Saturday, March 31, 2007

Vietnam jails pro-democracy priest

Vietnam Catholic priest Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly was jailed yesterday for eight years for dissent. In a one day trial in the city of Hue, the 60 year old Father Ly was found guilty of charges of disseminating information to undermine the state. Four co-defendants also received prison terms ranging from 18 months suspended to six years. Ly was accused of producing anti-government documents and communicating with anti-communist groups overseas.

Judge Bui Quoc Hiep told the court the defendants’ behaviour “amounted to the crime of spreading propaganda against the Socialist state”. The judge said Ly deserved "severe punishment" for masterminding efforts to boycott Vietnam's upcoming legislative elections, establish unsanctioned political parties, and overthrow the government. State media accused Ly of forming illegal parties for May’s National Assembly election.

An envoy from the Vatican discussed Father Ly’s case with authorities during a visit to Vietnam earlier this month, but would not say what Vietnam's response was. Vietnam cut ties with the Vatican in 1975, and has controlled religious and political expression since. Monsignor Pietro Parolin, Vatican undersecretary of state (and de facto deputy foreign minister) met with Nguyen The Doanh of the Government Committee for Religion on 6 March to discuss re-establishing diplomatic relations. He raised the matter of Father Ly who was on hunger strike at the time.

Ly is no stranger to Vietnamese prisons having already spent 14 of the past 24 years in jail. He was last jailed in 2001 after he faced another one-day trial without a defence lawyer. He was sentenced to 15 years prison for promoting religious freedom and urging the US to link its trade policy with Vietnam's human rights record. Ly was released as part of an amnesty in 2005.

On 19 February this year, dozens of police in Hue raided his parish home. The police officers were led by a colonel who specialises in religious matters. They cut phone lines and searched the entire building, breaking open a cupboard which Ly refused to unlock. They confiscated computers, telephones and more than 200 kilograms of documents. The authorities arrested him on charges of “propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”. He was moved to a remote location where he was kept under house arrest until the trial. In an article announcing Father Ly's arrest, the official Party daily newspaper, Nhan Dan (The People) said that the government had "smashed" the "extremists" sabotage scheme.

Ly is a founding member of Bloc 8406, a new pro-democracy movement. On 8 April 2006 (and hence the name Bloc 8406), a group launched the 2006 Manifesto on Freedom and Democracy as a rallying cry for political action in Vietnam. Bloc 8406 argue the Vietnamese Communist Party’s refusal to liberalise the political system has resulted in widespread corruption and stagnation. Vietnamese authorities have intimidated, harassed and detained key activists for questioning 50 US Congress members signed an open letter in support of Bloc 8406 as did many founders of the Czech Charter 77 including former president Vaclav Havel. The bloc initiated campaign to boycott last years APEC summit and the National Assembly elections in July this year unless there are reforms to ensure a free and fair vote.

Father Ly is not the only dissident to arrested recently. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) press release of 9 March said two human rights lawyers were also arrested. On 6 March, police arrested Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan in Hanoi. Van Doi founded the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam in 2006 and recently received the Hellman/Hammett award for persecuted writers. Nhan is also a lawyer and she is a spokesperson for the Dang Thang Tien Vietnam Party (Vietnam Progression Party)

An official response from the Vietnamese Communist Party rejected these allegations. They claim HRW regularly produces “fabricated information” that fails to reflect the real situation in Vietnam. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Dung said "Although the State of Vietnam respects the rights to freedom and democracy of all citizens, the country never accepts the abuses of the rights to freedom and democracy to carry out activities that violate Vietnamese law.” He described the crackdown on dissidents as “nonsense”.

US Congressman Chris Smith (R- NJ) has called Ly’s sentence "outrageous and appalling" and appealed for the US. to immediately intervene to secure his freedom. Smith has been to Vietnam where he met Ly. He introduced a resolution into the House two weeks ago calling on Vietnam to immediately and unconditionally release several political prisoners including Ly. Smith said in a statement yesterday “all Father Ly wants is a better future for his country. His arrest and conviction are purely political, a shameful attempt to silence him and intimidate anyone else who dares to speak out against the government."

Friday, March 30, 2007

Oil dominates 25th Falklands War anniversary

Argentina has used the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Falklands War to formally quash a deal with Britain to share oil found near the disputes islands. Argentinean foreign minister Jorge Taiana said the decision was taken because of Britain's unilateral action to put oil deals out for public tender without discussion with Argentina.

The Chief Executive of the Falkland Islands Government, Chris Simpkins, brushed off the Argentinean statement. He said while Taiana's announcement was “unfortunate” it would have no practical effect and it would be “business as usual” in the Falkland Islands. The Falklands Oil and Gas Ltd will continue to explore for oil off the Eastern shores of the islands.

The British Geological Survey says 60 billion barrels of oil lie under the ocean around the Falkland Islands. Britain and Argentina signed a joint declaration called the South-west Atlantic Offshore Cooperation Activities in 1995. Then-President Carlos Menem hoped the deal would allow Argentina join the exploration and exploitation of crude in the area. Both countries were supposed to explore a specific area of international waters and exchange information about their activities. But the accord was doomed from the start as Britain and Argentina adopted different interpretations of the areas they could jointly explore.

Although the agreement has been moribund since 2001, it has taken another six years for the deal to be formally scrapped. Many analysts say the timing of the announcement is more significant than the announcement itself. Left-leaning Argentinean president Nestor Kirchner faces re-election in October. The Falklands decision is a likely vote winner. There is also a personal aspect. Kirchner comes from Patagonia which was the front line of Argentinean military operations during the conflict. He has now called for Britain to discuss sovereignty.

25 years ago, the fate of Las Malvinas was also used to shore up a troubled Argentinean regime. Dictator Leopoldo Galtieri presided over an unhealthy economy with high unemployment, shrinking GDP and 160 percent inflation. He gambled Britain would negotiate if he struck a quick blow and his popularity would then be assured at home. On 2 April 1982, he ordered his navy to occupy the archipelago. In response, Margaret Thatcher dispatched the largest British fleet assembled since the end of World War II.

Galtieri blundered in ordering the invasion before the onset of the Southern winter. With no rough weather to contend with, British forces were able to make a bridgehead on the islands and the 10,000 defending Argentine troops could not deal with both land and air attacks. On 4 May, the nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror sunk the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano in 40 minutes. The attack happened 80 kms outside the exclusion zone and was considered a violation of war statutes. 360 crew members died. Britain shelled the islands for 17 days before launching the invasion.

After several decoys, they landed in force on 21 May at Port San Carlos, a bay located between the two major Falkland islands. Despite a major Argentinean air offensive, the British were able to establish a successful bridgehead. After a week of consolidation, the British moved south to Goose Green where they defeated a numerically superior Argentine force with the substantial help of Harriers, helicopters and naval shelling. By 12 June, they were on the edge of the capital Port Stanley. After two more days, the game was up. General Menéndez ignored an order from Buenos Aires to launch a suicidal counter attack and surrendered unconditionally to Major General Moore. The 11-week conflict was over and the islands were back in British hands where they still remain. The war cost 255 British lives and about a thousand Argentineans. It also caused the fall of Galtieri’s government.

The deaths were a very high price to pay for a barren collection of wet and windy rocks populated by 750,000 penguins, 600,000 sheep and just 2,800 people. But Britain does have a long-standing emotional investment in the South Atlantic. They have governed the islands since 1833 and their influence goes back a lot further still. Although the islands may have been originally sighted by Spanish explorers, the first official discovery was in 1592 by English seafarer John Davis, captain of the sailing ship "Desire". The first recorded person to land on the Falklands was also English - Captain John Strong in 1690.

Explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville landed on East Falkland in 1764 and laid claim to the islands for France. Two years later, the Spanish bought the islands from the French. The next 50 years saw British and Spanish naval forces engage in gunboat diplomacy while claiming the islands. Britain invaded Argentina in 1806 and briefly took Buenos Aires. In 1833, a British fleet surprised an Argentine force on the islands and forced them to depart. The British raised their flag and began the settlement that lasts to this day.

