a more eurosceptic tone. But with the AfD feeling emboldened by the court's decision, the chancellor's party may have to readjust its European strategy.
"We have to live with the judgment and the fact that splinter parties and radical elements from Germany will be represented in the EU parliament," said CDU MEP Markus Ferber. "That's not a very pleasant situation."
Turkish Leader Disowns Trials That Helped Him Tame Military
By TIM ARANGO
FEB. 26, 2014
ISTANBUL — A series of sensational trials that shook the Turkish military in recent years achieved what many regard as the most important legacy of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s more than a decade in power: sending the army back to its barracks and out of politics.
Now, though, Mr. Erdogan is acknowledging what many legal and forensics experts have long said: that, in a word, the trials were a sham. He has reversed himself not because of any pangs of guilt, analysts say, but for the simple reason that the same prosecutors who targeted the military with fake evidence are now going after him.
One document that was portrayed as laying out the details of a planned coup was discovered by an expert forensics witness to have been written with a version of Microsoft Office that did not exist at the time of the supposed plot. Some of the officers said to have been in the coup-planning meeting were in fact in Israel or England, or out at sea. A pharmaceutical company supposedly set to be taken over by the army after the coup was listed under a name it adopted years later.
Yet all of this — as well as plenty of other dubious evidence — was judged in recent years by a court here as sufficient to convict hundreds of military officers and other officials of conspiracies to overthrow Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials A.K.P.
But now, as a sweeping corruption investigation focuses on Mr. Erdogan and his inner circle, a centerpiece of his strategy to survive politically is to discredit those military trials. The most sensational allegation from the inquiry emerged late Monday night in the form of a leaked telephone call that appeared on YouTube and purported to detail a conversation in which Mr. Erdogan, worried about the unfolding investigation, instructed his son to hide tens of millions of dollars. Another tape was leaked Wednesday night that purported to reveal a conversation in which Mr. Erdogan told his son to hold out for more money that was being offered in a business deal.
In an assertion reminiscent of the many denials over the years by the officers and their lawyers, Mr. Erdogan’s office released a statement saying that the recordings released on Monday were “a product of an immoral montage that is completely false.”
Many of the prosecutors and investigators in both cases — the corruption inquiry and the old military trials — are followers of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. The adherents in his network were once partners in Mr. Erdogan’s governing coalition, but the government now considers them a “parallel state” to be rooted out through purges of the police and the judiciary.
A top adviser to Mr. Erdogan, Yalcin Akdogan, who is considered the prime minister’s mouthpiece, has called those military cases a “plot against their own country’s national army,” which is now being replicated in the corruption investigation against the government. A government watchdog recently issued a report that determined that some of the evidence against the military was manipulated.
More remarkably, one of the judges involved in the trials, Koksal Sengun, recently said that he had never read all the indictments, and that if he had he would never have accepted them as legitimate. “I would have rejected the indictment for many reasons now,” he said in an interview with the Turkish news website T24.
Recently, under pressure from the government, Turkish lawmakers voted to abolish the special courts in which the officers were tried, a significant step toward new trials. Variations of these courts, set up under antiterrorism laws, have been in place in Turkey since the 1970s. They operate under special rules that allow secret witnesses and wiretaps that would not be admissible in regular courts.
That makes them vulnerable to manipulation for political ends, legal analysts say. “The courts are specially designed for the government to use the judicial forces against opponents,” said Metin Feyzioglu, the head of Turkey’s bar association. “They managed to get the military out of politics,” but “that was not the right way to do it.”
The reassessment of the evidence that supported the military trials is putting new light on what has been hailed, here and abroad, as Mr. Erdogan’s most important achievement: securing civilian control over the military. The way it was done, however, is now increasingly viewed as an act of revenge by Turkey’s Islamists against their former oppressors in the military, once the guardians of the secular tradition laid down by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
After rising to power in 2002, the Islamists were always on guard for conspiracies against them, and for good reason: The military carried out three coups in the previous century.
With that history in mind, the Islamists were determined to diminish the military’s role in Turkish politics.
In 2005, years before the trials, a man affiliated with the Gulen movement approached Eric S. Edelman, then the American ambassador, at a party in Istanbul and handed him an envelope containing a handwritten document that supposedly laid out a plan for an imminent coup. But as Mr. Edelman recounted, he gave the documents to his colleagues and they were determined to be forgeries.
For the officers in prison, and their families and lawyers, the turn of events has created the tantalizing possibility of new trials and, ultimately perhaps, exoneration. But they are proceeding with caution, saying that they do not fully trust the intentions of Mr. Erdogan and that he was complicit all along, having embraced the trials as an important part of his agenda.
“At the end of the day, this is an opportunity for us,” said Nil Kutluk, the daughter of a navy admiral who is in prison. “Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that the corruption allegations should be covered up. But personally there is nothing more important for me than my father and other innocent people getting out as soon as possible. We are talking about people in their 60s who are losing days of their lives behind bars.”
On a recent afternoon, stacks of red, blue and green binders that detail some of this questionable evidence were piled high on a conference table in the office of Celal Ulgen, a lawyer who represents several of those convicted in the military trials, including Cetin Dogan, a former army general who was said to be the ringleader of the coup plot.
“I don’t have hope,” Mr. Ulgen said. “I’m just doing my job. Every time I’ve done this in the past it’s been like playing a game of table tennis against the wall. It just keeps coming back.”
He said he would submit the binders to a court in Istanbul as part of a new effort to gain retrials for his clients and hundreds of others.
The sprawling investigations and court cases against the military officers and other members of Turkey’s old secular elite were largely divided in two. One was called Sledgehammer, a reference to the code-name of the supposed coup plot, while the other was called Ergenekon, named for what was said to be a shadowy “deep state” organization that carried out conspiracies in the name of protecting secularism.
Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer in Washington who has taken on the military defendants’ case pro bono, and whose filing to the United Nations resulted in a determination that the officers were being detained in violation of international law, said: “In the case of Sledgehammer, both the Gulenists and the A.K.P. were on the same page. Of course, Erdogan knew about it and was complicit.”
Moreover, the trials came to define Mr. Erdogan’s power, and what many critics regard as his recent authoritarian turn.
“These cases, Ergenekon and Sledgehammer, are the two pillars of Erdogan’s now autocratic system,” said Selim Yavuz, a lawyer who represents his father, a former army general who was convicted and imprisoned in Sledgehammer. “People saw if he could do this to the army, he could do it to anyone. Now he is seen as the almighty.”
In now moving to discredit some of the evidence, Mr. Erdogan’s government is walking a tightrope, clinging to its record of democratizing the country and removing the military from politics, while putting distance between itself and the tactics employed to do so.
Whether the corruption charges are justified or not — there has been plenty of leaked evidence, especially wiretapped conversations, that appears incriminating — the corruption probe has laid bare the influence of the Gulen movement within the Turkish state, which had largely been suspected but hard to prove.
