04/01/2013 02:48 PM
Bomb from Brussels: Cyprus Model May Guide Future Bank Bailouts
Should the Cypriot bailout become a model for the future? The mere suggestion sent markets tumbling last week. But increasing numbers of European politicians would like to see bank shareholders and investors bear a greater share of crisis risk. The EU may be changing its strategy. By SPIEGEL Staff
Jeroen Dijsselbloem's original game plan was to just keep a low profile. When the 47-year-old Dutch finance minister became head of the Euro Group three months ago, the first thing he did was deactivate his Twitter account. In meetings of the finance ministers of the 17 euro-zone states, he let his counterparts do most of the talking. And whenever he appeared before reporters in Brussels afterwards, he would start with sentences like: "Maybe it's good, if I say something."
Dijsselbloem seemed determined to become the most boring of all the boring bureaucrats in Brussels -- until last Monday, that is, when he did something no one would have anticipated: He detonated a bomb. The way that large depositors and creditors were being drawn into the bailout of Cypriot banks, he said, could become a model for the entire euro zone. In future aid packages, he said, one must look into whether bank shareholders, bond holders and large depositors could participate so as to spare taxpayers from having to foot the bill. He was announcing nothing less than a 180 degree about face.
Cyprus as a model? Dijsselbloem had hardly finished his comments before international news agencies began registering its impacts. Markets around the world nosedived, the euro sank to a four-month low and EU leaders had to rush into damage-control mode, as did the man who triggered the storm himself. Dijsselbloem backtracked by saying that Cypriot banks were obviously "a special case." Germany's top-selling daily tabloid, Bild, scoffed that Dijsselbloem would get a new nickname in Brussels: "Dusselbloem," the rough equivalent of "Dimwit-bloem."
But the ridicule might prove premature. In reality, Dijsselbloem merely expressed something that many Europeans already think. Whether at the European Parliament or in several Continental capitals, many are saying that the time is ripe for the financial sector to assume a greater share of the costs for rescuing ailing banks.
'Banks Must Save Themselves'
More is at stake than determining just how to deal with insolvent financial institutions. It is about core tenets of the bailout strategy being followed by the EU. Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, it has primarily been EU taxpayers who have assumed liability for the fallout. Failing banks, such as Germany's Hypo Real Estate (HRE) or Spain's Bankia, were kept on artificial life support while shareholders and creditors were spared. The advantages were enjoyed not only by actors on the global financial markets, but also by major banking centers, such as those in Luxembourg and London, which could count on seeing governments prop up teetering financial institutions.
A growing number of politicians and experts are demanding an end to this arrangement. In the future, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, "banks must save themselves." And German central bank board member Andreas Dombret is convinced that the financial sector can only regain health once there are no longer "implicit state guarantees for banks."
These guarantees were one of the fundamental reasons why Germany's state-owned Landesbanken invested in worthless securities, why Irish and Spanish banks financed excessively dubious real estate projects, and why Cypriot banks became a hub for investors with a penchant for tax evasion. The guarantees were also responsible for causing banks' balance sheets to swell to many times the value of their countries' annual economic performance. "It's not that there are just individual lending institutions that are too big to be allowed to fail," Dombret says. "There are clearly entire banking systems for which the same holds true." A country's financial sector, he adds, must be designed so that a national economy can cope with a downturn on its own.
But where is that the case? The balance sheets of Cypriot banks are seven times as large as the island's annual gross domestic product. The ratio is similar in Ireland, even though the banks in these countries have been being downsizing for four years. The imbalance is even more glaring in Europe's smallest countries, such as Malta and Luxembourg, where the bank balance-to-GDP ratio is 8-to-one and 22-to-one, respectively.
Since the outbreak of the crisis, the euro zone has succeeded in pruning back the banks, and their balance sheets are now only 3.5 times the size of the currency union's combined economic performance. But, in recent years, while hundreds of mainly smaller banks have been shut down in the United States, Europeans have closed their eyes to the dangers.
Stepping Into the Breach
Christine Lagarde, the former French finance minister and current head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), spoke in Frankfurt on March 19 about the progress that has been made in banking regulations, saying that 20 banks had been "resolved" since 2007 and that 60 have undergone "deep restructuring." Though impressive at first glance, these figures are misleading. Most of the banks were nationalized (such as HRE and Northern Rock), subsumed by other institutions (Sachsen LB) or broken down into smaller units (WestLB). Few have actually disappeared.
More than anything, however, Lagarde's figures fail to indicate who bore the costs of rehabilitating the banks. "Since the outbreak of the financial crisis," Dombret says, "taxpayers have unfortunately been forced to step into the breach with all difficulties."
Indeed, since 2008, the European Commission has authorized €5 trillion ($6.4 trillion) in aid for the financial sector, equivalent to 40 percent of the EU's combined economic performance. Germany alone has allocated €646 billion to its banks. In the process, private creditors have only been asked to make a modest contribution. For example, the Irish government put four times as much capital into rescuing domestic banks as private creditors did, and the ratio is similar in Spain.
Likewise, shareholders of failing institutions have by no means lost their money in all cases. Owners of shares in Commerzbank, for example, were allowed to retain their stakes even though the bank, Germany's second-largest, received €18.2 billion in state aid.
In many cases, simply too little could be taken from the shareholders to stabilize the institutions. "The Cypriot case vividly shows how little capital resources Europe's banks possess to absorb possible losses," says Harald Hau, 46, a finance expert at the University of Geneva. In his view, the unequal distribution of burdens between bank shareholders and taxpayers is by design -- he speaks of "existing banking socialism."
The banks' lack of sufficient capital has made taxpayers de facto shareholders because they are unfailingly asked to pony up whenever a bank runs into trouble. But unlike the real shareholders, Hau notes, taxpayers are "in no way compensated for this risk."
Including the Creditors
In the case of Cyprus, European leaders have demonstrated for the first time that the burdens can be distributed differently. Laiki Bank, the country's second-largest financial institution, will be dismantled, and the remaining private shareholders of the already largely nationalized bank and its creditors will shoulder its losses. But the plan also calls for bank customers with large deposits to share in the pain for the first time: Deposits above €100,000 will be drawn on to help cover the bank's losses.
"The plan is good because creditors and major depositors will be included," says Daniel Gros, director of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies. He also believes that the Cyprus solution could become a blueprint for dealing with banks in other EU countries in crisis. In recent years, Gros continues, banks and their creditors have been bailed out because people have kept in mind the dramatic market turbulences that followed in the collapse of Lehman Brothers. But he thinks people will now say: "Look at Cyprus. The market reacted positively to the plan to close down a major bank and have its creditors bear the costs."
Forcing private creditors to participate in bailing out faltering banks has, to be sure, triggered worries about the possible flight of capital from ailing countries. Bank customers and creditors could "relocate (their money) from the weak to the strongest institutions," says Uwe Burkert, head of credit analysis at the Landesbank Baden-Württemberg, a publicly owned regional bank based in the southwestern German state.
However, the financial markets have so far reacted to the conditions set for bailing out Cypriot banks with surprising calm. Indeed, ever since July 2012, when European Central Bank President Mario Draghi pledged that the EU's central bank would "do whatever it takes to preserve the euro," the situation in economically troubled euro-zone countries has stabilized considerably.
If this calm persists, there is nothing to block the implementation of Dijsselbloem's plans. Indeed, even the European Commission backs them in principle. As early as last June, Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier presented the initial draft of an EU directive on bank liquidation. The draft envisions forcing private investors to bear more of the costs when banks run into trouble. However, Hau, the finance expert at the University of Geneva, criticizes the plan for not clearly specifying exactly which investors will be compelled to participate and in which order.
Dissent from Luxembourg
Precisely this issue is currently being discussed at the European Parliament. "We want to clearly strengthen the position of deposit customers," says Swedish European Parliament member Gunnar Hökmark. Under the proposal, deposits of up to €100,000 would be excluded from any loss participation at a bank. Likewise, any deposits over that amount would only get hit if the losses couldn't be fully covered by a bank's shareholders and other creditors.
But governments and parliamentarians are fighting fiercely over the fine print. Officials representing Finland, the Netherlands and Germany want to pull in the financial sector as quickly and comprehensively as possible. But highly indebted Southern European countries, as well as governments fearing for their domestic financial sectors, are stepping on the brakes.
Luxembourg Finance Minister Luc Frieden, for example, has warned about the dangers of following the Cyprus model of making people with deposits greater than €100,000 help pay for bailouts. "This will lead to a situation in which investors invest their money outside the euro zone," he said. "In this difficult situation, we need to avoid anything that will lead to instability and destroy the trust of savers."
Despite major opposition, backers of Dijsselbloem's strategy believe their chances are improving. This has prompted Carsten Schneider, the budget policy expert for the opposition center-left Social Democrats in Berlin, to call for implementing the rules for winding down banks by 2014 rather than the currently planned 2018. "Societal and political acceptance is ending for the model of bank rescues in which the state protects bondholders and major investors," he says.
Dombret, the Bundesbank board member, likewise believes it would be sensible to push up the introduction of the new rules to 2015. Norbert Berthle, the parliamentary budget expert for Chancellor Merkel's conservatives, acknowledges that, "we first have to pull shareholders and creditors into a bank's rescue."
Dijsselbloem Holds Firm
In the end, however, one must conclude that, while Dijsselbloem's proposal may have been correct, it won't make it easier for EU leaders to resolve the euro debt crisis. On the one hand, the debate is urgently needed to put an end to the banking sector's business principle holding that profits should be privately enjoyed while losses are borne publicly. On the other, the issue threatens to spark new conflicts within the euro zone. Indeed, the dispute over Europe's banking system could soon become just as bitter as that between Northern and Southern Europe.
Either way, Dijsselbloem is determined to wage the battle. Though he has said that he no longer thinks the Cyprus bailout is a good model, he still intends to hold firm to the crux of his approach.
"Now that the situation is more calm and the financial markets seem to have become more steady and easier, we should start pushing back the risks," Dijsselbloem said in an interview with the Financial Times and Reuters last week. "Taking the risk from the financial sector and taking it on to public shoulders is not the right approach."
BY MARTIN HESSE, MICHAEL SAUGA, CORNELIA SCHMERGAL and CHRISTOPH SCHULT
Translated from the German by Josh Ward
04/02/2013 12:56 PM
Underwater: The Netherlands Falls Prey to Economic Crisis
By Christoph Schult and Anne Seith
The Netherlands, Berlin's most important ally in pushing for greater budgetary discipline in Europe, has fallen into an economic crisis itself. The once exemplary economy is suffering from huge debts and a burst real estate bubble, which has stalled growth and endangered jobs.
Michel Scheepens is familiar with risk. The 41-year-old oversees the energy market for the Dutch bank ING, and it's his job to determine whether his employer should finance such projects as a wind farm in Cyprus or a gas-fired power plant in Turkey. Until now, it was always other people's money that was involved.
For some time, however, Scheepens has been experiencing what a poor investment feels like on a personal level. Six years ago, the father of three bought half of a duplex for his family in the commuter town of Nieuw-Vennep, near the North Sea coast. The red brick building cost €430,000 ($552,000), but the bank generously offered him a loan of €500,000, so that there was enough money left over for renovations, along with notary and community fees. Scheepens had intended to resell the house after a few years, as is common in the Netherlands. But then prices tumbled following the Lehman bankruptcy. If the family were to sell the house today, it would have to pay the lender €60,000. His house is "onder water," as Scheepens says.
"Underwater" is a good description of the crisis in a country where large parts of the territory are below sea level. Ironically, the Netherlands, once a model economy, now faces the kind of real estate crisis that has only affected the United States and Spain until now. Banks in the Netherlands have also pumped billions upon billions in loans into the private and commercial real estate market since the 1990s, without ensuring that borrowers had sufficient collateral.
Private homebuyers, for example, could easily find banks to finance more than 100 percent of a property's price. "You could readily obtain a loan for five times your annual salary," says Scheepens, "and all that without a cent of equity." This was only possible because property owners were able to fully deduct mortgage interest from their taxes.
Instead of paying off the loans, borrowers normally put some of the money into an investment fund, month after month, hoping for a profit. The money was to be used eventually to pay off the loan, at least in part. But it quickly became customary to expect the value of a given property to increase substantially. Many Dutch savers expected that the resale of their homes would generate enough money to pay off the loans, along with a healthy profit.
An Economy on the Brink
More than a decade ago, the Dutch central bank recognized the dangers of this euphoria, but its warnings went unheeded. Only last year did the new government, under conservative-liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte, amend the generous tax loopholes, which gradually began to expire in January. But now it's almost too late. No nation in the euro zone is as deeply in debt as the Netherlands, where banks have a total of about €650 billion in mortgage loans on their books.
Consumer debt amounts to about 250 percent of available income. By comparison, in 2011 even the Spaniards only reached a debt ratio of 125 percent.
