Ukrainian PM hails ‘historic’ bail-out deal with Russia as protesters fume: ‘Yanukovych sold our country’
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 18, 2013 7:34 EST
Ukraine’s prime minister said Wednesday that Kiev had avoided bankruptcy and social collapse thanks to a “historic” bail-out deal with Russia, as protesters accused the government of selling out to Moscow.
President Viktor Yanukovych faced angry criticism after Tuesday’s deal from Ukraine’s opposition who fear it will rob the country of a European future. But Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said it was the only way to rescue the economy.
“What would have awaited Ukraine (without the deal)? The answer is clear — bankruptcy and social collapse,” Azarov told parliament.
“This would have been the New Year’s present for the people of Ukraine,” he added with characteristic irony, describing the Moscow accord as a “historic event”.
Russia’s President Pig Putin on Tuesday agreed to buy $15 billion (11 billion euros) of Ukraine’s debt in eurobonds and slash its gas bill by a third, a move economists said would stave off the risk of a Ukrainian default for now.
The opposition to Yanukovych fears there must be hidden strings attached to the package, and vowed to keep pushing for early elections and a shelved deal with the European Union.
But Azarov said there was no way Ukraine could have signed the Association Agreement with the European Union as Kiev would have had to have accepted unfeasibly stringent IMF conditions for economic reform.
“The agreements that were signed offer good perspectives for the Ukrainian economy,” Azarov said of the Moscow talks, while giving a warning to the thousands still occupying Kiev’s Independence Square by saying the government “will not allow anyone to destabilise” the country further.
‘Yanukovych sold our country’
The deal — inked almost a month since Ukraine decided to back out of its long-mooted Association Agreement with the EU sparking the biggest protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution — has both the opposition and European diplomats fuming.
“Yanukovych used Ukraine as a pawn,” opposition leader and world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko told the crowd of about 50,000 on Independence Square late Tuesday, accusing the president of handing Ukraine’s industries to Russia as collateral in order to get the funding.
“The big question is, what did Yanukovych sign?” Klitschko said.
“Russian emergency loans to Ukraine risks further delaying urgent economic reforms and necessary EU modernisation,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted. “Decline might continue.”
The help from Russia may allow Kiev to stave off the threat of an imminent balance of payments crisis and possible default, amid a recession that has seen the economy shrink since the first half of last year.
Hailed by the two leaders as a new page in the Kiev-Moscow strategic partnership, it also marks a further step away from integration with the European Union.
“We see this very negatively. We consider that Yanukovych sold off our country,” said pro-EU protester Artur, braving the freezing winter temperatures in Kiev.
White House spokesman Jay Carney indicated that Washington was unimpressed by the deal, saying it would “not address the concerns” of the thousands of protesters camped out day and night on Independence Square over the last weeks.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned against stoking further tug-of-war battles over Ukraine, saying in a televised interview that “a confrontation would not lead anywhere.”
Pig Putin, in a clear message to the protesters in Kiev, said Russia did not discuss Ukraine’s membership in the Moscow-led Customs Union in exchange for the announced benefits — something the opposition widely expected.
It remained unclear however what Russia is getting in return for cutting natural gas price to Ukraine from about $400 to $268.5 per 1,000 cubic metres — a remarkable boon to the embattled Yanukovych.
The ex-Soviet nation of 46 million has been at the heart of a furious diplomatic struggle since Yanukovych’s shock decision last month to ditch the landmark EU partnership accord and seek closer ties with its traditional master Russia.
Analysts said the deals announced by the Pig should reduce Ukraine’s current account deficit by around $4.5 billion a year but does not take the urgency out of overdue economic reforms.
Pig Putin offers Ukraine financial incentives to stick with Russia
Moscow to buy $15bn of Ukrainian government bonds and cut gas price after Kiev resists signing EU deal amid mass protests
Shaun Walker in Moscow and agencies
The Guardian, Wednesday 18 December 2013
Ukraine's prime minister Mykola Azarov has described a $15bn aid package from Russia as a historic deal to allow the ex-Soviet republic return to economic growth, as protesters in Kiev voiced anger over a "sell-out" to Moscow.
Ukraine's president Viktor Yanukovych and Russia's Pig Putin announced the bailout for Kiev on Tuesday after talks in Moscow. The deal also includes lowering the price for Russian gas deliveries to Ukraine pays by about a third.
"The head of state managed to agree lower gas prices as of January 1st and until the contract ends," Azarov told his government, referring to a ten-year gas contract that expires in January 2019. "This allows a revival of economic growth."
"Yesterday, a historic development occurred.
"The president reached agreement on exceptionally beneficial conditions for crediting Ukraine's economy, which allows us to carry out wide-ranging plans for economic modernisation," Azarov said.
the Pig's intervention raised the stakes in the battle over Ukraine's future.
The announcements came after he held talks in Moscow with his Ukrainian counterpart, who is facing massive protests at home for his decision to shelve a pact with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia.
Economic experts say Ukraine desperately needs at least $10bn in the coming months to avoid bankruptcy.
Pig Putin sought to calm the protesters in Kiev by saying on Tuesday that he and Yanukovych did not discuss the prospect of Ukraine joining the Russian-dominated Customs Union. But the sweeping agreements are likely to fuel the anger of demonstrators who want Ukraine to break from Russia's orbit and integrate with the 28-nation EU.
The Russian finance minister, Anton Siluanov, said after the Kremlin talks that Russia would purchase $15bn in Ukraine's Eurobonds, starting this month.
Putin said the Russian state-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom, will cut the price that Ukraine must pay for Russian gas deliveries to $268 per 1,000 cubic metres from the current level of about $400 per 1,000 cubic metres.
In brief remarks to the media before they began the talks,the Pig said Ukraine "is without doubt, in the full sense of the word, our strategic partner and ally". He said that over the past two years, trade levels between the countries had dropped, but that the range of new agreements would rectify that.
"The time has come to take energetic steps not only to return to the levels of recent years but to go further," he said.
Membership of the Customs Union, a Moscow-led trade grouping into which the Kremlin has been keen to entice Ukraine, is unlikely to be on the agenda in the near future, but it is believed that in return for a package of loans and trade concessions, Yanukovych has agreed not to sign the EU deal.
Pig Putin looked relaxed before the meeting, slouching in his chair, while Yanukovych sat bolt upright and spoke with long pauses between sentences. Ukrainian media reported that Yanukovych's delegation had asked the Russians not to arrange a joint press conference after the meetings finished.
Nevertheless, Yanukovych said the documents on the table represented a "strategic decision" and that the two sides should work harder to develop closer relations in future. He told the Pig he hoped the "traditional" issue of gas prices could be solved.
Demonstrators have sealed off the centre of Kiev for several weeks and repulsed police efforts to remove them. On Tuesday morning, several hundred protesters stood on Yanukovych's route to the airport, holding signs that read: "Turn the plane round to Europe!"
In Ukraine, we are protesting to preserve our dignity
We in Euromaidan want the world to understand that we are not here for politics or money but justice
theguardian.com, Tuesday 17 December 2013 14.55 GMT
Ukraine has just seen its third week of revolution. On the evening of 15 December, 200,000 protesters hit the streets despite freezing temperatures to demand political change, following the government's failure to sign an EU integration pact. Internationally, media interest peaked when a statue of Lenin was toppled by the people, when George Clooney sent a message of support to the people and when figures from Hayden Panettiere, the opposition leader's future sister-in-law, to Catherine Ashton and John McCain rejoiced in our streets. What I want the world to understand is that we are a peaceful revolution looking for justice, not blood.
One of the opposition leaders, whose party I used to work for as a press secretary before I quit on the first day of the protests, calls this a "revolution of dignity". There are two squares in Kiev where people have been protesting, and they are linked by one street – European Square, or Euromaidan, which has become the name of this movement, and Independence Square, which harks back to where the Orange Revolution took place in 2004, when I was 13.
The movement started from two separate rallies – students in one square, and politicians in the other. After some days the two united, deliberately without any party flags or slogans. For the week before the Vilnius summit on 21 November, at which president Viktor Yanukovych officially announced that Ukraine would not sign the long-awaited integration pact with the EU, you could hear protesters shouting: "Yanukovych, sign!" and "We are Europe!" Young people created poems, songs, pictures and flash mobs, all to illustrate how willing they were to become closer to Europe.
But since 30 November, when the protests were brutally dispersed by riot police early in the morning, the mood has completely changed. The weather has darkened, and the authorities have too, cracking down on the protesters. It is glaringly obvious that these authorities could lead us only to dictatorship, not towards Europe. But this isn't just about being pro-EU any more: Euromaidan is about changing Yanukovych and his government. And the reason is very clear and simple: we have been lied to and used in a political game for more than a year now; we have been beaten by riot police for expressing our dissatisfaction; we no longer want to be treated like cattle; we want an end to corruption. We want respect, justice and freedom. We want our dignity back.
