Make Sense of the World: Weekly Report


January 28, 2014 05:20 EDT

Fair Observer’s extended report of the week’s events. [Note: Click here for the summary version.]

This author has long had a fascination with lions, perhaps because Singh in Sanskrit means lion. Tragically, West African lions are facing extinction. Researchers estimate that about 400 lions are left and only 250 are of the mating age. In 2005, these lions lived in 21 different protected areas. Today, they inhabit barely four areas. Lions are at the top of the food chain and the most acute indicator of environmental devastation. While the Pine Island Antarctic Glacier is in uncontrollable retreat, the time has come to consider radical new measures such as fencing off reserves to save the lions and protecting shrinking ecosystems.

North America

US President Barack Obama gave a major speech that placed limits on what the National Security Agency (NSA) can do. First, a new presidential directive lays down that intelligence activities will take into account not only security requirements, but also alliances, trade and investment relationships, concerns of companies, privacy and basic liberties. Second, the much despised Section 215 of the Patriot Act has been rolled back. This allowed the government to collect meta-data related to telephone calls in bulk. In future, the government will no longer hold meta-data. In the interim, “the database can be queried only after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency.” Third, Obama has declared that, in the absence of a compelling national security purpose, the communications of close friends and allies will not be monitored.

Many, including this author, have long believed that the US has not had an honest debate about the tradeoff between security and liberty. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, the rights to liberty and privacy have suffered. People have been apathetic to the expansion of surveillance that has lacked both judicial and legislative oversight. More importantly, it has been based on dubious legal grounds and some of the surveillance might not even be constitutional.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie began a second term with a fresh scandal breaking out. The mayor of Hoboken, a city across the Hudson from New York, claimed that the release of funds for relief from Superstorm Sandy was made conditional on the approval of a real estate deal involving the Rockefeller Group. Christie is already under investigation not only for his bridge scandal but also for using Sandy relief funds for financing his reelection advertising campaign.

This raises two issues. The first pertains to corruption and the abuse of power. The second pertains to the murky world of New Jersey politics where interest groups proliferate and the culture of patronage seems almost as deep rooted as Italy. The scandals per se are not the issue here. The issue is a long overdue reform of New Jersey’s political system.

An issue that the US media has not focused on is the execution of an Ohio inmate. He was executed using an untested combination of drugs and took 15 minutes to die. His attorneys had attempted to halt the execution by claiming that the untried method put him at substantial risk of “agony and terror.” Execution drugs are in short supply as a growing number of manufacturers do not want their products to be used for execution. There were concerns about his execution and the Ohio state government purchased the drugs from a loosely-regulated pharmacy that it is refusing to name.

A rational conversation on the death penalty is long overdue in the US. The penalty is inhuman and inefficient. Only 2% of the counties are responsible for over 50% of the executions. While a mere 2% of white defendants get the death penalty, 14% of black defendants are killed. The decision to seek the death penalty is made by a single county district attorney while the costs are borne by the state and even the country as a whole. Retrials and appeals make the judicial process inordinately expensive. Miscarriages of justice are common and irreversible. Finally, a country like the US that claims to stand for human rights suffers a crisis of credibility when it executes an inmate without transparency or regard to suffering. It is time for the US to take a long hard look at the mirror on the wall.

Latin America

While the US is still debating immigration reform, another country of immigrants has already acted upon it. Brazil will make it easier for foreign workers to enter the country. The Brazilian government aims to attract highly qualified professionals such as engineers, doctors and technology specialists. Therefore, it is reducing the red tape involved in obtaining a work visa and is allowing workers to change jobs without the need for a new visa.

Brazil is leading the way in the Western Hemisphere when it comes to immigration. Last year, it launched a “More Doctors” program that resulted in the arrival of more than 5,000 Cuban doctors to work in impoverished areas where physicians and medical services are scarce. The initiative has proved to be a resounding success. For all its faults, Cuba has an outstanding healthcare system and highly qualified doctors. They are seeking opportunities because the Cuban economy is in doldrums. Brazil faces skill shortages that hamper provision of social services and act as a bottleneck for economic growth. By opening its doors to immigrants, Brazil is showing the way forward to the rest of the world to extend the freedom of movement of goods and services to people.

