FEATURED PHOTOS AND STORIES

Monday:  July 28, 2014

When Will Chile's Post Office's Re-open? 

(PHOTO: Workers set up camp at Santiago's Rio Mapocho/Mason Bryan, The Santiago Times)Chile nears 1 month without mail service as postal worker protests continue. This week local branches of the 5 unions representing Correos de Chile voted on whether to continue their strike into a 2nd month, rejecting the union's offer. For a week the workers have set up camp on the banks of Santiago's Río Mapocho displaying banners outlining their demands; framing the issue as a division of the rich & the poor. The strike’s main slogan? “Si tocan a uno, nos tocan a todos,” it reads - if it affects 1 of us, it affects all of us. (Read more at The Santiago Times)

WHO convenes emergency talks on MERS virus

 

(PHOTO: Saudi men walk to the King Fahad hospital in the city of Hofuf, east of the capital Riyadh on June 16, 2013/Fayez Nureldine)The World Health Organization announced Friday it had convened emergency talks on the enigmatic, deadly MERS virus, which is striking hardest in Saudi Arabia. The move comes amid concern about the potential impact of October's Islamic hajj pilgrimage, when millions of people from around the globe will head to & from Saudi Arabia.  WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda said the MERS meeting would take place Tuesday as a telephone conference & he  told reporters it was a "proactive move".  The meeting could decide whether to label MERS an international health emergency, he added.  The first recorded MERS death was in June 2012 in Saudi Arabia & the number of infections has ticked up, with almost 20 per month in April, May & June taking it to 79.  (Read more at Xinhua)

LINKS TO OTHER STORIES

                                

Dreams and nightmares - Chinese leaders have come to realize the country should become a great paladin of the free market & democracy & embrace them strongly, just as the West is rejecting them because it's realizing they're backfiring. This is the "Chinese Dream" - working better than the American dream.  Or is it just too fanciful?  By Francesco Sisci

Baby step towards democracy in Myanmar  - While the sweeping wins Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has projected in Sunday's by-elections haven't been confirmed, it is certain that the surging grassroots support on display has put Myanmar's military-backed ruling party on notice. By Brian McCartan

The South: Busy at the polls - South Korea's parliamentary polls will indicate how potent a national backlash is against President Lee Myung-bak's conservatism, perceived cronyism & pro-conglomerate policies, while offering insight into December's presidential vote. Desire for change in the macho milieu of politics in Seoul can be seen in a proliferation of female candidates.  By Aidan Foster-Carter  

Pakistan climbs 'wind' league - Pakistan is turning to wind power to help ease its desperate shortage of energy,& the country could soon be among the world's top 20 producers. Workers & farmers, their land taken for the turbine towers, may be the last to benefit.  By Zofeen Ebrahim

Turkey cuts Iran oil imports - Turkey is to slash its Iranian oil imports as it seeks exemptions from United States penalties linked to sanctions against Tehran. Less noticed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the Iranian capital last week, signed deals aimed at doubling trade between the two countries.  By Robert M. Cutler

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Entries in Australia (18)

Thursday
Nov082012

World leaders praise Julia Gillard's sexism speech at ASEM - (REPORT) 

(Video ABCNEWS Australia)

(HN, November 8, 2012) - Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s now famous misogyny speech in parliament last month is still creating waves abroad, with the prime minister congratulated by other world leaders during an international summit.

Ms. Gillard says French President Francois Hollande and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, among other leaders, approached her at the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Laos to commend the speech, in which she branded Opposition Leader Tony Abbott a misogynist.

The prime minister’s fiery 15-minute address to the Australian parliament early last month went viral worldwide, making news headlines and dominating social media.

“The president of France congratulated me on the speech, as did the prime minister of Denmark, and some other leaders, just casually as I’ve moved around, have also mentioned it to me,” Ms. Gillard told ABC radio on Wednesday.

Video of Ms Gillard’s outburst was watched more than 300,000 times on YouTube in just one day, and it made headlines in the US, India, Canada, UK and South Africa.

On one prominent American website, Jezebel, Ms. Gillard was described as a “badass motherf****r”.

Interviewed for the latest edition of Marie Claire magazine, the prime minister said her office had been besieged with emails and phone calls after the speech went viral on the internet.

“I’m taking it all with a bit of a wry smile,” she said.

“I’m certainly taking `badass’ as a compliment. I think that’s how it was meant.”

Ms. Gillard said she had heard that a Melbourne all-girls school had watched the speech during a class and “spontaneously broke into cheers and applause at the end of it”.

“So that touched me,” she said.

Ms. Gillard said what motivated her to make the speech was the “double standards and the lecturing” from Mr. Abbott.

-- This article first appeared on the Australian Times website via the AAP.

Friday
Oct192012

Fiji’s Leadership of G77 a ‘Rare Opportunity’ for the Pacific  (ANALYSIS)

By Catherine Wilson

BRISBANE, Australia - For the first time in 48 years, a Pacific Small Island Developing State (PSIDS) is gearing up to assume chairmanship of the Group of 77 developing nations plus China.

In 2013, the Republic of Fiji – located between Vanuatu and Tonga in the South Pacific and currently under a military government led by Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama – will take leadership of the largest intergovernmental coalition within the United Nations, replacing the incumbent chair, Algeria.

“Fiji’s election to the Chair of the Group of 77 and China (G77) for 2013 demonstrates the international community’s (confidence in us) to preside over the 132-member organization in its endeavour to advance international matters that are of great importance to all developing countries,”  Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, Fiji’s minister for foreign affairs and international cooperation, told IPS.

The G77 was formed in 1964 with 77 founding member states, representing a collective ambition by developing nations to advance their international voice and influence on world trade.

(MAP: G77 Nations/Wikipedia) Since then, the G77, now comprising 132 member states, has championed South-South cooperation as a key strategy to boost standards of living and economic fortunes in the global South.

The intergovernmental group, which has identified the eradication of poverty as one of its greatest challenges, was also influential in developing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

According to a United Nations report last year, South-South cooperation has boosted development and investment between developing countries and is a formidable driver of economic growth.  Between 1990 and 2008 world trade expanded four-fold, while South-South trade multiplied more than 20 times.

Fiji’s rising role

Fiji’s new role within the UN was confirmed at the G77 foreign ministers’ meeting in New York on September 28.

The island state, with a population of about 868,000 spread over more than 330 islands, has an economy dominated by the sugar and tourism industries, as well as the highest national human development ranking within the Pacific sub-region of Melanesia.

However, an ongoing struggle for political power between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians – descendants of nineteenth century Indian immigrant laborers – has fuelled four military coups since 1987.

(MAP: Melanesia/Wikipedia) During the most recent one in 2006, Bainimarama, commander of Fiji’s military forces, took over the presidency and dissolved parliament in an alleged attempt to stifle corruption.

His declared aim is to reform the race-based electoral system and draft a new constitution, following nationwide consultations, ahead of planned democratic elections in 2014.

But Fiji’s refusal to hold democratic elections by 2010 led to international sanctions and its suspension in 2009 from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum, a regional intergovernmental group of independent and self-governing states.

The government of Fiji currently receives significant economic aid and political support from China.  It also remains politically engaged in the South-west Pacific as an active member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), an intergovernmental group comprising Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia.

Nikunj Soni, board chair of the Pacific Institute of Public Policy (PIPP), an independent regional think tank based in Port Vila, Vanuatu, told IPS that with the emergence of a range of advocacy platforms, such as the MSG and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), the Pacific Islands Forum was no longer the sole organization through which the islands could coordinate a voice.

“Fiji’s chairmanship of the G77 will give the country’s leadership a chance to reach out to the rest of the region by way of consultation in order to make sure a regional voice can be heard on the international stage,” Soni told IPS. “The Pacific will have a rare opportunity to represent itself on the global stage…”

(MAP: Countries of the Pacific Island Forum/Wikipedia) This is becoming increasingly important for the Pacific Islands as neighboring superpowers like China and the US set their sights on the archipelago as a crucial geo-strategic location. China is increasing its investment and presence in the islands, while the U.S. has made moves to renew its engagement with the Pacific region in areas ranging from aid to security, and has deepened defense ties with Australia.

