Sunday, January 31, 2010

APT6 at Brisbane GOMA

I took in the APT6 at the Gallery of Modern Art on a whistlestop visit to Brisbane this weekend. APT6 is shorthand for the sixth Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art and having been greatly impressed by the last three triennial incarnations (in my ten years or so living in Brisbane), I was looking forward to seeing the latest version. I was not alone in my excitement. The exhibition has attracted 200,000 visitors in the opening six weeks since it began on 5 December.

This level of patronage is not unprecedented. 1.3 million have visited the six exhibitions but numbers really took off with APT5 in 2006 when it moved into the gleaming new GOMA building on Kurilpa Point. First established in 1993, the APT is the Queensland Art Gallery’s flagship international contemporary art event. It is the only major series of exhibitions in the world to focus exclusively on the contemporary art of Asia, the Pacific and Australia.

The 2009 exhibition shows the work of over 100 artists from 25 countries, including a number of artists and artist collaborations never seen in Australia including works by artists from Tibet, North Korea, Turkey, Iran, Cambodia and Burma. According to Queensland Art Gallery director Tony Ellwood, APT6 looks at a number of thematic links, including “the dynamism of collaboration, the power of popular culture to articulate perspectives on contemporary life, the impact of rapid social change on local communities and cultures, and the practice of drawing”. The exhibition continues until 5 April 2010.

Here are some of my favourites from this year's collection.

I was expecting the North Korean art to be showy in a Stalinist way and while they do promote Dear Leader's Juche they are surprisingly touching and endearing. The work from the Mansudae art studio display a heart and affection for their subjects I simply wasn't expecting.

Chen Qiulin's enormous installation is a poignant reminder of what rural life along the Yangtze River was like before Three Gorges Dam hydro-electric project flooded the entire region. If the house is the ghost of Three Gorges past, his video Garden 2007 is a equally fascinating walk through the towns that now exist in the area.

The Funky Buddhas is a work by London-based Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatso. This work is supposedly for the kids as you get the chance to place colourful stickers all over the buddhas. But although there were no stickers available to put on the Buddhas when I was there, I still enjoyed the humour of the piece and its fantastic location looking out to the new Kurilpa footbridge.

Ah yes, the elk. Impossible to walk past and deservedly gets a room all to itself. The 2.5m taxidermied elk, or to be precise Pixcell Elk#2 is by Japanese sculptor Kohei Nawa. It is covered in glass, acrylic and crystal baubles of varying sizes which magnify and distort the object’s form in different parts to various degrees.

Called "People Holding Flowers" this installation by Zhu Weibing and Ji Wenyu is the signature piece for APT6. The work is made of synthetic polymer paint on resin; velour, steel wire, dacron, lodestone and cotton. There are 400 figures all holding flowers in a deliberate memory of Mao's short-lived 1950s mantra of "let a hundred flowers bloom". An overwhelming response to the Hundred Flowers Campaign led to serious crackdowns on dissent. Arguably nothing much has changed in 50 years in China.

I loved Rudi Mantofani's collection of unplayable guitars. Mantofani is an Indonesian sculptor and painter whose work transforms ordinary objects into strange or absurd "visual parables". Mantofani's guitar sculptures were inspired by a benefit concert he saw in New York. He said, the gap between American philanthropic rhetoric and the harsh effects of its foreign policies in the Muslim world led him to "create a series of distorted guitars, as a means to express such ethical contradictions." I'm not sure I saw those contradictions in the works but I couldn't help loving the guitars.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sebastian Pinera leads Chile's loaded tilt to the right

Chile’s new billionaire leader has just gotten substantially wealthier after the value of shares soared in the wake of his election victory. Sebastian Pinera won the country’s run-off election last weekend and since then his 25 percent shareholding in Chile’s LAN Airlines SA have increased in value by two fifths giving the company a value of over $1.5 billion. Stock market officials halted trade and triggered an automatic investigation which happens whenever share prices increases by more than 20 per cent in one day's trading. Pinera refused calls to sell the shares before the election.

Outgoing president Michelle Bachelet, who was constitutionally barred from seeking re-election, had raised conflict-of-interest questions over Pinera's LAN stake during the presidential campaign. He did however promise he would divest the shares after the election and he reaffirmed that promise last week. He has also set up a blind trust to manage $500m of his fortune including ownership of the country's four television networks and Chile’s biggest football club Colo-Colo.

The obvious comparison for Pinera is with Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi. Both are right-wing wealthy businessmen who won their countries' elections with the help of their media empires and soccer teams. However Andres Oppenheimer says the comparisons are facile and notes five significant differences. Pinera has a PhD and taught economics at Harvard, he has been a senator for 20 years, his business record is free from scandal, he is a family man married for 36 years and he may be less of a right-winger than many think. Oppenheimer said Pinera opposed Pinochet in the 1980s (though others dispute this) and is liberal on social issues.

But there is no doubting his huge war chest helped him win the election. By last week’s runoff election with former president Eduardo Frei, Pinera had spent at least $13.6 million on the campaign. His victory marked a political shift as candidates of the governing Concertacion coalition had won all four presidential elections since 1989 on pledges of eradicating all traces of Pinochet’s leadership. Although 73 percent of Chileans still despise the former dictator, Pinera won because the coalition was split between two presidential candidates.

In the first vote on 13 December, Pinera took 44 percent of the vote with Frei second on 29 percent. Frei might have expected to pick up the remaining left-wing vote in the second ballot. After all, Concertacion had succeeded in reducing Chile’s poverty rate from over 40 percent to approximately 15 percent, while boasting the region’s most impressive growth rate since 1990. Former president Bachelet left office with an approval rate of over 80 percent. Yet Frei could not galvanise that support and his campaign slogan of “a vote for Pinera is a vote for Pinochet” fell flat. Frei did succeed in closing the gap as the run-off date came closer. But when Chile’s voters went to the polls on 17 January just enough of them decided they wanted to see change. Pinera won by 52 percent to 48.

There is at least one leftwing leader in the region who is unperturbed by Pinera’s win. Bolivian president Evo Morales, who himself was recently re-elected president (after changing the country’s constitution to allow him to stand), saluted the new Chilean leader and said he hopes he can continue the improvement in Bolivian-Chilean relations. Morales said he hoped Pinera will continue the bi-national dialogue started by “compañera” Michelle Bachelet. Relations between the two nations has been historically frosty since Chile won the War of the Pacific against Peru and Bolivia in the late 1800s, taking control of nitrate and mineral-rich lands and forcing Bolivia to lose its access to the Pacific Ocean. Bachelet was the first Chilean leader willing to discuss the issue with Bolivia and Morales hopes Pinera will continue the dialogue.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fatma Riahi on frontline of Tunisia's war on bloggers and journalists

Blogger Fatma Arabicca has resumed blogging two months after authorities arrested her but the blog remains censored. Fatma joins another high profile Tunisian blogger journalist Sofiene Chourabi on the censorship list in recent times. Fatma’s original blog was deleted in November just before she attracted the unwelcome notice of authorities but a new version (in Arabic) has been posting since 17 January.

Arabicca is the nom de blog of college theatre professor, Fatma Riahi. On 2 November, the 34-year-old Riahi was summoned to appear before a Tunis criminal court where she was questioned about her online activities. The authorities wanted to know whether Riahi was hiding behind the pen-name of Blog de Z, a Tunisian cartoonist blogger whose political satire enraged the government. They released her and summoned her again the next day. Three security officers escorted her to her house in Monastir 160 km from Tunis, to confiscate her PC and conduct a search for evidence. A day later, they escorted her again to Monastir to get her passwords and access her facebook account.

Riahi was detained for a week and denied permission to speak to her lawyer for longing than a few minutes. She was charged with criminal libel that potentially carries a prison term to up to three years in prison. A Free Arabicca campaign blog was been launched by fellow Tunisian bloggers in support for Fatma (though it hasn’t posted since mid November), and there is also a Facebook support page.