When the corruption investigation went public, Gareth Jenkins, a longtime writer and analyst in Turkey, said he noticed several similarities in tactics to the investigation of the military, and listed them: the same prosecutors, the use of simultaneous dawn raids on the homes and offices of suspects, an immediate defamation campaign in the Gulen-affiliated news media, and the leaks of wiretapped conversations.
“As soon as you saw these characteristics you thought, ‘This is the same group of people doing it,’ ” Mr. Jenkins said.
Dani Rodrik, an economist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and a son-in-law of Mr. Dogan, the jailed general, wrote a book on the case with his wife, Pinar Dogan, that detailed many of the inconsistencies in the trial evidence. He said the cases will inevitably force a reassessment of Mr. Erdogan’s record, even as he sees Mr. Erdogan as the lesser of two evils and believes, now that the government has disavowed the cases, that the convictions will ultimately be reversed.
“They substantially weakened the military politically and empowered a mafia within the state,” Mr. Rodrik said. “That’s their record.”
Warlords With Dark Pasts Battle in Afghan Election
By ROD NORDLAND
FEB. 26, 2014
KABUL, Afghanistan — Ashraf Ghani, the apparent front-runner in the Afghan presidential race this year, was once unstinting in his opinion of one of the country’s most prominent warlords, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, calling him a “known killer.”
He said that in 2009, when General Dostum was supporting President Hamid Karzai for re-election. Now, Mr. Ghani simply calls General Dostum his running mate.
In fact, of the 11 campaigns in the April 5 presidential election, six include at least one candidate on the ticket who is widely viewed as a warlord, with pasts and policies directly at odds with Western attempts to improve human rights here.
That is the field that American military and diplomatic planners have to consider as they take up President Obama’s call on Tuesday to look past Mr. Karzai and try to get the next Afghan administration to sign a long-term security deal.
For officials working to finalize the bilateral security agreement, there is still potential good news: All 11 of the Afghan presidential candidates say they support the deal, which would allow Western troops to stay here past 2014.
But past that, American officials have taken pains to avoid expressing any preference for a particular candidate, sensitive to accusations from Mr. Karzai that they interfered in the 2009 vote, when American pressure led him to agree to a runoff after widespread reports of election fraud.
The preponderance of candidates with some sort of unsavory past has also made American officials especially leery of weighing in, despite the fact that many warlords have been recipients of American support and cash in the past.
Recently, for instance, allegations circulated that the American ambassador, James B. Cunningham, had met secretly with one of the presidential candidates, Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, who has been accused of war crimes and who while in Parliament helped pass a law giving amnesty to war criminals and tried to repeal a law outlawing violence against women.
An American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivities of the issue, said that Mr. Cunningham and other senior officials had met with all 11 presidential candidates “as part of our normal diplomatic engagement.” Asked what would happen if an accused war criminal were elected, the official said the American government would not speculate on the outcome of the election.
General Dostum’s candidacy poses some thorny questions. He still maintains a private army, and human rights activists accuse him of ordering mass killings. But he was also a stalwart of the American-allied Northern Alliance that overthrew the Taliban in 2001, and he is a powerful political leader among Afghanistan’s ethnic Uzbek minority.
General Dostum is now the first vice-presidential candidate on the ticket of Mr. Ghani, who is regarded as the front-runner based on an early poll conducted for the American government. Mr. Ghani is a former World Bank official who helped negotiate an initial version of the security agreement, and as a Karzai adviser he presided over the handover of responsibility for security to Afghan forces.
His most significant challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, who ran second to Mr. Karzai in 2009, also has ticket members branded as warlords: his vice-presidential candidates — Mohammad Khan, a former leader of the insurgent party Hezb-i-Islami, and Mohammad Mohaqiq, a Hazara leader of the party Wahdat — have both been accused of abuses by human rights officials.
Spokesmen for Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah said on Wednesday that upon election they would quickly sign the bilateral security agreement with the Americans. Both also expressed concern about Mr. Karzai’s refusal to sign it before then.
“We request the U.S. should wait, and in May there will be a new president,” said Mr. Ghani’s spokesman, Hameedullah Farooqi. “Giving ultimatums and bringing pressure only create sentiments that would harm the process.”
Of the leading five presidential tickets, the only two without members accused of being warlords are those of Zalmay Rassoul, the low-profile former foreign minister, and Qayum Karzai, the president’s brother and the owner of restaurants in Baltimore.
Qazi Mohammad Amin Waqad, a tribal leader appointed by President Karzai to negotiate the withdrawal of either Mr. Rassoul or Qayum Karzai, said the president had thrown his weight behind Mr. Rassoul. The president’s brother was debating whether to withdraw, Mr. Waqad said, and if so, who to endorse.
Human rights activists are alarmed by the number of warlords so obviously still in the political mainstream.
Ajmal Baluchzada, a member of the Transitional Justice Coordination Group, a coalition of Western-financed groups that lobbies for past war crimes to be acknowledged and punished, said that some of the men initially tried to stay out of the spotlight after the Taliban’s overthrow, worried about potential war-crimes proceedings. “But as time passed and they saw nothing happen, and they saw the Taliban growing stronger, it made them want to get involved.”
Most analysts believe that none of the 11 tickets in the race will get the necessary 50 percent of the vote in the initial balloting, which will create a runoff between the top two vote-getters.
That will give influential figures on the also-ran tickets an opportunity to barter their support in the runoff for a position in the government of the eventual winner. Warlords tend to be strongly identified with their ethnic groups — Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek or Hazara — and can usually deliver blocks of guaranteed votes as well as campaign money.
“For me, it will be the continuation in power of the same group,” said Sima Samar, head of the country’s human rights commission. “I’m sorry to say this, but this is the truth.”
Some of the candidates seen as warlords have disbanded their private armies as they moved into politics. Others, like General Dostum, still have personal militias and do not hesitate to use them. As recently as last June, General Dostum forced the governor of Jowzjan Province out of office by surrounding his home with gunmen.
Even so, the general has tried to burnish his public image by offering a bit of contrition over his rough tactics. “There were no white pigeons in the civil war of the two decades,” he said in an early campaign speech. “It is time that we all apologize to the people of Afghanistan for the negative impacts of our policies.”
Mr. Baluchzada, of the Transitional Justice Coordination Group, who lost three relatives in the civil war years, said that was not good enough: “If he wants to apologize, he first needs to admit all that he did.”
A spokesman for the Ghani campaign, Mr. Farooqi, said that Mr. Ghani’s condemnation of General Dostum in 2009 was just heat-of-the-moment politicking. “Mr. Ghani told us that a politician talks and criticizes lots of things when he runs for the presidency,” Mr. Farooqi said. “We believe none of the people on our ticket are accused of war crimes by any national or international court.”
That is true. Still, the United Nations and other human rights groups accuse General Dostum of being personally responsible for the mass killings of thousands of Taliban prisoners and other opponents during the civil war years.
