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« Reply #9960 on: Nov 13, 2013, 07:02 AM »


China promises to give markets 'decisive role' in economy

Announcement of reform agenda for next decade reveals significant policy shift in world's second-largest economy

Reuters in Beijing
theguardian.com, Tuesday 12 November 2013 13.02 GMT   

China's ruling party pledged to let markets play a decisive role in allocating resources as it unveiled a reform agenda for the next decade on Tuesday, looking to overhaul the world's second-largest economy to drive future growth.

China aims to achieve decisive results in its reform push by 2020, with economic changes a central focus of overall reforms, the ruling Communist party said in a communique released by state media at the end of a four-day closed-door meeting of the party's 205-member central committee.

"The core issue is to straighten out the relationship between government and the market, allowing the market to play a decisive role in allocating resources and improving the government's role," the statement said.

It added that China would set up a team for "comprehensively deepening reform", that would be responsible for "designing reform on an overall basis, arranging and co-ordinating reform, pushing forward reform as a whole, and supervising the implementation of reform plans".

In previous policy statements, the Communist party had often described markets as playing a basic role in allocating resources, Xinhua news agency said, meaning the new language amounts to an upgrading of its role in the party philosophy.

"They are looking to break away from government control, allowing the markets to take the lead. In the past, prices and investment decisions were predominantly made by the government," said Dong Tao, Asia ex-Japan chief regional economist with Credit Suisse, Hong Kong. "This is a revolutionary philosophy by Chinese standards."

Still, the party did not issue any bold reform plans for the country's state-owned enterprises (SOEs), saying that while both state firms and the private sector were important and it would encourage private enterprise, the dominance of the "public sector" in the economy would be maintained.

While the statement was short on details, it is expected to kick off specific measures by state agencies over coming years to reduce the state's role in the economy.

Historically, such third plenary sessions of a newly installed central committee have acted as a springboard for key economic reforms, and this one will also serve as a first test of the new leadership's commitment to reform.

Among the issues singled out for reform, the party said it would work to deepen fiscal and tax reform, establish a unified land market in cities and the countryside, set up a sustainable social security system, and give farmers more property rights – all seen as necessary for putting the world's second-largest economy on a more sustainable footing.

Out of a long list of areas that the meeting was expected to tackle, most analysts have singled out a push towards a greater role of markets in the financial sector and reforms to public finances as those most likely to get immediate attention.

As part of that, Beijing is expected to push forward with capital account convertibility, and the 2020 target date for making significant strides on reform could trigger expectations that the government will be looking to achieve breakthroughs on freeing up the closely managed yuan by then.

Few China watchers had expected Xi and Li to take on powerful state monopolies, judging that the political costs of doing so were too high. Many economists argue that other reforms will have only limited success if the big state-owned firms' stranglehold on key markets and financing is not tackled.

But instead, the focus will be on indirect steps to limit the power of state behemoths and open up space for private and foreign rivals – opening up key markets to private and foreign investment and deregulation tested in free trade zones.

Some reforms could face stiff resistance from powerful interest groups such as local governments or state-owned monopolies, people involved in reform discussions have said.


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« Reply #9961 on: Nov 13, 2013, 07:05 AM »

Aussie PM Abbott vows to repeal tax on industrial polluters

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, November 12, 2013 22:52 EST

Australia’s new conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott Wednesday moved to abolish a carbon tax designed to combat climate change as his first major economic reform since taking office.

Abbott said the September 7 election which he won decisively had been a referendum on the future of the tax which was imposed by the former Labor government on major polluters from 2012 in a bid to reduce carbon emissions.

“No one should be in any doubt — the government is repealing the carbon tax in full,” he said as he introduced a bill to repeal the tax into parliament.

“We are doing what we were elected to do. We have said what we mean and we will do what we say — the carbon tax goes. It goes.”

Scrapping the divisive tax was a central election promise of Abbott who had argued the cost of the levy was passed on to consumers, resulting in higher utility bills and day-to-day costs.

“The intention of the new government is to put power prices down by axing this toxic tax and by using other means to reduce emissions,” he said.

“This is our bill to reduce your bills, to reduce the bills of the people of Australia.”

Abbott also said the removal of the tax would strengthen the economy of Australia, which is among the world’s worst per capita polluters due to its reliance on coal-fired power and mining exports.

The carbon tax had charged the country’s biggest polluters for their emissions at a fixed price and was due to transition to an emissions trading scheme.

The new government instead favours a “direct action” plan that includes an incentive fund to pay companies to increase their energy efficiency, a controversial sequestration of carbon in soil scheme, and the planting 20 million trees.

Abbott had earlier been forced to wait for about an hour to move the legislation after Labor, which opposes the dismantling of the tax, stalled proceedings with debate about the government’s nickname for opposition leader Bill Shorten.

The prime minister had referred to his opposition counterpart as “Electricity” Bill Shorten during a media interview earlier in the day, a moniker attacked by Labor as “name-calling”.

Then as he began to move the bill, Abbott was interrupted by yelling protesters in the public gallery.

“Inaction (on climate) is simply not good enough,” shouted one protester, one of more than a dozen removed from the chamber.

The government also introduced a bill to repeal the mining tax — a levy once proposed as a 40 percent tax on “super profits” within the industry but which was ultimately greatly reduced in size and scope after a backlash from the mining sector.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

*******************

Kevin Rudd quits politics

Australia's former PM to leave parliament, saying it's time to give back to the family who supported him for so long

Katharine Murphy, deputy political editor
theguardian.com, Wednesday 13 November 2013 10.40 GMT    

An emotional Kevin Rudd quit politics on Wednesday night, saying his family had declared that enough was enough.

The former prime minister of Australia made the announcement to the House of Representatives in the early evening, saying his retirement was effective at the end of this week. "The decision that I have made has not been taken lightly, particularly given the big attachment I have for the community I proudly represented in this place these past 15 years," Rudd said.

The Queensland Labor MP said it had been a privilege to serve as prime minister, and it had been a great privilege to return as the Labor leader before the September election.

"My family have given their all for me in public life, and for the nation. It's now time I gave something back to them," Rudd said, choking back tears. "This has been the product of much soul searching for us as a family over the last few months."

Rudd said his intention post-politics was to establish a national apology foundation, and continue his longstanding interest in international relations.

"I am passionately Australian and passionately a citizen of the world," he said. "I intend to be active in the international community in areas where I can make a genuine contribution to peace and stability, global economic governance and sustainable development, including climate change."

The emotional speech prompted a standing ovation in the chamber and sparked emotional tributes in kind.

Labor colleagues rallied in the chamber to salute the former prime minister at the obviously difficult moment of his exit, and a number of senior Coalition figures gave gracious speeches paying tribute to Rudd's achievements in office and his personal attributes.

The prime minister, Tony Abbott, told parliament that politics gave all its practitioners a limited shelf life, and wise people knew when the time had come to move on to other things. "Sooner or later, everyone outlives their usefulness," he said. "It doesn't matter how well they've done, it doesn't matter how important the cause is that they are serving – sooner or later, everyone outlives his or her usefulness."

"The essence of wisdom to know when the time has come to serve one's country and to serve one's ideals in a different capacity and, again I salute the member for Griffith for appreciating that there are good things that he could have continued to do in this parliament, for his party, for our people, for his constituents – but he has decided that he can do better things for all of those important causes elsewhere."

Abbott praised Rudd for having the political talent to snatch an election victory from John Howard in 2007, and for saying sorry to the stolen generations in 2008 – a gesture that had righted "ancient wrongs".

"Much as I admire and appreciate and put on a huge pedestal his immediate predecessor [John Howard], in this respect at least, he had lacked the imagination to grasp that opportunity and the member for Griffith – Kevin – he had the decency to see that here was something that needed to be done," Abbott said in his tribute on Wednesday night.

"He did it with courage, with decency, compassion and that alone is an extraordinary achievement."

The treasury, Joe Hockey, the communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and the manager of government business, Christopher Pyne, praised Rudd's service to Labor and to the nation. All praised his resilience and his tenacity.

The Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, remarked that Rudd's profound emotion during his farewell had sparked a moment of true "empathy in the chamber".

Rudd's friend, and the former deputy prime minister Anthony Albanese, said the member for Griffith was a giant of the party and of the movement. He said the mode of Rudd's departure proved he was a "class act".

The departure of Rudd will prompt a byelection in his Brisbane seat of Griffith.

The former Labor leader had been given a string of public advice by colleagues inside and outside the parliament to move on from public life after the September election defeat to let the ALP move beyond the damaging personality fights and the poisonous tribal warfare of the Rudd/Gillard period.

Rudd backers had slapped down such interventions, arguing that the former prime minister had earned the right to make that determination in his own time.

His successor in the Labor leadership, Bill Shorten, in paying tribute to Rudd, referenced the tensions and strains prompted by the debilitating leadership struggle between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

"This is a tumultuous era in Labor and with the member for Griffith's resignation tonight part of it comes to a close," Shorten told parliament.

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« Reply #9962 on: Nov 13, 2013, 07:06 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
11/12/2013 06:34 PM

Lebanese Black Market: Syrian Refugees Sell Organs to Survive

By Ulrike Putz

In the shadow of the Syrian civil war, a growing number of refugees are surviving in Lebanon by illegally selling their own organs. But the exchange comes at a huge cost.

The young man, who called himself Raïd, wasn't doing well. He climbed into the backseat of the car, in pain, careful not to touch any corners. He was exhausted and dizzy. A large bandage looped around his stomach, caked with blood. Despite that, the 19-year-old Syrian wanted to tell his story.

Seven months ago, he fled the embattled city of Aleppo, in Syria, to Lebanon with his parents and six siblings. The family quickly ran out of money in the capital, Beirut. Raïd heard from a relative that the solution could be to sell one of his kidneys, and then he spoke to a bull-necked man, now sitting in the passenger seat, smoking and drinking a beer.

His acquaintances call the man Abu Hussein. He said he's employed by a gang that works in the human organ trade - specializing in kidneys. The group's business is booming. About one million Syrians have fled into Lebanon because of the civil war in their home country and now many don't know how they can make a living. In their distress, they sell their organs. It's a dangerous and, of course, illegal business. That's why the gang has its operations performed in shady underground clinics.

Abu Hussein's boss is known in the poor areas of Beirut as "Big Man." Fifteen months ago, Big Man gave the 26-year-old a new assignment: find organ donors. The influx of Syrian refugees from the war, Abu Hussein's boss argued, made it more likely people would be willing to sell organs.

'More Sellers Than Buyers'

Lebanon has a tradition of illegal organ trading. The country has immensely rich people and a huge number of people living in poverty. And organ traffickers don't need to worry about government controls. Those are exactly the ideal conditions for organ trafficking, said Luc Noel, transplant expert at the World Health Organization in Geneva.

Every year, tens of thousands of rich Arabs from around the region come to Beirut for treatment in the country's excellent hospitals. The authorities don't pay attention whether a patient flies home with a new nose -- or with a new kidney.

Previously, it was mostly destitute Palestinians who sold their organs. Then came the war in Syria, and then the refugees. Now the groups are in competition and the prices are falling.

"When it comes to kidneys, we now have far more sellers than buyers," said Abu Hussein. He added that four of the Big Man's other recruiters have brokered the sales of 150 kidneys in the past 12 months. According to Abu Hussein, other gangs are doing similarly well.

Experts estimate that 5,000 to 10,000 kidneys are illegally transplanted per year worldwide. "Many of our products go abroad to, for example, the Persian Gulf," said Abu Hussein. But Big Man also has customers in the US and Europe, he said.

Enough to Survive On Until Spring

Raïd had no trouble selling his left kidney because he was fit and didn't smoke. He played for the Syrian national youth soccer team. During the examinations doctors told him lies evidently meant to calm him down. With a little luck, the kidney would grow back, he was told, and there wouldn't be any after-effects. In truth, live donors need to undergo check-ups for years after the operation, and people like Raïd can't afford that kind of treatment.

He got $7,000 (€5,200) for his kidney. "While I drove Raïd and his mother to the clinic, a colleague of mine was shopping with the father," says Abu Hussein. The family lacked everything: Raïd's father bought mattresses and winter clothing, a fridge and an oven, and took it all to the one room the family of eight lives in today. They have enough left over to get through the winter. And then? "I don't know," says Raïd.

Abu Hussein says everyone benefits from the organ trade. The Syrians get money and the sick -- who pay up to $15,000 for a new kidney -- get a new life. He himself wins too, he added. He gets $600 to $700 commission for every sale he arranges. That's as much as a Lebanese teacher earns in a month.

'I Don't Care If You Die'

Abu Hussein said that in the last few months he has driven 15 or 16 kidney donors - all of them Syrians aged between 14 and 30 - to the secret clinic masquerading as a residential building. The clinic has the most modern medical equipment and doesn't want to limit itself to kidneys. "I'm currently looking for someone who has an eye for sale."

Later that evening it became evident not everyone benefits from this trade. Raïd, sitting in the back of the car, was feeling unwell. His kidney had been cut out from the front, seven days ago. "I need the drugs. You said you would get me the drugs," he said to Abu Hussein who just minutes earlier had been bragging how well his organization took care of the Syrians.

But when Raïd asks for painkillers, Abu Hussein shouts at him: "Shut up. I don't care if you die. You're finished anyway."