People understand that they may be standing for a very long time, or may face many more attacks by the riot police. We are trying to do as much as we can, because we all understand that we are doing this for a better future. It is a real inspiration to see so many young people, many of whom have come from other cities and have left their universities or jobs. Here, you may see a young boy from Donbass (in pro-Russian eastern Ukraine) building barricades, or the winner of Miss Ukraine 2013 serving tea. Those who can't physically be on the square in Kiev are supporting us through social media. This became real fuel for our movement, as we have a kind of information blockade on what's happening; we use Twitter, Facebook and Vkontakte (the Russian-language Facebook) to spread information, videos and photos. So far, this has been the fastest and most credible way to share news about our life here, and to show that we are not afraid. We are ready to stand to the very end for our rights. We are not here for politics or money: we are protecting our dignity. Those are the things we want other Ukrainians to hear, and the whole world to understand.
Russia develops new intercontinental ballistic missile
Sarmat is being created to replace cold war-era missiles approaching end of their life, Moscow says
theguardian.com, Tuesday 17 December 2013 17.17 GMT
Russian President Pig watches the launch of a missile during naval exercises in Russia's Arctic
Vladimir Putin watching naval exercises. Russia's president wants a strong nuclear deterrent as the US builds an anti-missile shield in Europe. Photo: Itar Tass/Reuters
Russia will begin deploying a new type of long-range missile in 2018 to replace a cold war standby known in the west as Satan, a military commander said on Tuesday in a signal to the United States that Moscow is improving its nuclear arsenal.
A new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) called the Sarmat is being developed to supplant the RS-20B Voyevoda, the Interfax news agency quoted the commander of Russia's strategic missile forces, General Sergei Karakayev, as saying.
"We are counting on being armed with this qualitatively new missile system ... by 2018-20," he said.
The Voyevoda, which is known within Nato as the SS-18 Satan, was developed in the 1970s and the missiles are approaching the end of their service life, although some of the ICBMs will remain in service until 2022.
The commander spoke on the anniversary of the creation of thestrategic missile forces in 1959, the military branch in charge of the ICBMs that were the stuff of nightmares in the US during the superpower standoff of the Soviet era.
Meanwhile, the US air force has test-launched an unarmed Minuteman-3 ICBM from California. The missile took off from Vandenberg air force base on Tuesday on a 4,200-mile (6,760km) flight over the Pacific to a target on the Kwajalein atoll.
The US air force global strike command said the test was a success. Major General Jack Weinstein, commander of the US 20th air force, said the test was a demonstration of the nation's nuclear deterrent.
Russia and the US signed the latest of a series of treaties restricting the numbers of ICBMs in 2010, but Moscow has indicated that it will not go further in the near future, citing what it says are potential threats from US weapons systems.
President Pig Putin is insistent that Russia must maintain a strong nuclear deterrent, in part because of an anti-missile shield the US is building in Europe, which Moscow says could undermine its security.
A pro-Kremlin newspaper reported on Monday that Moscow had deployed short-range Iskander missiles with a range of hundreds of miles in its western exclave of Kaliningrad, alarming the governments of the neighbouring Baltic states and Poland.
It was unclear whether the Sarmat was the missile that Russia tested in May 2012 and said the plan should improve Russia's ability to foil missile defence systems. The defence ministry did not reveal the name of that missile.
Pig Putin has pledged to spend 23tn roubles (£430bn) by 2020 to upgrade defences, but a crucial strategic missile programme separate to the Sarmat has been plagued by problems.
The Bulava missile had been scheduled to enter service in 2012 but several tests have failed, including an unsuccessful launch in September that prompted the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, to order a new set of tests.
Russian parliament approves amnesty that could see jailed Pussy Riot members released early
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 17, 2013 7:59 EST
The Russian lower house of parliament on Tuesday approved in a first reading a Kremlin-sponsored bill on amnesty that could see the jailed members of the Pussy Riot band released early.
But under the proposed measure there would be no clemency for the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and many of the opposition demonstrators accused of using violence against police at a protest a day before President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration last year.
The amnesty will not include people “who committed crimes highly dangerous to the public, crimes that used violence or the threat of violence” and those who committed crimes or regular violations while serving their sentence, according to the text of the amnesty bill.
The amnesty does not have to be approved by the upper house of parliament and could go into effect one day after the scheduled second and third readings in the Duma on Wednesday.
The bill has been heavily criticised by rights activists as a largely cosmetic measure that does not go far enough.
The jailed members of Pussy Riot punk band, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, who are serving two-year sentences on charges of hooliganism for staging an anti-Putin protest in a cathedral, could be released by the end of the week, Tolokonnikova’s husband said.
“Prison officials say they will free them right away – on Thursday,” Pyotr Verzilov wrote on his Twitter blog.
The two young mothers, who have been in jail since March 2012, had been set for release in March.
There has also been hope that the amnesty will apply to 30 foreign and Russian Greenpeace activists who are awaiting trial on hooliganism charges after their open-sea protest against Arctic oil drilling in September.
Rights activists have also hoped that the amnesty will free protesters arrested under the so-called Bolotnaya probe after a mass protest against Putin on Bolotnaya square in Moscow on May 6, 2012, twelve of whom are currently on trial.
However Pig Putin said that those accused of hitting policemen do not deserve to be freed early, and only the few protesters accused of merely participating in the 2012 rally are likely to walk out of prison.
As it stands, the bill would require a conviction for the amnesty to apply.
However Kommersant newspaper said on Tuesday, citing Kremlin sources, that the measure is likely to be extended to include those on trial or under investigation as well.
Merkel compared NSA to Stasi in heated encounter with Obama
German chancellor furious after revelations US intelligence agency listened in on her personal mobile phone
Ian Traynor in Brussels and Paul Lewis in Washington
The Guardian, Tuesday 17 December 2013 18.23 GMT
In an angry exchange with Barack Obama, Angela Merkel has compared the snooping practices of the US with those of the Stasi, the ubiquitous and all-powerful secret police of the communist dictatorship in East Germany, where she grew up.
The German chancellor also told the US president that America's National Security Agency cannot be trusted because of the volume of material it had allowed to leak to the whistleblower Edward Snowden, according to the New York Times.
Livid after learning from Der Spiegel magazine that the Americans were listening in to her personal mobile phone, Merkel confronted Obama with the accusation: "This is like the Stasi."
The newspaper also reported that Merkel was particularly angry that, based on the disclosures, "the NSA clearly couldn't be trusted with private information, because they let Snowden clean them out."
Snowden is to testify on the NSA scandal to a European parliament inquiry next month, to the anger of Washington which is pressuring the EU to stop the testimony.
In Brussels, the chairman of the US House select committee on intelligence, Mike Rogers, a Republican, said his views on the invitation to Snowden were "not fit to print" and that it was "not a great idea".
Inviting someone "who is wanted in the US and has jeopardised the lives of US soldiers" was beneath the dignity of the European parliament, he said.
He declined to comment on Merkel's alleged remarks to Obama. In comments to the Guardian, he referred to the exchange as "a conversation that may or may not have occurred".
Senior Brussels officials say the EU is struggling to come up with a coherent and effective response to the revelations of mass US and British surveillance of electronic communication in Europe, but that the disclosure that Merkel's mobile had been monitored was a decisive moment.
A draft report by a European parliament inquiry into the affair, being presented on Wednesday and obtained by the Guardian, says there has to be a discussion about the legality of the NSA's operations and also of the activities of European intelligence agencies.
The report drafted by Claude Moraes, the British Labour MEP heading the inquiry, says "we have received substantial evidence that the operations by intelligence services in the US, UK, France and Germany are in breach of international law and European law".
Rather than resorting to a European response, Berlin has been pursuing a bilateral pact with the Americans aimed at curbing NSA activities and insisting on a "no-spying pact" between allies.
The NYT reported that Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, had told Berlin that there would be not be a no-espionage agreement, although the Americans had pledged to desist from monitoring Merkel personally.
A high-ranking German official with knowledge of the talks with the White House told the Guardian there had been a "useful exchange of views", but confirmed a final agreement was far from being reached.
The Germans have received assurances that the chancellor's phone was not being monitored and that the US spy agency is not conducting industrial espionage.
However the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said German and US officials were still in the process of negotiating how any final agreement – the details of which could remain secret between both governments – would be formalised.
