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Entries since June 2012

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Blogging the Rio+20 Earth Summit for the Rest of Us: What's at Stake with the Green Economy

June 16, 2012 ·

President Barack Obama may be steering clear of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, but thousands of government delegates, civil society activists, and business lobbyists are already streaming into Brazil.

I arrived last night and will blog throughout this UN Conference on Sustainable Development. I'll bring you the latest about the talks among those somber-suited delegates who'll buzz around a complex of aircraft hangars on the edge of the city. And I'll sum up the action at the tent city that has sprung up in Rio's vast and verdant Flamengo Park — where the People's Summit for Social and Environmental Justice is taking place.

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro/Shutterstock.comTo kick things off, here's some recommended reading for anyone who's about to board a plane to Rio to attend the summit from June 20-22, or to help you follow the action if you're not. To learn what's at stake, I recommend reading the Rio Conventions, which world leaders agreed to follow during the meeting they held here in 1992. These landmark treaties laid out the principles under which key issues of environmental protection are to be discussed. The three landmark conventions address climate change, biodiversity, and desertification.

Then there's Agenda 21 — a modest and rather toothless action plan for supposedly "sustainable development." (While over-excited tea partiers may consider that document to be a Soros-funded, left-wing conspiracy for the United Nations to achieve world domination, it never had much impact.)

And although the first Rio Earth Summit successfully established a framework for multilateral environmental negotiations, its impact has remained limited. Nature magazine's damning report card, which makes that clear, is also very disturbing. Global greenhouse gas emissions have risen at even faster rates than before. We continue to lose biodiversity at an unprecedented rate. Land degradation is causing the continued spread of deserts.

For this reason, many delegates in Rio this time around are simply calling for measures to implement existing commitments. They say that would be better than creating any new corporate-driven initiatives or issuing yet more empty promises. The Third World Network has a comprehensive overview of the key issues, and is publishing regular updates with details of who said what at the Rio+20 talks.

"Green economy" proposals have proven to be some of the most contentious so far. On June 14, the 133 countries that comprise the G77+China (the largest negotiating bloc, representing the majority of the world's population) walked out of talks on this element of the text. They cited a lack of progress on funding to help developing countries achieve more sustainable development and "technology transfer" mechanisms that could ease patent restrictions to promote the spread of cleaner technologies. Today, they kicked out of the agreement text that would have advocated a "transition to a green economy."

That's a win for progressives. Really. Wait — don't we want a greener economy? Of course we do, but as this briefing, this video , this animation, and this report clearly show, there's widespread concern that the term "green economy" is being used as a cover by rich countries lobbying for new markets to be created in biodiversity and ecosystems, and new avenues for financial speculation. A truly green economy, by contrast, would recognize the limits of what can be "financialized." It would protect both the common good and public resources.

The battle between these very different worldviews will continue here over the coming days. The Rio+20 negotiating text remains littered with language that could be used to promote markets for environmental services. And the fight against the anti-democratic variety of green economics must be waged outside this conference too, because the World Bank and other powerhouses are busily building institutions to support these new markets.

Oscar Reyes is an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies' Sustainable Energy & Economy Network. www.ips-dc.org

The Right Path for Washington in Syria

June 14, 2012 ·

The Syrian conflict continued to boil - or boil over - when Syrian troops fired across the Turkish border on April 9, apparently killing either fleeing refugees or armed combatants. However, despite continued words of caution from the Pentagon and White House about getting into another messy Middle East war, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton pressed for more intervention.

Hillary Clinton speaks about Syria in Istanbul. Photo by U.S. State Department.The Syrian Accountability Act of 2003 began the formal U.S. attempt to bring down Assad, but Clinton, the imperial princess, now demands Syrian President Assad resign in favor of the Syrian National Council (SNC). This hastily formed group composed of exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members, and other groupings, many in exile, would magically transform Syria via fair elections into a good democracy - and sheep will fly.

Washington's "humanitarian" assistance fund for Syria escalated into "non-lethal" aid -- sophisticated satellite communications equipment, and night-vision goggles so "rebels" could "evade" Syrian government assaults. U.S. and Western media have underscored Assad's butchery, but offered little of substance on the opposition and its often savage behavior.