While it is not clear what Riahi’s perceived offence was, it didn’t need to be much to rile the sensitive Tunisian government. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's government is one of the most repressive in the world as regards Internet usage. Social networking sites such as YouTube and Facebook are often blocked because of content criticising the president's policies and the government also filters emails of human rights activists. The 2008 Reporters Without Borders freedom of the press index ranked Tunisia 143rd out of 173 countries. When the Journaliste Tunisien blog posted the index a day after it was issued, it was blocked by authorities.

Just last week the Committee to Protect Journalists reported an appeals court in Nabeul refused to release Tunisian journalist Zuhair Makhlouf despite his completion of a three-month prison term imposed in October. Makhlouf is a contributor to news Web site Assabil Online and the opposition weekly Al-Mawkif. He was sentenced in October on the charge of “harming and disturbing others through the public communication network.” The sentence ended on January 18 but Tunisian penal code provisions say a prisoner cannot be released before all appeals have been considered. The court designated February 3 as the date for Makhlouf’s initial appeals hearing.

The decision came days before an appeal hearing for Taoufik Ben Brik, a journalist sentenced to six months in prison. Last year Reporters Without Borders (RSF) criticised the detention of Ben Brik and a violent attack on another journalist. In October 2009 Ben Brik was detained on a trumped-up charge of harassing a woman on the street. Reporters Without Borders said the arrest was an effort to muzzle him for his fierce criticism of President Ben Ali. Around the same time, independent journalist Slim Boukhdhir was attacked by a group of men just hours after he gave a critical interview to the BBC. RSF said the behaviour was “befitting of a mafia regime."

The regime is showing no signs of changing its hostile attitude to journalists. Ben Ali has ruled Tunisia since taking over in a bloodless coup in 1987. In 2009 Ben Ali was re-elected for a fifth term with 89 percent of the vote in a rigged election. Although he promised to promote media diversity in 2004, the regime retains a tight control of news and information. According to the RSF, journalists and human rights activists are the target of bureaucratic harassment, police violence and constant surveillance by the intelligence services. The Internet is strictly controlled and foreign journalists are not allowed anywhere without the presence of government officials. But despite a total lack of regard for democratic institutions, RSF says Ben Ali is treated very leniently by international organisation all because he is “an ally of the west in its fight against terrorism.” No one seems to care about the terrorism he inflicts on his own subjects.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Dominican Republic anxious to show difference to Haiti

Haiti’s neighbour on the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic has said its country was undamaged in last week’s massive earthquake and the country is available to offer support to the relief effort “in any way necessary”. A statement released by Ministry of Tourism said “the DR is making available its medical facilities for earthquake victims and is providing international relief organizations access to Haiti through the airport and seaports.” The statement also said the Republic’s transportation systems, communications systems, hotels, resorts, beaches and natural environment suffered no damage, a message designed to tell the world not to cancel its holiday bookings. (photo: Getty Images)

The statement also said the nation’s eight airports were open and receiving flights. However, the New York Times says the relief effort is using three key airports and a roadway in the Dominican Republic’s southern region to ferry supplies through mostly rural areas not frequented by visitors. Millions of Dominicans have donated time, money, supplies and expertise to help Haiti. But crossing the border is not the easiest of tasks.

The border crossing between Haiti and Dominican Republic is supposed to be open between 8am and 6pm. But as this intrepid traveller found in 2007, the reality is somewhat different. “An immigration official passed by and informed us that things opened at 9. By 9:30 more people had congregated, including immigration officials. The immigration people would ask us what we needed but when we would tell them…they just nodded and continued to eat their breakfast outside the locked office. Around 11, two hours after they were supposed to open, the windows opened the process began.” Even then it was a “shoving game” until “lots of stressful Spanish, shoving, yelling, and swatting bugs” got them over the border.

The blog writer also spoke about the trust involved in handing over a passport. This will not always work out for the best as a Trinidadian journalist has just found out. Dale Enoch is now stranded in the Dominican Republic after losing his passport at the border. Enoch came to the island to cover the earthquake for a Trinidad radio station and handed his passport at the border on his way to Haiti by bus. However he was unable to get his passport back when he returned and the bus company refused to take responsibility. “It appears that there is a passport racket going on,” Enoch said. “Once your passport has a US visa in it, it is attractive.”

But despite the corruption, the Dominican Republic is like another world compared to its impoverished neighbour. Michael Den Tandt of the Toronto Sun was also at the border and he noticed a great difference between the two countries. “On the Dominican side there’s grass, palm trees. There are well-paved highways, street signs and telephone poles. There are neat, small but well-kept and painted homes, with tidy yards,” he said. Compare that to Haiti with its “partly flooded gravel track, an impossible tangle of dilapidated little trucks, [and] teeming crowds desperate to get out.”

The Dominican Republic has now established a humanitarian corridor along the route between the two capitals of Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince. Haitian President Rene Preval accepted a proposal from the Dominican Republic for 150 Dominican military troops to patrol the corridor in cooperation with a contingent of Peruvian troops from the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti. But DR’s foreign minister was forced to deny that Preval had turned down an earlier offer of 800 troops and they had to reach a compromise for a much smaller number. “When you are helping a friend and neighbour, there is no need to negotiate,” he said. “There were no negotiations and no rejection (from Haiti).”

And while relations between the two nations haven’t always been the most cordial, there is little doubt that Santo Domingo has played a crucial role in the earthquake relief effort. Many Haitians have been crossing the border into Jimani for medical attention almost overwhelming the local hospital which is lavish compared to the facilities back in Haiti. The hospital usually has about 30 hospital beds, but over the past week, there have been as many as 150 patients per day. But it is coping thanks to overseas relief and the better quality of DR health care compared to Haiti. As Tallahassee’s noted, the Dominican Republic also suffered a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in September 2003. But only one person died, which was the result of a trauma induced heart attack. “The difference in death tolls between that quake and Haiti's come down to two factors,” said “It was in the middle of the night, and the buildings in the Dominican Republic have a higher code of infrastructure.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

GFC provides temporary relief from rising greenhouse emissions

A new report shows the Global Financial Crisis has had a small dampening affect on greenhouse gas emissions with energy use down in Australia's eastern mainland states in 2009. It also showed that energy use varies radically from state to state. The report by non-profit international body The Climate Group shows that annual emissions were 5.3 million tonnes lower in 2009 than the previous year across Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia. This represents a fall of 1.8 per cent and followed a rise in emissions of 1.3 per cent in 2008.

Now entering its fourth year, The Climate Group's Greenhouse Indicator Annual Report (pdf) tracks the main sources of greenhouse emissions in Australia from coal, natural gas and petroleum. The Climate Group tracks emissions on a weekly basis across the four states and provides useful real time information for policy makers, media and the general public alike. The 2009 annual report shows a decrease from 2008 but it is not uniform across the states. Emissions declined considerably in South Australia (4.2 percent) and NSW (3.1 percent) while barely changing in Queensland (1.1 percent) and Victoria (0.5 percent).

The reason for the decrease differed from state to state too. In Victoria most of the decrease was due to emissions reductions in both gas‐fired electricity generation and use of petroleum. This was counteracted by an increase in emissions from coal‐fired generators. In NSW and Queensland however, the coal-fired generators led the reduction while emissions from gas-fired generators rose a staggering 176 percent due to the commissioning of new stations. In SA it was gas-fired generators that led the reduction.

The use of petroleum decreased across the states except in South Australia. The reductions came despite positive population growth in each of the states, and growth in Gross State Product in each state. Again with petroleum-based products, results were different across the states. Diesel sales were up across all
states except for in Victoria which went down. Petrol sales fell in Victoria and Queensland (where the fuel subsidy ended this year), remained the same in NSW and increased in South Australia. Another Climate Group report shows petroleum emissions declined for the whole of Australia between October 2008 to September 2009.