All of the six tickets with identified warlords on them have rejected that characterization. They prefer to call the men mujahedeen, for their roles in fighting the Soviet invasion and the Taliban’s rule — with the heavy support and funding of American officials. That relationship positioned them to consolidate power after the Taliban fell, and many have become wealthy from development and aid money.
“To some extent America and the West is responsible — they’re the reason we still have these warlords,” said Mohammad Aleem Sayee, the former governor who was run out of Jowzjan by General Dostum and who is now working in Qayum Karzai’s campaign. “They supported them and let them stay in power.”
Correction: February 27, 2014
An earlier version of this story misidentified, in one instance, the name of Ashraf Ghani’s spokesman. It is Hameedullah Farooqi, not Fraidon Barekzai.
World Must Focus on 'Evil, Evil' N. Korea, Says Kerry
by Naharnet Newsdesk
26 February 2014, 19:48
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday called for global attention on North Korea, denouncing the isolated Asian nation as "an evil, evil place."
"North Korea is one of the most closed and cruel places on earth. There's no question about it. There's evil that is taking place there that all of us ought to be deeply and are deeply concerned about," the top U.S. diplomat said.
The top U.S. diplomat said he had had serious talks in China about North Korea including the challenge of the dealing with its suspect nuclear program.
"We had very serious discussions there about the options available to us. And we are continuing to press for action," Kerry said in an interview with MSNBC television.
"But in the meantime, there is no question that the level of depravity, the level of human rights violations, they have conducted executions, using 122-millimeter aircraft guns to obliterate people and force people to watch these kinds of executions.
"This is an evil, evil place. And it requires enormous focus by the world in order to hold it accountable. And I think every aspect of any law that can be applied should be applied."
Many North Korean defectors have given harrowing testimony to a U.N.-mandated inquiry that last week issued a searing, 400-page indictment of gross human rights abuses.
The U.N. report said North Korea's leaders should be brought before an international court for a litany of crimes against humanity.
It found that "systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed" by North Korea, its institutions and officials.
***************Misery and mass bowing: the view from a North Korean tour bus
Restraints on foreign tourists fail to mask the hardship and mind control in country UN likened to Nazi Germany
Staffan Thorsell in Pyongyang
theguardian.com, Thursday 27 February 2014 10.47 GMT
Link to video: Hermit nation: inside North Koreahttp://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2014/feb/27/hermit-nation-inside-north-korea-video
A stunningly beautiful, twentysomething woman dressed in black performs her death wail in the main hall of an obscenely luxurious palace in central Pyongyang. Her face seems to contort as her voice breaks over and over again. Speaking in a monotone, a guide translates the weeper's words into English: "The departed supreme leader's love will fill our hearts for eternity …" The voice just keeps going, and in a glass cage in the middle of the room lies the embalmed body of Kim Jong-il.
The weeper is here to preach the everlasting omnipotence of North Korea's second leader and to express the grief of a nation more than two years after his death. Everyone in the mausoleum bows their heads before the body – or perhaps the wax doll – flanked by North Korean army officers at attention. Anything else would be intolerable and would result in immediate arrest.
It's all part of the baffling experience that awaits the visitor to the world's most closed country, which was recently compared to Nazi Germany. Mass dancing, synchronised swimming, ritual bowing and weeping – all are de rigueur on certain days of the year when the country's first family are to be remembered and revered. Otherwise public spaces are vast and eerie.
Visitors are accompanied and corralled, all the time, everywhere. There are clear, continuous instructions about when photography is permitted and when it is not.
On one occasion a guide discovers unauthorised filming of two elderly women on the outskirts of Pyongyang. Their backs are bent at ninety degrees, each weighted down by a bundle of dry grass and fire wood, as they sit down to rest.
The guide hisses: "What would anyone need those pictures for?"
In a bookshop in central Pyongyang, where the stock, by the way, consists only of books by one of the leaders or written as a tribute to them – two staff members witness an unfamiliar, foreign customer folding a copy of the Pyongyang Times and placing it under his arm. They instantly begin gesturing at the visitor and snap at the accompanying guide, who flushes red and gets a wild look in his eyes.
"Take the newspaper out and unfold it," the guide prompts. "Unfold it!"
No image of any of the leaders may be folded, rolled up or otherwise treated disrespectfully. And the front page of the Pyongyang Times always carries a picture of the leader. The guide is embarrassed and has to apologise on his client's behalf – and on his own.
At Kim Il-sung Square in central Pyongyang, groups of about 100 people wait for their turn, then climb the steps leading to the 20–metre tall bronze statues of the first leader, the eternal president, Kim Il-sung, and his successor, Kim Jong-il. At the feet of the two statues they then bow in unison.
Then the next group comes forward. And the next. And so it continues for two days.
A few blocks away, thousands have gathered for mass dancing to celebrate the birthday of Kim Jong-il. With national hymns exploding from loudspeakers, men, women and children unite in what sometimes resembles line dancing.
How would they, or any North Korean, respond if asked about the prison camps?
The question is finally put, with an attempt at a naive tone and a smile, to one of the guides: what would the police here do should they come across any robbers. Are there jails?
"Of course," the guide replies. "All countries have jails and prisons. But here they're not really prisons, they are …"
"Labour camps," she is interrupted.
"Well, those who have committed serious crimes go away. They go to live far away, I think, they get to work hard and are re-educated. They learn how to think in the right way."
"Do you have many such camps?" she is asked.
"I don't know. Maybe, but they are far away. I have only heard about them somewhere sometime. Can I help you with any other information?"
Maybe that's how it is. Although the guides are part of the propaganda machine, they only get the information that the leader decides they need. Fragile rumours become the only source of information.
Apart from the odd nationalist-propaganda poster and the very scarce shop signs, there are no written words. Not a single poster, not a trace of advertising, no magazines, books or brochures. Theoretically – if you had the money – you could get the Pyongyang Times, but most people only get to read the newspaper in public, its pages displayed in frames across the capital.
A city without written words or images – where every wall and every flat surface is completely empty – is a remarkable sight.
But the country isn't closed to foreigners – that is simply a rumour. Depending on whom you believe, between 1,500 and 5,000 people are allowed in as tourists every year. Journalists are not welcome.
On a road out of Pyongyang, in the southern provinces, the situation becomes almost unbearable. Here, people shamble about pulling carts with hay, tree branches, old car batteries, plastic cans – anything they can found.
There are people on bicycles, riding seemingly aimlessly along a dirt embankment through the muddy fields. In the rice fields above, groups of women are digging and hacking at the earth.
"No pictures here," the guide says.
As the guide and the driver take their visitors further south along a dirt road, moving at high speed, a man comes running, as if for his life, across a water-logged meadow, towards the road.
He probably has nothing, and sees some kind of hope in a passing vehicle.
The driver and guide ignore him.
Instead, the guide explains, there will be a short stop just up ahead. She then gets on to her authorised mobile phone and starts a subdued discussion in Korean.