Just weeks after the first March 2011 protests - Arab Springtime - the media disregarded eyewitness evidence of armed groups shooting at and killing members of Syria's security forces as well as civilians. Reporter Pepe Escobar witnessed "the shooting deaths of nine Syrian soldiers in Banyas" as early as April 10, 2011 (Asia Times, April 6, 2012). By focusing only on Assad's violence, Western leaders could promote a lopsided view of the conflict. In recent weeks, however, the media could not ignore all "photos and video footage of armed men with heavy weapons proudly declaring their stripes - some of them religious extremists advocating the killing of civilians based on sectarian differences."

Suicide bombings took place in Damascus and Aleppo, and al-Qaeda called its minions "to battle." The U.S. government ignored al-Qaeda's role and refers only to the "good" SNC, the majority who appear to ally themselves with Syria's Muslim Brotherhood. At a March meeting in Istanbul, sponsored by Turkey and Qatar, however, an unlikely source of dissent emerged. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said: "We reject any arming [of Syrian rebels] and the process to overthrow the [Assad] regime, because this will leave a greater crisis in the region."

Al-Maliki questioned the motives of Qatar and Saudi Arabia who "are calling for sending arms instead of working on putting out the fire." Iraq, he continued, opposed "arming" the Free Syrian Army and he feared, "those countries that are interfering in Syria's internal affairs will interfere in the internal affairs of any country." Maliki, who governs Iraq as a result of the U.S. invasion and devastation of that country, questioned equating a cause backed by Saudi funding with freedom. "What's wrong with the Free Syrian Army getting funding from Saudi Arabia? Or, when did Saudi Arabia ever support freedom?" he asked (Suadad al-Salhy, Reuters, April 1, 2012).

These remarks were not featured in headlined stories; nor did TV or radio news provide coverage of Maliki's statement. Until recently, we might have depended on Al Jazeera, whose Iraq war coverage won it praise from journalists. However, the network's Syria reports led some reporters to resign over the network's biased reporting. Hassan Shaaban, the Beirut bureau's managing director, resigned in March, "after leaked emails revealed his frustration over the channel's coverage."

Shaaban had filed a story showing armed men fighting with the Syrian army in Wadi Khalid. Al Jazeera dropped the story. Two other Al Jazeera staff quit for the same reasons. Al Akhbar claimed Qatar's foreign policy influenced the reporting on Syria. Al Jazeera maintains headquarters in Qatar and the royal family helped establish the network.

The question in Washington should be: will adding fuel to the violence make matters worse? Assad's forces have defeated -- with huge civilian casualties -- the formal rebel uprisings, but the SNC could sponsor a prolonged terrorist war, which would increase civilian casualties, and not succeed in removing Assad or his Party [the Baath Party] from power.

Logic and reason dictate that Obama should follow the Syrian majority. A February 2012 poll showed "55% of Syrians want Assad to stay," [NOT] motivated by fondness for his government, but "by fear of civil war." The poll also ascertained "that half the Syrians who accept him staying in power believe he must usher in free elections in the near future." (YouGov Siraj poll on Syria commissioned by The Doha Debates, funded by the Qatar Foundation, connected to the royal family. The family has taken a hawkish position on Syria. See Jonathan Steele, The Guardian, January 17)

These facts have not oozed into State Department consciousness, where the rush for U.S. entanglement appears contagious. Good sense should command Secretary Clinton to help save the process former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan set in motion for a negotiated cease fire. The opposition and the Assad side negated the April 10 deadline. This means Syrians will pay a higher human toll. The suffering is already immense.

On April 14, the UN Security Council backed a deployment of the first wave of U.N. military observers to monitor the tentative cease-fire between the Syrian government and opposition combatants. Before the arrangements become final, Washington should weigh in now with Russia, China and the western powers - not Saudi Arabia and Qatar - to pressure both sides to stop shooting and start serious talking.

What Drives U.S. Policy in Central America?

June 12, 2012 ·

Sanho Tree Al Jazeera The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has launched an investigation into a raid on a remote Honduran village that killed four people including two pregnant women. Four others were also injured in the operation in May.

In the waking hours of May 11, a group of indigenous villagers travelling by canoe in the Mosquita region came under helicopter fire. Four of them including two pregnant women and a child died. US officials said the killings followed a sighting of men unloading cocaine onto a truck nearby. The US State Department-owned helicopters were sent to investigate.

Read more, and watch the entire video, on Al Jazeera.

The Lineup: Week of June 11-17, 2012

June 11, 2012 ·

In this week's OtherWords editorial package, Robin Broad and John Cavanagh explain why a Canadian company's lawsuit against the government of El Salvador threatens democracy everywhere. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven't signed up yet, please do.