The Netherlands is still one of the most competitive countries in the European Union, but now that the real estate bubble has burst, it threatens to take down the entire economy with it. Unemployment is on the rise, consumption is down and growth has come to a standstill. Despite tough austerity measures, this year the government in The Hague will violate the EU deficit criterion, which forbid new borrowing of more than 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
It's a heavy burden, especially for Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who is also the new head of the Euro Group, and now finds himself in the unexpected role of being both a watchdog for the monetary union and a crisis candidate.
Even €46 billion in austerity measures are apparently not enough to remain within the EU debt limit. Although Dijsselbloem has announced another €4.3 billion in cuts in public service and healthcare, they will only take effect in 2014.
"Sticking the knife in even more deeply" would be "very, very unreasonable," Social Democrat Dijsselbloem told German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in an attempt to justify the delay. It's the kind of rhetoric normally heard from Europe's stricken southern countries. The adverse effects of living beyond one's means have become apparent since the financial crisis began. Many of the tightly calculated financing models are no longer working out, and citizens can hardly pay their debts anymore. The prices of commercial and private real estate, which were absurdly high for a time, are sinking dramatically. The once-booming economy is stalling.
Unemployment on the Rise
"A vicious cycle develops in such situations," says Jörg Rocholl, president of the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin and a member of the council of academic advisors to the German Finance Ministry. "Customers have too much debt and cannot service their loans. This causes problems for the banks, which are no longer supplying enough money to the economy. This leads to an economic downturn and high unemployment, which makes loan repayment even more difficult."
The official unemployment rate has already climbed to 7.7 percent. In reality, it is probably much higher, but that has been masked until now by a demographic group called the ZZP. The "Zelfstandigen zonder personeel" ("Self-employed without employees") are remotely related to the German model of the "Ich-AG" ("Me, Inc."). About 800,000 ZZPers currently work in the Netherlands.
One of them is Rob Huisman. The 47-year-old lives with his wife and son in Santpoort, near Haarlem. In 2006 Huisman, an IT specialist, left his position with a large consulting firm to start his own business. It went well at first, with Huisman earning €100 an hour. But over time many customers, both governmental and private, slashed the fees they were willing to pay. Sometimes jobs were simply deleted altogether. "For companies it's worthwhile to let their permanent employees go and then take on temporary work contracts," says the IT expert. "It saves them the social security costs."
There is cutthroat competition among the self-employed, who are undercutting each other to secure occasional jobs. "If you don't accept a job, someone else will snap it up," says Huisman. In addition, he is unable to pay contributions to his retirement fund at the moment. "We are living largely on our savings," he says.
No End in Sight
The Dutch were long among Europe's most diligent savers, and in the crisis many are holding onto their money even more tightly, which is also toxic to the economy. "One of the main problems is declining consumption," says Johannes Hers of the Centraal Planbureau in The Hague, the council of experts at the Economics Ministry.
His office expects a 0.5-percent decline in growth for 2013. Some 755 companies declared bankruptcy in February, the highest number since records began in 1981. The banking sector is also laying off thousands of employees at the moment.
Because of the many mortgage loans on the books, the financial industry is extremely inflated, so much so that the total assets of all banks are four-and-a-half times the size of economic output.
In February, the government was forced to nationalize SNS Bank, the country's fourth-largest bank, because it had a large portfolio of bad loans for commercial real estate. The remaining banks only want to securitize a portion of their giant loan portfolios and resell the securities through a special mortgage bank -- primarily to the country's pension funds, where the Dutch have put away large sums for retirement.
Young families like the Scheepens, who have bought a home in recent years, are now hoping that they can at least keep their jobs. Although their duplex has lost value, they can still make the monthly payments.
But the cuts are getting closer. A neighbor recently lost his job, and well-educated people can no longer find jobs. "There is no end to the crisis in sight," says Scheepens.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
04/01/2013 03:19 PM
Gerhard Schröder: 'Germany Can Only Lead Europe the Way Porcupines Mate'
In a SPIEGEL interview, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, 68, talks about how difficult it is for citizens to accept military deployments abroad, the country's leadership role and what justifies war.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Schröder, German soldiers have participated in more than 20 foreign missions in the last 20 years. Have we become a normal nation?
Schröder: You could look at it that way, although I wouldn't use the term normal in this context. We have been a sovereign nation since reunification, and after a difficult learning process, we are also behaving accordingly.
SPIEGEL: How did your personal learning process go?
Schröder: When the Americans attacked Iraq in 1991 after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, I was strictly against German involvement. Like the overwhelming majority of citizens, I was convinced that Germany, in light of its history in the last, bloody century, should not be involved in military campaigns.
SPIEGEL: Did you also have also personal reasons? Your father died in the war, and your generation experienced the immediate postwar period.
Schröder: It had less to do with my father, who I never met. There was simply a consensus in the old Federal Republic that Germany should never take part in another war, except to defend the country.
SPIEGEL: What made you change your mind?
Schröder: It was the realization that a sovereign country cannot hide behind its past in the long run. We were no longer divided, and we no longer had a special status. The international community expected that we do more than help out with money, as we had been doing for a long time.
SPIEGEL: Are you surprised by the speed with which this change in political convictions has taken place?
Schröder: Well, it didn't happen from one day to the next, but gradually. The Federal Constitutional Court reinforced this learning process with its rulings. It began with the decision on the deployment of AWACS aircraft over Bosnia and continued with other rulings. It was clear that the reference to German history was also no longer relevant from a legal standpoint.
SPIEGEL: One of your first foreign policy decisions as chancellor was to participate in the Kosovo war.
Schröder: At the time, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) still distinguished between measures to preserve peace, which were considered good, and measures to create peace, which many rejected. It was obvious that as the governing party, we would not make any headway with this decision. What was happening before our eyes in the Balkans was the threat of genocide. My party had to acknowledge reality and act accordingly.
SPIEGEL: The Kosovo mission was approved by your coalition government, made up of the SPD and Greens. Was that necessary to achieve social consensus?
Schröder: It was helpful, at any rate. It was also thanks to (then Foreign Minister and Green Party leader) Joschka Fischer. The yes vote by the SPD and the Greens allowed us to face reality. It was really a social breakthrough.
SPIEGEL: But things changed a few years later. You forced your coalition to approve the Afghanistan mission with a vote of confidence.
Schröder: The United States was attacked on its own territory on Sept. 11, 2001, which meant that Article 5 of the NATO Treaty applied. There was also a unanimous resolution by the United Nations Security Council. Saying no at that point would have isolated us completely. It would have signified the opposite of normality. And I wanted to show that my coalition government could come up with its own majority for the decision.
SPIEGEL: Do you still think the mission is right?
Schröder: I think it's justified. I still think that today.
SPIEGEL: Why do you hesitate to say that it was also the right thing to do?
Schröder: The decision was not only justified at the time, but it was also the right thing to do. Afghanistan was a haven and a training ground for terrorists who had committed horrific attacks. That was why intervention was necessary. Today, more than 10 years later, we can decide that this mission can be terminated because we want to transfer responsibility to the Afghans. Decisions must always be seen in their historic context.
SPIEGEL: How do you see it today?
Schröder: It will take a long time, perhaps even decades, to evaluate whether the entire mission, lasting more than 10 years, was the right thing. One thing is clear, however. If Germany had made a different decision, we would have been isolated and would have truly jeopardized the German-American relationship.
SPIEGEL: That didn't prevent you from saying no to the Iraq war.
Schröder: That was a different situation. We were not convinced that that war made sense. We were sure that there were no weapons of mass destruction, and we were concerned that the entire region would be destabilized in the long term. Besides, there was no NATO mission, nor was there any legitimization by the UN Security Council.
SPIEGEL: That didn't happen for Kosovo either.
Schröder: That's right. The Russians obstructed that, for historically understandable reasons. That was why the mission was not unproblematic from a legal standpoint. But we felt that it was necessary.
SPIEGEL: Your arguments are very unemotional. You cite treaty obligations and laws. Others used moral arguments to justify their positions at the time. Joschka Fischer even invoked Auschwitz in the Kosovo debate.
Schröder: I understand why he argued in that way because he was having great difficulties convincing his party to agree to our participation in the intervention. Nevertheless, I don't share that argument, because it calls the singularity of the Holocaust into question. But it is correct that there was a moral justification. There was forced expulsion and the threat of genocide in the middle of Europe.
SPIEGEL: You also mentioned girls' schools as one of the reasons for the Afghanistan mission. Do we need a moral component in Germany to justify war because reasons related to realpolitik aren't enough?
Schröder: Well, merely invoking the NATO Treaty would have been too abstract. We had to argue that the goal was to stop the activities of terrorists and oppressors. It isn't a bad thing for the German population to demand a moral explanation for a military intervention. I'm happy that the days are gone when Germans went to war with enthusiasm, as was the case in 1914.
SPIEGEL: But girls' schools weren't at all the issue in Afghanistan.
Schröder: And no one was claiming that that was the only reason. It was a matter of freeing people from the stranglehold of the inhuman Taliban regime, fighting terrorism and stabilizing the country. I visited two girls' schools at the time. I knew that those girls only stood a chance because of the international intervention. It moved me greatly. And it played a role in us sticking to our guns when things became difficult.
SPIEGEL: Many of those schools were later closed again. This highlights the problem with using a moral argument.
Schröder: The argument isn't invalidated by the fact that it isn't possible to achieve all goals.
SPIEGEL: Are politicians further along than citizens when it comes to the willingness to engage in military campaigns?
Schröder: Politicians don't make it easy for themselves, either. For me these were the most difficult decisions of my chancellorship. But there is a difference between what people feel and would like to see happen, and what has to happen. It's much easier to argue in favor of staying out of something that to say we're getting involved.
SPIEGEL: Was it because of this general mood within the public that you didn't refer to the Afghanistan mission as a war?
Schröder: It certainly played a role.
When German Foreign Policy Came of Age
SPIEGEL: Three years ago, then Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was the first one to mention the word "war."
Schröder: If that was his historical contribution, then we should accept it as such.
SPIEGEL: You supported the Afghanistan war out of loyalty to NATO. You said no to (former US President) George W. Bush's campaign against Iraq. Was that the point at which German foreign policy came of age?
Schröder: Yes, in a sense. By saying yes to Kosovo and Afghanistan, we Germans became an equal partner in the international community. A partner with obligations to fulfill, but one that had also acquired rights. That includes the right to say no when we are not convinced that a military intervention makes sense. But my policy wasn't entirely without historical precedent. When former Chancellor Willy Brandt devised his Ostpolitik policy, there were very intensive discussions with the United States, which wasn't convinced that it was the right approach. But he remained undeterred. In terms of fundamental issues, German foreign policy was shaped in Bonn at the time, and it was the same under former Chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl. In other words, it was done in Berlin and not in Washington. That's how I put it later on.
SPIEGEL: The same words could also be applied to the current German government's decision on Libya. Unlike all Western allies, Germany abstained in the UN Security Council vote two years ago.
Schröder: I think it was the sovereign decision of a German government. I didn't comment because I didn't know how I would have decided.
SPIEGEL: Do you approve of the abstention?
Schröder: I can understand how difficult it is to make the decision to intervene militarily. The decision by the UN Security Council was, to put it diplomatically, interpreted very offensively.
SPIEGEL: You mentioned loyalty to the alliance and humanitarian considerations as legitimate reasons for military intervention. But why not German security interests, as well?
Schröder: Which ones do you mean?
SPIEGEL: Your recently deceased fellow Social Democrat, former Defense Minister Peter Struck, once said: "The security of the Federal Republic of Germany is also being defended in the Hindu Kush."
Schröder: That was an attempt to create another reason. I prefer not to comment on this any further, out of respect for Peter Struck.
SPIEGEL: Should the West intervene in Syria?
Schröder: Regardless of the fact that the UN Security Council wouldn't approve it, no one is exactly sure of the identity of the forces that could gain the upper hand with the help of the West. In this respect, I share the reserved position of the German government.
SPIEGEL: In the past, Germany tended to hide behind others, even in Europe. Now Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski is calling for German leadership. Are we prepared to take this step?
Schröder: Because of its economic power and its political significance, Germany is currently destined to assume leadership within the European Union. However, I too came to the realization, during my term in office, that Germany could only lead in Europe in the way that porcupines mate.
SPIEGEL: How do porcupines mate?
Schröder: Very carefully. The other countries expect leadership from Germany, but not arrogance. Remarks like "Europe speaks German" aren't very helpful.
SPIEGEL: That was the conservative Christian Democratic Union's parliamentary floor leader Volker Kauder. How is the chancellor doing her job?
Schröder: Mrs. Merkel was very late in making the necessary decisions to provide aid and show solidarity. It has certainly made rescuing the euro more expensive. But she doesn't refuse to provide German leadership. Instead, she exercises it in a restrained fashion. I think that's fine.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Schröder, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Christiane Hoffmann and Ralf Neukirch, translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Belgium: ‘A budget that will save face for Europe’
2 April 2013
La Libre Belgique,
On March 30, the Belgian government announced an additional €1.43bn of savings in 2013, which will rein in the public spending deficit to 2.4 per cent of GDP, and enable the country to achieve its EU budget targets.