The islands played an important role at the beginning of both world wars with the German name Graf Spee popping up in both campaigns. In 1914, British Admiral Sturdee led a squadron of seven vessels against the German Pacific Fleet under the command of Admiral Graf Von Spee. Britain sunk six German boats to win the battle and secure naval supremacy in the southern seas. In 1939, the German pocket battleship Graf Spee was harassed around the islands before being sunk by the English fleet in the Battle of the River Plate.

Despite these events, the islands remained a sleepy outpost well out of the international limelight until the tragic events of 1982. The situation remains tense today. Argentina continues to lay claim to the islands. The 2,800 citizens remain solidly British in outlook. Continued support of the occupation is a serious drain to the British taxpayer. The Falkland garrison cost Britain over a hundred million pounds in financial year 2004-5. Sooner or later, a British government will find this cost untenable and will sit at the negotiating table with Argentina. Oil exploration rights will then replace sheep as the islands' most valuable asset.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Quebec independence setback

The Quebec independence movement is licking its wounds after a surprisingly heavy defeat for the Parti Quebecois (PQ) in Monday’s provincial election. If elected, PQ had promised to hold a referendum on independence from Canada but instead finished third with 28% of the vote, their worse electoral showing since 1973.

Jean Charest, the region's Liberal premier, narrowly won re-election but will now lead the province's first minority government in 130 years. 38% of the province’s 5.6 million electorate voted Liberal who took 48 of the 125 seats. The result means that the Liberals have lost 24 seats since the last election.

The main winners were the right-of-centre Action Democratique du Quebec party (ADQ). They finished second with 32% of the vote and 41 seats (up 36 since the last election). The ADQ wants more autonomy for Quebec but does not want to secede from Canada. Their conservative platform consists of attacking debt, allowing more private medical clinics, a stronger law and order policy and moving people off welfare. 36 year old charismatic party leader Mario Dumont now holds the balance of power and represents a new force in a province used to the bipolar opposites of separatists and federalists.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the PQ defeat reflects the central government's efforts to give more power and resources to provinces. “We're very encouraged to see that we have a government that is opposed to having another referendum, and we have an official opposition that is opposed to having another referendum," Harper told reporters today in Ottawa. “It's good news for this government, but it's also good news for Quebec and Canada."

Quebec has had two independence referendums in the last 26 years. In 1980 the Quebec provincial government asked for a mandate to negotiate sovereignty association. Nearly 60 percent of Quebeckers voted no. There was a second almost identical referendum in 1995 on the sovereignty issue. The margin was much closer but the “no” vote still triumphed 51% to 49.

The white history of Quebec dates back to 1534 when Jacques Cartier erected a cross on the shore of the Gaspé Peninsula. He took possession of the land in the name of the king of France. But Cartier's gesture changed nothing and the province remained the haunt of aboriginals and the occasional fisherman until 1608. In that year Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec and established the first permanent colony. The French went on to establish Trois-Rivières and Montreal and claimed the entire watersheds of the Mississippi and St. Lawrence Rivers but were blocked from further expansion by hostile Iroquois.

The British, meanwhile, built their own forts at Oswego and Halifax and the government granted lands in the Ohio Valley to the Ohio Company. Adventurous traders set up bases in the region which led to inevitable clashes with the French. In 1750 the two European powers met in Paris to try to resolve the territorial disputes. Two years later, the new Governor-General of New France, Marquis Duquesne, sent troops to Pennsylvania to build forts. The lieutenant-Governor of Virginia demanded they leave. Under the command of a young Virginian officer named George Washington, the British launched a pre-emptive attack in 1754, the first strike in what became known as the French & Indian War.

The war would drag on for eight years as the British slowly gained the upper hand. The key turning point came in 1759 with the capture of Quebec City after a three month siege. By the end of 1760, Montreal fell to the British and the war was ended with the capture of Fort Detroit. British de facto control of Eastern North America was confirmed in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris.

But nothing much changed in Quebec despite British control. In 1774, authorities passed the Quebec Act. This act guaranteed the French freedom of worship and property rights under French civil law and gave the Catholic Church the right of collecting tithes which ensured it would keep its status as the established church. In 1837 French and English speaking Canadians rebelled against the British garrison. Although the rebellion was brutally put down, Britain was forced to consider independence. The Province of Canada was founded in 1841 and the Quebeckers gained a key victory by insisting that the French language have legal status in the new entity.

Calls for Quebec independence remained muted until the 1960s. The Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) was formed in February 1963 with the goal of seeking full independence from Canada. The group was most active in the period up to 1972 until it was proscribed by the Wars Measures Act. Although the group failed, their ideas permeated the mainstream. In 1974, French was declared the official language of the province and a separatist party won the provincial elections two years later. Although the separation referendum failed in 1980, dissatisfaction with Quebec’s status remained.

In 1987 the Government proposed a set of amendments known as the Meech Lake Accords in an effort to persuade Quebec to sign the 1982 constitution. Quebec demanded a status as a “distinct society”. But the proposal was defeated by aboriginal politicians who felt that the First Nations had not been adequately involved in the process.

The defeat of the Accords led to the rise of the Parti Quebecois who took power in Quebec. They organised and narrowly lost a second referendum in 1995. Then Party leader Jacques Parizeau blamed the sovereignist defeat on "money and the ethnic vote" and declares that "we will have our country and we will get our revenge." Four years later the federal government passed the Clarity Act, which set out the rules by which a province could secede from Canada.

The Clarity Act demanded that in order for separation to occur, a referendum on independence in a given province would have to have "clearly" framed its question to voters in terms of independence, and that the result would have to be a "clear majority" in favour. While the “clearness” of the question and the result were not defined, the act ensured that Quebec could not unilaterally declare independence unless by a substantial majority. The PQ opposed the act and said Quebec would proclaim independence even if they won by just one vote. In a 2005 TV interview Parizeau said that the Clarity Act "meant nothing" and would be ignored. But this week’s election has shown the Quebec electorate haven’t ignored it.

Many analysts are calling this weekend’s vote a watershed election. For decades Quebec politics have been dominated in turns by either federalist or separatists groups. Now this polarisation will be forced to end. Who ever forms government will have to work within a coalition and make some unpalatable choices with likely compromise on core policies.

But some are optimistic that this outcome is for the best. The Canadian dollar rose on news of the election results finishing up 0.35 US cents overnight Wednesday. George Davis, chief technical strategist at RBC Capital Markets said the strong showing by the ADQ strengthens the position of Conservative PM Harper. "I think the market would view anything that would move the federal government towards a majority as positive," said Davis.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Clashes in Kinshasa

At least 150 people have been killed in the Congolese capital Kinshasa after clashes between the army and forces loyal to opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba. The violence started on Thursday last week and went for two days before Government troops regained control of the streets. Bemba is now currently seeking refuge in the South African embassy. Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Joseph Kabila defended the role of the army saying order had to be restored “at any cost” and has demanded Bemba face justice in a Congo court.

The violence has upset the peace process which ended DR Congo's war and led to elections in 2006. In the country’s first free vote since 1960, Kabila won the presidency from Bemba in a run-off election with 58% of the vote. But Bemba rejected the result claiming the election was rigged. Violent clashes at the time claimed at least a dozen lives. Bemba was elected a senator in the new parliament and was given repeated ultimatums to disband his military force, numbering in the thousands.

Instead of disarming, Bemba’s supporters took to the streets last week and immediately sparked clashes with Kinshasa’s security forces. Shooting on Thursday morning gave way to mortar fire in the afternoon. The mortar fire set buildings ablaze and destroyed an oil refinery. Bemba himself claims he was the target of an assassination plot and said two battalions of government troops surrounded his house. Bemba escaped to the sanctuary of the South African embassy. Thousands of others were also forced to flee the capital.

