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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1006132 times)
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« Reply #9090 on: Oct 03, 2013, 06:04 AM »

Ireland: the Seanad needs reform, but not abolition

If the Irish people truly wish to hold their politicians to account, they should vote no on Friday, and demand real reform instead

Neil Brady, Thursday 3 October 2013 09.16 BST   
If the UK electorate had the opportunity to vote the House of Lords out of existence would they do it? The Irish are being given a chance to do the equivalent in a constitutional referendum next Friday. At the time of writing, the upper house – the Seanad – looks as if it is to be consigned to history with the polls showing a clear majority for abolition.

It will probably come as a surprise to many in Britain that the Republic actually has a second chamber. But the Seanad has given Ireland some of its most high-profile political figures, including Mary Robinson, Garret FitzGerald and Conor Cruise O'Brien. Nobel prizewinner WB Yeats was a senator. So, too, was playwright Brian Friel. Many of the country's leading academics and scientists have served in the upper house too.

It may also come as a surprise that in the aftermath of its economic crisis, facilitated by "light touch regulation", the Irish government is pursuing a course that would appear to involve less accountability and parliamentary oversight rather than more. How has this happened?

The Seanad has been crying out for reform for decades. Its membership is partly hand-picked by the taoiseach of the day and partly elected from a series of vocational and educational panels, including the two oldest universities, Trinity and the National University of Ireland. Former tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Michael McDowell (who is opposed to its abolition) describes it as "somewhere between a creche and a nursing home" for politicians either on their way into or out of the Dáil (the lower house).

There have been no fewer than 11 reports recommending change, none of which have been implemented. Taoiseach Enda Kenny first floated abolition in 2009. He has argued that there is money to be saved by abolishing the upper house but it has proven impossible to verify the amount. He describes it as a first step towards tackling other vested interests in the political system. Irish voters, understandably bitter after half a decade of austerity and eager for politicians' heads to roll, look set to take the bait.

Most political theorists hold the view that small, homogeneous countries such as Ireland are best served by unicameral legislatures. Ireland is somewhat exceptional in this regard. Classical political theory advocated second chambers on the basis that they brought wisdom and specialist knowledge to the lawmaking process. But the historical justification for Ireland's second chamber was largely that it provided a voice for minorities, notably the Protestant minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic state. In a largely post-religious society that argument has probably lost most of its validity. But as the US hits political gridlock over the debt ceiling yet again, can it really be said that there is any "right" system as such?

The Labour peer Lord Hattersley was in Dublin last week, and told the Irish Times that while the Seanad had produced many figures of consequence (as has the Lords), its undemocratic nature renders it effectively redundant. If Hattersley had a vote he would have to cast it for abolition. And yet he acknowledged the value of the independent, informed scrutiny that an upper chamber can and does provide. The disproportionate power of the executive to stifle debate is a widely recognised shortcoming of the Dáil, most starkly illustrated by Kenny's recent refusal to permit a free vote among his party colleagues on the contentious matter of abortion.

The main opposition party, Fianna Fáil, is arguing for retention and reform of the upper house, as is the Green party. So, too, are many of the country's leading university teachers. Forty of them signed a letter to the Irish Times during the week. Perhaps most tellingly, the government finds itself supported in its proposal for abolition by Sinn Féin.

The current proposal has everything to do with German austerity policies and popular politics, and nothing to do with real reform. If the Irish people truly wish to hold their politicians to account they will vote no on Friday, and demand better.

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« Reply #9091 on: Oct 03, 2013, 06:07 AM »

Ukraine police and protesters clash in Kiev

Police fire teargas at activists after officers were injured in scuffles and one was dragged into the crowd and beaten

AP, Kiev, Wednesday 2 October 2013 18.29 BST   

Police fired teargas on Wednesday to disperse opposition activists protesting outside city hall in the Ukrainian capital following scuffles that injured four officers.

Kiev police chief Valery Koryak said that police used the teargas after one officer was dragged into the crowd and beaten. The officer was hospitalised with a head injury, while another three officers were also hurt in the violence.

About 200 opposition demonstrators had gathered outside the Kiev city hall to protest against a court ruling extending the authority of the current city legislature. The opposition is pushing for a vote to elect a new legislature.

The skirmishes erupted when several opposition members of the national parliament tried to enter the building and were turned away by police.

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« Reply #9092 on: Oct 03, 2013, 06:16 AM »

October 2, 2013

Cameron Rallies Tories as Labour Attacks Pile Up


LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a blistering attack on the Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, for his left-wing policies on Wednesday. But it was nothing compared with the Conservative-leaning Daily Mail’s description of Mr. Miliband’s father as an unreconstructed Marxist “who hated Britain.”

Mr. Cameron closed the annual Conservative Party conference with a speech mocking “Red Ed and his Blue Peter economy,” a reference to a children’s television program and Mr. Miliband’s plans to freeze energy prices. But it was a far cry from implying that Mr. Miliband was on a secret mission from his father to undermine the country and move it toward Stalinism, as the Daily Mail broadly suggested.

Unfortunately for Mr. Cameron, who has been trying to energize his party for the general election due in 18 months, the newspaper and its editor, Paul Dacre, who are putative allies of the Conservatives, gave Mr. Miliband days of publicity that took attention away from the Cameron message.

The attack allowed Mr. Miliband to mount an emotional defense of his father, a Jewish immigrant who enlisted in the Royal Navy to fight the Nazis; he later became a respected university professor and left-wing theorist, and died in 1994.

Even Mr. Cameron acknowledged some sympathy with Mr. Miliband and his anguished reaction to the attack. “If anyone had a go at my father, I would want to respond vigorously,” he said.

The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, of the Liberal Democrats, chose a sporting metaphor to support Mr. Miliband, writing on Twitter: “Politics should be about playing the ball, not the man, certainly not the man’s family.”

Mr. Cameron had few new policies to announce on Wednesday. But as expected, his tone was decidedly to the right, intended to rally his party and attract voters who may be leaning toward the United Kingdom Independence Party, which is anti-Europe and anti-immigrant. In his remarks, Mr. Cameron emphasized his government’s efforts to limit immigration and toughen welfare requirements, and hinted that more was to come.

“This is what we want to see: everyone under 25 earning or learning,” he said, suggesting that if the Conservatives win another term, young Britons might be denied welfare payments if they refused to take up offers of work, training or education. This week, the chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced plans to make the long-term unemployed do community work to continue receiving benefits.

At the conference in Manchester, Mr. Cameron said “the land of despair is Labour,” with its “1970s-style socialism,” while “the land of hope is Tory.” He said the government would continue to cut spending and debt. “To abandon deficit reduction now would throw away all the progress we have made,” he said.

Acknowledging that for many Britons, “these past few years have been a real struggle,” he said that “the struggle will only be worth it if we, as a country, finish the job we started.”

Mr. Cameron painted Mr. Miliband as a throwback to an outdated Socialism that the party had seemed to abandon under Tony Blair. But Mr. Miliband won the sympathy vote after the Daily Mail attack, even from a former Conservative cabinet minister, Michael Heseltine, who told the BBC that the newspaper was “carrying politics to an extent that is just demeaning, frankly.”

A column by Geoffrey Levy in Saturday’s Daily Mail cited a diary entry Ralph Miliband made at 17 during World War II, in which he despaired at the complacency of the British and their mistrust of foreigners. He wrote that they were “perhaps the most nationalist people in the world,” adding that “you sometimes want them almost to lose, to show them how things are.”

Britain nearly did lose the war, but the elder Mr. Miliband did his part, volunteering in the navy. His son wrote an anguished reply to the column in the Daily Mail on Tuesday, defending his father and saying, “Fierce debate about politics does not justify character assassination of my father.” He added, “To ignore his service and work in Britain and build an entire case about him hating our country on an adolescent diary entry is, of course, absurd.”

The rift comes at a delicate time, with discussions scheduled for next week on proposals to tighten regulation of the press after an inquiry into a scandal over phone-tapping by reporters, most notably those from Rupert Murdoch’s news media empire.

Though the main political parties have agreed on a plan, Britain’s newspapers have put forward their own blueprint, and the fate of that initiative may be decided next week. Mr. Miliband criticized Mr. Murdoch during the phone-tapping saga, and now has been pushed into a confrontation with The Daily Mail.

Education Minister Michael Gove, a former journalist, gave a more equivocal view on Wednesday. “While we respect Ed Miliband’s right to stick up for his father — and I don’t think any of us would want to be in anything other than the position he is in of standing by our family — it is also the case that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to think that politicians should have a right to regulate or second-guess what happens in the papers,” he said.

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« Reply #9093 on: Oct 03, 2013, 06:27 AM »


Greenpeace activists are not pirates. Even Pig Putin knows that

The Arctic Sunrise drilling protesters are being tied up in legal red tape. But if global civil society makes a stink, Russia won't get away with it

John Sauven, Thursday 3 October 2013 10.12 BST       

Twenty-eight Greenpeace activists from 18 different countries, and two independent journalists, have been charged in Russia with piracy with a maximum 15 years in prison. This is despite president Putin saying last week: "Obviously, they are not pirates". But what is obvious to Putin, speaking in front of the world's press at an Arctic Forum, may become obscured within the labyrinth of the Russian legal system.

Greenpeace has been taking direct action at sea for 42 years and in the Russian Arctic for over three decades, campaigning against whaling, nuclear testing and more recently oil drilling. During that time, Greenpeace activists have never committed any acts of violence or theft. Trying to argue that the crew of a Greenpeace ship are not pirates feels more than a little surreal, like defending Mother Teresa against drunk and disorderly charges. But this Kafkaesque nightmare is concretely and unpleasantly real for the brave individuals who care enough about our world to bear witness to what is currently happening in the Arctic.