Their discussions, which include talks about so-called confidence building measures, are also bound-up with wider discussions with the EU regarding special privacy assurances that might be afforded to its citizens under a future arrangement.
"We want to be assured that not everything that is technically possible will be done," the German official added.
In Germany, the main government minister dealing with the NSA fallout, Hans-Peter Friedrich, has fallen victim to a reshuffle in the new coalition unveiled in Berlin at the weekend. Friedrich, from Bavaria's Christian Social Union, is not seen as an ally of Merkel's and was widely viewed to have performed less than robustly in the exchanges with the Americans.
His replacement as interior minister, by contrast, is a close ally of Merkel's – her former chief of staff and former defence minister, Thomas de Maiziere. Additionally, Merkel has brought a former senior intelligence official into the new coalition.
Alongside De Maiziere at the interior ministry, she has appointed Klaus-Dieter Fritsche, previously deputy head of the domestic intelligence service, Germany's equivalent of MI5.
Merkel becomes third postwar German chancellor to be sworn in for third term
Grand coalition has challenging agenda of European reforms, switch from nuclear to renewable energy, and minimum wage
Reuters in Berlin
theguardian.com, Tuesday 17 December 2013 21.33 GMT
Angela Merkel was sworn in as German chancellor for the third time on Tuesday, paving the way for her new "grand coalition" to formally take power.
Merkel, dressed in black and looking relaxed as politicians voted in the Bundestag chamber, joins fellow conservatives Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl as the only postwar chancellors to have won three terms.
The new left-right government faces a host of challenges, from bedding down European reforms aimed at shielding the bloc from future crises to seeing through Merkel's costly switch from nuclear to renewable energy.
Her conservatives scored their best result in more than two decades in the election on 22 September but were forced into lengthy coalition talks with the rival Social Democrats, whose members approved the deal at the weekend.
The vote in the Bundestag was a formality as the ruling parties hold about 80% of the seats. A total of 462 members backed Merkel for chancellor, with 150 voting against and nine abstaining.
Later, members of her cabinet – six of whom are Social Democrats – were sworn in.
The biggest surprise in Merkel's cabinet was her choice of the conservative Ursula von der Leyen as defence minister, which has fuelled speculation that the spirited mother-of-seven could eventually succeed the chancellor.
One priority for the "grand coalition" will be a reform of Germany's complex renewable energy law, blamed for soaring electricity costs. The government aims to have an agreement in place by Easter.
By the summer, reforms of the pension system – more generous payouts for mothers and exceptions to the 67-year retirement age – must be pushed through, and progress made on introducing a minimum wage of €8.50 (£7.20) an hour.
Spying claims suggest an obsessive order at Ikea's heart
Allegations that the company spied on French staff illustrate what happens if you calibrate a humane idea towards profit
theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 December 2013 09.30 GMT
A flatpack spying apparatus – "the Trista self-assembly bug", say – has so far not appeared on the shelves of Ikea. Yet a court case being heard in France has included allegations that the furniture firm used private detectives to follow employees on sick leave and to perform data sweeps, among other infractions of privacy. The detectives were said to be surprisingly egalitarian about who they spied on. As well as ordinary employees – Virginie Paulin, Ikea France's former deputy director of communications and marketing, is among the accusers in court – a Swedish couple who complained about poor service have also claimed to be the victims of Ikea's private detectives.
The Swedish flatpack specialists appear to have overstepped the mark. Technologies of control over workers have expanded rapidly over the past couple of decades – but it should not be too surprising.
There is a lazy equation sometimes made that there is something fundamentally dubious about any kind of attempt to create order, particularly in human environments. For a certain kind of enthusiast for chaos, it is telling that Ingvar Kamprad, Ikea's unquestioned absolute ruler from its inception to the present day, was for several years in the 1940s a member of the fascist New Swedish Movement and was quoted calling its leader Per Engdahl "a great man" as late as 2010. Ordnung muss sein and all that.
Yet Ikea did not make its money from fascism, but from Scandinavian social democracy. Between the 1930s and 1980s, Sweden became possibly the most egalitarian industrial country ever. The high design of the era, encapsulated by the work of the Swede Sven Markelius, the Finn Alvar Aalto or the Dane Arne Jacobsen, was both functionalist and homely, urban and rural. Although their designs were often found in public buildings, they were was still too expensive for the average tenant on a new housing estate. That's where Ikea stepped in, for the first time making modern design easily affordable. There was just one proviso – you had to undertake some extra, unpaid labour in putting it together.
In this, Ikea's home furnishings became icons of social democracy: unpretentious, comfortable, modern, sparse, available to all. Yet if they were one of its most conspicuous international successes, Ikea also exemplified the forces that eventually ran down social democracy as an insurgent, popular force, helping it become the residual shell that it is today.
Rudolf Meidner, the economist who was crucial in creating the Swedish model, ruefully noted that the very success of the Swedish companies that had benefited from government contracts led to their internationalisation – Ikea make half of its products in China. "Swedish multinationals," he wrote, "expanded thanks to social democratic policies. Ikea had its domestic basis in furnishing the million apartments which were built as part of the social housing programme in the 1950s and 1960s."
These Swedish multinationals helped to kill the wage earner funds plan of the 1970s, a trade union-backed reform that aimed to install workers' ownership of these corporations. Ordinary folk were considered capable of assembling and enjoying modernist furniture, but not of running the economy.
If it first expanded on the basis of social planning, Ikea later thrived on its opposite: unplanned out of town developments, with their immense blue and yellow boxes being built on the edge of cities, alongside motorways. They're the acceptable face of the exurban mall. People who would never dream of going to somewhere so crass as Bluewater or Meadowhall have no compunction about inspecting plywood and meatballs in these hideous oversized sheds. As such, they've helped to exemplify an era when the more people obsess about their interiors, the more the exterior built environment becomes bleak and straggling.
Ikea is one of the great examples of what happens to a humane idea – the provision of decent, modern environments for living in – when it is calibrated purely towards profit and power. Its obsessive order is imposed at others' expense, as its alleged failure to respect the privacy of employees suggests.
Outcry in Italy over video of naked refugees being disinfected in public
Parliamentary speaker Laura Boldrini condemns treatment of migrants seen stripping naked at Lampedusa reception centre
Lizzy Davies in Rome
theguardian.com, Tuesday 17 December 2013 20.41 GMT
An Italian news report on the Rai 2 channel showing the clips, apparently taken on a mobile phone
Video footage appearing to show migrants at the reception centre on Lampedusa standing naked in the open air while waiting to be sprayed for scabies has provoked a storm of protest in Italy.
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-8A5xiIz5U
Broadcast by the Rai 2 television channel on Monday night, the pictures appeared to show a practice that was labelled "unworthy of a civilised country" by Laura Boldrini, the speaker of the lower house of parliament. Coming barely two months after hundreds of people died in two separate disasters in the Mediterranean, the footage provoked renewed criticism of Italy's creaking reception system for asylum seekers and refugees.
"Italy should be ashamed," Giusi Nicolini, mayor of Lampedusa, told Rai 2 television. "It [the reception system] has to change. This is not what we were expecting to see just two months after the shipwrecks which prompted weeping, tears, commitments and promises."
In the footage, which appeared to have been shot on a mobile phone, at least two men at the reception centre are shown standing with no clothes on, while others are undressing.
It was unclear whether the men had been obliged to remove their clothes. Italy's interior minister, Angelino Alfano, said a detailed report into the images would be ready within 24 hours and that "whoever erred will pay".
A spokesperson for Amnesty International was quoted by the Ansa news agency as saying: "Migrants arriving in Italy, as in any other country, need an appropriate medical exam in their own interests and in the interests of the country receiving them.
"Nonetheless, migrants' privacy and dignity must be respected and no migrant should be asked – let alone forced – to take their clothes off in public."
Boldrini, a former spokeswoman in Italy for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, said in a statement: "These images cannot leave us indifferent. All the more so because they come after the tragic shipwrecks of October and after the commitments that Italy made in terms of reception [of asylum seekers and migrants]. This kind of degrading treatment discredits the image of our country and demands dignified responses."
12/18/2013 12:32 PM
Brussels Summit: EU to Refocus on Stalled Defense Initiatives
By Christopher Alessi
EU leaders are gathering in Brussels Thurday in an effort to shore up the bloc's common defense policy, amid growing doubts over whether Europe can bridge divergent national views on the continent's security role.
European leaders are set to meet in Brussels on Dec. 19 for their last meeting of the year. But this European Council summit will differ from most of the other recent quarterly meetings in that its agenda will not focus primarily on the euro-zone debt crisis. Instead, for the first time in five years, EU heads of state will gather to discuss the bloc's beleaguered Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP).