A few miles down the road, on the outskirts of a village, something looks out of the place.
A woman in a sparkling coloured, traditional Korean dress and excessive make-up, not a spot of dirt on her, is playing volleyball with a man in a wedding suit. Three men in black jackets are standing watching the "wedding couple". They laugh wildly as the guide prompts everyone off the bus.
"Look," the guide rejoices. "Look how happy the beautiful couple is. Please take a lot of pictures of them. They want you to, they are proud."
There is no doubt whatsoever that she believes in her heart that the photo opportunity has been a success.
But the sky out here, near the border with South Korea, is just slightly brighter than the brown mud that covers the barren earth. The cold pierces through to the bones. There is no shelter, nowhere to go from here. In front of a barracks young soldiers burn wooden chairs to try to get warm. A boy who looks to be around three years old has stopped dead in his tracks at the side of the road.
He just stands there, staring, as if he will never move again.
**************North Korea fires four short-range missiles
Pyongyang responds to US-South Korea drills by firing missiles off the country's east coast, South Korea defence ministry says
Agence France-Presse in Seoul
theguardian.com, Thursday 27 February 2014 12.20 GMT
North Korea has test-fired four short-range missiles into the sea, Seoul's defence ministry said, in an apparent show of force to coincide with the South's joint military exercises with the US.
A ministry spokesman said the missiles, with an estimated range of 200km (125 miles), were fired off the east coast of North Korea.
"Our military will maintain tight vigilance in preparation for additional launches or any military provocation from the North," the spokesman said.
North Korea regularly carries out short-range missile tests, and has used them before to display its anger at the annual military exercises. Observers said the tests were unlikely to trigger a significant rise in military tensions.
The South Korea-US drills began on Monday despite vocal opposition from Pyongyang, which views them as rehearsals for an invasion.
This year they overlapped with the reunion of families divided by the Korean war - an event that has raised hopes of greater cross-border co-operation after a three-year hiatus.
Pyongyang initially insisted the joint exercises be postponed until after the reunion finished on Tuesday, but Seoul refused and – in a rare concession – the North allowed the family gatherings on its territory to go ahead as scheduled.
02/25/2014 01:08 PM
Central African Republic President Samba-Panza: 'There Is Still Hope'
Interview Conducted by Jan Puhl and Petra Truckendanner
The Central African Republic has been torn apart by violence, with only the engagement of troops from France and the African Union keeping a modicum of peace. President Catherine Samba-Panza tells SPIEGEL that EU help is crucial.
SPIEGEL: Violence in your country is escalating: Christians are attacking Muslims, well over a thousand people have died so far and human rights organizations are talking of genocide. Is the international community partly responsible, because it has failed to augment the French and African troop presence?
Catherine Samba-Panza: The international community is playing a cautious role. They can't be everywhere, they don't have enough troops for that. The deployment of 1,600 French troops and the African Union's 5,000-strong force deserves recognition -- one certainly cannot speak of complicity.
SPIEGEL: You yourself are a Christian. Is there a risk that the country's entire Muslim population will be killed or driven out? Is it already too late to stop this from happening?
Samba-Panza: No, there is still hope. It's not as though there is violence against Muslims across the whole of the Central African Republic. In many areas, priests and imams are trying to calm the public down, and without this ecumenical effort, the situation would be much worse.
SPIEGEL: You are appealing to the international community for more peacekeeping troops. Do you also expect Germany to play a role?
Samba-Panza: Brussels has already promised that the EU will deploy troops and provide financial and humanitarian aid. Germany is significantly involved and without its support, this pledge would never have been made.
SPIEGEL: Why exactly should the EU help your country? Many peace missions in Africa have failed.
Samba-Panza: Aid is essentially a question of solidarity. EU countries are also members of the United Nations, so they have an obligation to come to the assistance of other members in need.
SPIEGEL: Until recently, the Central African Republic was not known for religious conflict. Now it appears to be on the frontline of the clash of cultures. Why has it come to this?
Samba-Panza: Christians and Muslims have always co-existed here peacefully. The current conflict did not start out as a religious battle. It began with a political rebellion against the central government staged by the rebel militia Séléka. This group is made up mainly of Muslims who come primarily from Sudan and Chad. In order to defend their villages, Christians then formed their own militia, the anti-balaka. Both sides included bandits among their ranks. It is primarily these criminal elements that have perpetrated the violence.
SPIEGEL: And who is behind the militias?
Samba-Panza: People pursuing a political agenda, such as François Bozizé, the former president who was ousted a year ago. They sow the seeds of chaos so they can try to return to power.
SPIEGEL: Could the parts of the Central African Republic that are under Muslim control become breeding grounds for fundamentalists?
Samba-Panza: This is a risk that affects the international community just as much as the Central African Republic. We must be vigilant and prevent it from happening. I will not allow this country to become divided.
SPIEGEL: What can you do to stop it? You are not even in control of your army, which itself commits atrocities.
Samba-Panza: I have been in office for four weeks and can't solve all of our problems in a month. But I am the head of state and I will assert myself.
SPIEGEL: You are only the third female president of an African country. Did you think this is to your advantage?
Samba-Panza: It marks a triumph for a nation that has witnessed 20 years of murder and mayhem. The people accepted me immediately. I don't believe they would have accepted a man as their new leader so willingly. Men are seen as aggressors. Women are respected in our culture, especially women of a certain age.
SPIEGEL: How can society ever get over the trauma caused by civil war?
Samba-Panza: The role of the judiciary is crucial. Any form of exemption from punishment is not an option. We must hold criminals to account. Only then will the people of the Central African Republic coexist in peace again. The state needs to rebuilt its authority, and then we will hold elections.
Qatar's foreign domestic workers subjected to slave-like conditions
Revelations of mistreatment of maids and cleaners add to picture of widespread labour abuse in World Cup host nation
Rebecca Falconer in Doha
theguardian.com, Wednesday 26 February 2014 17.00 GMT
Foreign maids, cleaners and other domestic workers are being subjected to slave-like labour conditions in Qatar, with many complaining they have been deprived of passports, wages, days off, holidays and freedom to move jobs, a Guardian investigation can reveal.
Hundreds of Filipino maids have fled to their embassy in recent months because conditions are so harsh. Many complain of physical and sexual abuse, harassment, long periods without pay and the confiscation of mobile phones.
The exploitation raises further concerns about labour practices in Qatar in advance of the World Cup, after Guardian reports about the treatment of construction workers. The maids are not directly connected to Qatar's preparations for the football tournament, but domestic workers will play a big role in staffing the hotels, stadiums and other infrastructure that will underpin the 2022 tournament.
Our investigation reveals:
• The Philippine Overseas Labour Office (POLO) sheltered more than 600 runaway maids in the first six months of 2013 alone.
• Some workers say they have not been paid for months.
• Many housemaids do not get days off.
• Some contracts and job descriptions are changed once the workers arrive in Qatar.
• Women who report a sexual assault can be charged with illicit relations.