******************

November 12, 2013

Private Donors’ Funds Add Wild Card to War in Syria

By BEN HUBBARD
IHT

AL SUBAYHIYAH, Kuwait — The money flows in via bank transfer or is delivered in bags or pockets bulging with cash. Working from his sparely furnished sitting room here, Ghanim al-Mteiri gathers the funds and transports them to Syria for the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Mteiri — one of dozens of Kuwaitis who openly raise money to arm the opposition — has helped turn this tiny, oil-rich Persian Gulf state into a virtual Western Union outlet for Syria’s rebels, with the bulk of the funds he collects going to a Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda.

One Kuwait-based effort raised money to equip 12,000 rebel fighters for $2,500 each. Another campaign, run by a Saudi sheikh based in Syria and close to Al Qaeda, is called “Wage Jihad With Your Money.” Donors earn “silver status” by giving $175 for 50 sniper bullets, or “gold status” by giving twice as much for eight mortar rounds.

“Once upon a time we cooperated with the Americans in Iraq,” said Mr. Mteiri, a former soldier in the Kuwaiti Army, recalling the American role in pushing Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991. “Now we want to get Bashar out of Syria, so why not cooperate with Al Qaeda?”

Outside support for the warring parties in Syria has helped sustain the conflict and transformed it into a proxy battle by regional powers, with Russia, Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah helping the government and with Saudi Arabia and Qatar providing the main support for the rebels.

But the flow of private funds to rebel groups has added a wild-card factor to the war, analysts say, exacerbating divisions in the opposition and bolstering its most extreme elements. While the West has been hesitant to arm and finance the more secular forces that initially led the turn to armed rebellion, fighters have flocked to Islamist militias and in some cases rebranded themselves as jihadist because that is where the money is.

“It creates a self-sustaining dynamic that is totally independent of all the strategic and diplomatic games that are happening and being led by states,” said Emile Hokayem, an analyst in the Middle East with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Most private donors shun the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, undermining a body meant to unify the rebels into a moderate force. And they dismiss the opposition’s political leadership as well as calls by the United States and other powers for peace talks. With funds estimated to be at least in the tens of millions of dollars, they have contributed to the effective partition of Syria, building up independent Islamist militias that control territory while espousing radical ideology, including the creation of an Islamic state.

Rebel fund-raisers have relied heavily on social media. Some have hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, where they spread posts calling for donations, announcing drop-off points and listing phone numbers where operators are standing by.

Prominent fund-raisers often boast of attacks by their preferred groups, which thank them with videos showing their new weapons.

The campaigners say they are merely helping the oppressed.

Sheikh Mohammed Haif al-Mteiri, a former member of Parliament who is not related to the former Kuwaiti soldier and leads a committee that funds mainline rebel groups, said private funding would not exist if countries like the United States had intervened to protect Syrian civilians.

Kuwait lacks a tough police state like those that have cracked down on such activity in other gulf states, and a range of Islamists participate in its relatively open political system. A number of former members of Parliament actively raise funds, and some have traveled to Syria to meet their rebel allies. Kuwait’s turning a blind eye to the fund-raising has upset Washington.

The nation’s location and banking system also make it easy for donors from more restrictive countries to wire money in or drive it across the border for drop-off.

Some fund-raisers and donors have amplified the conflict’s sectarian overtones, calling for revenge against Shiites and Alawites, the sect of Mr. Assad.

“Among the beautiful things inside Syria is that the mujahedeen have realized that they need to deeply hit the Alawites, in the same way they kill our wives and children,” Sheikh Shafi al-Ajmi, a prominent Kuwaiti fund-raiser, told an interviewer this year.

The sheikh declined to comment. But in an interview, his brother, Mohammed al-Ajmi, said that their group funded operations rooms for military campaigns and that the Nusra Front, a Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, was free to work with them. He denied that fighters funded by his group had killed civilians.

“We believe that in the end, God will ask you, ‘What did you do?’ and you will need to have an answer,” Mr. Ajmi said.

Most fund-raisers refuse to disclose how much money they collect, other than announcing gifts on social media. Private support is believed to be less than that sent by states, although Western and Arab officials acknowledged that underground funding was difficult to track.

The Kuwaiti government has played down the importance of the funds, saying Kuwait’s charitable contributions dwarf any cash sent for arms.

The minister for cabinet affairs, Sheikh Mohammed al-Abdullah al-Sabah, said in an interview that the government had sent more than $500 million in aid to Syria’s neighbors in addition to money sent by licensed Kuwaiti charities.

He compared private funding to the smuggling of drugs or Cuban cigars into the United States, saying the government could do no more to stop it.

“How am I supposed to stop someone who gets on a plane with $10,000 in his jacket pocket?” he said.

American officials disagree.

“The Kuwaitis could be doing a lot more on this issue,” said David S. Cohen, the Treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. He said that Kuwait posed the region’s biggest problem of financing linked to extremists in Syria, and that American efforts to press the issue with the Kuwaiti government had yielded limited results.

Mr. Cohen declined to estimate the amount of private funding flowing through Kuwait to Syria, but said it was enough to equip extremist fighters with ample light arms and supplies.

The funding operation run by Mr. Mteiri, the former Kuwaiti soldier, illustrates how the campaigns work and the motivations behind them.

In an interview often interrupted by tea and prayer breaks, Mr. Mteiri, 40, said he had been moved to raise funds for Syria by a video of a young girl crying uncontrollably after government forces killed her father. At the same time, he hopes the war alters Syria’s character.

“We seek to end Alawite rule in Syria because we consider it a Sunni country and the capital of the Islamic world,” he said.

Last year, a conference he organized for members of his tribe, one of the gulf’s largest, opened soon after a mass killing by government forces in Houla, prompting more than $14 million in donations in five days, Mr. Mteiri said. The sum could not be verified.

Since then, he has organized more conferences and overseen aid convoys while collecting donations. One wealthy businessman gave $1.7 million, he said, though most donations are smaller. Two brides had given him their wedding dowries, he said, and children had donated their iPads.

While he spoke, his iPhone buzzed, and he showed a visitor a bank transfer notice for $1,300 from Saudi Arabia.

Lately, his focus has shifted to arms. He said he divided the money into smaller bundles to be taken by couriers to Turkey. From there, he carries it across the border, where most of it goes to the Nusra Front, which he called Syria’s most “effective and realistic” rebel group.

Mr. Mteiri was wounded this year while fighting alongside the group in Aleppo, and a cousin was killed in battle in February. Still, Kuwait has done nothing to limit his movements.

“Praise God, we are a democratic country, and popular movement is legal,” Mr. Mteiri said.

Robert F. Worth contributed reporting from Washington, and Karam Shoumali from Istanbul.


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« Reply #9963 on: Nov 13, 2013, 07:08 AM »


Binyamin Netanyahu halts West Bank settlement plan

Israeli prime minister acts hours after housing ministry announcement provokes Palestinian threat to quit peace talks

Associated Press in Jerusalem
theguardian.com, Wednesday 13 November 2013 01.02 GMT   

Israel's prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has abruptly halted a plan to explore the potential construction of thousands of new homes in West Bank settlements, saying it had created an unnecessary confrontation with the international community that threatened to weaken his campaign against Iran's nuclear programme.

His decision came just hours after Israel's housing ministry announced the scheme, prompting a Palestinian threat to walk out of US-brokered peace talks. It also drew angry criticism from officials in Washington, who said they had been blindsided by the move.

Netanyahu said he had asked his housing minister, Uri Ariel, to reconsider the plan and said Ariel, a member of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, had drawn up the plan "without any advance coordination".

Netanyahu said: "This step does not contribute to settlement. On the contrary, there is damage here for settlement. This is a meaningless step – legally and in practice – and an action that creates an unnecessary confrontation with the international community at a time when we are making an effort to persuade elements in the international community to reach a better deal with Iran."

Ariel had accepted the request, Netanyahu said.

The issue of settlement construction has been at the heart of a standstill in peace efforts in recent years. The Palestinians claim the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in 1967, for an independent state. They say Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands is a sign of bad faith. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

The anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now, which closely monitors construction activity, said Ariel's plans included nearly 20,000 apartments in the West Bank and 4,000 in east Jerusalem.

Peace Now says Netanyahu's government has given final approval for nearly 3,500 new homes in Jewish settlements since taking office last March and has promoted plans for nearly 9,000 additional homes.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said he had contacted the US, Russia, the European Union, the United Nations and the Arab League to voice objections.

"I informed them that if Israel implements this decision, then this means the end of the negotiations and the end of the peace process," Erekat said.

In Washington, state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: "Our position on settlements is quite clear – we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity. We've called on both sides to take steps to create a positive atmosphere for the negotiation."

The housing ministry said it had published bids seeking architectural firms to look into possible construction of 600,000 homes nationwide to ease a chronic housing crunch.


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« Reply #9964 on: Nov 13, 2013, 07:11 AM »

November 12, 2013

New U.N. Brigade’s Aggressive Stance in Africa Brings Success, and Risks

By NICHOLAS KULISH and SOMINI SENGUPTA
IHT

KIWANJA, Democratic Republic of Congo — When Martin Kobler, the newly appointed United Nations representative, arrived this summer for his first visit to this small but strategic town, armed members of the M23 rebel group lined the airstrip, silently watching him land and disembark. Their presence sent an unmistakable message: the rebels, not Congolese officials, controlled Kiwanja.

But when he landed at the end of October, he was greeted instead by crowds of cheering civilians. The armed fighters who had terrorized them were nowhere in sight. Congolese forces, supported by United Nations peacekeepers, had routed the rebels and restored control of the town to the central government.

“Our task is to dissolve political blockage, to end occupation by armed forces, to restore state authority, to bring back hope to the people,” said Mr. Kobler, a German career diplomat and special representative of the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. “You have to find new instruments to restore the peace.”

The new instrument in question was the Force Intervention Brigade, made up of 3,000 soldiers from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi. Rather than waiting for attacks, the United Nations Security Council authorized the troops to “neutralize armed groups.” It was a major departure from the often passive approach that has given peacekeepers a bad reputation, from failing to prevent the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica to not intervening to stop the massacres of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda.

Those instructions, delivered with rare agreement among members of the Council, were certainly a gamble. They aimed not only to restore hope to the long-suffering people of Congo, but also to rehabilitate the image of the United Nations peacekeepers, under whose watch a massacre took place in this very town in 2008. For the moment, the gamble appears to have paid off, even as it raises new risks.

The pitfalls of backing one side in such a conflict were on full display this week after the Congolese government walked out on peace talks with the rebels.

“Despite a change in the military situation, it is important that there be a political conclusion to the dialogue,” said a group of envoys representing the international community in a statement on Monday, including Mr. Kobler and his counterparts from the United States, African Union and European Union.

Still, the intervention brigade, combined with forceful diplomatic pressure and financial incentives for neighboring Rwanda, has made a dent in a seemingly endless war.

“I think it has contributed to rebuilding the credibility of the U.N., which was almost nonexistent in the Congo after years of humiliation,” said Jean-Marie Guéhenno, who was the United Nations peacekeeping chief from 2000 to 2008, and under whose watch its blue helmets were overwhelmed by rebel forces in eastern Congo.

The shift could have broad implications for peacekeeping operations all over the world. Nearly 100,000 uniformed personnel serve under the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, from the Western Sahara and Haiti to the island of Cyprus and the mountains of Kashmir.

The United States special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa, Russ Feingold, described the intervention brigade as “a stronger approach that can give peacekeeping operations more strength in the future and help resolve knotty problems.”

He added, “The story has yet to be written, but the first couple chapters are very good.”

Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, described the new brigade as having “invigorated” the efforts of both Congolese troops and the rest of the United Nations mission.

The decision to send the blue helmets into offensive operations has not met with universal approval. Humanitarian aid organizations worry that the shift could put their workers at risk because armed groups will not distinguish between soldiers and those who feed, heal and house civilians in war.

“You can have a helicopter one day used to deliver the Force Intervention Brigade troops to attack a village and next day to deliver aid to that same village,” said Michiel Hofman, senior humanitarian specialist for Doctors Without Borders in Brussels. “In this case it’s not even a blurring of the lines.”

Mr. Guéhenno, who now teaches at Columbia University, warned against relying too much on force, saying that the key to ending the war in Congo, is persuading regional leaders to cooperate, out of their own mutual self-interest.

“It’s not a SWAT team that’s going to clean up a bad neighborhood,” Mr. Guéhenno said. “That requires politics.”

A more aggressive approach could also alienate countries like India and Uruguay, which have traditionally sent many troops to serve in United Nations operations. Such countries see peacekeeping missions as a way to get training, equipment and extra pay for their forces with relatively little risk of casualties.

“Some of the troop-contributing countries are quite uneasy with what they see as the direction peacekeeping is taking,” said a senior United Nations official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly.

The Security Council was “careful to say it was not a precedent, but every time you say that that’s exactly what you’re making,” the official said.

Mr. Kobler’s military counterpart in Congo, whom he describes as his “twin,” Lt. Gen. Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, has used all the soldiers under his command more aggressively and said that he has no plan to change tactics.

“We are going to exercise our mandate to the maximum possible, not only against M23, against all the groups,” General Cruz said. “When we finish one problem, we are in our heads thinking about the next step.”

Dozens of armed groups remain in eastern Congo, a region where millions have died in a war that has drawn in the country’s neighbors and raged for two decades. The Congolese Army is also part of the problem: It has been cited for wide-ranging human rights abuses for years. Analysts warn that the defeat of a single group like the M23, which was plagued by internal dissent and weakened even before the latest offensive, is no reason for triumphalism.