Among them were 200 people (including 50 members of Bemba’s military) who took refuge across the river in Congo-Brazzaville. Although there is no bridge between the two capital cities, the refugees crossed the Congo River aboard smugglers' canoes. The soldiers were disarmed by Republic of Congo marines before being housed in transit centres and a Red Cross compound.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is still recovering from a six-year civil war, widely considered the most lethal conflict in the world since World War II. Four million died in fighting, hunger and disease. Nine nations were dragged into the carnage which mostly in eastern Congo. The east had long been a home for disaffected groups from bordering countries such as the ethnic Hutu, Interihamwe, the group most responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide. These groups were protected by long-term Congo dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

In 1996, the Rwandan army invaded Congo supported by a rebel Congolese army led by Laurent Kabila (father of current president Joseph) and drove Mobutu from power. Kabila was installed as the country’s new leader. But he fell out with his allies and ordered all foreigners to leave the country. Most refused to leave. A Rwandan counter-surge was defeated by a multi-national force of Angolan, Zimbabwean, and Namibian troops. In 1999 Uganda invaded in support of rebel group called the Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo (MLC) and established control of the north.

Congo was now divided into three parts only one controlled by Kabila, with one each for Rwanda and Uganda. In 1999 six parties (DRC, Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Uganda, and Rwanda) signed the Lusaka Accord ceasefire which called for a UN peacekeeping force and the withdrawal of all foreign troops. But mutual suspicion prevented enforcement of the Accord. Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and succeeded by his son Joseph. Finally in 2002 there was progress and most of the international armies left the country. The parties ratified the Pretoria Accord in 2003 which put in place a transitional government and planned an election which eventually took place in 2006. Kabila beat Bemba in a runoff after a stalemate in the first election.

Altogether up to 50 million people were displaced by the war. With the aid of 17,500 peacekeepers, Kinshasa has regained control of most of the country. But the east of the country remains dangerous with rebel Rwandan and Ugandan forces refusing to return to their native lands where they fear they will be targets of revenge. And while Hutu militia remain in the forests of east Congo where they prey on villages for food and money, the Rwandan army will continue to launch incursions to try to wipe them out.

By rights Congo should be one of the richest countries in Africa. American, Canadian, European and South African mining companies have all begun to invest in the mineral-rich Katanga province in an attempt to gain access to the vast reserves of gold, diamonds, cobalt, copper and tantalum (also known as coltan, a key component of mobile phones). San Francisco based engineering firm Bechtel Inc estimates that the DRC's mineral ores alone are worth $157 billion dollars. But not everyone is benefiting from outside investment. This huge country is the size of Western Europe but has few roads and little electricity outside the major cities. The Congo remains the heart of darkness.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Tsang wins Hong Kong poll

Hong Kong politician Alan Leong has complained of vote rigging after losing the leadership race to incumbent Donald Tsang on the weekend. The Beijing-backed Tsang won the 800 member election committee vote 649 to 123 to keep office for a second term of five years. Leong called the vote a “rigged small-circle election” and called for universal suffrage.

Besides Beijing favour, Tsang currently enjoys high public approval ratings in Hong Kong which is partly due to a buoyant economy. But many people are growing increasingly impatient for democratic reform. Tsang claims he favours an open democratic system and a new constitution but has offered no proposal or timeframe to carry it out.

Tsang released a valedictory press statement yesterday after his re-election in which he claimed the election “has laid out a solid foundation for moving toward universal suffrage”. He also praised the people of Hong Kong for their “maturity” as well as expressing his honour at retaining the role as the region’s chief executive. Tsang pledged to put aside his differences with his rival Leong to “work together for our tomorrow”.

Beyond these typically glib post-election remarks, Donald Tsang does have his work cut out. Although he was the candidate supported by Beijing, some influential pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong remain suspicious of his devout Catholicism and his links both to Britain and high-profile businessmen. The 62 year old Tsang, joined the colonial government 40 years ago and rose to become financial secretary in 1995, the first ethnic Chinese ever to hold such a high post. Britain knighted him for his services prior to the handover. He continued to work for the civil service under the new administration until 2005. Then he stood uncontested for chief executive. His predecessor Tung Chee-hwa had been forced to resign after Chinese President Hu Jintao publicly dressed him down.

So far, Chee-hwa’s successor has avoided the same fate. Hu met Tsang in December 2005 and publicly endorsed the new man at the helm. Hu was happy with the region’s overall situation and praised its “sustained economic growth, social stability, and improved living standards”. Hu also pledged support for Hong Kong’s “development of democracy” though also stressing the need to “maintain stability, accelerate development, and promote harmony”.

Hong Kong has been governed under what former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping called a "one country, two systems" since it was returned to China in 1997. It is one of two Special Administrative Regions (SAR) - Macau is the other - and has its own government but is not fully internationally accredited, with foreign policy and home defence retained as the province of China. It is guaranteed autonomy for 50 years as a SAR. According to Hong Kong's mini-constitution known as the Basic Law, the territory's ultimate aim is to have universal suffrage.

But true democracy is slow in coming to Hong Kong. Its seven million residents having no direct say in the election for chief executive and only elects half of the 60 members of the Legislative Council. There have been some advances. This is the first election where the chief executive has a challenger and Tsang and Leong did have a live television debate prior to the election. But the election itself was decided by a committee of 800 mainly pro-Beijing politicians and representatives of business and professional groups that avoid any direct confrontation with Chinese authorities.

But Hong Kong has long had to live with interference from the mainland. The first evidence of human occupation for 6,000 years. The indigenous population was supplemented by Chinese during the Qin and Han dynasties during the four hundred years commencing 200 BC. It remained a small fishing community and a haven for pirates until Westerners first arrived in China in the 15th century. Hong Kong’s safe harbour was of great interest to traders of silk and tea. Although the Portuguese were first to arrive, it was the British East India Company who established an early outpost there.

Britain used the territory as a naval base during their Opium Wars with China. The Treaty of Nanking in 1842 formally ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain and Sir Henry Pottinger became the territory’s first governor. After further skirmishes, Britain added Kowloon and Stonecutter's Island to territory in 1860. They acquired the New Territories on a 100 year lease in 1898.

Hong Kong’s population grew dramatically with successive refugee invasions after the Chinese monarchy was overthrown in 1912 and again 20 years later when Japan seized Manchuria. Hong Kong itself fell on Christmas Day 1941 and remained in Japanese hands until the end of the war. The colony had a third major wave of immigration after the Communists took power in 1949.

The skills of the post-Communist refugees allied to a vast pool of cheap unskilled labour helped revive the colony’s economy. By the 1970s, Hong Kong was a commercial and tourist capital of South-East Asia. Hong Kong was seen as one of the economic tigers of Asia with a motoring economy and a vibrant population. The only cloud on the horizon was the looming expiry date of the 100 lease of the New Territories. As Hong Kong would not be a viable entity without the Territories, Britain was forced to cede control of the entire province. Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping came to an agreement in 1984 known as the Sino-British Joint Declaration which allowed the Chinese to resume sovereignty over all of Hong Kong in 1997 in exchange for a period of 50 years in which the colony’s capitalist system would be maintained.

Hong Kong’s autonomy has been enshrined in Basic Law. Hong Kong remains an international entity in events such as the Olympics, APEC and the WTO. English is still taught at schools. Public offices fly the flags of China and the SAR but travel to and from the mainland is considered an international journey. Hong Kong retains freedom of the press but full democracy remains a distant dream. Tsang dodged questions of a timetable to democracy in the debates with Leong. There is no guarantee in Basic Law or anywhere else that Tsang or his successor will be voted in by the will of the people in 2012.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Halliburton takes its taxes out of Texas

On 11 March, the world’s second largest oil-field services company and largest US contractor operating in Iraq announced it will move its corporate headquarters from Houston to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. That company is Halliburton, whose former CEO Dick Cheney is now US Vice President.

The company has gained billions of dollars in US military contracts. Halliburton has a five-year, $16 billion contract with the US government reported a record $2.3 billion in profits in 2006. However it will now avoid paying a fortune in taxes by moving its headquarters from Texas to the Middle East. Energy analysts have calculated the company will save hundreds of million dollars in taxes.