The Pacific Islands are also rich in mineral, forest and marine resources. The PIPP emphasized that increasing the region’s international voice on issues of security and resource management in the context of climate change was a top priority.

“With the Pacific Ocean covering half of the world’s ocean area and one third its total surface area, the region contains some of the largest unexploited natural resources and some of the most climate vulnerable nations on earth,” Soni explained.

“It remains important that small island developing states are not used by larger powers as proxies for their own geopolitical battles. At the same time, we must be able to protect our natural resources for the benefit of our own peoples.”

The global influence of the G77 will only increase as developing countries, especially Brazil, China and India, emerge as the new leaders of world economic growth. According to this year’s UN global economic outlook, developing countries will grow an average of 5.9 percent in 2013, while developed countries are likely to average only 1.9 percent growth.

But this year’s G77 Ministerial Meeting in New York also highlighted many challenges ahead for the coalition of developing nations, including the impact of the global financial crisis on world trade, food security, the fight against poverty, technology transfers and efforts to combat the severe effects of climate change.

“More recently, the G77 has taken on negotiating positions in areas of climate change and sustainable development, the two areas which PSIDS focuses on in New York,” Kubuabola stated. “These are the two areas Fiji wishes to place emphasis on to ensure that the interests of all developing countries, including those of PSIDS, are effectively addressed.”

During a speech at the G77 meeting in September, UN Under-Secretary-General for economic and social affairs, Wu Hongbo, pointed out that the G77 also had an influential role to play in drafting the global Sustainable Development Goals, one outcome of the Rio+20 Earth Summit held in Brazil in June.

-- This article first appeared on InterPress Service.

Tuesday
Oct162012

High food prices top UN agenda on World Food Day (REPORT) 

(Video: World Food Programme)

Rome: Global governance of food security and a so-called new world food order were on the table at World Food Day talks held by the United Nations on Tuesday in the face of drought and high prices.

The United Nations focused the talks in Rome on lowering food prices which have been pushed up by droughts in Australia and the United States and a drop in harvests in Europe and the Black Sea region.

A meeting at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization chaired by French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll brought together ministers from 20 countries including major producers and import-dependent developing countries.

“The key is to ensure global governance on food issues,” Le Foll said.  “Discussions were held on transparency in agricultural markets, the coordination of international actions, response to the global demand for food and the fight against the effects of volatility,” he added.

FAO chief Jose Graziano Da Silva said: “Food prices and volatility have increased in recent years. This is expected to continue in the medium-term.”

He said new mechanisms for stronger global governance of food security that are being set up were part of “a new world order that needs to emerge.”

(PHOTO: YemenFoxNet)But there were divisions among participants at the meeting, with the United States voicing strong opposition to the proposal of setting up strategic food reserves in particularly vulnerable countries, to be tapped when prices spike.

Graziano Da Silva said establishing reserves could be “an instrument to avoid poor countries paying the price” of price rises — although FAO’s official position is only in favor of setting up “small emergency stocks”.

“If you bolster the size of the stocks, you increase difficulties in terms of costs and management,” said FAO’s David Hallam, who is in charge of markets.

Millions go hungry

Around 870 million people in the world suffer from hunger, even though gains have been made in recent years when the United Nations estimated 1 billion people on the planet were not getting enough to eat. Still, the number is troubling.

FAO said the talks were aimed at boosting “the effectiveness of measures to address food price volatility and to reduce its impact on the most vulnerable.”

Global food prices rose by 1.4 per cent last month, after holding steady for two months, as cereals, meat and dairy prices climbed, the FAO said earlier.

The food import bill for poor countries is therefore estimated to rise by 3.7 percentage points from last year to $36.5 billion.

The FAO estimates that about 870 million people in the world - or one in eight humans - suffer from hunger, saying the figure is “unacceptably high” even though it has gone down from more than a billion in the early 1990s.

The UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, said that figure rises to 1.5 billion people if you include malnourishment which hampers the physical and psychological developments of children.

(PHOTO: Agriaim)When global food prices rise as they are doing now “it is not just that there are fewer meals but the meals are also less varied,” De Schutter said, adding: “This threat is not really seen as a priority but it should be.”

Graziano Da Silva said it was vital to help small farmers as a way of combating hunger and World Food Day events highlighted the crucial role played by farming cooperatives in the developing world.

He underlined the fact that the figure of the number of people suffering from hunger had stopped going down over the past five years.  “The numbers are increasing in Africa and the Middle East,” he said.

“We cannot tolerate this in a land of plenty where production is sufficient for everyone,” he said, adding that the funds for aid and agriculture budgets had gone down over the past three decades, stranding small farmers.  “They have had to fight to adapt,” he said.

Graziano Da Silva added that promises made by governments to eradicate hunger made when prices hit record highs in 2007 and 2008 had not been kept.

The non-governmental group Action Against Hunger said that “some 100 million more people have become under-nourished” due to the price rises of 2008.

In a message to mark World Food Day, Pope Benedict hailed cooperatives as “an expression of true subsidiarity” and urged the international community to come up with legal and financial mechanisms to strengthen them.

The pope also emphasized the “vital role” played by women in cooperatives.

- This article appeared in GulfNews.

Monday
Sep102012

Australia asylum seekers pour in as others sent to Nauru (REPORT) 

(Video: Al Jazeera English)

(September 11, 2012) - Australia's ruling Labor party still hopes its asylum seeker people-swap deal with Malaysia will succeed, with Immigration Minister Chris Bowen confirming the government would continue to ‘‘vigorously prosecute’’ the  arrangement.

As the government prepares to send the first handful of asylum seekers to Nauru, and boats continue to pour into Australian waters at record levels, Mr. Bowen said the Malaysia deal was still part of his calculations.

"We have been in contact with our Malaysia counterparts at various levels," he said.

(PHOTO: Aerial view of Nauru Island, South Pacific/Wikipedia)The final legislation designating Nauru as an offshore processing location was introduced yesterday as another four boats carrying a combined 265 people were intercepted. This made eight boats since Friday and 2150 asylum seekers on 36 boats arriving in Australia since August 13.

On that day the government announced it would reopen Nauru and Manus Island and warned anyone intercepted after that day risked being taken offshore.

Nauru will have a final capacity for 1500 people, including 500 by the end of this month, and Manus Island is being set up to accommodate 600, for a total offshore capacity of 2100 when both camps are set up.

It will be impossible to send to the camps all that have arrived since August 13, meaning people will be selected from among those who have already arrived. The government hopes it will deter others. The opposition called this a lottery, and said the government must undertake that everyone who arrives from now be sent to Nauru.

''If the government says they are now in a position to send people there for processing then send people there they must,'' the opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, said. "Any exceptions on those the government sends to Nauru will only dilute what is already a half-hearted message that this government is sending out to people smugglers.''

The Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, announced a military team was en route to Papua New Guinea to begin setting up the Manus Island camp. He said there were enough temporary facilities on Nauru to send people there by the end of the week.

(PHOTO: More asylum seekers arrive at Christmas Island, South Pacific/Sharon Tisdale)They will be flown there and they will have no idea how long they will stay. The government has yet to finalize the ''no advantage'' period, which will require asylum seekers, even those who are found to be refugees, to spend as long on Nauru and Manus Island as they would if they had stayed in a refugee camp. This period will be several years.

The legislative instrument tabled by Mr. Bowen says it is estimated 704 asylum seekers have died at sea since October 2009, and the cost to the budget over the next four years due to the surge in arrivals is not more than $5 billion.

The imminent transfer of asylum seekers offshore is also not deterring asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Pakistan arriving in Indonesia en route to Australia.

An Afghan refugee in Cisarua, south of Jakarta, told the Herald that only days ago a new group of refugees arrived after flying from Quetta, Pakistan.

"They are coming little by little. Four days ago, 20 people came to Jakarta Airport," said refugee Alemzadeh, who is in Cisarua waiting for a boat to Christmas Island. "They know [about the new policy], but they don't stop. They say it's too dangerous to stay in Pakistan."

Alemzadeh said that for perhaps 15 days after the government's policy was announced, the influx from the war-torn regions had stopped, but it had now resumed. The recent drowning of more than 100 Hazara asylum seekers had also not deterred them.

- This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald by Phillip Coorey and Michael Bachelard and Jessica Wright.