Intense diplomatic pressure on Rwanda to cooperate and financial incentives, namely a handsome package from the World Bank, also helped.

The United Nations force in Congo includes nearly 19,000 military personnel and costs nearly $1.5 billion a year.

Mr. Kobler, an experienced German diplomat, served stints as ambassador in Egypt and Iraq, and more recently for the United Nations in Afghanistan.

Wiry and energetic, Mr. Kobler has ricocheted across the region to seek an end to the fighting. The day the most recent round of fighting erupted last month, Mr. Kobler flew immediately from the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, to the eastern city of Goma, a thousand miles away, to tour the front line. The next day he flew to Kigali, Rwanda, for meetings, then on to Kampala, Uganda, before ending the weekend here.

He returned the following day with the governor of the province. On the helicopter ride there he peered out the window at the farmed hillsides, waving to farmers and children below as if he could conduct public relations for the United Nations from the air.

The visit included a memorial service for a fallen Tanzanian peacekeeper, Lt. Rajabu Ahmed Mlima, 36, who was killed by rebel fire under a blooming bougainvillea as the intervention brigade fought the rebels. His death was a reminder that aggressive military tactics can exact a heavy toll. To the low thrum of helicopter rotors overhead, Mr. Kobler and other dignitaries laid garlands over a framed photograph of Lieutenant Mlima.

“This is a sad moment. We see one of us depart with the ultimate sacrifice,” Mr. Kobler said. “He lost his life for the values of the United Nations, for protecting civilians, for defending human rights, for fighting for the benefit of the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Nicholas Kulish reported from Kiwanja, and Somini Sengupta from the United Nations.


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« Reply #9965 on: Nov 13, 2013, 07:12 AM »

November 12, 2013

Born in Protest, a Soccer Team Hailed by the People and the Government

By CARLOTTA GALL
IHT

ALGIERS — They have a reputation for smashing everything in their wake. Their nickname is the Chnawa, literally “the Chinese,” a politically incorrect reference not only to their large numbers but also to their reputation as an unstoppable horde.

They are the fans of Mouloudia Algiers, the doyen of soccer in Algeria and the beating heart of the nation. Even though the club does not always win the national championship, Mouloudia is by far the most popular team in the country and the one that politicians, and the government, want on their side.

Thousands of Mouloudia fans rocked a city stadium for a local match on a recent weekend, jumping and chanting in unison to African drum beats for hours before kickoff and throughout the game. Police officers with batons and helmets stood guard in the stands and escorted the referees on and off the field. Scores of police riot vehicles lined the streets outside the stadium. But the fans departed in good humor this time — Mouloudia won the match, 1-0.

Founded nearly 100 years ago, Mouloudia is deeply tied into the country’s history and politics, a force in the war of independence against France and a powerful political tool for the government in the decades since.

The club was created by four soccer enthusiasts who gathered one day in a cafe on a narrow alley of the Casbah, the medieval walled city that still forms the citadel of Algiers, on the hillside above the original Phoenician port. The four had the idea to form a soccer club for Algerians. In French colonial Algeria, that alone was a revolutionary act. Muslims were second-class citizens in their own country, and until then a club without French participation was not permitted.

“They decided to make a Muslim club,” said El-Hadi Domeche, the president of Mouloudia’s fan club and a lifetime fan. “It was an act against colonialism.”

The day they founded the club was the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, a day known as Mouloud in Arabic, so they named their club Mouloudia, an unbeatable name in Muslim Algeria. The club rapidly won supporters among the conservative, working-class population of the Casbah and beyond, for it combined three things Algerians cared passionately about: freedom, religion and soccer.

The team struggled at first, too poor to buy uniforms. The French colonialists called them the “Chiffoniers,” the ragmen.

Many of the team’s fans still live in and around the Casbah, and the leaders of the fan club meet in a cafe on the seafront in the shade of the quarter’s oldest mosque, the Jamaa Lekbir. They tell tales of the war of independence against the French Army in the 1950s, when the Casbah became the center of an urban guerrilla campaign made famous by the 1966 movie “The Battle of Algiers.”

Independence fighters conducted hit-and-run attacks on the French Army and the police, and left bombs in cafes and offices in the French quarter. The Casbah, with its warren of narrow stairways and closely packed houses, provided myriad escape routes and hiding places for the fighters.

Fighters could even escape across the rooftops, jumping from one terrace to another, because the houses were jammed in so close to one another. “You could go for two kilometers,” said Djilali Tchicha, a resident of the upper Casbah, whose family hid two resistance leaders in an upper room during the war.

Mr. Tchicha’s elder brother was a resistance fighter who was killed in a shootout with French troops. The same night soldiers surrounded their house, broke down the door and took away four other brothers. Mr. Tchicha, then 10 years old, avoided arrest, but he says he never forgot the face of the informer who accompanied the French troops that night.

The tightly knit community of the Casbah protected the guerrillas. Women, who were not searched at checkpoints, would carry the weapons and explosives to assignments for them. Old men and boys worked as lookouts. Mouloudia suspended play through those years, from 1956 to 1960.

Residents are reluctant to talk about the civil war that tore Algeria apart in the 1990s. Mouloudia fans, and people of the Casbah, were once again caught in the middle. They had overwhelmingly voted for the Islamists who swept the elections in 1992, and opposed the government coup and crackdown that followed.

But when Islamist guerrillas infiltrated the Casbah and atrocities mounted, the people turned against the insurgents and pushed them out. The Casbah, long an area to avoid, has returned to calm.

Mouloudia, too, has found an even keel, with government support and financial backing over the years from the state oil company, Sonatrach. The fan club supported President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the 2009 elections and showed signs that it would do so again despite his increasing infirmity. Mouloudia fans were the first to call for Mr. Bouteflika to run for a fourth term — in a chant during a soccer match.

That may be one step too far for the freedom-loving fan club. The head of the fan club at the time, Hakim Boukadoum, resigned in protest. “Mouloudia is revolution,” he explained.


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« Reply #9966 on: Nov 13, 2013, 07:35 AM »

A deadly virus could travel at jet speed around the world. How do we stop it in time?

By Alok Jha, The Guardian
Tuesday, November 12, 2013 8:17 EST

Silent and deadly, a virus will leap from an animal to a human and literally fly round the world. Millions of lives will depend on the skills of scientists.

Walk past the endless rows of vegetables, past the dozens of stalls selling every possible part of a pig and, at the centre of Cao Lanh city’s market, a woman is doing a brisk trade in selling rats for food. Two cages swarm with them on a table next to her. Live frogs are available too, and, on the floor near her stall is a box of sluggish snakes. Chickens and ducks cluck and quack nearby. A faint smell of urine thickens air that is already heavy from the previous night’s rains.

Rats are a staple source of meat in Vietnam, farmed and sold much like any other livestock. The stallholder butchers the animals to order. Reaching into the cage she will grab an animal by its tail, hit its head across a large stone, chop off its feet and head with a large pair of scissors, skin it, cut it into pieces and place everything into a small yellow plastic bag. Inevitably, the animal’s blood ends up on her hands.

Scores of people are selling and butchering live animals, breathing the same air and in constant contact with the animals’ blood, urine and faeces. This woman, and many others like her who work in the farms and abattoirs deep in southern Vietnam’s Mekong delta, are doing what they have done for generations. And now they are in the front line in a new scientific race to predict the next pandemic.

Of the roughly 400 emerging infectious diseases that have been identified since 1940, more than 60% are zoonotic ie they came from animals. Throughout history this has been common. HIV originated in monkeys, ebola in bats, influenza in pigs and birds. The rate at which new pathogens are emerging is on the rise, even taking into account the increase in awareness and surveillance. Which pathogens will cross the species barrier next, and which one is the greatest potential public health concern, is a subject of intense interest. A modern outbreak, caused by a previously unknown virus, could travel at jet-speed around the world, spreading across the continents in just a few days, causing illness, panic and death.

Pathogens have transferred from animals to people for as long as we have had contact. The ancient domestication of livestock led to the emergence of measles, and further intensification of farming in recent decades has caused problems such as the brain-wasting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of BSE. Expanding trade routes in the 14th century spread the rat-borne Black Death across Europe and smallpox to the Americas in the 16th century. Today’s tightly connected world has seen the spread of swine flu, Sars, West Nile virus and H5N1 bird flu.

The biggest pandemic on record was the 1918 Spanish influenza, which killed 50 million people at a time when the fastest way to travel the globe was by ship. In 2009 swine flu was the most recent pandemic that got public health officials concerned; first detected in April of that year in Mexico, it turned up in London within a week.

One of the most worrying recent outbreaks for scientists was the re-emergence of the H5N1 bird flu virus in 2005. Jeremy Farrar, a professor of tropical medicine and global health at Oxford University and, until recently head of the university’s clinical research unit in Vietnam, says he remembers the night a young girl came into the children’s hospital in Ho Chi Minh City with a serious lung infection. Initially, he thought that it might have been Sars – a coronavirus that had first been identified in China in late 2002 and had spread rapidly to Canada among other places – making its comeback. That was until he heard the girl’s story from a colleague.

“This is years ago and I remember the story as if it was yesterday,” he says. “She had been playing with her duck, arguing with her brother. They had buried it when it died and she had dug it up later to re-bury it somewhere she wanted to bury it.”

The duck was the crucial part of the evidence in determining that this was a new outbreak and Farrar says that for the next few hours, no one knew how bad it would get. Would the girl’s family come in during the night with infections? Would the nurses and doctors be affected?

H5N1 did not become the next Sars and was contained, although 98 people were infected and 43 died in 2005. It has not gone away, says Farrar, and is still circulating in poultry and ducks in almost the whole of Asia, remaining a major concern for human cases, given how virulent it is when people get infected.

A successful zoonotic pathogen manages to jump from an animal to a person, invades their cells, replicates and then finds a way to transmit to other people. Working out which pathogens will make the leap – a process called “spillover” – is not easy. A pathogen from a primate, for example, is more likely to spill over to humans than a pathogen from a rat, which is more likely to do so than something from a bird. Frequency of contact is also important; someone working on a live bird farm is more likely to be exposed to a multitude of animal viruses than someone living in a city who only sees a monkey in a zoo.

“The truth is, we really don’t know how much of this happens,” says Derek Smith, a professor of infectious disease informatics at the University of Cambridge. “Much more is noticed today than was noticed 50 years ago and was noticed 50 years before that. There are reasons to think this might be because we disrupt habitats and come into contact with animals we haven’t been in contact with before. We have different things that we do socially, perhaps, than we did in the past. But we also look harder.”

Viruses and other pathogens continually flow between species, often with no effects, sometimes mutating, once in a while causing illness. This mixing is known as “viral chatter” and the more different species come into regular close contact, the higher the chances of a spillover event occurring.

“This is how viruses have always worked, the big change is us,” says Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh. “The big change happened probably several thousands of years ago when we became a crowd species and that gave these viruses new opportunities which they hadn’t had before in humans. Ever since then, from time to time a new virus has come along to take advantage of this new, very densely populated, crowded species – humans – that it can now spread between much more easily. That process is still happening; the viruses are still discovering us. We like to think we discover viruses, but it’s also the viruses discovering us.”

Tracking what is moving between which species is the task of Stephen Baker’s team, based at the Oxford University clinical research unit in Ho Chi Minh City. Baker is an infectious disease biologist who co-ordinates the Vizions project and I met him at his lab while I was making a Radio 4 documentary about the scientific hunt for the next big pandemic.

His sampling teams visit farms, markets and abattoirs across Vietnam to take regular blood from people at high risk of being subject to a spillover event. This high-risk cohort, which will eventually number 1,000 people, will be monitored every six months and, if they ever turn up sick at a hospital, Baker’s team will get an alert. The sampling teams also take blood and faecal swabs from pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and rats and anything else living nearby.

During a trip to a smallholding near the Cao Lanh food market, Baker explains that it is at places like this, where people are in regular and close contact with animals, that scientists will be able to get their first hints of any spillovers that might become a bigger threat. The farm, which is typical of Vietnam and other parts of south-east Asia, has a range of animals – pigs, ducks and free-range chickens. They are in close exposure to each other and any farmworkers, too. The farms next door are only separated by lines of trees or small fences. As well as the farm animals, Baker’s team also do their best to sample wild animals in the vicinity, including civets, rats and bats, that can easily transport pathogens across wide distances.

The other part of the Vizions project is to enrol around 10,000 people over the next three years from those who turn up to hospitals with infections of the central nervous system, respiratory system, lower gut or jaundice. By cataloguing the viruses in their blood and other bodily fluids, Baker wants to build up a database of the kinds of things circulating in different parts of the country.

If there is new influenza, or other zoonotic virus outbreak, Baker’s samples will allow scientists to go back in time and investigate where it had been circulating before: “That will allow us to document, retrospectively, what animals that was circulating in and how many people were potentially exposed. We’re on the front line of trying to understand how frequently these things may occur.”

Another animal of interest to Baker, and many other groups around the world, is the bat. It has become clear in the past few decades that they are the source of some of the most feared human infections, including ebola, Marburg and all the rabies viruses. Bats are also the natural reservoirs for the coronaviruses (including Sars and the recent Mers virus) and newer viruses such as nipah and hendra. Sometimes these have transferred directly to people, and other times they have first crossed into domestic animals.