Despite ongoing peace talks between the government and FARC rebels, Colombian troops have killed at least seven rebels in the central area of Tolima. President Juan Manuel Santos has rejected requests for a ceasefire and vowed to keep pressure on the country’s largest leftist guerilla group. Santos is in a tricky situation that he has to navigate with considerable political cunning. The US pushed for the War on Drugs and Colombia was supposed to be this policy’s poster child. Over the last 12 years, the US has spent more than $8 billion on Plan Colombia, a measure designed help Colombia’s military combat drugs and control insurgency. US military assistance to Colombia ranks third after Israel and Egypt. Yet the country is mired in violence and its cocaine production is at the same level as in 1990.

Meanwhile, Colombia has endured the longest civil war in Latin American history. Over the last 50 years, 200,000 people have been killed and 6 million have been displaced. In the peace talks, FARC is pushing for the decriminalization of drug usage and a ten-point plan that includes land reform, rural development, and a strategy to encourage cultivation of crops that could be an alternative to coca and poppy.

Santos is doing the right thing in talking to the rebels. Yet he is vulnerable to right-wing opponents who can accuse him of selling out to the US. Washington is still unwilling to accept that its War on Drugs has failed. Nazih Richani aptly points out that many vested interests are involved in persisting with the status quo because it keeps “the budgets of a number of US government agencies fat, and coffers of private companies full.” Therefore, Santos is keeping the pressure on FARC whilst parlaying with them to hammer out an agreement. With elections are around the corner, he is trying to ensure that his opponents, Uncle Sam and FARC, do not wreck his reelection chances or a historic peace deal that will end the country’s prolonged civil war. Both clashes and talks will continue as Colombia walks a tightrope to the ballot box.


Talks on the proposed EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have been called off by the European Commission (EC). Proponents of the deal claim that it will boost the beleaguered economies of both parties. A European Union (EU) study estimates that the “deal would increase the size of the EU economy by around €120 billion (or 0.5% of GDP) and the US by €95 billion (or 0.4% of GDP).” The TTIP is estimated to boost sectors such as metal products, processed foods, manufactured goods, transport equipment, and motor vehicles. Still, there is widespread unease among consumer and environmental groups who worry that the US might be imposing lower standards on the EU. This has forced the EC to call off the talks and launch a three-month public consultation on the proposed investment rules for firms.

The EC decision is of immense significance. First, the EU has long been accused of being an elite project with a massive democratic deficit. It has often imposed deals without adequately consulting the electorate. It is true that elected national governments have used the EC to impose unpopular deals that they themselves wanted to implement but lacked the political courage to do so. However, at a time when popular discontent with the EU is high and the extreme right is on the rise, it is important for European politicians to make honest arguments about the choices their countries face. Not taking popular opinions into account on any major issue is no longer an option. Second, it is clear that the EU does not value economic growth for growth’s sake and is taking public health and the environment into account. Third, legal disputes of previous trade pacts are making people pore over the fine print. Tobacco giant Philip Morris has sued the Australian government over plain packaging rules that supposedly contradict an Australia-Hong Kong bilateral investment treaty. Europeans want to ensure that such clauses do not slip through and are demanding extra scrutiny of TTIP.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has blamed the EU for violent clashes in Ukraine that, in his words, are “getting out of control.” Protesters have thrown fireworks and petrol bombs at police officers, who have responded by beating up some protesters. Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, and other European politicians have visited protesters while Russian President Vladimir Putin supports the Ukrainian regime. With both sides digging in their heels, the tussle for the soul of Ukraine will continue — although it seems unlikely to degenerate into a civil war.

Middle East & North Africa

Only 38.6% of Egypt’s voters turned out to vote in a deeply flawed referendum on the new constitution. They approved the constitution with an overwhelming Mugabe-like majority of 98.1%. It is important to note that the turnout was more than the 2012 and 2011 referendums. While the polling is deemed to be largely fair, the culture of repression preceding the vote could not have been more unfair. The Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed and other opponents marginalized. No one was allowed to campaign against the referendum and protests have been severely curtailed. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the popular defense minister who led the coup against Mohammed Morsi, is likely to run for president but he will neither have legitimacy, nor will Egypt have peace until engagement replaces persecution.

As expected, conflict in Syria rages on and draws Lebanon into its wake. An al-Qaeda-affiliated group has carried out a car bombing in the Hezbollah stronghold of Haret Hreik, a Beirut suburb. Jabhat al-Nusra, believed to be a branch of Syria’s al-Qaeda faction, announced on Twitter that they “have responded to the massacres carried out by the party of Iran.” This is the second attack in less than a month on the suburb. A new report reveals that Syria has systematically tortured and executed about 11,000 detainees since the start of the uprising. There are reports of persecution and grim violence, including mass beheadings in rebel-controlled areas. Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are descending into madness.