The plan had been demanded by the European Commission in response to Belgium’s request to waive its 2.15 per cent deficit target for this year. The cuts will be achieved by reducing the number of civil servants, notably in the Ministry of Defence. Additional revenues will also be generated by raising the prices of tobacco and health care services.
However, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy dampened enthusiasm for the initiative when he told the weekly De Zondag that savings in recent years had not been “very impressive”.
Italy: ‘Sages opposed by the parties’
La Stampa, 2 April 2013
In order to resolve the deadlock over the formation of a new government, President Giorgio Napolitano had named 10 “sages” – well-known experts from various backgrounds – to create two commissions to propose economic and institutional reforms.
However, the move has not delighted everyone. Leader of the Five Star Movement Beppe Grillo condemned the decision saying: “Democracy doesn’t need nurses,” while former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party (PDL) accused Napolitano of stalling instead of simply calling new elections, which it would prefer.
With parliament’s vote to elect Napolitano’s successor due in little more than a week, it is now clear this election will be overseen by Mario Monti’s outgoing government.
Democracy: Making laws ain’t easy
2 April 2013
Dilema Veche Bucharest
The European Citizens’ Initiative process, launched in 2011, aims to reflect grassroots political aspirations. If they collect one million signatures, committees of European citizens can instigate changes to EU policies. But Dilema Veche wonders if they will make the right choices.
Have you heard of the European Citizens’ Initiative? No, not to worry. It’s not your fault. The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is a marvel of EU participatory democracy, which was one of the “main innovations under The Treaty of Lisbon", (which, if the truth be told, is one of the few reasons why it can lay claim to be a constitutional treaty). In a nutshell, it enables citizens of member states to suggest proposals for legislation that will apply throughout the EU.
The principle precondition is that the initiative must be validated by the European Commission (if this was not the case, the system would soon be swamped by demands to reduce taxes). Thereafter, the petition must be signed by a minimum of one million Europeans, from at least seven member states, over a period of less than one year. There are ongoing discussions about the accessibility of the online voting form, and some member states are already contesting the procedure for the validation of one million signatures.
To date, only one initiative of this type has succeeded in gathering the required number of signatures: the Right2Water campaign, which wants access to water to be recognised as a universal human right. In contrast, another initiative for a 30km/h speed limit in Europe’s cities and villages has failed to secure much in the way of support.
Among the proposals (which are not as numerous as you might expect), there is one that aims to modify the common legislative framework to ensure media pluralism and the political independence of national media authorities.
Devil in the detail
Put simply, it aims to prevent the concentration of the ownership of media outlets (and the excesses of media magnates) and to guarantee the political independence of audio-visual and media councils in member states. Will it be in the interest of citizens? It most certainly will. Will it pave the way for more accurate news and help prevent propaganda from being served up as impartial journalism? No doubt it will. Will it contribute to the ongoing evolution of society? Of course. But why then am I so sceptical about the success of this initiative? The devil is in the detail.
First and foremost, there is the issue of the novelty of the procedure itself. Brussels’ willingness to process citizens’ initiatives is largely theoretical. This is a new procedure, there is no guarantee that it will work, nor do we know about the potential obstacles it may face.
The second problem is the question of divergent interests. Without promotion, we will not be able "to sell" the idea, and it will be very difficult to collect the requisite number of signatures. This is particularly the case with regard to the concept of media pluralism, which is not easily explained. The response from citizens whose interests are to be defended by this undertaking will likely be a curt one: "But we already have media pluralism. If you don’t like Romanian President Traian Băsescu you watch Antena [which is owned by the founder of the Romanian Conservative party]. If you don’t like Victor Ponta, you watch B1. And if you want more serious stuff, you have to fall back on România TV, because those good-for-nothings closed down OTV (which belonged to Dan Diaconescu)!" Faced with this type of reaction, just imagine the difficulty of explaining that citizens’ should be provided with real news and not propaganda. Go ahead and try!
Who is to take charge of the promotion of this initiative? Hardly anyone apart from the online press is willing to take up the task. Private press groups are the natural enemies of this venture. Of course, Europe does have public media outlets, but they are not doing too well regardless of the countries where they are located. They might take on the challenge, but their audiences are much smaller than the audiences enjoyed by the commercial competition. Finally, there is the problem of "the requisite human and financial resources." Apart from journalists’ associations, it is hard to see who is going to provide sponsorship...
In short, this is a citizens’ initiative that is useful to democracy, but one that has to contend with some very powerful enemies (virtually all of Europe’s media conglomerates). It has virtually no visibility apart from its presence on the Internet, hardly any funding, and it is dependent on a mechanism that has yet to be fully calibrated by Brussels.
Last but not least, let’s not forget that this initiative is designed to defend the interests of a vast majority of consumers who are the audience for media outlets that the future legislation is supposed to make more responsible, and for whom the initiative amounts to an unsolicited service.
April 1, 2013
Syrian Newspapers Emerge to Fill Out War Reporting
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
ANTAKYA, Turkey — Absi Smesem became the editor in chief of a new weekly Syrian newspaper hoping to leave behind what he disparaged as the “Facebook phase” of the uprising.
The tall tales and outright misinformation that tainted so much reporting from Syria convinced him that more objective coverage was essential to bolster the effort to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Too often, he said, he could not believe what passed for news on popular satellite channels, like the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera and the Saudi-run Al Arabiya, both staunch opposition supporters. The two channels relied heavily on unfiltered reports from local activists hired as correspondents, or, failing that, grabbed whatever they found posted on Facebook to report as news, he said.
When Mr. Smesem’s hometown, Binnish, in northern Syria, was under siege by the Syrian Army, he said, one activist-cum-correspondent used the local expression “Dabahoona dbah,” which in Arabic literally means “We are being slaughtered” — but which the people of northern Syria use to mean “We cannot breathe.”
Within minutes, a breaking-news headline scrolled across the television screen saying Syrian government forces were committing a massacre in Binnish.
“There are no objective sources of information on either side, neither with the regime nor the rebels,” said Mr. Smesem, 46, a veteran reporter with graying hair and an easy laugh. He told the story over a late-night cup of tea in a cafe in this southern Turkish city, a nerve center for Syrians struggling to shape their future state even as the gory civil war drags into its third year.
“We need to get out of this Facebook phase, where all we do is whine and complain about the regime,” he said.
Mr. Smesem said he believed that the rampant exaggeration harmed the cause of the rebellion. “When the regime simply denied the news, and they were right, that gave the regime more credibility,” he said.
For media analysts, coverage of the Syrian war has seriously eroded the reputations of channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Where their newscasts once brought a measure of objectivity to a region dominated by servile state-run media, they are increasingly viewed as mouthpieces for the foreign policy objectives of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“The major pan-Arab networks have lost a great deal of credibility on the Syria story,” said Marc Lynch, director of the Middle East studies program at George Washington University.
Mr. Lynch said the change was particularly striking for Al Jazeera, once considered must-see TV during any Middle East crisis. “Al Jazeera has lost its ability to be the neutral ground where Arabs who disagree about things can argue,” he said.
It was in the spirit of objectivity that Mr. Smesem’s newspaper, Sham, another name for Syria in Arabic, began publishing in February. It was one of several publications introduced at roughly the same time.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition group stronger in exile than it is domestically, just began publishing its newspaper, Al-Ahd, or The Vow. The initial edition took a “we told you so” attitude toward the level of violence fomented by the government; the Brotherhood was evidently trying to address its checkered reputation within Syria for being partly responsible for the mini-civil war that erupted around 1980.
Another weekly paper, Free Syria, published in nearby Gaziantep, Turkey, shares an ideological viewpoint with the Sham weekly by endorsing pluralism, moderate Islam and democracy. At least one large military brigade is publishing its own paper, called Brigades, which has been raising questions about the origins of extremist Muslim fighters.
Numerous Muslim extremist groups, including the Nusra Front, or Jabhet al-Nusra, tend to print short pamphlets to spread their ideas, like attacks on anything that smacks of a civil state.
“We as Muslims have rebelled against all values of the infidel Western society,” said one pamphlet, called The Caliphate, published in the small town of Al-Sahhara in northern Syria. “So how can we kick secularism out the door while opening the window to accept it under a new form and a new name, a civil state?”
Sham is in many ways the most professional of the bunch, with a well-ordered, crisp layout. The newspaper is an extension of the Sham News Network, an activist news organization and research center. It was founded by a Syrian who returned to Damascus from abroad early in the uprising, and the paper is financed using money raised privately.
Mr. Smesem, working in a smoky, one-room newsroom with just a couple of other editors, said he relied on 15 reporters from throughout Syria. His commitment to avoid using activists to report means that coverage is sparse from some embattled cities, like Deir al-Zour in the east.
He avoids trying to cover every firefight, instead looking for themes or trends. Each 16-page edition includes cultural pages, translations from foreign coverage and one of the infamous cartoons from the town of Kafr Nabl that skewer the Assad government and anemic foreign support for the rebels.
“The distribution is a bit random,” Mr. Smesem said, with delivery inside Syria often determined by which roads are safe. Of the 6,000 copies printed, up to 4,000 are distributed free throughout Syria, with the rest available by subscription abroad.
Once the war ends, Mr. Smesem and his publisher said, they hope Sham grows into a full media empire, including radio and television stations. It is a common ambition for other Syrians starting newspapers now.
If Mr. Smesem avoids Facebook as a rumor mill when it comes to news, he embraces it and other satellite Internet connections as the means to stay in secret contact with his far-flung correspondents and the stable of activists on whom he relies for tips. His reporters write under pseudonyms — a few are even government employees, he said.
Although the paper staunchly backs the revolution, Mr. Smesem strives to include the Syrian government viewpoint, basically relying on official statements as the Western press does.
Mr. Smesem said he had faced sharper criticism from people in the revolution than from the government.
“Someone said he felt like he was reading a Russian newspaper,” he said. “People who are enthusiastic about the revolution think that we should not include the view of the other side because they don’t deserve it, but we are trying to be as neutral as possible.”
Mr. Smesem has used the paper to confront the mood of intimidation that he said had infected towns like Binnish, where supporters of the fundamentalist Salafi movement leveraged their success on the battlefield to take over the town council.
In one editorial, he criticized changes in the tone of the town’s weekly Friday protests since the Nusra Front began organizing them. The very people who now shouted about killing all the Alawites were once members of the Binnish Coordination Committee who marched every Friday in support of civil society, he wrote.
Now Sham editors worry whether the new freedom of expression that has emerged in the areas seized from government control will persist should the Assad government fall.
“The revolution has started to give what it was started for,” said the paper’s managing editor, speaking anonymously to avoid any repercussions for his family still inside Syria. “What we don’t know is what will happen after the regime falls.”
Hala Droubi contributed reporting from Antakya, and Sebnem Arsu from Gaziantep, Turkey.
Veteran leader Khaled Meshaal re-elected as head of Hamas
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, April 2, 2013 6:10 EDT
Veteran Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was elected for a new term as head of the Palestinian Islamist movement, a party official said on Monday.
There had been speculation that Meshaal, who is based in exile, would be forced aside by the movement’s powerful leaders in the Gaza Strip, which it has controlled since 2007.
Meshaal himself had said last year that he would not seek a new term.
But a Hamas official said that the party’s governing shura council re-elected him for another four years at a meeting in Cairo late on Monday.
“The leaders of Hamas chose Meshaal,” the high-ranking official told AFP via telephone from the Egyptian capital, requesting anonymity.
Another Hamas official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said earlier Monday: “The elections take place in total secrecy, but it’s widely known that Meshaal’s term will be renewed.”
Hamas officials were in Cairo on Sunday and Monday for the vote, and to discuss with Egyptian leaders reconciliation with the rival Fatah faction of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
Meshaal will be aided by Gaza’s Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya, who heads the movement internally in the Palestinian territory, and the movement’s number two Mussa Abu Marzuq, responsible for the exiled section of Hamas.
Haniya was also in Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials.
Ties between Hamas and Cairo have been tense after Egyptian forces closed down dozens of smuggling tunnels on the Gaza border.
Haniya seeking to “clear the air” after Egyptian allegations of Hamas involvement in a deadly attack on Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula last year, Hamas sources said.
Abu Marzuq would have been favoured for leadership had Meshaal not run for another term.
A brilliant orator, Meshaal has used the freedom of movement that is denied to Hamas leaders in Gaza to criss-cross the Arab and Muslim world.
Developments in the Middle East since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 “pushed Hamas to choose Meshaal… who has given the movement a national face… and has good relations in the Arab world,” a third Hamas official said Monday.
It was only last December that Meshaal made his first ever visit to Gaza.
He was propelled to the movement’s leadership in 2004 after Israel assassinated the movement’s founding leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his successor Abdelaziz al-Rantissi in the Gaza Strip.
Meshaal himself survived an Israeli assassination attempt in Jordan in 1997 when agents of the Mossad secret service disguised as Canadian tourists bungled an attempt to poison him on a street in Amman.