Electricity use was also down 1.9 percent across the four states. Coal usage was slightly down but still represents a whopping 87.8 percent of all scheduled electricity generation. Gas is responsible for 9.3 percent and renewables is still a disgracefully paltry 2.8 percent (up just 0.1 percent in 12 months). Demand fell 2.0 percent in Victoria and 1.2 percent in NSW. By contrast demand rose 1.5 percent in Queensland and 0.1 percent in SA. Victoria in particular has an unhealthy reliance on higher emitting brown coal which rose 1.1 percent balanced out by the 27 percent decrease in gas-fired station.

Turning to the weather, 2009 was the second warmest year on record in Australia and the years 2000-2009 was the warmest decade on record. As the Bureau of Meteorology said these trends are “consistent with the background of global warming”. Going from causes to effects, the higher temperatures had and good bad aspects. There was less demand for heating over winter but more demand for cooling over summer. Demand across the national electricity market in the winter of 2009 was 3.4 per cent less than the winter of 2008. The summer of 08/09 saw demand increase by 1.7 per cent from 07/08.

The report said that all states recorded a growth in Gross State Product (GSP) over the period despite the GFC. Nevertheless it says “growth rates were reasonably low compared with previous years, and this would certainly have relieved upward pressure on emissions levels.” And so as the economy recovers, emissions are likely to increase substantially in the absence of any meaningful government action to throttle them.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Yanukovich and Tymoshenko to run-off for Ukraine president

Ukraine’s pro-western president Viktor Yushchenko has been defeated in the presidential election leaving opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to compete in a run-off ballot. Yanukovich led in first round of voting with 36.6 percent of the vote, while Tymoshenko picked up 25.8 percent, according to an exit poll conducted by local television channel Inter. The incumbent got only 5.2 percent leaving him in fifth place behind Sergei Tigipko, a former economy minister, who gained 13.5 percent. About two thirds of Ukraine’s voters turned out to vote. It will be ten days before the Central Election Commission releases official results but there is no doubt who will be in the run-off on 7 February.

Viktor Yushchenko’s crushing defeat was not unexpected after period of legislative deadlock, lagging reforms and economic doldrums. But it represents an end to the Orange Revolution which began in the last presidential election in 2004 when he was poisoned with dioxin. Both Yanukovich and Tymoshenko have signaled a return to pro-Russian politics. Both run-off candidates have also said they will abandon efforts for Ukraine to join NATO.

Russia remains the truculent big brother to which any winner will need to answer to. They curbed natural-gas deliveries to Ukraine three times in the last five years, withheld a new ambassador to Kiev and accused Yushchenko of supplying arms to Georgia during the war with Russia in August 2008. Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, called the first round result a “win-win situation” for his country. “Whoever becomes the next president will be much less ideological and more businesslike,” he claimed.

At first glance Yulia Tymoshenko does not seem like a natural Russian ally as a close confederate of Yushchenko during the Orange Revolution. Like Yushchenko her power base is in the west of the country. Her election priorities were a fairer society and more government efficiency, and she also pledged innovation-driven economic reform and better welfare provisions. But she has forged a close relationship with Vladimir Putin who personally negotiated an end to last year’s gas cut with her.

Apparently believing herself to be the reincarnation of Eva Peron, Tymoshenko claimed her biggest success during her two year tenure as Prime Minister was leading Ukraine out of financial crisis. She told Ukrainian TV last week the country has come out of the GFC “stronger, not shattered, not in pieces, not devoid of blood, or lost," She said her government had renewed the aviation industry, built a new hydroelectric station, and led the way with agriculture production. “[We] managed to reach leading positions in the agrarian sector in the world...[and] did not let the agrarian sector to drop its production even half a percent,” she said. “We are building what is needed for the Euro 2012.We modernized factories. Yes, it was difficult, but during a crisis, things are difficult."

But despite Tymoshenko’s rhetoric, Viktor Yanukovich remains the favourite to become the next president. He is a two time prime minister taking the role first from 2002-2004. This was the springboard to the presidential campaign of 2004 in which he was backed by Russia and early results gave him a victory. His win was then thrown out by the courts after street protests and he was condemned for fraud and abuse of power. But Yanukovich wasn’t finished as a political force. He bounced back two years later to regain the Prime Ministership in 2006 and is now is benefiting from disappointment with Yushchenko's failure to stop bickering with his supposed allies including Tymoshenko.

Yanukovich draws most of his support from the Russian-speaking areas of the industrial east and the south. He has promised an economic revival, new jobs, pay raises, judicial reforms and tax-free policies for small enterprises for five years. Yanukovich is a Russian speaker with only halting ability in Ukrainian. But he is no longer the Russian lapdog he was five years ago. Since 2004 Ukraine has effectively created a distinct new national consciousness by banning Russian on national television and in university entrance exams.

The runoff election will be tight and the role of third placed Sergei Tigipko will be vital. As well as being an economic minister, Tigipko was a central banker and a former adviser to both Yanukovych and Tymoshenko. Though officially staying neutral for now, he has in the past expressed interest in working as prime minister under either. He will probably be able to name his price to guarantee either candidate victory.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Google has more to lose than China

On 12 January, the official Google blog posted a seemingly innocuous entry called “a new approach to China”. In it Google claimed that serious cyber-attacks in December resulted in the theft of their intellectual property. The post stated the attack was aimed at accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. It also said the accounts of dozens of American, Chinese and European Gmail users who advocate human rights in China “appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties”. Then they dropped the bombshell. As a result of these attacks, Google decided to stop censoring results on “We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China,” concluded post author David Drummond, Google Senior Vice President, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer.

There is little doubt that Google made a business decision and dressed it up with noble values. The news was even kept secret from Google’s 700 Chinese staff until it was made publicly available. Techcrunch’s Sarah Lacy offered three reasons why Google made their decision. Lacy claims Google were not doing great business in China (with 30 percent of the market) and could never outdo local leader Baidu (with 63 percent). Secondly Google had already made their decision and the announcement was a “scorched earth” move aimed at buying Google goodwill in the west. Thirdly it is only going to get harder for western firms as cashed-up Chinese tech companies begin infiltrating the US market.

The official Chinese news agency Xinhua has been strangely diffident in its response. Normally it reacts bullishly to any perceived criticism of the Communist regime but an article on 13 January merely suggested China was seeking more information on Google’s stance. They quoted an anonymous high ranking official merely said "It is still hard to say whether Google will quit China or not. Nobody knows.” They also quoted Guo Ke, professor of mass communication at Shanghai International Studies University, who said it was "almost impossible" for Google to quit China and also impossible for the Chinese government to give up its management right over the Internet. "I think Google is just playing cat and mouse, and trying to use netizens' anger or disappointment as leverage,” Guo told Xinhua.

The official Chinese Government response is that companies must follow the law of the land. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said China welcomed foreign Internet companies but that those offering online services must do so “in accordance with the law.” According to the New York Times, another high-ranking official has called for even tighter Internet restrictions. Wang Chen, the information director for the State Council urged Internet companies to increase scrutiny of news or information that might threaten national stability and emphasized the importance of “guiding” online public opinion.

Subsequently Google has hinted it will negotiate with the Communist regime. It may be that Google needs China more than China needs Google. China has by far the world’s largest internet population with estimated 338 million Internet users - 46 million of those were added in the last 12 months alone. The entire network is policed by the Great Firewall of China and the government stepped up efforts to censor the Web during the Beijing Olympics and the Communist regime’s 60th anniversary last year. During the purge, the Chinese government made particular efforts to shut down social media sites such as blogs, online video sites, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.

