Suddenly Germany may be in trouble – too little growth, two few babies
Its economy may be thriving now: but as elections loom, the country's vaunted industrial base faces a skills shortage of startling proportions
The Observer, Sunday 8 September 2013
On the edge of deep green mountain forests in the centre of Germany – where east once met west – lies Germany's "toy town". As in every corner of Germany right now, smiling election candidates beam out from posters tied to lampposts in Sonneberg with snappy slogans promising "safe jobs" and to "keep Germany strong".
There is little mention of looming problems that many experts predict will send Germany tumbling down the economic league tables over coming years. Instead, they are playing on the strengths of Sonneberg's mix of small and family-owned companies – the kind that dominate the buoyant German business landscape. Toy town is, for now, enjoying the latest of many resurgences through the centuries.
"Sonneberg and the area around it has one of the highest employment levels in Germany," says Christian Dressel, who runs the local job centre. "Businesses have set up here … we have car industry companies, electronics firms making vacuum cleaners and TVs, toymakers and a training school for toymakers."
In its heyday at the turn of the 20th century, Sonneberg was the world's leading toy producer. Mothers and fathers, son and daughters, crammed into home workshops and, with their neighbours, made up production lines that churned out every fifth toy in the world. One house would make dolls' wigs, the next along stuffed the bodies and another would craft their faces.
When Sonneberg was swallowed up into the German Democratic Republic, the communist authorities merged its many toymakers into powerful co-operatives that made up 95% of the country's toy industry, exporting dolls, building blocks, trains and plastic trucks far and wide across the Soviet bloc and beyond. Little of that is left today. Rows of majestic villas and teddy-bear-shaped statues in the town square are testament to centuries of export might, but only a handful of toymakers remain.
"After the reunification those giant toymakers were no longer sustainable and collapsed very quickly," says Reinhild Schneider, director of the German Toy Museum in Sonneberg. "If you look at the massive scale of production in the past and the renowned toymakers, what we see is a story of decline. You have to accept it. The world is changing."
But in the place of Sonneberg's toymakers are industrial estates almost full to capacity with car parts manufacturers, mechanical engineering plants and plastics specialists.
These are the sorts of small businesses that make up 99% of all German firms, and generate more than half the country's economic output. Sonneberg, and its transformation after the fall of the Berlin wall into a base for such Mittelstand (small and medium-sized) companies, encapsulates the wave of economic success that chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking to ride into the elections in two weeks' time.
These companies, like many across Germany, have been enjoying growing exports as the eurozone finally emerges from recession. At 4.2%, Sonneberg's unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country and has halved in the past five years. Merkel's placards here promise more of the same for workers.
But rivals to her centre-right Christian Democrats seize on growing disquiet in Germany about the value of all those jobs and what many see as rising inequality. Germany has one of the largest proportions of low earners in Europe – a quarter are on less than €9.54 (£8.15) an hour – and for those at the bottom of the pay scale, wages have failed miserably to keep pace with inflation.
Merkel's main challenger, Peer Steinbrück of the Social Democrats, is promising top-ups for families on low incomes, while the leftwing Die Linke party is calling for a national minimum wage and a tax on millionaires under the slogan "It's fun to share".
Sonneberg and its neighbouring towns also offer glimpses of a longer-term problem facing Germany. Europe's growth engine is grappling with the costs of one of the lowest birth rates in the world, and here at its heart the resulting skills shortage is already being felt.
This is the biggest issue for more than 500 local Mittelstand bosses gathering for their Industrie- und Handelskammer (chamber of commerce and industry) gala, a short dash up the recently extended motorway in the town of Suhl. The chamber's latest survey showed a record number of businesses on good form, and there are high spirits at the annual knees-up, which features speeches, dance routines by a troupe draped in locally made LED lights, a prizegiving and a buffet of potato salad, schnitzels and sausages.
But there are nods of recognition when the chamber president for South Thuringia, Dr Peter Traut, highlights a worsening labour crunch. "When I started in this role 10 years ago there were 2,200 young people finishing their exams. Now there are 1,000 fewer. The maths is easy: it has virtually halved."
The drive to attract young trainees is something Karl-Heinz Sladek has been working hard at. He is general manager of HPT Pharma Packaging, based in Sonneberg, and says the tables have been turned on German employers. While their counterparts in eurozone countries such as Spain and Greece are inundated with applicants for every job, German bosses are left wondering where to find young people to meet the rising demand for their car parts, biotech innovations and other exports.
"It is no longer a case of young people applying to us; it's us applying for future trainees," he says.
Companies are wooing school leavers with golden hellos, petrol vouchers, gym memberships and help with childcare. But the numbers are not in the employers' favour. The regional employment agency in Suhl has just reported a record August for trainee demand. There were 869 unfilled training slots but just 336 applicants still looking for a placement.
At Sonneberg's job centre, Dressel has been trying to bring more workers into the area. He recently ferried a busload of potential Sonneberg settlers to a jobs fair from other, less buoyant parts of former East Germany. With his colleagues, he scouts around for companies elsewhere in Germany that are cutting staff or closing and then goes after the workers with brochures expounding the job opportunities and vaunting the quality of life in "toy town", with its vast forests, mountain-bike tracks and ski slopes.
The shrinking pool of school leavers is a worrying trend for a country that has long prided itself on a tradition of apprenticeships and skilled work in a specific Beruf, or trade. That and a push towards innovation have kept Germany competitive in an increasingly global economy, according to Stefanie Spanagel, who runs an engine parts plant in Sonneberg for manufacturer Mann+Hummel.
"There is a pride in skilled crafts," she says. "People don't just say I work at Mann+Hummel, they say I work as a tool maker at Mann+Hummel."
Her plant – the biggest industrial employer in Sonneberg, with 500 staff – keeps 95% of the apprentices it takes on. Others battling in the increasingly cut-throat market for youngsters are not so lucky.
Peter Stahlhut manages production at Glaswerk Ernstthal, on the edge of the town of Lauscha in the nearby Thuringia mountains. Workshops here have been crafting glass since the 16th century and claim to be the birthplace of the Christmas bauble. Lauscha is to Christmas decorations what Sonneberg is to toys.
Stahlhut's factory now produces decorative glass bottles for the spirits industry, more than a third of them for export. The plant has 30 trainees among its 500 staff. But holding on to them is tough.
"In our industry you need experience to do the job well… that means years of learning and doing," says Stahlhut. "But a glass works isn't the sexiest place to work. It's hot. It's noisy. You have to expect to lose 50% of the people you start training."
Economists say the skills shortage will become more acute as the German population continues to fall. The official projections are for drastic ageing: in 2060, every third person will be 65 or older.
Not only are people living longer, but when it comes to having children, Germans lag well behind most other OECD countries. There is anecdotal evidence among women that combining a job and a family is still frowned on. There is also research, including by the OECD, suggests that finding childcare remains a barrier to starting a family for some.
This demographic time bomb has received too little attention in the election campaign, say many economists. "They are not concentrating on structural reform, and that is what you need for women to have more kids," says Laurence Boone, chief European economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Analysts say that Germany also faces mounting pension and healthcare costs as the population ages and its advantageous economic position starts to crumble away.
"There are big implications for trend growth," says Boone. "The more people who work, the more you grow. And if you have to choose between kids and working, you take women out of the workforce. You need children being born and women working. Not only is Germany's trend growth going to be lower than it was before the crisis five years ago, it's going to be closer to Italian trend growth and below Spanish, UK and French trend growth."
Combining motherhood and work is an area where some western German states could learn a lesson from the former East Germany. Sonneberg's deputy mayor, Dr Heiko Voigt, recalls a time when things were different.
"In the old East Germany we had a very high female participation rate," he says. "We had excellent childcare, and the birth rate was much higher."
Sonneberg now offers care for every child that needs it. A full-time place with meals costs about £120 a month, with discounts for siblings. And toy town's family-friendliness is part of a wider push for business-friendliness in a place that initially suffered badly from the Wendeschock, when East and West Germany were reunited.
"After the wall came down, industry and business collapsed here," says Voigt. "Firms with 3,000 workers went down to 300; some closed altogether. It was akin to what happened in British mining." Business groups and local authorities responded by renewing pre-second-world-war links with neighbouring towns in Bavaria. They also lobbied for new transport links and created industrial estates, including on the "death strip" where the border once stood.
Voigt thinks the town's rebirth as one of the most economically active in Germany could be copied by struggling European neighbours.
"The toy industry is one of many legs that we stand on but not the most important one. You should always have several irons in the fire, be flexible, try unconventional ways of getting results."
Krebs Glas Lauscha
In the little German mountain town of Lauscha it is Christmas 365 days a year. Glassblowers have been crafting their wares here for 400 years. They began with simple round windowpanes and over the generations went on to supply bottles to pharmacists, festive baubles to department stores and glass eyes to doctors' clinics.
Lauscha's steep high street is lined with a mix of Christmas shops, lampmakers and surgeries offering prosthetic eyes. But it is for its decorations the town is known in foreign markets.
Krebs Glas Lauscha sends out 6m decorations from here every year and distributes tens of millions more. It sells to Selfridges and Harrods, and also distributes to France, Japan and north America.
But as mass production has swept through the Christmas decorations market, the number of baubles handcrafted in Lauscha on the firm's order books has suffered. In 2011, Krebs Glas Lauscha closed its production plant here and now buys from workshops in the town for those customers who still want to spend big on Christmas.
Rich Russians are buying the handmade and painted baubles, says manager Gerd Ross. "In Russia, it's like it was in America in the 1960s,: you decorate a tree to show who you are."
Demand is also rising in Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. But Ross, whose father and grandfather made decorations in Lauscha, has seen drastic changes in most places. "The market for quality products has become quite small … People now get Christmas decorations in DIY stores and general stores. It is a shame that things developed that way but we couldn't stop that," he says.
"People's habits have changed too. There was a saying in Lauscha: when things are not working out for people, Christmas tree decorations work. People always decorated their trees, whatever. Today at Christmas … people eat well, they travel, they go to places where snow is guaranteed or perhaps even sunshine, and so the demand for Christmas decorations falls."
Jens Beyer is under no illusions about the image of his industry. "People don't out themselves as model railway enthusiasts," says the manager at Piko, one of Germany's biggest manufacturers of model trains.
And yet, sales growth has been close to double digits in the last few years for Piko, one of the few toymakers left in Germany's one-time toy capital, Sonneberg. Exports are strong, customers are loyal and its plants in Sonneberg and south China are serving a growing share of the market, he says.
Exports have always been important here. Set just over the Bavarian-Thuringian border in what was East Germany, Piko was made into a major toymaker under communism and became known to model buffs around the world as the go-to supplier for Soviet townscapes and trains. Today it still enjoys a strong following in the US, where it has a distribution centre, as well as rising demand in Russia.
But model trains are a labour-intensive business and pressure on margins is high. Against a backdrop of stiff competition and stagnating disposable incomes for many of its customers, Piko opened its Chinese plant five years ago and the 300 workers there now easily outnumber the 170 assembling trains and running the machines in Sonneberg.
The German toy town is still the workshop for 150 different PIKO products, which range from miniature cargo wagons to larger scale outdoor train sets.
It is a market that thrives on new releases.
"We have to invest in new technology but especially in new products," says Beyer.
PIKO pays €150,000 for a set of moulds for a single locomotive. Where possible it will use that mould for a number of variations by changing the plastic colour or logos to represent the variety of real-life rail operators. "Rail privatisations have been good for us," says Beyer.
Like most other manufacturers, Piko's bosses worry about skilled labour shortages and there is pressure too from rising energy costs – a constant point of tension between German business and the state since the government vowed to phase out nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
The Mittelstand is defined as companies with up to 500 employees and annual turnover up to €50m. Almost all German firms – 99%, or 3.7m companies – belong to the Mittelstand. It accounts for 52% of total economic output, 37% of overall turnover and 19% of Germany's total exports. It employs about 15.5m people, 60% of all employees – 11.8m in mid-sized companies (10 to 499 employees) and 3.6m in small companies. The Mittelstand employs 83.2% of trainees and in 2010 Mittelstand firms invested €8.7bn in research and development.
Thousands of Berliners join anti-NSA protest
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, September 8, 2013 2:13 EDT
Thousands took to the streets in Berlin Saturday in protests against Internet surveillance activities by the US National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies, and the German government’s perceived lax reaction to them.
Organisers, among them the opposition Greens, The Left and Pirates parties, said 20,000 people turned out. Police would not confirm the figure, saying only their “tally differs from that of the organisers”.
The protest was organised under the slogan “Freedom Rather Than Fear” and demonstrators carried banners saying: “Stop spying on us” and, more sarcastically: “Thanks to PRISM (the US government’s vast data collection programs) the government finally knows what the people want”.
“Intelligence agencies like the NSA shamelessly spy on telephone conversations and Internet connections worldwide (and) our government, one of whose key roles is the protection from harm, sends off soothing explanations,” said one speaker, Kai-Uwe Steffens.
On Thursday, newly leaked documents alleged that US and British intelligence agencies have cracked the encryption that secures a wide range of online communications — including emails, banking transactions and phone conversations.
The documents provided by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden to The New York Times, ProPublica and The Guardian suggest that the spy agencies are able to decipher data even with the supposedly secure encryption designed to make it private.
09/07/2013 06:00 PM
Privacy Scandal: NSA Can Spy on Smart Phone Data
SPIEGEL has learned from internal NSA documents that the US intelligence agency has the capability of tapping user data from the iPhone, devices using Android as well as BlackBerry, a system previously believed to be highly secure.
The United States' National Security Agency intelligence-gathering operation is capable of accessing user data from smart phones from all leading manufacturers. Top secret NSA documents that SPIEGEL has seen explicitly note that the NSA can tap into such information on Apple iPhones, BlackBerry devices and Google's Android mobile operating system.
The documents state that it is possible for the NSA to tap most sensitive data held on these smart phones, including contact lists, SMS traffic, notes and location information about where a user has been.
The documents also indicate that the NSA has set up specific working groups to deal with each operating system, with the goal of gaining secret access to the data held on the phones.
In the internal documents, experts boast about successful access to iPhone data in instances where the NSA is able to infiltrate the computer a person uses to sync their iPhone. Mini-programs, so-called "scripts," then enable additional access to at least 38 iPhone features.
The documents suggest the intelligence specialists have also had similar success in hacking into BlackBerrys. A 2009 NSA document states that it can "see and read SMS traffic." It also notes there was a period in 2009 when the NSA was temporarily unable to access BlackBerry devices. After the Canadian company acquired another firm, it changed the way in compresses its data. But in March 2010, the department responsible declared it had regained access to BlackBerry data and celebrated with the word, "champagne!"
The documents also state that the NSA has succeeded in accessing the BlackBerry mail system, which is known to be very secure. This could mark a huge setback for the company, which has always claimed that its mail system is uncrackable.
In response to questions from SPIEGEL, BlackBerry officials stated, "It is not for us to comment on media reports regarding alleged government surveillance of telecommunications traffic." The company said it had not programmed a "'back door' pipeline to our platform."
The material viewed by SPIEGEL suggests that the spying on smart phones has not been a mass phenomenon. It has been targeted, in some cases in an individually tailored manner and without the knowledge of the smart phone companies.
Visit SPIEGEL ONLINE International on Monday for the full article.
400,000 Catalans plan to form vast human chain on 9/11 to rally for independence
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, September 8, 2013 2:51 EDT
Hundreds of thousands of Catalans will unite to create a 400-kilometre (250-mile) human chain on September 11, part of a spectacular campaign for independence fiercely opposed by Madrid.
Some 400,000 people aim to join hands along the entire coastline of the northeastern region of Catalonia to demand an historic redrawing of the map of Spain.
The protest is being organised by Catalan separatists on the region’s national day, or Diada, which recalls the final defeat of Catalan troops by Spanish King Philip V’s forces in 1714.
Although the event is tagged the “The Catalan Way Towards Independence”, the route faces a major roadblock in the form of the Spanish government.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s right-leaning administration refuses to countenance a breakup of Spain, and has vowed to block a referendum on self-rule that Catalan president Artur Mas has promised for 2014.
In a sign of its determination, Madrid called on the Constitutional Court to strike down the region’s latest attempt to assert itself: a parliamentary declaration of sovereignty in January.
The court agreed to hear the case, meaning the declaration is suspended until it makes a ruling.
Proud of their distinct language and culture, yet suffering in Spain’s recession, many of the 7.5 million people in debt-laden Catalonia resent seeing their taxes redistributed to other parts of the country.