Three of the attackers took refuge at the Israeli embassy, but two were captured by Jordanian authorities.
Meshaal fell into a coma and a furious King Hussein demanded Israel hand over the antidote if it wanted the captured agents to be freed.
The episode compelled then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — re-elected in 2009 and again this year — to release Yassin and 19 others from prison.
After Hamas won a landslide victory in a January 2006 Palestinian general election, the West mounted a boycott of the movement.
Bickering with the Fatah party of president Mahmud Abbas culminated in the formation of a unity government in 2007 but that collapsed in bloody street fighting in Gaza only months later.
Hamas militants seized control of Gaza, routing forces loyal to Abbas and undermining the power of the Palestinian Authority, with Hamas members hunted down in the West Bank in retaliation.
Fatah and Hamas signed an Egypt-mediated reconciliation agreement on April 27, 2011 in Cairo.
But most of its clauses went unheeded and deadlines were constantly postponed.
The two sides responded positively to a proposal by Qatar at an Arab League summit late March for a mini-summit aimed at Palestinian reconciliation.
April 1, 2013
Hamas Adds Restrictions on Schools and Israelis
By FARES AKRAM
GAZA — Hamas, the Islamic group that rules this Palestinian territory, has issued a new education law enforcing a more rigid separation of sexes in schools and prohibiting any relations with Israelis, in line with its strictly religious and nationalist ideology, officials said Monday.
Critics here view the law, which mandates separate classes for boys and girls from the age of 9 and bars men from working at girls’ schools, as the latest move by Hamas to impose a more Islamic lifestyle on the people of Gaza. Hamas has already made efforts to impose Islamic dress on schoolgirls, among other things.
Yousef Al-Sherafi, a Hamas lawmaker and a member of the education committee, said in an interview, “This law is a safety valve for our national principles.”
Mr. Sherafi said, “One male staffer among 20 female teachers in a girls’ school would not allow our sisters to feel comfortable.”
According to a copy of the 18-page law, it is intended to build the nationalist character of the students and prepare them to be “committed to the Palestinian, Arab and Islamic culture.” It says the law is meant to encourage pupils “to get to know Palestine with its historic borders, its history and its connection with its milieus.” It is set to go into effect at the start of the new school year in September.
In reality, given the conservative nature of Gaza society, boys and girls over the age of 9 are already separated in most government schools and schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees and their descendants. The new separation rules are mostly expected to affect about a dozen private and Christian schools.
The law maintains the freedom of Christian schools to teach non-Muslim students subjects related to their religion.
But it stipulates that any educational institution that receives aid meant to encourage or promote normalization of ties with Israel will face punishment: a 10-year prison term for an individual perpetrator and a fine of 20,000 Jordanian dinar (about $28,200) for any institution involved in organizing exchange programs or activities that include Israelis.
That rule is also unlikely to affect most institutions here. Since Israel restricts the movement of Palestinians in and out of Gaza as part of its policy of isolating the Hamas government, hardly any schools or organizations are involved in such activities.
Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian elections and after months of bloody factional fighting here between Hamas and Fatah, the secularist party headed by Mahmoud Abbas. The influence of Mr. Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is now limited to the West Bank.
The Palestinian Parliament, which is split between the two Palestinian territories, has been paralyzed for six years, but Hamas legislators in Gaza have continued to hold sessions, passing bills and resolutions that apply only in the coastal enclave.
In a separate development, Hamas has assigned Khaled Meshal, 56, to a third term as chief of its political bureau, a Hamas official in Gaza said Monday. The decision was made at the group’s Shura Council meeting in Cairo, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because it had not yet been announced.
Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails stage hunger strike after inmate dies
Guards use teargas as inmates protest over death of Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh amid claims he received inadequate cancer care
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 2 April 2013 12.35 BST
A Palestinian prisoner has died of cancer after claims of medical negligence by the Israeli authorities, triggering unrest in the West Bank and among Palestinian inmates in Israeli jails. A three-day hunger strike by Palestinian security prisoners has been announced.
Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh, 64, died on Tuesday morning, three days after being transferred to Soroka hospital in the city of Be'er Sheva. Following news of his death, Israeli prison guards used teargas in response to protests by hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, who banged on cell doors and threw objects. Three prisoners and six guards needed medical treatment, according to the Israeli Prison Service (IPS).
There were clashes in the tense West Bank city of Hebron, where Abu Hamdiyeh lived. Demonstrators threw rocks and firebombs, according to reports.
Abu Hamdiyeh, who was sentenced to life in 2002 for attempted murder, was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus several months after complaining of ill health. By the time he was transferred to hospital, the cancer had spread from his throat to his spinal cord. According to his lawyer, he had lost significant weight and, until his admission to hospital, had been treated only with painkillers.
Issa Qaraqe, the Palestinian Authority prisoners minister, said Abu Hamdiyeh's cancer spread because he did not receive treatment earlier. "The prison administration knew that he was suffering from cancer and they didn't release him and medically neglected him," Qaraqe told the Palestinian news agency Ma'an.
Sivan Weizman, a spokeswoman for the IPS, said it had initiated moves to get Abu Hamdiyeh released on compassionate grounds after his cancer was diagnosed as terminal last week. "Usually it takes a few weeks to complete," she said.
An earlier statement from the IPS said: "The prisoner was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in February and was under the medical supervision of experts at the hospital. About a week ago, after being diagnosed as terminal, the ISP appealed to the release committee to secure his early release, a process which had been started but not yet concluded."
The issue of prisoners' rights has widespread resonance in Palestinian society, where most families have experience of relatives in jail.
There are at least three prisoners on long-term hunger strike. Samer al-Issawi has been refusing food for long periods since August after he was arrested for allegedly transgressing the terms of his release from a 30-year sentence in October 2011 under the prisoner-swap deal that saw Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit freed after more than five years in captivity.
Issawi's weight has halved to 45kg and he is reported to be in a critical condition in Kaplan hospital in Tel Aviv.
According to Addameer, a Palestinian prisoners' rights group, the Israeli authorities are pressuring him to accept a deal under which he will be released but deported to Gaza, which it says is forcible transfer and illegal under international law.
"Samer's life is in danger and I am told that at any minute his heart could stop," his mother, Laila, 65, told the Guardian. "He has become a symbol of defiance."
Younis al-Hroub has been on total hunger strike since 19 February in protest over his "administrative detention" without charge or trial since July. He is in Soroka hospital, shackled to a bed, according to Addameer.
Another administrative detainee, Samer al-Barq, has been refusing food since the end of February.
Mexican drug cartels move deeper into US to tighten grip on narcotics market
Cartel threat looms so large that a Mexican kingpin is Chicago's public enemy No 1 – despite never setting foot in the city
Associated Press in Chicago
guardian.co.uk, Monday 1 April 2013 17.45 BST
Mexican drug cartels whose operatives once rarely ventured beyond the US border are dispatching some of their most trusted agents to live and work deep inside the United States – an emboldened presence that experts believe is meant to tighten their grip on the world's most lucrative narcotics market and maximize profits.
If left unchecked, authorities say, the cartels' move into the American interior could render the syndicates harder than ever to dislodge and pave the way for them to expand into other criminal enterprises such as prostitution, kidnapping-and-extortion rackets and money laundering.
Cartel activity in the US is certainly not new. Starting in the 1990s, the ruthless syndicates became the nation's No 1 supplier of illegal drugs, using unaffiliated middlemen to smuggle cocaine, marijuana and heroin beyond the border or even to grow pot here.
But a wide-ranging Associated Press review of federal court cases and government drug-enforcement data, plus interviews with many top law enforcement officials, indicate the groups have begun deploying agents from their inner circles to the US cartel operatives are suspected of running drug-distribution networks in at least nine non-border states, often in middle-class suburbs in the mid-west, south and northeast.
"It's probably the most serious threat the United States has faced from organized crime," said Jack Riley, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago office.
The cartel threat looms so large that one of Mexico's most notorious drug kingpins – a man who has never set foot in Chicago – was recently named the city's public enemy No 1, the same notorious label once assigned to Al Capone.
The Chicago crime commission, a non-government agency that tracks crime trends in the region, said it considers Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman even more menacing than Capone because Guzman leads the deadly Sinaloa cartel, which supplies most of the narcotics sold in Chicago and in many cities across the US
Years ago, Mexico faced the same problem – of then-nascent cartels expanding their power – "and didn't nip the problem in the bud," said Jack Killorin, head of an anti-trafficking program in Atlanta for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "And see where they are now."
Riley sounds a similar alarm: "People think, 'The border's 1,700 miles away. This isn't our problem.' Well, it is. These days, we operate as if Chicago is on the border."
Border states from Texas to California have long grappled with a cartel presence. But cases involving cartel members have now emerged in the suburbs of Chicago and Atlanta, as well as Columbus, Ohio, Louisville, Ky., and rural North Carolina. Suspects have also surfaced in Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
Mexican drug cartels "are taking over our neighborhoods", Pennsylvania attorney general Kathleen Kane warned a legislative committee in February. State police commissioner Frank Noonan disputed her claim, saying cartels are primarily drug suppliers, not the ones trafficking drugs on the ground.
For years, cartels were more inclined to make deals in Mexico with American traffickers, who would then handle transportation to and distribution within major cities, said Art Bilek, a former organized crime investigator who is now executive vice president of the crime commission.
As their organizations grew more sophisticated, the cartels began scheming to keep more profits for themselves. So leaders sought to cut out middlemen and assume more direct control, pushing aside American traffickers, he said.
Beginning two or three years ago, authorities noticed that cartels were putting "deputies on the ground here," Bilek said. "Chicago became such a massive market … it was critical that they had firm control."
drug cartels us 'These days, we operate as if Chicago is on the border', says Jack Riley, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Chicago. Photograph: M. Spencer Green/AP
To help fight the syndicates, Chicago recently opened a first-of-its-kind facility at a secret location where 70 federal agents work side-by-side with police and prosecutors. Their primary focus is the point of contact between suburban-based cartel operatives and city street gangs who act as retail salesmen. That is when both sides are most vulnerable to detection, when they are most likely to meet in the open or use cellphones that can be wiretapped.
Others are skeptical about claims cartels are expanding their presence, saying law-enforcement agencies are prone to exaggerating threats to justify bigger budgets.
David Shirk, of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute, said there is a dearth of reliable intelligence that cartels are dispatching operatives from Mexico on a large scale.
"We know astonishingly little about the structure and dynamics of cartels north of the border," Shirk said. "We need to be very cautious about the assumptions we make."
Statistics from the DEA suggest a heightened cartel presence in more US cities. In 2008, around 230 American communities reported some level of cartel presence. That number climbed to more than 1,200 in 2011, the most recent year for which information is available, though the increase is partly due to better reporting.
Dozens of federal agents and local police interviewed by the AP said they have identified cartel members or operatives using wiretapped conversations, informants or confessions. Hundreds of court documents reviewed by the AP appear to support those statements.
"This is the first time we've been seeing it – cartels who have their operatives actually sent here," said Richard Pearson, a lieutenant with the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department, which arrested four alleged operatives of the Zetas cartel in November in the suburb of Okolona.
People who live on the tree-lined street where authorities seized more than 2,400 pounds of marijuana and more than $1m in cash were shocked to learn their low-key neighbors were accused of working for one of Mexico's most violent drug syndicates, Pearson said.
One of the best documented cases is Jose Gonzalez-Zavala, who was dispatched to the US by the La Familia cartel, according to court filings.
In 2008, the former taxi driver and father of five moved into a spacious home at 1416 Brookfield Drive in a middle-class neighborhood of Joliet, southwest of Chicago. From there, court papers indicate, he oversaw wholesale shipments of cocaine in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana.
Wiretap transcripts reveal he called an unidentified cartel boss in Mexico almost every day, displaying the deference any midlevel executive might show to someone higher up the corporate ladder. Once he stammered as he explained that one customer would not pay a debt until after a trip.
"No," snaps the boss. "What we need is for him to pay."
The same cartel assigned Jorge Guadalupe Ayala-German to guard a Chicago-area stash house for $300 a week, plus a promised $35,000 lump-sum payment once he returned to Mexico after a year or two, according to court documents.
Ayala-German brought his wife and child to help give the house the appearance of an ordinary family residence. But he was arrested before he could return home and pleaded guilty to multiple trafficking charges. He will be sentenced later this year.
Socorro Hernandez-Rodriguez was convicted in 2011 of heading a massive drug operation in suburban Atlanta's Gwinnett County. The chief prosecutor said he and his associates were high-ranking figures in the La Familia cartel – an allegation defense lawyers denied.
drug cartels US A 2009 raid against La Familia drug cartel netted weapons and drugs in San Bernardino, California. Photograph: Reed Saxon/AP
And at the end of February outside Columbus, Ohio, authorities arrested 34-year-old Isaac Eli Perez Neri, who allegedly told investigators he was a debt collector for the Sinaloa cartel.