The looming Geneva talks face bleak prospects in the near term but are at least a start. Syrian Islamist rebels have already rejected the “hollow” talks. At least the National Coalition, Syria’s main political opposition in exile, agreed to join the talks. More interestingly, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon invited Iran to attend the Geneva talks but then backtracked after Tehran failed to support plans for a transitional government in Syria. Iran has to be a part of any conversation about peace in the Middle East and the original invitation was a simple recognition of this fact.

The US Congress continues to be oblivious to reality. Of 100 Senators, 59 of them back new sanctions on Iran. Democrats have joined Republicans in scuppering President Obama’s deal with Iran. If another eight Senators were to support sanctions, then they would have a two-thirds majority to override Obama. The Obama administration is in tricky waters. With the rise of the Taliban, the spread of Sunni radicalism and the raging civil conflicts in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, the US and Iran have many common interests. Yet its own legislators are too insular and ignorant to pursue their country’s long-term interests.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has also lost his moorings with reality. His government delights in rubbing the nose of its most loyal ally in the dirt. Israel’s defense minister called US Secretary of State John Kerry “messianic” for pursuing peace talks. The US rightly found the comment “inappropriate” and gave its junior ally a rare rebuke. Netanyahu, on his part, berated the EU for being pro-Palestinian because they were raising a fuss over the “construction of a few houses.” His government summoned the ambassadors of Britain, France, Italy and Spain to tell them that their “perpetual one-sided stance” is unacceptable. Netanyahu forgot to mention that the settlements are illegal under international law.


Given a raging insurgency, rampant corruption and falling popularity, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has decided that populist repression of sexual minorities is the way forward to improve his chances of reelection. A new law not only bans same-sex amorous relationships but also provides prison sentences of up to 14 years for violation. While same-sex couples are winning acceptance in the US and in Europe, many African countries are moving in the opposite direction by tightening Victorian-era laws that already prohibit homosexuality. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has declared that gay people were a result of “random breeding” and a case of “nature going wrong.”

Just as democracy in the US has given a voice to people who oppose evolution, African democracies have empowered those who espouse intolerant views about sexual minorities. Only after education and enlightenment will cultural attitudes change. Then more tolerant laws will emerge. Until then, African sexual minorities will have to go underground or flee to Europe or the US.

South Africa has seen the worst year in rhino killings because of soaring demand in Asia. In 2013, 1,004 rhinos were illegally killed as compared to 668 in 2012. Since a horn can sell for $20,000, organized crime syndicates have entered the trade, using military-grade helicopters, night-vision equipment and guns fitted with silencers.

Innovative measures are needed to save the 25,000 African rhinos left. First, Asian countries such as China and Vietnam must launch a massive campaign to curb demand. Second, African conservationists have to be funded, trained and given more resources. Third, rhino tourism has to be promoted aggressively so that cash flows into local communities winning their buy-in for rhino conservation. Fourth, fencing off some remaining rhino habitats must be experimented with to see if it works. Finally, some arms control might be a good idea. Military-grade helicopters and night-vision equipment should not be easily available. Ultimately, the survival of the rhino or the lion will depend on whether humans, especially the more prosperous ones, can find a way to act beyond their immediate self-interest to save the environment.

Catherine Samba-Panza, the mayor of capital Bangui, is the interim president of the Central African Republic (CAR). She has appealed for peace, calling on Christian “anti-balaka” militia and Muslim Seleka rebels to lay down their arms. Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers agreed to embark upon their biggest military operation in six years. France has already sent 1,600 troops and new reinforcements will stabilize Bangui at the very least, even if rebels keep operating in the bush.

Central & South Asia

The Taliban is making its presence felt in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the deadliest violence against foreigners since 2001, 21 people were killed in a bomb attack on an expensive Kabul restaurant. Three of 13 foreigners who died were Americans. In Pakistan’s North Waziristan, a bomb killed 20 soldiers of the Frontier Corps. Just as the Soviet Union wasted men, money and material, so too is the US. Drone strikes and the elimination of many Taliban leaders have failed to secure a US victory. There will be more calls from Imran Khan, the charismatic Pakistani politician, and even Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to end the civil strife through a negotiated political settlement. The Taliban has sensed blood and will be in a fighting mood at least until the Afghan elections are over.