Catalonia has a jobless rate of 23.85 percent — lower than the national average of 26.26 percent but still painfully high — and a public debt of 50.9 billion euros ($67 billion).
The region had to go cap in hand to Madrid in January to ask for 9.07 billion euros ($11.9 billion) from a fund to help debt-laden regions.
Hundreds of thousands of people joined in a huge national day rally last year as Catalan separatist stirrings were stoked by the cuts to health and education services.
Yet a year later their aspirations remain frustrated.
Just days before the Diada, Catalonia’s political chief seemed to cast doubt on the 2014 referendum in a radio interview.
The 2014 poll would be organised respecting the law and with the agreement of Spanish government, Mas said, adding that such support was unlikely.
If Madrid refused to relent, Catalans could use regional government elections scheduled for 2016 as an alternative form of plebiscite, he argued.
But the next day Mas insisted that the 2014 referendum would go ahead “one way or the other”.
Catalans, who have a reputation as impeccable organisers, say the human chain will pass through 86 cities, towns and villages over more than 400 km.
A total 350,000 people have so far signed up for the chain in Catalonia, according to the latest update by the organisers, the Catalan National Assembly.
About 5,000 volunteers will help run the protest. Some 1,500 buses will help move protesters into position.
Police will deploy 4,000 officers including in the regional capital Barcelona, where anti-independence protesters calling for Spanish unity are also seeking permission to rally.
Catalan activists say they are organising 110 smaller human chains in advance of September 11, with rallies in Australia, Africa, Asia, including one at the Great Wall of China, and the Americas.
The protest is an attempt to emulate the 1989 Baltic Way chain that called for the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“There are big countries and small countries in the world, some industrialised and some not, and they all survive,” said economics professor Antonio Argandona of the IESE Business School in Barcelona.
“So, can Catalonia survive? Yes, in the sense that it has a sufficiently solid economy to find its way,” he said, warning however that it would still carry a price.
“It all depends on how a possible independence with Madrid is negotiated.”
Mas has said he supports the protest but will not join in himself, out of respect for his role as political leader of all Catalans, including those that want to remain part of Spain.
Italy's first black minister: I had bananas thrown at me but I'm here to stay
Cécile Kyenge has faced racist insults and threats, but insists she will not be deterred from her plans for integrating immigrants
Tom Kington in Rome
The Observer, Sunday 8 September 2013
Three mannequins stained with fake blood were dumped last week outside a town hall where Cécile Kyenge was due to make a speech, the latest in a stream of racist protests and insults aimed by furious Italians at the country's first black government minister.
After being likened to an orangutan by a former government minister and having bananas thrown at her while on a podium, it is getting tougher for Congo-born Kyenge, 49, to keep up her oft-repeated mantra that Italy is a tolerant country – but she is trying hard.
"I have never said Italy is racist, every country needs to start building awareness of immigration and Italy has simply arrived very late," she said on the day the mannequins were discovered.
Judging by the venom directed at Kyenge since she was named minister for integration in April, Italy needs to do some fast catching up as the ranks of foreign residents in the country swell to around four million, about 7% of the population.
But from her office in Rome, Kyenge insisted that children growing up in Italy's burgeoning melting pot are free from the prejudices of their parents. "It's easier for the young who have grown up with a different mentality, who have come across people from other places," she said. "If you ask a child in a class who is their friend, it is more likely he will say 'the one with the green jumper' rather than 'the black one'."
That is not quite how Forza Nuova, the far-right party that left the Ku Klux Klan-style mannequins at the town hall, sees things. Kyenge's work on behalf of immigrants, said party member Pablo de Luca, was aimed at "the destruction of the national identity".
Such views are keenly shared by members of the Northern League, Italy's anti-immigrant party, which propped up Silvio Berlusconi's government until it collapsed in 2011.
MEP Mario Borghezio set the ball rolling in May by claiming that Kyenge would impose "tribal conditions" on Italy and help form a "bongo-bongo" administration. Africans, he added for good measure, had "not produced great genes".
In June, a local councillor for the party called for Kyenge to be raped, while in July Roberto Calderoli, a party member and former Berlusconi minister, compared her to an orangutan before bananas were lobbed at her as she made a speech.
To top a vituperative summer, a rightwing deputy mayor in Liguria compared Kyenge on his Facebook page to the prostitutes – often African – who line a local road, while a well-known Italian winemaker, Fulvio Bressan, shocked wine lovers by reportedly calling Kyenge a "dirty black monkey".
It has been a tough reception for a woman who moved to Italy to work as a home help while she trained to become an ophthalmologist, marrying an Italian man and plunging into local politics in Modena to push for greater rights for immigrants before winning a seat in parliament in February.
"When I arrived in 1983, I was one of the few; I was a curiosity. Then, in the 1990s, when mass immigration started, immigrants began to be seen as a threat," she said, recalling patients who had refused to be visited by her. "The process needed to be accompanied by more information in the media, in schools, better laws."
A shock survey in 2008 found that when people were asked who they found "barely likeable or not likeable at all", 81% of Italians mentioned Gypsies, 61% said Arabs, 64% said Romanians and 74% opted for Albanians.
Then came the crippling economic downturn, which sliced 15% off Italy's manufacturing sector, pushed the unemployment rate up to 12% and further hardened perceptions of "job-stealing" migrants.
What is really upsetting the Northern League is Kyenge's work to overhaul Italy's citizenship law, which currently forces the children of migrants born in Italy to wait until they are 18 before they can apply to become Italians, leaving a generation of children growing up feeling like Italians, talking local dialects like Italians, but unable to be Italian.
It has been dubbed the "Balotelli generation", after black footballer Mario Balotelli – who was born to Ghanaian parents in Sicily and is now a mainstay in the Italian national team, but has faced stadium chants of "a negro cannot be Italian".
Kyenge points out that she is not pushing for a US-style law that hands a passport to anyone born in the country, but for a toned-down version that would require the child's parents to have spent some time in Italy or to have taken integration courses.
Meanwhile, she has backed new measures simplifying the bureaucratic nightmare faced by the children of immigrants, who have one year to complete a blizzard of paperwork needed to gain a passport when they turn 18. "You have from the age of 18 to 19 to apply and requests are often turned down due to a few missing documents," she said.
It is just part of an ambitious programme to which the soft-spoken Kyenge has committed herself, stretching from working on housing issues for nomad families to inter-religious dialogue designed to make it easier for Italians to adopt overseas.
Her key task, she said, is convincing a country that has no shortage of culture – from its food to its art – that there is always room for more. "Diversity, sharing something you don't have, offers a huge amount," she said.
Turning to her own field, medicine, she said: "There are small examples of foreign customs which are being adopted by hospitals, like carrying your baby on your back, which can help children with ankle ailments as well as increasing physical contact with the parent while helping the posture of the parent."
Critics have rounded on the fact that Kyenge's father was polygamous, fathering 38 children by numerous wives, a custom she said she would not trying to encourage in Italy. "Let's be clear," she said, laughing, "this is a form of marriage I don't agree with."
Rather than threatening Italian traditions, Kyenge said the asylum-seekers now heading for Italy from sub-Saharan Africa and Syria could be taught to revive trades now being abandoned by Italians, especially if they were allowed to set up shop in the medieval hilltop villages that are rapidly being abandoned up and down the country.
Take, for example, the Calabrian town of Riace, which has reversed depopulation by welcoming the migrants landing on rickety boats after a perilous Mediterranean crossing and setting them up in trades such as dressmaking, joinery, pottery or glass-blowing.
"This is a good practice, using depopulated villages where there are many empty houses, where old farms, shops and workshops can be reopened," said Kyenge, who visited Riace in August. "It offers a welcome to migrants, it's good for the national economy and good for saving trades that risk disappearing."
Back in Rome, as she works to get her message across, Kyenge is getting ready to dodge the next bunch of bananas as she continues to insist that Italy is not a racist country, just learning fast.
"Balotelli and I are both opening new paths in our fields," she said, "and anyone who does that will face huge difficulties."
September 7, 2013
Facing Fury Over Antigay Law, Stoli Says ‘Russian? Not Really’
By ANDREW HIGGINS
RIGA, Latvia — When a number of prominent Americans, outraged by what they saw as a rising tide of state-sponsored homophobia in Russia, called for a boycott of Stolichnaya vodka this summer, they had no more eager ally against Moscow than Kaspars Zalitis, a gay rights advocate here in Latvia, a Baltic nation with a long and painful experience with Russia’s oppression of minorities.
Then came an awkward surprise: Stolichnaya, Mr. Zalitis discovered, is made not in Russia but here in his hometown, the capital of Latvia, which broke free of Russian subjugation more than two decades ago. “I always thought it was Russian,” he said.
Boycotts have long been a blunt and contentious instrument of protest. But efforts to pressure Russia’s abstemious president, Pig Putin, into dropping a new law outlawing “homosexual propaganda” by getting Americans to dump vodka have provided particularly fertile ground for complaints of good intentions gone awry.
“They thought Stoli was an easy target,” said Stuart Milk, a gay activist and the nephew of Harvey Milk, the murdered California gay rights pioneer.
Promoted by influential gay Americans like the writer Dan Savage and the group Queer Nation, the vodka boycott had “good intentions,” Mr. Milk said. But he said he knew from previous work in the Baltics for his organization, the Harvey Milk Foundation, that Stolichnaya had a large Latvian work force. He decided that boycotting the vodka was “misguided” as it would only hurt a company and a country that are at odds with the Kremlin.
Stolichnaya has contributed to the confusion, for decades promoting itself as Russian vodka on the label and going so far as to proclaim itself the “mother of all vodkas from the motherland of vodka” in a 2006 advertising campaign. The Russia link was later dumped, with labels changed in 2010 to read simply “premium vodka,” but by then its Russian identity had been established.
The exact nationality of Stolichnaya, like many global brands, is hard to pin down. It was made for a time in Russia and simply bottled in Riga but has in recent years been filtered and blended in Latvia. Yet while its water comes from Latvian springs, its main ingredient, raw alcohol distilled from grain, still comes from Russia. Its bottles are from Poland and Estonia, its caps from Italy.
All of the roughly 100,000 bottles of Stolichnaya produced each day for sale in the United States and elsewhere, aside from in Russia, come from a factory here in Riga operated by Latvijas Balzams, a century-old enterprise that ranks as one of the country’s biggest taxpayers and employers.
Its principal owner, Yury Shefler, was born and raised in Russia. But accused by Moscow of stealing the Stolichnaya name from the Russian state in the chaotic 1990s, he risks arrest in Russia and has not been there for more than a decade.
The company that controls the brand, the Luxembourg-based SPI Group, is also owned by Mr. Shefler, who declined to be interviewed about the boycott of his best-known product. SPI has mounted a vigorous public campaign to show that it is not Russian, does not share the Kremlin’s take on homosexuality and is, as it asserted in a July statement, a “fervent supporter and friend” of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
To that end, the company’s Latvia office has been badgering the bigger of Riga’s gay bars — there are only two — to start stocking Stolichnaya. Anatolijs Skangalis, the manager of the bar, Golden, said he did not sell the vodka, simply because he preferred other brands, like Russian Standard. It has nothing to do with the American-led boycott, he says, which he ridiculed as a “dirty brand war” that has nothing to do with gay rights.
Stolichnaya, said Val Mendeleev, SPI Group’s Russian-born chief executive, is no more a proxy for the Russian state than Google, whose co-founder Sergey Brin was born in Moscow. “People say Stoli is owned by a rich Russian, but Sergey Brin is an even richer Russian,” Mr. Mendeleev said.
SPI Group, he said, is “not trying to hide” its Russian roots — Stolichnaya’s formula, basic ingredients and name, which means capital, all come from Russia — but the company wants to make clear that it is anything but an ally of the Kremlin and that “you will not hurt Russia by dumping Stoli.”
In any event, the Riga Stolichnaya factory says its vodka business, 60 percent of which is in the United States, has not yet been hurt by the boycott, despite reports that a number of bars from New York to San Francisco have started taking the drink off their shelves. It can take several weeks for a collapse of sales to work its way into the production end.
Mr. Zalitis, for one, is hoping it all blows over. “If the boycott works, Latvians will lose their jobs. Who are they going to blame? Pig Putin? No, they are going to blame gays,” said Mr. Zalitis, who issued an open letter last month protesting the boycott on behalf of Mozaika, Latvia’s only gay rights lobby group.
Gay men and lesbians face discrimination not just in Russia but across much of Eastern and Central Europe. Nationalist rabble-rousers frequently single them out, along with Roma, for verbal and sometimes physical attack, accusing them of subverting traditional values in the service of decadent foreign forces, notably the European Union. The bloc requires that Latvia, which joined in 2004, and all other 27 member states have laws banning all forms of discrimination.
When Latvia held its first gay pride march in 2005, protesters hurled stones at the marchers while politicians denounced the event as a national shame. “The hatred was dreadful,” said Juris Calitis, an Anglican and former Lutheran priest in Riga. In 2006, Mr. Calitis was pelted with animal excrement after he held a church service for people attending Latvia’s second gay pride event. The Latvian Lutheran church then expelled him from its clergy.
But, according to Mr. Calitis and gay advocates here, the climate has since mellowed considerably. “These are the growing pains of a provincial place that is still trying to shake off the ugly words and ways of the Soviet Union,” he said.
Queer Nation, a group in the forefront of the vodka boycott, recently widened its anti-Russia activities to focus on soft drinks, too. Last month it staged a protest against Coca-Cola in New York, smashing cans and pouring Coke down drains to protest the Atlanta-based company’s sponsorship of the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi.
But when Mr. Zalitis wrote an open letter suggesting that Americans behind the vodka boycott reconsider their “Dump Stoli” campaign, Queer Nation fired off a tart response. The boycott, the group wrote back, is aimed at all Russian vodkas, and “because Stolichnaya is a Russian vodka that is made by a Russian company, it is also an appropriate target.”
In response to Mr. Zalitis’s complaints that Stolichnaya is actually made in Latvia, Queer Nation said curtly that the brand “is not a Latvian vodka” because the grain used to make it all comes from Russia and because SPI, Mr. Shefler’s drinks conglomerate, “has offices and operations in Russia.”
Mr. Mendeleev, SPI’s chief executive, acknowledged that the company has an office in Moscow, but with only around 10 employees. The company also grows grain and operates a distillery in the Russian region of Tambov to produce raw alcohol for shipment to the vodka plant in Riga. Together, there are about 600 employees in Russia, Mr. Mendeleev said, and 900 or so working in Latvia.
Mr. Calitis, the priest defrocked by Latvian Lutherans, said that he did not know whether singling out Stolichnaya would help or hurt gay rights but that he was nonetheless “all in favor of boycotting vodka” regardless of its nationality.
Active for years helping orphaned children and the hungry, he has seen the ravages of alcohol. “If vodka were boycotted here in Latvia, it would be a great day,” he said.
September 7, 2013
Greek Prime Minister Says Positive Economic Data Points to Austerity Easing
By NIKI KITSANTONIS
ATHENS — Prime Minister Antonis Samaras of Greece seized on new economic data on Saturday that indicated the country was on track to economic recovery and promised relief to Greeks weary of years of punishing austerity.
“Greece is turning the page,” Mr. Samaras told politicians and entrepreneurs at an annual international trade fair in the northern port of Thessaloniki, traditionally used by Greek prime ministers to outline their government’s economic policy for the coming year. “There will be no more austerity measures,” he said.
Citing figures released on Friday by the national statistics agency, Mr. Samaras said the Greek economy shrank 3.8 percent in the second quarter, significantly less than an estimate of 4.6 percent. It was the smallest contraction since 2010, when Greece signed its first multibillion-euro loan deal with its so-called troika of creditors — the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. The improvement is largely the result of an unexpectedly strong rebound in the country’s crucial tourism sector, with a record 18 million foreign visitors expected this year, he said.
Equally encouraging are early indications that the country will achieve this year a primary surplus — a budget surplus not counting debt financing, Mr. Samaras said. He said this would be the “first decisive step toward exiting the policy of memorandums,” referring to Greece’s two loan agreements since 2010, which are worth a total of 240 billion euros ($315 billion) and have been meted out in installments in exchange for a series of austerity measures.
Mr. Samaras said achieving the surplus would open the way for two things, in line with an agreement with creditors — some form of debt relief for Greece, but also the chance to help citizens who have been hardest hit by austerity. It remains unclear how large the surplus will be; Mr. Samaras put it at 1.1 billion euros for the first seven months of the year. Mr. Samaras said 70 percent of the surplus would go toward “lightening the injustices” suffered by Greeks on low pensions and by members of the police, fire service and coast guard whose salaries have been slashed as part of public sector cutbacks.
