01/23/2014 01:54 PM
Corporation Carte Blanche: Will US-EU Trade Become Too Free?
By Michaela Schiessl
Opposition to the planned new trans-Atlantic free trade agreement is growing. So far, criticism has focused on the fact that the deal seems directed exclusively at economic interests. Now fears are growing that corporations will be given too much power.
Lori Wallach had but 10 minutes to speak when she stepped up to podium inside Room 405 at George Washington University, located not too far away from the White House. Her audience was made up of delegates currently negotiating the trans-Atlantic free trade agreement between the United States and the European Union.
They had already spent hours listening to presentations by every possible lobbying group -- duty bound to hear myriad opinions. But when Wallach, a trade expert for the consumer protection group Public Citizen, took the stage, people suddenly started paying attention. The 49-year-old Harvard lawyer, after all, is a key figure in international trade debates.
Wallach has commanded respect and indeed established herself as economic liberals' worst nightmare since she pulled off the feat of launching mass protests at global trade talks in Seattle in 1999. Even today, the revolt at the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle is considered to be the initial spark of the anti-globalization movement. People tend to listen when Wallach speaks. "The planned deal will transfer power from elected governments and civil society to private corporations," she said, warning that the project presents a threat of entirely new dimensions.
Her listeners, who are negotiating the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), view things differently, of course. Their task is a massive one. The pact is to go far beyond merely eliminating tariffs. In addition, standards are to be aligned and technical regulations, norms and approval procedures are to be harmonized in order to ensure that both goods and services can be transported across the Atlantic as free from bureaucracy and barriers as possible.
A Briarpatch of Issues
Some aspects to be negotiated make a lot of sense -- ways of coming up with universal charger plugs for electric cars, for example. But other, more controversial issues, are also on the agenda, including whether the Americans will be allowed to sell genetically modified corn without labeling it as such in the EU. Or whether the US Food and Drug Administration will be allowed to continue its assault on raw milk cheeses, such as Roquefort from France.
The negotiating partners enthusiastically extol the increase in prosperity the trade agreement would create. The pact, which would be the world's largest, would cover 800 million people and almost one-third of global trade. US President Barack Obama has spoken of the creation "hundreds of thousands of jobs on both sides of the Atlantic." The European Commission has calculated it would spur the EU economy by €120 billion ($162.5 billion).
Nevertheless, there are plenty of skeptics to be found. After the third round of negotiations, an unusually broad alliance of anti-globalization groups, NGOs, environmental and consumer protection groups, civil rights groups and organized labor is joining forces to campaign against TTIP.
These critics have numerous concerns about the treaty -- including their collective fear that the convergence of standards will destroy important gains made over the years in health and nutrition policy, environmental protection and employee rights. They argue the treaty will make it easier for corporations to turn profits at the public's expense in areas like water supply, health or education. It would also clear the path for controversial technologies like fracking or for undesired food products like growth hormone-treated meat to make their way to Europe. Broadly worded copyrights would also restrict access to culture, education and science. They also believe it could open the door to comprehensive surveillance.
A Deal Too Focused on Business
Critics say that such concerns are justified because negotiators are hewing closely to the wishes of the business sector. "The aim of this deal is to secure and expand the privileges of companies and investors," railed Wallach.
That may at first sound a bit like a conspiracy theory. But there is something to it, particularly if you go by data obtained by the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO). Using the freedom of information act, the organization was granted access to a list of the institutions the European Commission held discussions with prior to negotiations on the trade agreement. The NGO found that 93 percent of those talks were held with groups representing industry. Industry associations ranging from the US Chamber of Commerce to shipping companies were given the chance to present their wish lists for a free trade agreement. Environmental and consumer protection organizations were excluded.
The business community's interest in further opening the market is hardly remarkable -- especially when it comes to German industry. Car-makers, for example, would save billions annually if differing regulations didn't force them to make different wing mirrors, turn signals and shock absorbers for the US and European markets. German chemical and pharmaceutical companies are also hoping for easier approval for the strict US market for their products. And the subsidized agricultural industry would like to have the right to unload its surpluses of milk and pork abroad.
A Class of Its Own
These are all factors that have led the German government to position itself as a key driving force behind TTIP thus far. Nevertheless, even the most ardent supporters of the agreement have serious doubts about one important point in the trade deal: its provisions for Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS).
It may sound harmless, but it's not. The provisions would create a kind of special parallel legal system for corporations, essentially giving them carte blanche that would fall outside of national laws.
Here's how it would work: If a company felt somehow financially disadvantaged or its interests otherwise trod upon, it would have the right to submit a challenge to a three-judge arbitration court. The country in question gets one "judge," the company would be able to pick one and the third would either be agreed upon by the two parties or would be chosen from a list of qualified candidates. This private trade arbitration court would have the power to make rulings on huge damage payments if an investor believed its profits were reduced -- through a new national law, for example. The hurdles might be high for such a procedure, but the rulings would be final and not appealable.
Depriving Countries of Power
It would essentially deprive national justice systems of their power. And it could have dangerous side effects as well. Fears of large fines could considerably limit political maneuvering room for governments.
It is a lesson that Argentina learned in 2003. Following the country's currency reform, a US company filed a complaint for damages. The existence of bilateral investment treaties between the US and Argentina meant the company could sue in an arbitration court, which ultimately ordered the country to pay damages of $133 million.
Such dual-track legal systems are nothing new. EU member states have codified certain degrees of investor protection in 1,400 bilateral treaties implemented as early as the end of the 1980s. Germany alone has 136 treaties which were originally intended to secure investments in countries that didn't have reliable legal systems.
But such provisions have since become standard fare in almost all bilateral treaties -- even those between industrialized nations. They're effective, too. The increase in the number of arbitration proceedings has risen precipitously, and developed economies are targeted with increasing frequency.
A Severe Lack of Transparency
Recently, for example, the Canadian province of Quebec decided to put a halt to controversial fracking practices to extract oil. A US company sued in response for $250 million to compensate it for investments already made in the sector and for lost profits. Multinational tobacco giant Philip Morris also sued Australia for billions of dollars in damages after the government passed a law requiring plain packaging in order to deter consumers from buying cigarettes. The US company didn't even base its case on a US-Australian treaty -- it did so through its Philip Morris Asia subsidiary in Hong Kong, which has a trade deal with Australia.
Even Germany is facing such a lawsuit -- from Swedish energy giant Vattenfall. The company is suing over Berlin's new laws ordering the phase-out of all nuclear power plants and a shift to clean energy. Invoking the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), an international agreement that provides multilateral framework for energy deals, the company is demanding damages totaling €3.7 billion.
The Vattenfall case seems to have gotten Berlin's attention. Suddenly the government is able to see the flip side of such deals. Should investment protection become part of TTIP, Berlin worries, huge law firms in the US could begin examining each new policy change in EU member states to look for possible effects on the bottom lines of companies back home -- and then sue for damages.
Thus far, Germany has not officially vetoed the ISDS provisions in the trade agreement so as not to endanger the inception of talks nor has it vented publicly. But in a memo attached to its negotiating directives, the country's skepticism of ISDS has been documented in writing. It can be assumed that Berlin will use its substantial leverage to negotiate ISDS out of the free trade treaty. As such, critics of the provisions have a surprising and powerful ally.
The European Commission is aware of the rapidly growing opposition to its prestige project and EU leaders are becoming uneasy. Four months before the European Parliament election, they are concerned that the debate could result in numerous free-trade opponents landing seats in Brussels.
EU leaders are well aware of just how quickly public opinion can shift, particularly in the wake of the successful fight against the anti-piracy treaty ACTA in the summer of 2012. Not long before the deal was set to be signed, a negotiation paper came to light which noted that Internet providers would be able to store and scan user data to filter out instances of copyright violation. Public outcry was immediate, resulting in a large majority of European Parliament voting against the pact.
A similar fate could await TTIP. Within just a few weeks, some 316,000 people signed an anti-free trade appeal on the petition website campact.de -- roughly double the number who joined a call for Germany to provide asylum for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
It is no wonder, then, that the European Commission is doing everything it can this time to keep growing opposition under control. The press team of Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, for example, counters public criticism almost immediately and has been eager to meet with both journalists and NGOs. It has also been tirelessly repeating its message that the trans-Atlantic trade deal will not lead to a watering down of existing European laws, such as those banning hormone-treated meat and chlorine-washed chicken as well as mandatory labeling for genetically modified food.
The problem is that nobody believes them.
First of all, ACTA showed that the Commission was prepared to sacrifice the interests of European citizens to those of industry. And secondly, what does the EU intend to offer the US to get Washington to weaken its much stronger financial regulations?