Dave Lesar is Halliburton's chairman, president and chief executive officer and head of 45,000 employees in 70 countries. He made the announcement of the Dubai move at an energy conference in Bahrain. Lesar said the goal of the move was to focus on Eastern Hemisphere "oil exploration and production opportunities, and growing our business here will bring more balance to Halliburton's overall portfolio."

Lesar himself will relocate to Dubai as part of the move. Under his leadership Halliburton has become the top provider of logistical services in Iraq to the US army for transportation and food, but has attracted criticism for no-bid contracts and allegations it overcharged the government. But his shareholders are happy with his performance. In 2006 his salary was more than doubled to $26.6 million.

Through its subsidiary company KBR (Kellogg Brown Root), Halliburton had made an extraordinary $27 billion dollars out of the Iraq war to date. But now the army is threatening to dock up to $400 million for improperly using private security companies including North Carolina-based Blackwater USA. Army officials said private security companies were not allowed under Halliburton's main contract in Iraq – that was the military’s job. A 2004 enquiry into the death and mutilation of four Blackwater employees in Fallujah in 2004 concluded that layers of subcontracts in Iraq add to the Pentagon's costs and limit its oversight ability.

As well as its Iraqi problems, Halliburton is mired in other scandals and the company is being investigated in the US. Despite Senate Finance Committee making inquiries about a Halliburton subsidiary doing business in Iran in 2004, barely a year later it signed a new business deal to help develop the country’s natural gas fields. The deal was signed with an Iranian oil company whose principals include Sirus Naseri who is also Teheran’s chief negotiator for the country's nuclear enrichment program.

Halliburton was also in hot water for its African business dealings in 2004. The company made illegal payments to win a contract to build a natural gas process plant in Nigeria and paid $180 million in kickbacks to secure the deal. The gas plant is one of the largest in the world and was built by TSKJ, a consortium of four major international construction firms, including KBR.

The company was started by Erle P. Halliburton after World War I. He established the New Method Oil Well Cementing Company in Oklahoma in 1919. Around the same time brothers George and Herman Brown partnered with their brother-in-law Dan Root to found Brown & Root in Texas. Halliburton grew rapidly and had 201 offices in 21 countries by the time Erle died in 1957. Within five years Halliburton acquired Brown & Root following Herman Brown's death. At the time, Brown & Root was a road construction company, general contractor and had built the world's first offshore platform in 1947.

Vice President Dick Cheney was the company’s CEO from 1995 to 2000. Though he claimed he severed his ties with the company on becoming VP, he continued to receive compensation from the company. He also held options for Halliburton stock well into his vice presidency, refusing even to put his holdings into a blind trust, as wealthy political figures normally do to ensure there is no likelihood of conflict of interest. A 2003 report from the Congressional Research Service said his unexercised stock options and deferred salary fall within the definition of "retained ties" to his former company. That same year, Halliburton won its exclusive contract to supply the US army for the Iraq war.

Under Cheney’s watch in 1998, Halliburton paid $7.7 billion to take control of Dresser Industries, a major provider of integrated services and project management for the oil and gas industry. With the Dresser merger Halliburton also acquired M.W. Kellogg a technology creator and plant builder for petroleum refining and petrochemical processing. After the merger Halliburton’s revenues soared to $13 billion by 2001.

Critics say that the Dubai move will give Halliburton immunity from US legal scrutiny as UAE has no extradition treaty with the US. Democrats now plan to seek a congressional review of the decision, saying it is motivated by greed. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the move was "an example of corporate greed at its worst". "At the same time that they'll be avoiding US taxes, I'm sure they won't stop insisting on taking their profits in cold hard US cash," he said.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Planet of Slums

Some time this year a person will leave their farm or a village and settle in a city. Although wholly unremarkable in itself, it will be a significant statistical moment for humanity. It will mean for the first time ever the urban population of the world will outnumber the rural. It is possible it has already happened.

In 1972 the global thinktank Club of Rome predicted this would happen with its dystopian report The Limits to Growth. This report suggested the world would run out of key resources within 30 years. Although 35 years later technology and efficiency seemed to make a joke of its predictions, there is no doubting the rise of cities. In 1950 there were 86 cities in the world with a population greater than a million, today there are 400 and, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs by 2015 there will be at least 550. Cities will account for all future growth in the world’s population which is expected to peak at 10 billion in 2050.

95% of this growth will occur in developing countries. The Far Eastern Economic Review predicts that by 2025 Asia will have ten hypercities of 20 million or more. Some of these Chinese megalopolises may just be the first stage of a continuous urban corridor from stretching from Korea to Java. These new cities will lack clear urban/rural boundaries as they by-pass or surround smaller towns. American academic Mike Davis addresses these new structures and the problems they entail in his book Planet of Slums. Davis’s book is a Marxist perspective of everything that is wrong with the cities of the south. He examines the roots of urban poverty and concludes that policies of agricultural deregulation and the financial discipline of the IMF and World Bank generated an exodus of surplus rural labour into cities that no longer had the jobs to support them.

The UN performed the first global audit of urban poverty with its 2003 report The Challenge of Slums. It defined a slum as characterised by overcrowding, poor housing, inadequate access to water and sanitation, and insecurity of tenure. By this definition it estimated that one billion people worldwide are now living in the slums of the Global south. An astonishing 99% of the population of Ethiopia and Chad live in slums with Afghanistan (98%) and Nepal (92%) not far behind. Mumbai is the world’s largest concentration of slums with 12 million squatters followed by Mexico City and Dhaka with almost ten million each.

There are almost 200,000 slums on the planet most of which have sprung up since the 1960s. Most squat on publicly owned land, downwind of pollution, with high commuting costs to work and low infrastructure. In Cairo’s City of the Dead, a million people use Mameluke tombs as prefabricated housing. In Lima, the Catholic Church is the main slum landlord and the poor live in callejones full of dilapidated and unstable adobe huts where 85 people share a tap and 93 use the same latrine.

In Hong Kong, 250,000 people live illegally on rooftops and filled-in airwells in the centre of buildings. Many people live on the streets themselves. While 100,000 live in LA, the first world’s “capital of homelessness”, that number is dwarfed by the million that camp out on the streets of Mumbai.

The majority of the world’s slumdwellers have been forced out to the edge of cities. These “edges” have often become bigger than the cities they surround and these compounds are now called “peri-urban”. These urban fringes are regulatory vacuums and usually in the middle of polluting toxic and often illegal industry. Often they are site of waste dumps such as the aptly named Quarantina outside Beirut, Hillat Kusha (Khartoum) and the massive Dhapa dump near Kolkata.

All these slums are new developments. In colonial times, there were strict controls on movement of natives who were often denied urban land ownership and permanent residence. The British feared city life would destabilise locals and increase solidarity between tribes. Once Asian and African countries began to gain independence, a flood of poor was unleashed on the cities. Partition and war on the subcontinent created millions of refugees in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In Latin America, the overthrow of dictatorships created a window of opportunity for a land grab by squatters.

While Third World countries conceded defeat against the growing slums, the IMF and World Bank became increasingly influential in setting social policies. The World Bank increased its urban development lending from $10 million in 1972 to $2 billion in 1988. But most of their slum upgrading projects had little impact as they failed to address employment creation and public transport issues. These projects have also strengthened the hand of NGOs co-opted to provide services at the expense of local groups. In India, the UK-sponsored Indore sanitation scheme which won external awards was revealed as a sham. The city had new sewers but not enough drinking water nor any to flush waste. Sewage backed up into homes and streets spreading cholera and malaria.

Many countries have embraced the ideas of Hernando de Soto, a Peruvian businessman who has become the guru of neo-liberal populism. His main assertion is that the poor are suffering from a lack of property rights. He believes the poor are industrious and entrepreneurial but are hampered from expanding their “businesses” because they cannot access the capital in their own homes. He argued that titling would create massive equity which would create new jobs in slums. But while it is a good idea for some, titling accentuates social differences between those who can afford to pay the city taxes that come with property and those that cannot.