How do bats survive as reservoirs for all these viruses that are so deadly in other species? James Wood, head of the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Cambridge, says there is likely to be a variety of reasons, not least that bats have different or better-developed innate immune systems that allow them to cope with pathogens that kill other species. With colleagues in Ghana, he has been following populations of fruit bats, sometimes numbering in excess of 10 million individuals, that pass through Accra or Kasanka National Park in a remote part of Zambia.

“The particular viruses we’re looking at in this species include a rabies-like virus and a henipavirus, a family of viruses in Australia and south-east Asia that have passed from bats to humans,” says Wood. “The populations we study, we’re repeatedly sampling from on a quarterly or two-monthly basis depending on the season the bats are there. We take blood samples and swabs and urine and faecal samples then release them.”

Henipaviruses cause brain infections in people and can be deadly – around half of those infected die. These viruses have spread from bats to humans either directly, such as the 2004 outbreak of nipah in Bangladesh. Or it can spread via domestic animals; in 2010, hendra spread via horses in Australia.

Wood and his colleagues have also been looking at what other environmental factors there might in working out why, in some situations, people get infected and in others they do not. “It may be that the local ecosystem services play a key role in determining risk,” he says. “It may well be that, in some situations where there’s really rich biodiversity, that can act as a sink for these different viruses, which makes them less likely to spread over into human populations. In other ecosystems that are perhaps more degraded, it may well be that there is more chance, because you have just single species living on their own, there’s more chance of spillover happening from bats to humans or from bats to other animals.”

Efforts around the world to collect and analyse blood from people and animals will give scientists and public health officials plenty of data to help track new infections. In the best case, having sequences of viruses on file, located to particular countries or even to particular regions within countries, will give vital information after a novel virus is spotted in a hospital. As well as medical and travel histories for a patient, clinicians will be able to match the virus to known viruses and will therefore be able to concentrate their efforts in containing it. They cannot, however, use this data to predict spillover events or, more crucially, when a virus might be dangerous enough to cause a pandemic.

“Not every virus that crosses over will make it [to an outbreak],” says Woolhouse. “Understanding the differences between those that do and those that don’t is a major research question. That comes back to reading the [virus] genome – the information that you’re going to have quickly that you didn’t have a few years ago is the genome sequence.

“If you could read that and interpret it and say, “this one does look like it has the potential to infect and spread between humans” then we’re much further ahead of the game than we were before.”

Ron Fouchier’s microbiology labs are on the 17th floor of a building on the sprawling building site that is currently the Erasmus University medical centre based in Rotterdam. His work encompasses a wide variety of viruses, everything from influenza to HIV, carried out by PhD students and postdocs. They work on some deadly pathogens, but the safety protocols are well-trained into everyone who walks the halls and the atmosphere is convivial and unworried.

One lab, however, is not among this network of rooms. Fouchier will not say where it is and, in fact, will not even hint at its general direction from his office. Last year, in that biosafety level 3 facility, he carried out his experiments to mutate the virulent H5N1 flu virus from its wild form, which is dangerous when it infects people but cannot transmit between people, into a modified form that can potentially transmit from one person to another.

The air inside the level 3 lab is at a lower pressure than the air outside, to stop anything escaping through the doors. The air itself goes through virus filters and all experiments are carried out in small, sealed boxes where the airflow is carefully controlled. The scientists operating inside always work in pairs and have to wear masks, thick rubber gloves and are all vaccinated against H5N1. Only six people have access to the steel lockers where the mutated flu virus is stored.

The work was not without controversy. The US authorities prevented Fouchier, and a separate team of scientists led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, from publishing their work for many months, fearful that the information might be used by those who want to make biological weapons.

Fouchier said his work addressed a crucial question of basic science: “Scientists didn’t really know what makes any virus airborne in mammals so we were really in the dark. We knew of some mutations from previous pandemics, but whether that would apply to other flu viruses nobody knows.” The only way to figure that out was to take those mutations and see if they can make the H5N1 virus airborne as well – in other words, make it transmissible between people via a cough or sneeze.

Influenza pandemics of the past century and a half have all been viruses of the H1, H2 and H3 subtypes. So far, no H5 viruses have caused pandemics because of their inability to transmit between people in the wild. “Until we did the experiments, many expert virologists were of the opinion that H5N1 would never become airborne,” says Fouchier. “With [our] information we show a very strong message to the field that we should not underestimate the chances of an unknown virus subtype causing the next virus pandemic,” says Fouchier.

His experiments found that the natural version of the H5N1 virus, which is currently circulating in flocks of birds around the world, needs only five mutations in its genetic sequence to become potentially transmissible between people.

In a separate paper, Derek Smith looked at how common these mutations were in the wild. “We found that, of the five mutations that were identified, two existed in the wild in quite large numbers and that there really are only three further mutations the virus would need, of the ones Fouchier and Kawaoka identified, in order to be potentially transmissible between humans,” he says. “Of those three, two had never been seen in the wild but one had been seen very, very occasionally. When it had been seen, it didn’t seem to occur in a particular region and then persist for a little while and go away, it was just seen in two or three viruses sporadically.”

Fouchier’s work was controversial at the time of publication but he is bullish about its benefits. Better surveillance capability, for a start, since scientists can routinely look for the specific five mutations in any new influenza viruses that emerge in the wild. If a flock of chickens was found to have a virus with three or four of the dangerous mutations, for example, the decision to cull them would be more clear-cut. The genetically modified viruses will also be useful in testing new vaccines and antivirals more accurately.

The detailed knowledge being gathered about influenza is already impressive but any prediction of transmission events will require even more granular data. Such as, how many virus particles are transmitted in a cough? How likely is it that the viruses that are transmitted are the versions that are the most dangerous in terms of being able to cause a pandemic?

And this sort of work needs to happen with other viruses if scientists want a hope of predicting big pandemics. Scientists might be worried about bats, for example, but have precious little knowledge about the physiology of their viruses. “A huge amount of basic biology needs to be done with these viruses to understand their mode of transmission between different species,” says Wood. “Understanding at that whole animal level about transmission but also understanding the sub-cellular mechanisms of replication of these viruses could be really valuable in terms of trying to pinpoint what particular virus features are associated with transmission to humans and which ones aren’t.”

As the scientific effort to build a front-line defence against pandemics gathers pace, authorities need protocols to handle and make decisions on the information coming in. The detection of a potential pandemic virus needs scientific boots on the ground for surveillance, but what happens if they spot something they think is dangerous? A decade ago, when Sars was breaking out in China, the country restricted information and some people think this led to the outbreak lasting longer than it should have done.

Things are different now, says Farrar, who took up his new post as the director of the Wellcome Trust in October. “It really has changed out of all recognition in that 10 years and large areas of the response mode is now reasonable, we’ve made progress. Sars was in Asia and Canada; coming through to H5N1 we had learned a little bit and improved but there were still gaps; coming through to H7N9, which is another new virus emerging which humans do not have any immunity to in China this year, the Chinese response has been exemplary. As soon as it emerged, it was picked up, the information was communicated both privately and publicly to everybody who needed to know about it. They should be applauded, they did do a great job.”

This does not mean public health cannot be improved to deal with potential new threats. The World Health Organisation is nominally in charge when a pandemic is looming and Farrar says its greatest strength is that it represents so many states. But that could also be its greatest weakness: “Because it always has to reach a compromise everybody can sign up to. We now have the international health regulations where it’s mandatory that countries report new events. My view is that those regulations were, in the end, a compromise that didn’t go as far as anybody, including the WHO, would want in terms of what must be reported.”

We are in a better position to detect a potential problem than we have ever been, but all the surveillance does not mean scientists will not be caught out by something that is sitting in an animal to which nobody happens to be paying attention. Woolhouse says there is always the potential for something to come out of left-field, something that surprises us.

And how should anyone making policy prioritise preparing for the next pandemic with more urgent concerns? Many public health officials might point out that emerging infectious diseases are a potential future threat but we also need to deal with real, major threats now such as malaria, TB or HIV. Woolhouse says the counter argument is that, although the toll of current diseases is huge and dealing with them is important, public health services have learned to accommodate them. Emerging infections such as influenza or Sars or the next pandemic would create a shock with the potential not only to overburden health systems but to shut down travel networks, close down work.

“The concern is that these things present such a huge shock that the global system is not really able to cope,” he says. “That’s why, despite the somewhat forward-looking aspect of this, we think they are, and should remain, a priority. The costs of an H1N1 or Sars pandemic is in the billions to hundreds of billions – substantial costs we could do well without.”

Persuading members of the public or governments to keep the surveillance networks strong is an ongoing and crucial task, Woolhouse says: “This is one of those investments that, if it’s working, no one notices.”

With thanks to Andrew Luck-Baker. Listen to The Next Global Killer, the Radio 4 programme on the hunt for the next pandemic, at 8pm on 26 November.

 © Guardian News and Media 2013

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« Reply #9967 on: Nov 13, 2013, 07:36 AM »

NASA says ‘Orion’ deep space vehicle on track for 2014 test

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, November 12, 2013 17:44 EST

The first test mission of a new deep space capsule that could one day take humans to Mars is on track for September 2014, the US space agency said Tuesday.

Orion aims to replace US capacity to reach space — which ended with the retirement of the space shuttle program closed in 2011 after 30 years — and ferry astronauts farther in the solar system than ever before.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said the project has made “tremendous progress.”

NASA has described Orion as “a flexible system that can to launch crew and cargo missions, extend human presence beyond low-Earth orbit, and enable new missions of exploration throughout our solar system.”

Orion will not carry humans on board until 2021 at the earliest.

Its four-hour test flight next year will launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

After that, the unmanned craft is to make two orbits around the Earth, traveling at a distance of 3,600 miles (5,800 kilometers) above Earth’s surface, and then plunge back into Earth’s atmosphere at high speed.

The test tour will take it 15 times farther than the International Space Station’s orbit around the globe.

The flight aims to test the vehicle’s thermal heat shield as it plunges through temperatures of 4,000 Fahrenheit (2,200 Celsius), and see how well the nearly nine-ton spacecraft splashes down in the Pacific Ocean off California.

However, the Delta IV heavy rocket that will launch the spacecraft is not yet ready.

Gerstenmaier said the space launch system (SLS) is 70 percent complete and again cited “tremendous progress” on the project.

Orion’s next space mission — a spin around the Moon — is set for 2017.

While no crew will be on board, the test run aims to orbit the Moon at a height of 75,000 kilometers (46,600 miles) for three weeks, he said.

Gerstenmaier described this as “a stable orbit” in which an object could remain “for 100 years without any altitude adjustment.”

Indeed, plans for the future include placing a 500-ton asteroid in the lunar orbit so that Orion crews could visit it, perhaps in the 2020s.

“We are going to take this capsule into that region around the Moon and see how we can actually use lunar gravity to get in this orbit and get out of this orbit and return back to the Earth,” he said.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #9968 on: Nov 13, 2013, 08:00 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

November 12, 2013 03:00 PM

Another Day, Another Misleading CBS News Report

By karoli
CrooksAndLiars

Sharyl Attkisson at CBS News strikes again. This time it's a very, very serious report about very, very serious problems with the Healthcare.gov website, the contractors who built it, and security issues. You might be very worried after hearing her report, which includes a "partial transcript" from Darrell Issa's committee about security issues, testing, and vulnerabilities.

You can imagine Issa rubbing his hands together as he produced that smoking partial transcript gun which clearly paints Henry Chao as some kind of high-flying idiot for not knowing about that secret memo setting deadlines after the website launched, right?

A partial transcript from Attkisson's report:

    Henry Chao, HealthCare.gov's chief project manager at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), gave nine hours of closed-door testimony to the House Oversight Committee in advance of this week's hearing. In excerpts CBS News has obtained, Chao was asked about a memo that outlined important security risks discovered in the insurance system.

    Chao said he was unaware of a Sept. 3 government memo written by another senior official at CMS. It found two high-risk issues, which are redacted for security reasons. The memo said "the threat and risk potential (to the system) is limitless." The memo shows CMS gave deadlines of mid-2014 and early 2015 to address them.

    But Chao testified he'd been told the opposite.

    "What I recall is what the team told me, is that there were no high findings," he said.

    Chao testified security gaps could lead to identity theft, unauthorized access and misrouted data.

    According to federal guidelines, high risk means "the vulnerability could be expected to have a severe or catastrophic adverse affect on organizational operations ... assets or individuals."

It's a pretty standard sleight-of-hand to drop a document in front of a witness that they've never seen before and then grill them about it. In court, the document usually needs to bear some relevance to the testimony. The same is not true in Issa Kangaroo Obamacare Court. There, anything can be tossed at a witness and they have to testify truthfully about it. Chao did, saying he'd never seen the document.

So CBS, perhaps you might have asked whether you could see the full transcript of that testimony? Or at least the context of the document? If you had, you might know you'd just been punked by Darrell Issa and his roving band of mercenary Obamacare killers.

Steve Benen:

    The CBS report sounds troubling, right? Probably, at least until one picks up the phone to ask Democrats on the committee whether the CBS report is accurate.

    I talked to a Democratic staffer this morning about the partial transcript and the aide said Issa’s staff “basically sandbagged this witness with a document he had never seen before and then failed to inform him that it has nothing to do with parts of the website that launched on October 1. In fact, it relates to a function of the website that is not currently active and won’t be until the spring of 2014. Rather than seeking out the truth, this press release tries to scare the public by capitalizing on confusion caused by the Chairman’s own staff.”