Monday
Apr302012

NGO's Under Threat in Pakistan After Red Cross Official Beheaded (REPORT)

(PHOTO: British Red Cross worker Khalil Rasjed Dale killed in Pakistan/The Australian)

(HN, 4/30/2012) - A Yemen born, Scottish UK citizen and senior official of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Dr. Khalil Asjad Dale, 60 who had been kidnapped in January in southwestern Pakistan, was killed by his captors and his bullet-riddled body was beheaded and found in an orchard near Killi Umar, on a road leading to the airport in Quetta on Sunday.  Dr. Dale was engaged to be married to a nurse, Anne, in Australia.  He changed his name from Ken when he became a Muslim.

Dr. Dale had been taken by unidentified armed men from the Chaman Housing Complex in Quetta earlier this year.  Police said they received some tips about the presence of a dumped bag and when it was opened a body was found in it that was later identified as that of Dr. Dale.  

The body was “fresh” and had been slaughtered, said doctors at the Civil Hospital where his body was taken for autopsy.  A letter recovered from his pocket said: “This is the body of Dr. Khalil Asjad who had been kidnapped four months ago and was killed because our demands were not accepted.”  Demands that included a $30 million ransom.

The note further said "we (Taliban) claim responsibility for his murder. We will release video of this killing as the organization did not fulfill our demands despite repeated warnings."

(Video ICRC)

The ICRC has been active in Pakistan since 1947, providing humanitarian services in the field of healthcare, in particular physical rehabilitation.  Director-General Yves Daccord said, "We condemn in the strongest possible terms this barbaric act".  

Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, lies close to the Afghan border and for decades has hosted thousands of refugees from that country. The Red Cross operates clinics in the city.

"All of us at the ICRC and at the British Red Cross share the grief and outrage of Khalil's family and friends. We are devastated," Daccord said, adding that the aid worker - who had worked in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq for the ICRC - was a "trusted and very experienced Red Cross staff member".

The ICRC had announced a reduction of its activities in Pakistan just days before Dale's abduction with the closure of three of its centers in the restive northwest. But after Dale's abduction, the organization vowed to continue its work in the troubled country.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said London had tried tirelessly to secure Dale's release. "This was a senseless and cruel act, targeting someone whose role was to help the people of Pakistan, and causing immeasurable pain to those who knew Dale," he said in a statement.

Pakistan also condemned "the barbaric act" and vowed "to bring the perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice".

Officials of the Balochistan government said they had already asked all foreigners working with NGO's and UN organizations to restrict their movements and not to go anywhere without informing the provincial home and tribal affairs department.

Much of Balochistan and the tribal regions close to Afghanistan are out of Pakistani government control, and make good places to keep hostages. Ransoms are often paid to secure their release, but such payments are rarely confirmed.

Abductions are `Common'

The parents of five kidnapped employees of the Balochistan Rural Support Programme (BRSP), a foreign NGO, were collecting donations by setting up a fund raising camp at the Bacha Khan Chowk to pay over Rs220 million as ransom to the captors for their release. "Please help us so that we can pay the ransom and secure the release of our children," said one banner at the fund raising camp.

Meanwhile, five persons were killed in separate incidents of violence in different localities of Balochistan on Sunday. Unknown armed men opened fire on a motorcycle carrying a man and his son near Hub city, killing them both. In a separate incident in Dast Goran area of Kalat two persons were killed in another firing attack.  Also, unknown men blew up a portion of the 16-inch diameter gas pipeline in the Pirkoh area of Dera Bugti district on Sunday. On Saturday night, unidentified men blew up a portion of the Quetta-Taftan railway track damaging a portion of the track passing through the Ahmadwal area of Noshki district. 

Last August, a 70-year-old an American contractor, and director in Pakistan for J.E. Austin Associates, Warren Weinstein, was kidnapped from his house in the Punjabi city of Lahore. Al-Qaeda claimed to be holding him and said in a video he would be released if the US stopped airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

(PHOTO: Swiss couple Olivier David Och & Daniela Widmer wave at the Qasim base in Rawalpindi, March 15, 2012/Telegraph)A Swiss couple Olivier David Och and Daniela Widmer  who were seized last year by the Pakistani Taliban were released in March. An Islamist extremist group said a ransom had been paid, but the Swiss and Pakistani government denied the claim.

Dr. Dale, of the Red Cross, had previously been awarded the MBE for his humanitarian work overseas by the British government.  "It's unbelievable what they've done to Ken," a friend and former colleague, Sheila Howat, said. "It's soul-destroying. For someone who has ... devoted their life to caring for others - it's just so wrong. Ken was an absolutely lovely person who saw good in everybody. He wanted to make the world a better place for people who had nothing."

---HUMNEWS, agencies

Wednesday
Apr112012

The South China Sea: China, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, & the Philippines all stake claim over oil-rich waters (REPORT) 

(MAP: The South China Sea/NASA)(HN, April 11, 2012) -- A cold-war `esque conflict is brewing in the area known as the South China Sea, though recently US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said there is no such scale of a dispute brewing.  It might be described then as an inter-Asia issue with China claiming the entire South China Sea for itself, with Taiwan and four ASEAN members - the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam - also making overlapping claims to parts of the territory.

THE PHILIPPINES

The Philippines and China are contesting sovereignty over a small group of rock formations known as Scarborough Shoal which the Philippines calls the Panatag Shoal but what China call's Huangyan Island. This weekend, Philippine Navy officials said eight Chinese fishing vessels had been found there, 124 nautical miles off the coast of Zambales province and the country’s largest warship, the US Hamilton-class cutter Gregorio del Pilar, was sent to investigate.

The fishermen claim they were seeking shelter from bad weather, and were prevented from entering the lagoon by a Philippine Naval gunboat. A boarding party found endangered marine species on the ships, and a standoff ensued after China sent two surveillance vessels to the area to prevent the arrest of its nationals, Vice Admiral Alexander P. Pama of the Philippine Navy told reporters at a briefing.

On Wednesday in Manila, the Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario met with the Chinese ambassador Ma Keqing over the matter and  both made a statement saying "We resolve to seek a diplomatic solution to the issue", though neither country is backing down from territorial claims to the Scarborough Shoal  region.

(PHOTO: A Chinese fishing boat boarded by Philippine Navy officers/DAF handout)The dispute is one of a myriad of conflicting claims over islands, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea pitting China against its Asian neighbors who, last year using patrol boats to disrupt hydrocarbon survey activities chasing away a ship working for Forum Energy off the Philippines and slicing cables of a vessel doing work for Vietnam. Some of the claims have drawn the United States to press China over sovereignty.

Both of the countries reject China's map of the South China Sea as a basis for joint development of oil and gas resources, and have pushed ahead with exploration work, leading to more confrontations as China expands the use of its marine surveillance vessels.

OIL? SHIPPING?

Also at play are the Spratly Islands, a group of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays and islands in the South China Sea. The archipelago is situated off the coasts of the Philippines and Malaysia, about one third of the way from there to Vietnam - amounting to less than four square kilometers of land area over more than 425,000 square kilometers of ocean.  Such small, remote islands have little economic value in themselves, but are important in establishing international boundaries.

The islands stand as rich fishing grounds, and initial surveys indicate the islands may contain significant reserves of oil and natural gas which a 2008 US Energy Information Agency report said could be as much as 213 billion barrels of oil.

About 45 of the islands are occupied by small numbers of military forces from Vietnam, China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Brunei.

Tension has risen in the past two years over worries China is becoming more assertive in its claims to the area as needs for oil and gas rise in the population booming Communist nation in and as more goods are needed in the second largest nation on earth. 

Straddling the Spratly archipelago are also the main shipping lanes between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East and the control of these lanes has not been lost on those claiming sovereignty over these waters.

(MAP: South China Sea claims by country/USC China Center) The stakes have risen further since the US last year began refocusing its military attention on Asia, strengthening ties with the Philippines and Australia.  The US has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines and has boosted military relations with Vietnam in recent years.

VIETNAM

On Tuesday, Chinese state media said a Chinese cruise ship, the `Scent of Princess Coconut', had completed a trial voyage to the Paracel Islands - Hoang Sa in Vietnamese - a cluster of close to 40 islets, outcrops and reefs that both Vietnam and China claim as theirs since ancient times.