Applying piracy legislation to peaceful protesters exposes the nakedness of the prosecuting emperor. The piracy accusations are the Russian version of a strategic lawsuit against public participation (Slapp). These vexatious legal cases are popular around the world with corporations and governments who want to silence their critics with legal red tape. Gazprom doesn't want attention drawn to its reckless endangerment of the Russian Arctic and our shared climate, as they tow rusting drill rigs up into the world's most hostile seas. And in Russia, state-owned Gazprom tends to get what Gazprom wants. The Russian prosecutors are trying to scare activists away from Gazprom, and away from bearing witness to what is happening in the Arctic. If President Putin means what he says that Greenpeace activists "aren't pirates", then he should act now to end this farce.

Greenpeace is tenacious, and we're not likely to accept that Gazprom and its western partner in the Russian Arctic – Shell – have commercial interests that outweigh our need for a stable climate. The kind of person who volunteers to sail to the Arctic ocean to bear witness is not the kind of person who scares easily. But activists, and civil society more generally, can only function with public support. If global civil society is willing to tolerate these absurd charges of piracy, then Russia's actions will be legitimised. A dozen other governments around the world will sit up and take notice. The lesson they learn will be that they can silence their critics and protect the oil barons from public scrutiny with a lot more ferocity, and a lot less legality, than they had previously thought.

I would like to thank the hundreds of thousands of supporters who have been doing so much to help and protect our activists over the last week, your voices are their best defence. But we need everyone who cares about protecting civil society to speak out now.


British filmmaker charged with piracy alongside Greenpeace drilling activists

Journalist filming Arctic drilling protest for Greenpeace among six charged by Russian authorities

Sam Jones, Wednesday 2 October 2013 16.36 BST

One of six charged Britons from the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise – seized by Russian coastguards in the Pechora sea after activists tried to scale Gazprom's Prirazlomnoye offshore oil rig – is Kieron Bryan, a 29-year-old freelance video producer.

He had been hired by Greenpeace to document its work on Russia's oil exploration in the Arctic Circle.

Bryan, who studied journalism at Sheffield university, worked for the Times for three years before leaving at the end of 2012.

On Wednesday, his parents said they were extremely worried about their son and stressed that he had been on the ship in his role as a journalist.

Andy and Ann Bryan, from Shebbear, Devon, said: "Our son is a very kind, caring individual and environmental issues have always been very close to his heart. He would sympathise with the cause but he was simply there doing his job as a freelance videographer."

A university friend of Bryan described him as both a dedicated journalist and committed environmentalist.

"He's always been interested in environmental issues and would always be up on the latest bit of research on fracking, shale gas or offshore drilling. He's a journalist who wants to be there for big moments, like when he went over to the US to cover the 2008 and 2012 elections. He was delighted to be working with Greenpeace on an issue close to his heart."

Bryan, he said, was also a man who lived according to his beliefs. "He's a genuine, sincere, person who takes his views on climate change seriously. For example, when we were having a uni reunion in Belfast he took a train and then an eight-hour ferry ride instead of going on a domestic flight.

"The thought that tonight he'll be in a Russian prison rather than playing in our seven-a-side football team because he was doing his job is shocking."

A spokesman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said it was in contact with the Britons detained in Murmansk and was providing consular assistance.


Drilling in the Arctic - what is the environmental impact?

Greenpeace activists have been charged with piracy for their protest on a Gazprom oil rig. But what are they protesting about and what is the justification for their claims? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.
Karl Mathiesen, Wednesday 2 October 2013 18.48 BST   

What are the risks of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic? What are the risks of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic?

My verdict

Greenpeace's assertion that the drilling industry is unprepared, in fact unable, to clean up a major Arctic oil spill is resoundingly seconded by scientists. We do not have the technology, nor the infrastructure, to deal with the specific challenges of a disaster in this region.

But Arctic oil extraction is in no way a new thing. Statoil has been operating in ice-free areas of the Arctic circle for 20 years. This means the industry has developed certain technologies which help it to avert accidents. It also means that there are places in the Arctic that are safer to drill than others.

Oil exploration in the north is driven by the demands of the market. But the market is sending mixed messages. On one hand are high costs, questions over technology, competition from other energy resources and geopolitical uncertainty. On the other hand is the world's insatiable hunger for energy. These combine to make Arctic oil a mercurial economic proposal. Although countries like Russia have more to gain in the region than others.

A key point is that controlling the Arctic future and ensuring good practice will require transparency on the part of drillers. A questionable prospect with companies such as Gazprom and Rosneft. The adversarial actions of Greenpeace could have two opposing effects. They may force accountability on oil companies, but they may also serve to drive them further into the dark.

On a slightly different note, many of the comments today have focussed on the piracy charges against the Greenpeace protesters rather than the question of the audit. This raises a question about whether the civil liberties case of the activists has obscured the environmental message.

Today's resounding (and scary) scientific consensus is that an oil spill in the Arctic is inevitable if drilling progresses. If this is so, shouldn't we support research into safer practices? Or should we simply be pulling out of the region altogether.

How we clean up an oil spill is a very different issue to how we supply the energy demands of the future. But in the Arctic these two questions collide. Climate change, contributed to by fossil fuel emissions, opens up new regions for the extraction of more fossil fuels. It's a catch-22 that can only be solved by a halt to drilling. Greenpeace have obviously become an effective thorn in the side of big Arctic oil. But realpolitik and the market may well decide the future of the north, rather than a protest movement.

Updated at 7.32am BST

5.45pm BST
For the record

I approached Shell, BP and Cairn Energy about their past operations and future plans in the Arctic. All of them declined to comment saying they were not currently drilling in the region.

5.38pm BST
From the environmental audit committee

Parliamentary green watchdog, the environmental audit committee, produced a report last year on the impact of climate change on the Arctic and the safety of oil and gas drilling in the region.

The committee said:

    It [the report] concluded that the lack of proven oil spill response techniques makes exploring for new reserves in the extreme Arctic environment needlessly risky. The MPs also pointed out that the world already has more proven oil and gas reserves than can be burnt without exceeding a global average temperature rise of 2 degrees – widely regarded as a dangerous threshold.

    The report called for a moratorium on Arctic oil and gas drilling, and challenged the UK government – which supports drilling by UK companies like Shell in the Arctic - to set out how future Arctic oil and gas extraction could be reconciled with its commitment to limit global temperature increases to below 2C.

Joan Walley, chair of the committee, said:

    “Protecting the Arctic should automatically be high on the political agenda. It should not be left to peaceful protesters to insist that risks from oil exploitation in this fragile environment be urgently addressed.

    “There should be informed international dialogue and action and I hope our report and follow up to it can be part of the process for tackling the threats that the Greenpeace protesters have so graphically exposed.”

    “The government has sadly not been very receptive to our recommendations, but did at least acknowledge the need for an Arctic strategy cutting across the remits of all relevant government departments. We will be scrutinising that policy framework carefully when it is produced.”

Updated at 5.49pm BST

5.33pm BST
More scientific reaction

Professor Klaus Dodds, professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway's department of geography, says:

    "... drilling in the Arctic varies so very greatly depending on where you are talking about e.g. Northern Norway is very different to say Alaska. Offshore drilling is less well developed compared to onshore. And places like the Hibernia development is arguably more challenging in the sub-Arctic than parts of the so-called blue Arctic north of Scandinavia ... so geography matters.

    "My own view is that the environmental impact needs to be juxtaposed with social-cultural impact as well as possible benefits. In Greenland, opinion is divided and one thing to be clear on is that northern communities are not always opposed to resource extraction. The issue is sharing and consultation as well as regulation."

Dr Simon Boxall from the University of Southampton says that, at present, Arctic drilling does not have the technology to clean up a spill.

    "Companies will say that it won't happen, we've got so many fail-safes these days that it's a perfectly safe operation. But there's no such thing as a fail-safe. If there was a a fail-safe, we wouldn't have planes crashing... Human error and humans cutting corners means that accidents happen. And there will be a spill in the Arctic. And as with the Gulf of Mexico it'll probably be fumbling in the dark a bit, dealing with it as it happens."

But Boxall says that the Arctic climate means an oil spill in the far north could be much harder to clean up than the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

    "The environment in the tropics and certainly in the Gulf of Mexico is such that nature kicks in and it deals with oil that gets spilt in the tropics very efficiently. Even in fairly temperate climates, bacteria take over and they clean up what we leave behind. Now in the Arctic things are very different. In the Arctic it's much much colder first of all, which means that the whole process takes much longer. So we have a problem, the fact that we are putting our oil in the fridge and that keeps it in its natural state.

    "Problem number two is the spill, when it happens, whether it's from a tanker, whether it's from a drill operation if it's close to the ice edge, will go under the ice and we have no research and no experience with a spill that goes under ice.

    "Problem number three is that we are working in a remote part of the world. In the Gulf of Mexico we are close to big international airports, we can get big heavy equipment in. There are ships sitting there, there's big industry there. There are small ships ready to deal with clean up and that sort of thing. That infrastructure doesn't exist in the Arctic."

Boxall says that the issue is complicated by the need to find new reserves of oil:

    "There are lots of unknowns in terms of what happens. So scientifically, I suppose, our role is to say, what are the problems? What are the solutions? The problems are oil won't break down quickly, it will be diffuclt to tackle and we don't have models and detailed methodology for dealing with oil in that kind of climate. What are the positives? There's lots of oil up there. So it's a balance between are we ready to go oil free yet as a society? And the answer is no. Personally, I'm not a great fan of exploring the Arctic but I can see that there is an imperative almost that if we don't start exploring less suitable places then we are going to run out of oil."

Updated at 5.34pm BST

4.48pm BST
"I have read nothing that makes me feel this issue is properly understood"

Reaction is coming in quickly now so stay tuned for further updates.

The Guardian's energy editor, Terry Macalister, has written extensively on this topic, including an e-book called Polar Opposites, Opportunities and Threats in the Arctic, published last year.