An Atlanta attorney who has represented reputed cartel members says authorities sometimes overstate the threat such men pose.
"Often, you have a kid whose first time leaving Mexico is sleeping on a mattress at a stash house playing Game Boy, eating Burger King, just checking drugs or money in and out," said Bruce Harvey. "Then he's arrested and gets a gargantuan sentence. It's sad."
Typically, cartel operatives are not US citizens and make no attempt to acquire visas, choosing instead to sneak across the border. They are so accustomed to slipping back and forth between the two countries that they regularly return home for family weddings and holidays, Riley said.
Because cartels accumulate houses full of cash, they run the constant risk associates will skim off the top. That points to the main reason cartels prefer their own people: trust is hard to come by in their cutthroat world. There's also a fear factor. Cartels can exert more control on their operatives than on middlemen, often by threatening to torture or kill loved ones back home.
Danny Porter, chief prosecutor in Gwinnett County, Georgia, said he has tried to entice dozens of suspected cartel members to cooperate with American authorities. Nearly all declined. Some laughed in his face.
"They say: 'We are more scared of them (the cartels) than we are of you. We talk and they'll boil our family in acid,'" Porter said. "Their families are essentially hostages."
Citing the safety of his own family, Gonzalez-Zavala declined to cooperate with authorities in exchange for years being shaved off his 40-year sentence.
In other cases, cartel brass send their own family members to the US
"They're sometimes married or related to people in the cartels," Porter said. "They don't hire casual labor." So meticulous have cartels become that some even have operatives fill out job applications before being dispatched to the US, Riley added.
In Mexico, the cartels are known for a staggering number of killings – more than 50,000, according to one tally. Beheadings are sometimes a signature.
So far, cartels don't appear to be directly responsible for large numbers of slayings in the United States, though the Texas Department of Public Safety reported 22 killings and five kidnappings in Texas at the hands of Mexican cartels from 2010 through mid-2011.
Still, police worry that increased cartel activity could fuel heightened violence.
In Chicago, the police commander who oversees narcotics investigations, James O'Grady, said street-gang disputes over turf account for most of the city's increase in murders last year, when slayings topped 500 for the first time since 2008. Although the cartels aren't dictating the territorial wars, they are the source of drugs.
Riley's assessment is stark: he argues that the cartels should be seen as an underlying cause of Chicago's disturbingly high murder rate.
"They are the puppeteers," he said. "Maybe the shooter didn't know and maybe the victim didn't know that. But if you follow it down the line, the cartels are ultimately responsible."
In the USA...
April 1, 2013
Legislators in Connecticut Agree on Broad New Gun Laws
By PETER APPLEBOME
HARTFORD — More than three months after the massacre of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., state legislative leaders announced on Monday that they had agreed on what they called the most far-reaching gun-legislation package in the country.
It would require new state-issued eligibility certificates for the purchase of any rifle, shotgun or ammunition; mandate that offenders convicted of any of more than 40 weapons offenses register with the state; require universal background checks for the sale of all firearms; and substantially expand the state’s existing ban on assault weapons.
But the package did not include everything that anti-gun forces had asked for. It includes a ban on the future sale of high-capacity magazines with more than 10 bullets. But despite a dramatic plea on Monday from relatives of 11 of the victims killed at Sandy Hook on Dec. 14, legislative leaders did not include a complete ban on their ownership, although they agreed on new requirements requiring their registration. Legislation passed by New York in January included a ban on the ownership of high-capacity magazines that would go into effect next January.
The legislation in Connecticut, however, agreed to after several weeks of negotiations between Democratic and Republican leaders in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, was hailed by gun-control proponents as a landmark package and an appropriate response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook.
Ron Pinciaro, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said he was disappointed that the ban on possession of high-capacity magazines was not approved and that the bill would have little effect on handgun violence. But, he said, “When you take all the elements and compare it, I think you could judiciously say this is the strongest bill in the nation.”
The bill is expected to go to both houses of the General Assembly on Wednesday; passage seemed assured.
In a state still shaken by the killing of 20 children and 6 educators at Sandy Hook, and with a moderate social and political culture, Democratic and Republican leaders hailed the agreement.
“I wake up in the morning and put this green ribbon and pin on my jacket lapel to remember those we’ve lost,” said John McKinney, a Republican who represents Newtown and is the Senate minority leader. “And what I’m proud of is that all of us, Republicans and Democrats, understood that some issues, and this one particularly, should rise above politics.”
Leaders of both parties said the bipartisan process, which was more protracted than originally expected, had been difficult but should be a model for other states and for Washington.
“I said from the beginning it’s important for us to act quickly, but it’s more important to act intelligently,” said Brendan Sharkey, a Democrat and the House speaker. “It’s also critical that we send a message to Washington and the rest of the country that this is the way to get this job done, to do it in an effective, meaningful and thoughtful way and to do it on a bipartisan basis.”
Lawrence F. Cafero, the Republican House minority leader, said the legislation was drafted with the intent of balancing the rights of hundreds of thousands of gun owners with the public safety needs of the state. Asked how much support it would have among Republicans, he said, “Substantial.” Asked if it would be a majority, he did not answer.
But Robert Crook, executive director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, said: “Whatever gun legislation they pass is not going to have an impact on anything that happened at Sandy Hook. The problem there was the individual and the mother.”
He said he had not seen all the elements of the bill, but took issue with the provisions to add more than 100 new assault weapons to those banned by the state. Connecticut is one of only a handful of states that already has an assault weapons ban. Immediately after the bill is passed, the weapons on the expanded list could no longer be sold in Connecticut. Existing weapons would have to be registered with the state. Mr. Crook criticized lawmakers for failing to allow for more public discussion about this issue. “It’s being stuffed down our throats,” he said. “And the gun owners are going to suffer in this state.”
In some cases, the legislation would fill holes in the state’s regulations. Under the proposed legislation, all firearm sales, including those at gun shows, would require criminal background checks. Currently, the sale of any pistol or revolver, and the sale of a rifle or shotgun by a licensed dealer, requires a criminal-background check.
The legislation also breaks new ground. Legislators said that the provision that would mandate that weapons offenders be registered was the country’s first statewide measure of its kind.
The legislation would also mandate a new state-issued “long-gun eligibility certificate,” which would require that applicants take a firearms safety course, be fingerprinted and undergo a national criminal background check before buying any rifle, shotgun or ammunition.
Currently, only seven states and the District of Columbia have any limits on the legal size or use of ammunition magazines. Under the Connecticut legislation, magazines sold in the future would be limited to 10 rounds. Existing large-capacity magazines would have to be registered and could not be loaded with more than 10 bullets except at an individual’s home or a shooting range. But at a morning news conference, family members representing 11 children and educators who died at Sandy Hook read a letter that noted that Adam Lanza carried 10 magazines that had 30 bullets each into the school.
Officials have said he fired 154 shots in about four minutes. The letter, signed by 24 family members, called the magazines “the most dangerous feature of an assault weapon” and said their possession should be banned.
“We have learned that in the time it took him to reload in one of the classrooms, 11 children were able to escape,” Nicole Hockley, whose son, Dylan, died at Sandy Hook, said at the news conference on Monday. “We ask ourselves every day — every minute — if those magazines had held 10 rounds, forcing the shooter to reload at least six more times, would our children be alive today?”
Michael Schwirtz and Thomas Kaplan contributed reporting.
The New York Times
April 1, 2013
Small Firms’ Offer of Plan Choices Under Health Law Delayed
By ROBERT PEAR
WASHINGTON — Unable to meet tight deadlines in the new health care law, the Obama administration is delaying parts of a program intended to provide affordable health insurance to small businesses and their employees — a major selling point for the health care legislation.
The law calls for a new insurance marketplace specifically for small businesses, starting next year. But in most states, employers will not be able to get what Congress intended: the option to provide workers with a choice of health plans. They will instead be limited to a single plan.
The choice option, already available to many big businesses, was supposed to become available to small employers in January. But administration officials said they would delay it until 2015 in the 33 states where the federal government will be running insurance markets known as exchanges. And they will delay the requirement for other states as well.
The promise of affordable health insurance for small businesses was portrayed as a major advantage of the new health care law, mentioned often by White House officials and Democratic leaders in Congress as they fought opponents of the legislation.
Supporters of the law said they were disappointed by the turn of events.
The delay will “prolong and exacerbate health care costs that are crippling 29 million small businesses,” said Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana and the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.
In the weeks leading up to the passage of the health care legislation in 2010, Ms. Landrieu provided crucial support for the measure, after securing changes to help small businesses.
The administration cited “operational challenges” as a reason for the delay. As a result, it said, most small employers buying insurance through an exchange will offer a single health plan to their workers next year.
Health insurance availability and cost are huge concerns for small businesses. They have less bargaining power than large companies and generally pay higher prices for insurance, if they can afford it at all.
The 2010 law stipulates that each state will have a Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP exchange, to help employers compare health plans and enroll their employees.
One of the most important tasks of the exchange is to simplify the collection and payment of monthly premiums. An employer can pay a lump sum to the exchange, which will then distribute the money to each insurance company covering its employees.
The Obama administration told employers in 2011 that the small business exchange would “enable you to offer your employees a choice of qualified health plans from several insurers, much as large employers can.” In addition, it said, the exchange would “consolidate billing so you can offer workers a choice without the hassle of contracting with multiple insurers.”
Exchanges are scheduled to start enrolling people on Oct. 1, for coverage that begins in January. However, the administration said that the government and insurers needed “additional time to prepare for an employee choice model” of the type envisioned in the law signed three years ago by President Obama.
D. Michael Roach, who owns a women’s clothing store in Portland, Ore., said the delay was “a real mistake.”
“It will limit the attractiveness of exchanges to small business,” he said. “We would like to see different insurance carriers available to each of our 12 employees, who range in age from 21 to 62. You would have more competition, more downward pressure on rates, and employees would be more likely to get exactly what they wanted.”
John C. Arensmeyer, the chief executive of Small Business Majority, an advocacy group, said that the delay of “employee choice” was “a major letdown for small business owners and their employees.”
“The vast majority of small employers want their employees to be able to choose among multiple insurance carriers,” Mr. Arensmeyer said.
Small Business Majority supported Mr. Obama’s health care law.
That support was invaluable to Democrats who pushed the bill through Congress. Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, who was speaker at the time, cited the group’s research as evidence that “small businesses will benefit from health insurance reform.”
However, in recent weeks, insurance companies urged the administration to delay the employee choice option.
“Experience with Massachusetts has demonstrated that employee choice models are extremely cumbersome to establish and operate,” the health insurer Aetna said in a letter to the administration in December.
Insurers said that the administration was partly responsible for the delay because it did not provide detailed guidance or final rules for the small-business exchange until last month.
Businesses with up to 100 employees will be able to buy insurance in the exchanges. In 2014 and 2015, states can limit participation to businesses with 50 or fewer employees. Companies with fewer than 25 workers may be able to obtain tax credits for up to two years of coverage bought through an exchange. States can open the exchanges to large employers in 2017.
A few states running their own exchanges, including California and Connecticut, said they planned to offer an employee choice option next year, though it was not required by the federal government.
A stated goal of the 2010 law was to increase “consumer choice” and stimulate competition among insurers.
The law makes it easier for consumers to compare health plans by defining four standard levels of coverage, ranging from the least to the most generous. The law says an employer can pick a level of coverage and then allow employees to choose among all the health plans available at that level.
Senate Oil Whores Think American Exceptionalism Will Protect Us From a Keystone XL Disaster
Apr. 1st, 2013
According to Republicans, America is a truly exceptional nation which is highly debatable, and it is possible they conflate being the richest nation on Earth with exceptionalism, but for a wealthy exceptional nation, there is a gross lack of intelligence among a growing number of politicians. Intelligence is difficult to quantify, but among its many definitions are learning, retaining, planning, and problem solving, and one expects politicians to have rudimentary skills involving learning, planning, and problem solving. It is unfortunate, but Republicans and some Democrats fail the simplest test of intelligence in that despite real-world examples of actions that result in disasters, they plod ahead as if America’s exceptionalism will protect it from catastrophes regardless they are occurring right before their eyes.
Last week, the Senate held a symbolic vote to overrule President Obama and send him a message that he better approve the Keystone XL pipeline that sends Canadian tar sands to the Gulf Coast in spite of the inherent danger to America’s drinking water and prime agricultural land. The senators cited a Koch, ExxonMobil, and TransCanada study the State Department used to portray the pipeline as an environmentally friendly project that will create 35 permanent jobs, enrich Koch industries, and provide Europe and South America with refined oil while raising the price of fuel at least 20 cents a gallon for American consumers.