The Scent of Princess Coconut docked at a port in the Chinese southern island of Hainan on Monday after the trip. The proposed opening of the Paracel Islands to tourism by China could add to the long-standing tension, which has drawn the United States into pressing China over the issue.

The Japanese-built ship carried out a three-day voyage to the northern shoals of the Paracels, though China said there was no firm timetable for a launch of such regular cruises. Initial Chinese plans call for ships to visit Woody Island, called Yongxing Island by China, though tourists would not be allowed to leave their boat.

Vietnam's foreign ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said Monday that the trip was "illegal and seriously violates Vietnam's sovereignty".

(PHOTO: Scent of Princess Coconut Cruise Ship/Yexiang Gongzhu)China and South Vietnam once administered different parts of the Paracels, but after a brief conflict in 1974, Beijing took control of the entire group of islands - although this remains disputed by Hanoi.

Last month, China detained 21 crew sailing on two Vietnamese fishing boats near the Paracels, sparking an angry rebuke from Hanoi.

INDIA, RUSSIA

Complicating matters as well are recent claims by both India and Russia which have both, in the past few months announced their own plans to go ahead with oil exploration in the South China Sea, in partnership with Vietnam.  China has vocally asked both nations to step aside saying, "China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea".

RESOLUTION?

Although not an ASEAN (Association of Southeast Nations) nation member, Chinese President Hu Jintao travelled to Phnom Penh ahead of the Asia bodies meeting in Cambodia last week to press his case over the South China Sea with Prime Minister Hun Sen - asking that ASEAN work to resolve the dispute among its members.  ASEAN, for its part has stated that it believes the issue should be discussed and solved among those members making claims to the area directly.

--- HUMNEWS

Thursday
Mar082012

Dredging for Facts on the Barrier Reef (REPORT) 

By Andrew Thomas in Asia 

His tone was plaintive.

“We’re poisoning that harbour.  All the crap we’re stirring up; all the rubbish being spewed out. It’s just too much.”

Ordinarily, when someone uses "we" in that context, they only include themselves as passive (usually resistant) individuals, reluctantly part of a national "we" – against both their better judgement and will.

The man describing to me how Gladstone Harbour was being "destroyed", however, counted himself as an active part of that "we": a hands-on, knowing participant in the harbour’s destruction. 

It’d be instant dismissal if anyone heard him tell me these things, he said, so he wouldn’t speak on camera.  But as a bulldozer driver, helping to clear land for a Liquefied Natural Gas plant on adjacent Curtis Island, he realised he was contributing to what he saw as an environmental catastrophe. 

So why was he doing it? 

He spelt it out, literally: "M-o-n-e-y."

A standard five day week earned him $3,400.  Working weekends, he could nearly double that.  He may have sold out his principles, but at least he’d got a good price. 

Gladstone Harbour – almost exactly half way up Australia’s East Coast – represents, in microcosm, the great Australian dilemma. 

Abundant natural resources have kept the country – both as a nation and as a collection of individuals like that bulldozer driver – economically rich.  While the rest of the developed world struggles through financial crisis, Australia powers on.

But it’s all come at an environmental cost. 

As my TV report makes clear, in Gladstone – as elsewhere – competing claims are made about the extent to which development causes damage.

And it’s hard to know who to believe.

The commercial fisherman who was adamant that dredging was killing the fish - and with them his livelihood - had an interest in one causing the other: where there’s blame, there’s a big compensation claim.

Equally, the head of the port corporation could see the entire development of Gladstone Harbour – worth billions – put on hold if a link was ever proved.  So it’s in his interests to stress that "no evidence" of one has ever been found. 

In journalism, it’s common to build a report around a debate – one person says this for these reasons, another that, for those ones.  What is rare is to see a debate internalised within one bulldozer driver: a tortured environmentalist earning $250,000 a year to clear land, and bury his conscience. 

- Originally published by AlJazeera under Creative Commons License 

Tuesday
Feb212012

G20 foreign ministers meet in Mexico; say `World is failing' (NEWS)

(PHOTO: Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa Cantellano speaks during the opening of the G20 Foreign Ministers Informal Meeting in Los Cabos, Baja California Sur state, Mexico, 2.19/Xinhua, Shi Sisi)LOS CABOS, Mexico -- Foreign ministers of the Group of 20 (G20) on Sunday convened in Los Cabos, a resort town in northwestern Mexico, to discuss important issues including global governance, food safety, climate change and green growth.

Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, host of the meeting, said that frank and open dialogue would be held among G20 foreign ministers and officials from other invited countries at the two-day meeting from Sunday to Monday.

Mexico, which holds the G20 presidency this year, planned the meeting to "stimulate ideas" to promote the changes the world needs, said Espinosa.  "There are many important issues that affect the lives of billions of people across the world, on which the international community is failing to make any discernible progress," she said.

She called for progress to be made on issues such as eradicating famine and illiteracy, promoting green growth and sustainable development, and enhancing the rule of law.

The Mexican official, however, said the meeting, given its informal color, would not lead to any official documents.

"At this stage any results arising from these sessions will be mere recommendations for policy coherence among our countries and we do not intend to develop guidelines or formal documents to negotiate at the G20 Summit," she said.

According to the minister, the meeting have four major topics, namely the multilateral trade system, current global challenges, green growth and human development.

The meeting brought together 10 foreign ministers of G20 member economies, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. The Chinese delegation is led by Assistant Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu. Mexico also invited representatives from non-G20 economies and international organizations to participate in the meeting.

Los Cabos, the coastal resort where the G20 Summit will take place in June, has adopted strict measures to beef up security. More police and soldiers have been deployed at the airports and along the major roads to maintain order and check the vehicles.

--- this article first appeared on Cam11

Related:

Mexican Presidency of the G20

Mexico will chair the G20 in 2012 and host the Leaders’ Summit in June of the same year. By assuming the annual Presidency of the G20, as the second emerging country to do so at the Leaders’ level, and the first in Latin America, Mexico confirms its role as a responsible and constructive actor, both regionally and globally.

Mexico is firmly committed to achieving a successful Summit in regards to the agreements reached and their positive impact on the world economy. The Mexican Presidency will seek to follow up the agreements reached previously and will also work to make important contributions to these and other issues of the agenda of the G20. Moreover, Mexico will promote an active and engaged participation of non-members, international organizations, think tanks and the private sector in order to make the G20 dialogue as inclusive, open and transparent as possible.

With this goal in mind, Mexico has established the following priorities:

1. Economic stabilization and structural reforms as foundations for growth and employment.

2. Strengthening the financial system and fostering financial inclusion to promote economic growth.

3. Improving the international financial architecture in an interconnected world.

4. Enhancing food security and addressing commodity price volatility..

5. Promoting sustainable development, green growth and the fight against climate change.

Sunday
Feb192012

In Australia, suffer the children under new rules (PERSPECTIVE) 

(PHOTO: Sydney Morning Herald) By Kathryn Wicks

A year from now, my six-year-old son will no longer have autism. But I have not discovered a miracle cure - nor do I feel like jumping for joy.

The criteria for an autism diagnosis, as defined by the authors of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), is about to change so dramatically that parents across the world are fearful children classified as having high-functioning autism, Asperger's syndrome or pervasive development disorder are likely to lose their diagnosis - and with it, their therapy and educational entitlements.

It is teachers who should be complaining the loudest. They will be the ones left to manage untreated children with less help from special needs staff because fewer children will be classified as special needs.

Parents and psychologists fear the changes to the diagnostic criteria are driven by an American government wanting to reduce the rate at which autism is diagnosed - now one in 100 - so as to reduce the cost of supporting services which help children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) fit into society, and the classroom.

The clinicians on the DSM taskforce claim changes to the manual will not change the rate of diagnosis. They argue they are simply trying to reduce the subcategories and cover all afflicted children with one blanket label, autism spectrum disorder, to achieve better clarity on diagnosis.

But the devil lies in the detail of the changes between the present manual and the proposed new manual, to come into effect next year, and experts fear a large drop in the number of diagnoses.

A diagnosis of ASD, which can include the subcategories such as Asperger's, is given if a child ticks enough boxes across three categories of impairment - social interaction, speech and language, and behaviour. Each category has four ''boxes''.