Today he writes of the need for transparency from exploration companies:

    The oil industry is looking down a telescope from the wrong end. To them the Arctic area is just another geological prospect to be looked at like any other. Big Oil has been spurred on by US Geological Surveyors who claim a quarter of the recoverable hydrocarbon reserves may lie there.

    But the far north is a special area - one of the world’s last pieces of wilderness - and should be recognised as such: a priceless environmental gem, like Antarctica which is guarded by international treaty.

    Much of the Arctic is untouched by human footprint and there is an array of unique animal species which live there and are already in danger. The fact that it is one of the places in the world that is most exposed to climate change makes it ironic, if nothing else, that the oil industry is determined to extract more fossil fuels there.

    Drilling for oil is a messy business at the best of times. Look at pictures of the early days of Baku to see what impact it can have on the environment, or more recently of course the beaches off the Gulf of Mexico.

    BP was able to call upon dozens of marine craft to help with the Macondo blowout at short notice. Obtaining the same kind of support would have been much harder had there been an oil spill off Greenland when Cairn Energy was drilling there.

    There are all sorts of special problems that arise with working in the Arctic, not least the exact impact of a crude spill in ice conditions. I have read nothing that makes me feel this issue is properly understood.

    Equally Cairn and the Greenland government both seemed queasy about releasing details in public of oil spill plans. That secrecy gets to the heart of the problems in the far north today.

    The littoral states that surround the Arctic Ocean would like the rest of the world to leave them alone to explore for oil, iron ore or just tourist opportunities, none more so than Russia where the government expects to get its own way on most things and does not recognise any right to scrutiny by outside interests, certainly not environmentalists.

    But if the Arctic is to be left purely to the control of the surrounding countries then they owe the rest of the world one thing at least: transparency. In the absence of this we need someone to act boldly as our eyes and ears: if not Greenpeace then who?

Updated at 5.19pm BST

4.39pm BST
Scientific reaction

Professor Rick Steiner from Oasis Earth Sustainability Consultancy wrote this assessment of what he says are the inherent and unavoidable risks of Arctic exploration. I highly recommend a full read of the document as Steiner goes to the heart of today's Eco Audit question.

    "Put simply oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean cannot be done safely – there will be chronic degradation, there will be spills. So the policy question is whether we wish to expose the Arctic Ocean and its people to such risk.

    "And, perhaps a larger issue is that all of the carbon produced from the Arctic seabed will ultimately be emitted into the global atmosphere and oceans, further compounding climate change that is already devastating the Arctic ecosystem."

3.56pm BST
Reaction from NGOs

Louise Rouse from NGO ShareAction says there are many examples of the oil industry's unpreparedness to move into the challenging Arctic region:

    In the case of Russian Arctic projects, the risks that Shell – one of the most advanced and experienced oil companies in the world – could not successfully navigate are compounded by a lack of relevant experience by the two Russian companies with exclusive rights to drill in the Russian Arctic and with whom international oil companies like Shell are entering into alliances – Rosneft and Gazprom.

    Arctic oil and gas exploration presents new and unique challenges to the oil industry. These challenges are compounded in the Russian Arctic by Gazprom and Rosneft’s lack of experience of offshore projects at senior level, poor environmental and health and safety track records, a lack of transparency in company reporting and questionable corporate practices at board level. These unpredictable and risky corporate practices are compounded by a complex political regime that is currently divided over the future of the Russian energy sector. In this context, the rush to gain access to the Russian Arctic seas through JVs with and/or share acquisitions in Russian oil and gas giants, Gazprom and Rosneft, is worthy of investor scrutiny.

     To illustrate this lack of experience:


        Has never brought an offshore project to extraction stage as operator.
        Responsible for 2,727 or 75% of spills in Russia’s largest oil province Yugra in 2011 while extracting only 25% of the total regional output that year.
         Still lacks sufficient expertise at appropriate levels despite recent appointments.


        The Kolskaya rig sank, killing 53 of its 67 crew after Gazprom’s subsidiary Gazflot continued drilling outside of the approved season and without carrying out all necessary assessments
         No member of the board of directors has specific offshore experience or with special responsibility for offshore projects
        Has taken no steps to address the lack of offshore drilling expertise or oversight at board level.
        Gazprom’s headline Arctic JV with Total and Statoil, which was to operate the massive Shtokman field in the Barents Sea, fell apart in 2012 after years of delays, a cost rise from $20bn to $40bn and lack of clarity over fiscal conditions made extraction economically unfeasible.

3.51pm BST
A oil rush?

One of the major narratives the green movement has been propagating is that of an oil and gas rush with irresponsible companies storming north trying to beat one another to tap newly available reserves.

But an article by Paul Betts in Oil Magazine suggests otherwise. "After a period of "irrational exuberance," the pace in the Arctic is slowing. In the last year; Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Statoil have stopped drilling, and Gazprom has suspended the Shtokman project," he says.

Betts says the industry may have gotten ahead of itself in its excitement at new opportunities presented by retreating sea ice. He said it was clear that the industry had become "increasingly skeptical about the ability of oil companies - at least for now - to drill, extract and ship the oil and gas safely in the extreme weather and sea conditions of this remote region".

The enormous costs of developing new technologies was a deterrent to investment he said. As well as embarrassing incidents such as the grounding of a Shell rig in January 2013, which highlighted the difficulty of operating in the storm torn seas of the north.

Betts says these costs, when combined with low oil prices and competition from new energy resources like coal-seam gas and LNG, mean that the Arctic region has become less enticing for oil companies.

A report by consultancy firm Ernst and Young said Arctic exploration is "not for the faint of heart, nor for those with less than deep pockets".

Betts says extra pressure is being applied to companies by uncertainty over the geopolitics of the Arctic. Russia is one of the key drivers of Arctic exploration. Oil and gas resources in the region are key to Russia's geopolitical strategy and energy security. "Russia, however, is also fully aware that it cannot do this by itself and that the development of the oil and gas sector, particularly offshore, depends to some extent of the participation and cooperation of Western oil companies," says Betts.

3.20pm BST
Reaction from drilling industry

Statoil spokesperson Bård Glad Pedersen says the Norwegian oil and gas company is exploring the Arctic through a step-by-step approach that builds on decades of experience in cold water regions.

    "Statoil have taken a step-wise approach to the Arctic. A prerequisite to any activity or any drilling is that we are able to do it safely and responsibly. We have 20 years experience from the Norwegian Barents Sea in ice free areas. We have around 90 wells and also made large discoveries. Currently we are drilling in ice free areas or ice free periods of the year.

    "I think this step-wise approach where you develop competence. experience and technology to take on new challenges going forward is the right approach to have. We will not move faster into the Arctic than technology allows us to make sure than we are able to do it safely."

He says different Arctic regions offer different challenges to drilling companies:

    "It is important to understand that there are different areas within the Arctic that present different challenges. A substantial part of the Arctic is ice-free. But it could be areas which are dark, remote and maybe you could have icing of equipment so you need to take those challenges seriously. I think we are able to do that.

    "Where there's no ice you need to have heating equipment and insulation to avoid freezing on the rigs. On the east coast of Canada, where we recently made a large oil discovery, you need to have a system to manage icebergs who occasionally drift by. We have ships in place to tow them on to different routes. In this area there has been oil and gas activity for years and you have these systems developed."

On the activities of other Arctic exploration companies, he said: "I think there is a general understanding of the challenges in the Arctic and the need to develop technology and competence."

2.27pm BST
The great hope of the energy industry

Oil Magazine, an energy industry quarterly, devoted the whole of its March 2013 issue to Arctic energy exploration. Disappearing Arctic sea ice is seen as a huge opportunity for an energy industry seeking new reserves of fossil fuels. "20% of the world's unexplored gas and oil potential lies in the Arctic," says Oil.

"The new frontier of energy procurement runs along the Arctic Circle," says editor-in-chief, Gianni di Giovanni.

Economist Geminello Alvi writes: "With the melting of the ice, this most inhospitable of areas might one day be green again, and even inhabited, as in the myths about the Hyperboreans."

It is clear from reading Oil that the energy industry sees an exciting future beneath the Arctic seas. But Oil journalist Moisés Naím says: "Critical environmental, technological, political and institutional questions remain unanswered."

Naím says the impacts of climate change have led to inevitable interest from oil and gas companies as the retreating sea ice exposes large, untapped resources: "The trend, then is for climate change to make the region more accessible, bolstering the attraction to the Arctic's wealth of oil, gas, and mineral supplies."

But Naím says the cost implications should mean exploration is cautious and mindful of the delicate Arctic environment: "Limiting the costs and damages associated with industrial development, climate change, pollution, natural resource extraction, and disturbance to the precious ecosystem must be prioritized and monitored with great attention."

Naím identifies two extreme futures for the Arctic. An anarchic, exploitative future where poor governance, activism and pollution are rife and a sustainable, harmonious future in which governments, energy companies and NGOs cooperate to decide on best practice exploration. He admits that the second alternative seems utopian.

Updated at 2.35pm BST

1.32pm BST
The key arguments put forward by Greenpeace

Greenpeace identifies two distinct threats posed by drilling in the Arctic. One is the immediate threat of an oil spill. Greenpeace claims oil companies do not have appropriate risk mitigation against this kind of accident.

The indirect threat to the Arctic ecosystem posed by climate change and the fossil fuel industry's contribution to carbon emissions is the underpinning motivation for Greenpeace's actions. Diminishing Arctic sea ice poses a direct threat to the Arctic's biodiversity and eventually to the planet, say Greenpeace.

Their website says Arctic oil exploration is being assisted by the melting ice:

    The fragile Arctic is under threat from both climate change and oil drilling. As climate change melts the Arctic ice, oil companies are moving in to extract more of the fossil fuels that caused the melt in the first place. But above the Arctic circle, freezing temperatures, a narrow drilling window and a remote location mean that an oil spill would be almost impossible to deal with. It's a catastrophe waiting to happen. Greenpeace is working to halt climate change and to stop this new oil rush at the top of the world.