  1. Mining Gold, Undermining Democracy / Robin Broad and John Cavanagh
    Neither foreign investors nor unelected tribunals deserve the power to trump democratically elected leaders.
  2. Wisconsin Wakeup Call / John Stauber
    It's too simple to say that money bought this election.
  3. Clearing the Air / Andrew Korfhage
    Many health care organizations have joined environmental advocates like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council in supporting a new EPA rule that would curb the deadly pollution spewed from the next generation of coal-fired power plants.
  4. Blowing a Chance to Save American Jobs / Dave Hamilton
    Congress must renew a successful tax credit supporting the budding wind power industry.
  5. Recalling the Gilded Age / Donald Kaul
    Americans just won't take greed from their next-door neighbors.
  6. These Steaks May Stick to Your Ribs / Jim Hightower
    While meat glue is widely used, corporations peddling molded meat aren't eager to let us consumers in on their little secret.
  7. Our Press Freedom is under Fire / William A. Collins
    In its latest assessment, Reporters Without Borders ranked the United States No. 47 for media freedom.
  8. Solidarity in Reverse / Khalil Bendib

Solidarity in Reverse, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Mining Firm Doubles Up On Law Firms in Quest for Pot of Gold

June 7, 2012 ·

A Canadian mining company has cleared a major legal hurdle in their quest to exploit gold in El Salvador. In a celebratory press release, the firm, Pacific Rim, quoted lawyers from two Washington, DC law firms that are representing it in the case.

A mural in El Salvador shows Pacific Rim as a river-killing monster.I guess having one legal powerhouse behind you just isn't enough when a major pot of gold is at stake. And so far, the investment appears to be paying off.

Pacific Rim is suing the government of El Salvador, demanding more than $77 million in compensation over the government's denial of a permit for a gold mining project. The government acted in response to strong public concerns that the project could contaminate a river that is the drinking water source for more than half the country.

The World Bank tribunal hearing the case, in a classic cowardly maneuver, put the word out late Friday that they planned to advance the case past the jurisdictional phase and start hearing arguments about the merits.

The Pacific Rim release quotes one "extremely pleased" lawyer from Weil, Gotshal & Manges and another from Crowell & Moring who called the ruling a "great development." The continuation of the case makes for more billable hours. According to the Wall Street Journal, lawyers at Weil, Gotshal & Manges make as much as $1,045 per hour. GDP per capita in El Salvador: $3,426.

What's remarkable is that Pacific Rim was able to hire these two law firms despite having no current income stream. They are essentially a corporate shell whose main asset is a lawsuit on which investors are willing to gamble. So they might lose a few million. But if the legal blackmail works and El Salvador allows the mining project to go ahead, the skyrocketing price of gold will produce a handsome return. Pacific Rim's release notes that "the Company has received encouraging feedback from potential sources of non-equity financing" to pay for the final phase of the lawsuit.

The response to the tribunal ruling in El Salvador is not so happy. A diverse coalition of faith, environmental, and community groups fought against Pacific Rim's mining plans because they don't want their children drinking the poisoned water that often gets left behind when foreign corporations come hunting for gold. Polls show the majority of the country is opposed to the project and two successive Presidents from different parties have been on their side.

So how did this domestic policy issue wind up before an international tribunal? Pacific Rim based its legal claim on alleged violations of two laws -- the U.S. trade agreement with Central America and a national Salvadoran investment law adopted in 1999. Both of these allow private foreign investors to bypass domestic courts and bring claims for compensation to international tribunals, such as the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, housed at the World Bank.

The tribunal decided that the company did not have the right to sue under the trade agreement because they are a Canadian company and Canada is not a part of that treaty. But they will hear arguments about whether El Salvador breached its obligations under its domestic laws. It's not uncommon for cases like this to drag on for years, costing both sides millions of dollars in legal fees.

At a rally in front of Pacific Rim's Vancouver headquarters on June 2, Salvadoran activist Vidalina Morales asked for international solidarity in demanding that Pacific Rim drop the suit. She said the broad-based coalition that has come together around the issue, the National Roundtable on Metallic Mining, is now even more determined to obtain their ultimate goal, which is a ban on all mining in the country in the environmentally fragile country.

Unfortunately, the international regime for handling investment disputes doesn't pay much heed to the will of the people.

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