Greece remains wracked by political and economic instability and may even need additional bailout money. The I.M.F. warned in a report at the end of July that a persistent recession, now in its sixth year, and the government’s failure to accelerate overhauls might create an 11 billion-euro hole in Greece’s finances over the next two years.
The monetary fund said Greece’s economy could return to growth as early as next year. But that forecast comes with a question mark, given that output has fallen 25 percent since its peak in 2007, while unemployment has surged to 27 percent — the highest in the euro zone — and youth joblessness has exceeded 60 percent.
Mindful that representatives of the country’s troika of foreign lenders are expected back in Athens later this month for a new audit, Mr. Samaras was vague on details about potential handouts, including a potential subsidy for heating oil, which saw an increase in taxation last year. He also promoted the benefits of an economic reform program that was bolstered by a write-down of privately held Greek debt last year and the suspension of interest payments on foreign loans, which together helped cut Greece’s debt by 145 billion euros. It now stands at 321 billion euros.
“We stopped the debt from ballooning,” he said, claiming that Greece could return to precrisis levels of prosperity by 2020 by exploiting the potential of its tourism and energy industries and by pushing a program of state privatizations. “Five or six years of difficulties cannot wipe out 3,000 years of glorious history.”
The premier lashed out at the main leftist opposition, Syriza, which opposes the terms of Greece’s foreign loan agreements, saying it “does not want to govern.” He claimed that the leftists were as extreme as “the neo-Nazis” of the ultraright, anti-immigrant party Golden Dawn, which has soared to third place in opinion polls, after Syriza and the premier’s conservative New Democracy, which leads the coalition government.
In a statement, Syriza accused the prime minister of “suffering from delirium,” saying, “Mr. Samaras sees unemployment slowing down even as 1.5 million of our fellow citizens don’t have work.”
Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, joined anti-austerity protests in Thessaloniki on Saturday evening, which were expected to draw thousands of disenchanted workers. About 4,000 police officers were being deployed to prevent the violence that has marred previous rallies organized by trade unions.
Unionists are planning to scale up their opposition to austerity in the coming weeks ahead of the scheduled return to Athens of troika inspectors after German federal elections on Sept. 22. The problem of Greek debt, and how to handle it, has featured prominently in campaigns for the German elections, whose outcome is expected to set the tone for tough negotiations between the Greek government and the troika. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has insisted there will be no second debt haircut for Greece but has suggested a third loan program, much smaller than the first two, might be extended to Athens to cover the anticipated 11 billion euros funding gap.
The gap is expected to be discussed in talks between Greek government and troika officials in Athens. Negotiations will also focus on a raft of tough proposed reforms that are sure to test the stability of Mr. Samaras’s fragile coalition. They include a lagging program aimed at selling off state assets, lax tax collection efforts, the progress of a system of forced transfers and layoffs in the Civil Service, the possible closure of state-owned defense companies that are running losses and a likely end to a moratorium on home foreclosures.
Dane launches street magazine to help drug users fund their habit
Social entrepreneur Michael Lodberg Olsen challenges authorities in Denmark with project to give users 'dignity'
by Daniel Boffey policy editor
The Observer, Sunday 8 September 2013
The liberal attitude of Danish authorities to drugs is being tested this weekend, with addicts taking to the streets of Copenhagen to sell a new Big Issue-style magazine with the explicit aim of funding their addictions.
Five thousand copies of the magazine, with a cover price of 30 krone (£3.40), are being sold on street corners by drug users. Each addict will keep 20 krone to fund drug buying, according to the publishers of the magazine, which is to be sold under the title Illegal. If successful, the publishers say they plan to bring the magazine to the streets of London.
Michael Lodberg Olsen, a self-styled social entrepreneur who is using his own money to finance the magazine, said the idea was to give addicts some dignity and an alternative source of income to prostitution and crime.
Olsen, who is known in Copenhagen for his work trying to help addicts rebuild their lives, said that eight would be selling the magazine this weekend, but that he expected many more to join up in coming days.
"As a civil society we cannot decide to decriminalise drug users," Olsen said. "But we can make them a little less criminal, bring a war, which has failed, into focus, and create more dignity for them.
"The question is not how much cocaine you can buy for 20 krone. The question is why we, as a society, accept that the police and drug users are on the same treadmill after so many years.Couldn't we use the resources better? Couldn't we start seeing these things in a new way?"
The first few copies of the magazine were sold on Friday, with the first addict to begin selling the issue finding buyers for £18 of magazines in just a few hours. Olsen said that he expected there to be enough demand for four editions of the magazine a year.
However, the conservative Danish People's party has already said it is against the publication, claiming that it would only encourage drug abuse, which – while relatively limited across the country – is concentrated in Copenhagen and the former meat-packing district of Vesterbro.
Olsen, whose previous ventures have included a mobile drug-injection room to allow users to feed their habit in a safe and discreet environment, said he was not troubled by the controversy.
"Some people won't like it, they will say these people should get treatment," he said. "I say, what planet are you living on? No one has solved the problem of drug addiction, so is it not better that people find the money to buy their drugs this way than through crime and prostitution?
"We hope to sell 10,000 copies of each edition in the future, and then we will come to London."
Olsen's mobile drug-injection room – a van in which addicts are able to inject under the supervision of a nurse – encouraged authorities in Copenhagen to make it the latest city to establish an official drug consumption room for addicts. The room, in Vesterbro, has been such a success in moving drug users off the streets that it is now expanding.
Olsen's 56-page magazine is produced by volunteers and its first edition contains articles on the US war on drugs, portraits from a drug injection room in Aarhus, the country's second-largest city, and a list of the 20 most dangerous drugs, in which alcohol claims the top spot.
Copenhagen has been pioneering a more tolerant attitude towards addicts. Earlier this year, city officials said they wanted to legalise the sale of cannabis for a trial period to better control the sale and consumption of the drug.
Under the plan, cannabis would be sold either from an existing chain of shops or from a local council shop and would be controlled. However, the city's initiative has been blocked by the national government.
Asif Ali Zardari set to step down as Pakistan president
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, September 8, 2013 2:05 EDT
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari steps down on Sunday having defied expectations by holding onto power for a record five years but facing criticism for leaving the economy and security in a shocking state.
Never popular and always shrouded in controversy, Zardari — once jailed for 11 years for alleged corruption — relinquishes power for a new life likely to be split between Pakistan and Dubai.
Six years after his wife, two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was murdered, he retires having presided over the only civilian government in Pakistan history to complete a full term in office and hand over to another at the ballot box.
His successor is Mamnoon Hussain, a businessman and close ally of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif whose low-key persona and lack of personal power base puts him in stark contrast to Zardari.
“Politicking, keeping diverse groups together, that’s one of his achievements,” political analyst Hasan Askari told AFP of Zardari, 58, who had to deal with a fractious ruling coalition and a divided Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
Another achievement was facing down a zealous judiciary.
Furious that judges sacked under military rule in 2007 were not immediately reinstated when Zardari took power, the courts pursued him.
The Supreme Court convicted of contempt and sacked his first prime minister for refusing to ask Switzerland to reopen multi-million-dollar corruption cases against Zardari.
“I have not seen any Supreme Court in the world trying to put its sitting president on trial in a foreign country,” said Askari. “He survived that. He’s a big survivor.”
Allies praise the outgoing parliament for passing more legislation than any of its predecessors, including laws empowering women against domestic violence and sexual harassment.
In 2010, Zardari relinquished much of his power to the prime minister, rolling back on decades of meddling by military rulers in an effort to institutionalise parliamentary democracy.
But critics say he showed no leadership in the face of economic decline and spiralling insecurity, laying accusations of poor governance and rampant corruption at his door.
“Continuity is a positive development in a country like Pakistan where political leaders don’t last long. Other than that there is no achievement you could really highlight,” said Askari.
Prime Minister Sharif has inherited a surge in terrorist attacks. Shootings and bomb attacks are now a daily reality.
Nothing has been done to eliminate the plethora of militant networks blamed for violence in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.
Religious violence has reached dizzying levels with the Shiite Muslim minority bearing the brunt.
Meanwhile Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and its business hub, is suffering from record killings linked to political and ethnic tensions.
Sharif has made his top priority resolving a chronic energy crisis and trying to revive the economy.
He was left with no option but to secure a $6.7 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to reduce a fiscal deficit that neared nine percent of gross domestic product last year.
Zardari spoke of the need for reconciliation at a farewell lunch hosted for him by Sharif, which earnt plaudits from commentators praising the dignity of the handover.
“Today we need reconciliation. Everyone needs it, so we have to work together under your leadership. We will strengthen our country. We cannot afford divisions,” Zardari said.
“It is a question of our future generation. History will not forgive us if we do not realise the situation and the threats (Pakistan faces). We have to save Pakistan from future threats.”
Aides deny that Zardari, unpopular and divisive within the PPP, will spend most of his time abroad and insist that he will base himself in Pakistan and immerse himself in trying to revive the party.
The centre-left PPP ran a rudderless general election campaign earlier this year and has been thrust into its greatest crisis, suffering a crushing electoral defeat without a true leader.
His son, Bilawal, is chairman but can only run for parliament after he turns 25 on September 21 and is seen by many observers as a reluctant heir to the legacy of his assassinated mother Bhutto.
His younger sister, Aseefa, publicly registered to vote this week and some observers believe she has more of the charisma and political hunger needed to replace her mother.
Zardari’s spokesman Farhatullah Babar told AFP that Zardari will relocate to Lahore “to start yet another chapter in political struggle” and analysts suggest he will try to revive the party dominated by the Bhutto-Zardari family.
He is due to vacate the presidency for the last time on Sunday to a guard of honour. Hussain is to be sworn in on Monday.
September 7, 2013
Hangman Lacks Work, and Pakistan Looks to Provide
By DECLAN WALSH and TAHA SIDDIQUI
LONDON — The prison hangman loitered in a Lahore graveyard, depressed and nursing a glass of vodka, wondering when he would get back to work.
Once he had plenty to keep him busy. Before the Pakistani government introduced a moratorium on capital punishment in 2008, the hangman, Sabir Masih, dispatched about 200 prisoners at the gallows over a period of three years.
But since then, he has been idle. Every day, he clocks into work at the Kot Lakhpat prison on the edge of Lahore. Every month, he collects his $120 salary. But mostly, he spends his time chatting with fellow Christians at the graveyard, where they furtively smoke and drink out of view of conservative Muslims, for whom alcohol is forbidden.
The moratorium, which was introduced by President Asif Ali Zardari, had drained his sense of purpose, he said.
“My job requires courage,” said Mr. Masih, speaking among the gravestones, in a maudlin tone. “It is not for the weak-hearted, because one moment a person is alive, the next he is gone.”
But good news for Mr. Masih — and bad news for the estimated 8,000 prisoners awaiting execution in Pakistan — may be near.
Since coming to power in June, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who favors capital punishment, announced a review of the moratorium. And with Mr. Zardari set to end his tenure as president on Sunday, executions could soon be reinstated.
“The moratorium was not legal,” said Sartaj Aziz, the adviser to the prime minister on national security and foreign affairs. “We are debating whether to continue the stay on execution.”
Although the death penalty enjoys some popular support in Pakistan, the possibility that it will be reinstated has drawn sharp disapproval from an unlikely coalition of critics, including jihadist commanders and business leaders, albeit for entirely different reasons.
Human rights activists and the International Commission of Jurists argued that the manifest flaws in Pakistan’s tattered judicial system meant that the innocent, as well as the guilty, could go to the gallows.
In mid-August, one Taliban commander, Asmatullah Muawiya, threatened to attack members of Mr. Sharif’s party if the government carried out its plan to begin executing imprisoned jihadists.
The incongruity of a demand for clemency from a group that has killed thousands of civilians was not lost on some Pakistanis. Neither was the timing: Mr. Muawiya’s threat came one week before the prison authorities were set to hang two sectarian militants who had killed a Shiite doctor in 2004.
Mr. Zardari, who has used his powers to block nearly every hanging since 2008, let it be known in private that he would not relent while still in office, human rights campaigners said.
Under pressure, Mr. Sharif agreed to extend the moratorium, but only until Mr. Zardari leaves office. And he faces a clamor from other Pakistanis who favor a resumption of executions, either for reasons of religious conviction, or out of sheer frustration at the broken judicial system.
“The death penalty is part of the Shariah and the Holy Koran,” said Shaukat Javed, a former police chief of Punjab Province, where most death row prisoners are held. “Sooner or later, we will have to start executing inmates.”
Under Pakistani law, convicts sentenced to life imprisonment are often released after as little as 10 years. In some cases, the rich and influential can buy their way out of jail. And militants with the Taliban and other banned groups, who have killed thousands of civilians, are rarely convicted.
“We need to tighten the law before we can talk about abolishing the death penalty,” said Mr. Aziz, the government adviser. He added that the death penalty was still in use in India and the United States, two countries from which Pakistanis are often loath to accept lectures.
Before the freeze on executions, Pakistan was one of the world’s most enthusiastic proponents of capital punishment. About 27 offenses, including blasphemy and computer crimes, are punishable by execution. The 8,000 Pakistanis on death row account for about one-third of the world total, according to Amnesty International (although the group does not have figures for China, which is thought to carry out the highest number of executions).
Government officials say they might permanently extend the moratorium on human rights and business grounds — although critics believe they are equally influenced by fear of the Taliban.
In a joint letter to Mr. Sharif and others on Aug. 16, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists said that a resumption of executions would constitute “a major step back for human rights in the country.” Human rights groups have also been sharply critical about the quality of trial justice in Pakistan, and have raised concerns about the high number of teenagers on death row.
In Islamabad on Aug. 27, Ana Gomes, the head of a European Union trade delegation, warned that new hangings would represent a “major setback” to Pakistan’s chance of obtaining lucrative trade tariffs: a matter that is subject to a vote in European Parliament in the coming weeks.
For Mr. Zardari, the moratorium is personal and political. His father-in-law, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a one-time prime minister and father of Benazir Bhutto, was executed under the military dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq in 1979.
Since then, Mr. Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party has been staunchly opposed to capital punishment. But he has faced private pressure from the military to resume executions, resulting in one exception — that of Muhammad Hussain, a soldier convicted on charges of murdering a senior officer, who was hanged in November 2012 after a military trial.
In recent days, senior rights activists have reported rumors that the incoming president, Mamnoon Hussain, who is to be sworn in on Monday, would extend the freeze on executions.
Mr. Masih, the Lahore hangman, hopes that the activists are wrong. Back at the Lahore graveyard, he said that if hangings do resume, he anticipated a busy time clearing the backlog. “I might have to hang three or four in a day,” he said.
Although his father and grandfather had been hangmen, he said he found the job difficult at first. But then he learned “not to think about it.”
Musing on his job, he explained his technique for guiding condemned men through their last moments.
“After he is placed on the trap door, I tell him that if he needs to pray, he should do it in his heart,” he said. “Then I go to the lever and pull it.”
Declan Walsh reported from London, and Taha Siddiqui from Lahore, Pakistan. Waqar Gillani contributed reporting from Lahore.
Indian lawmakers ban ‘dehumanizing’ caste-based, human waste scavenging
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, September 7, 2013 9:57 EDT
Indian lawmakers have passed a long-awaited bill to ban manual scavenging — the clearing of human waste from toilets — by workers seen as the “ultimate untouchables” under the country’s ancient Hindu caste-hierarchy.
Already illegal under a largely ineffective 1993 law, the Congress-led government promised to have another go at stamping out the practice with the new legislation which was cleared late Friday.
The new legislation modifies the 1993 law which criminalised the scavengers who clean out primitive toilets by hand, collect the faecal matter in baskets and take it away in handcarts to dump elsewhere.
“This dehumanising practice (of manual scavenging) is inconsistent with the right to live with dignity,” Social Justice Minister Kumari Selja said after passage of the bill.
The measure, passed by the decision-making lower house of parliament, aims to outlaw employment of manual scavengers and provide retraining and help for their families, Selja said.
“We want to remove the stigma and blot on the society,” the minister said.
Selja called for a “change of mindset” to end discrimination against scavengers, who are treated as pariahs even by others at the bottom of Hinduism’s hereditary caste hierarchy.
The measure prohibits construction of non-flushing toilets that must be emptied by hand, and sets out a one-year jail term or a fine of up to 50,000 rupees (US$770) — or both — for anyone employing a manual scavenger.