'Faux Consultation Process'
The manner in which TTIP is being negotiated is also not exactly increasing faith in the process. Everything related to the talks is being kept highly classified. Even though the deal will affect the futures and interests of 500 million EU citizens, member states agreed to keep them in the dark about TTIP negotiations. All papers, documents, emails and negotiating minutes have been marked secret. Only the senior-most party members in the European Parliament's International Trade Committee are allowed to see documentation relating to the negotiations and they are forbidden from discussing what they see. Not even the negotiating mandate, upon which the talks are based, has been made public.
In addition, the US has forbidden the EU from passing along American position papers, even to members of the European Council and European Parliament -- despite the fact that these same papers have been shared with 600 industrial lobbyists in the US.
The Commission has sought to counter accusations that the talks lack transparency with an unprecedented number of briefings and discussions with NGOs, parliamentarians and member state representatives. An advisory council made up of seven NGO representatives and seven business leaders was even established. The teams hold stake-holder meetings during the negotiating rounds and listen closely to the brief presentations made by industry and NGO representatives.
Martin Häusling, a European Parliamentarian from the Green Party, calls it a "faux consultation process." A member of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, he says that the briefs they receive rarely go beyond the tenor of the talks, with details being rare. "What is really being negotiated remains unclear," he says. He doesn't accept the argument that the talks must remain confidential for strategic reasons. "Even the World Trade Organization makes its negotiation papers public," he says.
With good reason. Anyone who has ever been involved in the drawing up of a delicate contract knows that every comma and every clause is vital. "Without the exact text, nobody can determine exactly what is at stake," says Pia Eberhard of CEO.
Particularly when it comes to promises that the deal will create a broad increase in prosperity. Other free-trade agreements have shown that, while they may trigger growth, not everybody benefits. Twenty years after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, it has become apparent that the consequences have not been universally positive for the signatory states of Canada, US and Mexico. Millions of industrial jobs have been lost in the US since the treaty came into effect and thousands of Mexican corn farmers have lost their livelihoods due to highly subsidized maize coming from the US, to name just two examples. Trade has increased dramatically, but it has been the bottom lines of large firms that have benefitted the most.
With TTIP, it remains totally unclear how many jobs might be created by the deal -- and how many might be lost. It has been forecast that free trade across the Atlantic would create additional economic growth worth €120 billion for Europe, which is a mere 0.5 percent of the EU's GDP. And that is the most optimistic scenario.
Commissioner De Gucht has promised that the free trade pact would bring every family in the EU an additional €545 per year. But even if the benefits of the deal were to be felt beyond companies' bottom lines, it will be difficult to explain to European voters why it is worth giving up control over economic policy.
Translated from the German by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey
'We may actually get something done': new era in Franco-German alliance
From joint military missions to plans for a bilingual Saarland, France and Germany are now talking each other's language
Philip Oltermann in Berlin
theguardian.com, Friday 24 January 2014 07.00 GMT
In the Saarland region, in Germany's south-west, they already call a sofa a Schesslong, refer to the pavement as a Trottuar and advertise a supermarket sale as a Soldes rather than an Ausverkauf. Around 20,000 workers from Lorraine already commute here across the Franco-German border on a daily basis. And this week the region announced that it would aim to be completely bilingual by 2043, with French taught from primary school age and fluency mandatory for public sector jobs.
If politicians and diplomats are to be taken at their word, the Saarland could become the experimental lab for a new era in Franco-German relations. At a joint press conference on Tuesday, the French foreign minister, Lauren Fabius, and his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, announced that they would give the old central European alliance "a new push" and try to "break out of the old routine and go a bit further than we have dared to do it in the past".
In the past, such lofty announcements have turned out to be little more than mood music. But this time there are plenty of indicators that the Franco-German tandem is about to undergo a major revival.
Defence ministers Ursula von der Leyen and Jean-Yves le Drian set the tone on Monday when they announced that the Franco-German Brigade would be deployed in Mali. It will be the first serious mission in 20 years for the unit which only a few months ago looked like it would be disbanded.
Fabius and Steinmeier followed up with a pledge to hold strategic discussions before European summits, hold joint debates in front of students before the European elections in May and organise joint state visits to Moldova and Georgia in the coming months.
"Signs are that Germany could back up France in its relations with the south, and in return France supports German-led efforts in the east," said Ulrich Speck, of Brussels-based foreign policy thinktank Carnegie Europe.
Further collaborative projects are expected to be announced in time for a joint cabinet meeting on 19 February.
One French diplomat told the Guardian that there has been a clear change of mood, in part thanks to the fact that French Socialist ministers are on better personal terms with their Social Democratic counterparts than the Germans' Free Democratic predecessors.
"Last year, with the anniversary of the Élysée Treaty, we were condemned to celebrate the old alliance," the diplomat said. "This time, there's a more spontaneous willingness to work together. We've got at least three years in government ahead of us – we may actually get something done".
"[French president François] Hollande has invested a lot of hope in the new Franco-German axis", said Ulrike Guerot, a fellow at the Open Society Institute. "France is really fed-up with being told they need to become 'more German' in the way they run their economy. But they are also desperate to be reassured that the old tandem is working again."
Not all policy areas are likely to be as open to collaboration as the Saarland, where local authorities are talking about a unified vocational school for the car industry. In his speech last Tuesday, Hollande hinted at grand plans for a German-French solar factory in the vein of the Airbus project, for which resources around Europe were pooled to compete with US manufacturer Boeing.
Europe's solar industry only produces 100 gigawatts of power per year and is struggling to meet targets. Germany's Fraunhofer Institute, France's Institut National de l'Energie Solari and Switzerland's Centre Suisse d'Électronique et Microtechnique have been collaborating on plans to revive the industry.
But some experts reckon Germany does not share French politicians' appetite for "grand projects". "Too many similar collaborations have failed in the past," said Henrik Uterwedde of the German-French Institute in Ludwigsburg. "Think of the doomed plans for a Franco-German stock exchange or a big communications company in the past. German managers still remember those."
When the two countries' justice ministers meet in early February, they too will have to reconcile different priorities. While Germany is keen on a joint declaration on data protection, France is urgent to move towards establishing a European public prosecutors' office that would crack down on financial crimes against the interests of the European Union, such as tax evasion.
But if in the past centralised France has often allowed itself to be frustrated by the stodginess of German federalism, a ministry insider told the Guardian that this time "the momentum is with France and Germany". The outcome is likely to be too small to please European federalists and too grand to please Britain, but it is likely reaffirm the old Franco-German alliance.
High hopes rest on the shoulders of Germany's new justice minister, Heiko Maas. He happens to hail from the Saarland.
France and Germany have always had an appetite for symbolic collaborative projects. As well as the Brigade Franco-Allemande, there is Arte television channel, which shows programmes in French and German. Every year, 22 January is the designated Day of Franco-German Friendship, there are joint prizes for artists and journalists, and about 5,000 students are currently enrolled on binational degrees across French and German universities.
Leader of Hungarian extreme-right party warned over protests for UK visit
Gábor Vona's proposed trip has met with opposition from activists, with Theresa May under pressure to ban Jobbik leader
theguardian.com, Friday 24 January 2014 01.25 GMT
The leader of Europe's most powerful extreme-right party, Jobbik, will face "heavy" protests should the home secretary refuse to bar his entry to the UK, leading anti-racism groups have warned.
"It is D-Day and plans are afoot" to disrupt Hungarian politician Gábor Vona's proposed appearance in London this weekend in the runup to the country's elections, one of the campaigners said on Thursday.
The activist, who asked not to be named, added that opponents were likely to take to the streets and attempt to block Vona's path to the venue, in scenes reminiscent of protests against domestic far-right groups. Unite Against Fascism called for a counter protest to be held if the planned forum for Hungarian expats in Britain on Sunday goes ahead.
Vona's proposed trip to the UK has met with opposition from politicians and activists already. A Hope Not Hate petition demanding home secretary Theresa May refuse Vona entry to the country, which the group said was signed by more than 14,000 people, was handed into the Home Office on Thursday.
Claude Moraes, Labour MEP for London, said: "I've seen Jobbik up close – they are racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma fascists – we don't want them spreading their poison in our great international city London."
Sabby Dhalu, joint national secretary of Unite Against Fascism, said that groups like Jobbik had "no place" in the UK and called on "all democrats to reject" the group this weekend.
The Jobbik party, which has 43 of the Hungarian parliament's 386 seats – as well as three in the EU parliament – is accused of holding strong anti-Semitic views and fuelling hatred against Jewish and Roma communities. Vona, founder of the now-outlawed Magyar Garda Mozgalom paramilitary guard, is to speak at the event, scheduled to take place a day before Holocaust Memorial Day.
Addressed to the home secretary, Hope Not Hate's petition read: "As a supporter of Hope Not Hate I strongly believe in the preservation of our most basic human rights, not least that of freedom of speech.
"However, with rights come responsibilities, and we must work as a community to protect against the politics of hate and incitement.
"This weekend we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, a period of history which to all our shame saw hate destroy hope.