    Oh. So, when Republicans and CBS suggest the project manager in charge of building the federal health care website was apparently kept in the dark about serious failures in the website’s security, they’re leaving out pretty much every relevant detail that points in a more accurate direction.

    The Democratic staffer added that even when this part of the website is active, it “will not submit or share personally identifiable information,” but rather, will only include “insurance information plan data.”

    Let’s say this again: beware of partial transcripts from Issa’s office. They keep pulling this trick; there’s no reason anyone should keep falling for it.

Attkisson is right up there with Lara Logan when it comes to agenda-based ZOMG investigative reporting. She may be best known for her claim earlier this year that her computer was hacked, which then became a vague, well, maybe not, maybe it was just...BENGHAZI.

This latest was an easy story for Attkisson to verify. It just took a telephone call to verify with some Democrats on the committee. Attkisson's failure to make that call or to even check the most basic facts before going on the national news with this is further evidence of how far CBS News has fallen.

It's sad and yet heartening all at once to know that the only news outlet doing actual reporting with real investigative work is not a United States-owned network -- Al Jazeera America. The rest of them are captives of their paymasters, who are desperate to make sure the Affordable Care Act doesn't bring this country into the 21st century anytime soon.

click to view:

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Bill Clinton heaps pressure on Obama in row over healthcare

Veteran Democrat urges president to change law to allow Americans to keep their current health insurance plans

Reuters in Washington
theguardian.com, Wednesday 13 November 2013 08.57 GMT   

Former president Bill Clinton has added his voice to the growing pressure on Barack Obama to adjust his problem-plagued healthcare legislation, telling web magazine Ozymandias that the president should support a change in the law that would allow Americans who are happy with their health plans to keep them.

"I personally believe, even if it takes a change to the law, the president should honour the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got," Clinton told the magazine.

The comments were significant coming from Clinton, perhaps the most popular figure in the Democratic party and a longtime supporter of efforts to help millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans obtain coverage for healthcare.

Since the 2010 Affordable Care Act came into effect on 1 October, millions of Americans have discovered their plans were being cancelled because they did not meet the strict minimum coverage levels required by the new law.

Amid criticism that he had broken his promise to those who want to keep their old health plans, Obama apologised last week for not being more clear in his statements about the law.

But the apology has done little to dampen down a wave of criticism of the president. That criticism – combined with the continuing problems at HealthCare.gov that have kept untold numbers of Americans from signing up for coverage under the new law – appeared to push some Democrats to a breaking point on Tuesday.

Hours after Clinton's comments, the Senate's No 2 Democrat, Richard Durbin of Illinois, said that although the White House has long resisted alterations to the Affordable Care Act, Democrats should be open to "constructive changes" to improve the law.

Another influential senator, California's Dianne Feinstein, issued a statement shortly afterwards, saying she would join Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, in sponsoring a bill that would allow Americans to keep their current insurance plans, even if the plans do not meet the new law's standards for coverage.

"Too many Americans are struggling to make ends meet," Feinstein said in a statement. "We must ensure that in our effort to reform the healthcare system, we do not allow unintended consequences to go unaddressed."

Republicans who opposed "Obamacare" have long been critical of virtually every aspect of the law and the administration's promotion of it.

The Republican House speaker, John Boehner of Ohio, said the comments from Democrats signalled "a growing recognition that Americans were misled when they were promised that they could keep their coverage".

The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires that most Americans at least be enrolled for health insurance by 31 March or pay a fine. Americans must enrol by 15 December for coverage that begins on 1 January.

***************

November 12, 2013

Obama in Bind Trying to Keep Health Law Vow

By MICHAEL D. SHEAR and ROBERT PEAR
NYT

WASHINGTON — Under intense bipartisan pressure to answer mounting consumer complaints about the botched health care rollout, White House officials are struggling to make good on President Obama’s promise that Americans can keep their insurance coverage without undermining the new health law or adding unaffordable costs.

After the president’s apology last week for wrongly assuring Americans that they could retain their health plans if they wanted, senior White House aides said the president wanted to ensure that people who were forced off older policies with less comprehensive coverage were not stuck with higher monthly premiums to replace their insurance. But administration officials declined to say how they might achieve that goal, how much it would cost or whether it would require congressional approval.

At the same time, officials signaled the president’s strong opposition to calls from across the political spectrum — including one Tuesday from a key ally, former President Bill Clinton — to support bipartisan legislation that would allow people to keep their current insurance plans even after provisions of the Affordable Care Act go into effect next year.

White House officials refused to discuss in detail what options Mr. Obama was considering. But they made clear that the president was skeptical of any solution that would allow insurance companies to continue selling what officials consider to be cheap and substandard policies.

“Broadly speaking, we do not see that as fixing the problem,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said Tuesday.

The split between lawmakers and the White House reflects the dilemma the president finds himself in as he seeks to follow through on last week’s acknowledgment about his incorrect promise on health care coverage. Hundreds of thousands of people have received cancellation notices from health insurance companies because their plans do not conform with minimum standards set by the new law.

With lawmakers promoting their simple-sounding solution, the challenge for Mr. Obama is to find a workable and politically practical way to address the issue to the satisfaction of those who have lost policies.

“Any fix that would essentially open up for insurers to sell new plans that did not meet the standards would create more problems than it would fix,” Mr. Carney told reporters. It was unclear how the administration could make new plans more affordable, or whether that solution would be interpreted by Americans as keeping the promise that the president made in selling the health care law. Republicans in Congress would be certain to oppose efforts by the White House to expand subsidies.

The idea of passing legislation to allow all Americans to keep their coverage got a fresh boost on Tuesday when Mr. Clinton added his voice to the debate. In an interview, Mr. Clinton joined the intensifying criticism of the health care rollout and called on Mr. Obama to accept a change in the health care law that would allow insurance companies to keep selling policies that do not meet the new standards.

“I personally believe even if it takes a change in the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to those people and let them keep what they got,” Mr. Clinton said in the interview, published by Ozy, a web magazine.

Mr. Clinton, who tried to pass a health care overhaul during his presidency, has been a powerful advocate for the Affordable Care Act, especially among the president’s key Democratic constituencies. And Mr. Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is weighing a White House bid in 2016 that could be affected by the fortunes of the health care law.

Mr. Clinton followed a steady stream of Democrats who have announced their support for legislation to let people keep their coverage. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, endorsed one such effort by Senators Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, both Democrats.

“Since the beginning of September, I have received 30,842 calls, emails and letters from Californians, many of whom are very distressed by cancellations of their insurance policies and who are facing increased out-of-pocket costs,” Ms. Feinstein said. “The Landrieu bill is a common-sense fix that will protect individuals in the private insurance market from being forced to change their insurance plans.”

Ms. Landrieu, who faces a difficult election fight next year, said the cancellation notices “should have never gone out.”

“We said, and the president said over and over, that if people have insurance and they like the insurance they have, they can keep it,” Ms. Landrieu said. “That is my bill. That is the single focus of my bill. It is not to undermine the Affordable Care Act. It is to strengthen it and to keep our promise to millions of Americans.”

The White House declined to comment specifically on Ms. Landrieu’s bill, but said that another effort by Representative Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan,and the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was especially problematic. Under Mr. Upton’s bill, an insurer that had individual policies in effect on Jan. 1 of this year could continue to “offer such coverage for sale during 2014” in the market outside an exchange.

Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, the senior Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, denounced the bill as an effort to undermine the health care law.

“The bill would continue to allow insurers to exclude people from coverage based on pre-existing conditions,” Mr. Waxman said. “It would allow insurers to charge women twice as much as men for the same coverage.”

The concerns from Mr. Waxman and the White House echo those of insurance company executives themselves, who say the legislation under consideration would create huge operational challenges. Insurance is generally regulated by the states, they say, and the old policies have not been approved for sale beyond next month.

With just over a month before the deadline for consumers to enroll for coverage that begins Jan. 1, it is still not clear how many people have managed to sign up for coverage. Projections based on a Nov. 3 report attributed to the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association suggest that at most 40,000 people had enrolled for insurance through the online federal exchange by Nov. 3.

The association decided to stop issuing its weekly enrollment report after The Wall Street Journal published an article on the numbers, according to two people familiar with the decision. In a statement, Alissa Fox, a vice president at the association, said she had not seen the enrollment report and could not verify that it was authentic.

Insurers say that allowing people to keep their existing policies would upend the assumptions built into new policies and rates for next year and lead to higher premiums for consumers.

Sharon LaFraniere contributed reporting from New York.

***************

November 12, 2013

Fighting to Stop an Entitlement Before It Takes Hold, and Expands

By JOHN HARWOOD
NYT

WASHINGTON — Underlying fierce Republican efforts to stop President Obama’s health care law and the White House drive to save it is a simple historical reality: Once major entitlement programs get underway, they quickly become embedded in American life. And then they grow.

That makes the battle over the Affordable Care Act more consequential than most Washington political fights. “If it’s in place for six months, it will be impossible to repeal it or change it in ways that significantly reduce the benefits,” said Robert D. Reischauer, a Democrat who used to lead the Congressional Budget Office.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, another former C.B.O. director, reflects the concern of fellow Republicans in framing the stakes more dramatically. Either the law’s health insurance exchanges “can’t cut it,” he explained, or “it’s Katie, bar the door — we have an explosively growing new program.”

Ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression, the dominant pattern for major entitlements — the term for government assistance programs open to all who qualify and not subject to annual budget constraints — has been durability and expansion. That is the record Senator Ted Cruz of Texas refers to in warning Republicans not to allow Americans to become “hooked on the subsidies” — an argument Mr. Obama sarcastically recast as, “We’ve got to stop it before people like it too much.”

Congress enacted Social Security in 1935 to provide benefits to retired workers. In 1939, benefits were extended to their dependents and survivors. Later the program grew to provide disability coverage, cover self-employed farmers and raise benefit levels.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society created Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s to provide health coverage for the elderly and the poor. They followed the same pattern.

In 1972, Congress extended Medicare eligibility to those under 65 on disability and with end-stage renal disease. In 2003, Congress passed President George W. Bush’s plan to offer coverage under Medicare for prescription drugs.

Lawmakers initially linked Medicaid coverage to those receiving welfare benefits, but over time expanded eligibility to other “poverty-related groups” such as pregnant women. In 1997, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which now covers eight million children whose families’ incomes are too high to qualify for Medicaid.

“You pull more people in, and the benefits become more generous,” Mr. Holtz-Eakin said. “Congress knows how to fix an inequity — write a check.”

Those expansions only partly explain why spending on government assistance programs — which also include welfare, food stamps, farm subsidies and federal retirement — has grown to 56 percent last year from less than 30 percent of federal spending in 1962, according to the Congressional Research Service. The biggest reasons: the aging of the population, which has swollen the rolls of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (which also covers nursing home care), and the steady growth in the cost of health care.

Lawmakers have, in rare circumstances, shown the willingness and ability to pare back entitlements. The one recent reversal of a major entitlement occurred just a year after enactment. In 1989, older Americans irate over higher taxes pushed Congress to repeal the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act that President Ronald Reagan had signed in 1988.

In 1996, Mr. Clinton and a Republican Congress converted federal welfare benefits into a block grant to states and introduced time limits for eligibility.

“That was for a population that has little political power,” Mr. Reischauer said. The same is true for the current effort by congressional Republicans to sharply cut food assistance spending for the poor.

More influential constituencies, such as the agriculture industry, have greater ability to push back.

The Cato Institute notes that, having curbed farm subsidies in 1996, Congress later expanded them again by adding new crops to the rolls and creating a “countercyclical” price guarantee. In the same farm bill debate on cutting food stamps this summer, the House embraced higher payments to some farmers, including wealthy ones.

Mr. Obama has already raised the possibility of raising the cost of the health law by saying he has directed aides to explore relief for some customers now facing rate increases. Major employers could raise costs further by choosing to stop providing coverage for their workers, making more Americans eligible for federal subsidies.

Some Republicans see the prospect of metastasizing costs under the law as no accident.

“They see it as a subterfuge leading to single-payer,” government-run health care, said Ron Haskins, a former Republican congressional aide and adviser to Mr. Bush. Mr. Haskins, a key figure in the 1996 welfare overhaul, said Republicans should aim to limit the cost of subsidies rather than repeal the law.

The political system’s heightened focus on deficit reduction lately has increased the odds that a strategy to restrain spending could work. Moreover, some recent trends in entitlement spending point toward the possibility of slower long-term growth.

Medicare’s 10-year-old prescription drug program has cost less than forecast. Republicans credit the effects of the program’s reliance on market forces; Democrats point toward lower than expected enrollment and increased use of generic alternatives to major drugs whose patents have expired.

More important, health cost inflation over all has slowed in recent years, curbing expected growth in Medicare and Medicaid expenses. The durability and sources of that trend remain unclear; some experts point to short-term effects of a weak economy, others to changes in medical industry reimbursement practices that the health law has encouraged.

So long as it lasts, however, the trend offers hope of offsetting the long-term liabilities that budget pessimists have come to fear from major entitlement programs.

“That’s the $64 trillion question,” said Mr. Reischauer, one of two public trustees of the Social Security and Medicare programs. “I have no idea what the bottom line will be on that.”

******************

Elizabeth Warren challenges Obama: Break up Wall Street ‘behemoths’

By Dan Roberts, The Guardian
Tuesday, November 12, 2013 20:28 EST

Amid speculation that she might run against Hillary Clinton in 2016, firebrand senator attacks regulators for multiple failings

Senator Elizabeth Warren cemented her growing reputation as a darling of the political left on Tuesday with a wide-ranging speech challenging the Obama administration to take on Wall Street and break up its biggest banks.