Now, a diagnosis of ASD is allowed if six of the 12 impairments are present, two of which must be impairments in social interaction. Under the proposed changes, a child will need to have all four social interaction deficiencies before a diagnosis is given. In the second category, communication, a diagnosis now requires one deficiency; under the changes, it will require two.

According to Professor Allen Francis, the chairman of the taskforce responsible for the present manual, to gain a diagnosis, there are 2688 possible combinations of the 12 deficiencies.

However, under the changes, there will be only six possible combinations. ''The method of deriving the new DSM-5 criteria is suspect and its claim to be rate neutral seems simply absurd,'' Frances wrote in the Huffington Post.

And he is dead right. Diagnosis rates, especially for high-functioning and Asperger's children, will fall dramatically. I know my son ticks six of those 12 boxes, but under DSM-5, he will not tick the right six boxes. He will be reclassified as having a ''social disorder'', not an autism spectrum disorder. It won't change his life; he has used his funding and successfully made the transition to mainstream school.

But what will it do to an equally afflicted child who fails to get a diagnosis in future? Will he learn to say ''mum'' and look her in the eye? Will he learn to use his nice voice when talking to his friends? Will he learn to share toys? Will he learn to cope with a routine being thrown out? Will he be able to sit still in class, listen and learn? Without therapy, probably not.

In Australia, a child diagnosed with any ASD is entitled to funding of $12,000 over two years up to age six, paid directly to service providers of multidisciplinary therapy. Such therapy may include applied behaviour analysis (ABA) therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy. It doesn't cover the cost, but it helps. The result of the therapy, especially ABA, is priceless, often getting autistic children across the line into mainstream schooling.

This funding means children are getting help when it helps them most - ages two to five, when the brain is described as being more ''plastic'' and thus more influenced by therapy. By the time they get to school, provided they have their two years of therapy, a child with autism but a normal IQ is often able to function in a normal classroom environment (as long as no one moves his pencils out of place). ABA teaches children to behave appropriately through the consistent and exhaustive reinforcement of good behaviour over a sustained period. It works.

Take therapy away, and Kindy Blue turns into Kindy Beirut pretty quickly.

Teachers and all parents should picture this: in 2018, a teacher could be dealing with a child with untreated ''social disorder'' rolling around the floor and refusing to sit at his desk, not teaching the other 19 neurologically normal children in the room.

The time to speak up is now.

 --- Kathryn Wicks is a senior Sydney Morning Herald journalist and her piece originally appeared HERE.

Thursday
Feb162012

Timor-Leste: Everybody needs good neighbours (PERSPECTIVE) 

(VIDEO: Al Jazeera, East Timor, 10 years old.)

By The International Crisis Group’s Jim Della-Giacoma

Early in 2010, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was sitting in Kabul with some diplomats who had served in Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

'Is it true', he asked, 'that Indonesia just walked away from East Timor after 1999?'

'Absolutely', they replied.

Karzai is a natural sceptic, but he saw something to be admired in the way Indonesia had turned its back on a conflict by which it had so long defined itself. 'This is not something well understood', he said.

Last month at the Australian Civil-Military Centre I was asked to remember what had been learnt from the first three international interventions in East Timor between 1999 and 2002, each often cited as a success story. First, UNAMET ran the referendum that certified the Timorese desire for independence. Then INTERFET enforced the peace and guaranteed the outcome of the vote would be respected. Finally, UNTAET brought the country to independence.

In 1999, UNAMET, while nominally a UN mission, was an extension of Canberra's foreign policy with the whole of government behind it. Prime Minister Howard rolled up his sleeves and negotiated with President Habibie all sorts of details, including the number of UN civilian police supervising the ballot and the establishment of an Australian consulate in Dili. Foreign Minister Downer proclaimed there should be no logistical reasons for delaying the ballot. If the UN needed something, it would be provided.

Proximity gave Australia both motive and means to back this and subsequent missions. It would not have and could not have done the same for either Sri Lanka or Singapore.

As UNAMET proceeded, the ADF quietly planned for the day when things did go wrong and UN personnel and their families, as well as prominent citizens such as Nobel laureate Bishop Belo, needed sanctuary. This evacuation rolled into INTERFET, which saw an unprecedented mobilisation of Australian diplomatic, military, and financial muscle in support of a peace enforcement operation. About A$740 million later, Australia handed responsibility for security to UNTAET in early 2000.

Most contemporaneous lessons learnt focused on UNTAET's technocratic failings. If you were in it, as I was, you knew it was an ad hoc adventure and a bit chaotic. The experts concluded the UN was unequipped for such a mammoth task and needed to be reformed to meet future challenges. Yet while UNTAET was flawed, it did hand over a functioning government for the Timorese to run on 20 May 2002.

One key factor in the success of these missions is often neglected — the absence of external spoilers. This is what President Karzai saw too.

Timor-Leste was a lucky country that came of age just as Indonesia democratised and its military was leaving the national stage. The post-Soeharto civilian political leadership quickly turned its back on the former province and got on with the business of internal reform. It repealed the 1976 integration law in October 1999 and left the territory to the UN. Then Mines and Oil Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono renounced Indonesia's claim on Timor's oil, thereby making the new republic economically viable.

By the time the UN was ready to give the country back to the Timorese in May 2002, Indonesia had been through three presidents. Megawati Soekarnoputri, the one least supportive of East Timor's plight, magnanimously showed up for the party.

But, Mr. Karzai, Indonesia did not just walk away from Timor, it did something much more extraordinary: it enthusiastically embraced the idea of an independent Timor-Leste.

Such diplomatic gymnastics still startle the old hands every time one of the Indonesian veterans of 1999 blogs, tweets, or posts pictures of new found Timorese friend who was once their adversary. Despite the odd hiccup (the two countries still cannot agree on a land or maritime border), the relationship is increasingly broad and mutually profitable.

After UNAMET was over, UN officials wrote to Australian counterparts to tell them we could not have performed the mission without them. Indonesia never received such thank-you letters, as its turn-around from belligerent party to good neighbour took some years. Also, its misbehaviour and scorched earth policy in 1999 has never been forgotten and neither have the crimes against humanity that took place on Jakarta's watch, which are still to be properly accounted for.

But how did a friendship blossom amid such bitter memories? Most importantly, the Timorese were ready to trade justice for peace. The realpolitik moment was the final report of the imperfect 2005-2008 Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF). In turn for not pursuing crimes against humanity against Indonesian perpetrators, Timor-Leste, through the CTF, gained a sense of equality with its former coloniser; Indonesia lost the pebble in its shoe as it aspired to fill the boots of a being a regional power.

But such morally ambiguous deals do not negate the strategic reality that is clear now, a decade after independence; you really do need good neighbours to make a complex peace operation work. In the case of Timor-Leste, it took one with deep pockets and can-do spirit to the south as well as another to the west ready to leave quietly, do nothing and then overcome its enormous loss of face to want to try again to be best friends with the new nation over its back fence.

--- Jim Della-Giacoma is the South East Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group & The Interpreter

Monday
Jan302012

`Resilient People, Resilient Planet': New UN Report says World is running out of time, resources. 

(PHOTO: Global Greenhouse Warming.com)(HN/January 30, 2012) - A high level Global Sustainability panel organized by the UN released its report on resilient sustainability for both people and the planet today in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  The report release by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon comes on the sidelines of the 18th ordinary African Union Summit which opened here this weekend.

The report says a “Future Worth Choosing” must be based on true costs to people and the environment and that the world is running out of time to create real solutions to ensure there is enough food, water and energy to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population expected to reach 9 billion by 2040 from 7 billion now, and the number of middle-class consumers which will increase by 3 billion over the next 20 years.  As a result, demand for resources will rise exponentially.

Even by 2030, the world will need at least 50% more food, 45 % more energy and 30 % more water, according to U.N. estimates, at a time when a changing environment is creating new limits to supply. The report warns that if the world fails to tackle these problems, it risks sending up to 3 billion people into poverty.

"The current global development model is unsustainable. To achieve sustainability, a transformation of the global economy is required," the report said.