Shell has been a particular target of Greenpeace. To examine some of Greenpeace's claims against the Dutch and British-owned company you can read a list of their charges against them. Mostly Greenpeace says it is concerned about the company's unpreparedness to contain any accident.

"The Arctic is the air conditioner and the refrigerator of the planet and what happens here affect all of us," says Kumi Naidoo in this interview with Bill Moyers.

Updated at 2.36pm BST

12.46pm BST
Welcome to the eco audit

Russia today charged Greenpeace activists with piracy for their protest action on a Gazprom oil rig in the Arctic Circle. Russia's police action and the potential for draconian punishments (piracy carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in Russia) is "the most serious threat to Greenpeace's peaceful environmental activism" since the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, according to Greenpeace executive director, Kumi Naidoo.

Apart from Greenpeace's right to protest, what is at stake in the Arctic? And why is Greenpeace so concerned about Arctic drilling in particular?

Today I will be talking to experts, industry and scientists about the potential environmental impacts of an Arctic energy rush.

You too can help with the investigation. Please write your thoughts in the comments below, or tweet me, or email me. If you are quoting figures or studies, please provide a link through to the original source. Later I will return with my own verdict.


10/02/2013 12:10 PM

Greenpeace vs. Gazprom: Football Protest Stokes Row with Russia

The ongoing conflict over 30 Greenpeace activists jailed in Russia for an action in the Arctic has taken a new twist. A high-profile football game in Switzerland was marred by a protest targeting Russian state-run energy giant and major soccer sponsor Gazprom.

Greenpeace activists unfurled a giant banner at a high-profile football match on Tuesday night, attacking Russian energy giant Gazprom and calling for the release of 30 jailed activists from the group.

The protest took place in the Swiss city of Basel during a game between the hometown team and German side Schalke 04 in European club football's most prestigious competition, the Champions League.

Four activists unfurled the banner from the roof of the St. Jakob Park stadium, revealing Gazprom's name, logo and the words "Don't foul the Arctic," and "#FreeTheArctic30." Their message was in reference to Arctic oil and gas drilling carried out by the state-run company -- which sponsors both Schalke and the Champions League -- as well as the arrest of 30 Greenpeace members on a Russian oil rig last month.

Spanish referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco drew up a special report because of the five-minute delay in play caused by the protest, which will be reviewed in the calm light of day, a spokesman for competition organizer UEFA said.

Schalke manager Horst Heldt declined to condemn the incident after the game, despite Gazprom being his team's main sponsor, although he was initially unaware of its nature: "I thought at first it was some kind of UEFA action against racism or something. I have never experienced that. Well, it lasted ten minutes, and then they were gone again."

Basel are now set to face scrutiny over the ease with which the protest was carried out. The activists were able to prepare the banner unhindered before the game and then security staff could only look on as it was displayed for several minutes, before the activists climbed back onto the roof and the referee restarted the game.

Unfortunately for reigning Swiss champions Basel, UEFA's French president and former playing legend Michel Platini was in the stands watching the match in person, and is sure to take a dim view of the incident.

The 30 Greenpeace members in question, who made up the crew of the ship Arctic Sunrise, have been in police custody in Russia for two months after two of them tried to board an offshore drilling platform operated by Gazprom on Sept. 18. The group has been charged with piracy, and while Russian President Vladimir Putin said he does not believe they are pirates, he did maintain that they broke international law.

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« Reply #9094 on: Oct 03, 2013, 06:36 AM »

October 2, 2013

Iran’s President Responds to Netanyahu


President Hassan Rouhani of Iran on Wednesday dismissed the verbal assault on his credibility by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel the day before, during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly. Mr. Rouhani was quoted by Iranian news agencies as saying Mr. Netanyahu’s speech reflected what the Iranian leader called Israeli alarm at the signs of rapprochement between Iran and the United States. “Israel is upset to see that its sword has gone blunt and Iran grows more powerful by the day,” the Fars News Agency quoted Mr. Rouhani as saying. Mr. Netanyahu, who considers Iran his country’s most dangerous enemy, said in his speech that the Iranian leader was seeking to deceive the world by asserting an earnest desire to resolve the impasse over Iran’s disputed nuclear program. Mr. Rouhani, who visited the United Nations last week, spoke by telephone with President Obama on Friday, the first such contact between the leaders of Iran and the United States in 34 years.
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« Reply #9095 on: Oct 03, 2013, 06:41 AM »

Imran Khan open to army operations if Taliban talks fail

Pakistan's ex-cricketer turned politician still wants to negotiate but says if they fail he will reluctantly support military options

Jon Boone in Islamabad, Thursday 3 October 2013 10.17 BST

Imran Khan will reluctantly support military operations against the Pakistani Taliban if in two months it is clear his highly controversial strategy of negotiating with militant groups has failed, the former cricketer has said for the first time.

The politician has been ferociously criticised in recent weeks for pressing the case for peace talks at a time when scores of civilians have been killed in bomb attacks. But speaking to the Guardian, Khan insisted the country would soon know whether his strategy would succeed.

"By the mid or end of November we will know if this isn't going to work," he said during an interview at his hilltop estate on the outskirts of the capital, Islamabad.

"It could be just a complete deadlock, a collapse, with [the Taliban] insisting on demands that we cannot meet. I reckon you will know in two months."

His critics and the senior ranks of the military have long argued the country needs to crack down on militants and launch an operation to eradicate their havens in north Waziristan, a deeply troubled part of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) that is home to wide range of Islamist extremist groups.

Khan said if it became clear it was not going to work then he would reluctantly go along with an operation in north Waziristan. He said: "I am anti-war. I do not believe in military solutions. But in end if we are left with no option I will go along with it."

Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan's army chief, has pushed the government to allow the military to launch a clearing operation in north Waziristan, but Khan prefers to take the army chief's advice from three years ago.

"[Kayani said] there will be massive collateral damage, the militants will disperse and you will have big blowback in the cities. Can you afford it?" Khan said.

Khan's party, the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf, is not the largest opposition group in parliament but garnering national support for a military option would be extremely difficult in the face of noisy opposition of such a popular politician.

Last month, Khan's preferred strategy of unconditional talks was accepted entirely by an all parties conference of leading politicians. Many analysts were appalled, saying the final statement of the conference failed to set any red lines for militant groups that were meekly referred to as "stakeholders".

The Tehrik-i-Taliban responded with pre-conditions, demanding a government ceasefire and the withdrawal of troops from the tribal areas along the Afghan border. On Wednesday, they also said drone strikes would have to come to an end before they were prepared to talk.

Khan, who has endured days of scathing media criticism, has toughened his stance on the limits of what the Taliban can expect. He said: "They will have to accept the constitution." The Taliban have long claimed to be fighting to reorder the country according to strict Islamic law.

"Number two, we cannot accept any sectarian groups that are just in cold blood killing people. What deal can you have with them?" And he added: "All militias within Pakistan will have to disarm."

Khan said the proliferation of militant groups meant there were no easy solutions left. "There is now anything between 14 and 18 bigger groups and around 20 to 25 smaller groups, so it is such a mess now and clearly there are groups that do not want peace and are foreign funded, according to our interior minister."

It's usually an argument deployed by his opponents, who say the bewildering number of groups makes a peace deal impossible. But Khan argues talks will establish which groups are reconcilable: "For me, the sensible thing would be to at least make an attempt for dialogue so if nothing else you will find out who is willing to talk and who is not."

He believes the "ideological Taliban who want to impose some sort of sharia state" are a small minority of the overall movement, itself a "very loose alliance" that could be broken up by talks.

Khan remains convinced that the militancy ravaging Pakistan was unnecessarily inflicted on the country by the assistance former military leader General Pervez Musharraf gave to the US-led intervention in Afghanistan. In Khan's view this sparked a tribal revolt that will only stop if the country distances itself from the US, CIA drone strikes in Fata come to an end and new rulers take over in Kabul who are "not considered a stooge government of the Americans".

"The main [militants] who need to be separated are the ones who basically reacted to the Pakistani army going in [to Fata] considering it as collaborators of America," he said. His critics say his analysis is a misreading of history and the country's troubles with extremism began long before 2001.

In recent weeks he has been attacked for staunchly defending the talks initiative despite a surge of vicious attacks, including the bombing of worshippers at an historic Peshawar church and another in the city's bazaar. After the church attack he suggested it was a conspiracy to derail talks.

He said he did not know which group was behind the massacre but said he had received government briefings in the past that have blamed the Afghan government for other attacks. "It could be Raw [Research and Analysis Wing]," he said, referring to the intelligence agency of India, Pakistan's traditional enemy.

In the media he has been accused of being in effect, an ally of the Taliban and "creating the space for a pro-terrorist narrative in the mainstream". Khan dismisses all of it as flak from a liberal-minded elite.

"The only liberals in the world who want villages to be bombed, drone attacks are justified, extrajudicial killings," he said. "I don't know any liberals in the world who are so gung-ho about killing.

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« Reply #9096 on: Oct 03, 2013, 06:47 AM »

October 2, 2013

Risk-Averse Gandhi’s Move Rattles Indian Election


NEW DELHI — As India’s ruling dynasty hurtles toward an important and unpredictable election season, many of its pressing questions have converged into one: Can its heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi, project the message of political change that this country seems to crave?

As angry crowds here have materialized around issues like corruption and policing, Mr. Gandhi, 43, has often seemed to lag behind the public mood: a handsome face, blessed with a magical name, but embodying a tarnished, risk-averse status quo.

This was the time Mr. Gandhi made his move.

He charged unannounced into the middle of a Congress Party news conference on Friday, and eviscerated as “complete nonsense” an initiative backed by his own party that would have granted extralegal protections to elected officials facing criminal charges. In a political culture that runs on vague consensus and muted signals, it was a jaw-dropping act of defiance — in particular to India’s 81-year-old prime minister, Manmohan Singh, then on a high-profile visit to Washington.