Amid renewed speculation that she might challenge Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic nomination, Warren appeared at a congressional event to attack regulators for failing to tackle the problem of financial institutions that are “too big to fail”.

“We have got to get back to running this country for American families, not for its largest financial institutions,” said Warren, who said the issue was an indictment of how little had changed since the 2008 banking crash.
The four biggest Wall Street banks are 30% larger than before the financial crisis, she said, while the five biggest institutions hold more than half the bank assets in the country.

Warren claimed this amounted to an $83bn-a-year taxpayer subsidy for some Wall Street institutions, because they were so large that they could safely rely on a government bailout in the event of a future crisis, and were therefore able to take bigger risks than rivals. She also cited research suggesting the crash had cost up to $14tn, or $120,000 for each American household.

The first-term senator from Massachusetts, who led the congressional taskforce overseeing the bank bailout, has repeatedly denied she has presidential ambitions, but growing talk of her potential candidacy has ensured that even is she doesn’t run, she will act as a counter-weight to Wall Street financial backing for Clinton.

In her speech to the Roosevelt Institute and Americans for Financial Reform, Warren did not mention wider political ambitions but focused on proposed legislation launched over the summer with Republican John McCain to break up large banks and build on the 2010 Dodd-Frank reforms.

“Where are we in making sure behemoth institutions on Wall Street can’t bring down the economy again? And make wild gambles that suck up all the profits in the good times? And stick the taxpayer with the bill when it goes wrong?” she demanded.

“Three years since Dodd-Frank was passed, the biggest banks are bigger than ever, the risks to the system have grown and the market distortions continue.”

She said current regulators do not give “much reason for confidence” and added: “It is time to act: the last thing we should do is wait for another crisis.”

Warren’s remarks came as the White House confirmed that a relatively unknown Treasury official Timothy Massad would replace former Goldman Sachs banker Gary Gensler as chair of Wall Street derivatives regulator, the Commodities and Futures Trading Commission.

Announcing the appointment, President Obama defended what he called “historic Wall Streets reforms” that had already “put in place smarter, tougher common sense rules of the road.”

“The markets have hit record highs and there is no doubt our financial system is more stable,” said Obama.
“Tim’s a guy that doesn’t seek the spotlight,” he added.

© Guardian News and Media 2013

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The Tea Party is losing support — even among conservative Republicans

By Harry Enten, The Guardian
Tuesday, November 12, 2013 9:03 EST

Results from last week’s elections and national polling show the Tea Party has seen a major drop in popularity since 2010

It was just three years ago that the Tea Party was flying high. Riding a wave of anti-establishment and anti-Obama anger, Tea Party candidates knocked off Democrats and Republicans alike. Three years later, the Tea Party’s light seems to have faded.

One can look at the results of last week’s election in which the Tea Party underperformed. Ken Cuccinelli became the first Virginia major party candidate to lose a gubernatorial election when his party did not control the White House in 40 years. He lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who is about as popular in Virginia as the Dallas Cowboys.

Cuccinelli’s even more Tea Party aligned running-mate E W Jackson got crushed. Jackson lost by over 10pt compared to just 2.5pt for Cuccinelli. One could take this as a sign that Cuccinelli would have lost by even more, if he had run further to the right.

The only member of the statewide Virginia ticket to come close was Attorney General candidate Mark Obenshain. Obenshain, who at this moment is involved in a race that is almost certainly heading towards a recount, was the least extreme of the three Republicans. He had some Tea Party ties, but went to much further lengths to distance himself from the brand. It showed in the results.

Indeed, the most successful Republican on election night 2013 was non-Tea Party member Chris Christie. Christie became the first Republican to win a majority of the vote in a statewide New Jersey election since 1988. He became the first Republican gubernatorial candidate outside of Florida to take more than 50% of the vote of the Latino vote in the last decade.

The same thing can be said for the Tea Party strength within the Republican electorate on election day 2013. Alabama’s first district special primary runoff was tantamount to victory in the heavily Republican district. While both Bradley Byrne and Dean Young are conservative, it was Young who sold himself as the “Ted Cruz guy”. Byrne had the establishment support and backing from the business community. He won by 5pt.

Yet, it would be silly to rely solely on a few off-elections to make a larger statement about the Tea Party at large. The problem for Tea Partiers is that last Tuesday’s results seem indicative of larger national trends. The percentage of Americans identifying with the Tea Party continues to collapse.

The latest George Washington University Battleground poll found that just 19% of Americans said they would consider themselves a member of the Tea Party. The NBC News / Wall Street Journal survey found a record high 70% of Americans would say they were not members. Asked slightly differently, the last CNN / ORC survey discovered that only 28% of Americans held a favorable view of the Tea Party movement, while a record high 56% of Americans held an unfavorable view.

This polling is a major change from just three years ago. Before the the 2010 midterms, NBC / Wall Street Journal pegged the percentage of Tea Party supporters at about 30%, while 60% said they were not. In terms of the margin between the two sides, it’s been a drop of 20pt against the Tea Party over the past three years.

The favorable numbers are even more telling: 37% of Americans held a favorable view of the Tea Party per CNN / ORC on the eve of the 2010 midterms. That was equal to the 37% who held an unfavorable view. Now, the Tea Party’s net favorable is 28pt lower overall. It’s not a brand politicians would want to be associated with in the general election.

In Republican primaries, it’s not entirely clear that it’s a positive either. Only 36% of Republicans said they were a member of the Tea Party in the George Washington University Battleground poll. That matches the 40% of Republicans who said they agreed with the Tea Party movement in the latest Pew survey.

I guess one could point to the fact that the CNN / ORC survey had 59% of Republicans voicing a favorable opinion against just 28% who have a negative one. Of course, the 31pt net favorable of the Tea Party within the Republican ranks is 30pt lower than how Republicans view the Republican party. The same survey also had only 43% of Republicans saying the Tea Party was mainstream, while 42% said it was too extreme. Those aren’t particularly strong for a party where most Tea Partiers reside and leaves plenty of room for a non-Tea Party candidate in a primary.

That’s quite different from three years ago when the Tea Party was quite popular among Republicans. Kaiser determined that 54% of Republicans said they were a supporter of the Tea Party in November 2010. 58% of Republicans agreed with the Tea Party in the final Pew poll before the 2010 election. Both of those percentages have dropped by 20pt now.

Republicans net favorable view of the Tea Party was +47pt just prior to the 2010 election, which has been cut by nearly 20pt as well. Only 19% of Republicans thought the people involved in the Tea Party were “too extreme” in October 2010 per a CBS News survey. Though the wording is slightly different, the CNN/ORC poll indicates that percentage has more than doubled in the past three years.

When you put it all together, it’s seems pretty clear that the Tea Party in America is on the decline at this moment. The results from last week’s elections in New Jersey and Virginia show that the candidates aligned most with the Tea Party did the worst. This mirrors the nationwide trend over the past few years where both the electorate at-large and even the Republican party voters specifically is moving away from the Tea Party.

 © Guardian News and Media 2013

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Washington Post columnist says NYC mayor’s biracial family makes ‘conventional’ people ‘gag’ (UPDATE: Cohen responds)

By David Ferguson
RawStory
Tuesday, November 12, 2013 11:05 EST

The Washington Post‘s ostensibly liberal columnist Richard Cohen set off a ruckus on Monday with his latest column, in which he said that the family of New York City’s mayor-elect Bill de Blasio is unconventional enough to be physically revolting to average Americans.

In a piece entitled “Christie’s tea-party problem,” Cohen issued a standard set of Beltway bromides about the state of the 2016 race and the extent to which the Republican Party could be hobbled by far-right factions within its ranks. Then, in his seventh paragraph, Cohen took off on a tin-eared tangent about the New York City mayoral race.

“Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party,” Cohen said, “but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.”

Critics have called Cohen’s judgment into question, as well as his use of the word “conventional” to describe racist, reactionary viewpoints.

Salon’s Brian Beutler sarcastically tweeted, “Nothing racist at all about throwing up in your mouth a little when you see biracial couples.”

“I’m sure there’s some market niche for columns denouncing miscegenation and race mixing, but is it really the Washington, D.C. market?” asked Slate’s Matthew Yglesias, suggesting that the Post might start its new path out of bankruptcy by first firing Richard Cohen.

“Obviously eliminating Cohen-related expenditures would not, on its own, bring the Post to solvency,” he said. “But every little bit helps.”

Cohen has a history of controversy at the Post. In 1998, the newspaper mediated between Cohen and a 23-year-old female intern in a sexual harassment incident. Cohen reportedly told the new intern to “stand up and turn around” so he could see why she was hired. In the end, the Post fired the intern and kept Cohen.

In the last year, Cohen has penned columns blaming Miley Cyrus and the “twerking” dance craze for rape and sexual assault of women, as well as another piece in which he said he understood and sympathized with gunman George Zimmerman, who shot and killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012.

Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer tweeted Tuesday morning, “Richard Cohen just wrote his retirement notice.”

UPDATE: Talking Points Memo notes that Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth lauded Cohen’s column as “brilliant” via Twitter hours before the flap erupted.

    Brilliant: richard Cohen on why Cruz beats Christie in iowa: http://t.co/Ofl85i5lf1

    — katharine weymouth (@weymouthk) November 12, 2013

UPDATE: Washington Post opinion editor Fred Hiatt responded to the fracas by saying that he could have edited “one sentence more carefully.” According to Talking Points Memo, Hiatt told “The Wrap” that he supports Cohen and doesn’t believe that he’s a racist or that he intended the column to be racist.

“Anyone reading Richard’s entire column will see he is just saying that some Americans still have a hard time dealing with interracial marriage. I erred in not editing that one sentence more carefully to make sure it could not be misinterpreted,” said Hiatt, leaping to Cohen’s defense.

“I think he is a terrific columnist,” Hiatt continued. “I’m very happy to have him in the Post.”

Not everyone is so sanguine about Cohen. Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic wrote, “Right. I’m not racist. I just don’t recognize my country. Also, the sight of you, and your used-to-be-lesbian black wife, and your brown children make me sick to my stomach. It’s not like I want to lynch you or anything.”

At Think Progress, Zack Beauchamp, in a thorough and thoughtful piece about Cohen’s history of racism, sexism and homophobia, wrote that the columnist’s work boasts a “deep simple-mindedness,” and that it is its “total incuriosity about a changing world that makes Cohen uniquely odious.”

UPDATE: After refusing to comment on the column for much of Tuesday, Cohen opened up to Huffington Post, saying that the controversy is “hurtful” to him and that he has been misconstrued.

“The word racist is truly hurtful,” he said to Huffington Post. “It’s not who I am. It’s not who I ever was. It’s just not fair. It’s just not right.”

“I didn’t write one line, I wrote a column,” Cohen insisted. “The column is about tea party extremism and I was not expressing my views, I was expressing the views of what I think some people in the Tea Party held.”

He then hastened to assure Huffington’s Ryan Grim and Katherine Fung that he didn’t mean that the way it sounded.

“I don’t think everybody in the Tea Party is like that,” he said, “because I know there are blacks in the tea party. So they’re not all racist, unless I’m going to start doing mind reading about why those black people are there.”

He said that he is not a racist, although he has been criticized for insensitivity on race issues in the past. That, he said, is only because he’s not some cookie-cutter liberal who believes lock-step in the orthodoxy of liberalism.

“Every once in a while I take an unconventional stance as a liberal,” he said, and that lands him in hot water. But really, it’s just because he’s being held to an unfair standard.

“If someone on the right wrote this, no one would care,” Cohen asserted. “No one would make a big deal about it but because I veer every once in awhile from orthodoxy, or maybe more than once in awhile, I get plastered this way.”

[image of the de Blasio family via de Blasio for New York]

******************

Gohmert isn’t sure if Obamacare’s ‘secret security force’ will use weapons or syringes

By David Edwards
RawStory
Tuesday, November 12, 2013 15:39 EST

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) recently repeated a debunked conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was deploying a “secret security force” as part of the health care reform law, but he wasn’t sure if they were being trained with weapons or syringes.

In a Friday interview, Christian radio host Janet Mefferd told the Texas congressman that the evidence of President Barack Obama creating a civilian security force and hoarding ammunition was adding up.

Gohmert agreed that “Obamacare wasn’t just about health care” and pointed to a section of the Affordable Care Act that created the Ready Reserve Corps to “assist full-time Commissioned Corps personnel to meet both routine public health and emergency response missions.”

While FactCheck.org has debunked conspiracy theories that claimed the health care law gave “Obama a Nazi-like ‘private army’ of 6,000 people,” Gohmert still believed there could be evil lurking behind the Ready Reserve Corps.

“I’ve continued to ask questions, what is this for?” he told Mefferd. “It says it is for international health crises, but then it doesn’t include the word ‘health’ when it talks about national emergencies. And I’ve asked, what kind of training are they getting? It provides in Obamacare that this commission and non-commissioned officer corps will be trained. But I want to know, are they using weapons to train or are they being taught to use syringes and health care items? But we’ve got no clear answers on that.”

“Some kind of secret security force is the kind of thing the United States is never supposed to have,” he later added. “We’re just not supposed to be doing that. But until we get enough members of Congress stirred up over the things that I’ve been preaching about then we’re not likely to get answers. And the way you get their attention is start cutting funding until you get answers.”