However, many Chinese users have sophisticated knowledge of the Internet and are able to circumvent the censorship. Locals call it “fanqiang”, or “scaling the wall.” Users connect to an overseas computer via a proxy server which costs $2 a month to share with about two dozen others. Chinese citizens engaged in such practices say the government rarely cracks down on them individually, preferring instead to go after prominent dissidents who publish information about forbidden topics online. Meanwhile non-profit companies have set up censorship-evading tools for users to download in a cat-and-mouse game with authorities.

But as The Hindu puts it, many Chinese online users will be let down by Google’s losing battle with the authorities over censorship issues. They quote Chinese Internet expert Kaiser Kuo, who believes the ordinary Chinese Internet user is being ignored. “But they are also questioning whether the moral point Google is trying to make is worth the price they have to pay,” he said. “The government no longer worries about access to outside information through Web 1.0 sites, but has closed down social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube that allow for the rapid dissemination of information.” The absence of Google will simply tighten the Government’s grip on power in this most closed of kingdoms.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Guinea's wounded coup leader to stay in exile

Hopes of a return to civilian rule in the West African nation of Guinea rose with the news that former leader Moussa Dadis Camara will stay in Burkina Faso. Camara has been in temporary exile since an assassination attempt six weeks ago. Yesterday he signed a deal yesterday with Guinea’s new interim leader General Sekouba Konate agreeing to the establishment of an interim government and elections in six months. The deal bans the military from running in the election and gives Konate time to return the country to civilian rule, with the support of the US and France.

The news came despite calls yesterday from senior Guinean army officials for Camara to return home. Members of the 42-man junta which supported Camara’s ascension to power a year earlier have released a statement rejecting Konate’s concern that Camara’s return would jeopardise the restoration to civilian rule. The statement supported Konate’s call for a rapid transition "but we encourage and ask for the quick return of Capt Moussa Dadis Camara to Conakry,” the statement read. “We are recommending that Gen Sekouba Konate bring him back."

The statement shows that Camara still has powerful friends in Guinea. The army captain seized power in 2008 after the death of long-term dictator Lansana Conté. Initially his rule was mostly greeted with relief as he seemed sure to be better than his deeply corrupt predecessor Conté, who had just died after 25 years in charge. But optimism faded as Camara reneged on promises to hold an election. On 28 September he sent in security forces to smash up a peaceful mass opposition rally in the capital Conakry. The government had banned the protest but it went ahead anyway. When tens of thousands marched into a football stadium, police and soldiers opened fire. At least 157 people died. Eyewitnesses and medical personnel told Human Rights Watch many protesters were riddled with bullet holes. Others had stab wounds from knives and bayonets. Many women were stripped naked and sexually assaulted.

Camara blamed errant officers but the world community was outraged by the attack. The Economic Community of West African States imposed an arms embargo on Guinea. Former colonial power (and still a wielder of great local influence) France also cut military ties. The AU and the EU imposed travel bans and froze bank accounts owned by the 42 members of Camara’s junta. The US also imposed a travel ban but has not frozen accounts. The ICC also began an investigation and had delegates to Guinea at the time of Camara’s shooting.

Exactly what happened on 3 December is shrouded in mystery but it would seem that Camara was shot by his own aide-de-camp. The New York Times quotes communications minister, Idrissa Cherif who said Camara was shot in a confrontation with the commander of the presidential guard, Lt. Abubakar Toumba Diakité. Diakité was also believed to be the top army officer involved in the September atrocity so he may have felt he was about to be sacrificed to the ICC so that his boss could keep his job. Camara survived the attack but was flown to Morocco for treatment. He moved to Burkina Faso last week.

Guinea, resource-rich and desperately poor, has been plagued since independence in 1958 by authoritarian, brutal, and corrupt regimes. The country of ten million is rich in bauxite and gold. The Economist reported in November it is likely to earn $7 billion in return for mineral and oil rights recently granted to a Chinese company. But this money is unlikely to benefit the poor. Instead a clique of elite bureaucratic and military leaders will fight over the right to access the spoils, as they have done since 1958. In November, The Economist feared a civil war may be inevitable due to splits in the junta. The assassination attempt has done little to dash those fears. The next few months will be a test of Sekouba Konate’s strength of character.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Earthquake in Haiti: Port-au-Prince picks up the pieces

No one really knows how many people have died in Haiti’s earthquake; it is far too early to count the bodies. The country's prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive told CNN the final toll could be well over 100,000. Another senior Haitian politician Youri Latortue told AP the number could be as high as half a million, but both men conceded that nobody really knew. What most people did know was that the impact was utterly devastating. The 7.0 quake that struck 15km southwest of Port-au-Prince yesterday afternoon affected two million people and destroyed most of the capital’s buildings including the presidential palace, the parliament, the cathedral and most critically, all of the city’s hospitals.

Port-au-Prince is struggling to deal with the enormity of the disaster. The Times said the city's central Champs de Mars square resembled a huge open-air refugee camp but one without food, water or medicine. Medicins Sans Frontiers say there are hundreds of thousands of homeless people now sleeping in the streets. One of MSF's senior staff in Haiti, Stefano Zannini, was out for most of the night, assessing the needs in the city and looking at the state of the medical facilities. Zannini said the situation was chaotic. “I visited five medical centres, including a major hospital, and most of them were not functioning,” he said. “Many are damaged and I saw a distressing number of dead bodies.”

The country’s president René Préval said the damage caused by the magnitude 7.0 tremor was "unimaginable". The Huffington Post had a before and after shot that showed the extent of the damage at the presidential palace. But wondering where he would sleep that night was the least of Préval’s problems. “Parliament has collapsed, the tax office has collapsed, schools have collapsed, hospitals have collapsed” Mr. Préval told the Miami Herald. “There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them. All of the hospitals are packed with people. It is a catastrophe.”

The five-storey UN base at the Christopher Hotel was not spared; it also crumbled in the quake. The international body said 16 of its personnel were confirmed dead and between 100 and 150 more workers were still missing, These included UN mission chief Hedi Annabi of Tunisia and his deputy, Luis Carlos da Costa of Brazil. Annabi was meeting a Chinese delegation at the time of the quake. The Chinese are also among the missing. Just about the only good news from Haiti was the fact that most other areas of the country were spared - the capital took the brunt of the quake.

Mashable have listed ways people around the world can help. These include direct donations to organisations in the field such as Care, Direct Relief International and Oxfam, as well as via a site Google has updated to respond to the crisis Google Support Disaster Relief. Meanwhile Haitian hip-hop musician Wyclef Jean has used his Twitter feed to rally people to contribute to his grassroots Yele Haiti fund via text messages which automatically charge $5 to users’ mobile bills. The LA Times said the campaign has raised $400,000 in 24 hours.

Reuters's Lesley Wroughton says Haiti will need a lot more money than that to recover from this catastrophe. The impoverished country was already the poorest in the western hemisphere and it will take a massive, sustained global effort to rebuild the country. Wroughton says Haiti was rebuilding from its failed state status and had gradually impressed donors and investors through economic reforms, efforts to stamp out corruption and improve conditions for the four out of five Haitians who live in poverty. The IMF and World Bank had canceled $1.2 billion of debt, freeing up crucial funds for the government to build roads, bridges and prepare social programs.

Wroughton quoted CARE’s CEO Helene Gayle who said Haiti could no longer survive from crisis to crisis and needed to get on to a path of long-lasting, sustained change. Gayle called it Haiti’s Asian tsunami, and said it was a chance for the world to be generous and commit to helping Haiti beyond the current disaster. "We need to make sure that we're building back in a way that does not only return them to where they were but gives them an opportunity to really get a leg up after this is all over," Gayle said.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

News rings management changes as it plans for paywall

News Ltd announced a series of important management changes today affecting their Australian news operation. The most important change was the appointment of News Digital Media chief executive Richard Freudenstein as chief executive of The Australian. Freudenstein keeps his old job and the move was widely seen as a key predecessor to the introduction of online paid-for content which Rupert Murdoch announced for 2010.