Meanwhile banks are still refusing to lend to newly titled poor. The titles themselves have attracted interest from absentee landlords, developers and politicians who have forced squatters off the land as soon as it becomes valuable. Soaring land values have forced squatters out of their dwellings into ever more peripheral areas, often into cleared hillsides which are prone to landslides and flooding. The poor are squashed into ever smaller areas. Half of Nairobi’s population lives on 18% of its land. In Dhaka, 70% live on just one fifth of the land. Many city administrations are locked in a war with their own poor. In the 1970s, Dakar authorities described the 70,000 people they forcibly removed from the centre of the city as “human encumberments”. Slumdwellers have often rioted against this type of treatment only to feel the full force of the police or military in response.

This mutual suspicion between authorities and the poor has lead to what Mike Davis called the “Haussmannisation of the tropics”. Baron Haussmann cleared the Parisian slums of the 1800s and created the Panopticon environment where potential rioters more easily be “watched” by authorities. Many cities in the South are now clearing vast areas where the poor live, mostly to make way for highways and luxury compounds. Shanghai forcibly relocated 1.5 million people in the 1990s to make way for skyscrapers, apartments and malls.

Beautification campaigns are another scourge of the poor. Under the Marcos regime, Manila cleared several shantytowns from parade routes for such events as Miss Universe, the IMF-World Bank meeting and the visit of President Ford. Altogether 160,000 people were moved out of the harm’s way of the world’s media and dumped 30kms outside the city. Seoul relocated 720,000 people for the 1988 Olympics and Beijing is on much the same warpath for 2008 expecting to move 350,000 people to make way for new stadia.

Many governments have justified slum clearance as a means of combating crime. Israel has often invoked old British and Ottoman statutes when evicting Palestinian families and blowing up homes of unfortunates it labels “terrorists”. Meanwhile poor sections of Harare and Bulawayo had the temerity to vote for the opposition MDC in Zimbabwe’s tarnished 20055 election and in revenge Mugabe launched Operation Murambasvina (“clean out the trash”). Its first phase was to arrest 17,000 street traders and bulldoze their shacks. In the second phase it targeted the remainder of the slum, expelling 700,000 people while arresting, beating or shooting anyone who resisted.

The reorganisation of urban space has created gated communities where the wealthy can live in isolation away from the “criminal elements” of the slums. Buenos Aires has privately built motorways that allow the rich to commute from their country clubs directly to their offices. Meanwhile a villa miseria outside the city is built over a former lake, a toxic dump and a cemetery in the middle of a flood zone. The shantytowns of Johannesburg and Belo Horizonte are sited on dangerous soil prone to slope failure or exposed to years of mining. Two thirds of Caracas’s population live on unstable hillsides or deep gorges in a geologically active zone. In 1999 rainfall debris from flash floods killed 32,000 and left 140,000 homeless and another 200,000 jobless.

As well as natural hazards, interaction with heavy industries, traffic and poor infrastructure have created new artificial hazards. An 1989 chemical explosion in Bangkok’s port slum of Klong Toey poisoned hundreds of residents and left thousands homeless, many of whom died of related illnesses. An 1984 petrol pipeline explosion in Sao Paolo burned 500 people to death in a neighbouring favela. A Pemex liquefied natural gas plant in Mexico City exploded atomically a few months later killing at least 2,000 people while they slept in their beds. Less than 3 weeks later, the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal released a cloud of methyl isocynate which killed 10,000 immediately and another 15,000 later due to skin cancers. Housing conditions in Bhopal slum areas including overcrowding, poor ventilation, and exposure to dust and smoke, exacerbate the ocular effects, causing irritation and infections.

But most people in slums die in less spectacular circumstances. Since colonial times, the native zones of African and Asian cities have had no proper sanitation. Postcolonial regimes have been unable to solve the problem. The megacity of Kinshasa in Congo has no waterborne sewage system for ten million people. A Nairobi slum has ten pit latrines for 40,000 people. Half of Mumbai’s population has no access to toilets. As a result, excrement is everywhere. The situation is worse for women whose needs to retain dignity and privacy means they have to wait until dark to defecate which exposes them to harassment and sexual assault.

Solutions from the IMF such as privatising the water supply have often led to the problems getting worse and forcing cities to charge for access to public toilets. These solutions are part of the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP) which the Bretton Woods institutions used against debt-ridden developing countries. Under the SAP, the claims of debtors took precedence over the needs of the poor. Uganda is a typical country which spends 12 times as much on debt relief as health care. During the Reagan administration, US aid was contingent on currency devaluation, privatisation and removal of import controls and food subsidies. Food producers were devastated by the elimination of subsidies in a global market dominated by heavily subsidised US and EU agribusiness.

SAP policies have turned a billion people into a global “informal working class”. This is the class that de Soto and others have a fervent belief can become proto-capitalists with the right help. But these people are either laid off from the jobs, working for someone else, exploited by employers, or mostly disempowered women and children. Perhaps most importantly they are not creating new divisions of labour but fragmenting existing work. As Kinshasan Thierry Mayamba Nlandu says in Planet of Slums “Kinshasa is a dead city…The informal sector is not a deus ex machine but a ‘soulless wasteland’”. But not quite. Kinshasans, like the slum dwellers across the planet hold on to the city “by its thousand survival cracks and stubbornly refuse to let go”.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Days are numbered for NEPAD

A summit of 15 African leaders in Algeria has given New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) a year to integrate into the African Union. Nigerian President and outgoing head of NEPAD implementation Olusegun Obasanjo said the transition period will last until June 2008 at which time NEPAD will merge into the AU. Many of NEPAD’s functions overlap with the AU and supporters hope the new merged entity will bring the get the most from the synthesis of two organisations.

NEPAD itself is a merger. It brings together two economic regeneration plans; South Africa’s Millennium Partnership for the African Recovery Programme (MAP) and Senegal’s OMEGA plan for Africa. These plans attacked infrastructure, education, health and agriculture issues for the continent. The idea arose from the general feeling that Africa was not matching the growth experienced by developing countries in Asia. And so NEPAD was launched in 2001 in Abuja, Nigeria, one year before the AU as a “Vision and Strategic Framework for Africa’s renewal”.

At the Abuja meeting, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the precursor to the AU, gave a mandate to five initiating Heads of State (Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa) to produce a NEPAD strategic framework document designed to combat escalating poverty levels, underdevelopment and Africa’s continued marginalisation on the world stage. Its primary objectives were to eradicate poverty, promote sustainable growth, integrate Africa into the global economy and promote empowerment for women.

However these grand ambitions have never quite been matched by the reality. Critics claimed that NEPAD was spending an enormous amount of time and money on conferences but had achieved few tangible results. Infrastructure projects were stalled or never started. Its problems included the implementation committee failing to clearly assign responsibility or demand performance, and the Secretariat not following an effective operating plan. Wiseman Nkuhlu, head of the Nepad Secretariat, countered that Nepad was failing because member countries were not implementing actions or taking ownership.

In the meantime its hegemony as the leading economic organisation for Africa was short-lived. In 2002 the OAU re-organised itself on the European model and rebadged itself as the African Union. While the OAU had set its purpose to rid Africa of colonialism and safeguard sovereignty, the AU’s goals were the accelerated socio-economic integration of the continent, safeguard the rights of women and children and promote peace, security and stability. Some of these goals overlapped with Nepad.

Thabo Mbeki is the leader most closely associated with Nepad. Mbeki formulated a concept of what he called African Renaissance which is a key driver of Nepad. Speaking in 2002 he said: "The challenge to end the economic marginalisation of Africa, and therefore to attract the necessary resources into our continent to ensure its development, stands at the heart both of the vision of an African Renaissance and Nepad.