Meanwhile, sectarian killings in Pakistan are rising dramatically. Pakistan has long been a tough place for minorities such as Shi’as and Ahmadis. Now, it is outright dangerous for them. Gunmen are killing professionals, including doctors, lawyers and professors. In 2013, 687 sectarian killings occurred, an increase of 22% from 2012. Pakistan’s founder, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, was Shi’a. While minorities such as Sikhs and Hindus were never welcome and Bangladeshis were always discriminated against, tension between Shi’as and Sunnis only arose after General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamization of the country. Backed by the US and fuelled by Saudi cash, Pakistan embarked upon the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire. Now, the stability of this nuclear armed country of 180 million is in question.

In a new ranking released by Oxfam, India and Pakistan were jointly classified as 97th out of 125 countries with regard to availability, quality and affordability of food. It is almost as if the partition of 1947 that created these two countries never happened. Oxfam examined the percentage of underweight children, food diversity and access to clean water, as well as negative health outcomes such as obesity and diabetes. The low ranking is indicative of the failure of governance in both these countries. Colonial-era bureaucratic structures and entrenched political elites along with rapacious corruption and pathetic policy choices have wreaked havoc on both nations with fertile soils, mighty rivers, and considerable human capital.

In India, yet another woman was raped. She was a 51-year old Danish tourist and only two out of the eight men who committed the crime have been arrested so far. Crimes against women in India continue to rise and the rule of law has collapsed in large parts of the country. A minister of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the new anti-corruption party that has assumed office in Delhi, led a raid against four African women. He has accused foreigners of running drug and prostitution rackets, while he himself stands accused of vigilantism and racism.

Asia Pacific

Japan’s current account deficit reached a record high in November 2013. At 592.8 billion yen or $5.7 billion, this figure illustrates the challenges facing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan’s import bill has been going up as its nuclear plants shutdown after the Fukushima disaster. Its debt burden is now twice the size of its GDP. The Bank of Japan is following a policy of unprecedented quantitative easing in the hope of achieving Abe’s goal of a “virtuous cycle” where a declining currency boosts exports, which in turn boost corporate profits leading to increased wages that result in greater spending, which produces higher domestic demand. The limits of this policy in the face of an aging risk-averse population, rising energy costs, and sclerotic labor markets might mean that Japan will fail to emerge from a slump that has gripped it since 1991.

China’s fourth quarter growth rate of 7.7% was its lowest since 1999. Much of Chinese growth came from the government’s mini-stimulus in the second half of 2013. While this boosted growth, it fuelled investment into prestige projects and real estate. It has also encouraged businesses and local governments to pile on more debt. China’s recent debt audit has revealed local government liabilities to be $2.95 trillion as of June 2013, up by 67% from 2010. In the months to come, Chinese growth will inevitable slow down.

Meanwhile, China’s central bank has had to intervene to prevent a mini crisis. It had to add more than 255 billion renminbi or $42 billion to the financial system and expand a loan facility to meet Lunar New Year demand for cash. China’s stock market, which had reached a five-month low on Monday, has rebounded. Despite this action, China is expected to stick to a tight monetary policy this year because it aims to lower risky lending and rebalance the economy.

China conducted a hypersonic missile test, taking another giant leap in its defense capabilities. Hypersonic missiles can get past missile defense because of their speed, maneuverability and the fact that they travel at lower altitudes than ballistic missiles. China is also building its second aircraft carrier and expects to possess at least four such ships. For two decades, China’s military budget has seen double digit increases over the last two decades. Now, it plans to have a full blue-water navy that will defend its growing economic interests and enforce its claims on the disputed islands in South and East China Seas. This will rattle other Asian countries such as Japan, Vietnam and India, and the US.

While companies are free to do cloning, dissidents are still not free to express themselves. China has put Xu Zhiyong, a prominent human rights lawyer who campaigned against corruption, on trial. He has been charged with “gathering crowds to disrupt public order.” Xu has campaigned for inmates on death row and families who suffered from the tainted baby milk formula in 2009. It is believed that Xu is being tried because he went too far by exposing the illicit wealth of senior officials, many of whom have parked considerable sums in tax havens. In fact, the Chinese are increasingly unhappy with their officials. In 2013, there were 1.95 million citizen complaints about officials, an increase of 49.2% over 2012.

Finally, after months of unrest in Thailand, the government imposed a state of emergency to curb disorder. Protesters have been out on the street, refusing to participate in elections and demanding that power be handed to an unelected body. Kwanchai Praipana, a leader of the pro-government “red-shirt” movement, was shot and wounded by unidentified attackers. The conflict in the country is threatening to spiral into violence with the middle class of Bangkok backing the royalist establishment and the rural poor in the north and northeast supporting the Shinawatra regime.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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