The non-payment of wages, confiscation of documents and inability of workers to leave their employer constitute forced labour under UN rules. According to the International Labour Organisation, forced labour is "all work which is exacted from someone under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily".
Lack of consent can include induced indebtedness and deception about the type and terms of work, withholding or non-payment of wages and the retention of identity documents. Initial consent may be considered irrelevant when deception or fraud has been used to obtain it.
"Menace of penalty" can include physical violence, deprivation of food and shelter, non-payment of wages, the inability to repay a loan, exclusion from future employment and removal of rights and privileges.
Modern-day slavery is estimated to affect up to 21 million people across the globe.
When the Guardian visited in January, at least 35 runaway maids had sought sanctuary at the POLO in the capital, Doha, which provides support to 200,000 Filipinos in Qatar. The welfare officer said most complained of pay being withheld, insufficient food, overwork and maltreatment. Some said they had endured verbal and physical abuse by sponsors of different nationalities.
Eight Filipino workers interviewed by the Guardian said they had not been paid for six months, were sometimes deprived of food while cleaning for long hours and had had their passports confiscated.
"We are afraid," said 28-year-old Jane*. "We don't really know what to do. We are trying to survive. That's why we do part-time jobs secretly." If they are caught breaching their contract, the maids face months in a deportation centre. The repatriation process is often delayed when people do not have their passports, according to James Lynch, Amnesty International's researcher on Gulf migrants' rights.
Qatar vigorously denies it is a "slave state" and is understood to be reviewing the controversial system that governs migrant labour, and to have stepped up inspections of businesses that use migrant labour. The Qatari labour ministry said in a statement: "We have clear laws and contractual terms in place to protect all people who live and work in Qatar and anyone found to have broken those laws will be prosecuted accordingly." It said that non-payment of wages and confiscation of passports were illegal in Qatar, and added: "The vast majority of workers in Qatar – domestic or otherwise – work amicably, save money and send this home to improve the economic situation of their families and communities in their home countries."
But the Philippines-based OFW (Overseas Foreign Workers) Watch, which supports Filipino migrant workers, said physical abuse, delayed and refused salaries, the misrepresentation of employers and contracts and passport confiscations were common issues in Qatar. The Guardian has already highlighted this malpractice in its investigation into the mistreatment of migrant workers as Qatar gears up for the 2022 World Cup.
As with the construction workers, the abuse of maids is systemic and brought into sharp focus by a lack of legal protection and the kafala sponsorship system, under which workers cannot leave the country or change jobs without their employer's permission, Lynch said.
"The women we've spoken to who have suffered abuses in the workplace, ranging from excessive working hours to physical violence, their employers came from a variety of countries," he added.
Many maids say they do not get any rest days and that employers confiscate their mobile phones.
Several recruitment agencies contacted by phone told a Guardian reporter pretending to be a would-be client that they routinely withheld the passports of their migrant workers. One agency volunteered that it was up to the sponsor whether the maid had a day off. "If you want to give an off day, let them rest at your house," an Al Hadeel Manpower representative said. "Don't give them free days outside because there is more problems outside."
Domestic workers are not covered by Qatar's labour laws and cannot challenge their contracts in court.
François Crépeau, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, said he was told during his eight-day visit to Doha in November that if some sponsors disliked the maid, they could have her arrested for theft. "These are all hearsay stories, but it was quite frequent," he said.
Crépeau, who will present a report of his Qatar trip to the UN in June, said he saw about 100 maids at the Philippine labour office waiting to be moved to the deportation centre, which housed about 1,300 people when he visited. He also visited the Central Prison, where he found women imprisoned with their babies as they served one-year sentences for adultery because they were unmarried.
Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, said some imprisoned babies were conceived when their mothers were raped by their employers.
The penalty for rape in Qatar is life imprisonment and, under some circumstances, death. Sexual harassment is illegal, but women who report such cases risk being charged with having illicit relations.
"They've become enslaved in Qatar, forced into abusive relationships, often become pregnant as a result of forced sexual relationships or rape and then the perpetrator has total power and refuses to sign an exit visa, so they end up imprisoned," Burrow said.
Crescente Relacion, the Philippine ambassador to Qatar, who declined to be interviewed but issued a written response to Guardian questions, said the embassy had assisted the fewer than five expatriates who had filed such charges with police in 2013. "Some victims have decided to settle amicably or not to file charges as doing so would significantly delay the repatriation," he said.
One runaway maid, Vanessa, fled to the Philippine women's shelter with only the clothes she was wearing because she said her employers of four years had cancelled her flight back home and confiscated her belongings for shouting at their children.
Vanessa said she had not had a day off in four years, but she did not regard playing with the children as work. She alleges the Indian mother of the family that employed her struck her because she did not want Vanessa to feed her infant son. "She hit my face because, yes, I admit that it's my fault because I fed the baby," she said. "What I didn't accept is that they took everything."
Among the items were precious photographs of her 10-year-old daughter, whom she has seen once during her only holiday, when she visited her mother in the Philippines in 2011, her mobile phone and 42,500 pesos (£580), she said. "Maybe they're telling to the police that I steal, but only God knows."
Because of the kafala system, Vanessa could not simply turn her back on her job or seek alternative employment. She is tethered to the employer via the sponsor who supports her migrant status in Qatar. She was faced with an unpleasant choice: tolerate the abuse or run away.
*Names withheld to protect identities
Amnesty International accuses Israeli armed forces of possible war crimes
Human rights group says soldiers have killed dozens of Palestinians with virtual impunity in West Bank
theguardian.com, Thursday 27 February 2014 09.16 GMT
Israeli forces are using excessive, reckless violence in the occupied West Bank, killing dozens of Palestinians over the past three years in what might constitute a war crime, Amnesty International said.
In a report entitled Trigger Happy, the human rights group accused Israel of allowing its soldiers to act with virtual impunity and urged an independent review of the deaths.
The Israeli army dismissed the allegations, saying security forces had seen a "substantial increase" in Palestinian violence and Amnesty had revealed a "complete lack of understanding" about the difficulties soldiers faced.
According to UN data, 45 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank between 2011 and 2013, including six children. Amnesty said it had documented the deaths of 25 civilians during this period, all but three of whom died last year.
"The report presents a body of evidence that shows a harrowing pattern of unlawful killings and unwarranted injuries of Palestinian civilians by Israeli forces in the West Bank," said Philip Luther, the director of the Middle East and north Africa programme at Amnesty International.
Amnesty said that in none of the cases it reviewed did the Palestinians appear to be posing any imminent threat to life. "In some, there is evidence that they were victims of wilful killings, which would amount to war crimes," the group said.
After a three-year hiatus Israelis and Palestinians resumed direct peace talks last July, which the Palestinians hope will give them an independent state on territory seized by Israel in the 1967 war, including the West Bank.
Although their decades-old conflict has become a low-intensity confrontation, violence still flares regularly, with Palestinians accounting for the vast majority of casualties.