The 43 year old Richard Freudenstein joined News Digital Media when it was created 2006. Prior to this he was a key member of the team that launched Foxtel Pay TV in Australia in 1995 and then spent seven years at British Sky Broadcasting. There he was a leading negotiator in Sky's 2004 $2 billion deal for Premiership football. He is also chairman of Ltd and a director of The Bell Shakespeare Company.

The move also sees The Australian being moved to a new stand alone division within News Corporation Ltd as part of an "aggressive and ambitious growth strategy" for the national broadsheet. Freudenstein will report directly to News Ltd chairman and chief executive, John Hartigan in this role. Up to now, The Australian has been part of Nationwide News, publishers of Sydney's The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph. "This announcement reflects the significant expansion of our ambitions for The Australian," said Hartigan in a statement. "By creating a separate division and deploying more resources, we aim to enter an unprecedented era of growth."

The establishment of a separate division should give The Australian more flexibility when it comes to negotiating its printing and distribution arrangements with News Limited's other state divisions. But this move is not really about sales of the broadsheet. Hartigan hinted as much when he said News Ltd also wanted to expand The Australian's presence online, on mobile phones and on "new platforms". Nick Leeder will follow Freudenstein from NDM into The Australian as deputy chief executive, but unlike his boss he leaves behind his current post as NDM chief operating officer. Chris Mitchell will continue as editor-in-chief of the newspaper, a role he has held since he joined the paper from the Courier-Mail in 2002.

However the news comes on the same day as the result of a survey shown at The Content Makers that showed 70 percent of Australians would not be prepared to pay for Internet content. The survey by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries & Innovation at Swinburne University’s Institute for Social Research is part of the World Internet Project which is the leading international source of research on how people use the internet.

Eight hundred Australian internet users responded to the question “A daily newspaper costs around $1.50. How much would you be prepared to pay to read an online newspaper?” Another surprising result showed that “news junkies” are those least likely to be willing to pay for it. Perhaps not as surprising is that urban dwellers with limit access to quality papers (ie the ones with “Murdoch only” press) were more prepared to pay for content than those living in Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra. Nevertheless, the findings are challenging for the Murdoch empire and lend credence to crankynick’s observation in Larvatus Prodeo that the paywall may well be aimed more at corporate organisations than individuals. Time will soon tell.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Peter Spencer’s shrewd food war

Peter Spencer has entered the 50th day of his hunger strike perched on a wind-monitoring mast on his property near Cooma in NSW. Spencer hasn’t taken any food since 23 November as part of a campaign for a royal commission on land-clearing laws that prevent him from clearing native vegetation on his property. But his campaign is about to be complicated by a sheriff's notice this week ordering him to vacate the property following legal proceedings by family members to sell the property in order to recover an unpaid debt. What happens next is problematic. His position 10m high on the so-called “tower of hope” on the highest part of his property is both symbolic and good media management. But there is also a practical element: it makes it harder for authorities - either police or medical - to forcibly remove him.

The 61-year-old Spencer has survived this long on a diet of water, lemon juice and vitamin tablets. His friends say he is still sound of mind but admit they might be forced to intervene to protect his life. Alastair McRobert, a friend and de facto spokesperson said Spencer’s resolve is as strong as ever and he is in contact with his doctor. "However, when he doesn't know what he's doing, that's when intervention will most likely happen to keep him alive,” McRobert said yesterday. "None of his friends like seeing what Peter is doing to himself but we respect the stand he is making."

Spencer has repeatedly said only one person can respond to that stand. He says he won’t end his hunger strike until Prime Minister Kevin Rudd admits the Australian Government owes farmers like him $100 billion for capturing carbon in their soil. A meeting with Rudd is not sufficient. He is fighting for compensation for not being allowed to clear his property under state-based native vegetation laws which the former Howard Government then used meet Australian Kyoto carbon emission targets.

Spencer is holding Rudd accountable even though it is NSW legislation he is fighting. He said on 7 December “there's no discussion. He [Rudd] can either meet the demands or he can bury me, suit himself.” And in an open letter to Rudd, Spencer declared “you must bear the burden for the theft of the entire Kyoto emission target… from the targeted farmers”.

But the Prime Minister is showing no inclination he is about to be blackmailed by Spencer. A spokesman said the Government sets policy in the national interest and the policy “will not be changed by threats of violence or self harm.” The government says it deals with many people each year who threaten self-harm and is urging Spencer to end his protest and seek medical attention.

Yet it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for Spencer’s plight. He bought his 6,000 hectare property in the 1980s at Shannon’s Flat near the border with the ACT. His time on the property was plagued by bad luck. 60 percent of the property had been cleared in the 1930s. But after Spencer bought it, he was overseas and unable to farm and four-fifths of his property became covered in regrowth. When he returned to Australia, he found he was unable to clear due to new native vegetation laws. Then he set up ponds for trout fishing which failed due to stricter water storage laws. When he tried to set up a fine wool program it was undone by a plague of wild dogs that fled the 2003 Canberra fires and killed hundreds of his sheep. The drought was the last straw but Spencer was unable to claim drought relief because his farm was deemed unviable.

But as the Canberra Times notes, although Spencer looks like lunatic in the climate change circus, he is a resourceful businessman supported by a formidable legal team headed by Sydney barrister and former holder of Malcolm Turnbull’s seat, Peter King. His home resembles a media war room with press releases, newspapers and policies piling up and phones ringing incessantly. Spencer is getting a lot of support in rural areas and has the backing of Agmates and Sydney radio station 2GB.

He also inspired a protest march on Canberra last week with hundreds of farmers calling for a royal commission into property rights and land clearing in Australia. Spencer has made 200 court appearances over the past decade to try and get compensation or else remove the 80 percent unusable land from his rates evaluation. None of the cases went anywhere. “What they kept on doing was just they wouldn't give us a chance to present our evidence, they just moved to strike us out,” he said. The matter remains stalled at the High Court without a hearing awaiting the determination of a related case about water rights.

Monday, January 11, 2010

New test to help crack down on illegal ivory trade

A new test to distinguish antique from modern ivory may help defeat the illegal trade in ivory. The EU allows the sale of antique ivory from before 1947, but once a tusk is carved there is no accurate way of distinguishing it from modern ivory. Until now, the only option has been to send samples to museums where experts tried to work out its age from signs such as how yellow it appeared. However this evidence would not stand up in court. A new method by an Edinburgh Zoo scientist can determine the age of ivory by looking at its level of carbon isotope. Because of nuclear testing which started in the 1950s, modern ivory has double the amount of carbon 14 than those of elephants that lived before the nuclear age. The test will now be rolled out to all European countries. (picture by wwarby)

While Europeans have killed elephants for trade since colonial times, the large-scale exploitation of elephant herds began in the 1970s. Organized gangs of poachers used automatic weapons while corrupt governments turned a blind eye. They laundered tons of elephant tusks through several African countries to destinations in the East and West. At its height, the ivory trade was driving the poaching of an estimated 100,000 African elephants a year for their tusks, as species numbers dropped from 1.3 million to 600,000.

Things improved after the African elephant was listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1989. This banned the ivory trade though it carried on illegally. And only 16 out of 35 African countries complied with the CITES system. The Born Free Foundation says thousands of elephants are still killed every year for their ivory. The British animal welfare group describes the slaughter as “horrifying”, with poachers shooting elephants with automatic weapons and hacking off their tusks with axes and chainsaws.