But it worked. All Wednesday, television cameramen posted themselves amid the shrubbery outside closed-door meetings, as the Congress Party’s old guard held a flurry of talks to decide what to do about Mr. Gandhi’s maneuver. By nightfall, the government coalition announced that it would withdraw the ordinance because of public opposition, and Mr. Gandhi had racked up a crisp political victory.

“Let’s see how Rahul shapes up — he has taken a big step forward,” said Rasheed Kidwai, the author of an admiring biography of Sonia Gandhi, Mr. Gandhi’s mother. “He is taking a great risk, because the Congress Party is allergic to change.”

In fact, the suspense over the fate of the ordinance on Wednesday seemed artificial. Though it might have protected some crucial Congress allies, its timing was dismal politically, given rising public anger over official corruption, and India’s president had expressed hesitation about signing it.

But the confusion and frustration over Mr. Gandhi’s behavior seemed genuine enough. Often criticized for remaining aloof from the political process, he had broken a number of unwritten rules that serve to protect the party from undue risk. For one thing, it would have been a simple enough matter for him, as the party’s vice president, to kill the ordinance quietly at an earlier stage.

He had also departed from one of his mother’s ground rules: a meticulous display of respect for Mr. Singh, her loyal, soft-spoken prime minister, who has proved politically weak during a punishing season for Congress.

Events of the last few years — corruption scandals and a drumbeat of demand for new laws — have transformed the political landscape in India, leaving leaders scrambling for new approaches, said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. Meanwhile, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate, Narendra Modi, 63, is attracting throngs to rallies slamming Congress, leading one young crowd in an Obama-esque chant of “Yes, we can!”

“There is a clamor for change of some kind, and what Rahul seems to be saying, is, ‘Let me catch up with that clamor,’ ” Mr. Mehta said. “There is a sense in both parties, for good and for ill, that you can’t do politics as usual. But they’re kind of groping around to understand what that means.”

He was skeptical, however, that Mr. Gandhi would benefit much from outmuscling the much older prime minister.

“One thing that Rahul had going for him — there was a sense that people didn’t know what he stood for, but he gave the impression that he was a sincere guy,” Mr. Mehta said. “The fact that he could humiliate the office of the prime minister in the way that he did, and do it with someone as loyal as Manmohan Singh — it’s not clear that it’s inspired people to go along with him as a leader.”

Mr. Gandhi has never held a cabinet-level post, though they have been offered, and at times it has been unclear whether he wanted to lead India at all. He is absent from the noisy policy debates that define political life here and, like his mother, avoids contact with the news media.

But his lineage made him a sensation, and Congress has offered him as a symbol of generational change. During his early campaigns, near-stampedes would break out when he toured villages, crossing carpets of rose petals and shaking so many hands that, by the end of one day on the road, his right hand was wrapped in bandages.

Mr. Gandhi’s family has led modern India for most of its 66-year history. If he becomes prime minister, he will follow in the footsteps of his father, Rajiv; his grandmother, Indira; and his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru. Still, he has occasionally donned the mantle of an internal dissident. This year, shortly after becoming the party’s vice president, he delivered a speech that sharply criticized the over-concentration of power in India. It was a paradoxical stance, given that power is concentrated in the hands of his own family.

“Why is our youth angry?” he asked in the speech. “Why are they out on the street? They are angry because they are alienated. They are excluded from the political class.”

Jatin Gandhi, the co-author of “Rahul,” a 2012 biography (and no relation), said Mr. Gandhi and his advisers were likely “elated” by Wednesday’s events, in part because Mr. Gandhi had managed to grab the spotlight from Mr. Modi. The dust-up, he said, reflected the “national mood” in an electorate restless for change and overwhelmingly dominated by young people, but hardly represented a clash between generations.

“We are a young nation, and we have a very large representation within the political classes,” he said. “But most of the young people in politics are actually from dynasties. You don’t question the wisdom of your mother and father if you inherited your position from them.”

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« Reply #9097 on: Oct 03, 2013, 06:50 AM »

October 2, 2013

In Myanmar, Revival of Attacks on Muslims


BANGKOK — A resurgence of religious violence in western Myanmar this week has left six Muslims dead and dozens of homes destroyed, a senior police officer said Wednesday.

The deaths and the burning of houses in and around the city of Thandwe occurred Tuesday, just hours before President Thein Sein arrived in the restive area on Wednesday as part of a scheduled visit to cool religious tensions and criticize “extremism.”

“There are casualties and damage on both sides,” Mr. Thein Sein said on state television.

But according to accounts from the police officer, Lt. Col Kyaw Tint, and a villager who witnessed some of the fighting, the violence followed a disturbingly familiar pattern: sword-wielding Buddhist mobs rampaging through Muslim neighborhoods.

“All the people who were found dead were from the Muslim community,” Colonel Kyaw Tint said.

After flaring up last year in western Myanmar, anti-Muslim violence has spread to areas around the country this year, leaving dozens of people dead, almost all of them Muslims and some of them children. Buddhist nationalist groups have called for a boycott of Muslim shops, and radical Buddhist monks have stoked anti-Muslim feelings in sermons across the country.

The International Crisis Group, a research organization, released a report this week saying that more clashes between Buddhists and Muslims were likely because of “the depth of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, and the inadequate response of the security forces.”

Colonel Kyaw Tint said tensions remained high between Buddhists and Muslims around Thandwe; the police have imposed a curfew, he said.

U Nyi Lay, a Muslim and grocery store owner in Thandwe, said Buddhist mobs attacked his neighborhood and set fire to houses. “We defended ourselves with whatever we had,” he said. Police officers fired their weapons into the air to try to disperse the attackers and told villagers to stay inside their houses, he said.

“We are living in fear,” Mr. Nyi Lay said.

Hatred and mistrust are especially deep between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh. Last year, more than 150 people were killed and well over 100,000 were forced from their homes in the state. The majority of the victims and those displaced were Rohingya, an ethnic group numbering around one million people that is not officially recognized in Myanmar and whose members have been largely denied citizenship.

But unlike last year’s violence, which largely occurred in areas closer to the Bangladesh border, the attacks this week were on well-established Muslim neighborhoods farther south that have existed side by side with Buddhists for generations.

“This kind of violence has never happened in Thandwe before,” said Colonel Kyaw Tint.

Many of the Muslims in the area are from the Kaman ethnic group, which, unlike the Rohingya group, is recognized by the Burmese government.

Officials in Rakhine do not hide their disdain for Muslims. A spokesman for the Rakhine State government, U Win Myaing, blamed Muslims for this week’s violence but did not offer specifics. “You can see in all the recent conflicts that Bengalis sparked the incidents,” he said using the government’s preferred term for Rohingya. “The problems always begin with them.”

Wai Moe contributed reporting from Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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« Reply #9098 on: Oct 03, 2013, 06:51 AM »

October 2, 2013

U.S. and South Korea Set Defense Strategy for North Korean Threat


SEOUL — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that the United States had devised a strategy with South Korea to deter the growing threat of North Korea’s nuclear and chemical weapons programs.

In his annual security meeting with South Korea’s minister of national defense, Kim Kwan Jin, Mr. Hagel said that the new agreement — which does not outline any specific new weapons programs but rather a new method for coordinating those efforts — was needed, “not only because of our mutual defense treaty, but also because of our firm view that North Korea’s policies and provocations pose a serious threat to regional stability and global security.”

The two defense ministers also said they would review the prickly issue of when South Korea will obtain wartime control of their combined forces here; the scheduled transfer, developed under the Bush administration, is set to take place in 2015. South Korea has sought to delay that transfer as it increases its capabilities to deal with potential conflicts.

“The Republic of Korea military has grown stronger, more professional and more capable especially over the past decade,” Mr. Hagel said. “This is a trend we want to see continue.”

Negotiators will try to figure out when control will actually be assumed by South Korea, an issue of intense interest on the peninsula.

According to a joint statement, the new defense strategy would focus on tailoring deterrence against the North Korean nuclear threat and better integrating each nation’s weapons and forces to work together more effectively to deter and address those threats. The two countries will also continue to develop plans to defend against North Korean missiles, and the two nations agreed to include cyberspace as part of their overall defense strategy.

Last winter, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test and launched a satellite into space in what Western officials said was a test of its long-range missile capabilities, acts that enraged the international community and drew stricter United Nations sanctions that were supported by Pyongyang’s longtime ally, China.

The security meeting came at the end of Mr. Hagel’s four-day stay in South Korea this week to mark the 60th anniversary of the nation’s mutual defense treaty with the United States. His trip included a series of ceremonial events and meetings with South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, and other officials, along with visits to see American troops. He also toured the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, where he noted, “there is no margin for error” in guarding against a North Korean attack.

His visit was set against the backdrop of a government shutdown caused by a fiscal fight in Congress that Mr. Hagel said deterred his efforts to assure allies of the United States’ ability to fulfill its defense missions abroad.

He was departing Wednesday afternoon for Japan, where he will attend meetings with Secretary of State John F. Kerry and the Japanese foreign and defense ministers.

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« Reply #9099 on: Oct 03, 2013, 06:53 AM »

October 3, 2013

Japan and U.S. Agree to Broaden Military Alliance


TOKYO — The United States and Japan agreed on Thursday to broaden their security alliance to allow an expanding role for Japan while also reaffirming a continued American military presence in the region in a deal that underscores the two countries’ efforts to respond to growing challenges by China and North Korea in an era of intensified budget-cutting pressures.

The agreement, signed during a joint visit here by Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a meeting with their Japanese counterparts, called for several concrete steps to strengthen cooperation, including the building of a new missile defense radar in Japan, the deployment of American drones here for the first time and joint efforts to combat rising cyberthreats.