It also requires authorities to monitor implementation of the law and contains tough sanctions for municipalities employing sewer cleaners without protective gear.
Workers stripped down to their underpants and equipped with just a hoe and a wooden bar can still routinely be seen clambering into the stinky depths of septic tanks and sewers.
Manual scavenging points to a lack of sufficient investment in modern sewerage systems by a government which struggles to provide basic services, social activists say.
A 2011 survey by the Central Pollution Control Board showed that just 160 out of nearly 8,000 towns had sewerage systems and sewage treatment plants.
More than 600 million Indians lack even primitive toilet facilities and practise what is known as “open defecation” in roadways, ditches and fields.
“Sanitation is a single most important need in India,” said rural development minister Jairam Ramesh said last year.
He raised a stir in the deeply religious country when he noted “there are more temples in the country than toilets” and that “India has a godliness surplus and cleanliness deficit.”
Anger in Delhi slums as gang-rape accused face death penalty
With a verdict due this week, the residents of the 'colony' where four defendants lived feel their good name has been tarnished
Jason Burke in Delhi
The Observer, Saturday 7 September 2013 17.50 BST
Plainclothes policemen escort an Indian teenager to a juvenile court in New Delhi
Plainclothes police escort a teenager to a juvenile court in New Delhi. He was sentenced to three years for his part in the December gang-rape. Photograph: Reuters
The men's homes are a few dozen metres apart. From that of Vinay Sharma, a narrow lane leads to the single room where the Guptas live. Just to the right, by a sign advertising a well-known brand of spicy snack, an alley branches off, down to where Ram and Mukesh Singh once lived.
Ram Singh hanged himself in prison in March – the first of the men alleged to be responsible for the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapist in Delhi last December to die. The attack prompted global outrage and an intense debate in India about the apparently steeply rising rates of violence against women that have accompanied the country's recent economic growth.
This week the six-month trial of four men who, prosecutors say, joined Ram Singh in the brutal assault will end. There is little chance of any verdict other than guilty and the death sentence appears inevitable. In Ravi Das camp, a slum "colony" in the south of Delhi where most of the defendants lived at the time of the attack, there is resignation, fear and much anger.
"Now our name is linked to these people. But this is a good neighbourhood. The kids all go to school. No one breaks the law," said Kalawati, 40, a housewife who says she has "grown old" in the colony.
Ram, 34, and Mukesh Singh, 26, were known troublemakers, locals say. They did not harass girls in the neighbourhood – the presence of fathers and brothers would have made it unwise – but did elsewhere. They drank heavily too.
But the other two from the camp – Sharma, 20, and Pawan Gupta, 19 – were of a different stamp. Both have claimed to be innocent during their trial.
When Champa Sharma saw her son in prison late last week, he implored her to help him. "He was crying. He said: 'Mum, mum, do something. Get me out of here. I never did anything wrong. I don't understand what is happening to me'," the 37-year-old told the Observer.
Yet witness statements given by other defendants, phone records and DNA evidence all indicate that Sharma was at least present on the bus on which the attack took place, at the time when the victim and her male friend were assaulted. The woman was raped repeatedly, bitten, beaten and assaulted before being dumped in a roadside layby. She died later of massive internal injuries. Sharma and the other men were arrested within days in or around Ravi Das colony.
"He was a good boy. He worked hard at school. He wanted to do better for himself and for us," said Champa.
The Sharmas are among the poorest in Ravi Das colony, itself a corner of poverty in an upmarket part of a booming city. The family of six live in one tiny room.
Their story mirrors that of the victim. The parents moved from a rural area to the city to find work, managed to get a small plot of land and built a ramshackle home that they improved from year to year. Sharma's father works intermittently as a labourer at Delhi's international airport – as does the father of the victim, who cannot be named under Indian law. Sharma was the first member of his family to speak English and to study for a degree.
He was working at a gym and half his monthly earnings of 4,000 rupees (£38) went on fees for a distance learning course in commerce. The rest funded medicine for his diabetic younger sister. The victim taught and worked in a call centre to fund her studies and help the family finances.
On the night of the attack, police say, Sharma joined the others from the camp, and a 17-year-old sentenced to three years in a juvenile reform centre eight days ago, on a "joyride" on the bus that Ram Singh drove for a living. The woman was tricked into boarding and then attacked.
The wave of public revulsion and anger in India prompted by the incident has had some effect, campaigners said. "There is certainly more debate. There's a change in the vocabulary used and police are much more alert. And younger women today are not going to go back to the previous time when they would just stay silent," said Vrinda Grover, a lawyer and human rights activist.
Jason Temasfieldt, who launched a campaign against harassment of women in India's commercial capital of Mumbai after his cousin was stabbed to death after intervening to try to protect a female friend, said he had seen a "drastic change" in terms of awareness.
But few doubt the difficulty of changing traditions. Last week a council in the western state of Rajasthan ordered the parents of a six-year-old rape victim to marry her to the eight-year-old son of the 40-year-old man accused of the rape.
Every day newspapers publish reports of gang-rapes, acid attacks or burnings of women. "The mindset has not changed," said Professor Reicha Tanwar, an expert in violence against women in India.
Sharma's mother is unaware that her son is likely to be sentenced to death by hanging. "I miss my boy. I trust in God. He has given me all that I have and I am grateful," she said.
September 7, 2013
China Looks West as It Bolsters Regional Ties
By JANE PERLEZ
ASTANA, Kazakhstan — President Xi Jinping of China, evoking the camel caravans of the old Silk Road that traversed the ancient plains of Kazakhstan on their way from China to Europe, said Saturday that he wanted to create a contemporary version that would bind together China and its Central Asian neighbors.
Fresh from the Group of 20 summit meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, Mr. Xi referred to Kazakhstan as an increasingly important energy supplier for China and an anchor for its new “marching westwards” policy, which looks to quickly strengthen economic and strategic relations with Central Asia.
China remains dependent on the Middle East to feed its huge oil needs, but wants to diversify, experts say, so that more oil and gas providers are closer to home. Energy from Central Asia comes via land-based pipelines that are considered safer than the more vulnerable sea routes from the Middle East.
Mr. Xi is visiting four Central Asian countries on his current swing through the region: Turkmenistan, where he stopped last week; Uzbekistan; Kyrgyzstan, where he will attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting; and Kazakhstan. In each country, oil and gas, and regional security, are at the top of the agenda.
In a show of the importance of Kazakhstan’s energy, President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev and Mr. Xi together pushed a button at the Palace of Independence here in Astana, the capital, to symbolically open a 700-mile pipeline that will take gas from the Caspian Sea in western Kazakhstan to the south. The pipeline, built jointly by the Chinese and the Kazakhs, will then connect to the vast Central Asia-China pipeline in Turkmenistan, and take gas all the way to China’s coastal cities.
The two leaders signed trade and finance accords worth $30 billion, including loans from China’s Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank.
“China highly values its friendship with these countries and takes them as a foreign policy priority,” Mr. Xi said in a speech here at Nazarbayev University, founded by the president. He pledged support for each other’s “core interests” and spoke of a “strategic partnership with Central Asian countries.”
The old Silk Road, which took Chinese silk, porcelain and jade to Europe, started in his home province, Shaanxi, in central China, Mr. Xi said. “I can almost hear the ring of the camel bells and the wisps of smoke in the desert,” he said.
Under Mr. Xi, China has flexed its maritime strength in the waters surrounding it, challenging some American allies, including Japan and the Philippines, over territorial issues, and responding to President Obama’s policy of refocusing American military and economic interests on the Asia-Pacific region.
But at the same time, Mr. Xi has sought to consolidate relations with Central Asia, a path that would broaden China’s interests beyond its traditional base in the Asia-Pacific area and serve its vast energy needs as well.
The strategy also has the advantage of countering, and complementing, American plans for a “new Silk Road” announced by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2011, said Wang Jisi, dean of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University. Mr. Wang is an architect of the “march westwards” policy, and an occasional adviser to the government on foreign affairs.
Mrs. Clinton proposed the “new Silk Road” for postwar Afghanistan, and said the United States would foster private sector investment in transportation and energy infrastructure throughout the region. But there is no need to wait for the Americans, Mr. Wang suggested.
Moreover, China does not need to limit itself to “first becoming an Asia-Pacific power, then becoming a global power,” Mr. Wang said in a paper last November for the International and Strategic Studies Report, a publication of Peking University, that was widely noted by American and Chinese foreign policy experts.
In Kazakhstan, China has made some important energy investments, including the purchase this year of an 8.4 percent stake in the Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea, a vast project being developed by an international consortium including KazMunaiGaz, Kazakhstan’s state-owned energy company; Exxon Mobil; Royal Dutch Shell; and the Italian company Agip.
The final details of that purchase are almost complete, officials said. The oil field, which is scheduled to start operation next month, is described as the largest reserve of oil outside Saudi Arabia.
About 22 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil production comes from joint ventures between Chinese and Kazakh companies, according to the Oil and Gas Ministry here. For Kazakhstan, China’s new interests reverse an earlier policy of close relations with the West. “It has found that China is an easier economic partner and has more cash,” said Deirdre Tynan, Central Asia project director of the International Crisis Group. “China is able to step in and provide massive loans without strings attached.”
In 2009, China stepped in to salvage Kazakhstan’s banks, lending $5 billion to the state-owned Development Bank of Kazakhstan and $5 billion to KazMunaiGaz.
Bree Feng contributed reporting.
Tony Abbott, the man who promised to 'stop the boats', sails to victory
Australia's new prime minister succeeded by exploiting fear about migrants and disunity among his rivals
The Observer, Saturday 7 September 2013 17.58 BST
In front of four Australian flags and a royal blue backdrop, Tony Abbott took to the stage in the packed hall of a Sydney hotel to claim victory in his battle to be the next prime minister of Australia, with chants of "Tony, Tony, Tony" ringing out.
He told the conservative Liberal party faithful he was "proud and humbled to take on the duties of government". "From today I declare that Australia is under new management and Australia is once more open for business," he said. "I pledge myself to the service of the country."
He said he looked forward to forming a government that was competent, trustworthy and would deliver on its commitments to Australia, including those on carbon emissions, refugees and the economy.
Abbott's victory came as the Liberal party gained between 10 and 20 seats, in a swing of around 3.5% nationally, but fell short of the landslide victory that had been predicted by some.
His election ends three years of Labor minority rule in a scrappy hung parliament. The outgoing prime minister, Kevin Rudd, retained his seat, but immediately stepped down as party leader.
"I know that Labor hearts are heavy across the nation tonight, and as your prime minister and as your parliamentary leader of the great Australian Labor party, I accept responsibility," Rudd said. "I gave it my all, but it was not enough for us to win."
Last night, Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born media mogul, tweeted his delight at the result: "Aust election public sick of public sector workers and phony welfare scroungers sucking life out of economy. Others [sic] nations to follow in time." His newspapers in Australia, with 70% of the country's readership, heavily backed Abbott. On the eve of the election, Abbott described Murdoch as a "hometown hero".
In Britain, David Cameron said it would be "great working with another centre-right leader" after calling Abbott to congratulate him.
Abbott ran one of the most effective election campaigns in a generation. For three years his bare-knuckle brand of conservative politics created an atmosphere of crisis in the country. The economy was his trump card: waste, debt and deficit, he said, had led to a "budget emergency".
The facts on the ground were quite different: 22 years of uninterrupted economic growth, low debt by world standards, unemployment at 5.7% and a triple-A rating from all three credit rating agencies. It meant nothing: perception was king.
Abbott's aggression at the dispatch box drew blood time and again from a minority Labor government, at war with itself over leadership (first Kevin Rudd, then Julia Gillard, then back to Rudd). He exploited the disunity, painting the party as chaotic and dysfunctional. Labor's significant reforms, including disability and education policy, were rarely credited.
Australians took to Abbott's pithy, three-word slogans, including his mantra to "stop the boats" of asylum seekers coming to the country.
In the calendar year to September nearly 19,000 refugees arrived by boat (the figure grew significantly over the past 18 months but remains small by world standards). Abbott's conservative message was unmistakable: keep out.
In the swinging marginal seats on the edge of Australia's biggest city, it cut through like a hot knife in butter.
In St Mary's, 30 miles west of Sydney's harbour bridge, bungalows bake in the warm spring sun. Backyard cricket matches out here on the wide, grassy blocks will one day produce another Michael Clarke or Shane Watson. Families are largely white and working class. They fear asylum seekers will damage their way of life.
"They are only coming here for the free money and the welfare," said Joann Gough, who lives and works in this part of western Sydney. "They turn up on boats with their small children as a way of getting sympathy. It's a disgrace."
Her views are widely held. In the final week of the campaign, Abbott's newly successful candidate in the area, Fiona Scott, suggested refugees were responsible for worsening traffic jams and clogged hospital emergency departments. In fact, the latest figures available from the Department of Immigration show that only three refugees who arrived by boat were settled in this part of western Sydney in the seven months to June 2012.
Abbott says the country is facing a "national emergency"; he is to appoint a three-star general to oversee his "Operation Sovereign Borders".
The political pressure he exerted in opposition on the issue was so great it forced Labor into a spectacular volte-face on processing refugees offshore. Tents and temporary structures on the tiny pacific islands of Manus and Nauru house refugees in conditions widely criticised by human rights groups. Thousands more live on bridging visas in Australia, unable to work while their claims are processed.
Labor's parting shot in what had become a contest of who could appear toughest on refugees was a deal with Papua New Guinea. Refugees arriving by boat will now be settled there rather than in Australia.
As prime minister, Abbott will go further, reducing Australia's humanitarian intake by 6,250 places a year to 13,750 and refusing refugees permanent residence, access to family reunions or to legal aid.
According to Paul Power, chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, the psychological impact will be "devastating". "It's a huge emotional blow for a refugee to have demonstrated a need for protection from persecution and then only be given a temporary visa," he said.
"I'm not convinced that the broader population outside some of these marginal electorates is committed to his harder line on refugees. In many ways they [asylum seekers] have become a proxy for other issues like infrastructure and traffic congestion."
Those close to Abbott laud him as a conviction politician whose views have remained largely consistent throughout his political career. On global warming, he has long been a sceptic, once describing the science of climate change as "absolute crap". Two months before the election he described carbon trading as "a so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no one". His hyperbole that Australia's price on carbon would wipe towns off the map and destroy manufacturing came to nothing. But it set the scene for his mandate to axe the carbon tax as his first item of business.
Like refugee policy, it hit home in western Sydney. On St Mary's run-down high street, two-dollar shops sit alongside tired-looking second-hand furniture stores. At Lucky's cafe, diners care little about carbon emissions and more about paying their mortgages and keeping their kids in school.
Aloysius Kraaymaat, who emigrated from the Netherlands 50 years ago, says climate change is "a big con". Joann Gough says no one here cares about it: "I've never even heard anyone discuss it."
Abbott's "Direct Action" policy will put Australia at odds with much of the world on tackling climate change. Instead of forcing polluters to pay, he will pay them as an incentive to clean up their act. He will mobilise a 15,000-strong "green army" to plant trees and rely on carbon being captured in soil and forests to reduce emissions. Few analysts believe this will go anywhere near meeting his commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 5% by 2020 (on 2000 levels).
Internationally, Abbott is perhaps best known as the target of the former prime minister Julia Gillard's misogyny speech. In a fiery 15-minute rant to parliament last October, she told him if he wanted to know what misogyny in modern Australia looked like, he should look in a mirror. She criticised his past suggestions that men were more adapted to "exercise authority or to issue a command" than women. She also attacked his suggestion that abortion was the "easy way out".
While Abbott has always polled worse with women than men, the row over gender that Gillard's speech gave rise to may ultimately have helped him on election day with undecided male voters. A string of gaffes on the campaign trail suggested he was using his knockabout, blokey persona to reach out to them, including his description of his candidate in St Mary's, Fiona Scott, as someone with "sex appeal". He also said she "wasn't just a pretty face".
He told the residents of the Big Brother house that he was "the guy with the not bad-looking daughters". Later he joked with a high-school girls' netball team that "a bit of body contact never hurt anyone". People close to him said they were off-the-cuff remarks that meant nothing. Others saw a man out of touch with women.
Abbott is a conservative Catholic who opposes gay marriage. He was educated at an elite Jesuit school in Sydney before studying economics and law at university. On his Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University he earned a boxing Blue and championed Margaret Thatcher. He is a monarchist who supports the Queen remaining head of state of Australia.
Critics accuse him of being light on policy and heavy on rhetoric but voters, tired of a Labor's internal squabbling, have endorsed him wholeheartedly.