Through this vision, Mbeki has helped negotiate peace deals to end the civil wars in Congo, Burundi, and Liberia. But his stony silence over Mugabe’s continued misrule in Zimbabwe is deafening. South Africa now holds the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council. Zimbabwe's economy is highly dependent on fuel and aid from Pretoria, but neither Mbeki nor many other African leaders have spoken out against him.

This failure has raised serious questions as to the credibility of Nepad. Its claim to support “a democratic Africa will become one of the pillars of world democracy, human rights and tolerance” looks completely hypocritical in the light of its inaction over Zimbabwe.

Its sublimation into the AU offers African leaders a way out of its charter it has no intention of meeting. Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was aware of this when he bemoaned the "unhonoured pledges" of Africa's partners in the implementation of NEPAD projects. The merger recommendations of the Algiers meeting will be submitted to the next African Union (AU) Summit scheduled to take place in Accra, capital of Ghana. The NEPAD Secretariat will continue to headquarter in Midrand, Johannesburg but will take direction from the AU Commission sits in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

ASX quivers after Shanghai sneeze

The Australia Securities Exchange (ASX) is still nervously recovering from the recent market plunge which created much congestion on its website. On February 28, the benchmark ASX 200 Index fell 161.3 points, which represents 2.7% of its total value, the market's biggest one-day fall in over five years. A record 359,084 trades took place on the day with $9.1 billion worth of shares changing hands.

The fall was caused by a collapse on the Shanghai market which was spooked by rumours that the Chinese government would introduce a capital gains tax and restrict foreign investment. Shanghai fell 9% as a result and these falls were replicated in Hong Kong, New York and across the world. It was the largest single Wall St fall since 9/11. Here in Australia $68 billion in value was wiped from the market with resource stocks most dependent on China's surging economy hit the hardest.

Stock markets worldwide have been jittery ever since China has dazzled the world in recent years with year-on-year economic growth of 10% and industry growth of 23%. This was reflected in the rise of the Shanghai bourse of 130% last year. But many felt that a correction was inevitable. ABN Amro’s chief economist Michael Knox believed that much of Shanghai’s rise is funded by debt and margin lending. He warned “the stockmarket is a place of risk and people had fallen asleep about that sense of risk and now they've had quite a shock awakening.”

But barely three weeks later Shanghai has recouped all its losses. Yesterday the Shanghai composite index rose 25.19 points to close at 3,057.38, an all-time high. Many investors are now saying the huge sell off last month was merely a temporary setback in a galloping bull market. The Chinese equity market is not in the same league at its rampant economy and is only the fifth largest in the world. Cao Zitao, an analyst at Guotai Junan Securities in Shanghai likes the look of the market in the long run. "Since the economy is doing well, there's no doubt the stock market will continue to grow over the next year or two,” he said.

This is good news for the Australian exchange which signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 2002/2003 with China’s two biggest exchanges at Shanghai and Shenzen. Under the MOU, the bourses agreed to co-operate in exchange programs, keep each other informed of major policy changes in the markets, host secondment of personnel and exchange information about each other’s markets.

It is one of many international agreements the ASX is now involved in. The exchange is affiliated to three world governing bodies. Firstly, it is a member of the World Federation of Exchanges (WFE) which contains 54 of the world’s largest exchanges. Its stated purpose is to “facilitate the representation, development of organized and regulated markets, and to meet the needs of evolving capital markets in the best interest of their users”. According to its statistics, the ASX had a domestic market capitalisation of about $US0.8 trillion in 2005 which makes it the 11th largest exchange in the world.

The ASX also belongs to the Asian and Oceanian Stock Exchanges Federation (AOSEF) which contains the bourses of Australia, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Korea, Malaysia, India, Shanghai, New Zealand, Osaka, Philippines, Thailand and Tokyo. The ASX has 2,100 listed companies – only Tokyo has more and Australia has twice as many as the next biggest, the Hang Seng. But the Hong Kong market is still $US 1 billion bigger overall.

The third organisation is IOSCO – the International Organisation of Securities Commissions which is the international standard setting body. It regulates the markets, promotes the exchange of information, establishes standards and provides mutual assistance to promote market integrity.

Market integrity is a strong point for the ASX which was formed in 1987 by legislation. It was formed by an amalgamation of six independent stock exchanges that formerly operated in the state capital cities. Each of those exchanges had a history of share trading dating back to the 19th century.

The modern ASX is reliant on its web presence which is one of Australia’s most popular financial websites with an average of 24 million page impressions per month. It is a hugely dense multi-purpose environment which provides investors with a wealth of market information including 20-minute delayed prices, company announcements in real-time, and a wide range of education classes and simulations.

According to ASX's 2006 annual report, listed company announcements are available on the website within minutes of release and are a key source of information for investors. But it remains to be tested on a severe runoff despite upgrading its integrated trading system last year. It now has the capacity to handle a million trades a day but remains vulnerable to another market meltdown.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Race to the Finnish

Incumbent Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen is expected to retain power after last weekend’s election in Finland. Vanhanen's Centre Party took top spot in the parliamentary elections with 23.1% of votes, followed closely by the rightist National Coalition Party (NCP) with 22.3% and the leftist Social Democrats with 21.4%.

The NCP is the big mover, up almost 4% and ten seats since the last election in 2003. Between them, the Centre Party and the NCP hold 101 of the parliaments 200 seats which would them a wafer-thin majority were they to form a coalition. But negotiations for the formation of a government will take a while as horse-trading between the prospective partners begins in earnest.

The main loser in the election is the Social Democrats who lost 90,000 votes and eight seats. The result will most likely see a centre-right coalition which means the Social Democrats will be excluded from government for the first time since 1995. The defeat is a body blow for the party that has supplied Finland’s previous two presidents Mauno Koivisto and Martti Ahtisaari who is now the UN’s chief negotiator in the Kosovo peace talks.

While the Social Democrats have dominated the ceremonial role of president, the Centre Party has locked in the more influential role of Prime Minister in recent times. The incumbent, Vanhanen, has been in the role since 2003. Matti Vanhanen was born in 1955 in the central Finnish city of Jyväskylä. His father Tatu was a professor of political science at the University of Tampere who co-authored the controversial book “IQ and the Wealth of Nations” which argued that differences in national income correlate with differences in average national IQ. Matti is also educated in political science but moved into politics rather than education.

Vanhanen was elected to parliament in 1991 and used his interest in ecological issues to gain places in influential committees on the environment. He was appointed defence minister in early 2003 during the brief reign of Finland’s only ever female PM Anneli Jäätteenmäki. Although she narrowly won the election that year, Jäätteenmäki was forced to resign shortly afterwards after a scandal over leaked documents and lying to parliament. She breached the official secrets act by leaking details about a meeting between George Bush and the former Social democrat Prime Minister which suggested Finland might weaken its neutral position in the Iraqi war.

Vanhanen was immediately appointed the new Prime Minister. Although a novice in the cabinet, he was chosen to fill the role precisely because he was a cleanskin with a low profile and no association with Jäätteenmäki. Although apparently an unwilling Prime Minister Vanhanen made a strong impact by lowering the highest tax rates, cutting back on licensed drinking hours (he is teetotal) and encouraging Finns to have more children. His public profile was greatly enhanced by Finland’s presidency of the EU in the second half of 2006.

Finland’s economy is booming and the country ranks high in international surveys on competitiveness. Vanhanen’s government has brought down Finland’s high unemployment rate to 7.6%. The country of 5.3 million has made a strong recovery since the severe recession of the early 1990s mainly due to the cessation of trade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Finland joined the EU in 1995 and successfully joined the euro currency zone in 2002.

Finland depends on the success of its dominant company. The country is the home of the telecommunications giant Nokia, the world’s largest manufacturer of mobile phones with 36% market share. Founded as a paper mill company in the small town of Nokia, its success dates back to the mid 1970s when it became a shareholder in Televa, a government-controlled company that developed digital telephone exchanges. Finland began deregulating its market and modernising its telecommunications networks with new digital technology at an early stage. The payback was quick. Nokia now accounts for half of the market capitalisation of the Helsinki Stock Exchange. The company continues to grow and in 2006 achieved net sales of 41 billion euros, 20% up on 2005.