FactCheck.org noted in 2010 that the “truth about the new Ready Reserve Corps is a lot less interesting than the conspiracy theories.”

    Before the law was passed, the Public Health Service, unlike other elements of the government’s seven uniformed services, didn’t have a “ready reserve” – a cadre of individuals who could be called up involuntarily in times of need. What it had was a regular, full-time corps of 2,800 doctors, nurses, scientists and other medical professionals, which was the limit under law. It also had a reserve corps. But most of the individuals in the reserve corps, which was larger than the regular corps, were on extended active duty for the duration of their careers; in other words, they worked full-time, just like the regular corps, because they were needed, but the statutory cap prevented the service from bringing them into the regular corps.

    The new law eliminates the personnel cap and brings the members of what used to be the reserve corps into the regular corps, which as a result now numbers about 6,600, according to an official at the Public Health Service who spoke to us on background.

    And the law creates the ready reserve of individuals who can be called up for service by the U.S. surgeon general in times of need; the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is often used as an example of an incident that might trigger a call-up.

    Officials at the PHS are in the process of developing regulations that will determine how the Ready Reserve Corps is populated, but the person we spoke to said there will be limits on how long individuals could serve on active duty. Those who are activated will be paid for the duration of their service, and the bill provides $12.5 million per year through 2014 for the Ready Reserve.


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11/13/2013 01:16 PM

Euroskeptic Union: Right-Wing Populists Forge EU Alliance

By Christina Hebel and Gregor Peter Schmitz

Right-wing populists are trying to create a powerful faction in the European Parliament. Leading the efforts are Geert Wilders from the Netherlands and Marine le Pen of France -- and their initiative has big implications for Europe.

The press room in the Dutch parliament building in The Hague has been fully booked up for days for the scheduled meeting on Wednesday afternoon. The office responsible for handing out media accreditation already has a long waiting list. The meeting will be broadcast live on Dutch TV, and the whole world will also be able to watch online as right-wing populists Marine Le Pen, head of the Front National (FN) in France, and Geert Wilders, chairman of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, come together to talk.

The two politicians will savor the limelight. They want to finally be able to present themselves on the European stage as established representatives of the people. Wilders and Le Pen have a common cause that is not about national sensitivities, even though both see themselves as nationalists and do well as such in opinion polls at home. Rather, they have a common strategic goal in mind with regards to the European Union.

Wilders and Le Pen want to finally form a strong far-right faction in the European Parliament following the elections due in May 2014. Work toward such an alliance has been hampered up to now by disagreements. In 2007, a number of right-wing groups briefly formed an association under the name "Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty." But the group collapsed in disarray after Alessandra Mussolini, a member of Italy's nationalist, conservative Social Action party, described Romanians as "habitual lawbreakers," causing the Romanian members to withdraw from the bloc. Since then, the numerous euroskeptics, Europe haters and right-wing populist groups in the parliament have been agitating individually, or at most working together in loose pacts with grand names like the "European Alliance for Freedom."

Playing Down Differences

Such a fraction, however, would provide tangible benefits, such as better funding and more speaking rights. Wilders has therefore been doggedly campaigning for an anti-European alliance: "It would be fantastic if we pooled our resources."

That is why he is moving ahead with a right-wing alliance on a European level, and not only with Le Pen. He visited the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats party, wooed Filip Dewinter of Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) in Belgium, and spoke with Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Leaders of the Lega Nord in Italy were also pleased with Wilders' charm offensive.

Wilders has simply played down the substantive differences that exist -- yet they are significant. Indeed, the Dutch politician asserts he does not want any "right-wing extremist and racist" parties in his movement. In particular, he has so far shunned radical groups like the British National Party, the Jobbik party in Hungary and Germany's National Democratic Party (NPD). But the FN continues to flirt with anti-Semitic ideas, no matter how moderate Le Pen tries to present herself as being. Wilders' Party for Freedom, on the other hand, stresses its pro-Israeli leanings.

Uniting Against the EU, Islam and Immigration

But for Wilders, an alliance is probably more important than such differences. He is trying to draw attention to themes that unite all groups on the right-wing margins, especially for what they oppose: Islam and immigration, Turkish entry into the EU, and the EU itself. The European dream has turned into a nightmare, says Le Pen. The united struggle is directed toward the superstate Brussels, insists Wilders.

Voices critical of the EU are also sometimes heard from among the ranks of the Alternative for Germany (AFD). With its anti-euro policies and partly right-wing populist beliefs, it only just fell short of winning representation in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, in September's elections. The party was only founded a few months ago and is now hoping for seats in the European Parliament. The election in May presents only a 3 percent hurdle for representation, as opposed to 5 percent in Germany's parliamentary elections.

But the party has excluded the possibility of an alliance with the far right. "We want nothing to do with people like Wilders," says AFD spokeswoman Dagmar Metzger. They have also not received any request from him thus far.

Political Impact

Other influential euroskeptics, such as Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), have given guarded responses to Wilders' advances. In particular, the alliance with Le Pen is seen as problematic.

Nevertheless, Wilders' plan for a right-wing populist faction is already making an impact. For one thing, there have been improvements in opinion polls: The FN recently came in first place in a French survey ahead of the European elections, with around 24 percent of recipients saying they would vote for Le Pen in May.

There have been other political benefits. When Europe was discussing a new asylum policy in the wake of the Lampedusa disaster, Manfred Weber, a member of the European Parliament for the center-right Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party to Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), said: "In view of the polls that predict up to 30 percent for euroskeptics in the new parliament, a more liberal immigration policy can currently not be introduced, because it would give the extremists even more of a boost."


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« Reply #9970 on: Nov 14, 2013, 06:33 AM »

PIG PUTIN'S RUSSIA...

Pussy Riot punk Nadezhda Tolokonnikova ‘moved to Siberian colony’

By Roxanne Cooper
RawStory
Thursday, November 14, 2013 6:57 EST

Russian prison authorities confirmed Thursday that Pussy Riot punk band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who had not been heard from for more than three weeks, had been moved to a Siberian prison colony.

“Convict Tolokonnikova has arrived to the institution of the Russian prison service in the Krasnoyarsk region,” the region’s prison service said in a statement.

A spokesman for the service said a letter containing her more precise coordinates has been sent to her lawyer and that he was not authorised to give that information out.

Asked about Tolokonnikova’s health, the spokesman told AFP it was “normal” but would not say whether she was in prison or the medical ward.

Russia’s rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin said on Tuesday that he had been informed that Tolokonnikova “has been placed (in the penal colony’s) medical ward”.

Tolokonnikova, 24, had been missing for 24 days after being moved out of her original prison colony in central Russia’s Mordovia region. She had earlier published a letter in Russian media alleging prison abuse.

Her unusually long transfer had led rights groups to demand information.

Tolokonnikova’s husband Pyotr Verzilov had earlier said he believed his wife was bound for Nizhny Ingash, a town in the taiga that lies on the Transsiberian railway about 300 kilometres (185 miles) from the regional centre Krasnoyarsk and four time zones away from Moscow.

Tolokonnikova and fellow band member Maria Alyokhina, who is being kept in the Ural region of Perm, will in March serve out their jail sentence for performing a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral protesting ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin.

******************

Russian paper accused of 'gay propaganda' for reporting news

Roy Greenslade   
Thursday 14 November 2013 11.08 GMT theguardian.com
   
A Russian newspaper has been accused of breaking the country's "gay propaganda" law because it published a news story about a teacher who was fired because of his sexual orientation.

The state's media watchdog, the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service (FMMIS), sent the editor-in-chief of the Molodoi Dalnevostochnik a notice claiming the item propagated homosexual relations.

It followed a report in the paper, based in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk, that included an interview with geography teacher Alexander Yermoshkin about the circumstances of his dismissal (see details in this Moscow Times article).

After a complaint, the regional branch of the FMMIS launched an investigation. One of its officials, Galina Yegoshina, pointed to a quote by Yermoshkin: "My very existence is effective proof that homosexuality is normal."

She said: "This statement goes against logic. By offering it to underage readers, the author is misleading them about the normality of homosexuality."

The newspaper's editor responded by arguing that the article showed the negative side of being gay and cited constitutional provisions outlawing discrimination. He has also offered Yermoshkin the chance to write a column.

Individuals found guilty of violating the "gay propaganda" law can be fined up to 100,000 rubles (£1,900). The paper can be fined even more heavily and be closed for 90 days.

**************

Tears of a Russian president: Pig Putin cries at soft-rock police tribute

Leader notorious for his tough-guy image is apparently reduced to tears by song honouring police force

Shaun Walker in Moscow
theguardian.com, Thursday 14 November 2013 09.51 GMT   

What does it take to reduce a former KGB spy with a black belt in judo to tears? Pig Putin, with his notorious tough-guy image, does not get sniffly very often. But it seems that a soft-rock song about the honour and bravery of the Russian police force did the trick.

At a concert in the Kremlin on Sunday, which is Police Day in Russia, Pig Putin can be seen in the front row wiping a tear from his eye, his face twitching, as a song called You Know, I Really Want to Live is belted out by the band Rozhdestvo (Russian for Christmas).

Behind them, a large video screen runs a montage featuring heroic police officers and weeping relatives – the song is dedicated to officers who died in the line of duty. Pig Putin is flanked by uniformed police generals and the audience is made up of serving policemen and veterans, who have come to listen to a number of Russian crooners and variety acts. Issues of corruption and brutality inside Russia's police force are not touched upon.

The audience listened to the song on their feet, with the whole hall apparently standing up following Pig Putin's cue. The song was followed by a minute's silence, and the lead singer told a radio station afterwards that he had been told that the Pig had started crying.

It is not the first time that the Pig has cried in public. During a celebration rally after he was re-elected as president last May, Pig Putin shed a tear as he addressed crowds of cheering supporters. His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, later said that the Pig had been affected by the icy winds rather than overcome by emotion.

If you want to vomit then click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Lcj7SPze40


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« Reply #9971 on: Nov 14, 2013, 06:35 AM »


Non-Jews must lead fight against antisemitism, says Douglas Alexander

Shadow foreign secretary expresses fears over rise of far-right parties in Europe on visit to Auschwitz

Nicholas Watt in Auschwitz
theguardian.com, Wednesday 13 November 2013 19.56 GMT   

Non-Jewish people must take the lead in defeating antisemitism across Europe, the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, has said, as he expressed fears about the "deeply troubling" prospect of successes for the far right in next year's European parliamentary elections.

Speaking after he toured the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, Alexander said all of humanity had a responsibility to tackle antisemitism, and silence was the "co-conspirator of evil".

Alexander, a member of the Church of Scotland, said: "The task of confronting and defeating antisemitism is not the responsibility of the Jewish community. It is the responsibility of every one of us. To deny that is to deny our common humanity."

The shadow foreign secretary spoke to the Guardian after what he described as a "haunting and challenging" day visiting the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Alexander, who accompanied around 150 schoolchildren on a trip organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust as part of its Lessons from Auschwitz project, began by visiting the Jewish cemetery at Oswiecim – the Polish name for the town, which had a Jewish population of around 8,000 (58% of the total) on the eve of the second world war. Szymon Kluger, the last Jewish resident of the town, who returned after the liberation of Auschwitz, died in 2000.

The shadow foreign secretary then visited Auschwitz I, the former Polish army barracks used as a concentration camp for around 15,000 prisoners whose entrance has a replica of the notorious Nazi Arbeit Macht Frei slogan. He concluded the day with a visit to the vast Auschwitz II, the main death camp, built in 1941, which was the location of the gas chambers and crematoria where victims were murdered shortly after arriving on trains from across occupied Europe.

Alexander said: "Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau was a searing personal experience and witnessing the camps is both a lesson from the past and a lesson for the future. We need to be constantly on guard against the virus that is antisemitism that, over generations, mutates but alas endures. That demands the active opposition of politicians and people of goodwill and common sense right across our country and right across our continent.

"Antisemitism starts with the Jews but it never ends with the Jews. To step aside or to walk away from antisemitism represents not just a threat to Jewish people but a threat to our own humanity. At root the virus of antisemitism reflects a dislike of the unlike – a sense of threat from the other rather than a recognition of our shared humanity."

The shadow foreign secretary warned that Europe faces a "time of peril" as it recovers from the worst downturn since the second world war, which has seen the rise of far-right parties such as Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece. "The experience of the Holocaust – the survivors – as each year passes moves from memory to history. At the same time many people across Europe are suffering real economic hardship.

"We have seen from the bitter lessons of history that economic hardship can prove fertile terrain for a politics of division and hatred to take hold. So there is a heavy burden of responsibility on democratic politicians to speak up, to call out antisemitism for what it is, and to be willing to speak on behalf of a different and more decent politics. Silence is the co-conspirator of evil in confronting the virus of antisemitism in Europe."

Alexander said it was important to speak out as far-right parties appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough in next year's European parliamentary elections. "All of us looking ahead to next May should feel both real concern and then resolve to take what action we can to confront the rise of a dangerous strain of populist extreme-right neo-nationalism.

"This threatens to make gains in the European parliamentary elections in a number of countries and would mark a deeply troubling step backwards for Europe rather than an advance for the continent in these tough and difficult times."

The Holocaust Educational Trust has arranged trips for schoolchildren, teachers, politicians and journalists to Auschwitz for the past 18 years. The last Labour government started to fund the trips, a policy supported by the education secretary, Michael Gove.