"We are therefore calling on you to ban Gabor Vona, the leader of the racist and anti-Semitic extremist party Jobbik, from entering the UK, as his politics of hate are simply not welcome here."
London Assembly member and former Labour MP Andrew Dismore has already written to May demanding that Vona is banned from holding the event. Dismore, who as a Labour MP founded Holocaust Memorial Day, has called Jobbik "the most powerful outwardly fascist political party in Europe".
Vona's spokesman denied claims he was due to meet members of the Greek far-right Golden Dawn and the British National party leader Nick Griffin during his stay. She said that the claims were "false", adding: "He has no intention of meeting anyone from Golden Dawn or the British National party.
"This is a forum for Hungarian citizens. This is not to do with anyone else. There are lots of Hungarians living in London and the election is coming up in Hungary."
A Home Office spokesman said: "We do not comment on individual cases or if someone is under consideration for exclusion."
UK's Cameron tells Davos he can keep Britain in the EU
DAVOS, Switzerland Fri Jan 24, 2014 6:54am EST
Prime Minister David Cameron said on Friday he was confident he could renegotiate Britain's relations with the European Union to allow it to remain in the 28-nation bloc.
In some of his most pro-European remarks to date, Cameron told the World Economic Forum in Davos that changes needed to make the euro zone function better meant the EU would need to alter its treaties.
That would give Britain an opportunity to recalibrate its own relations with the EU.
"I'm confident that we'll have a successful renegotiation and a successful referendum," Cameron told delegates, referring to his plan to reshape his country's EU ties before offering Britons an in/out referendum if his Conservative party is re-elected next year.
"I'm confident this is do-able, deliverable and, as I say, winnable for Britain to stay in a reformed European Union."
Cameron is under pressure from the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) and from eurosceptic lawmakers in his own party ahead of elections to the European Parliament in May and a national election next year.
He is also mindful of public opinion, with recent polls showing a slim majority of Britons would vote to leave the EU if given the chance because they are fed up with what they see as its overbearing role in everyday life.
However, swaths of big business have expressed concern about the prospect of leaving the bloc, warning it would make Britain a less attractive place to do business, while officials in Brussels have said Britain's influence in the world would be diluted.
The country's EU partners have also played down the chances of London being able to renegotiate terms with the bloc, amid accusations London is trying to cherry-pick its way to a new relationship at the expense of other member states.
Cameron said Britain and the West had an opportunity to boost their economic fortunes by luring back jobs and factories from Asia if they got the regulatory environment right.
Rising costs in Asia and the need to react more quickly to changing consumer demands meant companies found the prospect of relocating jobs and services back to their home countries attractive, he said.
"For years the West has been written off. People say that we are facing some sort of inevitable decline. They say we can't make anything anymore," he said.
"I don't believe it has to be this way. If we make the right decisions, we may also see more of what has been a small but discernible trend where some jobs that were once offshored are coming back from East to West."
In particular, he asked the EU not to over-regulate when it came to shale gas, saying it held out the prospect of cheaper energy that would give firms another possible reason to relocate from Asia.
A UK government push for shale gas developments has met with strong opposition from local communities and environmentalists to the hydraulic fracturing process used to extract the gas.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by John Stonestreet)
Russia considering 30% import tax on foreign online retailers
Moscow examining levy on purchases above 7,000 roubles and restrictions on number of parcels imported
The Guardian, Thursday 23 January 2014 20.08 GMT
Russia is considering restricting imports from foreign online retailers, joining an increasing number of countries looking into measures to protect local operators.
The government is looking at a 30% tax on imports worth more than 7,000 roubles (£123) as well as restrictions on the number of parcels imported, possibly via limits on delivery services such as DHL or UPS. Such firms could be restricted to five business-to-consumer imports a day, according to the Retail Insider blog.
Such restrictions could constrain the plans of retailers such as ASOS, Next and Net-a-Porter, which see Russia as a growth area and have local language sites.
Moscow's move follows new controls on foreign online retailers in Argentina, which wants to limit the number of purchases residents can make from international sites to two a year without a large amount of paperwork.
The government in Australia, where online purchases from international sites worth less than A$1,000 (£527) are not subject to the local equivalent of VAT, is also under pressure to clamp down.
Its tax regime and buoyant economy has made the country a fast-growing market for UK retailers such as ASOS and Next. But, as online sales have risen from A$6bn in 2007 to A$10bn in 2012 – with 75% going to foreign players – politicians are under pressure to make changes from local retailers who are feeling the squeeze.
The controls echo discussions about taxation of large international retailers such as Amazon and eBay, but are also driven by countries' struggling to deal with the soaring number of small parcels flowing through customs as online retail takes off.
"There is an issue there for British retailers as different countries are concerned about their own retail industry. The advent of the internet means consumers expect to buy globally and that is going to be a problem," said Maureen Hinton, an analyst at Conlumino.
Industry insiders said the effect on UK businesses would depend on the detail of the restrictions imposed. An import tax on goods worth more than 7,000 roubles in Russia, for example, is unlikely to affect retailers such as ASOS, whose average purchase are below amount, but could have an impact on luxury goods e-tailers.
Australia is unlikely to lower its limit on tax-free imports substantially as the costs of checking all low-value goods could outweigh the amount of tax raised.
Timing of François Hollande's meeting with Pope Francis tickles some
Le Monde cartoon makes fun of scheduling of audience with pontiff – given all the speculation about love life
23 January 2014 17.44 GMT
When your morals are under the spotlight, your love life appears to be in turmoil and your every step is observed by a disapproving Anglo-Saxon media, it is just about the last place in the world you want to be: in the Vatican, with the holy father.
But, along with celebrity magazines and opinion polls, François Hollande has another bete noire to curse this week: the cruel fate of diary scheduling, which decreed this Friday,he would enjoy a private audience with Pope Francis.
The encounter – the French president's first with the Argentinian pontiff – was announced just before his troubled presidency exploded in l'affaire Gayet.
But once done, a papal date is not easily undone. Gleefully, the French daily Le Monde on Thursday ran a cartoon of Hollande on a motorcycle with two women on the back, and Francis, smiling benevolently and declaring: "Who am I to judge?"
The papal audience is not expected to last more than half an hour, with the president's private life not the only potential cause of friction.
A petition signed by almost 115,000 French Catholics and for the attention of the pope calls on Francis to raise their "deep unease and growing concern" with Hollande over government policies such as the legalisation of gay marriage.
But the president was thought more likely to steer conversation towards subjects of possible agreement, including the conflict in Syria and the Geneva II talks, the Israel-Palestine peace process and climate change.
On Thursday Francis showed that even at 77 he is up to speed with the digital age, praising the immense possibilities of the internet and describing it, in part, as "a gift from God".
But he also warned about its potential for social harm, adding: "The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbours, from those closest to us."
In Paris a lawyer representing Hollande's official partner Valérie Trierweiler told a French newspaper she wants to come out of the scandal of the president's alleged affair with actress Julie Gayet "with dignity".
Frédérique Giffard said it was hard for her client to remain "serene faced with such media and political pressure" but added that "she is aware that a clarification is necessary". She accused "certain" media of crossing legal limits "without any scrupules" for Trierweiler or her family and suggested legal action might be taken.
Giffard rejected suggestions from some journalists that Trierweiler was engaged in emotional blackmail in order to remain with Hollande. "To imagine that she would want to use her distress in this way goes against her personality and her way of viewing human relations, which is based on frankness," she said, adding: "She really hopes that this affair can resolve itself and to come out of it with as much dignity as possible."
Build council houses on Billionaires' Row, says Paris mayoral candidate
Socialist Anne Hidalgo's 'green corridor' ideas for Avenue Foch, home of oligarchs and royalty, prompts outrage from residents
Kim Willsher in Paris
theguardian.com, Thursday 23 January 2014 14.26 GMT
For some it is an inspirational idea to make Paris more green, to others a plan to destroy one of the French capital's most prestigious and historic avenues.
The fact that the proposals also include building council housing in the Billionaires' Row of Paris only makes them more contentious.
As Anne Hidalgo, the frontrunner in the city's mayoral race, walked the Avenue Foch, at the Arc de Triomphe end of the Champs Elysées, on Thursday, followed by banner-waving opponents, she insisted the plan to transform the area was "magnifique".
What's more, she said several times, her intuition told her she was on the right path.
Angry residents disagreed and said the scheme was crazy and politically motivated. "We say non to Madame Hidalgo's Luna Park," they said, and even Hidalgo's entourage had to admit the nickname was inspired.
Hidalgo, currently deputy mayor of Paris and the pollsters' favourite to win the municipal election in March, caused a storm when she announced she wanted to transform Avenue Foch, which some critics have described as a "lifeless urban motorway", into a "green corridor" leading straight to the neighbouring Bois de Boulogne public park.