The deal is also part of a broader effort by both sides to revamp a security alliance that dates back to the cold war. The United States hopes to signal its determination to continue with its increased military, economic and diplomatic focus on Asia despite the possibility of deep cuts in military spending. For Japan, the agreement appeared to give American approval to its still modest efforts to expand its military capabilities, and raise its profile in the Asia-Pacific, as Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, seeks to put his country on a more equal footing with its longtime military protector.

“Our bilateral defense cooperation, including America’s commitment to the security of Japan, is a critical component of our overall relationship,” Mr. Hagel said during a news conference in Tokyo on Thursday afternoon, “and to the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia-Pacific.”

A key issue during the talks was how to respond to China, which has been sending Coast Guard ships to contest Japan’s control of a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The agreement Thursday said the United States and Japan should be ready to deal with “coercive and destabilizing behaviors,” while calling on China to adhere to international norms. While the United States has refused to take sides in the dispute, Mr. Hagel repeated American assurances that the islands are covered by the two countries’ security treaty, which obligates the United States to help Japan defend itself if attacked.

Another significant step was the decision to allow the United States to place a new X-band radar system in Kyogamisaki, near the city of Kyoto, to better protect both countries against military threats from North Korea. The powerful new radar will also help the cash-strapped Pentagon by freeing up American Aegis radar ships currently patrolling near North Korea for use elsewhere in the world.

“We’d like to share views on the security environment surrounding Japan, including the issue of North Korea,” Japan’s defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, told Mr. Hagel as the meeting began.

Thursday was the first time that American secretaries of state and defense met their Japanese counterparts in Japan since these so-called two-plus-two talks began in 1990, in a move that Japanese and American officials said was meant to demonstrate the United States’ renewed commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. This was also the first time that the talks included an agreement to work on specific projects to increase cybersecurity in both countries.

The United States also said it would deploy not only surveillance drones but also the P-8, a highly advanced manned reconnaissance airplane, to Japan to monitor the Western Pacific, where Tokyo is now locked with Beijing in the row over disputed islands. Addressing a long-festering issue, 9,000 Marines will be relocated from bases in Okinawa to locations outside Japan, with 5,000 of those forces deployed to Guam. The Japanese pay part of the bill for the transfer, saving the fiscally strained Defense Department from the expense.

For its part, Japan said it would bolster its security capabilities by creating a new American-style National Security Council, and also expanding assistance to Southeast Asian countries to help them resist Chinese territorial claims. It also pledged to increase military spending, despite Japan’s own need to pare down its huge national debt. Japan said it may also change its current interpretation of its pacifist Constitution, drafted by American occupiers after World War II, to allow its military to come to the aid of American forces under attack, something it cannot now legally do.

“Our relationship has never been stronger or better than it is today,” Mr. Kerry said. “We are continuing to adapt, however, to confront the different challenges of the 21st century.”

However, the efforts by Japan to enhance its military capabilities also present a conundrum to the United States. While American officials have welcomed Japan’s willingness to shoulder a larger share of the region’s security burden, those moves have been watched warily in South Korea, another key American defense partner. In particular, past denials by Japanese leaders, like the current prime minister, Mr. Abe, that Korean women were forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese military during the war have angered many Koreans, who still harbor bitter memories of Japan’s brutal early 20th-century colonization of their peninsula.

As a result, the United States has struggled to get its two closest Asian allies to conduct even low-level military cooperation. In a nod to those problems, the agreement Thursday called specifically for trilateral cooperation between the United States, South Korea and Japan to face common threats, like North Korea’s nuclear program.

“Today we have seen a meeting of minds between Japan and the United States with respect to this situation,” said Fumio Kishida, the Japanese foreign minister. “We are decidedly opposed to the attempt to change the status quo through coercion.”

Mr. Kerry also sought to allay Chinese fears about a closer United States-Japan alliance, saying that the United States desires a cooperative relationship with China on the issue of North Korea and other areas of common ground.

“We also seek to find the things we can cooperate on,” he said, but he added that the United States has been “very clear about our interests and those thing that we think represent lines that we think should not be crossed,” including on the matter of the islands dispute with Japan. While the United States is not weighing in on that matter, he said “we do recognize Japan’s administration of those islands.”

He added: “A rising China is welcome as long as that China wants to engage according to international standards.”

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« Reply #9100 on: Oct 03, 2013, 06:57 AM »

10/02/2013 06:37 PM

The Wave from Syria: Flow of Refugees Destabilizes Lebanon

By Samiha Shafy

The war in Syria and its wave of refugees is destabilizing and overwhelming Lebanon. Now there are fears the hundreds of thousands of newcomers will never want to leave, and the sectarian conflict will worsen.

General Ibrahim Bachir saw it coming. He has been warning the government for over two years now: Stop wasting time and start building refugee camps to deal with the influx of Syrian refugees, he told them.

But the deeply divided and ineffective government authorities in Lebanon did nothing, he says -- and now it's too late: "We have all these problems," the general says, "criminals, prostitutes and beggars everywhere -- across the entire country!"

Bachir, 60, heads the High Relief Commission, the state agency charged with helping the masses of refugees fleeing the conflict in neighboring Syria. "But how is such a small country supposed to accommodate so many refugees?" he asks. "One in four people here is now a Syrian refugee."

To make matters worse, 3,000 newcomers report every day at one of the four centers run by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). A total of over 750,000 have been registered so far -- 625,000 this year alone. Furthermore, there are all the refugees who slip across the border unnoticed and go into hiding. Aid workers estimate that there are well over 1 million refugees in Lebanon alone.

Lebanon on the Brink

The flood of refugees is destabilizing this already weak and war-torn country, which borders Syria to the north and the east, and Israel to the south. The front between Sunnis and Shiites runs right through the heart of this tiny state, making Lebanon the focal point of a conflict that threatens to engulf the entire region. The Shiite Hezbollah militia uses Lebanon as a base for its struggle against the "Zionist enemy" -- and since this spring, the group has been launching military operations here against the predominately Sunni rebels in Syria.

The refugees now find themselves caught between the fronts in Lebanon. Aid organizations are hopelessly overwhelmed and don't even have enough money for essentials. According to a report compiled by the World Bank for the UN General Assembly over the past few days, the refugees will cost Lebanon some €6 billion ($8.1 billion) by the end of next year. The UN will have to help the country, but it's still unclear exactly how. At the General Assembly meeting in New York last week, donor countries pledged to chip in 74 million dollars.

When the number of refugees swells to 2 million, Bachir glumly predicts the Lebanese will start to flee Lebanon: "There are only 3 million of us, no more!" He also points out that the Lebanese have been living for decades with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.

The Palestinians who took refuge in Lebanon after 1948 and 1967, and their generations of successors, still live jammed together in the largely lawless slums that are the country's Palestinian refugee camps. They can neither return to the Palestinian territories nor become Lebanese citizens.

This partly explains why politicians are extremely reluctant to build new camps for the Syrians. They are afraid that the new refugees will remain indefinitely, just like the Palestinians.

Beirut Empties Out

There aren't many signs of the refugee crisis in Beirut's business district, where the general sits in his enormous, well-guarded office and tries to think up a solution to his country's predicament. High-rise office buildings made of glass and marble glitter in the sunlight. The most exclusive designer labels can be found here: Hermès, Armani and Sonia Rykiel. Lebanon is also a shopping paradise.

Yet the shops and streets are empty. The wealthy tourists from the Gulf states who normally flock here have been shying away from the country ever since the civil war erupted in nearby Syria. Among the swanky new buildings, shell-pocked ruins stand as silent reminders of past domestic wars.

General Bachir is clad in a dark suit, and his hair is stiffly combed across his balding head. He's an orderly man; the papers on his desk are arranged in stacks and rows as if they were laid out with a ruler. He wants to make one more attempt to organize the stream of refugees -- in six large camps. He envisions them as "humane and modern," he says, "not like the Palestinian camps." Then, he adds, one could say to the Syrians: "Anyone who wants to live here can go to a camp. And anyone who doesn't want that can go straight back to Syria."

A Divided Country

The question is: When can Bachir present his plan -- and to whom? Ever since Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned last March, the country has been run by a caretaker government. The Sunni parties refuse to work together with Hezbollah, which is the strongest political force in the country. However, this Shiite militia, which the European Union recently classified as a terrorist organization, insists on being part of any new government. Meanwhile, the Christian parties sometimes support Hezbollah and sometimes back the Sunni alliance.

With so many political divisions, Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam has not yet managed to form a cabinet. The parliamentary elections, which should have taken place in June, have been postponed by nearly one and a half years.

And now that Hezbollah is fighting in Syria on the side of the Assad regime, the war has arrived in Lebanon as well. This conflict divides the population into supporters and opponents of the Shiite militia, which is also trying to be a mainstream political party. Between June and August, over 100 people in Lebanon died from terrorist attacks and retaliatory actions. Most of the victims were civilians.

'They Rape Our Women'

"You Europeans want to kill us Syrian Christians!", yells an agitated young man at a gas station in a Christian district of Beirut. "You support criminals who destroy our homes. The rebels murder Christians who refuse to convert to Islam, and they rape our women," says the man, a Syrian who calls himself Sami. He speaks quickly and breathlessly. At the same time, he pulls a mobile phone out of his pants pocket and shows a photo of a pile of rubble. He says this was his home near Hama, and claims the rebels destroyed it.

Sami has been in Lebanon for over a year, but he hasn't registered with the UNHCR. He was fortunate enough to find a job at the gas station. Behind the filling station, the owner has cobbled together a hovel for a group of Syrian Christians. Inside the structure are three bunk beds, two mattresses, a table and a fan to provide some relief from the oppressive heat. The refugees are allowed to sleep there, and in return they wash and repair the cars for 12 hours a day. They eke out a living on $400 a month, roughly half as much as a Lebanese would earn.

Sami is afraid that if the Assad regime falls, radical Islamists from Syria will advance into Lebanon and attack the Hezbollah. "Then they'll kill all the Christians," he contends.