There are 20 million more undernourished people now than in 2000; 5.2 million hectares of forest are lost per year - an area the size of Costa Rica; 85 percent of all fish stocks are over-exploited or depleted; and carbon dioxide emissions have risen 38 percent between 1990 and 2009, which heightens the risk of sea level rise and more extreme weather.

Among the panel's goals for governments is to agree on a set of sustainable development goals which would complement the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) by 2015 and create a framework for action.

(PHOTO: File) The 22 member panel, established by the Secretary-General in August 2010 to formulate a new blueprint for sustainable development and low-carbon prosperity, was co-chaired by Finnish President Tarja Halonen and South African President Jacob Zuma.  The final report contains 56 recommendations to put sustainable development into practice and to mainstream it into economic policy as quickly as possible.  “Resilient People, Resilient Planet” calls for the integration of social and environmental costs in how the world prices and measures economic activities. It also calls for a set of sustainable development indicators that go beyond the traditional approach of Gross Domestic Product and recommends that Governments develop and apply a set of Sustainable Development Goals that can mobilize global action and help monitor progress.

The Secretary-General, in receiving the Panel’s report, stated that sustainable development is a top priority for his second term of office. “We need to chart a new, more sustainable course for the future, one that strengthens equality and economic growth while protecting our planet,” said the Secretary-General.  The report of provides a timely contribution to preparations for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Brazil in June 2012.

Addressing the Secretary-General via video, co-chair President Halonen stressed the importance of placing people at the center of achieving sustainable development. “Eradication of poverty and improving equity must remain priorities for the world community,” noted President Halonen. “The Panel has concluded that empowering women and ensuring a greater role for them in the economy is critical for sustainable development.”

(GRAPH: EOLSS.COM)Among the panel’s other recommendations they said that governments should work with partners to create an "evergreen revolution," which would at least double productivity while reducing resource use and avoiding further biodiversity losses, the report said.  Water and marine ecosystems should be managed more efficiently and there should be universal access to affordable sustainable energy by 2030.  Carbon and natural resource pricing should be established through taxation, regulation or emissions trading schemes by 2020 and fossil fuel subsidies should also be phased out by that time. National fiscal and credit systems should be reformed to provide long-term incentives for sustainable practices as well as disincentives for unsustainable ones. Sovereign wealth and public pension funds, as well as development banks and export credit agencies should apply sustainable development criteria to their investment decisions, and governments or stock market watchdogs should revise regulations to encourage their use.  Science should be behind environmental progress and the UN should consider naming a chief scientific adviser or board to advise the organization, and calls on the Secretary-General to lead efforts to produce a regular Global Sustainable Development Outlook report that integrates knowledge across sectors and institutions

The 22 members of the High-level Panel on Global Sustainability included current and former heads of states, ministers, and representatives of the private sector and civil society.  In addition to the Co-chairs, the Panel included Sheikh Abdallah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates; Hajiya Amina Az-Zubai, Former Senior Special Assistant and Adviser to the President of Nigeria on the Millennium Development Goals; Ali Babacan, Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey; James Laurence Balsillie, former Co-Chief Executive Officer of Research in Motion; Alexander Bedritsky, Adviser to the President of the Russian Federation, Special Envoy for Climate; Gro Harlem Brundtland, Former Prime Minister of Norway; Micheline Calmy-Rey, Former President and former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Switzerland; Julia Carabias Lillo, Former Secretary of the Environment of Mexico; Gunilla Carlsson, Minister for International Development Cooperation of Sweden; Luisa Dias Diogo, Member of Parliament and former Prime Minister of Mozambique; Han Seung-soo, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Global Green Growth Institute and former Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea; Yukio Hatoyama, former Prime Minister of Japan; Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action; Cristina Narbona Ruiz, former Minister of the Environment of Spain, Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Rural Development of India, Susan E. Rice, United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations; Kevin Rudd, Minister for Foreign Affairs and former Prime Minister of Australia; Freundel Stuart, Prime Minister of Barbados; Izabella Mônica Vieira Teixeira, Minister of the Environment of Brazil, and Zheng Guoguang; Administrator of the China Meteorological Administration. Mr. Janos Pasztor was an ex-officio member as Executive Secretary of the High-level Panel on Global Sustainability.

The full report is available at www.un.org/gsp.

---HUMNEWS

Thursday
Apr072011

Why People-Smugglers Aren't All Bad (Opinion/Blog)

- by Andrew Thomas

Asylum seekers, Christmas Island/ CREDIT: Safecom.org(April 7, 2011) Last week was not a good one for Australian attempts to establish a pan-Asia framework for assessing asylum applications.

At a conference in Bali, prime minister Julia Gillard’s plan for a processing centre on Timor-Leste failed to gain traction.

A "regional co-operation framework" with a "centre or centres" was cited as an aspiration. Nothing, though, was fixed.

Promises of a centre somewhere, one day, do not convey the urgency the Australian government claims it has. Politically in Australia, the consensus is that quick action is needed.

Boats full of asylum seekers keep arriving. A fortnight ago, the detention centres on Christmas Island burned after riots over application delays and overcrowding; hundreds of detainees temporarily roamed loose.

Opposition parties used the images to claim policy towards asylum seekers was broken. When I saw the images, I was reminded of the five days I spent on Christmas Island in the wake of the sinking of a boat, just off it, which killed around 50 in December last year.

In fact, "sinking" is too bland a term to describe what happened to that vessel and its passengers. After the boat’s engines failed it was pushed towards razor-sharp cliffs then pummeled against them by five metre waves.

Once the boat was smashed, the passengers were hammered direct – some straight against the rocks, others caught between what remained of their boat and the cliffs.

They were pounded by waves and planks on one side, their bodies shredded by rocks on the other.

One Christmas Island local – long deep scratches down his legs where he’d been ripped while still on land – told me he was second man on a rope trying to haul up survivors: "The closest we got to saving anyone was seeing a man’s face come up just over the lip of the cliff. Then another massive wave came in and swept him away".

And yet, even with such tragedy I thought then, and still think now, that much of the rhetoric around asylum policy in Australia is misguided.

Disregard to human life

Take something that everyone seems to agree on - that those who organise such voyages are "evil".

This is what Julia Gillard said in the wake of the disaster: "The people smugglers who ply this evil trade, who seek to profit on human misery with callous disregard to human life ... are responsible" she said, "The government, of course, is responding to this evil trade".

But wait a moment. Like all industries that turn a profit – and people-smuggling by boat to Christmas Island is a growing one – business sustainability depends on a ready supply of customers.

Representatives from the department of immigration and from charities on Christmas Island were all quick to tell me how potential customers were misled: how the marketing for these voyages was false: passengers "cruise" to Australia on sophisticated vessels, goes the pitch, (not lurch across high seas in wooden buckets, liable to tip at any time).

Friendly Australian navy boats meet, then escort passengers to their new home (not line them up in rows and make them sit cross-legged on a barge), asylum applications are processed quickly – and always favourably – with customers ready to start their new lives Down Under in days (not wait months in cramped detention camps, in 30 degree heat, and 90 per cent humidity, deal with endless bureaucracy and agencies before facing the very real possibility of being flown, minus savings, from whence they’d come).

"Australia – a sophisticated land of dreams and we can get you there" ... for just $5,000, or $25,000, or $50,000. No one quite seems to agree on the going rate.

"Life savings" seems the established price. But who wouldn’t jump at that? If only customers knew the truth, is the mantra.

If only the evil smugglers were frank about their trade. But just consider for a moment if they were.

Here are some stats. For the financial year June 2009-June 2010, 118 boats made it to Christmas Island carrying a total of 5,592 people to shore alive. Two boats did sink killing 17.

Nevertheless, 99.7 per cent made it in one piece, just three in every thousand drowned.

For 2010 as a calendar year, including the December sinking, around 140 boats made it to shore carrying around 6,500. Even taking into account the 50 who died so horribly, around 99 per cent survived.

And what rewards for those who do. Over the last decade between 70 per cent and 97 per cent of those arriving by boat to Christmas Island have ultimately been assessed as valid refugees and been granted full protection visas – the first step to citizenship, and all the benefits of a new life in Australia that that brings.

Let's assume for a minute that people smugglers are unbelievably honest salesmen, and see whether their honest pitch would persuade: "Give us all your money and we will almost certainly deliver you safely – though perhaps not comfortably - to Australia.