Kevin Rudd concedes election defeat and steps down as Labor leader
Australia's prime minister addresses crowd chanting his name and accepts that he will be replaced by Tony Abbott
Gabrielle Chan in Brisbane
theguardian.com, Saturday 7 September 2013 14.03 BST
Kevin Rudd has conceded defeat in the Australian election and announced he is to stand down as Labor leader.
Rudd appeared at 9.30pm as the crowd chanted his name. He appeared with his family, including his wife, Therese. The mood was upbeat, the crowd pleasantly surprised at holding the line in Queensland.
"I thought we lost," Rudd said.
"I know that Labor hearts are heavy across the nation tonight. As your leader, I accept responsibility. I gave it my all but it was not enough to win. Despite the prophets of doom I am proud we preserved the Labor party as a viable fighting force for the future."
Rudd said Labor was the party for "the little guy" and invoked Ben Chifley's "light on the hill" speech, saying the party had always come back from defeat.
Rudd surprised the crowd by saying Labor served "the forgotten people" - a phrase made famous by a Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies.
He said he had rung Tony Abbott and said he would welcome him graciously to the Lodge, just as John and Jeanette Howard had done for him in 2007.
Rudd declared Labor was the party of "hard heads and soft hearts". Its genius, he said, was that through war and peace Labor supporters "never allowed their hearts to harden".
"It is why the world admires Australia, because we can resolve our politics peacefully. That is why this is such a great country."
If you wandered into the Gabba cricket ground in Brisbane off the street, you would swear Labor had won, so good was Rudd's mood. He was beaming – genuinely relieved, it seemed, at making a good showing in just two months of leadership.
"I'm proud of the fact we have held each of the seats in Queensland and every cabinet member has been returned and I am proud all other members of executive have been returned," he said.
Rudd thanked his family, his staff and gave a special mention to his deputy prime minister, Anthony Albanese and finance minister Penny Wong. The crowd immediately began chanting their names.
He also mentioned the many "fine Labor men and women".
"We have known defeat before but throughout our history we have always risen from defeat to renew out party with vigor and fresh ideas for the future."
Rudd left the stage and was mobbed as he left the Gabba.
"They thought they were going to kill us but we proved them wrong; you cannot extinguish hope," he told a supporter as he left.
It had been a sombre start to the Labor party's election-night party. While Rudd had voted just after 1pm, he was not seen for the remainder of the afternoon, in spite of claiming he would fight right up until the polls closed.
The party venue was the heart of Rudd's hometown and home of the Brisbane Lions. It opened its doors just before the polls closed and, for a while, it looked as though there would be more journalists than Labor supporters.
Though the initial mood was sombre, eventually the Ruddsters filled the room – set apart by their hopeful T-shirts claiming, "It's our Ruddy future."
Early in the night, the beer and wine was flowing and Rudd's staff haunted the floor with grim faces and black humour. As the results rolled out, the realisation that Labor had well and truly lost government was tempered by the party’s better-than-expected showing in Queensland.
As the twin screens broadcast the ABC coverage, the crowd showed their delight or disgust as each electorate was revealed. As at the Roman Colosseum, the crowd booed or cheered.
The crowd played favourites, based on the enormity of the task or the profile of the person. Kevin Rudd was obviously a favourite, particularly given many polls had predicted he would lose his seat of Griffith.
Former treasurer Wayne Swan was also a favourite, proving a Queensland boy can never lose in his hometown.
Prime Minister Abbott: the master of opposition gets his chance
Vindication is his, but there is still the small matter of actually doing the job now that he has secured it
Shaun Carney for The Conversation
theguardian.com, Saturday 7 September 2013 14.18 BST
Not so long ago, Tony Abbott looked washed up. In 2007, while other ministers wanted to replace John Howard as the captain of the Coalition's sinking ship, Abbott stood resolutely by his political hero all the way to a humiliating election defeat.
Abbott had been in a funk as the Liberals' fortunes soured. He publicly questioned the ethics of a dying man, Bernie Banton, and during the election campaign he turned up embarrassingly late to a televised debate.
In the days after that defeat, Abbott sought to succeed Howard as Liberal leader, citing what he called his people skills as one of his strengths. This ended badly too: when he realised his party room numbers were derisory, he withdrew his candidacy and went off to write a book as a way of salving his political pain.
The political caravan, it seemed, had taken off without Abbott. But no: now he is our prime minister.
The man to whom the ironic appellation "people skills" was attached during those lean times joins Sir Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser and Howard as the only Liberal leaders to have vanquished a Labor government.
Vindication is his, but there is still the small matter of actually doing the job now that he has secured it. Abbott as an opposition leader was frenzied, intense, relentless, functionally incapable of pulling back and changing either his tone or his rhetoric.
From the first moment Abbott took on the leadership in December 2009, he sought power through aggression and the creation of an ever-heightening sense of crisis in the polity and the economy. His twin objectives were to instigate the overthrow, either through parliamentary or electoral means, of a Labor government that he had from the start viewed as illegitimate, the product of nothing more than a reflexive "It's Time" sentiment among voters in 2007 that the Howard government had had long enough.
"Campaign in poetry and govern in prose" the saying goes. Abbott all the way through campaigned in spray can graffiti.
But it worked. Abbott, a journalist early in his adult life, made an astute judgement about the changing nature of the Australian electorate. He understood, and continues to understand, that increasing numbers of voters feel no fidelity to any party, do not care about politics, do not pay attention to the news and that their only interest in policy is how it might affect them. The key word in that last element is "might".
Having lived without the economic hardships that come from a recession for more than 20 years, the metrics by which Australians judge that they are, as the political cliché has it, "doing it tough" – that is, feeling cost of living pressures – have shifted dramatically. Ever-greater swathes of the electorate are convinced that they are economically deprived, even though inflation is under control, the economy continues to grow and unemployment is close to modern historical norms.
Many contemporary voters, untethered from any political convictions of their own, are highly suggestible and Abbott's campaigns on Labor's carbon pricing and economic management exploited this to the hilt.
Now that they are in charge, Abbott and his likely treasurer Joe Hockey will have to transform their political approach instantaneously. The hysterics of the past few years will no longer be of use to them.
In the final week of the campaign, they worked assiduously to recast their economic program. Having spent their time in opposition asserting that the nation's finances were in a critical state and that there was a budget emergency, they finished up subscribing pretty much to the budget settings of Labor's outgoing treasurer Chris Bowen.
Depending on one's point of view, this demonstrates either a breathtaking capacity for cynicism or a masterful deployment of political agility.
In any event, it points to a pragmatism that has regularly been at the heart of Abbott's political modus operandi and which is likely to drive him as prime minister. Abbott is a conservative in the conventional sense. That is, he opposes change with a genuine conviction – until change becomes irresistible. And then he embraces that new order.
Tony Abbott maintains close links with the last Liberal to hold the prime ministership, John Howard.
As Howard's health minister, he sought to fashion the Coalition as "the best friend Medicare has ever had", conveniently ignoring the fact that the Whitlam and Hawke governments had to shed much political blood to implement the policy after years of political opposition from the Liberals. Even so, when he saw how it worked, Abbott embraced it.
A related process has been at play under his leadership, as he has adopted some of Labor's best policy ideas, with adjustments. His government will see through four of the six years of the Gonski school funding. It will implement a National Broadband Network, but a weaker, cheaper version. It will continue on with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, but wants to drop Labor's name for it, DisabilityCare.
A key policy on which the Abbott government will not yield is a market pricing mechanism for carbon emissions. The reason for this is mostly to do with the internal politics of the broader Liberal movement and only a little to do with ideology.
Abbott himself is ambivalent on the theory of man-made climate change. He came to the leadership in late 2009 on a pledge of killing an emissions trading scheme because he judged that the climate change question was splitting both the Liberal Party and its supporter base.
Hence he will oversee Direct Action, an inefficient, costly policy that aspires to cut emissions and placates his backers who believe climate change is real. And at the same time, by killing the carbon tax he will appease the large proportion of Liberals who think climate change is hokum. It could be said to be a classical Liberal political solution.
Will there be any great policy initiatives under prime minister Abbott? Workplace relations is the standout issue. Abbott argued unsuccessfully against WorkChoices inside the Howard cabinet and he has done what he can to stave off the powerful forces inside his party and the business community to revive the key elements of that policy regime – at least until he took office.
But the pressures are immense to once and for all crush Australia's already weakened union movement, a vital political resource for the ALP. In this term, there will be plenty of softening up of the electorate: inquiries into union corruption and productivity bottlenecks. Expect to hear a lot about how much unions are holding back the Australian economy in the next three years and how much has to be done to put them back in their box.
With the demise of the Rudd government, the historical comparisons with the Whitlam era become stronger: only two terms of office, plenty of political dysfunction, some powerful policies but also a degree of chaos. It is up to Abbott to ensure that the second act of the Whitlam drama is not repeated.
With Labor harassed into destruction, the Coalition government that replaces it is unclear on what exactly it wants to do in power beyond keeping its hand on the tiller, having returned the nation to its rightful place – the conservative bosom.
Maldives presidential election goes to second-round vote
Ousted former president Mohamed Nasheed fails to win outright with 45% of votes and faces stiff challenge in runoff
Nicholas Milton in Male and Jason Burke
theguardian.com, Sunday 8 September 2013 12.20 BST
The first democratically elected president of the Maldives, ousted in 2012 in what he called a coup, faces a runoff against the brother of the country's former dictator after falling short of a clear majority in the presidential election.
Mohamed Nasheed, who is the candidate of the Maldivian Democratic party (MDP), received 45% of the vote on Saturday, election officials announced . He needed half of the votes cast to win outright. The veteran human rights and climate change campaigner could find it hard to secure a second-round majority if his three election opponents form an alliance for the runoff on 28 September.
Nasheed won the country's first multiparty election after 30 years of autocracy in 2008. He will now have to beat Abdulla Yameen, a brother of the Maldives' former autocratic ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, to retake the presidency. Yameen polled 25% on Saturday while businessman Qasim Ibrahim, one of the Maldives' richest men, came a close third with 24%. The incumbent, Mohamed Waheed Hassan, ended with 5%, according to official results.
The Indian Ocean archipelago nation has been in political turmoil since Nasheed ordered the military to arrest a senior judge whom he accused of bias. Weeks of public protests ensued and Nasheed eventually resigned in February last year, later arguing he was forced out at gunpoint by security forces and politicians backed by the country's former autocrat.
Though a Commonwealth-backed commission threw out his claim, Nasheed has repeatedly dismissed as illegal the government of Waheed, his former vice-president who took over the top office. Transparency Maldives, an independent election monitor, said that apart from minor complaints of violence the first-round polling was free and peaceful, although there are fears that the second round later this month could be marred by violence. The election pits the broadly leftwing MDP and Nasheed against more conservative, business-orientated parties and candidates. Observers claim supporters of third- and fourth-place finishers in the first round are likely to vote against Nasheed.
"We expected it to go to a second round so were not disappointed," said Aminah Faina, a 33-year-old shopworker who voted for Yameen. "It will be very close. But a unity government under Yameen would be much more Islamic and that is what the Maldives needs."
The religious identity of the mostly Sunni Muslim country has been a major issue in the election and in the chaotic politics on the Indian Ocean archipelago since 2008. Nasheed, who has vocally supported a moderate form of Muslim thought and practice, has been attacked by opponents as anti-Islamic. Many of the former president's supporters expected a crushing first round win leading to an immediate return to power.
"We'd planned a big victory rally on the front but instead everyone just went home," Abdul Rashid, a 47-year-old boat mechanic, said. "We'll have to save the celebration party until the 28th."
The election recorded a voter turnout of 88%, up from 85% in 2008. Critical challenges facing the next president include a rise in Islamist ideology, human rights abuses and lack of investor confidence after Waheed's government cancelled the country's biggest foreign investment project with India's GMR Infrastructure. Political instability has hit tourism, which accounts for more than a quarter of GDP, and growth has slowed drastically in recent years. Mohamed Aslam, a senior member of the MDP and a former minister of housing and environment, said his party did not get the votes it expected in Male, the capital, one of Nasheed's strongholds. Nasheed said earlier he had support in the ranks of the military and police, expressing confidence he would get half the vote to win in the first round.
Chilean coup: 40 years ago I watched Pinochet crush a democratic dream
How the drama and repression developed as a US-backed coup overthrew Allende's government on 11 September 1973
The Observer, Saturday 7 September 2013 17.52 BST
Few foreign reporters were left in Santiago on the spring morning of Tuesday 11 September 1973 when Augusto Pinochet, head of the army, was pulling off his trick.
The previous Saturday he had finally joined in preparations for the long brewing coup d'état against a fairly elected government and, only three days later, was revealing his capacity for terrorism, torture and treason with a foreign power. Only now was he throwing in his lot with a US government that detested the idealistic but ramshackle coalition of six parties headed by Dr Salvador Allende, the country doctor and upstanding freemason who was set on introducing elements of social democracy in a country long organised for the benefit of the landowners, industrialists and money men.
For months the original plotters had kept Pinochet at a distance, judging him too loyal to the elected – and, as the results of the recent local elections showed, increasingly popular – Allende, and too loyal to the constitution to be allowed into the conspiracy.
Most foreign journalists had given up and left Chile after weeks of waiting, many returning from deprived and poor Santiago – proud but provincial – to bustling Buenos Aires and their homes across the Andes. The Washington Post had a correspondent, but not the New York Times; Newsweek, but not Time magazine.
As troops fanned out in the town awaiting the arrival of Hawker Hunter jets to bomb and destroy civilian government, Allende desperately but vainly tried to contact Pinochet and for a few hours was convinced that his military commander had been kidnapped and silenced by the insurgents.
Many of we foreign reporters in the weeks before September 1973 had got into the habit of gathering in the snug downstairs bar of the Carrera hotel – across the square from Allende's sober and unadorned presidential palace, the Moneda – where many of us were staying. Endlessly, over scotches and pisco sours, we tossed about our conjectures for the future, those with US passports rightly forecasting the worst for Chile's "socialist experiment".
On Tuesday, the counter-revolution was in full flood, telephone and telex lines were cut and the airports closed. Before 10am my friend and colleague, Stewart Russell of Reuters, and I trekked through deserted streets to the British embassy, above the Bank of London and South America, in search of a line that would take our story to London. No line was available but, as the firing in the streets increased, we were given house room and refreshments and could not but observe the unalloyed joy of many in the embassy, notably the British naval representatives, at the coup.
At that time Admiral Gustavo Carvajal, one of the plotters, was on the phone to Allende offering him a plane if he would leave the country. But the president, a man with high blood pressure, was trenchant: "Who do you think you are, you treacherous shits? Stuff your plane up your arses! You are talking to the president of the republic! And the president elected by the people doesn't surrender."
On the roof of our building a resister with a .22 rifle loosed off the occasional shot until he was killed by a passing helicopter. By four in the afternoon the city, ringed by its Andean peaks, was quieter, so Stewart and I, robbed of connections with London, marched out of the bronze doors down the centre of the deserted streets to our hotels, our hands in the air.
Back within the well-shuttered Carrera and gathering in its imposing reception area sheathed in black glass, Pinochet's many moneyed supporters toasted him with champagne, and his three fellow members of the junta from the navy, air force and gendarmerie. They whooped as he announced on television the closing down of congress, the political parties, the trade unions and the judges.
The terrified staff gathered in a corner and watched their country's fate being played out. As a precaution, for our safety, they had prepared beds for us past the laundry in the hotel's sub-basement. After a good night's sleep we emerged to watch the flames continuing to consume the Moneda. Under curfew the stadium began filling with Pinochet's prisoners: some were summarily shot, others were sent to concentration camps in the Atacama deserts of the north or the frigid sub-Antarctic south. At the beginning, when the curfew was clamped down at 6pm, there was a nightly rush for transport, public and private, as people scrambled to get indoors promptly.
The soldiers were initially frightening with their battledress and machine guns as they blundered in, messed up the houses of suspects and carried off whatever took their fancy. Foreigners who were fleeing persecution – in Brazil, for instance – and who had been given political asylum by Allende were in particular danger, as were office holders in the trade unions. Later on, the squaddies, many of them country boys, came to be seen as figures of fun as they took the presence of books on cubism, for instance, as evidence that the householder was an admirer of Fidel Castro and thus worthy of being arrested and interrogated. Comedians on television joked nervously about stupid people being as thick as a soldier without a car.
A rash of denunciations saw many imprisoned unjustly by the military, who would seldom confess who they had in prison and who they didn't. Over the weeks at the Moneda the flames consumed what they could, leaving a thick layer of ash.