As well as sorting out his political allies, Matti Vanhanen will rely on Nokia to continue this phenomenal growth to underpin Finland’s success globally.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Four More Years?

George Bush has called for “patience” with US policy on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraqi War. The President’s speech was directed primarily at the Democrats who are pushing a war spending bill in the House which would require US troops to leave Iraq by 1 September 2008. Bush has promised to veto the bill because it contains a timeline.

Such a move is unlikely to be required as the bill has little chance of passing the Senate. Bush is trying to stop the bill in the House to avoid the embarrassment of a conflicting message coming from a US legislature and what message that might send to the world. The White House said the bill "would place freedom and democracy in Iraq at grave risk" and "embolden our enemies." The vote is for a $124 billion spending bill, $95.5 billion of which is targeted for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The remaining $29.5 billion are an effort to lure votes with lawmakers' pet projects which range from the reconstruction of New Orleans levees to the building of peanut storehouses in Georgia.

The extra cash is a bribe for Republicans to promote agriculture and drought relief, children's health care and Gulf Coast hurricane recovery. Meanwhile the activist group have thrown their weight behind the bill and claimed that 85% of its 3 million members back the bill. This is a boost for Democrats worried that the liberal wing of the party were unhappy about supporting the 2008 date and wanted to see a full withdrawal this year.

But the US will have to contemplate exit from Iraq sooner or later. The Bush strategy has always been to castigate his opponents for their “cut and run” tactics. According to this argument, the Democrats are incapable of fighting the so-called “War on Terror” and that any early withdrawal will be a victory for terrorism in Iraq. Bush backs this up by his quotation from the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate which posits the notion that if would-be terrorists are seen to be successful in Iraq, it will inspire more fighters to continue elsewhere.

But this remains an untested and controversial notion. In Iraq, people have grown tired of the occupation and its accompanying hassles. Four years on, a growing percentage of the Iraqi people are annoyed at US failure to provide stability or basics like electricity and water. They also hate the constant litany of explosions, gunfire and warfare. There are also the smaller daily annoyances: waiting hours in traffic due to checkpoints and road closures, searches and having weapons pointed at them by suspicious soldiers.

Meanwhile the body count continues to rise. According to Iraq Body Count the war has so far claimed the lives of somewhere between 59,000 and 65,000 Iraqis. Some 3,200 members of the US military have been killed since the war began, 2,600 of those in combat. The estimate of US wounded is somewhere between 23,000 and 100,000. 257 troops have died from the other Coalition countries.

The controversial 2006 study by the esteemed British medical magazine Lancet claimed the Iraqi figures were grossly underestimated and had reached 655,000 deaths by October 2006. According to their data, 56% of these deaths were from gunshot wounds, with a further 13% from car bomb injuries and 14% the result of other explosions. Lancet editor Richard Horton said the new study "corroborates the impression that Iraq is descending into bloodthirsty chaos".

Out of that chaos has come the biggest threat to US rule: the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Mahdi army of a few thousand existed during Saddam’s reign but have gained new power and kudos among the Shiites since resuming the fight against the American-led coalition. They gained access to unguarded Iraqi ammunition dumps in the immediate fall of the Hussein regime from which they acquired light weapons, submachine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Al-Sadr's militias control much of Baghdad including Sadr City. They have now heavily infiltrated the Iraqi police and army units that have been trained and armed by the US. 1st Lt. Dan Quinn, a platoon leader in the Army's 1st Infantry Division has pointed out the problem "Half of them are [Mahdi]” he said. “They'll wave at us during the day and shoot at us during the night”.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Egypt turns its back on democracy

Almost a quarter of Egypt’s parliament has walked out in protest over constitutional amendments proposed by President Mubarak. Yesterday the parliament voted in principle to approve 34 articles of the constitution, as well as the drafting of a new anti-terrorism law. The change will ban the establishment of religious parties, allow the adoption of a new election law and do away with the need for judicial supervision of every ballot box. Egypt's opposition has denounced the changes as "opening the way to a police state".

The changes will now go before the legislature this week where Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has a large enough majority to pass the 34 amendments. But Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa program, made a statement on Saturday which condemned the proposal saying it will "enrich the long-standing system of abuse under Egypt's state of emergency powers and give the misuse of those powers a bogus legitimacy." The proposed amendments will weaken the role of judges in monitoring elections and give police greater powers of arrest and open authority to monitor private communications.

The laws are aimed at curbing the power of the leaders of the boycott and the main opposition movement in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood. It was established in 1928 as an Islamist movement under British colonial rule. It was founded by a schoolteacher named Hassan Al-Banna to promote social renewal based on an Islamic ethos of altruism and civic duty. Though initially focused on its educational and charitable work, the Muslim Brotherhood soon quickly grew to become a major political force. Despite calls for the violent overthrow of the regime by more extremist members, the Brotherhood has bee dominated by reformists who want to work within the system. As a result, the movement has been tolerated to an extent, but remains illegal and is subjected to periodic crackdowns. In the most recent elections in 2005, the Brotherhood's candidates stood as independents. Despite arrests and harassment they won a fifth of the seats (88 in all) to become the largest opposition group.

Eleven members of the Brotherhood were arrested in the leadup to the vote. 47 members in all have been arrested since they announced they would boycott the vote on the change to the constitutional laws. According to Hazem Farouk, a Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian, the latest arrests occurred on Friday when the men were distributing medical supplies in Cairo. Farouk said police were ignoring an order from a public prosecutor to release them. "We are suffering from discrimination because of our beliefs and political thinking," he said.

The move is the latest in a long line of blows to democracy in Egypt. Last week an Egyptian court upheld a verdict sentencing a blogger to 4 years in prison on charges of insulting Islam and the president. An Alexandrian appeals court approved the verdict issued last month against 22-year-old Abdul Karim Nabil Amer, who was convicted on charges of "ridiculing Islam and insulting" Mubarak in his "Karim Amer" blog. Amer had criticised Mubarak's regime, saying it was a "symbol of dictatorship."

Dictatorship or not, Mubarak’s longterm regime has been buffered by the US who are unwilling to challenge an ally despite its unwillingness to share power. The US is not keen to see the Islamist Brotherhood gain influence. In the 2005 elections independent monitors complained of "a systematic and planned campaign" to block opposition voters from casting ballots in which 14 people were killed and hundreds arrested. But the US defended the election result with a State Department spokesman saying they had "not received, at this point, any indication that the Egyptian government isn't interested in having peaceful, free and fair elections."

Hosni Mubarak has now been in power for 26 years. Mubarak emerged from the Egyptian Air Force where he was commander in chief after serving as Head of the Air Force Academy and the Chief of Staff. Vice president from 1975, he assumed leadership of Egypt after Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. He has since been re-elected in 1987, 1993, 1999 and again in 2005 and has survived at least six assassination attempts. Now 77 years old, Mubarak still rules the country with an iron fist and has abolished the vice presidency since taking control.

Mubarak has been conspicuously silent on his preferences for succession but there are strong rumours he is grooming his younger son Gamal to take over. Gamal himself has said the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood was having "negative repercussions on the electoral and political process." The Brotherhood is unlikely to support another Mubarak pharaoh. The question is will the new laws prevent them from doing anything about it. The further Egypt retreats from democracy, the closer an Islamic Revolution becomes likely. The US protection of the Mubarak regime may yet come back to haunt it.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Beannacht Lá Fhéile Pádraig

Three generations of Woolly Days' Irish family attended yesterday’s St Patrick’s Day parade in Brisbane. Upwards of 600 marchers, 40 floats, and eight marching bands took to the streets of central Brisbane on a sunny morning in front of crowds of tens of thousands to celebrate all things Irish. The parade started at the corner of George and Elizabeth Streets. It moved into Edward then Alice Street before ending in the City Botanical Gardens. The Brisbane parade was one of hundreds worldwide.