Residents, who include a number Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern royals and relatives of African leaders, are considerably less enthusiastic and have accused Hidalgo and the Socialist-run city hall of attempting to alter the socioeconomic makeup of the 16th arrondissement – the third-wealthiest area in Paris – and fill it with leftwing supporters.
Hidalgo's main opponent in the mayoral race, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, of the centre-right UMP, immediately announced she was vehemently opposed to the proposal and would campaign against it.
The 1.3km (0.8-mile) long and 140-metre wide Avenue Foch, a classified historic monument, is one of 12 highways emanating from the roundabout around the Arc de Triomphe. It was opened in 1875 as the Avenue de l'Impératrice, named for Napoléon III's wife. During the Nazi occupation of Paris it was home to the local Gestapo headquarters and was nicknamed Avenue Boche.
If the plans are approved, and Hidalgo has promised a full Paris-wide consultation process, one end of Avenue Foch would become parkland and the other, by the Arc de Triomphe, a pedestrian area and shopping mall. Cars would be pushed out from the centre of the avenue to two lanes either side, and up to 7,000 homes, including student flats, local authority homes and private housing, would be built on a parallel strip.
"Historically, the spirit of Baron Haussmann was that this avenue should be Paris's entrance to the Bois de Boulogne," Hidalgo said on Thursday. "So this is about respecting history."
However, Jean-Pascal Sudaka, representing a group of residents who greeted the mayoral candidate with a banner and leaflets, said: "The project has no credibility or logic. Because they [the Socialists] are not in the majority in this arrondissement, they don't like it and are trying to change the makeup of the area. That's the real aim."
The 16th arrondissement of Paris has only around 2.5% of its properties designated as council housing, far short of the 20% required by law.
Swedish city builds 'passive houses' as part of ambitious CO2 reduction targets
Passive housing is catching on across Europe, but Växjö boasts innovative highrise project to help country realise goal of eliminating CO2 emissions by 2050
Guardian Professional, Thursday 23 January 2014 16.00 GMT
The past three winters have been bitterly cold in the southern Swedish town of Växjö. But despite lacking radiators, residents in two new city-funded highrises haven't suffered because their homes are built in passive-house style.
"Taking this route works very well for us as a municipality, since we want to become CO2-neutral, and homes account for 30% of energy use", explains Henrik Johansson, the city's environmental coordinator. Passivhaus, the building technique pioneered in Germany, is now catching on across northern Europe. In Sweden alone, several cities have built passive houses, though Växjö's highrises are the most ambitious project so far. The city even boasts a pioneering passive-house-style tennis court, built by Stefan Edberg, former world number-one player and now coach to Roger Federer.
Passive houses feature wood frames and very thick walls, which keep cold air out and human-generated heat – from cooking, gadget use, people moving about – in. Each of the Växjö highrises also has a ventilator in the attic that transports the human-generated heat back into the apartments. The buildings even recycle wastewater, which contains valuable heat.
According to Johansson, even though the city has endured three extremely cold winters since the buildings went up, the apartments have not been cold, noting that "there's actually a bigger risk that they get too hot in the summer". The city does, however, provide each apartment with a battery that can be used to generate a small amount of heat, primarily when residents are away.
"Of course there are issues you have to solve before building the houses, such as mould, and we had to encourage the ventilator industry to build a ventilator that could efficiently serve the highrises, but building a passive house is not like going to the moon", notes Stefan Olsson at the Southeast Sweden Energy Agency, which was involved in the construction.
According to Johansson, building the high-rises as passive houses only cost the city 5-10% more than using regular building standards. The process hasn't been completely painless, however. The construction cost more than planned, with carpenters having to learn on the job. But now, with a corps of passive house-trained carpenters at its disposal, Växjö is renovating its other municipal-owned homes to passive-house standards. It has even built a so-called plus house, which generates more energy than it uses, supplying the city grid with the surplus.
For Växjö, the passive-house push is part of a highly ambitious CO2 reduction plan. The university city, home to some 61,000 residents, has already built a 150km bike-path system and launched a bus fleet running on biogas from sewage. By the end of last year, such measures had resulted in a 41% reduction of the city's emissions compared to 1993 levels, and by 2025, the city aims to be 70% CO2-free.
Located in a timber-producing region, Växjö also boasts a 51% renewable energy rate, prompting the C40 global city network to predict that it will become the world's first fossil-fuel free city. Hanna Begler, leader of the sustainable cities program at Global Utmaning, a Swedish sustainability think tank comments: "Växjö is a prominent example of a Swedish city that has shown a modern and innovative approach to sustainable urban development."
The Swedish government, too, follows a gutsier CO2 reduction plan than the EU as a whole. While the EU aims for a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020, with 1990 as a baseline, Sweden plans a 20% percent reduction by the same year compared to the higher baseline of 2008. The country plans to completely eliminate CO2 emissions by 2050.
According to Begler, once other cities learn from pioneering efforts such as the one in Växjö, they, too, will invest in passive-house construction, "and thanks to the EU directive stating that by 2020 all new buildings have to be close to zero energy consumption, there are strong incentives for these kinds of initiatives." From a financial perspective, she adds, passive-house makes sense, as higher building costs are offset by lower operating costs.
But Växjö's city planners face a dilemma well known to urban planners across Europe: how to tackle energy use in 1960s and 70s buildings. Due to poor isolation, these highrises, built cheaply to house a growing population, consume vast amounts of energy.
In Sweden alone, around 1m homes in such buildings now house one quarter of the population. If the country is going to go CO2-neutral, it has to make these buildings more energy-efficient or even renovate them in passive-house style, as several cities are currently doing. But with residents often being low-income earners or unemployed, municipal housing agencies either have to absorb the renovation costs or pass them on to residents who may, as a result, be forced to move out. Still, says Johansson, "this is just another challenge we have to overcome."
Poland to look into new allegations about secret CIA jail
By Wojciech Zurawski
KRAKOW, Poland (Reuters) - Polish prosecutors investigating allegations the CIA ran a secret jail in a Polish forest said on Friday they will look into a newspaper report that gave new accounts about the alleged "black site."
Human rights groups and lawyers have argued for years that Poland allowed the Central Intelligence Agency to use the site, an intelligence training academy in north-east Poland, to detain and interrogate men it suspected of being al Qaeda leaders.
The Washington Post newspaper cited what it said were former CIA officers as saying that the agency paid $15 million to Polish intelligence in 2003 for use of the site, handing over the cash in two cardboard boxes.
Piotr Kosmaty, spokesman for prosecutors in the Polish city of Krakow who are pursuing a criminal investigation into allegations about the facility, said it was possible the newspaper report contained evidence about the case.
"In the course of the investigation that is underway, we will analyze this Washington Post article and will include it in our investigation," Kosmaty told Reuters.
The Washington Post article said the CIA declined to comment when it inquired about the Polish site.
The case goes to the heart of the CIA's program of "extraordinary rendition" in which suspected al Qaeda militants were moved around the world and subjected to interrogation techniques that rights campaigners say amounted to torture.
It also resonates in Poland because it would be a crime if Polish officials colluded in any way in illegal detention or torture. Politicians who held senior posts at the time could be prosecuted.
Polish officials have denied the existence of a secret CIA jail on their soil. Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, asked by reporters on Friday about the latest report, declined to comment on what he said was "speculation."
Rights campaigners say that Polish prosecutors already have hard evidence about the jail and the role that Polish officials played. But they accuse the authorities of putting off prosecutions because of the likely political fallout.
The investigation has been running for five years, with no outward signs of progress. Prosecutors deny dragging their feet, saying the case is complex and time-consuming.
The Washington Post report included new accounts of what happened at the alleged CIA jail.
The paper's sources described how two interrogators were pulled out of Poland after word reached their superiors that they had used a mock execution on a detainee.
The newspaper quoted the former CIA officials describing how Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused of masterminding the September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. cities, was subjected to water boarding while at the Polish facility.
They described how he initially resisted, counting down the seconds before he knew the water boarding -- or simulated drowning -- would stop, but that he later gave up information to his interrogators.
Mohammed is now being held at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, awaiting a possible military trial.
(Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Tom Heneghan)
Climate change brings new risks to Greenland, says PM Aleqa Hammond
Inuit leader concerned, but confident, of country adapting to mining and oil exploration as Arctic icecap retreats
John Vidal in Tromso
theguardian.com, Thursday 23 January 2014 14.07 GMT
When the world's miners, oil-workers, construction teams and industrialists descend on Greenland over the next few years to dig below the rapidly retreating icecap for its ores, hydrocrabons and minerals, no one will watch with more concern – or confidence – than prime minister Aleqa Hammond.
The Inuit leader of a country with just 56,000 people who have lived in remote, scattered communities largely by fishing and hunting knows that the arrival of tens of thousands of foreign workers will be as economically important and as culturally disruptive as anything in Greenland's history.