The summit will address a number of objectives that have eluded the European Union in the past, including strengthening joint military capabilities, pooling defense resources, and spurring a more competitive European defense industry. The 28 leaders are expected to outline blueprints for shared policies on cyber defense, maritime security, drones, and air-to-air refueling capacity.
The renewed focus on CSDP comes at a time when the United States -- Europe's traditional security provider -- has begun to shift its strategic focus to Asia, pressuring the EU to strengthen its defense capacity on the Continent and in the neighboring Middle East/North Africa region.
Gen. Patrick de Rousiers, the chairman of the European Union Military Committee (EUMC), is optimistic that EU leaders can make progress. He cited "enhanced solidarity" among member states and a "greater commitment" to addressing both issues of military capability and rapid-response. Due to a reduction in most European national defense budgets, de Rousier explained, there is a "shared identification of the need for interoperability."
Similarly, Claude-France Arnould, the chief executive of the European Defense Agency (EDA), said she expects the summit to offer a "real discussion on defense." The EDA, the organization chiefly responsible for implementing CSDP, played a large role in shaping the agenda for this week's meeting.
Arnould suggested the top priority for EU leaders will be to outline a research and development strategy for an unmanned aerial vehicle (or drone) program, a military technology area in which the EU lags far behind the United States. However, she noted, member states will first need to develop a shared regulatory and certification framework.
Time for a 'Strategic Rethink'?
Despite the seemingly wide-ranging agenda, experts remain skeptical about EU governments' ability -- and commitment -- to advance CSDP and deeper defense integration.
"The EDA did a great job in preparing this summit in terms of the issues they identified, but the central problem is that it has practically no executive authority," said Nick Witney, the former chief executive of the EDA and a current senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "The EDA comes up with ideas, gives them to ministers, a communique is written -- and then the day after, national defense ministers decide it's all too difficult," he explained.
Witney recommends that defense ministers share some of their "forward looking plans" in order to facilitate drone development and other projects. More fundamentally, he argued, "We need to have a strategic rethink of what [CSDP] means."
The concept of the Common Security and Defense Policy is rooted in the European Security Strategy, which was first outlined in 2003 and revised in 2008. Witney contends that the security strategy is an out-of-date document based on a premise of "moral interventionism," which does not take into account the current political opposition to such a policy in many European capitals -- not to mention the economic constraints currently facing Europe.
The 2009 Lisbon Treaty created the European External Action Service -- the EU foreign policy umbrella under which both the EUMC and the EDA sit -- and broadened the CSDP framework to include joint disarmament, military assistance, and post-conflict stabilization. It also outlined a number of pan-EU forces that have the potential ability to intervene in the name of CSPD, including Eurocorps.
That force, which grew out of a longstanding Franco-German brigade and now includes troops from Belgium, Luxembourg, and Spain, "could in the future be a starting point for European defense policy," said Eurocorps Commanding General Guy Buchsenschmidt. But first EU leaders need to find more common ground over European defense policy.
"The problem with CSDP is that there is no consensus on the way Europe can engage troops abroad, because EU nations do not perceive the same levels of threat," he explained. Buchsenschmidt also argued that EU leaders should use the upcoming summit as an opportunity to establish a permanent operational European headquarters for CSDP. He added, "If we don't change our mindset, it will be difficult to maintain our place in the world."
Limited Political Will
Nonetheless, expectations that the summit will help make CSDP more effective are too high and its "real impact will be limited," said Markus Kaim, head of the international security research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "The problem of CSDP is not a problem of construction or lack of strategy," argued Kaim, "the problem is a lack of political will."
Indeed, as a result of competing national interests, EU member states have thus far failed to take advantage of the existing CSDP infrastructure, including the so-called Battlegroups, multinational battalions that since 2007 have been operational and on standby for rapid responses to crises in and around Europe.
"Mali would have been the perfect case to deploy the EU Battlegroups," noted Kaim, referring to the French intervention in Mali to combat al-Qaeda-linked Islamists earlier this year. But the Battlegroups were never considered a viable option, in large part due to Germany's initial opposition to military intervention in the North African country. (German soldiers ultimately provided medical support for the operation.)
German reluctance to participate in recent international military operations in Mali, and Libya before that in 2011, have made it more complicated for the EU to articulate a common defense and security vision. "The typical German debate on security policy starts with a 'no,'" said Sebastian Feyock, a program officer at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Feyock suggested this approach stems from a deep-seated postwar German ambivalence over all matters military. "We can't even agree in Germany if we should have a national security strategy," let alone a European security strategy, said Feyock.
Roderich Kiesewetter, a member of Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, from the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and a former staff officer of the Bundeswehr, Germany's military, conceded that the country has left its European allies with a negative impression when it comes to German dependability in military affairs. He said Berlin should offer "more reliability and predictability regarding international commitments" and be clear from the start on "what we can offer and what we do not want to offer."
However, the EDA's Arnould suggested that CSDP has more room for flexibility, allowing for disagreement among member states over specific missions. CSDP, she said, can operate on an "a la carte" basis: "We don't need unanimity."
Arnould also rejected criticism that the European Security Strategy is no longer relevant. She argued that the EU should focus more on how CSDP can be employed effectively by willing nations, rather than negotiating new abstract strategies and treaties. "The first imperative is action, and then we can develop lessons from that action. But we have enough to act," Arnould said.
December 17, 2013
A Top Iraqi Official’s Advice to Karzai? Take America’s Deal
By AZAM AHMED
KABUL, Afghanistan — With one of the most important chapters of Afghanistan’s history open before him, President Hamid Karzai took time this month for a personal meeting with the longtime foreign minister of Iraq, Hoshyar Zebari.
It had been years since an Iraqi official had been to Afghanistan, and the trip was nominally meant to ease the passage of Afghan Shiites to holy shrines in Iraq. But it came right as Mr. Karzai had chosen to dig in and delay signing a security agreement with the United States, leaving long-term Western military support, and billions of dollars in aid, hanging in the balance.
In a moment of candor, Mr. Zebari offered a piece of advice to the president that would have been unthinkable from an Iraqi official just two years ago: Get over your differences with the Americans and sign the deal.
“Don’t be under the illusion that no matter what you do the Americans are here to stay,” Mr. Zebari told Mr. Karzai. “People used to say that about the American presence in Iraq, too. But they were eager to leave, and they will be eager to leave your country as well.”
When the last American troops departed Iraq in 2011, after the collapse of a similar security agreement, many Iraqis reveled in a moment of national pride, expressing faith in the government’s ability to maintain security. Since then, the country has fallen back into hellish violence, with thousands killed in sectarian attacks this year.
The Iraqi government could not even secure Baghdad anymore, despite billions of dollars in oil revenue and well-trained security forces, Mr. Zebari told the Afghan president, according to Iraqi and Afghan officials at the meeting. So how could the Afghan government, which can barely fund 20 percent of what it spends each year, hope to control the country without American help?
The conversation was a resonant moment between two leaders at different points in their respective journeys — one pondering his country’s post-American future, the other contending with it. With the benefit of hindsight, Mr. Zebari reached out to a president he scarcely knew, seizing on their shared experience at the crossroads of American involvement in the Muslim world.
Some of the parallels for Afghanistan are clear. As impasse has deepened into crisis, some of Mr. Karzai’s closest aides have seized on Iraq as proof that the Americans could just walk away, leaving the country’s security forces without military support and training in the middle of a war against the Taliban. Billions in badly needed international aid would also probably dry up, collapsing the economy. Worries about a return to civil war in Afghanistan would leap to center stage.
But Mr. Karzai had heard it all before.
American officials, in fact, have long used the withdrawal from Iraq as a cautionary example when talking with reporters and Afghan officials about the struggle to reach an Afghan security deal. And in the days after Mr. Karzai said he would put off signing the agreement, several senior American officials warned him that they would be forced to begin considering the “zero option” — a total and final troop withdrawal in 2014 — if he did not reverse course.
And that was the way Mr. Karzai appeared to take Mr. Zebari’s words, to the chagrin of Afghan officials who had hoped their president might take heed of Iraq’s troubles.
“You see?” he told the small group of Afghan officials after the meeting ended. “The Americans want this deal so badly they are even getting the Iraqis to pressure me.”
In a telephone interview, Mr. Zebari insisted his advice had merely been an expression of good will, not water-carrying for the Americans.
“Two years after the troop withdrawal, because of the rise of violence, we went back to Washington and asked them for continued support and military help,” he said, referring to a Nov. 1 trip by the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, after a huge surge in attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni militants. “One should really draw from that conclusion.”