The 87-page report, published on Thursday, focused only on violence in the West Bank, not the Gaza Strip. It highlighted a number of the deaths, including that of 21-year-old Lubna Hanash, who was shot in the head on 23 January 2013 as she left an agricultural college near the flashpoint city of Hebron.
Amnesty quoted witnesses saying a soldier opened fire 100 metres from where she was standing. A female relative standing alongside her was shot in the hand. Neither had been taking part in any protest.
A few days earlier, a 16-year-old schoolboy, Samir Awad, was shot three times, including in the back of the head, after staging a protest near the Israeli separation barrier that divides his village from its historical farmlands.
A third killing saw Waji al-Ramahi, 15, shot in the back from a distance of 200 metres in December 2013 near the Jalazun refugee camp, Amnesty said.
An Israeli army statement responding to the report did not refer to any specific incidents, but said 2013 had seen a sharp increase in rock-hurling incidents, which had injured 132 Israeli civilians and military personnel.
"Where feasible the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] contains this life-threatening violence using riot dispersal means," it said. "Only once these tools have been exhausted and human life and safety remains under threat, is the use of precision munition authorised."
The IDF said the report had compiled "carefully selected, unverifiable and often contradictory accounts from clearly politically motivated individuals, which it then reports as unquestioned facts."
Besides the numerous deaths, Amnesty said at least 261 Palestinians, including 67 children, were seriously injured by live ammunition fired by Israeli forces in the West Bank over the past three years.
More than 8,000 Palestinians were seriously injured by other means, including rubber-coated metal bullets, since January 2011, the report said.
During this period, just one Israeli soldier was convicted of wrongfully causing the death of a Palestinian – an unnamed staff sergeant who shot dead a Palestinian while he was trying to enter Israel illegally in search of a job.
The staff sergeant received a one-year prison sentence, with five months suspended, and was allowed to stay in the army, albeit at a lower rank, Amnesty said.
Three other investigations over the past three years were closed without indictments, five were closed but their findings were not revealed and 11 are still open.
"The current Israeli system has proved woefully inadequate," Luther said. "A strong message must be sent to Israeli soldiers and police officers that abuses will not go unpunished."
The IDF said it held itself "to the highest of professional standards", adding that when there was suspicion of wrongdoing, it investigated and took action "where appropriate".
Queue for food in Syria's Yarmouk camp shows desperation of refugees
Huge crowd of Palestinians is photographed waiting for aid in Yarmouk, which has been under blockade for month
theguardian.com, Wednesday 26 February 2014 17.52 GMT
It is a vision of unimaginable desolation: a crowd of men, women and children stretching as far as the eye can see into the war-devastated landscape of Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus.
A photograph released on Wednesday by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, shows the scene when thousands of desperate Palestinians trapped inside the camp on the edge of the Syrian capital emerged to besiege aid workers attempting to distribute food parcels.
More than 18,000 people are existing under blockade inside Yarmouk, enduring acute shortages of food, medicines and other essentials. Much of the camp has been destroyed by shelling, and attempts to deliver aid to those inside have been hampered by continued fighting in Syria's three-year-old civil war.
United Nations workers have delivered about 7,000 food parcels over recent weeks, following negotiations between the Syrian government, rebel forces and Palestinian factions within the camp. The most recent delivery, of 450 parcels, was on Wednesday. The UN acknowledges that the level of aid is a "drop in the ocean".
Yarmouk has been cut off since last July. Many residents are now weak and severely malnourished, as well as being exposed to the risk of disease, or death and injury from fighting.
Filippo Grandi, the head of UNRWA, described the camp as a ghost town after visiting this week. "The devastation is unbelievable. There is not one single building that I have seen that is not an empty shell by now. They're all blackened by smoke," he told reporters.
He said he was even more shocked by the camp's residents, who flooded towards aid distribution points. "It's like the appearance of ghosts. These are people who have not been out of there, that have been trapped in there not only without food, medicines, clean water – all the basics – but also probably completely subjected to fear because there was fierce fighting … They can hardly speak. I tried to speak to many of them, and they all tell the same stories of complete deprivation."
The distribution point is a "no-man's land", overlooked by sniper positions, between a Syrian government-controlled checkpoint and the camp's interior. "What about those who cannot come [to the distribution point]?" said Grandi. "I'm pretty sure there are many people who have never received assistance in the last month because they are too weak, or maybe elderly, or unaccompanied children."
As well as about 18,000 registered Palestinian refugees, there is an unknown number of other residents trapped inside Yarmouk. UNRWA's food parcels – which include tinned meat, rice and lentils – can feed a family of up to eight people for 10 days.
The agency is warning that the degradation of conditions inside the camp could lead to the spread of disease. There have been reports of mothers dying in childbirth, and families surviving on animal feed, according to a spokesman. The UN has sent in 10,000 doses of polio vaccine in the past month.
The UN security council adopted a resolution last week calling on all parties in Syria to take steps to facilitate the efforts of the UN and other humanitarian agencies to provide relief to civilians, "including by promptly facilitating safe and unhindered humanitarian access to populations in need of assistance in all areas under their control."
However, said Grandi, the situation on the ground was "very messy, very localised, a lot of local dynamics at play". Each distribution required "very complex negotiations with a lot of different groups".
Yarmouk camp, about five miles from the centre of Damascus, was home to more than 100,000 registered Palestinian refugees before the war. Many have fled to other areas of Syria, or abroad. Some have made their way to Gaza.
According to figures released by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Wednesday, about 3,300 people have been killed in fighting in Syria since the start of this year. It said that 70 opposition fighters were killed in a government attack on a rebel-held area south of Damascus at dawn on Wednesday, with dozens more reported missing. The state news agency Sana put the number killed at 175.
Syria's civil conflict has claimed more than 100,000 lives since 2011 and has forced about 6 million people from their homes.
UNRWA said 12 of its workers had been killed in Syria since the war began almost three years ago, and another 20 had gone missing.
Uganda donors cut aid after president passes anti-gay law
Norway and Denmark cut aid, while others including US review budgets over law imposing harsh penalties for homosexuality
theguardian.com, Tuesday 25 February 2014 18.21 GMT
Once regarded as an example of enlightened African leadership, Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, is currently something of an international pariah. His decision to sign a bill into law that imposes harsh penalties for homosexuality has resulted in cuts to the country's generous aid budget.
The US described the adoption of the law as a tragic day for Uganda, and the secretary of state, John Kerry, announced that "all dimensions" of US engagement with the country would be reviewed, including the aid budget.
Britain is not following suit. The Department for International Development said all direct support to the Ugandan government had been cut in November after a corruption scandal, but a spokesman said the £97.9m in this year's budget would not be withheld. "The UK remains committed to supporting the people of Uganda," he said. The money will now be channelled through alternative routes, including international aid agencies that met the UK's human rights principles.