"The shock will be profound. But we have faced colonisation, epidemics and modernisation before," she says. "The decisions we are making [to open up the country to mining and oil exploitation] will have enormous impact on lifestyles, and our indigenous culture.
"But we have always come out on top. We are vulnerable but we know how to adapt," she said on a visit to Norway this week.
Cimate change, she says, is placing Greenland at the heart of 21st century geopolitics. As the ice retreats, it is moving from being a non-player in global affairs to the centre of a new international resource rush. "Climate change and this resultant new industrialisation brings new risks. We must understand that the effects will be both positive and negative," she says.
Not only has the retreat of the icecap made mining feasible in previously inaccessible areas, but the dramatic melt of the Arctic sea ice may within one or two generations locate Greenland on a vastly profitable trans-polar trading route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Hammond, whose father died in the ice when she was seven and who grew up without running water or central heating, is now being courted by world leaders who see the Arctic as an emerging strategic zone.
Chinese, American, Russian, British, Japanese, Korean and other companies have all staked claims for its resources, and her government has awarded more than 120 licenses to explore for oil and gas, iron ore, uranium, emeralds and nickel as well as what are thought to be the largest deposits of rare earths – vital for digital technologies – outside China.
Greenland, which is seeking independence from Denmark, is politically and socially split, with many saying Hammond and her new government are going too fast.
"If you want to become rich, it comes with a price," says Aqqaluk Lynge, a Greenlander who is chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council which represents Inuits from Alaska, Greenland and Canada at the UN and other forums.
"People have to imagine the consequences of what the influx of foreign labour will be. Being a minority in your own country, is that what you want? We have to be more realistic. We should be very careful inviting foreign mining companies. We have had experiences before when whole towns have been changed with the influx of Danish contractors. We lack experts in many areas like health. 56,000 people cannot [do] everything," he says.
Estimates of how many foreign workers will be needed to exploit Greenland's minerals range from 10,000 to 200,000. London Mining, which is behind a delayed project to build an iron ore mine, is expected to bring in 2-3,000 Chinese.
"We fear being overwhelmed. It would be better if they lived in camps but there is certain to be interaction," said Lynge.
"We are well used to the fishing industry coming to Greenland but we do not know the culture of miners and the numbers could swamp us".
But Hammond responds that it is because Greenland has been economically and politically marginalised for so long and because modernisation has not been handled well over the past 30 years that the country has no option but to go forward fast and seek independence from Denmark.
Hammond, a former family minister who has worked in Inuit communities in Canada and at home, has seen how rapid cultural and economic change has devastated polar communities. Greenland has the highest suicide rate in the world and young people, especially, suffer major psychiatric illness and depression. According to government reports, one in every five people attempts to kill themselves at some point in their lifetimes.
There are many reasons, but the clash between the traditional and modern western culture is thought to be at the root of many suicide attempts. "We've seen so many suicides over the years. They have always been there when people feel they cannot contribute to society," she says.
And the resource rush will bring with it new health problems. "We must counteract the illnesses of industrialiation, including diabetes and heart disease. Our lifestyles [can expect to shift] to what we see is happening to Europe and North America," said Hammond.
"The modernisation programme [of the past 30 years] has not helped everyone. The new developments will have profound effects on everyone but they are designed to make householders stronger. We need to find ways to help people adapt. We need the money to be able to help households.
"100 years ago we all lived in commuities of under 200 people. Now one quarter of the population lives in the capital Nuuk and only 20% live in villages. In that time we have seen the rapid loss of traditional values," she says.
Spain's unemployment rise tempers green shoots of recovery
Despite unemployment falling by 65,000 in 2013, jobless rate now above 26% owing to smaller working age population
Stephen Burgen in Barcelona
theguardian.com, Thursday 23 January 2014 15.26 GMT
The International Monetary Fund may have sighted some green shoots of recovery in Spain – but the country's unemployment rate has risen above 26%, according to official figures.
Data published on Thursday by Spain's statistics office show a further 198,900 jobs were lost in 2013. The total number of unemployed is now 5.9 million.
. Although unemployment fell by 65,000 over the course of last year, the percentage has risen because the working age population has fallen by 267,900, through retirement or migration. About 260,000 people left Spain in 2013, around 40,000 of them Spanish nationals, the rest departing foreign migrants.
Migrants have been hard hit by the economic crisis in Spain, with an unemployment rate of 36.6% compared with 24.3% for Spanish nationals. Youth unemployment is down slightly at 55.06%, a fall explained by young people either returning to education or leaving the country.
The Bank of Spain estimates that GDP fell by 1.2% in 2013.
According to the latest figures, agricultural jobs increased by 85,300 while in the service sector they fell by 109,100, with 35,200 lost in construction and 6,000 in manufacturing. Part-time jobs increased by 140,400 and full-time declined by 339,300. The main effect of the government's much touted labour reforms has been an increase in those in part-time work, which now accounts for 16.34% of the total.The World Bank ranks Spain 142nd out of 189 countries for ease of starting a business (six places down on 2013). Spain is also one of the most expensive EU countries in which to be self-employed. About 51,000 people gave up self-employed status in the final quarter of 2013.
Long-term unemployment has led to an increase in the number of people who are no longer entitled to benefits. There are now 686,600 households in which none of their members has an income of any kind.
The area with the highest rate of unemployment is Andalusia (36.3%), followed by the Canaries (33.1%). The lowest is the Basque country (15.7%).
Thursday's figures were met with official silence in Madrid. But in an interview with El País, the European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, Ollie Rehn, said that in Spain the EU had tried to combine the goal of solvent public finances with economic reforms.
"There were no easy alternatives for Spain nor for anyone. Those that think there was a simple way to recover access to the markets without painful measures are wrong," he told the paper. "It will take 10 years to fix the Spanish crisis."
Amid Debate on Migrants, Norway Party Comes to Fore
By STEVEN ERLANGER
JAN. 23, 2014
MORTENSRUD, Norway — Lise and Kjetil Ulvestrand came to this town south of Oslo in 2005 for the space, the views, the forest and the cheaper rents. Ms. Ulvestrand, a former development worker in Latin America and a social worker with Norway’s immigrants, says she is comfortable around foreigners and different cultures.
But as the number of immigrants, including Muslims, gradually increased in Mortensrud, she began to worry about her children and their education.
“I loved the forest and had friends, but ethnic Norwegians were moving out, so my children were losing friends,” she said. “After a while we discovered that when kids were 5 or 6, everyone moved out. We wanted a stable environment, and we had some questions about the social challenges at the school,” where the number of people who are not ethnic Norwegians was growing rapidly.
So the Ulvestrands decided last summer to move back into comfortable west Oslo, where she grew up. “I felt a bit guilty about moving, having worked in Latin America with minorities and defending their rights,” she said. “It wasn’t just ethnic Norwegians, it was anyone with resources moved out.”
Their concerns about immigration and perceptions that Islam is challenging prevailing national values are widely shared, both among some Norwegians, like the Ulvestrands, on the left of the political spectrum, and among many on the right, who in September put the Conservative Party into office after eight years of government by Labor Party-led leftist coalitions.
In a nation that has long prided itself on its liberal sensibilities, the intensifying debate about immigration and its effects on national identity and the country’s social welfare system has been jarring — and has been focused on the anti-immigration Progress Party, which is part of the new Conservative-led government.
The Progress Party came under intense scrutiny in 2011, when a former member, a Norwegian named Anders Behring Breivik, bombed government buildings in Oslo, killing eight people. He then killed 69 more people, mostly teenagers, in a mass shooting at a Labor Party summer camp on the island of Utoya. Mr. Breivik, who was convicted of mass murder and terrorism, had been a member of the Progress Party, attracted by its anti-Islamic slant, from 1999 until he was removed from the rolls in 2006 for not paying dues, having quit the party because it was not radical enough.
Still, the performance of the Progress Party in the first general elections since the Utoya massacre and its success in winning a place in government have raised some eyebrows; quite unfairly, Ketil Solvik-Olsen, minister of transportation and communication and a deputy leader of the party, said in an interview.
Mr. Solvik-Olsen recently discussed politics and faith at the Norwegian Lutheran church in Mortensrud. A tall, cheery man of 41, educated in Ohio and once employed by Disney, Mr. Solvik-Olsen scoffed at the notion that the party had anything to do with Mr. Breivik. “He left because his ideas were not getting support,” he said. “We are strict on immigration, but this is not a war on cultures. Our idea is to protect our welfare system.”
Asked about national values, Mr. Solvik-Olsen instead spoke of the kind of discomfort that the Ulvestrands felt here. “Some people feel they’re waking up one morning and their old neighborhood is gone,” he said. “Strangers move in and people don’t even understand what they’re saying; we have a generous welfare system, and you feel a stranger in your own neighborhood.”