The day celebrates St Patrick, a Welsh, Scot, or perhaps Frenchman who brought Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century. These days, many scholars subscribe to the Two Patricks Theory. The Scot’s life is preserved in five manuscripts: one in the 7th century Book of Armagh, one in the 10th century Cotton Library; a third in the French monastery of St. Vedastus, and two more in the Cathedral Library of Salisbury.

The Welsh version of St Patrick was born Maewyn Succat. Maewyn was born to an Anglo-Roman family in 415 AD. When he was 16 years of age he was captured by an Irish pagan warlord, Niall of the Nine Hostages, who kept him in slavery until he escaped to France. Maewyn went on to become a priest, changing his name to Patricius, or Patrick, which derives from the Latin for father-figure. He back to Ireland to preach Christianity to his former captors.

The Scottish Patrick has many similarities to the Welsh one. He was born in 373 in Roman Britain on a town on the River Clyde. Aged 16, he was captured by pirates who sold him off to a chieftain in Northern Ireland. According to tradition he found Christianity during his time in slavery. Though he escaped after six years, he returned to Ireland in his thirties around the year 405. Patrick’s mission was difficult; the power of the Irish druids was strong. But his gift of oratory was strong, and like Jesus, Patrick was a great teller of parables. In the next 60 years he travelled the length and breadth of the country preaching and baptising new followers. He is said to be buried under the Cathedral in Downpatrick co. Down.

The French Patrick was Palladius. By 431, the number of Christians in Ireland was high enough to warrant the appointment of a bishop. Pope Celestine chose the Deacon Palladius to be the first Irish bishop. He arrived in Leinster where he met immediate opposition in the shape of the local chief Nathi Mac Garchon. But like Patrick he overcame most hostility to build churches and complete the Christianisation of Ireland. It is not known whether Palladius and Patrick ever met (assuming they were two separate entities) but it seems unlikely that these two early proselyters would not have crossed paths at some time.

The first St. Patrick's Day parade took place not in Ireland, but across the Atlantic. Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through then colonial New York City on 17 March, 1762. Their march and their music helped the soldiers to reconnect with their Irish roots. Irish societies began to flourish in the newly independent US. These mostly Protestant societies competed with each other to hold parades. Irish Catholics arrived in greater numbers after the 1840s potato famine decimated the country. The annual parade became a show of strength for the new arrivals in their efforts to overcome sectarian hatreds.

The New York parade remains the worlds largest. The parade has been dogged by controversy in recent years due to its attitude towards gay marchers in the parade. The parade is organised by the secretive Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). The AOH is a Catholic organisation which follows Catholic teaching in its opposition towards homosexual practices. That means gays are banned from marching. Despite gay outrage, the AOH won a court case in 1990s to maintain the right ban whoever they want from the parade.

Now the firefighters are also in the AOH bad books. The FDNY has been relegated from its usual position at the front of the 150,000 strong parade. The dispute started last year when the parade start time was delayed 35 minutes while New Orleans firefighters unfurled a banner thanking New York for Hurricane Katrina aid. The slowdown infuriated organisers who believed the firefighters were becoming a law unto themselves. John Dunleavy, president of the parade's organising committee also complained firefighters show up drunk for the parade and then continue drinking all day while in uniform.

But St Patrick’s Day and excessive drinking have long been intimate bedfellows. One newspaper described the scene on St Patrick’s Day 1847 “drunkenness, riot and disorder prevailed to an extent which was frightful to contemplate”. The day got so out of control that activist groups were set up to combat the link between the day and excessive alcohol consumption. They wanted to change St Patrick’s Day from a noisy fair day to a “puritan Sunday”. In 1924 they succeeded when the newly independent Irish Free State decreed that all public houses were to close on the national holiday. The laws were not reversed until the early 1960s.

Yesterday Irish were celebrating and commiserating contrasting sport fortunes in equal measure. Ireland is not renowned for its cricketing prowess but they celebrated this St Patrick’s Day with one of the sport’s greatest ever upsets with a three wicket win over Pakistan in Jamaica. The stunning result send the 4th ranked side out of the world cup and leaves the novice minnows Ireland on the verge of qualifying for the Super 8 phase of the tournament. But the nation’s rugby players couldn’t quite share in the Paddy’s Day celebrations, agonisingly losing the 6 Nations despite beating Italy 51-24. France won the tournament on points difference thanks to a last minute try against Scotland.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Australia lays out the unwelcome mat

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews has turned down the asylum request of a group of 82 Sri Lankan men and instead sent them to Nauru. An 83rd man remains in hospital in Perth, but is likely to follow the others. The minister said yesterday the move was part of the government's policy to prevent any unauthorised landings on Australian soil. Andrews said the government was committed to “sending the strongest possible message of deterrence to people who would engage in the dangerous and unlawful activity of people smuggling”.

The men were on a boat which originated in Indonesia last month when it was intercepted by the Australian navy in international waters. The Australian Government tried to convince Indonesia to take them back on the condition they not be returned to Sri Lanka. But both Sri Lanka and Indonesia indicated if the boatpeople were sent to Indonesia, they'd be immediately deported back to Sri Lanka, an option Australia ruled out. The men are all Tamils fleeing from the civil war with the ruling Sinhalese. The asylum seekers reputedly paid people smugglers upwards of $US 5,000 each to make the boat journey.

After the boat was intercepted, the Australian navy took the group to a detention centre on Christmas Island. The choice of Christmas Island was deliberate. In 2001, the Australian government redefined Australia’s borders and excised 4,000 of its offshore islands such as Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and Cocos (Keeling) island. The effect was to deny “unauthorised persons” the right to apply for an Australian visa unless the Immigration Minister exercises discretionary power.

In addition, Australia implemented its so-called ‘Pacific Solution’. Australia co-opted the impoverished tiny nation of Nauru to keep the refugees in detention beyond the access of the Australian legal system. The detention facility there was first ramped up after Nauru took in the refugees from the Norwegian MV Tampa in September 2001. Then a month later the Australian government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Papua New Guinea, to build a refugee processing centre on the remote island of Manus in return for an initial aid package worth AUS $1 million. While the Manus centre remained mostly empty, Australia paid Nauru $20 million to take in over a thousand refugees.

Of an initial group of 1,200 Nauru detainees, 480 were resettled in Australia and another 300 were resettled in New Zealand. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Australia expressed concerns asylum seekers' claims would be processed without the safeguards of Australia's on-shore procedures. The UNHCR said only about 4 per cent of those processed on Nauru and Manus had been accepted by countries including Canada, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. "In our experience they largely only took those cases that already had family links in their respective territories," a UNHCR spokeswoman said. More than 50 asylum seekers spent more than 3½ years on Nauru. Twenty five were resettled in Australia in 2005 after a mental health team warned that several were suicidal.

NGOs such as the UNHCR and Amnesty have claimed that Australia is contravening its international obligations by refusing asylum seekers access to the refugee determination system. UNHCR are particularly concerned by Australia’s latest stated intentions to remove those who land on the Australian mainland – who should normally fall under the migration act and have their claims processed in Australia – and instead take them offshore for further assessment of their claims. This could leave Australia in breach of its requirements under the 1951 Refugee Convention which provides refugees access to a full and fair assessment with no possibility of refoulement.

Taking refugees to Nauru leaves Australia open to the refoulement charge. The cost is also questionable. NSW Greens Senator Kerry Nettles challenged the Government to reveal how much it would cost taxpayers to move the Sri Lankans to Nauru. Nettles quoted Departmental figures that showed the cost of keeping asylum seekers on Nauru was $30 million per year in 2003-04 when the Nauru camp last had a significant number of detainees. If the Sri Lankans are held there for two years it will cost Australian taxpayers at least $60 million, not to mention the long-term health implications to the 83 men.

Meanwhile, the two Indonesian crew members who piloted their boat did make it ashore to mainland Australia. They faced trial in Perth Magistrates' Court on Tuesday charged with people smuggling. ABC’s chief political correspondent Chris Ullman believes that based on similar cases in the past the two men “could face some very long jail sentences”.