Other European donors have taken a tougher line. Norway said it would be withholding $8m in development aid, and Denmark will divert $9m away from the government. "We cannot distance ourselves too strongly from the law and the signal that the Ugandan government now sends to not only persecuted minority groups, but to the whole world," the Danish trade and development minister, Mogens Jensen, said. Austria said it was reviewing its assistance.
Uganda has traditionally been one of the largest recipients of international aid. According to the Overseas Development Institute, the country received $1.6bn (£960m) in 2011, making it the world's 20th largest aid recipient. Between 2006 and 2010 the US was the biggest donor, providing $1.7bn, followed by Britain with $694m.
Uganda's recent growth has reduced its aid dependence and the country hopes its newly found oil reserves will bear fruit in 2016. With aid a decreasing share of government revenues, the hold donor countries have over Museveni has weakened. Uganda is also an important strategic ally, providing troops to Somalia in their fight against al-Shabaab.
While Western donors have been scrambling to react to the passing of the bill there has been almost no response from other African leaders, many of whom have similar legislation. South Africa, one of the few African countries to protect the rights of gay men and women and allow gay marriage, has issued a statement calling for clarification from various countries about their laws on sexual orientation, a government official said on Tuesday.
International relations department spokesperson Clayson Monyela said in a statement: "South Africa believes that no persons should be subjected to discrimination or violence on any ground, including on the basis of sexual orientation."
The African Union offices in Addis Ababa have been similarly silent. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called on African leaders to respect gay rights when he addressed their summit in January 2012, but they have been reluctant to tackle the issue.
"Let me mention one form of discrimination that has been ignored, or even sanctioned, by many states for far too long … discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity," Ban said. "This has prompted some governments to treat people as second-class citizens, or even criminals."
Ban's call for action was met with silence. Activists have attempted to raise the issue with the African Commission on Human and People's Rights, but this, too, has met with little success.
Homophobia is entrenched in Africa. The Uganda daily Red Pepper plastered its front page with a single headline: Exposed! Uganda's Top Homos Named. Photographs of some allegedly gay men ran alongside the text.
There has, however, been one small ray of hope. A Zambian court has cleared a prominent rights activist, Paul Kasonkomona, of encouraging homosexuality after he called for gay rights to be recognised. He was arrested in April 2013 and charged with soliciting.
"This is a great victory for freedom of expression," his lawyer, Anneke Meerkotter, said. "The mood in the court was one of great relief."
02/26/2014 04:11 PM
'A Perfect Storm': The Failure of Venezuela's New President
By Jens Glüsing
He was hand-picked by Hugo Chávez, but Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has lost control of the country's economy. Vast protests have been the result, but the government in Caracas has shown no signs of bending.
The smell of smoke wafts over Caracas. A group of young women have built a barricade of wooden pallets and garbage bags and lit it on fire on the main street running through Bello Monte, a middle-class quarter of the Venezuelan capital.
A petite university student named Elisabeth Camacho fiddles with a gas canister and clutches a stick bristling with nails. She is wearing a white T-shirt and a baseball cap in Venezuela's national colors, a kind of uniform worn by many of the demonstrators. She appears relaxed and ignores the curses coming from drivers struggling to turn their cars around. "We demand security," she says. "The government needs to finally stop the violence."
Students have been protesting in Caracas for days, building barricades on city streets and occupying squares. The movement began two weeks ago in San Cristóbal, in the state of Táchira near the border with Colombia. In just a few days, it spread across the entire country.
The students are protesting against inflation, shortages and corruption. Mostly, though, they are taking to the streets in opposition to the violence meted out by the country's paramilitary shock troops. "We are going to protest until the government disarms the colectivos," says Camacho.
"Colectivos" is the name given to the brutal militias that even late President Hugo Chávez supported. Now, the government of his successor, Nicolás Maduro, is sending the thugs after opposition activists, with masked men on motorcycles speeding through the streets, firing on demonstrators and, sometimes, following students all the way back to their universities. At least 13 people have died in the unrest, with some 150 having been injured.
Last Tuesday, government toughs terrorized the quarter of Altamira, a hotbed of opposition in Caracas. For hours, some 150 motorcycles sped through the central square and guns were fired into the air. A handful of passersby received bullet wounds.
A Mustachioed Chávez
One day later, Maduro co-opted the country's television channels to publicly ridicule his opponents. Wearing a bright red shirt, he hosted the live show like an MC in a performance reminiscent of his predecessor. Chávez used to call opposition supporters "scrawny." Maduro prefers to call them "fascists."
Indeed, Maduro behaves a lot like a mustachioed Chávez, but lacks his foreruner's humor and, especially, his aplomb. He often seems tense; he picks at his shirt and stumbles over his words.
Chávez died just under one year ago, but began grooming Maduro as his crown prince a few months prior, largely due to the former-bus-driver-turned-cabinet-minister's obedience. No one was as obedient as Maduro, a former bus driver that Chávez made into a government minister. It was a terrible decision for the country: What Maduro lacks in charisma, he makes up for in radicalism. He has ruined the country's economy and has often turned to Cuba, his closest ally, for guidance. And he has attempted to silence the opposition with a campaign of pure terror. Recently, though, it has begun looking as though he will have difficulty regaining the upper hand over the protests.
When Maduro's term began, hopes had been high that he would be able to reconcile his divided country. He sought out contact with the US and gave the impression that he was willing to open a dialogue with opposition politicians. But last week, he expelled three American diplomats, claiming they had supported "the opposition fascists."
Recently, he has encroached on the freedom of expression to a greater degree than even Chávez did. He arranged the purchase of Venezuela's last remaining critical television station and has unleashed his supporters on the "fascist broadcaster" CNN and on other foreign journalists. A "deputy minister for social networks" has been charged with monitoring what Venezuelans post on Twitter and elsewhere while the two largest government-critical newspapers have had trouble publishing due to a paper shortage.
The president is a stubborn ideologue hiding behind a jovial façade. He has launched a new wave of expropriations and increased government control in slums with neighborhood organizations monitoring residents on the model of Cuba's "committees for the defense of the revolution."
The Voice of the Opposition
Maduro travels frequently to Havana for consultations with the Castro brothers; he was also their preference to succeed Chávez. Cubans also monitor Venezuela's security apparatus, to the point that they even issue personal IDs. But in recent weeks, a potentially dangerous opponent to Maduro has emerged.
Representative Mariá Corina Machado receives visitors in the office of her organization, La Salida, the exit. Machado is the closest ally of opposition politician Leopoldo López, 42. She keeps things moving while Salida leader López sits in a military prison waiting for the Maduro regime to put him on trial.
López, a Harvard graduate and a former mayor of the prosperous municipality of Chacao, is the voice of the opposition. He is chivalrous, charismatic and impatient. He only begrudgingly accepted Enrique Capriles, the moderate governor of Miranda, as the opposition's candidate in the presidential election last April. He had wanted to run himself.