In November 2009 Tanzania and Zambia submitted a proposal for the relaxation of the ban to allow for the sale of 100 tonnes of stock-piled ivory to China and Japan. The proposal will be examined at an international meeting on wildlife conservation scheduled for March. There is a precedent for this. In 1997 regulations were relaxed for a one-off sale of 60 tonnes of stock-piled ivory. There was a similar sale in 2002. But Kenya has opposed the latest request for a relaxation saying it could lead to increased poaching in the region. It also wants the ban to include rhinos. Kenya’s elephant population dropped from 168,000 in 1969 to only 16,000 in 1989 when the ban was enforced. The population has now risen to 35,000 since the ban but the rhino population has decreased by a third in the same timeframe.

The Chinese market is now driving the demand for ivory. The problem has escalated in recent years as China forges more links with Africa. Chinese entrepreneurs, miners and tourists are coming to the continent in increasing numbers fuelling the illicit trade. Over 35 million tonnes of ivory has been illegally imported into China from Africa in the last 10 years and British-based wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC is working with China to educate travellers about ivory smuggling. But there are concerns the Chinese government is reacting defensively to reports of Chinese people caught in the act. After an Interpol operation seized several tonnes of ivory in November and arrested three Chinese and 62 Africans, China Daily refuted the director of a Kenyan wildlife NGO, who blamed the growing number of Chinese workers in Africa for the rise in elephant poaching in Kenya.

Ominously, ivory trade has been on the rise across the continent since 2004 but increased sharply last year according to TRAFFIC. Their latest report said the surge in 2009 suggest an increased involvement of organized crime syndicates in the trade, connecting African source countries with Asian end markets. According to its analysis of 14,364 ivory seizure records from 85 countries between January 1989 and August 2009, the adjusted trend for illicit ivory trade has risen to over 25 tonnes, the second largest after a peak of 32 tonnes in 1998. CITES will submit the report to the upcoming meeting of member countries.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Togo bus attack puts Cabinda independence movement in the spotlight

The Confederation of African Football says it is satisfied with Angolan Government assurances on security after the Togo team bus attack on Friday in the northern province of Cabinda. The attack which killed three people including the team’s assistant coach and wounded two players has left the football world in shock and thrown light on one of the world’s more obscure long-running separatist conflicts.

Cabinda is officially part of Angola but the Atlantic enclave is geographically separated from the rest of the country by the Democratic Republic of Congo to the south. Europeans have been in Cabinda since the 16th century trading for palm oil and timber. Portugal, Holland and England all established trading posts along the coast leading to squabbles between them over sovereignty. The matter was resolved in 1885 with the Treaty of Simulambuco which awarded the colony to Portugal.

At the time Angola was directly to the south, and also part of the Portuguese Empire. But when the genocidal Belgian king Leopold II wanted a path to the Atlantic Ocean for his sprawling Congo Free State, Portugal granted him the land south of Cabinda to the mouth of the Congo. Cabinda continued as a Portuguese colony until the 1970s. In the 1960s an independence movement called the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) was formed to fight against colonial rule.

When the Portuguese junta collapsed in the Carnation Revolution of 1975 so did its rule of the colonies. In January 1975 Portugal signed the Alvor Agreement with Angola granting it independence. Cabinda was included in the agreement though FLEC was excluded from the negotiations. Similar to East Timor, FLEC proclaimed Cabindan independence from Portugal in late 1975. But just as in Timor, a big neighbouring power launched an invasion. Angolan forces quickly took over the towns and the poorly armed FLEC fled to the mountains.

But unlike Fretelin in Timor, FLEC was unable to keep a cohesive centre. It split in several splinter groups, some of which sided with the South African-backed UNITA rebels in Angola. There are now about a dozen separatist groups demanding independence for Cabinda. But with 80 percent of Angola’s oil off the Cabinda coastline there was little chance Luanda would willingly cede to enclave demands. And when Angola was awarded the rights to host the 2010 African Cup of Nations Cabinda’s Estadio Chimandela was selected as one of the four grounds to hold the games.

Togo were due to play Ghana in the first game in Cabinda tomorrow night. The team were travelling by bus with a security escort from mainland Angola through the DRC and into Cabinda. The team bus had just crossed the border into Cabinda when it came under heavy gunfire. The driver was killed immediately leaving the bus stranded and officials and players cowered under their seats. The attack lasted half an hour and two others died, the team’s assistant coach Hamelet Abulo and a Togolese journalist.

Initially Togo’s captain and star player Emmanuel Adebayor said it was likely Togo would withdraw from the tournament. "I think a lot of players want to leave,” he told the BBC. “I don't think they want to be at this tournament any more because they have seen their death already.” But in the last 24 hours, the players have announced a change of heart and say they will play. The game will go ahead in Cabinda. Initially it also seemed likely that the ground would be pulled as a venue. But the Confederation of African Football (CAF) announced today games would be held in the enclave’s 20,000 seater stadium.

Angola’s leaders have been in severe damage control after this high profile attack. According to a statement released in the name of the Prime Minister Paulo Kassoma, Angola “considers the incident in Cabinda as an isolated act and repeated that the security of Togo’s team and the other squads is guaranteed.” But they may not be able to live up to their words. One of the independence factions claimed responsibility for the attack with an ominous warning signed by FLEC's secretary general Rodrigues Mingas. “This operation is just the start of a series of planned actions that will continue to take place in the whole territory of Cabinda.”

Saturday, January 09, 2010

France's war on Google hots up with new Internet advertising tax

The French Government has released a report that calls for a tax on online advertising revenue to fund subsidies for French culture. This would include subsidies for newspapers, art, music and other products struggling in the digital era. The media has dubbed it the “Google Tax” which is reasonable as the Silicon Valley search engine giant holds the dominant position for search in France. However, the report’s author says the plan would likely target other big players such as Microsoft and Yahoo (some English reports also say Facebook is included, but this is disputed by French media). (photo by mathias poujol rost)

The government commissioned the report into the wake of complaints from media companies that aggregators such as Google are getting a “free ride” on their content. The report called “creation and the Internet” was an outcome from Culture minister Frederic Mitterrand’s new baby called 'mission Zelnik'. The mission takes its name from Patrick Zelnik, CEO of independent music label Naïve, and other members include Jacques Toubon, former minister of culture and Guillaume Cerutti, CEO of Sotheby's France. While their report had 22 recommendations on such matters as increasing spending on digitising books, creating Internet portals to aggregate online content, cutting the tax for online cultural sales, and setting up bodies to ensure that artists are paid for work downloaded from the Web, it is the “Google Tax” that has hogged all the headlines.

Details are sketchy about how it will work but the idea is that France would place a tax of one or two percent on all online advertising revenue in order to raise 10 to 20 million euros. (in French) wonders how online music sites would make the proposal work and says the Zelnik report proposes a move to collective management of music rights. It says the Society of Authors and Composers (SACEM) says the proposed solution only partially meets their requirements and says web2.0 services such as Youtube, Facebook and Myspace should also contribute to the scheme.

The idea has been rejected by the big internet firms. Critics say the tax would be difficult to implement and Google says it is not the right way forward as it could slow down innovation. Google claims their partnerships with publishers and content creators has distributed more than 4.2 billion euros worldwide last year. “The better way to support content creation is to find new business models that help consumers find great content and rewards artists and publishers for their work,” said Olivier Esper, senior policy manager for Google France.

The move is part of a growing French trend to shackle some of the more extreme elements of the Internet. In October France introduced legislation to cut Internet access from illegal downloaders. Under the law, a new agency will send out an e-mail warning to people found to be illegally downloading films or music. A written warning is sent for a second offense in six months and after a third offense, a judge can order a one-year Internet rights suspension or a fine. But while President Sarkozy was happy with the legislation, Reporters Without Borders called it "a serious blow to freedom of expression on the Internet."