Mr. Solvik-Olsen was the chairman of the Oslo section of the Progress Party when Mr. Breivik was a member, but he said he did not remember him. After the killings and a disastrous showing in local elections in 2011, the party, always populist, moved to gain more respectability, tamping down more extreme voices. In September, the party won 16.3 percent of the vote — down from the 22.9 percent it won in 2009, but enough to form a coalition with the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister Erna Solberg.
The Progress Party is now considered mainstream, and its level of support has required “more moderate rhetoric” than that from more extreme parties like the smaller Swedish Democrats, said Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a social anthropologist at the University of Oslo. “Yet they firmly belong with other parties, some of which are arguably more extreme, that see immigrants and in particular Muslims as a threat to the integrity of society,” he said.
Even as the Progress Party is promoting more moderate faces like Mr. Solvik-Olsen for positions in government, it is already being criticized by older, more ideological members and beginning to lose support in opinion polls.
“They’ve gotten more housebroken,” said Anders Romarheim, a fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies. At the same time, he said, the new acceptability of the party may have only encouraged the fierce anti-Islam opinion that remains prevalent on Norwegian social media, if moderated in public and political comment.
But there is also a new reticence about public talk, the prime minister said. “Part of the discussion about immigration and integration has slightly changed,” she said. “We still have strong discussions, but there is a more careful voice.”
Public discussion of Islam is less about “their beliefs or their color; it’s more about lack of education and need for training,” Ms. Solberg said in an interview. Given Norway’s generous asylum policies and social welfare system, the new government wants to reduce abuse and ensure, she said, that “you always earn more money by working than by not working — it’s a bigger social issue here than immigration.”
According to the Norwegian Language Council, the most popular new word of 2012 was “naving” — to live off welfare rather than to work. Used by young people, it stems from NAV, the Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration, which administers about one-third of the national budget.
The backlash to naving, the sense that the country is getting soft and giving too much money to the unemployed and foreigners, was an important part of the Conservative Party-Progress Party victory. Those who get benefits should be in training or some other useful activity, “so you can’t stay at home and play video games and get benefits — to be passive increases problems,” Ms. Solberg said.
Tore Bjorgo, who studies right-wing extremism at the Norwegian Police University College, says the Progress Party is hard to classify since it also favors lower taxes, more business-friendly regulations and better protections for the elderly, as well as eliminating tollbooths.
“It’s a democratic party,” he said, with members who are racist and xenophobic and others who are not. “But it has elements that bring up some of the mud from under the surface of politics,” he said, and the party “wants to keep those votes.”
Mr. Hylland Eriksen says the massacre committed by Mr. Breivik has regrettably had little lasting impact on Norway’s politics. “Immediately after the terrorist attack, some of us were hoping that it would serve as a loud and clear reminder of the need to accept that we live in a culturally diverse society, since the attack was motivated by a wish to cleanse Norway of alien cultural elements,” he said. “Instead, the political dimensions of the attack have been consistently dodged.”
It is almost more difficult now “to criticize Islamophobic and xenophobic attitudes, since those defending such positions may retort that it is unbecoming to associate them with Breivik,” he said.
Henrik Pryser Libell contributed reporting.
Iraqis are fleeing violence in Anbar at rate not seen since civil war, says UN
Refugee agency says more than 140,000 have fled clashes between security forces and anti-government fighters in a month
Agencies in Geneva
theguardian.com, Friday 24 January 2014 12.06 GMT
Iraqis are streaming out of cities in Anbar province at a rate not seen since the height of the civil war more than six years ago, the United Nations has said.
More than 140,000 people have fled deadly clashes between security forces and anti-government fighters in Falluja and Ramadi over the past month, the UNHCR said on Friday. In all, 65,000 have left this week alone.
"This is the largest displacement Iraq has witnessed since the sectarian violence of 2006-08," said the UN refugee agency spokesman Peter Kessler, adding that the figures were compiled by the Iraqi government.
"Many civilians are unable to leave conflict-affected areas where food and fuel are now in short supply," Kessler added.
Thousands of the displaced have fled to Baghdad and other nearby provinces, but some have travelled as far as the northern Kurdish region, according to the UNHCR.
"People are reportedly without money for food and lack suitable clothing for the rainy conditions. Children are not in school and sanitary conditions, particularly for women, are inadequate," Kessler added.
Iran comments a new headache for Washington
Published: January 24, 2014
WASHINGTON: Claims by top Iranian leaders that Washington is misrepresenting terms of an interim nuclear deal left the White House with a new political headache Thursday as it battles to build support for the pact.
Comments by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif left the White House parrying accusations that it had underplayed concessions it made in the interim deal, which went into force this week, and overplayed Iran’s commitments.
“The White House tries to portray it as basically a dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program,” Zarif said in an interview with CNN, denying that Tehran had many any such promise.
“If you find a single, a single word that even closely resembles dismantling or could be defined as dismantling in the entire text, then I would take back my comment,” Zarif said in the interview broadcast on Wednesday.
In another CNN interview, President Hassan Rouhani suggested that Iran has a different vision of the terms of a final nuclear deal from Washington – which expects Tehran to dismantle important parts of its nuclear program.
Asked whether Iran would destroy centrifuges used to enrich uranium at its plants, Rouhani said: “Not under any circumstances. Not under any circumstances.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney argued in response that Washington had known all along that Iran would try to “spin” the deal, which went into force this week, to its own advantage and for domestic political reasons.
“This is all about what they do, not what they say,” Carney said, and also said that the question of “dismantling” aspects of Iran’s nuclear program was more relevant to discussion about the comprehensive final agreement the United States and western powers hope to make with Iran rather than the interim deal.
The comments by Zarif and Rouhani forced the administration into a new attempt to defend the nuclear deal as it fights an effort by a bipartisan group of lawmakers to impose new sanctions on Iran which President Barack Obama fears could scupper the diplomatic process.
Republican Senator Mark Kirk, one of the top backers of new sanctions, seized on Zarif’s remarks on Thursday.
“15k centrifuges must be removed to thwart Iranian bomb,” Kirk wrote on Twitter.
“Bipartisan Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act requires #Iran 2 dismantle illicit nuke infrastructure 2 prevent Iranian bomb; time 4 Senate 2 vote,” he said in another tweet.
The Obama administration has conceded that it will not be possible to conclude the perfect deal with Iran to end its nuclear program that Israel and hawkish lawmakers would like, but is pushing for verifiable concessions from Tehran that would put it much further away from producing a nuclear weapon.
Chances of concluding a deal, in delicate political environments in Washington and Tehran, might in fact hinge on both sides being able to emerge from talks claiming victory, and able to represent the agreement in a different light to respective domestic audiences.
Under the nuclear deal, Iran has halted production of enriched uranium above five percent purity and begun converting medium enriched uranium while halting work on reactors at the Natanz, Fordo and Arak plants.
In return, Western powers are loosening sanctions in a package worth $6 to $7 billion, including $4.2 billion in frozen overseas foreign exchange assets.
India Supreme Court orders investigation after tribal rape outcry
By Sujoy Dhar
KOLKATA (Reuters) - India's Supreme Court on Friday ordered an investigation into the gang rape of a 20-year-old woman from an eastern tribal region by 13 men on the orders of a village court, a case that has sparked protests demanding swift justice.
The woman, who is recovering in hospital, told police she was assaulted by the men on Monday night in the Birbhum district of West Bengal as punishment for violating rules of her tribe by having a relationship with a man from a different community.
The ruling by India's top court underscores the sensitivity of sexual violence issues following the fatal gang rape of a physiotherapist on a moving bus in Delhi in December 2012 - an attack that sparked nationwide demonstrations and political uproar.
In the West Bengal case, police said that the woman's male companion was tied up in the village square, while the assault on the woman happened in a mud house. The man has now gone missing from the village, relatives say.
The woman was in stable condition, the hospital said.
There were sporadic protests in West Bengal, where earlier this month there were large demonstrations against police who have been accused of failing to act on the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl who was later murdered.
"This is complete sadism and the authorities must do something," said rape victim and activist Suzette Jordan, whose case also sparked massive protests against the police and the West Bengal state government.
West Bengal's chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, under fire for being slow to act over rape cases, removed the superintendent of police of Birbhum from his post for failing to take swift action against some alleged attackers linked to her political party.
Nityananda Hembram, a senior leader of the tribal Santhal community, said there was a campaign to malign the tribal culture by distorting the facts in this case.
"She may have been raped but of what I gathered she was warned ahead by the womenfolk of the village against living with a man from another community without marrying," Hembram told Reuters.
TOUGHENING SEX LAWS
India toughened laws on sex crimes in March last year after the brutal assault in Delhi.
The issue was highlighted in local media again last week after a 51-year-old Danish tourist was gang-raped in central Delhi by at least five men whom she had asked for directions.