In 2011, the deal effectively broke down over Iraqi domestic politics. But within Mr. Karzai’s response to Mr. Zebari’s plea lies one of the core reasons it might yet happen that the United States leaves Afghanistan outright, too, despite urgency within parts of the Obama administration not to see a decade of lost lives and treasure blown away.
Facing a world of potential consequences, Mr. Karzai again seemingly reduced the moment to himself. And whether out of paranoia or justifiable suspicion, his reaction has increasingly been to express profound distrust for his American allies.
“Even if they are not bluffing, we will not give in to the pressure to sign if our requirements are not fulfilled,” he told the French newspaper, Le Monde last week. “What I am hearing these days, and what I have already heard, is typical of colonial exploitation.”
Trying to understand Mr. Karzai’s intentions has become something of a parlor game in Kabul and Washington over the last few weeks. Has the bitterness over a failed 12-year war against the Taliban, and fear that the Americans will betray him, made him feel he must finally take a stand? Is he, as he says, using brinkmanship to ensure the best possible deal for Afghans, as he has with greater frequency in recent years?
“It might be a political game he’s playing, it might be for the sake of the nation or for his personal interests,” said Mohammad Homayoon Shinwari, an adviser to the president. “Politics is always what happens behind the curtain.”
In any case, the specter of Iraq has not just been used as a threat. It has loomed over every step of the debate on a long-term troop presence, both inside the White House and the Afghan presidential palace.
For the Americans who want to see troops stay on, the Iraqi example has served as a fallback position. “You can point to what’s been happening in Iraq, and you can say, ‘We can’t allow that to happen in Afghanistan,’ ” one senior administration official said.
Those in favor of a total withdrawal have a sense of having avoided a debacle in Iraq — that leaving incurred almost no political cost at home and most likely saved American lives. The same would be true in Afghanistan, another American official said.
Still, even those relieved at having avoided catastrophe in Iraq are reluctant to see Afghanistan descend into bloodshed.
The outcome of a grand assembly of Afghan leaders last month, the loya jirga, was an expression of urgency to seal a security deal, just one indicator that at least some of the Afghan public wants continuing American support. And American officials do not want to “punish the Afghan people” because of Mr. Karzai’s intransigence, the senior administration official said.
The officials asked not to be identified because they were describing internal discussions and delicate negotiations.
Within the Afghan government, Mr. Karzai’s stance has started to create a sense that he is on the fringe.
Even his most senior cabinet officials, including the ministers of defense and the interior, had no idea he planned to insist on delaying the deal and push for better terms until the words had left his mouth, during a speech before the loya jirga on Nov. 21 that left the audience, and other officials, shocked, according to a range of Afghan officials.
Some officials even suspect Mr. Karzai had not planned to, either: They say the words had not appeared in any drafts of the speech.
Matthew Rosenberg contributed reporting from Washington.
India passes 'lokpal' anti-corruption bill
Bill spurred by Anna Hazare empowers watchdog to look into and prosecute corruption cases involving politicians and bureaucrats
Associated Press in Delhi
theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 December 2013 10.25 GMT
India's parliament has approved a contentious anti-corruption bill that empowers an independent ombudsman to investigate and prosecute cases of corruption by politicians and bureaucrats.
The "lokpal" or watchdog bill was passed by the lower house of parliament on Wednesday after the government agreed to several amendments suggested by opposition politicians. The bill cleared the upper house on Tuesday.
It will become a law after it is signed by the president.
The anti-corruption bill was spurred by social activist Anna Hazare, who has been on a hunger strike for the last nine days. He has said he will end his fast once both houses of parliament adopt the bill.
The bill had been in abeyance since 2011, when it was approved by the lower house, but not the upper house.
Lokpal bill: will it really change India's corruption culture?
Spurred by Anna Hazare's hunger strike, the bill empowers an independent watchdog to investigate and prosecute corruption cases. But will it work? Tell us what you think here
theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 December 2013 10.43 GMT
India's parliament has approved an anti-corruption bill under which an independent watchdog will have the power to investigate and prosecute cases of corruption by politicians, civil servants and bureaucrats.
The bill was passed by the lower house of parliament on Wednesday after the government agreed to several amendments suggested by opposition politicians. The bill cleared the upper house on Tuesday. Regional Samajwadi party, an ally of the Congress, walked out in protest and did not participate in.
It has been a main demand of campaigners led by Anna Hazare, who is now expected to end his latest hunger strike after nine days.
Do you think it will successfully eradicate government corruption which has plagued the Congress-led government this past year?
Strip-searched Indian diplomat: I was treated like a common criminal by US
Devyani Khobragade describes 'repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches' as anti-US protests continue in India
Associated Press in Delhi
theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 December 2013 13.03 GMT
An Indian diplomat said US authorities subjected her to a strip search, cavity search and DNA swabbing following her arrest on visa charges in New York, despite her "incessant assertions of immunity".
The case has sparked widespread outrage in India and infuriated the New Delhi government, which revoked privileges for US diplomats to protest against the woman's treatment. It has cast a pall over India-US relations, which have cooled in recent years despite a 2008 nuclear deal that was hailed as a high point in the countries' ties.
Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, was arrested on Thursday outside her daughter's Manhattan school on charges that she lied on a visa application about how much she paid her housekeeper, an Indian national.
Prosecutors say the maid received less than $3 (£1.80) per hour for her work.
In an email published in Indian media on Wednesday, Khobragade said she was treated like a common criminal.
"I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a holdup with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity," she wrote.
An Indian official confirmed that the email was authentic, and said India's priority now was to get the woman returned home.
"India's top demand right now is: return our diplomat," he said, adding that Khobragade, who was released on $250,000 (£150,000) bail, would have to report to police in New York every week.
Khobragade's case has touched a nerve in India, where the fear of public humiliation resonates strongly and heavy-handed treatment by the police is normally reserved for the poor. For an educated, middle-class woman to face public arrest and a strip search is almost unimaginable, except in the most brutal crimes.
Prosecutors say Khobragade claimed on visa application documents that she paid her Indian maid $4,500 a month, but that she actually paid her less than $3 an hour. Khobragade has pleaded not guilty and plans to challenge the arrest on grounds of diplomatic immunity.
Marie Harf, the US state department deputy spokeswoman, said Khobragade did not have full diplomatic immunity. Instead, she has consular immunity from the jurisdiction of US courts only with respect to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions.
If convicted, Khobragade faces a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration.
The fallout from the case is growing. India retaliated against US diplomats with measures that included revoking diplomat ID cards that brought certain privileges, demanding to know the salaries paid to Indian staff in US embassy households and withdrawing import licences that allowed the commissary at the US embassy to import alcohol and food.
Police also removed the traffic barricades near the US embassy in Delhi in retaliation for Khobragade's treatment. The barriers were a safety measure but India said they clogged up traffic.
On Wednesday, dozens of people protested outside the US embassy, saying Khobragade's treatment was an insult to all Indian women.
In Delhi, the lower house of parliament had to be temporarily adjourned on Wednesday after politicians noisily demanded that it adopt a resolution against the US.
The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, described Khobragade's treatment as deplorable.
Arun Jaitely, leader of the opposition in the upper house, said the government had to register its "strongest protest" to the US government for the "lack of respect for India". He called for a review of India's relations with the United States, a demand that was vociferously seconded by many politicians.
The commerce minister, Anand Sharma, said the arrest was a "matter of national outrage". He promised angry politicians that the government would make an official statement in parliament on the incident.
Harf said on Tuesday that federal authorities would work on the issue with India.
"We understand that this is a sensitive issue for many in India," she said. "Accordingly, we are looking into the intake procedures surrounding this arrest to ensure that all appropriate procedures were followed and every opportunity for courtesy was extended."
December 18, 2013
Lawlessness in Borderlands Taints Myanmar’s Progress
By THOMAS FULLER
TACHILEIK, Myanmar — The verdant fairways of the golf course outside this northeastern city in Myanmar might suggest a measure of normalcy and tranquility — except for the handguns that some of the golfers wear.
In a region known for rival ethnic armies and drug-trafficking gangs, many officials find it prudent to carry side arms even as they play 18 holes.
In the city, which sits along the border with Thailand, a picture of barely controlled lawlessness emerges, with at least eight ethnic militia groups patrolling the streets in different uniforms. Despite their presence — or, in some cases, facilitated by it, Thai officials say — drug traffickers regularly smuggle shipments of heroin and methamphetamine pills to Thailand.
Myanmar has begun a remarkable transformation over the past two years, edging toward democracy and moving past the legacy of five decades of military rule. But borderland areas of the country, long riven by ethnic conflict, pose a stubborn impediment to the government’s hopes for national peace. Officials have repeatedly postponed the announcement of a national cease-fire, partly because of the government’s inability to come to terms with ethnic groups located in an arc around the northern and eastern borders of the country.