This week, the U.S. experienced two more different oil spills involving Canadian tar sands crude oil, and yet Republicans and their Democratic sycophants warned if President Obama fails to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, Congress will act, seize presidential power, and give the ecological disaster the green light. Nebraska Congressman Lee Terry accused the President of “using every bureaucratic trick and excuse in the book” to block it. Two years ago, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the “The Keystone XL pipeline is a no-brainer,” and Terry parroted Harper’s words in spite of Canada not allowing TransCanada to build the pipeline in Canada because of the certain environmental devastation. However, for Harper, Republicans, and oil-whore Democrats, building the pipeline across America’s agricultural bread basket is a “no-brainer” because enriching Koch Industries, John Boehner, and TransCanada is the intelligent thing to do for a truly exceptional nation.
The ExxonMobil pipeline rupture in Arkansas on Friday leaked 80,000 barrels of tar sands resulting in 22 homes being evacuated as officials struggled to clean up the world’s dirtiest oil. Tar sand is exceptionally difficult to clean up because it sinks into the Earth, and the Pegasus pipeline that ruptured only carries over 90,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil from Illinois to Texas for refining and export to Europe. The Keystone XL pipeline will carry nine times as much tar as the Pegasus pipeline, and engineers are still puzzled how to clean up a two-year old 1-million gallon spill in Marshall Michigan because the tar sank into the Earth. Tar sand is especially corrosive and it is estimated Keystone XL will rupture 91 times in 20 years and is so potentially dangerous that just a single spill would have devastating consequences for generations of Americans. Another TransCanada pipeline system ruptured 12 times in one year and despite two more within a week, Republicans are warning the President to approve the pipeline forthwith or they will do it themselves.
One has to wonder what level of intelligence it takes to ignore overwhelming empirical evidence, and two more tar sand spills in America, to continue pressuring the President to approve a certain environmental disaster just to enrich Koch Industries, John Boehner, and a foreign oil corporation. Every one of the Keystone XL advocates in the Senate know full well not one drop of refined tar sand will stay in America, and that the only beneficiaries are TransCanada and tar oil refineries such as those owned by Koch Industries. They also know when Keystone XL does rupture, it will decimate the Ogalla Aquifer that supplies drinking water to 2 million Americans, and wipe out groundwater for 20% of prime agricultural land, not to mention raising fuel prices by 20 cents a gallon. They also ignore the $820 million cost (so far) of cleaning up the 2010 Michigan tar spill that scientists and regulators still cannot remove from the riverbed or another spill in western Minnesota last week. This week, Exxon was fined $1.7 million for a similar spill in the Yellowstone River in 2011, and it led them to defend their safety record because they stand to reap great profits from Keystone XL, and that is why Republicans are pushing the hazardous project, and why no politician, no Democrat, and especially President Obama, will tell the American people Keystone only benefits big oil.
The only reason Republicans and some dirty Democrats are pushing KeystoneXL is to enrich a foreign oil corporation, Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, and Boehner who will increase contributions to pipeline advocates in spite of the certain ecological disasters and higher fuel costs to the American people. Readers will recall that after the catastrophic BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Republicans lined up to condemn President Obama for holding BP responsible and apologized that Americans expected the oil giant to pay for cleanup and restitution for the billions in damage to the Gulf Coast.
The two recent spills should debunk the Koch brothers, ExxonMobil, and TransCanada State Department report that gave the pipeline a clean bill of health as an environmentally friendly project that creates 35 jobs, higher fuel costs, and more record profits on top of the billions American taxpayers already heap on the oil companies. However, Republicans will continue threatening the President to approve the pipeline or they will do it for him, and claim it is a “no brainer” as scientists, engineers, and environmentalists struggle to clean up the two most recent spills. Republicans have spent the past four years faithfully attempting to destroy the economy, middle class, and social safety nets, so it is no surprise they are willing to destroy the environment in their never-ending crusade to enrich their high-value donors, and if it means Americans’ water, agriculture, and food supply is threatened, then they will say so be it because they are intelligent enough to know where their power comes from and it is not the American people.
April 1, 2013
On the Montana Range, Efforts to Restore Bison Meet Resistance
By JIM ROBBINS
HELENA, Mont. — Free-roaming wild bison, once vital to the history, culture and ecology of the high plains and then hunted nearly to oblivion, are back at the center of a new debate as they compete with cattle for space on Montana’s vast grasslands.
For the last 15 years, environmentalists and Indian tribes have worked to restore herds of American bison to portions of their former home here. But that effort has not gone over well with some in this state, which is now dominated by cattle that eat the rich grasses that the bison once consumed. This time around, the undeclared competition for rangeland is playing out in courts, the State Capitol and the news media.
New legislation to limit the bison’s numbers is under consideration in the State Legislature, stirring deep and old feelings. It is clear that wild bison, which once grazed freely by the millions before they were reduced to a handful in the 1800s, remain an emotional symbol.
“It was ‘wipe out the buffalo, starve the Indians and put them on reservations’ ” during the slaughter, said Mark Azure, director of the Fish and Wildlife Department at Fort Belknap, where members of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes reside. Both tribes once hunted bison on the high plains of Montana.
As the animals return, Mr. Azure said, some people here have renewed a traditional way of life, bringing back old ceremonies and stories. “It’s hard to describe, but seeing the animal outside, you feel things inside — a connection to our ancestors,” Mr. Azure said.
For now the only wild, free-ranging herds of bison in the region are in Yellowstone National Park. While there are many more bison in the state, they are owned, fenced in and considered livestock, not wildlife.
The goal of tribes, conservation groups and others is to restore wild herds using bison culled from the 4,000 or so animals in the Yellowstone herd, which are descendants of the handful who survived the 19th-century slaughter, and are considered genetically pure. Wild bison are a keystone species and graze in ways that create patches of habitat for other wild prairie species, like birds.
The debate over this restoration plan is heating up here as legislators who represent livestock-growing regions have tried to block the introduction of new herds with several bitterly contested bills.
One bill, introduced by State Senator John Brenden, a Republican and a leading opponent of wild herds, would allow landowners to shoot bison that wander onto their property, prevent the transfer of the animals anywhere in the state and create a new bison hunting season.
Another would require the permission of commissioners before bison could be brought to their county, a third would redefine the term “wild buffalo” to make it much harder to create new herds, and a fourth would make the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks liable for damages caused by bison. Critics say the bills would end their plans for new wild herds.
Which is exactly the point, Senator Brenden said. “Why do you want to spread this creeping cancer, these woolly tanks, around the state of Montana?” he asked. “Trying to bring back the buffalo in big herds across Montana is like bringing back dinosaurs. And who wants dinosaurs in Montana? I certainly don’t.”
Montana tribes have made known their opposition to the bills. In mid-March, Indians from around the state held a pipe ceremony on a bison-hide robe in support of the restoration projects, filling the Capitol rotunda with drumming and singing.
Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat who fought for the transfer of bison to Indian reservation land, believes the battle comes down to a competition for grass. “These cattlemen make a great part of their living off subsidized grazing,” he said. While the federal government charges $1.38 to graze a cow and calf for a month, private landowners charge $22. “Buffalo are a large animal that could become active competition” for cheap grazing on federal land, Mr. Schweitzer said.
What to do with Yellowstone bison that wander away from the park has long been a quandary. For many years hundreds of the massive animals have been killed by state officials and hunters, or hazed back into the park. Many people here, including Mr. Schweitzer, consider such treatment an outrage and have sought alternatives.
One solution was to repatriate wild bison to the plains. In 2010 Ted Turner received 83 Yellowstone bison on his Montana ranch, the first to be located outside of the park. Last year 61 bison were moved by the tribes to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, with the help of environmental groups and federal and state agencies.
But as soon as the animals were moved, bison opponents went to court and received an injunction to prevent further transfers. The injunction has been appealed to the Montana Supreme Court by environmental groups and will be heard next month. If it is lifted, bison will be loaded on trucks and start rolling out of Yellowstone to new homes around the state. The wild bison in the park are quarantined, tested and certified free of disease before they are moved.
Nonetheless, some ranchers say they are concerned about brucellosis, an infectious bacteria-borne disease carried by some of the Yellowstone bison that some fear could infect cattle.
Trampled fences are another concern. “When bison are hungry they move,” said Representative Kerry White, a Republican who is a partner in a family ranch. “Free-roaming bison will walk right through a fence,” he said, and when they leave the reservation, there is often no one to round them up.
Nonetheless, a restoration is taking place in one vast area, and it has been controversial with some ranchers, even though the acreage has been purchased or leased. The American Prairie Reserve in northern Montana has 250 bison on some 273,000 deeded and leased acres.
The reserve is contiguous to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife refuge, which is about a million acres. The goal of some conservation groups is some three million acres with a large roaming herd of bison filling their ancient ecological role on the prairie.
“The effort is to restore wild bison to the grassland on a landscape level,” said Tom France, a wildlife advocate with the National Wildlife Federation, who opposes the Montana legislation because it would make their efforts more difficult. “And it will give us a sense of what once was.”
North Korea bans South from joint industrial zone
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, April 2, 2013 22:42 EDT
North Korea told South Korea on Wednesday that it was banning access to their Kaesong joint industrial park, but said South Koreans in the complex would be allowed to leave, officials said.
The Kaesong industrial complex is a crucial source of hard currency for the regime in Pyongyang and seen as a bellwether of inter-Korean relations, beyond all the military rhetoric that regularly flies across the border.
“The North this morning notified us that it will only allow returning trips from Kaesong and will ban trips to the complex,” Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-Suk told reporters.
Kim said the North had not specified how long the ban would remain in effect.
Describing the North’s move as “very regrettable”, Kim said his government’s first priority was the safety of the estimated 861 of its citizens currently in Kaesong.
“We expect our people currently in the North to return safely,” he said.
The latest North Korean move fitted into a cycle of escalating tensions that prompted UN chief Ban Ki-Moon to warn Tuesday that the situation had “gone too far” as the US vowed to defend itself and regional ally South Korea.
Hundreds of South Koreans travel to and from Kaesong, which lies 10 kilometers (six miles) inside North Korea, every day, but officials said the normal morning crossing had been delayed Wednesday.
North Korea has always been careful in the past not to allow crises on the Korean peninsula to impact Kaesong, which was established in 2004. Around 53,000 North Koreans work at plants for 120 South Korean firms at the complex.
The last time the border crossing was blocked was March 2009 in protest at a major US-South Korean military exercise. It reopened a day later.
Tensions have been soaring on the Korean peninsula since the North held a nuclear test in February, having launched a long-range rocket in December.
In a rare show of force in the region, Washington has deployed nuclear-capable US B-52s, B-2 stealth bombers and two US destroyers to South Korean air and sea space.
Standing side-by-side with counterpart South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, US Secretary of State John Kerry denounced Tuesday an “extraordinary amount of unacceptable rhetoric” from North Korea in recent days.
“Let me be perfectly clear here today. The United States will defend and protect ourselves and our treaty ally, the Republic of Korea,” Kerry said.
He was speaking after the North triggered renewed alarm by warning it would reopen its mothballed Yongbyon reactor — its source of weapons-grade plutonium.
The recent posturing by new North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was “dangerous and reckless,” Kerry said.
Earlier, Ban Ki-moon warned the situation was veering out of control and stressed that “nuclear threats are not a game.”
“The current crisis has already gone too far… Things must begin to calm down,” the former South Korean foreign minister said, adding that negotiations were the only viable way forward.
The North shut down the Yongbyon reactor in July 2007 under a six-nation aid-for-disarmament accord, and destroyed its cooling tower a year later.
Experts say it would take six months to get the reactor back up and running, after which it would be able to produce one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade plutonium a year.
North Korea revealed it was enriching uranium at Yongbyon in 2010 when it allowed foreign experts to visit the centrifuge facility there, but insisted it was low-level enrichment for energy purposes.
The North has substantial uranium ore deposits which provide a quick route to boosting reserves of fissile material, while plutonium has the advantage of being easier to miniaturise into a deliverable nuclear warhead.
Many observers believe the North has been producing highly-enriched uranium in secret facilities for years, and that the third nuclear test it conducted in February may have been of a uranium bomb.
Its previous tests in 2006 and 2009 were both of plutonium devices.
China voices fears as South Korean workers are barred from Kaesong
Beijing expresses 'serious concern' over escalating crisis after Pyongyang bans South Koreans from jointly run complex
Justin McCurry on Baengnyeong island, South Korea
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 3 April 2013 11.08 BST
The diplomatic crisis on the Korean peninsula has deepened after North Korea barred South Korean workers from entering a jointly run industrial complex just north of the countries' border.
China, meanwhile, voiced "serious concern" about rising tensions in the region, a day after North Korea said it would resume operations to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
The Kaesong industrial complex, located six miles north of the heavily fortified border that has separated the two countries for the past six decades, is viewed as the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean co-operation.
The North has disrupted operations there before, but Wednesday's move is causing particular concern as South Korea and the US attempt to respond to a catalogue of provocations by the regime in Pyongyang.
There was no suggestion, however, that hundreds of South Koreans already inside the complex when the ban was imposed were being held hostage.