Last month Sarkozy also took on Google over its plans to digitise the world's books. Portraying himself as a defender of French culture in the digital age, Sarkozy’s concern was that the project would “strip France of its heritage”. He has launched a counter-proposal for a French firm to scan the contents of the country’s libraries. Sarkozy’s call was echoed by Prime Minister Francois Fillon who said France would not accept another cultural industry being "threatened by looting."

It is easy to dismiss such tinkering like some do as French “cultural arrogance”. But France does have the right to take measures to ensure its vital and diverse culture is not reduced to an Anglophone add-on. Other countries are beginning to realise that the invisible hand of the US-dominated market does not necessarily lead to good outcomes and local culture is threatened by this as much as local economies. While Google’s ambitions are, in the main, admirable, France is right to hold up its hand and question its outcomes, if not its motives. If being digital means being democratic, then others should have a part to play in the brave new world, not to mention have access to Google’s enormous profits. If the levy puts an end to “enrichment without any limit or compensation”, it will be no bad thing.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Afghanistan: anatomy of a failed election

A new UN report prepared by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon shows just how protracted and flawed the Afghan presidential election was. His report released at the end of 2009 for the UN Security Council is couched in diplomatic language but its frustration is obvious between the lines. Entitled “The Situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security”, the document outlines a series of selfish actions in which none of the major Afghan players come out with any credit.

While there were over forty candidates for president, most analysts agreed in the end it would come down to run-off election between incumbent president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister in the Northern Alliance regime in 1998 when they ruled barely 30 percent of the country. Attacks by the Taliban severely limited the campaigning of candidates while state-run radio and television heavily favoured Karzai. Allegations of fraud, vote buying and armed coercion were rife, even before the election.

And the Taliban were not sitting idly by. On election day 20 August, Afghanistan suffered the highest number of attacks and intimidation since the Taliban took Kabul in 1996. August 2009 would prove the deadliest month for US troops in Afghanistan since the invasion eight years earlier. The violence continued into September.

On 8 September, the foreign-dominated Electoral Complaints Commission ordered a recount of the election after reporting 720 instances of fraud. The Karzai-appointed Independent Electoral Commission which administered the ballot was unhappy with the order but after two weeks of intense negotiation they agreed on a partial recount using a methodology which would audit suspect ballots through statistical sampling. The IEC would administer the audit with oversight from the ECC. Neither Hamid Karzai nor Abdullah Abdullah were happy with the process and both were sceptical of its outcome.

The ECC announced the audit was complete on 19 October. The preliminary results showed Karzai had gotten 49.67 percent and Abdullah had 30.59. Nearly a third of Karzai’s votes had been invalidated by the audit. Because no candidate had received over 50 percent of the vote, a run off was necessary to be held on 7 November. Karzai’s supporters and campaign team immediately protested the revised result claiming it was the result of foreign interference. There was a flurry of diplomatic negotiations led by John Kerry and after 24 hours Karzai agreed to participate in the run-off. In the meantime, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission released their report on the election which spoke of a low turnout due to many attacks and much intimidation, especially of women.

On 26 October, Abdullah announced the conditions under which he would take part in the run-off. These included the sacking of the IEC chair, the removal of election officials and the suspension of three cabinet ministers. He insisted his demands needed to be met by the end of the month. Both Karzai and the IEC rejected the conditions. So on 1 November, Abdullah duly announced he would not be a candidate in the run-off saying the government had not met his demand for a fair vote.

A day later, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon arrived in Afghanistan to negotiate with both parties. On the same the day the IEC announced Karzai the president-elect as the sole candidate in the run-off. They based this decision on the Afghan Constitution which stated the run-off could only be held between the two leading candidates from the first round. The decision immediately sparked celebrations among Karzai’s supporters. Abdullah said the decision had no legal basis but did not challenge it in court.

Afghan donor and troop-contributing countries reluctantly offered Karzai their congratulations on his “victory”. But most statements, including Ban Ki-Moon’s own encouraged Karzai to form a competent Cabinet with reform-minded ministers, to improve governance and to root out corruption. Karzai was re-appointed for a second five year term on 19 November. In his inauguration speech, Karzai reached out to the Taliban as well as Abdullah.

But his re-election honeymoon was short-lived. A new report says that 2009 was the deadliest year yet for Afghan children. Meanwhile, Taliban attacks are getting closer to the capital while there are doubts the international community has the stomach to continue the fight. As the UN report concludes “We are now at a critical juncture. The situation cannot continue as is if we are to succeed in Afghanistan. Unity of effort and greater attention to key priorities are now a sine qua non. There is a need for a change of mindset in the international community as well as in the Government of Afghanistan. Without that change, the prospects of success will diminish further.”

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Yemen grapples with Al Qaeda

Yemeni forces have arrested three Al Qaeda militants it claims were behind the threats that closed several foreign embassies. Those arrested include local Al Qaeda leader Mohammed Ahmed al-Hanaq. Al-Hanaq and the others were ambushed on Monday in a security force raid in Arhab, 40 kilometres north of the capital Sanaa. Two of his relatives were killed and three other people wounded in the attack but al-Hanq escaped. However he was captured in a hospital with two others in the town of Reedah, Amran province, north of Sanaa.

The men were arrested in connection with the threats to the US and other embassies in the capital. The attack on Al Qaeda came just days after General David Petraeus, the US regional military commander, travelled to Sanaa for talks with the Yemeni president. The US embassy re-opened yesterday after being closed for two days. They cited a “successful security operation in the north” as the reason for the re-opening. The British and French embassies also resumed operation but were still closed to the public.

Yemen has been in the international spotlight since Yemeni Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the Christmas Day bomb plot in which Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was charged with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam with 278 passengers as it landed in Detroit. The 23-year-old son of a prominent Nigerian banker had hidden a fistful of high explosive in a package sewed into the crotch of his underwear. As the flight prepared to land, Abdulmutallab covered himself with a blanket and injected a chemical to detonate the explosive. He succeeded only in starting a fire which passengers and crew put out as they wrestled him down.

Yemeni Al Qaeda hailed Abdulmutallab as a “brother hero” for evading security screening and intelligence monitoring. It was another boost for the local branch of Al Qaeda whose numbers had been swelled by several veterans of Guantánamo Bay and who are preaching global jihad. The problem for the Obama administration is that 91 of the 198 detainees still at Guantanamo are Yemeni nations. Yesterday, Obama announced he was halting the transfer of prisoners back to their homeland. “There's an ongoing security situation which we have been confronting for some time, along with our Yemeni partner,” he said. “Given the unsettled situation, I've spoken to the Attorney General and we've agreed that we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time.” In the same speech Obama also admitted not only the US had intelligence Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had traveled to Yemen and joined up with extremists there but also Al Qaeda were targetting American interests there and in the US itself.

While Al Qaeda's brother heroes are a threat to Yemen, they are not an existential threat. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has two bigger issues to worry about; a war in the north with Shia rebels and separatist unrest in the south (the two halves of Yemen came together in 1990). Christopher Boucek, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the 7.30 Report says Yemen’s problems are rooted in a failing economy, falling oil reserves, and massive population growth leading to corruption and 35 per cent unemployment. “Basically the Central Government is not in control of all of territory of Yemen, and the Central Government's authority and legitimacy is receding as it deals with all of these problems,” said Boucek. “So it's in those ungoverned places where you see Al Qaeda affiliated and directed organisations seeking refuge.”

Until recently the Government shied away from direct conflict. Al Qaeda had been bolstered by members of the group’s Saudi branch which fled to safety in Yemen and formally accepted Yemeni leadership under a new name "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula". But under US pressure, the government made some headway against Al Qaeda in the week before Christmas. Yemen claims that five air attacks on training camps between 17 and 24 December killed 60 fighters and there are another 29 in custody. But several women and children were also killed in the raids causing anger among a disenfranchised public. The danger for Yemen, as The Economist points out is that “further fighting against Al Qaeda could provoke a wider civil conflict, which in turn could undermine a regime that has rattled many of its own people by throwing in its lot with the West.”