Thus had started 17 years of Pinochet's dictatorship – he soon reduced his fellow members of the junta to a cipher – held together by terrorism. As had already been the case after the military coups in Brazil in 1964 and then in Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina, and as was to be the case latterly in modern Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, the military and police torturers were ready with their electrodes, thumbscrews and waterboarding equipment to defend "western Christian civilisation". Many had been brought to a peak of perfection in their trade in the US itself or in its bases in the Panama canal zone by US instructors.
Seven years before, at a dinner party in 1966 during a prolonged stay in the Chilean capital with my wife Georgie, I met Allende and his wife Hortensia "Tencha" for the first time. He and I got on famously right up until he was killed in the attack on the presidential palace. Our host Álvaro introduced us jokily to the leader of the left, saying: "This man has already made attempts to win the presidency and wants to have another go. But he'll never get there." Allende equally jokily chimed in: "Young man, do you know what's going to be on my tombstone?"
"No, doctor," I replied politely. "What is going to be on your tombstone?"
Amid renewed laughter Chile's future head of state replied using his full name: "Here lies Salvador Allende Gossens, future president of Chile."
On 21 September 1970, Allende had been declared victor of clean elections, but before he took over the presidency, after a fruitless effort by Chilean conservatives and their US allies to have the victory declared unconstitutional, Edward Korry, the US ambassador in Santiago, reported to Henry Kissinger, the foreign strategist of President Richard Nixon: "Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty."
A few days earlier Richard Helms, director of the CIA, had scribbled notes on a meeting in Washington with Nixon, Kissinger and John Mitchell, the US attorney general, where the president demanded a coup. They read: "One in 10 chance perhaps, but save Chile! /worth spending /not concerned risks involved /no involvement of embassy /$10,000,000 available, more if necessary/ best men we have/ game plan/ make the economy scream /48 hours for plan of action."
After Allende's enemies finally claimed their victory against him on 11 September, Chileans protected themselves as best they could while Pinochet and his cohorts, well favoured now by Washington, turned to making themselves fortunes from the privatisation of public services and, quietly, from the trade in cocaine from Bolivia which the US never seemed to want to criticise or attack.
So confident was Pinochet in his protectors in "the free world" that on 17 September 1976 he ordered the killing of Orlando Letelier, Allende's former defence minister, with a bomb planted in his car in Sheridan Circle in the diplomatic heart of Washington itself. Such an atrocity, had it been committed by any Arab or Iranian, or indeed a Muslim of any persuasion, would have brought down instant punishment, or even war. But Pinochet was in no danger. After all, he had been Nixon's man all along.
Hugh O'Shaughnessy is the author of Pinochet, The Politics of Torture, published by Latin America Bureau and New York University Press
*****************Widow of Missing's Chilean coup victim carries on her fight for justice
Joyce Horman's husband was killed by Pinochet's executioners in 1973. Forty years on, she leads a legal campaign to learn the truth about what happened to thousands of other victims
Edward Helmore in New York
The Observer, Sunday 8 September 2013
Among thousands of Chileans caught in a brutal roundup following the military coup that unseated President Salvador Allende was Charles Horman, a young American journalist who had settled in Santiago with his wife Joyce. A decade later the story of his abduction at the hands of General Pinochet's troops was told in 1982 by film-maker Costa-Gavras in Missing, an Oscar-winner starring Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon. It ended on celluloid as in life, with Horman and another young American, Frank Teruggi, in all likelihood killed by Pinochet's executioners beneath Santiago's football stadium.
For days, Joyce Horman had no idea what had happened to her husband. He had realised they were in trouble and had been out trying to buy plane tickets. Joyce was caught in the curfew, but when she got home the next morning Charles was gone. Their home had been ransacked; neighbours warned her to flee, as the soldiers would return. Santiago was under curfew, its streets running with soldiers. Her father-in-law, Ed Horman, went to Chile to help. "Bless his courageous soul," she told the Observer. "He came to the heart of the coup to look for his only son."
Today, sher considers herself privileged to at least know the circumstances of her husband's death when so many families of the 3,000 Chileans who went missing still do not. "Missing is a dreadful state of mind: so many have lived for years without knowing."
She plans to mark the 40th anniversary of the coup with an event celebrating the judges, lawyers and human rights activists who led efforts to illuminate this dark period of Latin American history and western geopolitical meddling.
Among those to be honoured are Juan Garcés, the Spanish human rights lawyer who invoked the principle of universal jurisdiction that led to the arrest of Pinochet for genocide and other crimes against humanity in London in 1998; his UK counterpart Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC; Baltasar Garzón, the judge who issued Pinochet's arrest warrant; and Juan Salvador Guzmán Tapia, the judge who pursued him through the courts after his return to Chile, where he died in 2006 under house arrest and facing more than 300 criminal charges.
"It's an act of gratitude to the people who worked so hard to bring about accountability and an acknowledgement of the success of that work," she said. Horman's organisation, the Charles Horman Truth Foundation, will also celebrate lawyers and officials who brought about the declassification of US documents related to the coup in the presence of Joan Jara, the British widow of the murdered Chilean folksinger Víctor Jara.
Many questions remain. In May, Chilean government lawyers completed the translation of the extradition request for US naval captain Ray Davis, head of the US military group in Santiago at the time of the coup and who Horman believes was instrumental in her husband's detention. But the request has yet to be filed with the US embassy in Santiago. "It feels like they're dragging their feet," said Horman. "They're using the possibility that he died as a way to forestall the extradition request."
Documents declassified by the Clinton administration in the late 90s described the case involving her husband, a liberal activist who had been looking into the murder of René Schneider, a Chilean general opposed to Allende's overthrow, as "continuing to be bothersome". That release came more than a decade after the Horman family sued Henry Kissinger and other Nixon administration officials for wrongful death and suffering caused by the concealment of circumstances surrounding it. The action was unsuccessful, but Horman believes it helped focus tens of thousands of exiled Chileans involved with Chile Solidarity to continue to press for accountability.
"People shouldn't be satisfied with truth and reconciliation commissions," said Michael Ratner at the Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York. "Chile stands for the principle that criminal prosecution plays an incredibly important part in accountability."
Last year eight Chilean army officers were indicted in the killing of Jara and last week it emerged that the family has taken legal action in Florida against the former army officer – now a US citizen – whom it alleges killed him. Jara has been reburied in the national cemetery. In another case, the body of the poet Pablo Neruda was recently exhumed to determine if he had been poisoned.
In Chile last week the judicial profession formally apologised for abandoning its role as protectors of human rights then. But with no prosecution of her husband's killers, Horman remains suspicious of the US-Chile relationship. Official reports, including one by the senate committee headed by Frank Church, found no evidence of direct US assistance to the coup, but Nixon feared Chile could become "another Cuba". The CIA later confirmed that, while it had not supported the coup, it had "actively supported the military junta after the overthrow of Allende". Still, the CIA had tried to block Allende coming to power in 1970 and US aid to the military had been increased.
But until Missing came out, Horman recalls, the Chilean drama was still mostly under wraps. "It raised the consciousness. No one had been thinking about what went on in Chile, how violent it was, how a democracy was overturned or how a brutal dictatorship was offered all sorts of support."
In the event Horman, played by Spacek, was informed by the Ford Foundation that her husband was killed a few months after the coup. The Chilean military found "misfiled fingerprints" which verified this claim.
Horman's case continues. Two years ago, judge Jorge Zepeda charged a Chilean army officer, Pedro Espinoza . For now, his testimony is under seal.
His widow asks herself if it would have helped if she been able to get home on the night of Charles's abduction. "It was a very scary time. I still have my problems with it. He got back to the house, I did not. If I'd been there, I would have been taken with him."
Her catharsis came when she visited Chile in 1990 for celebrations marking the return to democracy. "The military were still on the streets but we were in the stadium. It was like an exorcism. I was shaking. But there was Ted Kennedy talking about human rights crimes. He wasn't looking the other way, he was looking straight at it."
The visit steeled her to continue to seek accountability and advance the legal doctrine of universal jurisdiction, to be discussed at the foundation's day-long seminar in New York on Monday. "It's a legal principle that will eventually produce results," she said. "The more you push up these things, the more likely you are to be successful."
Tribute to Justice – Remembering 40 years, Monday 9 September 2013, 583 Park Avenue @ 63rd Street New York
***************Snapshot: Memories of Pinochet – in pictures
Photojournalist Julio Etchart spent the 70s and 80s documenting Pinochet's 16-year dictatorship in Chile and, by "keeping a low profile and my head down", he says he was able to capture much of the rising resistance on camera. This 11 September marks 40 years since the military coup that began Pinochet's rule, during which thousands of suspected political opponents were detained, tortured, killed or simply "disappeared". In memory of his victims, Amnesty International UK is hosting an updated version of Julio's 1988 exhibition Chile's 9/11 at the Human Rights Action Centre in Shoreditch, London, on weekdays from 9-20 September
The Observer, Saturday 7 September 2013 16.00 BST
Click to view: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2013/sep/07/snapshot-photography-chile-pinochet-etchart
September 7, 2013
Protests Fill City Streets Across Brazil
By SIMON ROMERO
RIO DE JANEIRO — Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in dozens of cities across Brazil on Saturday and were dispersed violently by the police while mounting some of the most vigorous expressions of anger with governing institutions since an outburst of antigovernment demonstrations shook the political establishment in June.
Still, fewer people turned out in major cities on Saturday than in the earlier wave of mass protests. That broad flare-up of public ire has given way to an array of more fragmented movements, some of which have been struggling in the face of crackdowns by Brazilian security forces.
“This whole government only knows how to rob us,” said Naiana Vinuto, 25, a management student among the protesters in Rio de Janeiro, expressing anger about political corruption in different parts of Brazil’s vast public bureaucracy.
Police officers in riot gear faced off in Rio’s old center with hundreds of demonstrators, arresting at least 24 people. As in the other cities, the protests here were organized to challenge the military parades commemorating Brazil’s independence. People attending the parade, including children, suffered from tear-gas inhalation as the police tried to disperse the protests.
Elsewhere, hundreds of protesters in Maceió, a northeastern city, halted a military parade, and the security detail of Teotônio Vilela Filho, the governor of Alagoas State, hastily removed him from the scene, according to televised reports. In Brasília, the capital, the police dispersed protesters with pepper spray as they tried to get near Congress.
Resentment of Brazil’s legislature continues to fester, especially after lawmakers recently held a secret vote to allow Natan Donadon, a congressman from Rondônia State in the Amazon, to retain his seat even after he was sent to prison this year for embezzling public funds. Brazil’s highest court is reviewing a challenge to that vote.
“Currently, politics is a dirty game of exchanges,” said Graciara Albuquerque, 32, a protester in Brasília, citing the vote allowing Mr. Donadon to keep his seat. “They always are in favor of their own interests.”
Protesters in Brasília also tried to gather around the stadium where the national soccer teams of Brazil and Australia were slated to play, reflecting widespread anger over spending on lavish stadiums for the World Cup, which is scheduled to be held in Brazil in 2014, while many public hospitals and schools remain in deplorable condition.
Security forces, including police officers on horseback, tried to disperse the protesters in Brasília. Amid the tumult, police dogs attacked two photojournalists, according to local news reports. One of the photographers, who works for the Reuters news agency, was injured and removed from the scene by the police, apparently so he could receive medical care, the newspaper Folha de São Paulo reported.
In São Paulo, demonstrators shut down Avenida Paulista, the city’s most prominent thoroughfare, and protesters vandalized bank offices along it before shifting their focus to the municipal legislature, hitting the building with rocks before the police fired tear gas in their midst.
“I’m protesting because I want a decent home,” said Maria Pier de Britto, a maid. “For me, housing is Brazil’s biggest problem, after the health care system.”
Paula Ramon contributed reporting from São Paulo, Brazil; Lucy Jordan from Brasília; and Taylor Barnes from Rio de Janeiro.
09/06/2013 03:23 PM
AIDS Turning Point: 'A Cure Is Possible'
By Christoph Behrens and Veronika Hackenbroch
In recent years, a spate of findings have shown that HIV can essentially be eradicated in some patients. Now scientists are scrambling to finally find a cure that could drastically change the lives of millions of people worldwide.
HIV specialist Stefan Fenske's medical clinic, located in Hamburg's university district, isn't a moribund place. The rooms are filled with light, the walls are decorated with modern art and you can hear laughter. Werner Thomas (not his real name) is in a good mood as he sits in the consultation room discussing his illness. The 63-year-old refers to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that nestled into his body over 23 years ago as a "subletter," not an enemy or a deadly threat.
Every three months, Thomas travels to Hamburg from the nearby small town where he lives. Blood samples are taken and 15 minutes later he heads home again. "Some healthy people would be happy to have test results like mine," he says. His physician, Dr. Fenske, is also satisfied: "His smoking is definitely a bigger health risk for him than the virus."
Prior to 1996, in the days before highly effective anti-retroviral drugs were developed, Fenske witnessed the horror of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which is caused by HIV, and the deaths of many patients. At the time, the skeletal, emaciated bodies of AIDS patients were sapped of their strength by infections and consumed by tumors.
A New Kind of HIV Patient
The new drugs came too late for Thomas' boyfriend, who died in 1993 of an AIDS-related illness. Thomas was no longer allowed to work as a waiter, and had to go into retirement at the age of 40. "What should I do now?" he asked himself at the time. "Grow old, at any rate!", he vowed.
At first, he took up to 20 pills a day, sometimes with severe side effects. But every year, the therapy became more bearable, and today he only takes three pills a day.
Not everyone responds so well to treatment. The drugs can increase the risk of cancer and heart attacks, and they can lead to bone loss and kidney disorders. Nevertheless, HIV-infected patients who begin therapy early enough now have a nearly normal life expectancy. "There is a world of difference now in the treatment of HIV," says Fenske. Former AIDS hospices are now being converted into homes for elderly HIV-positive people. Thomas has plans for the future, and he and his new boyfriend are in the process of buying their own home.
But the drugs don't provide a cure. They manage to stop the virus from spreading, but cannot rid the body of it entirely. Less than one percent of those infected with HIV are lucky enough to have a distinctive, inherent genetic feature that can keep the pathogen in check. All others who stop taking the pills experience the inexorable and merciless return of the virus.
That has been the general view of the medical profession -- until now. AIDS experts are placing an increasing emphasis on the prospect of not just treating, but curing the disease.
This week, many of the world's leading HIV researchers met at Stockholm's prestigious Karolinska Institute for a two-day conference called, "Towards a Cure for HIV: From Pathogenesis to Eradication." On Sept. 5, one of the researchers who discovered HIV, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, from the Pasteur Institute in Paris, gave a presentation on potential ways of curing HIV at the Heinrich Pette Institute in Hamburg.
Dramatic New Developments
A recent series of spectacular medical cases has electrified researchers around the world -- cases in which therapy has allowed the HIV patient to permanently keep the virus under control.
In 2009, doctors at Berlin's Charité Hospital reported on an HIV-positive man named Timothy Ray Brown, known as the Berlin patient, who received a bone-marrow stem-cell transplant as treatment for leukemia. The donor was, thanks to genetics, immune to HIV and the immunity seemed to have passed to Brown, who no longer needed antiretroviral therapy to control the HIV. Doctors eventually declared him cured. In 2013, doctors at Harvard Medical School reported similar successes.
In March 2013, the "Mississippi baby" case was made public: A newborn that had become infected with HIV in its mother's womb was treated aggressively with antiretroviral drugs, starting during the second day of its life. When the mother stopped administering the drugs after 18 months, the child was still able to keep the virus in check, much to the surprise of her physicians.
French researchers reported on 14 adult patients who were also treated very soon after they were infected. When they later discontinued the therapy, the virus remained unable to reproduce in dangerous amounts.
Another case was brushed aside for over a decade and treated as a curiosity, but in retrospect, fits perfectly with the other stories of people being cured. Some 14 years ago, Berlin researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that a man who had been treated at an early stage of infection later remained healthy, despite having stopped taking the drugs. Hamburg AIDS researcher Jan van Lunzen says that he has a similar patient. After nine years without therapy, tests still show no sign of HIV.
'A Cure is Possible'
"Today we can dream of a cure," says van Lunzen, who is the medical director of the Infectious Diseases Unit at the University Medical Center in Hamburg. "These case reports tell us that cure is possible," agrees Australian AIDS researcher Sharon Lewin from Monash University in Melbourne. Barré-Sinoussi says "a cure has become one of the priorities of AIDS research."