In recent weeks, North Korea has threatened a nuclear attack against the US and its overseas bases – a hollow threat, experts say, given the regime's relatively primitive nuclear and missile technology – and declared a "state of war" with South Korea.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing that the country's deputy foreign minister, Zhang Yesui, had expressed "serious concern" over the crisis in a meeting with ambassadors from the US and South Korea.
"In the present situation, China believes all sides must remain calm and exercise restraint and not take actions which are mutually provocative, and must certainly not take actions which will worsen the situation," he added.
China is the North's only remaining ally and its biggest aid donor; that it has described the situation in such bleak terms is being interpreted as a sign of growing frustration in Beijing with the unpredictable behaviour of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.
Earlier, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, described the rhetoric emanating from Pyongyang as "unacceptable".
"What Kim Jong-un has been choosing to do is provocative. It is dangerous, reckless and the United States will not accept [North Korea] as a nuclear state," he said.
Kerry was responding to North Korea's announcement that it would restart its plutonium reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex and resume the production of highly enriched uranium – a move that officials in Pyongyang conceded was designed to bolster the state's nuclear weapons arsenal.
Experts had warned that any disruption to Kaesong, which draws on investment from more than 100 South Korean firms and employs workers from both countries, would signal a swift deterioration in an already tense situation on the peninsula.
The unification ministry in Seoul said about 480 South Korean managers who had planned to travel to Kaesong on Wednesday morning had been prevented from crossing into the North.
"South Korea's government deeply regrets the entry ban and urges that it be lifted immediately," the ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-seok told reporters. "Ensuring the safety of our citizens is our top priority and the South Korean government will take necessary measures based on this principle."
Of the South Korean workers who had stayed in Kaesong the previous night, three had returned by mid-afternoon local time, with about 800 more expected to follow. The unification ministry later said 46 workers would return by early evening, while the remainder would stay in Kaesong, according to the Yonhap news agency.
The country's defence minister, Kim Kwan-jin, said he would do everything possible to ensure the safety of workers who remained inside the zone. Those contingencies reportedly include "military action" as a last resort.
Since it started producing goods in 2004, Kaesong has endured as a rare example of cross-border co-operation. It is also an important source of hard currency for the North, earning the impoverished state an estimated $2bn (£1.3bn) a year in trade.
About 120 South Korean firms run factories in the border town, paying more than $80m (£53m) a year in wages to the workforce, which includes 53,000 North Koreans.
It was not clear how long the ban on workers from the South would last; permission from North Korea for employees to cross the border into its territory is granted on a daily basis. Kaesong has been the victim of diplomatic spats before, having closed briefly in March 2009 during US-South-Korea military exercises.
But an extended ban would in effect lead to the closure of Kaesong, as it cannot operate without raw materials trucked in from the South.
"I feel worried that I'm unable to do business and also feel anxious," Joe In-suk, a 54-year-old South Korean who had planned to travel to Kaesong on Wednesday, told Associated Press at a border checkpoint.
Analysts say the Kaesong ban is the latest in a series of moves by North Korea designed to raise fears of conflict in the hope of prizing diplomatic concessions out of Seoul and Washington, including an end to economic sanctions, promises of aid, and a peace treaty with the US.
"It appears to be a temporary measure intended to raise tensions with the South, having declared it is entering a state of war and having been ridiculed for keeping Kaesong open for financial reasons," Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute thinktank in Seoul told Reuters.
"At least until the end of April, when the [South-Korea-US] military drills end, the North is likely to keep up the tensions as it had done in previous years. The message is it is capable of dealing a major blow to Kaesong."
The North began the latest round of provocations early last month in protest at fresh UN sanctions following its third nuclear weapons test in February.
The North also claims it has been provoked by the huge show of US military firepower in the region during continuing war games with South Korean forces. Seoul and Washington say the annual drills are purely defensive, but Pyongyang says it regards them as a prelude to an invasion.
John Kerry denounces ‘unacceptable rhetoric’ from the North Korea
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, April 2, 2013 19:05 EDT
The United States vowed to defend itself and its regional allies Tuesday after North Korea again stepped up its warlike rhetoric and the UN warned that the crisis could spin out of control.
Standing side-by-side with counterpart South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, US Secretary of State John Kerry denounced “an extraordinary amount of unacceptable rhetoric from the North Korean government in the last days.
“Let me be perfectly clear here today. The United States will defend and protect ourselves and our treaty ally, the Republic of Korea,” Kerry said, also vowing to stand by Japan as the latest crisis with Pyongyang unfolds.
Kerry was speaking after the North triggered renewed alarm by warning it would reopen the Yongbyon reactor — its source of weapons-grade plutonium — in the latest in a series of increasingly bellicose threats.
He said the recent posturing by new North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was provocative as well as “dangerous and reckless.”
Yun, who is on his first visit to Washington since becoming foreign minister in the new government of President Park Geun-Hye, renewed Seoul’s commitment to working with Washington.
“We agree to further strengthen credible and robust deterrence vis-a-vis North Korea’s nuclear and conventional provocations,” Yun said.
But UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned the crisis could spiral out of control, stressing that “nuclear threats are not a game.”
“The current crisis has already gone too far … Things must begin to calm down,” the former South Korean foreign minister told a press conference in Andorra, adding that negotiations were the only viable way forward.
Tensions have been escalating on the Korean peninsula since the North held a nuclear test in February, having launched a long-range rocket in December.
Last week in a rare show of force in the region, Washington deployed nuclear-capable US B-52s, B-2 stealth bombers and a US destroyer to South Korean air and sea space.
It has also called on China and Russia to do more to rein in North Korea, after Beijing earlier voiced regret over Pyongyang’s announcement.
“It is not a mystery to anyone that China has influence with North Korea,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
“We have in the past and are now urging China to use that influence to try to affect North Korean behavior. That is also true of our (conversations) with the Russians.”
A Pyongyang government nuclear energy spokesman said the plans for Yongbyon would involve “readjusting and restarting” all facilities at the complex, including a uranium enrichment plant and the five-megawatt reactor.
The North shut down the Yongbyon reactor in July 2007 under a six-nation aid-for-disarmament accord, and destroyed its cooling tower a year later.
Experts say it would take six months to get the reactor back up and running, after which it would be able to produce one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade plutonium a year.
North Korea revealed it was enriching uranium at Yongbyon in 2010 when it allowed foreign experts to visit the centrifuge facility there, but insisted it was low-level enrichment for energy purposes.
Kim Yong-Hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said Tuesday’s nuclear initiative was different from the military bluster of recent weeks.
“This goes beyond mere provocation. It’s a strong, tangible move and perhaps the one that will force the US into the direct dialogue Pyongyang wants,” Kim said.
The North has substantial uranium ore deposits which provide a quick route to boosting reserves of fissile material, while plutonium has the advantage of being easier to miniaturise into a deliverable nuclear warhead.
Many observers believe the North has been producing highly-enriched uranium in secret facilities for years, and that the third nuclear test it conducted in February may have been of a uranium bomb.
Its previous tests in 2006 and 2009 were both of plutonium devices.
North Korea: US acts to calm fears over 'alarming' atomic plan
Country announces plans to restart facilities at Yongbyon complex as Pentagon denies report of warships off South's coast
Ewen MacAskill in Washington and Justin McCurry in Seoul
The Guardian, Wednesday 3 April 2013
The US described the prospect of North Korea restarting a mothballed atomic reactor as "extremely alarming" on Tuesday.
North Korea said it would reactivate all facilities at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex to ease its electricity shortage and strengthen its nuclear capability. The reactor was shut down in 2007 as part of international nuclear disarmament talks that have since stalled.
The move came a day after Pyongyang announced a "new strategic line" focusing on its nuclear programme and economy.
But the Obama administration, trying to reduce tension, stressed that it would take time between Tuesday's announcement heralding resumption of North Korea's nuclear programme and the North's ability to restore its nuclear programme. Analysts estimated it would take about a year.
The North Korea move marked the latest escalation in a confrontation in which tensions rise almost on a daily basis. On Wednesday North-South relations were further hindered when North Korea denied entry to people from the South who work in the countries' jointly run Kaesong factory park just inside the North's borders. It was not clear whether this was a temporary or permanent measure.
A US state department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, briefing reporters on Tuesday, said: "As national security adviser Tom Donilon said less than a month ago, the US will not accept the DPRK [North Korea] as a nuclear state. The position has not changed since national security adviser Donilon stated it a month ago." Re-activating Yongbyon would be "a clear violation of the DPRK's international obligations and the commitments it made at that time".
Nuland stressed it would take time to reactivate the plant: "Obviously there is a long way to go between a stated intention and actually being to be able to pull it off, with all that would entail. But were they to be able to put themselves back into position to use the facility, that would obviously would be extremely alarming but, as I have said, it's a long way from here."
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said he feared North Korea was on a collision course with the rest of the world that could lead to war. Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, said the crisis had "gone too far" and called for dialogue to ease tensions on the peninsula.
"Nuclear threats are not a game. Aggressive rhetoric and military posturing only result in counter-actions, and fuel fear and instability," he said on a visit to Andorra. "Things must calm down as this situation, made worse by the lack of communication, could lead down a path that nobody should want to follow.
"I am convinced that nobody intends to attack [North Korea] … however, I am afraid that others will respond firmly to any direct military provocation," he said.
China, the North's only major ally and aid provider, called the possible nuclear restart "regrettable", while Japan said it was a cause for "grave concern".
Jay Carney, the White House press spokesman, avoided going into specifics beyond saying that the US was working with its allies in Seoul and Tokyo, adding: "We are regularly reaching out to Beijing and Moscow to encourage them to do more to restrain the North Koreans."
Asked if the tension was due to the personality of the young North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, Carney told reporters North Korea's pattern of behaviour predated his taking over. "There is a pattern of behaviour here. A pattern that is familiar," Carney said.
The Pentagon tried to lower the temperature, denying news reports that two US destroyers, the McCain and Decatur, were now off the South Korean coast. A Pentagon spokesman, George Little, opted for a vaguer description of their deployment, saying only that they were positioned somewhere in the western Pacific.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, met the South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se on Tuesday in Washington.
Afterwards, Kerry said that restarting Yongbyon would be a violation of international obligations. "The bottom line is very simply that what Kim Jong-un has been choosing to do is provocative, it is dangerous, reckless and the US will not accept the DPRK as a nuclear state," Kerry said.
"And I reiterate again the US will do what is necessary to defend ourselves and defend our allies, Korea and Japan. We are fully prepared and capable of doing that and the DPRK understands that."
Kerry is to visit Seoul next week and the South Korean president Park Geun-hye is to visit the White House next month.
The Yongbyon announcement follows repeated warnings from the North that it is on a war footing with South Korea. The regime has also threatened nuclear strikes against the US mainland and its overseas military bases, though experts are convinced it is still several years away from developing the necessary technology.
Duyeon Kim, a North Korea and nuclear arms specialist at the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, estimated it would take North Korea at least a year to reverse the steps taken in 2007.
"It's not an immediate danger. They cannot immediately start producing plutonium again because the reactor and other key components were shut down and disabled under two six-party talks agreements in 2007. Eleven key plutonium-producing facilities and parts were disabled, meaning it would take at least a year to reverse those steps," she said.
"The reactor cooling tower was also destroyed and it would take time to rebuild it, too, although they could pump water from the river next to Yongbyon to act as a cooling mechanism.
"The North's announcement reaffirms its intention to fully develop its nuclear programmes, keep both avenues (plutonium and uranium) open to making nuclear weapons, to proclaim that its nuclear programmes cannot be negotiated away, and to publicly confirm our suspicions that its uranium-enrichment plant is for nuclear weapons and not for energy purposes, as they claimed until now."
Some North Korea experts believe the regime wants to avoid provoking a potentially catastrophic inter-Korea conflict.
"The North Korean regime indulges in this kind of behaviour all the time," said Prof Shin Jong-dae of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. "The possibility of war breaking out is still very low, although there is always the chance of smaller skirmishes. But ultimately the North Koreans don't want this to escalate out of control. They want a turning point in relations with the United States."
The latest threats are in response to ongoing military drills involving forces from South Korea and the US – the US flew B-52 and B-2 bomber sorties over the Korean peninsula last week – and tougher UN sanctions imposed after Pyongyang's third nuclear arms test in February.
A spokesman for North Korea's bureau of atomic energy said the Yongbyon facilities are a graphite-moderated five-megawatt reactor, which generates spent fuel rods laced with plutonium and is the core of the Yongbyon nuclear complex. When fully operational the complex is capable of the annual production of one atomic bomb's worth of plutonium, the most common fuel in nuclear weapons.
04/02/2013 03:06 PM
World from Berlin: 'Kim Wants Legitimacy as a Nuclear Power'
In addition to multiple threats made against South Korea and the United States in recent days, Pyongyang said Tuesday it plans to restart a controversial nuclear reactor. The German media believe dictator Kim Jong Un is seeking to establish a stronger negotiating position for disarmament talks.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un's regime is busy rattling its sabers again. On Tuesday, Pyongyang said it would restart the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, a facility shut down in 2007 after disarmament talks. The Yongbyon reactor had been the source of plutonium for the country's nuclear weapons program until its closure.