Asylum politics

There, after what will be – we admit – a rough few months in a place akin to a prison, you'll very likely be given a pass to spend the rest of your lives living and working in one of the most pleasant countries on Earth.

No guarantees, and like all purchases it might not be for everyone ... but what do you say?"

Imagine you went to your (expensive) doctor with a major complaint and he said he could give you an operation.

It won't be pleasant, but it cures between 70 and 97 per cent of those that have it, and the worse your existing condition, the better your odds.

However, in a very small proportion of cases - less than 1 per cent - the operation kills. You'd probably take your chances.
If the condition was bad enough, you certainly would. And you wouldn’t label the doctor "evil" for trying.

It speaks volumes that it's thought many who've been granted asylum and now live and work in Australia are sending money back to relatives at home to pay for them to make the same voyage.

They know the deal: they've lived the honest pitch, yet still encourage others to do the same.

If an evil trade is one where the perpetrators negligently – willfully – put people in danger in pursuit of profit then perhaps people-smuggling is one.

But if an evil trade is one which promises one thing and then delivers something completely different, and where the "customers" would never sign up if they knew the evil truth, then I'm not sure people-smuggling counts.

A nasty trade, certainly, a risky one, no doubt. But evil? Most customers walk away having had the core service as promised.

In fact, what's arguably "evil" is getting asylum cases wrong and denying asylum to those that genuinely need it.

There is evidence that those who are ultimately refused asylum in Australia end up being murdered once they've been sent home.

In that sense, what matters far more than where claims are assessed is how they are: the rhetoric shouldn't concentrate on the place of the decision, but on the decision itself.

It never will of course. That, after all, is politics.

- by Andrew Thomas - originally published by Al-Jazeera April 3, 2011 under Creative Commons Licensing 

Friday
Mar112011

Small, Vulnerable Pacific Nations Spared Worst of Tsunami (NEWS BRIEF)

(HN, March 11, 2011) - Hundreds of small Pacific nations and islands have been spared of extensive damage from the tsunami triggered by the mega-quake that hit northern Japan Friday afternoon.

The tsunami that hit Pacific island nations six years ago caused massive damage

According to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, as of early Saturday morning local time, many of the low-lying nations feared to be in the direct path of the tsunami were struck from the threat list.

It included: Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Niue, Tonga, French Polynesia, Easter Island, Pitcairn and Antarctica.

Several other Pacific nations were on the list - including New Zealand, where the southern island was hit by a devastating quake just a few short weeks ago. Australia was also removed from the threat list, according to Radio New Zealand reports monitored by HUMNEWS.

Many of the Pacific islands feared to be in the path of the tsunami rely heavily on tourism and had many foreign guests at the time of the alert.

In addition many were victims of one of the worst natural disasters of modern times more than six years ago, when a tsunami triggered by an undersea quake off Indonesia killed more than 220,000 people around the Indian Ocean.

It is believed that many of the practices back then that led to an enormous death toll have been eradicated. For example, housing on coastlines is discouraged in countries vulnerable to tsunamis and bad weather. Aid agencies have also spent untold millions on disaster preparedness and sensitizing local populations.

“We have a lot of earthquakes here and so are getting used to tsunami warnings, however they are always scary, especially when the earthquake epicentre is nearby as there is not always high ground easily accessible," said Suzanne Bule, 26, a British national who works at the Hideaway Resort on the small Republic of Vanuatu and has been evacuating guests.

She told her hometown newspaper The Stourbridge News: “It's also nighttime here and the wave is supposed to arrive at 1am, so that makes it more difficult.

“The authorities are on the television and radio constantly at the moment trying to persuade people to take the warning seriously as we haven't had a big tsunami hit here, and so people start thinking all the warnings are false alarms.

“Some villages are moving to high ground, although there's always those that go to the beach to watch.

“Fingers crossed, all will be okay and the warnings will be lifted in a few hours, then we can get some sleep.”

- HUMNEWS staff, wires

Tuesday
Mar012011

(TRAVEL) - `A Trip to Adjara, Georgia’ 

--- By Craig Fedchock

Some of Georgia’s impressive historical churches. (CREDIT: Craig Fedchock)My work has given me the opportunity to travel to a wide variety of places around the world.  I’ve seen giant fruit bats in Australia and the Philippines, the harvest of longan fruit in Vietnam, and citrus in South Africa.  While I’ve seen so many things, I nevertheless didn’t know what to expect when I first came to the country of Georgia, nestled as it is along the Black Sea and reaching into the Caucasus Mountains. 

While the capital Tbilisi is at least somewhat well-known if for nothing more than being the capital of the country that tried to take on Vladimir Putin’s Russia two years ago, and limited amounts of Georgian wine and food are starting to make their way to our shores, not much else is widely known about the country. 

My experience began in the capital, a robust city which is benefitting from investments to its infrastructure from many countries, including most especially the United States.  I suspect that most of you reading this piece would be fairly surprised to learn that the main road from the city’s airport into town is named “George W. Bush Avenue,” complete with the former President’s picture.  As there are others much more experienced with Tbilisi and its environs, I shall be more than happy to defer to their perspectives and comments about that fine city. 

My preference instead is to reflect on the far too short a time I spent in the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, which, with its capital Batumi, is seemingly a miniature version of the country as a whole. There are daily flights to and from Tbilisi on the national airline Georgian Airlines, as well as Air Batumi, although their dependability is suspect as one of my colleagues found out to her good fortune to be explained later.  There is train service as well to and from the capital, including an overnight train.  My suggestion, however, would be to fly to Istanbul on any one of the major airlines and take the non-stop Turkish Airlines directly to Batumi.  I myself was fortunate to arrive in traditional Georgian style in a “marshroutka”, sort of a large minivan with just enough shocks to keep you from tumbling like an astronaut in the space shuttle, but not enough to keep you from feeling like you just spent a few hours with one of those old fashioned weight loss machines in which you were strapped with a belt around your waist.  The redeeming thing is that despite the best efforts of the somewhat macho Georgian drivers, I managed to arrive at my hotel safe and sound. 

The Black Sea coast looking north from the Batumi botanical gardens. (CREDIT: Craig Fedchock)At the moment Batumi is in the midst of an enormous economic expansion.  The city, a favorite summer vacation spot during the Soviet times for those coming from Moscow and the other large northern cities, is slowly but surely picking itself back up from the ashes from the former USSR as well as the significant internal strife which took place for some time after the fall of communism.  Batumi has even been holding the Black Sea Jazz Festival for the past five years, bringing in some of the world’s best artists on a regular basis.  One of the key landmarks in the city is the Sheraton Hotel, which opened only in June of this year.  The Sheraton stands above most of the other buildings in the city, almost like the Alexandrian light house after which it claims its design.  It will soon have company, however, as Radisson, Kempinski, Hilton and Novotel all are in the process of developing properties which are destined to make the Batumi skyline gain an appearance more akin to that of Miami than a Caucasian Black Sea resort when they are all completed sometime in the next two years.

Just a short walk from the Sheraton, and eventually all of the other hotels mentioned above, stands the “Boulevard”, a lengthy boardwalk the likes of which I have not seen elsewhere.  Bordering the Black Sea “beach”, which is really stone rather than sand, the Boulevard stretches for roughly seven kilometers and just like everything else in Batumi, is on the upswing, with plans for expansion, some Batumians say, almost all the way to the Turkish border, about an additional 12 kilometers.  The amazing thing about the Boulevard is that while it abounds with restaurants and discos, it does so in such a way that it still maintains a feeling of spaciousness that is not at all common with other boardwalks I’ve had the chance to visit.  The Georgians have managed to keep their traditional menus alive in several of these shoreline restaurants, but I also saw a Chinese and even a Dutch (yes, a Dutch!) restaurant bordering the boulevard.   While nothing has been written about Georgian cuisine that can even come close to doing it justice, I don’t doubt for a minute that the restaurants featuring other cuisines will produce some good results if for no other reason than Georgians will be doing the cooking! 