It was exactly 30 years ago that Barré-Sinoussi and her colleague Luc Montagnier identified HIV as the pathogen behind a mysterious syndrome that primarily affected gay men. Patients suffered from strange forms of pneumonia and fungal infections, along with a type of cancer usually associated with older men: Kaposi's sarcoma. Their immune systems had failed, and doctors stood by helplessly as their patients ultimately died.
The new epidemic, which was given the name Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), rapidly spread around the world. Soon the victims included heterosexual men, women and children.
At the time, researchers and politicians concocted horror scenarios for the world's industrialized nations that, in retrospect, seem absurdly overblown. In Germany, for instance, a computer simulation produced by Bamberg University in Bavaria predicted 107,000 AIDS fatalities in a fictive model city of 2.3 million inhabitants within just 10 years. Others predicted the collapse of the Frankfurt real estate market, triggered by AIDS.
AIDS in Africa
At the same time, many health professionals turned a blind eye to the impending disaster in Africa. In 1985, the World Health Organization (WHO) erroneously declared the countries of Central Africa to be "AIDS-free." Barré-Sinoussi recalls a doctor from Zaire -- now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- who stood up during a conference in 1986 and shouted: "Look, it's dramatic. In my country it's dramatic. People are dying from this disease. And nobody is taking any decision." Today some 34 million people around the world are infected with HIV, two-thirds of them in sub-Saharan Africa.
In view of these figures, the lack of an effective vaccine is tragic. Though HIV drugs are more readily available in Africa than they've been in the past and preventative measures such as condoms have averted an even greater crisis, today only some 40 percent of those affected with the virus receive adequate treatment.
Given this, the search for a cure isn't primarily about allowing patients in affluent countries to live a better life, free of annoying pills, but about curing the poor, for whom costly lifelong therapies are often out of reach.
Science Explores the Turnaround
In 2009, Timothy Ray Brown, the Berlin patient, provided a first ray of hope for researchers. "This case was a proof-of-concept that a cure is possible," says Barré-Sinoussi. But using a bone marrow transplantation like the one Brown received to treat HIV-positive patients is far too risky a cure: The procedure can be life-threatening.
Therefore, researchers are far more intrigued with the "Mississippi baby" and the other cases in which early therapy with strong drugs helped conquer the virus. The pediatrician treating the "Mississippi baby," Hannah Gay, was even included on the 2013 Time 100, the magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world, despite the fact that the little girl's cure was probably more of a coincidence than anything else.
When the girl was brought back to the clinic by the mother after five months without treatment, recalls Gay, a professor at the University of Mississippi, the physician was certain the virus had multiplied inside the patient's little body. "When her test returned showing no detectable virus, I was certainly surprised but attributed it to probable lab error possibly due to mislabeling or switching the sample with another patient's," she says. It wasn't until additional tests were done that Gay realized the girl had seemingly been cured -- at least to the point that her body was able to keep the virus under control. Researchers call this a "functional cure."
A Sneaky 'Reservoir'
Scientists currently have only one possible explanation for this. By giving the child its first AIDS drugs around 30 hours after birth, Gay prevented the formation of a so-called latent reservoir, a tiny remnant of the virus' DNA that remains hidden amidst human genetic material, and thus undetectable and unreachable by the immune system.
No treatment appears capable of touching this silent pocket, from which the virus is able to replicate over and over again. It is what makes AIDS so diabolical -- the reason why drugs can't cure it and the virus returns every time treatment is discontinued. As a result, the reservoir has become a key focus of research.
It has now become clear that HIV DNA has found a perfect hiding place for itself: "resting memory cells" in the immune system that, according to Janet and Robert Siliciano of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who discovered the phenomenon of latency, are "a perfect mechanism for storing viral genomic information." According to the researcher couple, these memory cells never die. In fact, they continue to exist for the entire life of the individual they belong to. Once the virus's DNA has nestled into the body, it can never be dislodged.
It has also become clear that the reservoir forms at a very early stage, probably no later than one to two weeks after infection. If physicians intend to prevent it from forming, they must act very early. French researchers estimate that some 15 percent of HIV-infected patients who receive treatment at a very early stage can eventually control the virus on their own, without the aid of drugs.
AIDS' New Outlook
For the remaining 85 percent -- and the vast majority who begin their therapies too late -- researchers are now looking for a way to lure the virus' DNA out of its hiding place. Various treatments, including cancer drugs, are being subjected to laboratory testing. Initial small-scale studies with patients have also been launched. Gene therapy and other substances that help to regulate the immune system are also being tested.
But many doctors who treat HIV are already viewing their patients differently. "I don't know if maybe some of the children in my clinic are also cured," says Gay, the pediatrician from Mississippi.
The problem here is that discontinuing HIV drugs simply on a trial basis is strictly taboo because it can significantly worsen the prognosis. An international study now aims to provide some clarity on under which conditions children can potentially stop taking anti-HIV drugs without running too great a risk.
Hans Jäger, an internist and AIDS specialist from Munich, has joined forces with researchers from several German universities to conduct a study of adult HIV patients that, he says, focuses on the following goal, among others: "We're looking for a laboratory indicator that makes it possible to determine in advance who has been cured and who hasn't."
The physician is convinced that soon a large number of HIV-infected patients will no longer need their drugs. "I suspect we are currently giving drugs to a large number of patients who no longer require any treatment."
Today an increasing number of researchers are looking for answers to questions that, until recently, no one dared to ask: When it comes to dealing with HIV, how can we shift from treatment to cure?
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
US gives Syria one week to surrender chemical weapons or face attack
John Kerry tells press conference with William Hague in London that US intelligence blames Assad regime for gas attack
theguardian.com, Monday 9 September 2013 11.22 BST
The US secretary of state has said that President Bashar al-Assad has one week to hand over his entire stock of chemical weapons to avoid a military attack, but said he had no expectation that the Syrian leader would comply.
John Kerry also said he had no doubt that Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack in east Damascus on 21 August, saying that only three people are responsible for the chemical weapons inside Syria – Assad himself, one of his brothers and a senior general. He said the entire US intelligence commnity was united in believing Assad was responsible.
Kerry was speaking on Monday alongside William Hague, who was forced to deny that he had been pushed to the sidelines by the House of Commons decision 10 days ago to reject the use of UK force in Syria.
The US Senate is due to vote this week on whether to approve an attack and Kerry was ambivalent over whether Barack Obama would use his powers to ignore the Senate, if it were to reject an attack.
Kerry said the US had tracked the Syrian chemical weapons stock for many years, adding that it "was controlled in a very tight manner by the Assad regime … Bashar al-Assad and his brother Maher al-Assad, and a general are the three people that have the control over the movement and use of chemical weapons.
"But under any circumstances, the Assad regime is the Assad regime, and the regime issues orders, and we have regime members giving these instructions and engaging in these preparations with results going directly to President Assad.
"We are aware of that so we have no issue here about responsibility. They have a very threatening level of stocks remaining."
Kerry said Assad might avoid an attack if he handed every bit of his chemical weapons stock, but added that the Syrian president was not going to do that. He warned that if other nations were not prepared to act on the issue of chemical weapons, "you are giving people complete licence to do whatever they want and to feel so they can do with impunity".
Kerry said the Americans were planning an "unbelievably small" attack on Syria. "We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria's civil war. That is exactly what we are talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort."
The secretary of state repeatedly referred to genocides in eastern Europe and Rwanda in putting forward his case for taking military action. "We need to hear an appropriate outcry as we think back on those moments of history when large numbers of people have been killed because the world was silent," he said. "The Holocaust, Rwanda, other moments, are lessons to all of us today.
"So let me be clear," he continued. "The United States of America, President Obama, myself, others are in full agreement that the end of the conflict in Syria requires a political solution."
But he insisted such a solution was currently impossible if "one party believes that he can rub out countless numbers of his own citizens with impunity using chemicals that have been banned for 100 years".
Hague was forced to emphasise that the UK was engaged in the Syrian crisis through its call for greater action on humanitarian aid, as well as support for the Geneva II peace process.
He pointed out that David Cameron had convened a meeting of countries at the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg to ramp up the humanitarian effort.
Hague met members of the Syrian opposition last Friday and described its leaders as democratic and non-sectarian. On Monday, he avoided questions on why he was not providing lethal equipment to the Syrian opposition.
He said it was for the US to decide whether to attack Syria without congressional endorsement. "These are the two greatest homes of democracy and we work in slightly different ways and we each have to respect how each other's democracies work."
Kerry said he did not know if Obama would release further intelligence proving the culpability of Assad in the chemical weapons attack, saying the administration had already released an unprecedented amount of information.
*************Syria: Kerry garners support from Arab League - videohttp://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/sep/08/syria-kerry-support-arab-league-video
US secretary of state John Kerry discusses military intervention in Syria at a press conference in Paris following talks with the Arab League on Sunday. Kerry claims that all Arab League states agree the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government crosses an international red line. Kerry emphasises that not acting in response to this would be more dangerous than acting
*************American threats widen fault lines among Syria's rebels
Martin Chulov writes from a roadhouse near Aleppo where jihadists and al-Qaida affiliates prepare to face the US enemy
The Guardian, Sunday 8 September 2013 21.00 BST
When Barack Obama vowed to attack Bashar al-Assad, several thousand jihadists on the plains of northern Syria knew exactly what to do. Ever since, they have been hiding their big guns, evacuating bases, parking cars in cow sheds and spreading themselves thin among farms, factories and the communities that reluctantly host them.
"We have learned the lessons from Iraq," said Abu Ismail, a leader of the main jihadist group in the north-east of the country, known to some now as the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). "Iraq has made us better fighters."
While Syria's mainstream rebels are enthusiastically welcoming talk of an American attack as a chance to break the stalemate, the jihadist groups among them see things through a very different prism, in which my enemy's enemy is not necessarily my friend.
All across the north, al-Qaida and its affiliates are on a war footing; a rank and file convinced that an old foe is coming their way and that if and when the US air force does attack, they will have little trouble staying out of its way.
"There are many among us [who] fought in Iraq and Afghanistan," said a second jihadist, a 26-year-old softly spoken Saudi, who called himself Abu Abid. "Our emir knows how to deal with them. And all know that while the Americans say they want to attack the regime, we are their real enemy."
Abu Abid was speaking inside a roadhouse east of Aleppo, where he and other jihadists whom he says "come from every country you could imagine" gather to eat, and drink tea or coffee.
Dressed in an olive green dishdasha and turban, draped with a cow leather ammunition belt, he would have been an oddity in most other Syrian restaurants. But not here, where prim waiters move efficiently between tables of bearded strangers dressed for jihad; some in black pants and gowns, others wearing billowing robes and bandanas.
Kalashnikovs are laid across tables next to salt and pepper shakers, which the waiters gently rearrange to serve plates of grilled chicken and salads. "Let him have it," joked one hulking Libyan as a waiter shifted a rifle to find space for a plate of hummous. "We can take him outside and show him how to use it."
The four men around him, jihadists from elsewhere in the Arab world, laughed among themselves and looked around to see another group enter. They too had come from far away for jihad — first against the Assad regime and now the US, again.
At a table down the hall, a group of Free Syrian Army fighters were enjoying a late lunch beside an olive grove, wondering out loud what regime targets the US would go for and revelling in the discomfort of the jihadists, whom they felt had ridden roughshod over their war in recent months. "I don't care if the Americans attack them too," said one of the men, whose unit has been joined by the jihadists in several battles. "I'd like that in fact. They need to be scared of someone." The table erupted in laughter, before the men calmed themselves. "I hope the Americans know where their headquarters are," said one.
Business is better at the restaurant than at any point since the start of the civil war, said the owner, who did not want to be named. "They are always polite and they always leave a tip. They just don't want the narghilas (water pipes smoked by locals) anywhere near them."
Outside a recently empty car park is crawling with trucks. The highway, for much of the past year as long, straight and empty as an airport runway, is a bustling thoroughfare of dilapidated trucks and clapped out motorbikes – the favourite form of transport for jihadists and regular fighters alike, who ride in pairs, guns slung across their backs.
The highway leads past a bomb-pocked concrete plant to the town of al-Bab, roughly 25 miles north-east of Aleppo and an opposition stronghold for the past 14 months. Here the evolution of Syria's civil war is written in paint on the walls of schools, civic buildings and advertising hoardings, hijacked by myriad players intent on leaving their mark.
The black banner of al-Qaida, adopted by ISIS, is more prominent in al-Bab than the gold-edged flag of the other al-Qaida-linked group, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the regular units of the Free Syrian Army.
"We don't like it this way," said a local man, Abu Nashat, pointing at a school wall that had been white-washed and then emblazoned with two giant al-Qaida logos. "But who is going to take them on over a tin of paint? We already have a big fight on our hands against the regime. Opening a new battle is not something to do lightly."
Behind two wrought-iron gates was the ISIS command centre, emptied of most of its men before the anticipated air strikes. Two young boys stood guard, their heads swathed in bandanas, their pants cut at ankle length in the manner of the men they emulate.
New-found authority resonates from the commandeered schoolyard. And ISIS members have not been shy in asserting their will here, or elsewhere in northern Syria, where an internecine struggle is in danger of eclipsing the reason for the war. "They think everyone who doesn't think and act like them is an infidel who needs to be punished," said a young fighter from the Liwa al-Tawheed Brigade – a mainstream militia – who ran a clothes shop before the conflict. "While they may have learned how to fight the Americans, they haven't learned anything else from Iraq."
One lesson from Iraq, however, is embraced by many Syrians: the Awakening Movement, also known as the Sahawa, that drove al-Qaida out of Anbar province in 2007.
"We need the same thing here," said a senior member of the Liwa al-Tawheed. "They want to kidnap this revolution. Maybe they already have. But don't mistake all the black flags you see for community support. We just don't have the stomach to fight them now. And who could we hope to support us even if we did? America? Europe? Shame on them. Do they not see that Syria will drag down the whole Middle East?"
ISIS's leader, Abu Ismail sees little threat from an Awakening Movement in Syria. Himself an Iraqi, a veteran of al-Qaida's operations in his homeland, he said: "We are good with the people here. If an emir does something wrong he will be punished according to the sharia too. There is not one rule for us and one for the people. A Sahawa is not something that we think about."
When the Guardian spoke to Abu Ismail last November he was a new arrival to the Liwa al-Tawheed, which, though Islamic, fights for a new leadership in Syria and broadly embraces the worldview of the Free Syrian Army. With his new status as local emir, or prince, he claims that momentum for a regional jihad – which aims to install a strict interpretation of sharia law and create a caliphate on a crumbling nation state – is building. "If you control this part of Syria, you control all the Middle East," he said.
"The fight here is more difficult than Iraq. We have the regime, Hezbollah, the Lebanese army, the Shabiha, the Shia mercenaries, Iran, all of them fighting us. And now maybe the Americans. We know how to defeat their air force. We know how to manoeuvre and hide from them. Their number one goal is to prevent the mujahideen getting access to strategic weapons. The planned attack on Assad is a pretence to attack us."
In Aleppo city, where the influence of ISIS has also risen – at the expense of rival jihadist group, Jabhat al-Nusra – preparations are well underway for a US strike. Outside the group's main base – which ISIS took over from al-Nusra in May – a fighter sat on an anti-aircraft gun truck, two turrets pointing towards a vacant blue sky. Two other men pushed children away from a corner near what the group calls its green zone. More fighters were hidden behind canopies and car wrecks near by.
As Obama ponders, al-Qaida and its affiliates are less visible in the north than recently. Checkpoints they set up on main roads are empty now or manned by cadres who do very little checking. "What emerges after the Americans are finished with Bashar and maybe al-Qaida will tell us whether we are on our own until we perish," said the Liwa al-Tawheed leader. "Or whether the world now knows that if either of these two win, we all lose."
He looked into his hands, inhaled deeply and asked: "Do you think we should evacuate our homes too? We hear a lot of talk about drones. Maybe the Americans truly don't know who their friends are. To them, we are all the same. People to demonise and ignore."
**************Assad did not order Syria chemical weapons attack, says German press
Bild am Sonntag cites high-level German surveillance source suggesting Syrian president was not personally behind attacks
Simon Tisdall and Josie Le Blond in Berlin
The Guardian, Monday 9 September 2013
President Bashar al-Assad did not personally order last month's chemical weapons attack near Damascus that has triggered calls for US military intervention, and blocked numerous requests from his military commanders to use chemical weapons against regime opponents in recent months, a German newspaper has reported , citing unidentified, high-level national security sources.