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Dubai renames world’s tallest building to Burj Khalifa

On the day of its official opening, the world’s new tallest building the Burj Dubai has been renamed to Burj Khalifa. The new name honours the president of the UAE and the ruler of neighbouring emirate Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan ("Burj" means tower in Arabic). The renaming shows that despite Dubai’s glittering exterior, it is now totally reliant on the oil wealth of Abu Dhabi to see it survive the financial crisis. Sheik Khalifa’s multi-billion-dollar bailout in November helped Dubai's biggest developer avoid a potentially disastrous debt default.

The official height of the astonishingly tall building was a closely guarded secret until yesterday when it was formally announced as 828m (2,716 feet). The building’s owner Emaar Properties flashed the announcement onto a giant screen during a spectacular fireworks and water show. 400,000 people watched on as fireworks cascaded from the tower's spire to the base and lasers blazed out from all levels. It was here the name change was also announced. The Burj Khalifa is a mixed use development which will house residential apartments, offices, and an Armani hotel. The tower’s first tenants will be moving in next month.

Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world according to the three main criteria of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). The CTBUH ranks the world’s tallest buildings based on ‘Height to Architectural Top,’ ‘Height to Highest Occupied Floor’ and ‘Height to Tip’. Burj Khalifa is 320 metres taller than the 508m Taipei 101, which had held the record for the world’s tallest building measured to the architectural top since 2004. The Burj is also the world's tallest structure surpassing the 630m KVLY-TV mast in North Dakota, USA. The tower also beats the 31-year-old record of Toronto’s CN Tower, which had been the world’s tallest free-standing structure on land since 1976 standing at 553m.

The vital statistics for the new building are hugely impressive. It took 22 million man hours to build. It has 200 stories using the world’s fastest lifts which travel at 18 metres a second (64 kph). It uses 330,000 cubic metres of concrete, 39,000 metric tonnes of steel reinforcing bar and 142,000 square metres of glass in 26,000 windows. An Australian company Cox Gomyl has won the contract to clean them all. Dale Harding from Cox Gomyl has no doubt about the scale of the project his company is taking on "It's an amazing building, people focus on the height of the building,” he said. “But really the breadth and width of the building is just huge when you're standing next to it."

But Blair Kamin in the Chicago Tribune wasn’t so excited by the new building; he was more upset by the impacts of the sudden name change. He says the t-shirts and caps for sale in the skyscraper's observatory and gift shop emblazoned with Burj Dubai are now outmoded on the first day that the observatory is opening to the public. The district in which the skyscraper is located is called "Downtown Burj Dubai” and is identified as such on road signs and maps. He also says the tower's owners just spent $2 million on Burj Dubai uniforms for security and hotel personnel. “How much will it cost to change the uniforms?” he asked “Or might it be easier to put patches on the uniforms that cover up "Burj Dubai" and say "Burj Khalifa" instead?”

Kamin says Dubai's leaders must have known that problems like this were coming when they agreed to the name change to the Abu Dhabi leader who bailed them out of their debt crisis. He said they were so desperate that they had no choice. This may be true. But it may also be true that Dubai’s rulers are truly grateful for Abu Dhabi’s intervention. Without Khalifa’s billions, Dubai would have been in such strife, that yesterday’s opening would have resembled a funeral rather than a celebration. The opening of the Burj Khalifa will certainly be a major psychological boost to the troubled emirate. Changing t-shirts, uniforms and street signs is a small price to pay for survival.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Productivity Commission releases weak report on runaway executive pay rises

The Australian Government today released the Productivity Commission's final report on Executive Remuneration in Australia. The final report follows the Commission's discussion draft in late September. The inquiry's chairman, Gary Banks, said the changes from the September version are mostly “fine-tuning” though some have been significant. “This includes our proposed 'two strikes' rule, requiring boards to submit for re-election where shareholders repeatedly vote against their remuneration decisions,” he said. “We consider that we now have a formulation that will encourage behavioural change in those boards where that is needed, without posing significant downside risks for public companies generally.” The Government will respond to the recommendations later in the new year.

The full report is available in PDF format at the Productivity Commission’s website however the overview section gives a good synopsis of the report’s key points. It begins with the need for the report by saying that massive executive salaries in the two decades leading up to the GFC often despite poor company performance “have fuelled community concerns that executive remuneration is out of control.” The report also noted that executive pay escaped the GFC unscathed. This is most notable in top 100 companies while the top 20 CEOs earned an average $7.2m a year in 2008-9, about 110 times the average Australian wage.

Liberalisation of the economy, global competition, increased company sizes and incentives were all cited as causes for the large salaries. The problem is that incentive payments have been introduced without appropriate hurdles and golden handshakes have been excessive and indicate compliant boards. These have lead to issues with investor confidence and the trust of the wider community.

The commission says the solution to these problems does not mean by-passing company boards, capping pay or introducing binding shareholder votes. Instead it recommends two actions. Firstly companies should remove conflicts of interest through independent remuneration committees and the use of remuneration consultants. Secondly, companies should promote board accountability and shareholder engagement through pay disclosure and “strengthen the consequences” for boards who are unresponsive to shareholder demands on pay.

Problems with disclosure mean there is no long-term data for executive pay. But what data is available suggests CEO pay grew between 13 and 16 percent a year between 1995 and 2000 going down to 6 percent a year between 2000 and 2007. The report says company size accounts for up to half these pay rises and large companies do need internationally experienced and highly capable CEOs. But there has also been a flow-on from excessive pay rises in the US to Australia particularly in the importing of high-profile (and highly paid) CEOs.

The commission sits on the fence as to whether compulsory disclosure of executive earnings at listed companies (introduced in 1998) has accelerated remuneration. But it is less ambiguous about incentivised payments which can be rorted by compliant boards or camouflaged pay arrangements that make the ‘at risk’ components a virtual certainty to achieve. The outcome is that many CEOs have been rewarded for failure or dumb good luck.

Nonetheless the commission warned against prescriptive methods such as pay caps which would have practical problems due to market variations and cause disadvantage to Australian companies competing against similar overseas firms. It also says a shareholder binding vote would be “unworkable” due to the complexity of the report and would compromise the board’s ability to negotiate with executives. The board remains a crucial element, they say, in ensuring a company has a remuneration strategy that promotes its long-term interests.

To that effect, the Commission recommend improvements to corporate governance, the credibility of boards and making boards more accountable in relation to pay setting. It endorsed the ASX Corporate Governance Council proposal for companies to report publicly on progress in achieving their own declared targets. It also encouraged greater transparency around selection of board candidates regardless of gender. Shareholders should also have a say on proposals by boards to limit board vacancies.

It also proposes strengthening requirements for the establishment of remuneration committees. It says their membership should be independent of company executives, particularly for the top 300 companies who require remuneration consultants to report directly to the board. And their remuneration reports should disclose the use of remuneration consultants.

One of the key new recommendations is the weakened “two-strikes rule” of shareholder voting against remuneration reports. This means that in year 1 if more than 25 percent of shareholders vote against the report, companies will be obliged to explain their actions in the report. Then in year 2, if the no vote is still over 25 percent, there would be a separate re-election resolution. If this resolution passes, the company must call an extraordinary general meeting within 90 days to re-elect directors. In the September proposal, there would have been an automatic spill after two protest votes.

The commission says that while a high vote against remuneration doesn’t necessarily translate into a vote against directors, the mechanism “would still hold to account those boards considered deficient in relation to executive pay practices.” This aspect remains to be seen and in truth, it is questionable at this distance whether the watered-down approach of the Commission will have any effect on runaway executive salaries. Ultimately it should come down to consumer power, and more responsible and knowledgeable buying decisions to ensure that companies are punished for rewarding greedy executives.