The United Nations reported on Wednesday that Myanmar’s production of opium, which is used to make heroin, rose 26 percent this year. Opium cultivation by the region’s impoverished farmers has increased for seven straight years, the United Nations says. Production of methamphetamines in northeastern Myanmar has also surged.
“This area is ignored in the global conversation about Myanmar,” said Jason Eligh, the Myanmar country manager of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “The rising level of opium cultivation is an indicator that things are not going well.”
Mr. Eligh, who has traveled widely through the northeast of Myanmar, says it is afflicted by a “classic mix of guns and trafficking.”
“There are dozens of groups with dozens of different agendas,” he said. “You are not going to find a resolution to the conflict without first addressing the issue of drugs. We are talking about a process that is going to take years and years.”
An on-off conflict between the central government and the tangled jumble of ethnic groups in northern and northeastern Myanmar is sometimes described as the world’s longest-running civil war.
Since Myanmar, then called Burma, gained independence from Britain in 1948, ethnic groups have been battling for greater autonomy. Today, under the first nominally civilian government since 1962, they are clamoring for federalism. The central government and especially the military have not yet proposed a specific alternative to the country’s highly centralized state, controlled by members of the main ethnic group, the Burman.
The volatility of the region is underlined by periodic attacks and skirmishes, including a blast near the border with China on Tuesday that left at least three people dead, according to Burmese news accounts.
A sort of de facto autonomy reigns in many parts of the borderlands, including large swaths of territory where the central government has little or no presence.
The starkest example involves the Wa people, who had something close to autonomy during British colonial rule and who since 1948 have built a state within a state, including their own armed forces, the United Wa State Army. With at least 20,000 under arms, it is one of the largest rebel armies in Asia.
The Wa have built their own roads and opened their own schools, hospitals, courts and prisons. They use their own license plates, have their own police force and access Chinese and Thai networks for phone and Internet connections. The leadership writes in Chinese characters, and many if not most Wa do not speak Burmese.
U Aung Myint, a spokesman for the Wa, said by telephone Wednesday that the Wa leadership had not held talks with Burmese government officials since October.
“The government in Naypyidaw has not properly answered our call for a Wa autonomous state,” he said, referring to Myanmar’s capital. The Wa “have not yet decided” whether to agree to the nationwide cease-fire agreement, he said.
Here in Tachileik, the Wa have a “liaison office” that functions like an embassy.
U Ar Thet, the deputy liaison officer, told a visiting reporter that the 20 or so Wa representatives in the liaison office are armed “for self-defense.”
The Wa have rejected the central government’s role in conducting a census next year. Wa leaders say they will count their own people.
Government peace negotiators have met with a range of ethnic groups, sometimes on rebel-held territory. Yet the government has deferred the key question, ethnic leaders say, of how a unitary state inured to decades of top-down military rule will devolve power to the ethnic areas in a new and more democratic Myanmar. Leaders of ethnic groups say the military, which has maintained significant influence and power in the new government, does not appear to be budging from the ideology of central command.
“Everybody, including the president, is talking about federalism — except the military,” said Gen. Gun Maw, the deputy chief of staff of the Kachin Independence Army, an ethnic militia that has clashed regularly with government troops.
Speaking on the sidelines of peace negotiations in November, General Gun Maw said the government and ethnic groups were “still in the precondition phase of the peace talks.”
Outside observers say they see an overall improvement in the situation in northern Myanmar but are concerned about the continued, periodic clashes between government troops and ethnic forces.
A Thai military intelligence officer who is a member of a special task force that deals with border security, said he believes that the Burmese military is pursing a strategy of “clobber, then caress.”
“The Burmese government is pretty smart at this,” he said. “They are trying to push and push these groups. And then once tension grows, they propose more talks.”
Thailand is particularly concerned about the situation because of the record seizures of methamphetamines in recent years and the prospect of violence spilling across its borders, as has happened in the past.
The intelligence officer, who declined to be quoted by name because it would jeopardize his work, said ethnic leaders tell him that “deep down inside they still mistrust the government, especially because the government and military seem to be moving in different directions.”
Mr. Ar Thet of the Wa liaison office would not comment on the overall prospects for peace. But he said the security situation had definitely improved in Tachileik during his decade and a half working in the city.
“When I arrived here there were shootings almost every day,” he said. “Now it’s only once in a while.”
An avid golfer, he also plays down the danger of fighting on the fairways.
“During my 15 years here, there has only been one attack on the golf course,” he said.
Poypiti Amatatham contributed reporting from Bangkok and Wai Moe from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
December 17, 2013
In Uzbekistan, the Practice of Forced Labor Lives On During the Cotton Harvest
By MANSUR MIROVALEV and ANDREW E. KRAMER
SAMARKAND, Uzbekistan — For most of the year, Dr. Tamara Khidoyatova treats patients as a doctor at a hospital here in this picturesque, old Silk Road city. But for a few weeks every autumn, she is forced to pick cotton, for which she is paid little or nothing.
Throughout the fall, when the cotton harvest comes in, the government drafts about a million people, primarily public-sector employees and professionals, to work as cotton pickers, helping bring in the harvest for the world’s fifth-largest cotton exporting nation.
“You come to work, with all the makeup, wearing nice clothes, good shoes,” Dr. Khidoyatova, 61, said. “And the polyclinic director runs in and says, ‘I need 40 people in the field, the bus is outside, hurry, hurry!’ ”
That was just a day trip. But most people are given some notice, and then go away for a month at a time. Once in the fields, pickers loop heavy cloth sacks over their necks, stoop between the furrows and repeatedly clutch at the white puffs to gather a quota of 120 pounds of raw cotton a day. At night, they sleep on cots in the gymnasiums of village schools or in crude barracks in the fields.
Until recent years, students, some as young as 7, were routinely called on to pick cotton, and some high school-age youths still do. But pressured by a boycott organized by the Cotton Campaign and the Responsible Sourcing Network, groups that have worked with major Western garment companies, Uzbekistan has mostly stopped using students in the fields. To replace them, the authorities have in effect turned to their parents.
It is one of the world’s more bizarre systems of agricultural labor, possible, perhaps, only in one of the world’s most cloistered and repressive societies. Central Asia’s most populous country, at 30 million, Uzbekistan since 1989 has been ruled by President Islam Karimov, first as a Soviet apparatchik and later as head of state. Human Rights Watch estimates that the country holds more political prisoners than the rest of the former Soviet Union combined.
To hear the government tell it, all these teachers, doctors, bureaucrats, employees of small businesses, engineers and architects “volunteer” for a few weeks of farm labor each year.
“The government doesn’t invest in mechanization at all because they have cheap labor, and cotton gathered by hand is more valuable,” said Sergei V. Naumov, an Uzbekistan-based reporter for Ferghana.news, a website for Central Asian news, who has covered the harvest for a decade.
In simplest terms, it is a system of forced labor, rights groups and international labor monitors say, an old scourge of the cotton industry that has returned to life. With its monopoly on the industry, the government pays far below world prices for the cotton, reaping extortionate profits that help balance the budget. In return, it provides farmers with free labor.
Still, the international apparel industry, having tolerated forced labor of younger children in Uzbekistan’s fields and already stung from negative publicity for relying on Asian sweatshop labor, has extended its boycott here to include forced labor of any sort. So far, 136 companies, including Disney, Fruit of the Loom, Gap, H & M, Levi’s and Walmart, have pledged to avoid knowingly buying Uzbek cotton as long as the practice continues.
That threat goes unheard here through the harvest months, from mid-September to mid-November, when more than a million people are sent from cities and villages into the sprawling fields of mud and ripe cotton plants. There, the conditions for teachers and doctors are not so different from those of the slaves of the past, but with one modern twist.
“Nobody beats you with a whip,” Muhabbat Abdullayeva, a stately, plump woman with short, dyed-red hair who teaches at an elementary school, said in a village near Samarkand.
But failing to “volunteer” can lead to being fired or arrested.
Come harvest time, office managers and school principals divide employees into two groups, then rotate them through cotton picking and ordinary duties. Those not picking work a double shift or, in the case of teachers, combine two classrooms.
In this system, your boss at work is also your boss in the fields. Cotton-picking skills become a component of annual job evaluations, skewing decisions on promotions, said Dmitri Tikhonov, a rights activist and an authority on Uzbekistan’s cotton-picking policies.
Cotton picking aggravates office politics when, for example, a promotion goes to an otherwise inept doctor or teacher who is a stalwart in the fields.