The development follows a move on Saturday to escalate rhetoric between Pyongyang and Seoul by claiming the country was entering into a "state of war" with South Korea. "From this time on, the North-South relations will be entering the state of war and all issues raised between the North and the South will be handled accordingly," a statement from the regime's official KCNA news service read on Saturday.
Since March, the number of bellicose threats coming out of North Korea has increased dramatically, with repeated claims the country might conduct pre-emptive nuclear strikes against United States targets and invade South Korea. The US has responded by positioning warships, including the USS McCain, an Aegis-class guided-missile destroyer used for ballistic missile defense, and a giant sea-based radar platform around the Korean Peninsula region. Military aircraft have also been sent to the peninsula. Still, it is not believed that there is much behind the threats other than talk, particularly given the expert assessment that Pyongyang doesn't have nuclear weapons capable of reaching the US.
Although the US appears to be taking the new rhetoric seriously, concerns do not appear to be great in Washington or elsewhere in the West that North Korea is closer to waging any kind of real war. "Despite the harsh rhetoric we're hearing from Pyongyang, we are not seeing changes to the North Korean military posture, such as large-scale mobilizations and positioning of forces," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.
The new tensions between the West and North Korea come just weeks after Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test in February. In China, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry said North Korea's decision to restart the Yongbyon power plant had been "regretful." Six-party disarmament talks with North Korea have been stalled since 2008 and experts believe the new rhetoric may increase pressure to restart negotiations.
In Germany, editorialists at some of the country's biggest newspapers look at the latest escalation between Pyongyang and Washington. Most believe the North Korean threats amount to little more than rhetoric.
Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Today, under the third Kim, North Korea is a nuclear power and exhibiting more warlike behavior than ever before. It would take less of a strategist than a psychologist to discover any hint of rationality behind this. … After three nuclear tests and a spectacular rocket launch, it's clear that Kim (or his military puppetmasters in the background) wants legitimacy as a nuclear power. Time and time again, he has made it known that his nuclear arsenal is not among the bargaining chips."
"But beyond the riddle of his motives there is a greater problem that makes the latest saber rattling sound particularly dangerous. What, pray tell, counts as reality for this young dictator? Is the new commander, amid all the bluster, still a rational actor? Or does he see the world through a lens made especially for him? Perception is everything in the end, and nowhere in the world is there a more idiosyncratic view of things than in North Korea. For 65 years, the regime has lived in a fantasy world. It's possible that Kim believes in this world so much that he would be willing to fight for it -- making him a victim of the regime's own propaganda."
Leftist Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Like his father, the young Kim is well aware that the regime would not survive a real war with the United States. But this blatant threat is the product of clear calculation. It enables an otherwise weak country to appear threatening. Domestically, it will enable him to score points to mark the Americans as enemies and pit himself against the South Koreans. Abroad, this will perpetuate an image of North Korea remaining unpredictable, which will give the country greater room for maneuver in negotiations. And it is also entirely possible that it will undertake individual military strikes in the border region with South Korea like it did in 2010. But things won't go much further than that."
"Soon it will appear as if its neighboring countries and the global powers are happy that Pyongyang is talking again and that it is returning to the negotiating table. In order to ensure that this happens, the US, Japan, South Korea and China will all make concessions, like oil deliveries, food deliveries or a loosening of sanctions only recently imposed. Once that happens, playing with nuclear fire will have paid off for the son just as it did for the father."
Business daily Handelsblatt writes:
"Fortunately, the probability of a major war remains low. One reason for optimisim is China, and another is the rationality of North Korea's leadership. Those in power in China haven't abandoned the troublemakers on their northeast border, even in the wake of past military attacks, in order to prevent the Kim regimes from collapsing. They prefer to keep the country as a buffer against the United States. In addition, they are also extremely concerned about a potential mass influx of refugees. But there's one thing China needs even less: open warfare. And this is also clear to North Korea's leaders. Even in times of peace, the regime's survival is dependent on trade, foreign aid, money and goods from China. The chances of winning a war without aid are precisely zero. In the past, North Korea's leaders have calculated very coolly and dared to venture only the things they believed China would accept."
Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"The question remains as to what could have moved North Korea to heat up the conflict with its increasingly excessive statements. One explanation may be the weekend meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party. The delegates passed a program that doesn't exactly look like preparation for an imminent war. It focuses on developing the economy. To this end, a new prime minister was nominated, and he has been rewarded with a seat in the Politburo, which gives him relatively strong power within the system. If one assumes that the military sees this as a threat to its hitherto unquestioned leadership role, the war rhetoric would make a certain amount of sense."
-- SPIEGEL ONLINE Staff
Malaysia heads for general election
Prime Minister Najib Razak dissolves parliament for polls pitting his National Front coalition against Anwar Ibrahim
Associated Press in Kuala Lumpur
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 3 April 2013 05.33 BST
Malaysia's prime minister has dissolved parliament to call for national elections that are expected to take place later in April.
The polls will be fiercely contested between Prime Minister Najib Razak's long-ruling National Front coalition and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's three-party alliance.
Najib said in a nationally televised address he had obtained royal consent from Malaysia's constitutional monarch to dissolve parliament immediately.
The country's election commission is expected to meet within a week to set a polling date. Voting must be held within two months but is widely expected by the end of April.
Najib urged Malaysians in his 15-minute speech to give the National Front a strong mandate so that it can work to improve "the fate of our children and grandchildren".
The National Front's current five-year mandate had been scheduled to end on 30 April. At stake are 222 seats in parliament and control of 12 Malaysian states. The National Front won the 2008 elections with less than a two-thirds parliamentary majority, its poorest results in more than five decades of uninterrupted rule since independence from Britain in 1957.
Najib was marking exactly four years as prime minister on Wednesday. He succeeded Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who was pressured to step down after being blamed for weak leadership that contributed to the National Front's electoral setback.
Anwar's opposition alliance wrested control of several states in 2008 by pledging to curb long-entrenched problems including corruption and racial discrimination.
Najib has intensified efforts to win back support over the past year with measures such as channelling more funds to the poor and abolishing security laws that were widely considered repressive.
Most analysts believe Najib's coalition will still have the upper hand because of its support in predominantly rural constituencies that hold the key to a large number of parliament's seats.
Australia braces for ‘uncomfortable truths’ in national child sex abuse inquiry
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, April 3, 2013 7:20 EDT
Australia opened a national probe into child sex abuse on Wednesday, with premier Julia Gillard warning of “uncomfortable truths” as institutions including schools and churches come under scrutiny.
Gillard ordered the inquiry in November after a decade of growing pressure to investigate widespread allegations of paedophilia, two months after the Catholic Church in Victoria revealed hundreds of children had been abused.
“This is an important moral moment for our nation,” Gillard told ABC radio as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse began at the Victorian County Court in Melbourne.
“When I established this royal commission I understood that it was going to require our whole country to stare some very uncomfortable truths in the face,” the prime minister said.
Chairman Justice Peter McClellan announced at the opening that the inquiry would hear “serious and shocking allegations”.
At least 5,000 people would want to tell their stories, although “the number could be much higher”, he said. Public hearings are not likely to start for several months.
“Part of the task given to us… is to bear witness, on behalf of the nation, to the abuse and consequential trauma inflicted on many people who have suffered sexual abuse as children,” he said.
“For the individuals who have been traumatised, giving an account of their experiences and telling their story can be an important part of the recovery process.”
An interim report is due by June 2014 but McClellan admitted it was unlikely the commission could complete its work within the timeframe for the delivery of a final report in June 2015. Findings and recommendations will be made public.
Gillard outlined two goals for the inquiry.
“For the survivors of child sexual abuse, I want this to be a moment of healing, for us to say to them as a nation ‘we hear you, you’re valued and you’re believed’ because for too long, so many of these survivors have just run into closed doors and closed minds.”
“And second, I want the royal commission to provide for us recommendations about the future.
“We’ve let children down in the past as a country. We need to learn what we can do as a nation to better protect our children in the future.”
Counsel Gail Furness told the inquiry that orphanages, schools, churches, parishes, groups such as the scouts, organised sports, childcare centres, detention centres and the defence forces would all come under scrutiny.
But she added: “The royal commission is not a court and does not decide criminal cases.”
The inquiry would be conducted to understand the response of an institution to an allegation of abuse.
Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric apologised at Christmas to those who “suffered at the hands” of priests and religious teachers.
Sydney Archbishop George Pell said he was ashamed following a series of paedophile allegations against priests and claims they were hushed up.
The government in Victoria state is running its own investigation into sex abuse, with the Church telling a state parliamentary hearing in September that about 620 children had been abused since the 1930s.
There is also a special commission of inquiry in neighbouring New South Wales into similar allegations raised in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney.
Child sex abuse allegations have rattled the Catholic Church across the world, particularly in Ireland but also in the United States, Germany and Belgium.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Japan’s whale ‘research’ a flashpoint in global dispute over international ban on commerical whaling
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, April 3, 2013 1:25 EDT
Japan says the work that goes on at the Institute of Cetacean Research is crucial for studying whale populations; critics counter it is a way to get around an international ban on commercial whaling.
The institute can be found in a nondescript white-brick office building in Tokyo’s port district.
Down a hallway and through an unmarked door is a small lobby with a model ship, a poster showing various whale species, and a sign that reads “Keep Out”.
Captured whales are studied by the Institute, which refers to its work on them as “lethal research” before their meat is sold across Japan, including in restaurants in nearby Tsukiji market, where a sushi-style piece of the purple flesh costs a few dollars.
Telephone and fax requests for an interview went unanswered. An AFP reporter who visited the office recently was confronted by two men who did not identify themselves.
“What are you doing here? You are not supposed to be here. You have to leave,” one said in English.
When told the taxpayer-funded institute had not responded to AFP’s interview requests, he said: “That means no. It means we’re not interested.”
Norway and Iceland are the only other nations that hunt whales in open defiance of a 1986 moratorium, and Japan’s annual hunt has drawn criticism from both activists and foreign governments.
But the Institute insists “anti-whaling is not ‘world opinion’”.
“Rather, it is a predominantly Western phenomenon in developed countries amplified by anti-whaling fundraising NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and the Western media,” it says on its website, pointing to hundreds of whaling research papers.
“The purpose of Japan’s research is science — science that will ensure that when commercial whaling is resumed it will be sustainable.”
What Japan sees as research is at the heart of a bitter grudge match between militant activists intent on ending the nation’s annual whale hunt and an equally determined Tokyo, which dismisses the campaigners as “terrorists”.
Japan’s whaling fleet left port in December aiming to catch about 1,000 whales in the icy waters of the Antarctic, where they are regularly pursued by militant environmentalist group Sea Shepherd. Activists said this year’s hunt ended in March with no more than 75 whales killed.
They have clashed violently in exchanges that have in the past seen stink bombs thrown at Japanese crew and water jets trained on protesters. The bitter fight has also reached the legal arena with both sides launching lawsuits.
Tokyo says that researching the mammals is “perfectly legal” under international whaling rules, as is selling meat by-products. Organs including ovaries and stomach contents are crucial for research, the Institute says.
“Some indispensable data have to be collected by lethal means, which simply cannot be obtained by non-lethal means,” it says, adding that death “is as rapid as possible”.
“A large proportion of the whales taken are killed instantly by an explosive harpoon”.
Critics question what remains for the Institute to conclude about sustainable whale populations after carrying out its research in the decades since the moratorium on international whaling was established.
“They (the Institute) don’t really have an argument to justify themselves anymore,” said Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan.
“If they can’t get enough data by killing thousands of whales, then that is a failure of the science,” he said.
But “it’s about pride. Japan has been claiming this is part of Japanese culture. Once you raise that issue, it’s very difficult to back down.”
Questions remain about the economic viability of whaling given the decades-long decline in Japanese consumption of the meat. A report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare recently said the whaling programme costs Japanese taxpayers $10 million a year.
There was little appetite among private firms to restart commercial whaling given the prohibitive expense, Sato said.
However, Fisheries minister Yoshimasa Hayashi recently told AFP in an interview that the hunt would continue, dismissing anti-whaling voices as “a cultural attack, a kind of prejudice against Japanese culture”.
In the narrow streets around Tsukiji market, billed as the world’s biggest fish emporium, that view was echoed by some who defended whaling as an important tradition, albeit a fading one.
Others feared job losses in the whaling sector if the hunt ended and criticised activists’ in-your-face approach — even if they had little affection for whale meat itself.
“It is Japanese food culture,” said 45-year-old Miuka Arita.
“People who decide they want to eat it should be allowed to do so. Just because (activists) didn’t grow up eating it does not justify the aggressive actions they take,” she said.
Tamie Sawai doesn’t think much of “dangerous actions” by conservationists either. But the 83-year-old added that she had not eaten whale meat in years.
“Its bacon was quite good, but I don’t have any strong sense of nostalgia for whale meat,” she said.
“I don’t miss it at all.”