In West Bengal, the couple were ordered to pay a fine of 25,000 rupees ($400), said the victim's mother, adding that the village head then ordered the rape of her daughter.
Human rights groups say diktats issued by kangaroo courts are not uncommon in rural regions.
In northern parts of India, illegal village councils known as "Khap Panchayats" act as de-facto courts settling rural disputes on everything from land and cattle to matrimony and murder.
But such councils are coming under growing scrutiny as their punitive edicts grow more regressive - ranging from banning women from wearing western clothing and using mobile phones to supporting child marriage and sanctioning the lynching of young couples in so-called "honor killings".
West Bengal recorded the highest number of gender crimes in the country at 30,942 in 2012 - 12.7 percent of India's total recorded crimes against women. These crimes include rape, kidnapping and sexual harassment and molestation.
(Additional reporting by Suchitra Mohanty in New Delhi; Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Nick Macfie)
****************Village Council in India Accused of Ordering Rape
By GARDINER HARRIS and HARI KUMAR
JAN. 23, 2014
NEW DELHI — A young woman in West Bengal was gang-raped this week on the order of a village council, to punish her for planning to marry a man from outside the village, according to the Indian police.
Thirteen people have been arrested in the case, including the village chief, who both ordered and participated in the rape, said Suraja Pratap Yadav, a police officer in the Birbhum district of West Bengal in eastern India.
The episode began on Monday when Khaliq Sheikh, the man from outside the village, asked the young woman to marry him, and she accepted his proposal, the police said. When Balai Mardi, the chief of the village, heard about it, he quickly sought to block the marriage.
According to local news media accounts, villagers went to the young woman’s house and detained Mr. Sheikh, and the next day, he and the young woman were taken to the village square, tied to separate trees and accused of breaking community rules.
Mr. Mardi ordered the couple to pay fines totaling 27,000 rupees, or about $442, Mr. Yadav said in a telephone interview. Mr. Sheikh paid his portion and was allowed to leave, but when the young woman’s family refused to pay, Mr. Mardi ordered villagers “to enjoy her,” said a police officer who spoke on condition that he not be named.
She was then raped repeatedly in Mr. Mardi’s mud-and-thatch hut, according to local news reports.
Mr. Mardi told the young woman and her family that if they reported the rape to the police, the village elders would burn their house down, Mr. Yadav said. They went to the police anyway on Wednesday, and within hours Mr. Mardi and 12 other suspects were arrested, he said.
The chief of police in the area, Sidh Nath Gupta, said that the 13 suspects were charged with rape, wrongful confinement, verbal threats and assault. The victim has been admitted to a local hospital, where she is in stable condition, Mr. Gupta said.
Sunil Soren, a leader from a nearby village, insisted in a telephone interview that people in the area “respect our women a lot.” But he said that Mr. Sheikh and the young woman were “in an objectionable situation,” and that such incidents “pollute the minds of youngsters.”
“In the excitement, some wrong things happened,” Mr. Soren said.
Village councils are common in rural India. They often enforce strict codes of conduct, and in some cases are deeply involved in deciding who will marry whom. Councils are often worried that marriages to outsiders will dilute communal land claims, among other concerns. Couples who defy the marital codes are sometimes murdered. Genetic researchers have found that India’s population has hundreds of distinct subgroups, in part because village councils have been enforcing marital codes and limiting intermarriage for centuries.
Several widely publicized rape cases over the past year have provoked outrage over sexual violence and violence against women in India, and prompted changes in laws and greater awareness of the problem, although there is little evidence that rape or gang rape occurs more frequently in India than in other countries.
With just 7.5 percent of India’s population, West Bengal in 2012 accounted for nearly 13 percent of reported crimes against women. Whether that demonstrates a higher incidence of such crimes or a greater willingness by the local police to take such reports seriously is unknown.
Local politicians sometimes react angrily to the publicity given to rape cases, which they believe reflect badly on their administration. The chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, lashed out at rape victims last year, saying in one case that a victim was lying, even though the police found evidence supporting the victim’s account.
The gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a New Delhi bus in December 2012 prompted protests across the country. In response, the government doubled the maximum prison term for rape to 20 years, created special courts to prosecute cases more quickly, and made voyeurism and acid attacks specific crimes under the law. Whether those changes have improved women’s safety in the country is unclear.Indian police seeking custody of gang-rape suspects
Click to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lb4eyqA5x8
*************Gays, lesbians to stage protest on India's Republic Day
Published: January 24, 2014
NEW DELHI: Hundreds of gay and lesbian Indians will take to the streets of New Delhi on Sunday, demanding equal rights and a reversal of the recent ban on gay sex as the country celebrates its Republic Day.
Members of various rights groups and civil society activists will also join the protest march that will kick off in the heart of the city’s business district after the Republic Day celebrations wind up.
“We want to ask the government if we are included in India’s current idea of a republic,” Mohnish Malhotra, one of the organisers of the parade, told AFP.
“The government has failed in its constitutional duty to protect and advance gay rights,” he added.
Gay sex had been effectively legalised in 2009 when the Delhi High Court ruled that a section of the penal code prohibiting “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” was an infringement of fundamental rights.
But last month, India’s apex court ruled that the High Court had overstepped its authority and that a law passed in the 1860s during British colonial rule was still valid.
Criminal prosecutions were rare when the law was previously in force, but police used it to harass people and demand bribes.
The ruling was met with dismay by gay rights activists who called it a “Black Day” for India and criticised the government for leaving such an important issue in the hands of the courts rather than address it through legislation.
Gay sex has long been a taboo subject in conservative India but in recent years the community has raised its profile through gay pride marches, magazines and events which have encouraged many to come out of the closet.
Malhotra said the Republic Day presented an ideal opportunity for the community to “reclaim” their rights.
The Republic Day is celebrated annually with a colourful military parade at the iconic India Gate in the capital, complete with missiles, tanks and march pasts by uniformed soldiers.
The national holiday marks the day when the Indian Constitution came into force in 1950.
“As we commemorate another Republic Day, we proclaim that the parade of the powerful does not represent us. We demand that our government be held accountable for the protection of our rights according to our constitution,” Malhotra said.
Bangladesh garment factories failing to pay minimum wage
Published: January 24, 2014
Nearly 40 percent of garment factories in the Bangladesh capital were failing to pay a new minimum wage announced last year for workers stitching clothes for Western retailers, an industry head said Thursday.
Bangladesh’s government agreed last November to raise the minimum monthly wage for the country’s four million garment workers to $68, an increase of 77 percent, after protests and strikes in the crisis-hit industry.
But almost 40 percent of factories surveyed in and around Dhaka were still not paying the new amount, while the figures were much higher for the port city of Chittagong, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association said.
The association surveyed the $20 billion industry, the world’s second largest and a mainstay of the Bangladesh economy, to determine which of the 4,500 factories were paying the new legally required wage.
“We have done a survey on 594 factories situated in Dhaka and its outskirts. Of them 62 percent paid their workers under the newly hiked wages,” association vice-president Shahidillah Azim said.
“In Chittagong only five percent factories could (afford to) pay the new minimum wage,” Azim told AFP without giving further details of the survey, which has not been made public.
He blamed deadly unrest in the run-up to the January 5 general election – which saw opposition-led protests and transport blockades – for a drop in export orders that forced factories to postpone implementing the wage.
“It’s a very bad situation. Western retailers have cancelled or diverted orders. As a result, new recruitment in the factories has almost stopped. Workers also understand the situation,” he said.
However government figures show a boom time for the world’s second largest garment export industry.
Garment shipments grew an impressive 20 percent in the six months to December compared to the same period last year, data released in January showed.
Union leader Babul Akter disputed the association’s figure on the number of factories complying with the hike, saying separate research by union groups showed only 20 percent were paying workers the new wage.
“Workers were downgraded from experienced category to trainee just to make sure that the manufacturers don’t have to raise wages that much,” Akter said.
The government pledged to raise wages after strikes in September saw tens of thousands of workers take to the streets, torch factories and clash with police.
In November, a government-appointed panel voted to raise the minimum salaries to 5,300 taka ($68) from 3,000 taka, following the protests and a series of disasters that highlighted appalling conditions.
Most unions accepted the hike following requests from the prime minister and the manufacturers.
The pay rise still makes Bangladeshi garment workers among the lowest paid in the textile sector in the world.
Protests over poor wages, benefits and working conditions are frequent in Bangladesh, but gained intensity after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in April last year, which killed 1,135 people.
Bangladesh elections 2014: Where democracy is a prisoner of history
By Sanjay Kumar
Published: January 24, 2014
It was an election of the ruling party, by the ruling party and for the ruling party. That is how one can describe the recent general elections in Bangladesh. More than half of the candidates won the elections without even contesting and the remaining half, in a parliament of 300, romped home with a token fight between friendly parties.