Meeting 'Father of the Holy War'

A few blocks away Dahiya, the Hezbollah-controlled area of the city, begins. Vehicles have to inch their way through endless traffic jams to reach the checkpoints that the Shiite militia established at all access roads in the wake of the most recent bomb attack in August.

Young men dressed in black uniforms, with walkie-talkies and yellow armbands, wave the vehicles into the Hezbollah stronghold. Solemn martyrs gaze down from posters in Dahiya, and buildings are decorated with larger-than-life images of the local stars: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

A motorbike-riding commander of a Hezbollah unit -- wearing combat fatigues and heavy boots, despite the heat -- leads the way to an unofficial meeting with a Hezbollah fighter in a spartanly furnished apartment above a weapons depot. The fighter, a brawny man in his mid-40s with a beard and a shaved head, calls himself Abu Jihad, or "father of the holy war."

Abu Jihad talks about the battle to take Qusayr, a Syrian town that Hezbollah fighters recently recaptured for the Assad regime. He says that he and the commanders of the other fighting units, each consisting of between 30 and 40 men, were given a date and a time. Afterwards, they drove off in a number of vans.

After about two hours, as the Hezbollah fighters approached Qusayr, they removed their civilian clothing, slipped into camouflage suits and bulletproof vests, and swung Kalashnikovs over their shoulders. "I was happy," says Abu Jihad, and smiles. "I was on the way to becoming a martyr in the fight against criminals." While he speaks, he alternately plays with his phone and his pistol. An assault rifle is lying on the table, between cans of Pepsi and chocolate biscuits.

A church in Qusayr became their command center, says Abu Jihad, adding that the Christians there had given them a very warm greeting. He notes that the Hezbollah respect churches as houses of worship, and would not simply occupy them without an invitation.

Doubt? Fear? 'Never'

With a glint in his eye, he describes how he killed a rebel fighter. The enemy had taken cover behind a wall and was firing shots, but he, Abu Jihad, had spotted him through a hole in the wall, he says. As he tells the story, he reaches into a box of ammunition next to him and proudly shows the type of pointed bullet he used to kill the rebel.

Doubt? Fear? "Never," says Abu Jihad, and places his hand over his heart, "I'm a man." When he dies, he says, it will be Allah's will.

Then the Hezbollah man makes two astonishing statements: Fighting the rebels in Syria is now even more important than the fight against Israel, he says. Furthermore: "Let the Palestinians liberate their country themselves."

This would be a radical departure from the group's traditional position. The fight against the "Zionist enemy" -- Israel being the former occupying power in southern Lebanon -- has always been the Hezbollah's raison d'être. The "Party of God" uses this objective to legitimize the fact that it operates as an independent military power within the state. Shiites and Sunnis in Lebanon have always been able to unite in their fight against Israel as a common enemy, and this bolsters the Hezbollah. But with Shiite militias now slaughtering Syrian Sunni Muslims, support for the Hezbollah is waning in Lebanon.

Hezbollah's New Desperation
Hezbollah is also fighting in Syria for its own survival. Indeed, it has to keep the routes open for its arm deliveries from Iran. Ultimately this conflict has to do with the question of who dominates the Middle East: Iran and its Shiite partners in Syria and Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies.

The Palestinians, whose cause both sides claim to defend, only play a minor role.

Yet it is the Palestinians who often tragically get caught between fronts, like the married couple Mizbah, 44, and Sayida, 33. Last year, they fled from a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus in Syria. With their three children, the couple is now living in a tiny prefab dwelling with 12 square meters (130 square feet) of space on the outskirts of Sidon, 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Beirut. The air is stuffy and there are other prefab dwellings all around the structure. Roughly 200 refugees have taken shelter in them.

Sidon is now home to the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, and most of the residents are Sunnis. Over 100,000 long-standing refugees live there, and there's hardly any space in the camp for newcomers like Mizbah and Sayida. Those who can afford it rent an apartment in town -- until they have used up all of their savings. The rest hole up in tents, hovels and abandoned construction sites. Refugees like Mizbah and Sayida depend on the help of others to survive.

Their new home is on the property of a used car dealership, which also assembled the prefab units. A number of local aid organizations, including the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, purchased the dwellings from the car dealer. In return, he has allowed the refugees to live on his property.

Long Road to Lebanon

Sayida, a delicate woman with dark eyes, tells the story of how her mother fled from Palestine to Syria when she was a little girl in 1948. Sayida is pregnant. "I couldn't convince her to come with us," she says sadly. Her mother said she would rather die in the Syrian camp than flee a second time.

Mizbah and Sayida also long to return to Syria. "We had a good life," says Mizbah, "before the camp was surrounded by the government and shelled." He says he used to trade steel in Syria, but he's not sure how he can make a living here: "I've lost everything that I built up."

Both sides -- the government and the rebels -- destroyed Syria, says Mizbah. "At first, we didn't take sides, but now we support the people's rebellion against the regime."

Flies buzz, sweat drops and the minutes drag on; the life of a refugee can be excruciatingly boring. The couple's two eldest children -- Udai, 12, and Ayat, 8 -- can't go to school. They and their little brother Mohammed, 3, are suffering from the heat, but it's still better than the biting cold that awaits them in winter.

For the past four months, the refugees here have received no more money or food ration cards from UN aid workers; no one has told them why.

"I don't know how I'm going to feed my baby," says Sayida, and points toward her tummy: "Maybe I'll have to get rid of it."

A Small Bubble of Normalcy

Just a few kilometers away, in a private Islamic school in the center of town, life has brightened up briefly for some 200 refugee children. They are allowed to go to school here for eight days -- eight days in which they are allowed to experience something akin to normalcy. Afterwards, the school will again be used by the Lebanese children whose parents pay tuition.

The youngest children are five years old, the oldest 16. A number of them have lost their parents or siblings in the war. Some of them had to hold out for hours in bombed-out buildings. Many of them have seen neighbors hit by bullets or executed.

Now they are sitting in mint-green classrooms, whose floors and walls are painted with colorful flowers and butterflies. Standing before a group of girls is Sheikh Mohammed Abu Zaid, the town's Islamic judge. With his beard and round belly, he sometimes resembles a Middle-Eastern Santa Claus. Normally the sheikh deals with matters that are handled according to Islamic law, like marriages and divorces, and he preaches at a mosque.

On this particular morning, Sheikh Mohammed is working as a volunteer at the Al-Iman School. He developed the week's lesson plan in collaboration with staff members from the Christian-Muslim Adyan Foundation, which works to promote interreligious dialogue. "We cannot allow an entire generation of children to be destroyed," says the sheikh.

'I Think He Lost His Mind'

Sheikh Mohammed's predecessor at the mosque, the radical cleric Ahmed al-Assir, was preaching hate as recently as last June. He called for resistance against the Syrian regime and the Hezbollah, rallied militant Sunnis around him and built up a weapons depot, allegedly with financial aid from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

In mid-June, Assir and his supporters began their own war in Sidon. They fought street battles with the army, leading to the deaths of 17 soldiers and dozens of militia members. Members of Hezbollah were reportedly among the dead, but the Shiite paramilitary and political organization denies having taken part in the fighting. Assir has since disappeared.

Sheikh Mohammed looks sad when asked about his old college friend Assir. "I think he lost his mind," he says. For many years, Assir also preached against violence, but then, roughly two years ago, when the large-scale killing began in Syria, he suddenly did a complete about-face.

The group of girls at the school calls itself "Jasmine from Damascus." Jasmine is white -- a symbol of freedom. The children sing a song. It's the Arabic version of "If You're Happy and You Know It." They clap and stamp their feet, and when the sheikh applauds at the end, they beam with satisfaction.

They proudly show him the pictures that they made over the last hour -- images that are not supposed to have anything to do with war. A 12-year-old girl named Wafa has drawn a school with a child playing nearby among trees and flowers. But above the building flies the rebel flag of the Free Syrian Army. "That's our independence flag," explains the girl, and smiles shyly.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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« Reply #9101 on: Oct 03, 2013, 07:00 AM »

Qatar under growing pressure over workers' deaths as Fifa is urged to act

Victims' groups and UN urge football governing body to halt death toll before 2022 World Cup

Robert Booth, Owen Gibson and Pete Pattisson in Kathmandu
The Guardian, Wednesday 2 October 2013 18.04 BST   
Link to video: Qatar: one Nepalese worker's story

International pressure on Qatar to prevent exploitation of migrant workers in the buildup to the 2022 football World Cup escalated on Wednesday as victims' groups and the United Nations urged the game's governing body to act to halt a death toll that is already in the hundreds.

As the executive committee of Fifa convened in Zurich for two days of talks including a session on Qatar's preparations for the biggest sporting event ever to be held in the Middle East, the Uefa president, Michel Platini, said he was "much more concerned" with allegations over the treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf state than with discussions over whether to move the tournament to winter.

The British government also renewed pressure on Qatar, with the sports minister, Hugh Robertson, saying it should be "a precondition of the delivery of every major sports event that the very highest standards of health and safety are applied".

Unions have warned that labour conditions in the country could result in as many as 4,000 deaths before a ball is kicked. Representatives of the families of migrant workers already killed and injured on building sites in the Gulf state called on Fifa to hand the tournament to another country, unless the Doha leadership can quickly guarantee worker safety.

Ramesh Badal, a lawyer in Kathmandu who represents Nepalese workers victimised in Qatar, including those who have lost hands and legs in construction accidents, demanded that Fifa place a deadline on Qatar by which it must prevent deaths and labour abuses. He said if it fails, the right to host the World Cup should be withdrawn.