Maduro won with a razor-thin majority and López has never accepted the election result. He broke with Capriles and threw his support behind the student protest movement. After three protesters were killed during violent clashes in Caracas on Feb. 12, López was made responsible, with prosecutors accusing him of incitement to murder. With proceedings now having begun, the judiciary has reduced the charges to destruction of public property.
López went into hiding for five days, only to turn himself in in a maneuver worthy of Hollywood: Waving a Venezuelan flag during a mass demonstration, he climbed into a military vehicle and was driven in a convoy to jail, escorted by his supporters. He became a martyr overnight and is now the best-known opposition figure in the country.
The risks López is taking are significant. He is polarizing the country and openly challenging the regime. "We don't want to wait six years until the next election. By then, the country will be ruined," says his ally Corina Machado. "Maduro should resign as soon as possible."
'Destroying the Private Sector'
But are López's actions calculated? Or are they born out of desperation? For 12 years, the opposition has been doing everything it can to topple the government. Activists have staged an overthrow attempt, organized referenda and put up candidates in elections -- but Chávez always won. The "Caudillo" was considered invincible.
That, though, cannot be said of Maduro. His victory in last year's election was anything but a landslide and even in the slums -- once the source of Chávez's power -- his economic policies are not well received. In order to combat the country's massive inflation of over 50 percent, Maduro has introduced price controls. Shops that demand prices that he believes are too high are simply occupied. "We will guarantee everyone has a plasma television," the president has said, and has forced stores to sell them cheaply.
"It is plundering under the aegis of the state," says Diego Arria, formerly Venezuela's UN ambassador. "Maduro is destroying the private sector."
Oil production is responsible for roughly a third of the country's economic output and over 70 percent of consumer goods are imported. But the yield from Venezuela's oil wells has been dropping for years and gasoline and foodstuffs are heavily subsidized. And now, the government is running out of hard cash. The official exchange rate is around 6.3 bolívars to the dollar, but on the black market, one can get up to 84 bolívars for a US dollar.
Many shops are empty, with even corn flour, milk and toilet paper subject to shortages. Lines like those seen in Cuba have become common and people are desperately trying to get their hands on dollars. "A perfect storm is brewing in Venezuela," says Arria.
The government has even been having difficulties supplying the basics in the slums of Caracas. In the vast quarter of "23 de enero," people stand in long lines in front of the state-run supermarket; they are issued numbers on strips of cardboard. Chavistas control entry to the store and glorify Maduro and the revolution to shoppers. Most of those waiting remain silent. Every three days, they mumble quietly when the guards aren't paying attention, their food coupons will get them chicken from Brazil and two kilograms of flour, but nothing more.
Venezuela's military has more power under Maduro, a civilian, than it did under the former officer Chávez. Maduro has handed out senior jobs to some 2,000 soldiers and the military now occupies key positions in business and controls entire companies. At the end of last week, Maduro sent a parachute battalion to Táchira to curtail the protests there.
But even in the military, dissatisfaction is spreading. "The soldiers just haven't yet had the courage to open their mouths," says one administrative employee who works in Fuerte Tiuna, a military base on the outskirts of Caracas.
Even Chávez had begun to realize that the enemy was within. He had officers and a former defense minister who had been critical of him arrested and imprisoned on charges of corruption. Some of them remain locked up in the Ramo Verde military prison not far from Caracas -- just a few cells away from Leopoldo López.
In front of the prison, a group of women are gathered, the mothers of the dozens of university students who have been arrested in the course of the protests. Some of the prisoners are minors, others are injured. "They beat my son on his head," says Beatriz Munga, a desperately worried mother. "I just want to know how he is doing."
She pulls out her cell phone and shows a video that her sons' protest companions made. Shots and blows can be heard, motorcycle engines roar and someone screams. Then, the screen goes black.
Translated from the German by Charles Hawley
Ecuador's Correa Scrubs Cabinet after Election Setback
by Naharnet Newsdesk
26 February 2014, 20:22
Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa Wednesday asked his cabinet to resign after his ruling party was soundly defeated in local elections over the weekend, a government official said.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the changes would be announced after next week's Carnival holiday.
Sunday's polls involving some 221 municipalities saw center-right candidates defeat Correa's candidates in Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca -- the country's largest cities.
It was the biggest electoral setback for Correa and his leftist government since he took office in 2007.
Correa, a populist in the mold of the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, acknowledged that the outcome was "painful."
He told reporters Tuesday in Guayaquil, however, that he had already planned to restructure his government.
"Regardless of the election outcome, we had felt it necessary to energize the cabinet," Correa said.
Re-elected last year to a final four-year term -- the constitution prevents him from staying on longer -- Correa had argued that losing the capital to the opposition would threaten stability.
Correa made no official media announcement following Wednesday's closed-door meeting in which he requested the resignations.
But a local newspaper quoted Ecuador's Secretary of Legal Affairs Alexis Mera as saying Correa had asked for the cabinet's resignation and that he had already submitted his.
Kepler’s bonanza: Space telescope discovers 715 new planets
Wednesday, February 26, 2014 18:09 EST
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) – Scientists added a record 715 more planets to the list of known worlds beyond the solar system, boosting the overall tally to nearly 1,700, astronomers said on Wednesday.
The additions include four planets about 2-1/2 times as big as Earth that are the right distance from their parent stars for liquid surface water, which is believed to be key for life.
The discoveries were made with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope before it was sidelined by a pointing system problem last year. The telescope, launched in 2009, spent four productive years staring at 160,000 target stars for signs of planets passing by, relative to the telescope’s line of sight.
The tally of planets announced at a NASA press conference on Wednesday boosted Kepler’s confirmed planet count from 246 to 961.
Combined with other telescopes’ results, the headcount of planets beyond the solar system, or exoplanets, now numbers nearly 1,700.
“We almost doubled, just today, the number of planets known to humanity,” astronomer Douglas Hudgins, head of exoplanet exploration at NASA Headquarters in Washington, told reporters on a conference call.
The population boom is due to a new verification technique that analyzes potential planets in batches rather than one at a time. The method was developed after scientists realized that most planets, like those in the solar system, have sibling worlds orbiting a common parent star.
The newly found planets reinforce evidence that small planets, two to three times the size of Earth, are common throughout the galaxy.
“Literally, wherever (Kepler) can see them, it finds them,” said astronomer Sara Seager, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “That’s why we have confidence that there will be planets like Earth in other places.”
Like the solar system, which has eight planets plus Pluto and other so-called “dwarf planets,” the newly found exoplanets belong in families.
But unlike the solar system’s planets, which span from inner Mercury to outer Neptune some 150 times farther from the sun than Earth, the Kepler clans are bunched in close.
Most of the planets fly nearer to their parent stars than Venus orbits the sun, a distance of about 67 million miles (108 million km.)
NASA and other space agencies are designing follow-on telescopes to home in on planets in so-called “habitable zones” around their parent stars where temperatures would be suitable for liquid surface water.
Two papers on the new Kepler research will appear in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal.
(Editing by David Adams)