The intelligence findings were based on phone calls intercepted by a German surveillance ship operated by the BND, the German intelligence service, and deployed off the Syrian coast, Bild am Sonntag said. The intercepted communications suggested Assad, who is accused of war crimes by the west, including foreign secretary William Hague, was not himself involved in last month's attack or in other instances when government forces have allegedly used chemical weapons.
Assad sought to exonerate himself from the August attack in which hundreds died. "There has been no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people," he said in an interview with CBS.
But the intercepts tended to add weight to the claims of the Obama administration and Britain and France that elements of the Assad regime, and not renegade rebel groups, were responsible for the attack in the suburb of Ghouta, Bild said.
President Barack Obama is urging the US Congress to approve military action to deter the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons and degrade its ability to pursue the two-and-a-half-year civil war against rebel forces.
But Obama is facing stiff resistance from Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives, who fear involvement in another Middle East war, and from Assad's main ally, Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has said any military strikes conducted without prior UN approval would be illegal.
Speaking in Paris on Sunday during a European tour to rally support for military action, John Kerry, US secretary of state, said Washington did not rule out a return to the UN security council to seek backing for military strikes, once UN inspectors have completed an on-the-ground investigation of the 21 August attack. Their report is expected by the end of the week.
Obama's main European ally, François Hollande of France, is under increasing pressure to seek a UN mandate for any military action in the face of opinion polls suggesting up to 64% of French people oppose air strikes. In a bid to gain the support of fellow EU countries, Hollande pledged at the weekend to take the UN investigatory report into consideration before acting. Hollande also suggested he might seek a UN resolution, despite previous Russian and Chinese vetoes.
"On President Hollande's comments with respect to the UN, the president (Obama), and all of us, are listening carefully to all of our friends," Kerry said after meeting Arab League ministers. "No decision has been made by the president."
"All of us agreed – not one dissenter – that Assad's deplorable use of chemical weapons, which we know killed hundreds of innocent people … this crosses an international, global red line," Kerry said.
Kerry's meeting with Arab ministers, including from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, followed talks in Lithuania with European foreign ministers, who blamed the attack in Syria on Assad but, aware of overwhelming public hostility to an attack, refused to endorse military action. Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, who faces a general election in two weeks, led the charge to caution.
Only 12 of the G20 countries which held a summit in Russia last week have backed the US position.
The German intelligence findings concerning Assad's personal role may complicate US-led efforts to persuade the international community that punitive military action is justified. They could also strengthen suspicions that Assad no longer fully controls the country's security apparatus.
Addressing a closed meeting of the German parliamentary committee last week, the BND chief Gerhard Schindler said his agency shared the US view that the attack had been launched by the regime and not the rebels. But he said the spy agency had not have conclusive evidence either way, German media reported.
Schindler said that BND had intercepted a telephone call in which a high-ranking member of Hezbollah in Lebanon told the Iranian embassy in Damascus that Assad had made a big mistake when he gave the order to use the chemicals, the magazine Der Spiegel said.
Schindler added that German intelligence believed Assad would likely remain in power for some time – irrespective of any potential US-led military intervention - and that the civil war could drag on for years.
***************We must end this UN 'paralysis' on Syria
Calls for security council backing on Syria make little sense while Russia can so easily block action
Sunday 8 September 2013 20.30 BST
One thing was clear from the diplomatic disaster of the G20 summit in St Petersburg: western leaders are fed up with what Barack Obama called the "paralysis" afflicting the United Nations as it gazes on impotently at an unfolding human tragedy in Syria. So is it too much to hope this latest crisis will finally spark reforms that are so essential and universally acknowledged if this antiquated body is to come close to fulfilling its stated role of keeping peace around the planet?
For more than two years, the security council has been stuck in stalemate. On one side is Russia, resolute in support of a regime spending so much money on its weaponry, aided and abetted by China. On the other are three democracies, desperate to see redress against a despot inflicting misery on his people. So as global tensions rise, the UN stands on the sidelines doing virtually nothing, even after the use of chemical weapons.
David Cameron pointed out in St Petersburg the pusillanimity of countries saying they oppose intervention in Syria without the backing of the UN, secure in the knowledge Russia and China will block any action with their veto. Personally, I oppose western military engagement there – but it is hard to argue with the prime minister when he questions the idea of "contracting out foreign policy and morality" to countries with such soiled records on democracy, human rights and self-determination.
Should a corrupt oligarchy have carte blanche in perpetuity to determine the rules of international engagement? And indeed, do we deserve a permanent seat round the table as our power wanes and we demonstrate a new reluctance to engage in punishing those who break global rules on war? Especially when there is no such authority given to the world's biggest democracy, India, or to a Muslim nation, or any of the 54 countries in Africa whose continent accounts for more than three-quarters of the council's debates.
The five nations with permanent places and power to wield the veto reflect the postwar world of 1945, when the security council was created by the 50 countries then in the club, not the world of today when the UN has almost four times as many member states. This means Russia, Britain and France have for decades dictated to the rest of the world how to behave – along with China under Mao, or even the US under Bush for that matter – while there are 70 nations that have never been elected for even the two-year temporary term.
This structure is anachronistic, insulting, unrepresentative and diminishes moral authority; one recent president of the general assembly admitted the Syrian crisis exposed how such an outdated set-up is no longer fit for purpose. Those calling for reform include the US president and his ambassador to the UN, along with Sergei Lavrov, the veteran Russian foreign minister; it was even in the Conservative manifesto at the last election.
It is one thing to accept the need for change, quite another to achieve it in such a crucial and status-laden forum. Such is its influence, one study found, temporary membership leads to a 59% boost in aid from the United States alone, the sums soaring in years when tensions rise and votes are most valuable. Previous reform attempts have hit the rocks of geopolitical reality and been dragged down by national rivalries; China, for example, objects to Japanese membership while African nations squabble over their rightful candidate.
The most hopeful solution is to bring in a second tier of permanent members, then slowly strip away the right to veto of the fractious five through majority voting. And it would be good – although almost certainly impossible – to have a bar on countries that display contempt for universal human rights. It is grotesque, for instance, to see Rwanda stirring up trouble again in its ravaged neighbour while having the current right to adjudicate over intervention in Syria. It has already used its temporary post to block sanctions on its bloodstained proxies in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Russia has used its privileged position to protect Bashar al-Assad by ensuring diplomatic deadlock, an echo of the cold war when use of the veto was more common. So the crisis, the carnage, the chaos have grown worse – along with the dangers of conflagration. As relations between the west and Russia return to the deep freeze, the one good thing that could emerge from the nightmare engulfing Syria would be strengthening of UN authority through reform of the security council.
September 8, 2013After Bold Step on Syria, French Leader Finds Himself Dismissed as Lackey
By SUZANNE DALEY
PARIS — As portrayed in a satirical television show here this week, President François Hollande is left behind to hold President Obama’s coat while the American leader and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia hold private talks. Mr. Hollande gullibly concludes he is playing a key role.
Later in the show, “Les Guignols de L’Info,” a rough French equivalent of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” Mr. Hollande is seen interrupting a visit to a school to ask Mr. Obama’s permission to use the bathroom.
If Mr. Hollande ever thought that his decision to stand steadfast alongside the United States in backing a retaliatory strike against Syria would give him new stature on the global stage or help him at home, the last week has been a sharp shock.
Public opinion is running strongly against him; a poll published this weekend in the conservative daily newspaper Le Figaro showed about two-thirds of the French opposed to military action against Syria. There are growing demands that he grant Parliament a vote on the matter, and considerable speculation that he could lose if he did.
The White House is doing its best to buttress Mr. Hollande — Secretary of State John Kerry, on a visit here this weekend, used a televised appearance to make the case, in French, that failure to act would be akin to the Munich Agreement of 1938, in which Britain and France sought to appease Hitler by allowing him to control the Sudetenland. But the French president is learning, like British leaders before him, that close alignment with Washington carries as much risk of looking weak as opportunity to look strong.
Earlier this year the French marveled when Mr. Hollande, inexperienced in foreign policy, weighed down by economic woes and often seen as vacillating, executed a swift and successful military strike in Mali. They rewarded him with an increase, though fleeting, in his usually dismal approval ratings.
This time around, so far at least, he has not received even that brief benefit.
Mr. Hollande is facing an avalanche of sometimes contradictory criticism from left and right: that he is acting rashly in committing France to military action; that he is being too timid in awaiting the go-ahead from the United States and the United Nations; that he needs to heed public and parliamentary opinion and that he needs to assert the traditionally broad powers of the French president to employ the armed forces without parliamentary approval.
Perhaps most of all, he is being criticized for failing a basic test of French politics — protecting the country’s pride. Having quickly agreed to join in a military action, France is now forced to wait on the sidelines while Congress debates whether to give its approval. Mr. Hollande’s critics say he looks like a lackey.
Even some who have endorsed a military strike have taken Mr. Hollande to task for his handling of the issue. A front-page editorial in Le Figaro by Paul-Henri du Limbert said that no one could criticize Mr. Hollande for wanting to face down barbarity, but nonetheless his strategy left something to be desired. The president, he said, had somehow managed to “throw a spotlight on his own powerlessness.”
“It is a singular situation,” Mr. du Limbert concluded. “but no one can expect that France will come out of it looking stronger. “
To some degree, Mr. Hollande’s decision to stand with the United States and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain in calling for a military strike against Syria to “punish” the Assad government for a chemical weapons attack is well in line with French tradition.
French troops were gassed in World War I and France has been long been active in trying to ban such weapons. Mr. Hollande’s Socialist Party is generally sympathetic to humanitarian intervention in the case of atrocities.
Under President Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr. Hollande’s predecessor, France sought closer ties with Syria, and invited President Bashar al-Assad to Bastille Day celebrations at the Élysée Palace. As a result a number of business agreements were forged between the two countries, most of which have dissolved since the violence erupted.
France has other reasons to care about what happens in Syria, including protecting neighboring Lebanon, a former French mandate. It is also being pressed by allies including Saudi Arabia to see the conflict in Syria as part of a broader proxy fight over Iran. Mr. Kerry said Sunday that he had received assurances of Saudi support for a strike on Syria.
But for Mr. Hollande, as for Mr. Obama and Mr. Cameron, almost nothing on this issue has unfolded smoothly or quickly.
Under pressure to win more support from other European countries, Mr. Hollande has now said any action should await the completion of a report by United Nations weapons inspectors on the apparent gas attacks, which took place near Damascus last month and according to American intelligence reports killed more than 1,400 people. When he succumbed to pressure to hold a debate on the matter in Parliament, opponents across the ideological spectrum brought up many of the same concerns being discussed in Britain and the United States.
“There was a contagion effect from what was going on in the U.S.,” said Hubert Védrine, a former French former minister who is member of Mr. Hollande’s party. “And people became very aware that Syria is not Mali. And suddenly there were some very difficult questions being discussed. Can we do it? Is it legitimate to do it? Will it achieve anything?”
Mr. Hollande’s supporters say he could hardly have anticipated this turn of events, especially Mr. Obama’s decision to seek legislative approval.
“What we have seen in recent years is American presidents trying to get more powers for themselves,” said one former adviser to Mr. Sarkozy, who declined to be named because he did not want to look like he was meddling in Mr. Hollande’s affairs. “So, I think it natural that it surprised Hollande that Obama would do something like that.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Hollande now faces a Parliament empowered by public opinion, with some members, including his own supporters, still calling for a vote on the issue. Some have suggested that polling the Parliament could even present Mr. Hollande with a deft way of reasserting France’s independence.
Noël Mamère, a prominent member of the Green Party who supports Mr. Hollande’s stance, said he wanted the French Parliament to hold a vote on the same timetable as the United States Congress.
“I think that is a way to show that we are deciding on our own,” he said.
Scott Sayare and Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting.
09/09/2013 01:10 PMLooming US Attack: Syria's Christians Caught in the Crossfire
By Raniah Salloum in Harissa
They fled from the bitter conflict because they fear the rebels yet can expect no assistance from Assad. Now many of Syria's Christians are stranded in Lebanon, and are answering the call of the Pope by praying for their country -- and that the US military intervention does not come.
They have followed the Pope's call to pray for Syria. But some do not seem entirely convinced. "Look, there aren't even any special security precautions, I don't believe it!" says the young Lebanese woman, as she climbs the stairs to the cathedral from Harissa. The hilltop village lies about 30 kilometers north of Beirut and hosts a famous pilgrimage site, Our Lady of Lebanon. It is considered one of the country's landmarks. You can see the 13-ton white statute from miles around.
The absence of any security personnel checking pockets and bags is indeed conspicuous these days in Lebanon, where people live in the shadow of the big neighbor Syria. Bombings are becoming more frequent also in Lebanon. So far, the attacks have been targeted at Sunnis and Shiites, but the Christians are particularly nervous. They're concerned at the increasingly Islamist tone of the rebels in Syria. They think their way of life will be in danger sooner or later.
In the parking lot in front of the cathedral are four friends, Tony, Jenny, George and Mark. They do not want to give their surnames. They are a bit uneasy talking to Western journalists. The three men are wearing neatly ironed shirts, Jenny a short summer dress. They have come with their families to answer the Pope's call. "We want to pray for Syria. Apart from that, we cannot do anything," says George.
The four are Syrian Christians and know each other from Aleppo, where they were neighbors. Some 14 months ago, when the Syrian civil war reached their town, they each packed a large suitcase and took the next flight to Beirut. Two or three months later, the next big wave of their former neighbors arrived from Aleppo, Jenny says. All of them Christians. "Anyone who could, left," she says.
A Threat to Their Good Old Life
Most Christians, in Lebanon as in Syria, oppose the Syrian rebels. Tony, Jenny, George and Mark resolutely support President Bashar Assad. Before the uprising the four friends were part of Aleppo's upper class. For them, the rebels are barbarians that threaten the way they live. It is a perspective that they share with upper class Sunnis.
Many Christians find themselves once again caught in the middle. In Lebanon, not all of them are completely supportive of the Syrian regime. Too many of them had bad experiences with the Assad clan during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon from 1976 to 2005. But the rebels are not an alternative for them. They look upon the potential US military intervention with mixed feelings. Tony, George, Mark and Jenny completely oppose it.
"The world must prevent America from bombarding the Syrian army," says George. "These are our soldiers. They fight for us against the terrorists."
Jenny has found a job in Lebanon as head of a school for Syrian refugees. George, Mark and Tony live on their savings. All three were pharmaceutical drug manufacturers. Before the war, Aleppo was known for its pharma industry. "Our house is still untouched," says George, "but my warehouses were looted." "We have all lost our businesses," says Tony.
"When was Lebanon Ever Stable?"
The four Syrians do not feel completely at home in Lebanon. None of them have Lebanese friends; they hang out with each other. Many Lebanese people resent the millions of Syrians who have come to the small country to flee the war, says George.
Tony fears more violence. "When was Lebanon ever stable?" he asks. "We just want a place where our children can grow up in safety," says Jenny.
If the four could, they would gladly move to the West with their families. But they do not have the necessary visas. The immigration policies of some European countries, among them Germany, give preference to Christians over other Syrians when it comes to asylum, but they are skeptical.
"This is an attempt by the Europeans to drive a wedge between us and our government," says Jenny. "They want to turn us Christians against Bashar Assad, but we will not. Bashar protects us."
Speaking the Language of Jesus
"We have heard what happened at Maalula," says George. He firmly believes the terrible stories that are being told about the ancient Christian city. A few days ago, rebels briefly advanced into the center of Maalula. The city, along with some adjacent Sunni villages, is one of the few places where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken.
Maalula provides an example of how Christians are being exploited in the Syrian civil war. Shortly after the rebels marched in, the Syrian state broadcaster reported that they desecrated the churches and destroyed shrines.
But then a senior nun at the Thekla Convent in Maalula contradicted the reports and said the rebels had not damaged the shrines. A Christian resident told the Reuters news agency: "We must remain fair. They do not seem to have looted churches or houses." In video footage showing the city and rebels after the occupation, no damage to the churches can be seen.
For several days now, the Syrian army has been deployed in Maalula with tanks and artillery. Damascus will pin the blame for the resulting damage on the rebels and they in turn will blame the regime.
Both sides in the Syrian civil war know how important the Christians' situation is in influencing the mood in the West. Therefore, the regime regularly devises horror scenarios of desecrated churches and massacred Christians -- while the Syrian opposition draws up lists of the churches damaged by shelling from Assad's military and accuses the regime of kidnapping bishops. Who is responsible for what gets lost in the turmoil of war and the polarized political atmosphere of faith.