"If Fifa applies pressure on Qatar now, then they will definitely change," he said. "This is now in the hands of Fifa."
Qatar construction site A construction site in Qatar, which has 1.2 million foreign workers and is spending £100bn on facilities and infrastructure before 2022. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Platini voted for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup and his comments are one of the clearest signs yet that Qatar could be forced to act to safeguard more than a million migrant workers erecting nine new stadiums, motorways, metro systems, railways and several hundred thousand new hotel rooms. All 25 voting members of the Fifa executive committee who will convene to discuss the issue on Thursday and Friday were contacted to make them aware of the Guardian's findings. The treatment of construction workers in Qatar has been added to the agenda on Friday in the wake of the Guardian's reports, which found 44 Nepalese workers had died in Qatar between 4 June and 8 August this year. This week the Nepalese government revealed 70 nationals had died on building sites in Qatar since the beginning of 2012. Hundreds more are thought to have been injured in falls and accidents with machinery and vehicles.

Apart from Northern Ireland's Jim Boyce, who said he was "shocked" and "absolutely appalled" at the revelations about the treatment of migrant workers, none of the Fifa representatives contacted by the Guardian wanted to comment before the meeting.

The British sports minister, Robertson, told the Guardian: "I absolutely believe sports events should be spread around the world but one of the important consequences of doing that is that those countries that receive them should comply with the basic minimum standards of care."

The United Nations International Labour Organisation (ILO) called on Fifa to use the influence of the world's most popular sport to demand improvements in labour practices in Qatar.

"Fifa's power of persuasion is very big, bigger than the ILO, and they should use their influence," said Nada al-Nashif, the ILO director for the Arab states. "If they do that we can have a safe and happy lead-up to 2022. A lot hangs in the balance. We mustn't just make a few declarations and move on."

Platini told the Daily Telegraph: "I'm much more concerned about that [situation with migrant workers' safety] than the discussion about summer and winter. I prefer to discuss this at the Exco than in the press."

Qatar is spending in excess of £100bn on facilities and infrastructure before the 2022 tournament and is expected to bring in at least 500,000 more workers on top of the existing 1.2 million, including 340,000 from Nepal and more from India.

The International Trade Union Confederation wrote to the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, on Wednesday to propose a series of joint ITUC/Fifa inspections of workplaces and living quarters in Qatar to monitor the treatment and rights of workers.

"The labour inspection system in Qatar has failed, and the government's announcement would simply add some inspectors into a system that doesn't work and will not make a difference," said Sharan Burrow, the ITUC general secretary. "Workers are not able to speak freely as, under the strict visa sponsorship system, employers retain their passports and they are not allowed to change jobs or leave the country without the employer's permission."

One Nepalese worker, Bhupendra Malla Thakuri, told the Guardian he was hospitalised for three months after a truck crushed his leg and he was paid nothing for all that time, was left without adequate medical support and was forced to take his employer to court to even afford a plane ticket home.

"When I was discharged … the company only paid me for the 20-odd days I had worked that month but nothing more," he said. "They didn't give me my salary. They didn't give me anything. It was a very critical situation. I was injured and my leg had become septic."

He added: "The failure to pay workers regularly is traumatising some of them."

Suresh Man Shrestha, Nepal's labour secretary, said the Kathmandu government had asked the Qatari authorities "to look into the situation of the migrant workers and to kindly stop any inhumane behaviour".

The ability of developing countries to negotiate with Qatar about worker welfare is affected by the fact that remittance money from migrant labour is an increasingly important part of their economies. Data published on Wednesday by the World Bank revealed 25% of Nepal's economy is now derived from remittances whose value to developing countries is set to reach $540bn by 2016 – a projected rise of 30% on current levels. India, which provides hundreds of thousands of workers to Qatar, currently earns more remittance money than any other country – $71bn a year.

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« Reply #9102 on: Oct 03, 2013, 07:02 AM »

Gambia quits the Commonwealth

Announcement on west African nation's state television channel does not explain reason for decision

Afua Hirsch, west Africa correspondent
The Guardian, Thursday 3 October 2013   
Gambia has withdrawn from the Commonwealth, a collection of 54 nations made up largely of former British colonies, saying it will "never be a member of any neo-colonial institution".

In an unexpected announcement broadcast by the west African nation on state television on Wednesday it was not immediately clear what prompted the decision to leave the Commonwealth, which is headed by the Queen.

"The government has withdrawn its membership of the British Commonwealth and decided that the Gambia will never be a member of any neo-colonial institution and will never be a party to any institution that represents an extension of colonialism," the statement said.

A British Foreign Office spokesman said: "Decisions on Commonwealth membership are a matter for each member government. We would very much regret the Gambia or any other country, deciding to leave the Commonwealth."

The Gambia joined the Commonwealth in 1965, when it gained independence from Britain. Although it remains a major tourist destination for British and other foreign holidaymakers, it has long had a troubled political relationship with its former colonial master.

The UK condemned the decision by the Gambia's president Yahya Jammeh – who seized power in a 1994 coup and who is one of Africa's longest-running and least democratic rulers – to execute nine death row prisoners, including one woman, without warning.

"I am deeply concerned over reports that nine prisoners on death row in The Gambia have been executed following comments by President Jammeh that all death row prisoners would now be executed," said foreign office minister Alistair Burt in a statement at the time.

The Gambia's decision to leave the traditionally English-speaking Commonwealth comes as Francophone African nations have expressed interest in joining the grouping. Former Belgian colony Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009, while Gabon, a former French colony and key ally to France in Africa, sparked rumours it could follow suit when it announced it would introduce English as its second language.

The Gambian government did not give a reason for the decision to leave the Commonwealth. However, it comes amid a greater emphasis by Britain on human rights and increasing pressure to promote equality based on sexuality.

Jammeh on the other hand has been highly vocal in his condemnation of homosexuality, and last week gave a speech at the United Nations calling it a threat to human existence.

The UK ceased bilateral aid to the Gambia in 2011, but still gives roughly £8m per year to the country through multilateral donations to agencies.

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« Reply #9103 on: Oct 03, 2013, 07:04 AM »

Gunmen attack Russian embassy in Libya's capital Tripoli

Embassy came under fire after Russian woman was accused of killing senior military official Mohamed Alsusi

Chris Stephen in Tripoli, Wednesday 2 October 2013 21.59 BST   

Gunmen attacked the Russian embassy in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Wednesday hours after news broke that a Russian woman had been arrested and accused of killing a senior military official.

The Russian foreign ministry said diplomats were safe and had been evacuated after unknown attackers attempted to break into the embassy grounds. Four Libyans were wounded in the attack, local media reported.

Gun and rocket fire echoed through the streets around the compound, as police and army units were deployed around the building in pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns.

The attack came hours after Libyan authorities arrested a 24-year-old Russian woman accused of the murder of the official in his apartment in Tripoli.

The woman, named as Katerine, is suspected of using a machine-gun to kill air force engineering official Mohamed Alsusi, said Hashim Bishar, head of Tripoli's Supreme Security Committee, the government's gendarmerie.

Bishar told the Guardian that the woman had also shot and stabbed the victim's mother, then used the dead man's blood to write Death to Rats in English on the wall of his home. He said he had interrogated her for six hours before handing her to judicial authorities.

"She entered Libya as a journalist, she is now in the custody of the attorney general's office," he said.

The embassy assault follows last month's attack on an escort vehicle of the EU ambassador, and comes amid an upsurge of violence across Libya.

Earlier in the day, foreign officials at the capital's central Corinthia hotel were put on lockdown after gunfire erupted outside. Battles between rival militias saw Libya's main coastal highway closed both east and west of the capital at the weekend.

Italian, French and United Arab Emirates diplomatic missions have been attacked over the past six months, and diplomats are coping with an upsurge in carjackings.

The prime minister, Ali Zidan, earlier this month secured promises from Britain and the US of military training and aid for Libya's fledgling army, after admitting that he faces numerous security threats.

Libya's government is already struggling with the worst crisis since the end of the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, with a blockade of most of the country's oil ports by striking troops and tribal militias entering its fourth month.

"There are a lot of security problems in the capital," said Bishar. "If we want to continue in security, we need to have training."

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« Reply #9104 on: Oct 03, 2013, 07:10 AM »

Roman skulls found in London could be victims of warrior queen Boudicca

By Maev Kennedy, The Guardian
Wednesday, October 2, 2013 12:00 EDT

Blackened Roman skulls, possibly victims of Boudicca’s revolution which scorched the foundations of the Roman empire in Britain, have come tumbling out of a Crossrail tunnel in the heart of London.

Archaeologists know they will find thousands of skeletons on the site, which was the 17th-century Bedlam burial ground, but the Romans are a surprise.

The 20 skulls already found are not from a formal burial ground, but were discovered in clumps, possibly caught in bends on the banks of the long-vanished river Walbrook.

Roman skulls have turned up in the past along the line of the Walbrook, and were often interpreted as victims of Boudicca’s rebellion, decapitated and slung ignominiously into the river, when in 61AD her Iceni tribe swept south from their East Anglian home, and torched Roman settlements on their way to attack Londinium itself.

However Jay Carver, the lead archaeologist on the project, who called the find “an unexpected and fascinating discovery that reveals another piece in the jigsaw of London’s history”, fears the more prosaic explanation is that the Walbrook washed away the edges of a Roman cemetery further upstream, possibly soon after they were buried: skulls would have tumbled and rolled further in the water than long bones.

The course of the new train line, deep under and right across the capital, is the biggest archaeology site in the UK, and has already produced more than 10,000 artefacts from mammoth bones to Black Death victims to Victorian crockery.

The skulls were found by construction workers who are digging a deep pit beside Liverpool Street station to relocate utility cables. They have also exposed medieval timbers, which may be part of the walls of the medieval burial ground. The archaeologists are supervising their work, but the trench six metres down is too deep and unstable for any except specialist tunnellers.

As the archaeologists get to work on the site next year, more Roman finds are expected as well as the mass of 17th-century bodies. The site has already produced a superbly engineered stretch of Roman road which once led down to a bridge across the Walbrook, and a Roman horseshoe stuck firmly in its surface, as well as the only gold on the whole Crossrail line, a little Venetian coin which was once stitched on to an aristocratic garment as a decoration. © Guardian News and Media 2013

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