The Georgian Table. (CREDIT: Craig Fedchock)I will mention that there are some true jewels in the Georgian culinary cupboard.  From simple fare like Khachapuri, which is really not much more than bread and cheese, (but oh what bread and what incredible cheese), and the basic “salsa” of Georgia, Tkemali, (made from tart plums, garlic, coriander (or dill) and salt and pepper and which Georgians are happy to put on just about anything), to more exquisite dishes, having a meal anywhere in Georgia is truly special.  Georgians will use almost any excuse to feed strangers, and the people living in Batumi are no exception.  The hospitality of Georgians is unmatched and simply needs to be experienced.  Beyond that however, the use of spices in the Adjara region is a little more creative and the flavors little more complex, and this alone warrants giving the region more attention.  

As I mentioned above, the city is truly undergoing a major renovation, and nowhere do the results promise to be more fantastic than in the area known as “Old Batumi.”  While there is still more work to be completed (according to one wine shop owner, who just happens to be producing a sherry-like Church Wine” based on a recipe his grandfather developed in 1907, the streets are being rebuilt for the first time since the Tsars were running the place, and the results are already striking. 

Nearing completion is Europe Square, surrounded by buildings no more than two stories tall which easily conjure up images in the mind of just about anywhere in the developed countries of Europe (although France comes first to my mind).    An additional shopping plaza is under construction in Old Batumi as well, and once complete, Batumi will definitely be in the running for being considered as a true jewel of the Black Sea. 

Beyond the city of Batumi, there are a couple of other places which must be mentioned.  For a short taxi ride from the Sheraton costing roughly about $3-5, you can visit to Batumi Botanical Gardens.  With thousands of species representing almost all the far corners of the earth, you can easily spend a minimum of two hours walking on the well-paved trails without seeing even a third of everything you could possibly see.  That the garden also houses Stalin’s one time dacha made it particularly fun for me, having spent several of my formative years studying the Soviet Union.  For roughly $3, you can make a day of it here, just make sure you bring along some Georgian wine, bread and any number of the fresh fruits and vegetables which are seemingly ubiquitous on the road side.

A makeshift banquet of honeycomb, pears, and of course, vodka. (CREDIT: Craig Fedchock)The best thing of all for me, however, was the chance I had to visit Georgia’s newest National Park, Mtirala.  This came about at the invitation of the Adjara Autonomous Republic’s Minister of Agriculture, Emzar Dzirkvadze, and resulted in a day I will most likely never forget.  The Minister exhibited a true love of his region, and respect for the land for which he cares in many ways, not least of which was his willingness to get behind the wheel of the four wheel drive which took us up the winding and unsurfaced road to the mountaintop where the park is located.   As I mentioned above, one of my colleagues was able to join the trip because her flight on Air Batumi was delayed until much later in the day.  On the way there we stopped by a small stand, artfully constructed with the help of the World Wildlife Fund, for a taste of the honey produced by bees kept by residents living in one of the small villages of indeterminate age (maybe hundreds of years old?) that can be found in one of the truly remotest regions of the country.   

While on the road to our visit, the Minister spoke of his plans for the region, all reasonable and deserving to be realized, while pointing out with pride the many things that are represented in Georgian nature.  It was obvious in his comments that not only the minister, but his fellow Adjarians are committed to ensuring that whatever happens, the need to maintain the quality of life and produce, with a strong emphasis on organic production, is paramount.  That being said, after a fantastic drive which had us driving next to, around or even in a few cases through, spring-fed waterfalls around almost every corner, we arrived at the Visitor Center (again constructed with the aid of the World Wildlife Fund and even equipped with a wheelchair ramp) for the park.  While there, we were given a presentation by a park representative in flawless English which included a tour of the guest quarters, four rooms which at 20 Lari (the Lari is currently running about $.50 US) a night, including breakfast, which can only be described as elegantly Spartan, one of the best examples of the finest in ecotourism I have seen. 

Georgian Beekeeper in Mtirala Park. (CREDIT: Craig Fedchock)We then visited the beekeepers, who make all of their beekeeping supplies out of local materials, and saw first-hand the love for the land which is in the Adjarian people, not to mention the ever-present Georgian hospitality.  Within minutes of the completed presentation on  beekeeping, a table magically appeared from out of nowhere under a pear tree and we were treated to the freshest honey and honey comb possible, along with the requisite shot of honey vodka.  As we had some lunch waiting for us at the restaurant a short walk from the Visitor Center, we made our goodbyes far too quickly and moved a short bit it down the mountainside for our lunch.  That the restaurant is situated next to a spring-fed mountain stream, and the water is absolutely drinkable only made the remainder of our time in the park that much more enjoyable.  At the Minister’s suggestion, we gathered up our clay water vessel, walked about two minutes and filled our pitcher with water coming directly out of the mountain side.  Everything in our meal, with the exception, once again of the requisite beer and vodka, was locally and organically produced (including some of the best fresh trout which kept getting bigger and bigger the longer we stayed at the table), and had we not needed to catch our flight home, all of us in our party would have had no trouble at all to committing to several additional days in the park.   

The Adjara region is one of those places where you can lose yourself for a few days in the forested mountains, and come back to Batumi to enjoy nightlife and cuisine as sophisticated as anywhere.  While the renovations are still underway it is not too early to pay a visit; you will leave wanting even more.   

--- The author if Craig Fedchock, Director of International Capacity Development for the United States Department of Agriculture; Animal, Plant Health Inspection Service.  He recently took this trip to the country of Georgia, and was so moved by the beauty of the culture and the people, he wanted to share the experience with others.

Thursday
Feb032011

World food prices at an historic high (Report) 

photo courtesy UN News(HN, February 3, 2011) --  World food prices have surged, for the seventh consecutive month, to a new historic peak in January, according to the updated FAO Food Price Index, a commodity basket that regularly tracks monthly changes in global food prices.

The index averaged 231 points in January and was up 3.4 percent from December – the highest level since the FAO started to measure in 1990 and higher than in June 2008 when the cost of food sparked violent protests in countries including Egypt, Haiti and Cameroon.

“These high prices are likely to persist in the months to come, FAO economist Abdolreza Abbassian said.

The individual group components of the index, apart from meat, all registered rises in January.

The Cereal Price Index averaged 245 points in January reflecting rises in the price of wheat and grain which had already gone up due to poor weather conditions this past year in countries such as Russia and the Ukraine and was driven higher by flooding in Australia, which is a major wheat exporter.

Political unrest

The high price of food seems to have been the spark that has unleashed a series of anti-government demonstrations, protests in several countries in the Middle East, beginning in Tunisia, where a young man set himself on fire after being prevented from selling fruits and vegetables, and spreading to Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt.

The Middle East and North Africa are the two regions that import the largest amount of cereal and countries in the area have been hit especially hard by the harvest shortages in Russia and the Ukraine this year.

Today the Moldovan government has decided to ban all wheat exports until the next harvest in an effort to prevent a large increase in the price of bread. The Prime Minister stated that the order should have been made earlier to avoid the “panic” that he says has already taken hold of the population.

wheat, file photoChallenges

Surging global food prices are just one of the many challenges that people face throughout the world. Climate change, growing population, and water sources are also affecting the overall food production and availability. As many countries grow increasingly dependent on food imports, they grow more vulnerable to natural disaster and market fluctuations taking place half-way around the world from them.

In India, The Financial Times reported earlier this week that food prices have hit their highest point in more than a year. Food prices are up by at least 18 percent from last year in a country where millions are spending more than 50 percent of their total income on food.

Rises are particularly high for dairy products, up 6.2% from December. Prices were driven higher by a combination of lower supply and increasing demand in emerging economies such as China and India.

The demand for food is expected to continue to grow as a result both of population grown and rising incomes according the FAO. Demand for cereals (for food and animal feed) is projected to reach some 3 billion tons by 2050. Annual cereal production will have to grow by almost a billion tons (2.1 billion tons today), and meat production by over 200 million tons to reach a total of 470 million tons in 2050, 72 percent of which will be consumed in developing countries, up from the 58 percent today.

The production of biofuels could also increase the demand for agricultural commodities, depending on energy prices and government policies.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick has asked global leaders to “put food first” and tackle the problem of price volatility.

“We are going to be facing a broader trend of increasing commodity prices, including food commodity prices”, he said.

Commodities prices have been on the rise generally with copper hitting a record high of $10,000 a ton.

Oil was also up on Thursday with Brent crude rising to $103.37 a barrel.

- HUMNews Staff