There, men with scales weigh the sacks, then unwrap them to add their contents to dirty-white heaps of cotton piling up on carts, which eventually make their way into the international cotton supply chain. The men jot a figure next to each picker’s name, moving them closer to the government-set quota and freedom, at least until the following year.
In June, the State Department ranked Uzbekistan in the lowest category for tolerating human trafficking and forced labor.
“What makes the situation in Uzbekistan so unusual is that the Uzbek government works as the trafficker in chief, mobilizing the population with the use of officials at all levels,” Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch, said in an interview. “Millions of its citizens pick cotton in abusive conditions, exposed to pesticides, without potable water, with inadequate shelter, for which they receive little or no pay.”
Dr. Khidoyatova, in an interview in her kitchen, over tea and plates of raisins, almonds and lumps of brown sugar, the local delicacies, said, “Every fall for the past 22 years, all the years of Uzbek independence, I had to pick cotton, and every year things only get worse.”
The police in Uzbekistan’s Soviet-style government control the harvest with the threat of criminal prosecution of employers who fail to compel their workers to meet quotas. (The charge is usually formulated as sabotaging state property, as the cotton harvest belongs to the state purchasing monopoly, Uzkhlopkoprom.)
Yet, strangely, it is legal to hire a substitute for the season. Employees whose numbers get drawn to pick cotton often find a day laborer or homeless person to take their place.
Finding a willing family member is another way out. “If you can’t go, you have to send your brother or sister, whomever you can,” said Sayeed, a 27-year-old doctor in Samarkand, who did not want his last name published for fear of retribution.
Every cotton harvest, meanwhile, brings more signs of dysfunction in the general economy because of absent employees. Hospitals close for all but emergencies. The social welfare system breaks down, as bureaucrats who disburse pensions are no longer at their desks.
The Uzbek government characterizes the widespread participation in the harvest as upholding tradition or patriotic service, akin to volunteering for the National Guard or a neighborhood cleanup. Pickers are paid about 3 cents a pound, a pittance even here. Sometimes, the cost of a bus ticket and food exceeds this payment, meaning laborers work for nothing or even end up owing the state.
In a speech in October, Mr. Karimov praised the citizenry, saying: “Since olden days cotton has been seen as a symbol of whiteness, of spiritual purity. And only people of pure mind and beautiful soul are capable of farming it.”
Rights advocates say they are shocked to find that their efforts are sometimes resented inside the country. “ ‘What have you accomplished?’ ” Mr. Tikhonov, the rights activist, said Uzbeks had told him. “ ‘You wanted to eliminate child labor, so now we have to do it.’ ”
Mansur Mirovalev reported from Samarkand, and Andrew E. Kramer from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
December 17, 2013
Amid Chinese Rivalry, Japan Seeks More Muscle
By MARTIN FACKLER
TOKYO — Taking Japan a step further from its postwar pacifism, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved a new five-year defense plan on Tuesday that calls for the acquisition of drones and amphibious assault vehicles to strengthen the nation’s military as it faces the prospect of a prolonged rivalry with China over islands in the East China Sea.
While Mr. Abe described the spending plan as “proactive pacifism,” it continues a trend started earlier this year when Mr. Abe began to reverse a decade of military cuts to help offset China’s rapid military buildup and the relative decline of American influence in the region.
He is building on moves by previous prime ministers to inch Japan toward what many here call a more “normal” nation that can defend itself. While Mr. Abe, an outspoken conservative, has long wanted to wean the country from what he and other nationalists consider excessive pacifism and an unhealthy negativity about its World War II-era past, the tensions with China have made a skeptical public more willing to accept an expanded military.
The spending plan was approved by the cabinet in tandem with a new 10-year defense strategy and a broader national security strategy that call for Japan to create a more dynamic military force, loosen self-imposed restrictions on exporting weapons, and nurture a stronger sense of patriotism among its citizens.
Under the new strategy, Japan will continue to build closer ties with the United States, whose 50,000 military personnel stationed here still form the basis of Japan’s national security. But it will also acquire weapons meant to increase its own capabilities — acquisitions that would have once been unthinkable for a nation that viewed its military with suspicion after its disastrous defeat in World War II.
Japan will “build a comprehensive defensive posture that can completely defend our nation,” according to the security strategy. “China is attempting to alter the status quo by force in the skies and seas of the East China Sea and South China Sea and other areas based on assertions that are incompatible with the established international order.”
Political analysts say that China’s assertive stance in the dispute over the East China Sea islands has made Japan’s once proudly pacifist public more willing to accept an expanded role for the nation’s military, called the Self-Defense Forces. China’s claims in the South China Sea have also put it at odds with several countries in Southeast Asia that say they own some of the territory in question.
The islands at the center of Japan’s standoff with China are known as the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese. Japan has controlled the islands for decades, but China now says that was part of an imperial land grab.
The new security strategy calls for Japan to continue to raise its regional profile by building security ties with other Asian nations, though it is unclear how a stronger Japanese military will be greeted by neighbors such as South Korea, where memories of Japan’s early-20th-century empire-building are still raw.
The spending plan announced Tuesday will raise the military budget by 1.2 trillion yen, or $11.7 billion, over the next five years, to about 24.7 trillion yen. While that is an increase of almost 5 percent, it is still far below the annual double-digit increases in China’s military spending.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Japan had the fifth-largest military budget in the world last year. China had the second largest, behind the United States.
Much of the new spending will go to strengthen Japan’s ability to monitor and defend southwestern islands, including those in dispute with China. Toward that end, Japan will station more early-warning aircraft in Okinawa and buy three unarmed Global Hawk drones for surveillance.
The spending plan also includes the acquisition of beach-assault vehicles and American Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to equip a recently created Marine Corps-style amphibious infantry unit that can defend and recapture remote islands.
The 10-year military strategy approved on Tuesday calls on Japan to create a more mobile military that can deal with contingencies on far-flung islands, as well as so-called gray-zone conflicts that might involve small numbers of terrorists or paramilitary attackers. It maintains the army’s current troop level of about 160,000, reversing earlier plans to reduce that number.
The strategy also calls on Japan to study whether it should buy or develop long-range strike capability, like cruise missiles, that would allow it to destroy a threat like a North Korean ballistic missile before it was launched.
Japan has so far eschewed such clearly offensive weapons in order to maintain the defensive nature of its military, whose existence already pushes the limits of a postwar Constitution that bars the nation from possessing “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential.”
Mr. Abe wants to go even further by stretching the definition of self-defense to include action taken on behalf of allies under attack — for example, allowing Japan to shoot down a North Korean ballistic missile heading toward the United States.
That doctrine, known as collective self-defense, has run into stiff public opposition, including from a small Buddhist political party within Mr. Abe’s own governing coalition. On Tuesday, the top government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said consideration of collective self-defense would be put off until next year at the earliest.
'Excellent prospects' for better military relations with US, says China
Defence ministry makes first official comment on confrontation this month between US and Chinese naval vessels
Associated Press in Beijing
theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 December 2013 08.55 GMT
There is a rosy outlook for military relations with the US, China's defence ministry has said, in an apparent attempt to limit damage from a recent confrontation between the countries' navies in the South China Sea.
A ministry statement said the sides discussed issues relating to the incident on 5 December through normal channels and "carried out effective communication".
"Relations between the Chinese and US militaries enjoy excellent prospects for development and both sides are willing to boost communication, co-ordinate closely and work to maintain regional peace and stability," the statement said.
In its first official comment on the incident, the ministry offered few details other than to say the Chinese amphibious ship involved had been on regular patrol and "appropriately handled the matter in strict accordance with operational procedures".
The US Pacific Fleet has said the cruiser USS Cowpens manoeuvred to avoid a collision while operating in international waters. It said both vessels eventually "manoeuvred to ensure safe passage" after discussions between officers on board.
However, on Monday a newspaper published by the ruling Communist party accused the US ship of crowding Chinese ships accompanying the country's first aircraft carrier on sea trials. The Global Times said the Cowpens came within 30 miles of the Chinese squadron, inside what it called its "inner defence layer".
The incident came amid heightened tensions over China's expanding navy and growing assertiveness in the region, where it claims vast areas of heavily trafficked waters and numerous island groups.
Beijing recently declared a new air defence zone over parts of the East China Sea encompassing Japanese-controlled islands claimed by China, prompting heavy criticism and defiance from Washington, Tokyo and others.
During visits this week, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, said Washington would provide more than $70m (£43m) in security assistance to Vietnam and the Philippines, countries locked in competing claims with China over territory in the South China Sea.
The naval confrontation was the most serious incident between the two navies since 2009, when Chinese ships and planes repeatedly harassed the US ocean surveillance vessel USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea.