The ruling Awami League, therefore, got a three fourth majority in the national assembly, which was an unprecedented victory. This is a parliament where the largest opposition in the country, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has no representation at all.
No doubt, a House chosen without the participation of the main opposition alliances raises questions about the legitimacy of the government. And this question is being echoed within Bangladesh as well as outside. Concerns about the future of democracy in the youngest republic of South Asia are also under discussion.
This is not the first time that Bangladesh has seen a one sided election; in the middle of the 1990s, the BNP, then in power, held similar elections and won all the seats of the parliament, unopposed. But the government collapsed under the weight of its own majority and held another election within a few months, and the Awami League came back to power.
There is a huge and complicated history behind what is happening in the Bengali speaking country. And this history is a recurring theme in the nascent nation. It is a battle ground for political parties. The fights of the past have created deep distrust and animosity amongst the two main political organisations – the Awami League and the BNP.
But the first point of discussion is: why were the 2014 general elections non-inclusive and did not see the participation of the main opposition parties?
The BNP wanted the elections to be held under a caretaker government, run by a non political, neutral regime. The ruling party offered to set up a caretaker government, constituting all political parties, but the opposition rejected the offer and demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina before the elections were to be held.
The Awami League cited the constitutional provisions which did not support such an arrangement. In 2011, the parliament had annulled the provision of a caretaker regime, thereby doing away with a system which had become contentious ever since democracy was restored in Bangladesh in 1991. The main opposition was not in favour of this move, as it understood what this step would lead the country towards – and that prediction came true in the form of the 2014 elections.
The reality is that every election has, so far, been held under a caretaker regime. Awami League had a bitter experience in 2006 under the caretaker regime when that government, with support from the military, instead of holding instant elections, extended its term and tried to cleanse the Bengali politics of its two predominant parties. Sheikh Hasina had faced incarceration whereas the BNP leadership was also found in trouble at the time.
However, none of the political parties learnt any lesson from that episode.
Many rounds of talks were held and international players tried to broker a compromise between the two political rivals but no agreement could be reached between them.
As a result, the Awami League went ahead and held elections, whereas the BNP and its alliance partner – right wing Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami – tried to disrupt. It led to country wide protests costing more than 500 lives in a span of three months. Not only that, the whole nation reeled under constant shutdowns and strikes called by the opposition.
Various reports suggest that the fundamentalist Jamaat attacked the Hindu minority and other sections in different parts of the country, which were coming in to vote. This violence continued even after the elections.
A historical analysis
Bangladesh became an independent country in 1971, under the active leadership of the Awami League and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the current prime minister’s father. Bengali nationalism and linguistic identity were two defining reasons that led to a bloody separation between the then East and West Pakistan.
However, there were elements led by Jamaat-e-Islami who opposed the partition of Pakistan and these people actively helped the Pakistani army in suppressing the movement, which led to the deaths of more than a million people and the displacement of another 30 million.
Majority of Bangladeshis feel very strongly about the war and want justice for the deaths of so many innocent people.
Immediately after becoming an independent country, Dhaka banned the fundamentalist group, but after the death of Mujibur Rahman the ban was lifted and the Jamaat became one of the alliance partners of the BNP, under the presidency of Ziaur Rahman – an army dictator and the husband of Begum Khalida Zia, the leader of the present BNP.
The political legitimacy of the Jamaat, and some of its leaders involved in the movement, became a bone of contention between the two main political parties in the 70s and this difference still persists.
International crimes tribunal
In 2009, the Awami League government set up Bangladesh’s International crimes tribunal to try those who were responsible for killing people in the liberation war. As a result, some of Jamaat’s most prominent leaders faced trials. One of these prominent figures, Abdul Quader Mollah, became the first case of the tribunal and faced the gallows late last year for his criminal complicity in 1971.
His hanging stoked violence in several parts of the country. The BNP has been a loyal ally of the Islamic group and it patronised many of its radical leaders during its rule.
It is this history which is coming in the way of any kind of compromise and understanding between the Awami League and the BNP. The BNP and the Jamaat term the tribunal vindictive towards their leaders, illegal with respect to international law and want its disbandment. The ruling party sees it as cathartic and a must to provide justice to the thousands of victim families.
Democracy, a prisoner of history
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that modern democracy in Bangladesh is a prisoner of this history.
But one needs to ask, what is the way forward to the present impasse in the country?
I asked the same question to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on January 5, a day after the elections; in the media interaction, where she, very bluntly, replied back that it all depends upon the attitude of the opposition – if they want to talk then some way out can be found.
The only way out is a new election, which is inevitable, whether it happens in six months or a year.
The present regime suffers from the problem of legitimacy. The violence and continuous disruption of normal life has made people cynical about the elections and democracy. Talk to any common man on the street and his or her first reaction is always the restoration of peace and normal life. They don’t care who wins and loses.
Such cynicism does not strengthen democracy; rather it gives an opportunity to military intervention – which the 160 million people of this country are not immune to.
Democracy is of the people, by the people and for the people but this idea is served well only when it is participatory and includes all shades of political colours.
In a nutshell, the 2014 elections in Bangladesh lacked this democratic spirit.
U.N. Says Muslims Were Massacred in Tense Myanmar Region
By GERRY MULLANY
JAN. 24, 2014
HONG KONG — Symbolically, this is supposed to be an important moment for Myanmar in its transition to democracy. In taking over the annual rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, it is assuming a responsibility that the government considers a prestigious honor. After five decades of military dictatorship, Myanmar is moving on several fronts to shore up the country’s international image, hosting the Southeast Asian Games, a regional sporting event, in December and releasing what it said was the last of its political prisoners.
But now the country’s leaders find themselves under an unwelcome spotlight after, United Nations officials say, rampaging mobs in western Myanmar killed at least four dozen people, many of them Muslim, earlier this month in the latest spasm of violence to afflict the area.
The Myanmar government has been criticized for its failure to aggressively investigate and prosecute the killings of Muslims ever since sectarian violence in June 2012 triggered a series of attacks across the country. But human rights groups say that with this latest round of anti-Muslim violence, the government now appears to be trying to cover up the problem.
The area where the attacks occurred, northern Rakhine State, has been riven by tensions between its Buddhist population and a group of Muslims known as Rohingya, with frequent bursts of violence driving more than 100,000 Rohingya from their homes and leaving at least 200 of them dead. The majority of Myanmar’s population is Buddhist, but Muslims outnumber Buddhists along the border with Bangladesh, a demographic trend that is partly behind the tensions.
Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said Thursday that the latest violence started on Jan. 9 when eight Rohingya Muslim men were killed in Du Chee Yar Tan village, near the border with Bangladesh. Four days later, after the reported kidnapping and killing of a police sergeant, the local police stood by as Buddhists seeking revenge used swords, knives and sticks to attack the Rohingya, killing 40 more men, women and children, officials said.
The attacks were first reported by The Associated Press, but government officials have denied the accounts of a massacre of Rohingya, with a government spokesman, Ye Htut, saying last week, “We have had no information about killings.” He also has suggested that the claims of violence against the Rohingya were being used to cover up or play down the killing of the police officer. Last week, the government-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar printed an article stating in the headline that The A.P. “falsely reports violence occurred in Rakhine State” and that the agency’s reports “seemed to instigate” the unrest.
The latest violence erupted after monks from a group known as 969, an extremist movement, descended on the area and began giving sermons calling for the expulsion of all the Rohingya, according to accounts from local media.
Ms. Pillay of the United Nations called for an aggressive investigation of the attacks by Myanmar’s government, urging it “to carry out a full, prompt and impartial investigation and ensure that victims and their families receive justice.”
“By responding to these incidents quickly and decisively, the government has an opportunity to show transparency and accountability, which will strengthen democracy and the rule of law in Myanmar,” she added.
Yet the violence against Muslims has been widely publicized in Muslim countries, including in Indonesia and Malaysia, key members of Asean. The government has sought to play down the issue and announced earlier this month that it would not allow the issue to be put on the agenda during its chairmanship.
Anti-Muslim feelings run deep in Myanmar, partly because the Rohingya, who number around one million and are the largest Muslim group in the country, are considered illegal immigrants. The Rohingya issue is deeply emotional among the Buddhist-Burmese majority, who link it to the legacy of colonial times when large numbers of Indians were brought into Burma by the British.
The Myanmar government refuses to use the term Rohingya, preferring to call the group Bengalis.
The group Human Rights Watch said Friday that police officials in Rakhine have issued an order allowing for the arrest of all Rohingya males over the age of 10.
“In the event such an order has been issued, it should be rescinded immediately and authorities should act to ensure the safety of the entire population in the area,” the group said.
While President Obama highlighted the plight of the Rohingya during his visit to Myanmar in November, the country’s leading politicians, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning rights leader, have largely been quiet on the issue. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is considered a potential candidate for president in the 2015 elections.