Alexander said he was shocked by the evidence of the massive scale of the killing at the camp and the small examples of the Nazis' inhumanity. He said: "The industrial scale of the murder that was designed and delivered in Auschwitz-Birkenau is shocking to the observer. But what haunts me and pierced my heart was not the vastness of the complex but the small examples of the inhumanity.

"You visit a room filled with human hair that was to be sold and recycled for German uniforms but then you see a single pigtail and you recollect that when you hugged your daughter last night she had pigtails. You see the set of keys brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau by the family who expected to return home and you feel the keys in your own pocket. So it has been a haunting, searing, challenging day for me not just because the vastness of the evil but the human scale of the evil that was perpetrated on a daily basis."

The camp and cemetery in the town should also silence Holocaust deniers. "The town of Auschwitz is powerful testimony to the horror of the Holocaust. Poland today has a Jewish population of 6,000. Prewar the population was in excess of 3 million.

"Holocaust deniers are as sickening as they are ignorant. I would defy anyone to have seen what I saw today, to have witnessed what I have heard today and to then continue to promote the malign and evil lie that the Holocaust is either a footnote to history or an invention of history."


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« Reply #9972 on: Nov 14, 2013, 06:39 AM »


In Iran, France, not Britain, now the 'Little Satan'

Nuclear watch: France is widely seen as the culprit for scuttling the nuclear talks in Geneva

Tehran Bureau correspondent
theguardian.com, Wednesday 13 November 2013 17.35 GMT      

Workers move the European and Iranian flags for the final press conference on the third day of talks on Iran's nuclear programme, on November 10, 2013 in Geneva. Workers move the European and Iranian flags for the final press conference in Geneva

The final day of nuclear negotiations in Geneva between Iran and the so-called P5+1 stretched into the post-midnight hours of Sunday in Tehran. While newspapers in the Iranian capital customarily go to press by 10 pm for distribution the following morning, the reformist Etemaad and Shargh dailies held their editions as late as possible in order to report the news that no agreement had been reached.

“We were all holding our breath waiting around in the press room to the last minute,” an Etemaad staff reporter said.

On Monday, Kayhan, the Islamic republic’s leading right-wing daily, offered a self-congratulatory headline concerning the talks’ apparent failure: “Kayhan’s Prediction Came True.” Managing editor Hossein Shariatmadari has emerged as one of the most vociferous critics of the nuclear policies of president Hassan Rouhani’s new administration. In a lead editorial titled “Back to Square One, a Decade Later,” Shariatmadari sneered at the proposals made by the P5+1 – the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany. He called them “a repeat of the same damaging approach that was forced by the European troika of the UK, France and Germany in the October 2003 sessions in Tehran, and later in the sessions in Brussels during the 2003–5 negotiations. In the process, all the nuclear activities of our nation were suspended.”
 
Shariatmadari singled out what he called France’s “choreographed” role in the talks: “The French foreign minister [Laurent Fabius] rushes into Geneva following his scripted role as a ‘bad cop’ to join the negotiations. Regrettably, some of our simpleton friends took him for real. This is the same role that Israel used to play vis-à-vis Iran and 5+1 negotiations.”
 
By contrast, the conservative, pro-business Resalat daily put forward a generally optimistic view of the negotiations not only in its Sunday edition, which went to press before the talks’ conclusion, but on Monday as well, when it featured a quote from parliament deputy Avaz Heydarpour, a member of the national security and foreign policy commission: “In this round of negotiations, the Islamic republic of Iran made good headway based on Iran’s proposal package and attained much progress.”
 
As reported by Resalat, Heydarpour’s outlook was not entirely rosy. “The minute by minute coordination between Obama and Netanyahu,” he said, “made it appear as if the Americans didn’t have the will to decide on their own and would act only on what the Zionist regime dictates.” As for Fabius, “The French foreign minister became the spokesman for the Zionist regime and exposed his subservience to the Zionist lobby.” Nonetheless, in conclusion the parliamentarian predicted, “Iran’s proposals and their goals will become reality in the next session.”
 
France’s position was condemned not only by those on the Iranian right. In a commentary published by Etemad, the prominent historian and author Fereydoun Madjlessi wrote, “The astonishing reaction of France, before undermining the process of negotiations with Iran, will damage the internal unity of the 5+1 group. France’s prevention of an understanding can come only from a political basis . . . that nation’s interests in relation to Arab countries that don’t wish a mending of the relationship between Iran and the west. To maintain some kind of unity, Arab governments are trying to substitute enmity with Iran for enmity with Israel, because there is so much conflict among them that they need an external enemy. It is for this reason that, following Saudi Arabia’s leadership, they have chosen Iran as their external enemy.”
 
In Tehran’s busy Tajrish bazaar, 37-year-old Mahmoud, who took a day off from his job at the Iran Insurance Co. to try to find some deals on household appliances, agreed. “I really don’t get the French. If Mr. [Fabius] had experienced a day in the life of an Iranian salaried worker and the inflation [we deal with], he would not have taken such a stance. Everything has become three times more expensive. To buy a few kitchen appliances I had to take a day off. Then he rides in and prevents the agreement on which our daily lives depend. We have a saying, ‘That act is a Brit’s act.’ It seems that this time we have to say, ‘That act is the French’s act.’”
 
A foreign affairs expert who served as a diplomat during the reformist administration of Mohammad Khatami told Tehran Bureau via email, “I think France’s role has been overblown. Although Fabius’s performance has been followed by public anger in Iran, I can’t say that the French inflexibility prevented an agreement. That [hard line] was a common view in the 5+1.
 
“But my sense is that agreement is within reach, unless one of these days Ayatollah Khamenei changes his mind, which I consider unlikely.”
 
The hardline Raja News website reported that Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani welcomed the negotiations. It quoted the former president as saying, “Of course, the Israeli regime is internationally isolated today and its anger stems from its weakness in face of the resolve and desire of the Iranian government and people. If the 5+1 has integrity, it should not become greedy under the influence of fanatics.”
 
A political analyst in Tehran said, “I don’t understand why Raja News reflected Rafsanjani’s statement without any criticism or analysis. Either the editor has slipped up, or their views have changed.”
 
Perhaps lending some credence to the latter possibility, at the top of its home page Raja News also quoted the words of influential ultraconservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi regarding the negotiations’ three central figures, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, US secretary of state John Kerry, and EU high representative Catherine Ashton: “The five-hour negotiations between Zarif and Kerry and Lady Ashton is a good sign for the seriousness of the two sides.”
 
A related issue being widely discussed in the Iranian political sphere is Saudi Arabia’s evident displeasure with the prospect of an agreement between the Islamic republic and the west. In an interview that aired during Monday night’s state television news broadcast, Zarif tried to smooth things over. “We don’t know why some of the nations bordering the Persian Gulf have suddenly become worried and are frowning at their old friend,” he said.
 
The foreign minister continued, “I tell them not to be worried...as primary to Iran’s foreign policy is its neighbors. Iran, as the largest and most powerful country in the region, keeps the interests of its neighbors at the forefront and our belief is that any neighbor’s insecurity is our insecurity, and these negotiations have nothing to do with these nations’ concerns.”
 
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an international news reporter in Tehran said, “Zarif’s approach is a training course in classic diplomacy. The way I heard it, he confirmed that he intends to soon visit nations around the region.” Speaking of the minister’s responsiveness to the concerns of the Saudi monarchy, the reporter stated, “He knows well that he has to improve Tehran and Riyadh’s relationship, to diminish the worries of Al Saud and attain their trust toward the new government.”
 
As Mehdi, a 45-year-old florist on south Tehran’s Shariati Avenue, sees it, “Saudi Arabia is afraid Iran will become the number one power in the region. It is obvious. The Arabs have feared Iran for many centuries, and they’re frightened now. Because they are not intelligent. They are dependent, they are lazy. Their wish is for Iran to be under sanctions and for the US to buy their oil. That’s why they’re angry.”
 
Near the end of his interview, Zarif repeated, at least three times, that the support of both God and the Iranian people strengthens the negotiating team and would lead to its success. Some observers, however, remarked that he failed to mention any support lent by the Islamic republic’s supreme leader.
 
“I don’t know why he didn’t mention the leader," said a Green Movement activist. "The truth is that if Ayatollah Khamenei had not given strong support, the government would not have had any power to move the negotiations forward. Perhaps the reason is that Mr Khamenei doesn’t like for everyone to know that he is interested in the negotiations that are taking place, so that at the end he can say that the nuclear accord was the desire of the president and not his own. That is the realistic view. The optimistic view is that Zarif really believes more in the citizens’ energy than in the support of the regime and the leader.”

Tehran Bureau's Nuclear Watch series monitors the way the Iranian media reports the country's nuclear programme


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« Reply #9973 on: Nov 14, 2013, 06:42 AM »

Warsaw climate talks: nearly 3 in 10 countries not sending ministers

Australia is not alone in its failure to send a minister to the UN climate negotiations in Poland, reports RTCC

Sophie Yeo in Warsaw, for RTCC, part of the Guardian Environment Network
theguardian.com, Wednesday 13 November 2013 16.11 GMT      

According to statistics released by the UN, over 10,000 people will spend the next two weeks swarming through its corridors, busily going about their business of trying to find a solution to climate change.

But only 134 of these will be ministers, in spite of the fact that there will be 189 countries attending the conference.

The representative sent by each country indicates the level of importance it places on the negotiations.

Australia recently attracted attention by its refusal to send either its environment minister Greg Hunt or foreign minister Julie Bishop to the negotiations.

Instead, Australia will send along its climate ambassador Justin Lee as its lead negotiator.

As the world’s top climate officials gather to discuss how to stem emissions and mobilise finance, Hunt will instead be based in the Australian parliament, attempting to fulfill Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s election promise to repeal the country’s carbon tax.

Former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd personally attended the UN climate talks in 2007 during his first term in power, where he ratified Australia’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, which committed industrialised countries to reduce their emissions.

This year, two prime ministers and two presidents will be attending the conference, each hailing from some of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, including the Pacific islands of Tuvalu and Nauru, along with African countries Ethiopia and Tanzania.

The UK is sending two ministers from the Department of Energy and Climate Change, while the US is sending its climate change envoy Todd Stern—not a minister, but nonetheless a powerful voice on climate change within the US government.

The number of ministers registered to attend does not always reflect the final head count, with the potential for attendees to drop out at the last minute.

But in spite of the overall poor ministerial attendance, the number of participants at this conference has increased from last year—precisely 10,106 are registered to attend, compared to the 9004 who turned up last year in Doha.


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« Reply #9974 on: Nov 14, 2013, 06:46 AM »


Ukraine's 'stalling' on EU trade pact seen as victory for Pig Putin

Kiev's failure to legislate for release of Yulia Tymoshenko, a key condition of Brussels deal, enhances Moscow's hold

Ian Traynor in Brussels
theguardian.com, Wednesday 13 November 2013 15.43 GMT   

Europe's hopes of besting Pig Putin and luring Ukraine out of Moscow's orbit through free trade and the prospect of EU membership suffered a setback on Wednesday when the parliament in Kiev balked at a key decision intended to push the country westwards.

The parliament shelved legislation that would have released the former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison to go to Germany for medical treatment.

The failure to act in Kiev was seen as a stalling tactic by the president, Viktor Yanukovych, and suggested a points victory for the Kremlin in its campaign to retain influence in the former Soviet territories between Russia and the EU.

An EU summit at the end of the month in Lithuania is to decide whether to put Ukraine on the path to the EU through the signing of a free-trade pact and what is known as an "association agreement", a first step towards opening EU membership negotiations.

In the ferocious tussle between Moscow and Brussels, Pig Putin scored a significant victory in September when Armenia performed an abrupt volte-face, ditched years of negotiations with the EU, and announced it was joining a Russia-led customs union instead.

Moscow is deploying the weapons of trade wars and gas supplies to coerce the former Soviet republics to shun Europe in favour of closer ties with Russia in what it appears to view as a zero-sum game.

Ukraine, with a population of 46 million and the key transit territory for Russian gas supplies to Europe, is the big prize in this contest. The gloves appear to be coming off only two weeks before the crucial summit in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. The Yanukovych administration appeared to be engaged in brinkmanship, Moscow seemed satisfied, and Brussels despondent about developments this week.

Pat Cox of Ireland and Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, both Europe's mediators in Ukraine, were due to report on their mission to the European parliament on Wednesday evening. All the signs were they would deliver a verdict of mission not yet accomplished.

Germany has made Tymoshenko's release a condition for signing the EU pact with Ukraine. Lithuania, currently chairing the EU and a former Soviet territory, has argued strongly against tying such a strategic decision to the fate of one person. Poland and Sweden have also been strong advocates of getting the deal done with Ukraine.

The main criterion Yanukovych has to meet for the European pact is an end to "selective justice", or the manipulation of the judiciary for political ends. This would apply to the Tymoshenko case; she was jailed for seven years in 2011 for what are widely seen as political reasons.

But the clouds darkened on Monday when the Ukrainian authorities also detained Tymoshenko's chief lawyer for questioning about alleged domestic violence. Yanukovych also went to Moscow at the weekend for secret talks with Pig Putin.

Cox and Kwasniewski are to deliver a report on their 18-month mission, which will be discussed by EU foreign ministers next Monday before the summit in Lithuania. Diplomats in Brussels said the chances were receding of striking a deal in Vilnius, but that the brinkmanship could continue until the last minute.


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