Partly to avoid such confrontations, the US has been pushing for increased exchanges and limited joint exercises with the Chinese military. Next year China's navy is set to take part for the first time in an international maritime exercise known as Rim of the Pacific.
US announces further $25m aid to Philippines after typhoon Haiyan
Secretary of state John Kerry pledges additional help during trip to storm-ravaged Tacloban
Associated Press in Tacloban
theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 December 2013 12.57 GMT
The US is to provide nearly $25m (£15.2m) in additional humanitarian aid to help the Philippines deal with the devastation wrought by typhoon Haiyan last month, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, said after touring the worst-hit region.
Kerry flew to central Tacloban city, where he visited a food distribution centre and talked with officials and survivors.
"This is a devastation unlike anything that I have ever seen at this scale," Kerry said at a temporary USAid headquarters in Tacloban. "It is really quite stunning," he said. "It looks like a war zone and to many people it is."
The new food aid, shelter materials, water and other supplies he announced bring the total US assistance package to $86m for one of its closest Asian allies.
One of the most ferocious typhoons to hit the Philippines, Haiyan left more than 6,000 people dead and nearly 1,800 others missing. It damaged or swept away more than 1.1m houses and injured more than 27,000 people.
More than 4 million people were displaced, with about 101,000 remaining in 300 emergency shelters in central provinces.
In Manila, President Benigno Aquino III appealed for help from diplomats and international aid agencies, saying Haiyan left massive damage and losses amounting to $12.9bn.
Accompanied by cabinet members dealing with the typhoon's aftermath, Aquino presented a four-year reconstruction plan to build shelters away from newly declared danger zones, repair infrastructure, revive the livelihoods of tens of thousands of farmers and fishermen, and restore government services.
Aquino said his government would aim for resilience from future storms as it helps the typhoon-ravaged provinces recover.
"We cannot allow ourselves to be trapped in a vicious cycle of destruction and reconstruction," Aquino said. "We are going to build back better."
South Sudan factional fighting leaves hundreds feared dead
Vice-president Riek Machar denies that he made coup attempt, amid reports of of bloodbath in Juba
The Guardian, Wednesday 18 December 2013
Two days of street battles between rival factions in South Sudan's army left parts of the capital in ruins and prompted fears of a bloodbath in the world's youngest country.
UN officials in New York said they had received reports from local sources indicating that between 400 and 500 people had been killed and up to 800 wounded. More than 16,000 people were seeking refuge at UN facilities. What began on Sunday night as an alleged coup attempt now threatens to widen deep ethnic divisions in a country awash with weapons and still recovering from a devastating war that led to its secession from the north in 2011.
Salva Kiir, the president of the two-and-a-half-year-old nation, has accused his sacked vice-president, Riek Machar, of an attempt to seize power and labelled him a "prophet of doom".
But in an interview with the Paris-based Sudan Tribune website, Machar denied any attempt to topple the president.
"What took place in Juba was a misunderstanding between presidential guards within their division, it was not a coup attempt," he said.
"Kiir wanted to use the alleged coup attempt in order to get rid of us."
Most prominent critics of the president, including at least seven former government ministers, have been rounded up in the last two days by security forces.
Susan Page, the US ambassador to South Sudan, said by telephone from Juba: "the way they're going after searching for people is really causing fear".
Later, the US state department said it was ordering all non-essential US officials to leave the country and suspending normal operations at the embassy in Juba because of the unrest.
The United Nations Security Council was due to discuss the crisis on Tuesday night as reports emerged of factional fighting in Pibor in the restive Jonglei state near the border with Ethiopia.
"Even if there's a political deal it will be very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle," said Casie Copeland, South Sudan analyst for the Brussels-based think-tank the International Crisis Group. "The impact of this fighting is going to shape the future of South Sudan."
Thousands of desperate civilians have ignored security assurances from their government and crowded around two UN bases in the capital, seeking the protection of a small peacekeeping force. Toby Lanzer, a senior UN official in Juba, said some "16,000 people and counting" have sought shelter in and around two bases.
A dawn to dusk curfew has left many terrified residents in hiding, with witnesses describing blasts that "shook the earth" from several locations in the city.
Meanwhile, the capital's poorly-equipped hospitals have been overrun by wounded soldiers and a trickle of civilians casualties. Ajak Bullen, a doctor at Juba's military hospital, said that the number of wounded had reached 400, with at least 59 people dead. "We've lost quite a big number, especially soldiers, and the problem is a lack of blood."
At another Juba hospital, Dr Wani Mena said patients were still arriving, including civilians, suffering from gunshot wounds.
Much of the focus on South Sudan's troubled first steps into nationhood has concentrated on rows over oil and borders with the rest of Sudan. But unresolved grievances between the main southern communities, not least the decades-old political rivalry between Kiir and Machar, have festered behind the scenes of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the ex-guerrilla force that is now the ruling party. The fighting began on Sunday night among the multiethnic presidential guard stationed at a barracks on the outskirts of Juba. Rumours that Machar, from the Nuer ethnic group, had been arrested appear to have sparked a confrontation with soldiers from the larger Dinka tribe, of which Kiir, is a member. Both sides rearmed and widespread fighting began again in the early hours of Monday with heavy weapons deployed.
Tensions in the oil-producing nation have been dangerously high since the president sacked his entire cabinet in July in a move seen as an effort to pre-empt a political power grab by his deputy.
Diplomats who have known the former guerrilla commander since the civil war years say he has become increasingly authoritarian and no longer consults the foreign donors on which the impoverished country relies.
"This is not the Salva Kiir we knew seven years ago," said one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. Since the crisis began he has discarded his trademark American cowboy hat and appeared on national television in a military uniform.
The fact that the fighting began because of paranoia and ethnic divisions in the presidential guard is a further sign of the deteriorating situation in a country where some of the smaller communities resent what they see as Dinka domination, or a "Dinkocracy". The presidential guard, which until recently was hailed as a big step in integration, has come apart at the seams. Were similar grievances to come violently to the surface in the rest of the country then mayhem would follow.
The army, the SPLA, was drawn together after a peace deal with the north in 2005 from disparate groups, many of whom had fought on different sides in 20 years of shifting fronts.
"Forget about the politics," said a security expert with close links to the military. "It's all about the cohesion of the SPLA and it looks as if it's collapsing."
Migrants who worked for year without pay on Qatar skyscraper ‘running low on food’
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 18, 2013 6:49 EST
Migrants who have worked for nearly a year without pay on a Qatar skyscraper are facing “severe food shortages” and cannot leave or seek other employment, Amnesty International said Wednesday.
Qatar has come under mounting criticism from rights groups, particularly after being chosen to host the 2022 World Cup, which has spotlighted the conditions of migrant workers in the gas-rich monarchy’s booming construction industry.
Amnesty urged Qatari authorities to address the plight of 80 migrant workers, mostly from Nepal, who are working for the Lee Trading and Contracting (LTC) company, saying they are “working in conditions that may amount to forced labour.”
“They have not been paid for nearly a year and can’t even buy food to sustain themselves on a day-to-day basis. They also can’t afford to send money back home to their families or to pay off debts,” said Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International.
The group includes around 60 Nepalese workers as well as others from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nigeria, China and Bangladesh.
They have been working on floors 38 and 39 of Doha’s Al-Bidda Tower, known as “Qatar’s Home of Football” because a number of sports organisations have offices there, Amnesty said.
Amnesty said it had seen documentation showing LTC owes the workers around 1.5 million riyals ($412,000, 300,000 euros) for the work, which was completed in October.
“‘Do the work and we’ll pay you tomorrow,’ they said,” Amnesty quoted a Nepalese labourer as saying.
“We kept doing the work and they kept changing the date and we never got paid.”
The rights group said the workers had filed cases against LTC in Doha’s Labour Court but were asked to pay fees of 600 riyals ($165) each for their cases to proceed.
The workers told Amnesty the court rejected their petitions for the fees to be waived, and Amnesty said under Qatari law they should have been exempted from the start.
Amnesty said the workers are facing severe food shortages after the company stopped giving them a 250-riyal ($69) monthly food allowance in October, and that last month several of the men complained of hunger.
Neither government spokesmen nor LTC representatives could be reached for comment on Amnesty’s findings.
But Amnesty quoted an LTC representative as saying that the food allowance had stopped because, “at the end of the day, I’m not making any money out of this company.”
Amnesty also cited a company representative as saying the firm was unable to pay for residency permits for the workers, leaving them vulnerable to arrest.
Because of Qatar’s restrictive sponsorship system, the workers are unable to seek employment at another company.
Qatar last month said foreign allegations of abuse of migrant workers working on World Cup facilities were “exaggerated” but insisted it took such claims seriously.