Global Notebook 3/98

 Global Tax Gets Another Look

LONDON – Proposals to pay for international aid, peacekeeping, and other humanitarian causes through global taxes have long been shunned by the US Congress. Suggestions range from an international lottery to a tax on the arms trade. But one idea – a tax on foreign currency transactions – may have a better chance after the currency fluctuations that crashed the “Asian miracle.”

Although congressional Right-wingers see it as a plot against US sovereignty, cuts in Western aid budgets and recent economic jitters are reviving consideration of the so-called Tobin Tax. Originally suggested by US Nobel laureate James Tobin, a tax on currency transactions supposedly would discourage trading and reduce exchange-rate volatility. With $1.2 trillion washing through the global economy every day, the proceeds could reach $80 billion a year. Princeton economist Peter Kenan suggests that funds be used for projects like disaster relief, AIDS research, and environmental clean-ups.

Critics warn that collection would be difficult, or that financial institutions would evade payment by using off-shore banks. But all global banking transactions are recorded in a US-based computer. If governments simply “follow the money,” they can surely collect the tax.

Felix Dodd, London director of the UN Environmental Program, calls it a “win-win situation,” since Tobin’s tax would not only solve the UN’s dues problem but also “slow the ability of currencies to go into a tailspin.” Winning over Congress will be tough, however. Lawmakers like Jesse Helms see any move to strengthen the UN as part of a conspiracy to establish world dominion. “Maybe we need a run on the US dollar to convert them,” quips Dodds.

Supremes Consider Same-Gender Case

WASHINGTON, DC – The Supreme Court is considering a case which could extend sexual harassment protection to situations involving one gender. According to Joseph Oncale, a Louisiana oil-rig worker, three male coworkers for Sundowner Offshore Services harassed him. Both sides essentially agree on the details of the behavior. The question is whether this violates Title VII of the US Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although the Act has been used to prosecute opposite-gender sexual harassment, it doesn’t specifically cover such problems. Instead, it prohibits “an unlawful employment practice … to discriminate against any individual” because of, among other things, “such individual’s … sex.”

Harry Reasoner, a Sundowner lawyer, maintains that the law “sought to level the playing field” between men and women, but “was not trying to reach conduct between men.” However, previous lower courts have concluded otherwise.

In a similar suit in Virginia, reports Out! magazine, the court ruled that harassment motivated by homosexual attraction would be covered. In Illinois, meanwhile, taunting and aggressive sexual touching between heterosexuals were ruled violations.

Although questions from the Supreme Court justices make it clear that the decision could go either way, Justice Antonin Scalia has called the coworkers’ behavior “obnoxious hazing,” and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg characterized the perpetrators as “gross people.”

And Chief Justice William Rehnquist says, “I don’t see how we could possibly sustain the ruling [of the federal appeals court that the law] never could be” applied to same-sex harassment. A decision is expected before June.

Diet Number Three

TORONTO – Six giant US-based agrochemical corporations are poised to dominate global food production with genetically engineered food. In fact, they’ve increased the acreage covered with genetically modified crops tenfold since 1995, and are now poised to take over huge tracts throughout Asia and Africa. According to Indian activist Vandana Shiva, Asia could also become a “dumping place” for genetically-modified food as traditional markets like Europe become more selective. While long-term studies aren’t yet conclusive, Shiva warns that genetically-modified crops could be harmful to consumers’ health and the environment. Europe is already debating measures to label them.

“The world is about to witness a [food crop] revolution,” notes the McKinsey Quarterly, a business publication. “The science is now in the hands of large, well-funded, agricultural, chemical and pharmaceutical giants which are poised to move from a handful of products on the market today to a full menu in five years’ time. Biotechnology is revolutionizing the food chain.”

According to the companies, the new technology will end world hunger, reduce the use of pesticides, and improve health. Says Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro, “We may end up with prescription foods or prescription diets. We may have Monsanto diet No. 3, for example.” Now, there’s a scary thought.

NAFTA Rules Stack the Deck

SAN LUIS POTOSI – Metalclad Corp., a US-based waste disposal company, claims that the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi violated NAFTA when it declared a local plant an environmental hazard and ordered it closed down. Eventually, the Governor declared the site part of a 600,000 acre ecological zone. In response, Metalclad is seeking $90 million in compensation for “expropriation” and treaty violations, more than the combined annual income of every family in the county.

Environmental zoning has been attacked, especially in the US, by “property rights” activists – known as the “takings” movement – who demand payment for complying with environmental regulations. Metalclad, for example, claims that Mexico’s zoning constitutes a seizure of company property. Under the property rights extended by NAFTA, it charges, the government must pay up. Though this probably wouldn’t fly in a US court, NAFTA’s broad language emphasizes investor rights, skewing international law against public interest regulation.

Metalclad also claims that Mexico’s federal government unofficially encouraged the lawsuit, hoping to deflect attention from pressure it placed on the state to allow the facility. If true, this suggests that, using NAFTA. investors and governments collude to force unwanted or even dangerous development on unwilling populations.

The case also raises questions about whether the pending Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) might be similarly abused by national governments hoping to enforce obligations on defiant states and communities. While investors will be able to sue only MAI signers – federal governments – they in turn will be able to countersue states, possibly forcing them to pay damages. An oppressive government could even “send in the army” to enforce a ruling. Thus, the MAI could have deep impacts on environmental and labor laws, especially if progressive local officials challenge hostile national administrations.

Newswomen, Unite!

DAKAR – Women from 24 countries were on hand last December to launch the African Women’s Media Center (AWMC), which will offer training and networking across the continent. “Women face enormous challenges in being accepted as serious professionals in a field traditionally dominated by men,” says the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), which spurred the project.

According to IWMF, the Center, located in Senegal, “will work with existing women’s media organizations to provide women journalists the support necessary to compete equally with their male colleagues.” It will also be “a primary source of information for and about individual women in the field as well as the status of women in the media.” Services include information on fellowships, scholarships, and exchange opportunities, as well as a newsletter and mentorship program.

The IWMF has also published Resource Directory 1998/1999, listing over 1200 women in the media worldwide, For a copy, contact them at 1001 Connecticut Ave., NW #1201, Washington, DC 20036. Call (202) 496-1992, or e-mail

Pushing the Platform

HAVANA – In April, over 1000 women from around the world will gather in Cuba’s capital for three days of post-Beijing networking called the International Women’s Solidarity Conference. “Its been two and one-half years since the International Women’s Forum in China, and women want to check in with each other to see what advances have been made in pushing forward the twelve-point Platform for Action,” said Vivian Stromberg, director of Madre, one of the four US sponsors. The others are WILPF, Hermanas, and Radical Women.

Women will have an opportunity to savor the post-papal spirit in Cuba, and the ongoing impact of the US embargo. Cuban sponsors are the Federation of Cuban Women and the Women’s International Democratic Federation. For more information contact Andrea Saenz at WILPF: (215) 563-7110.

Taxi Trailblazer

AMMAN – Taxi drivers don’t usually get lunch and perfume from their passengers. But they aren’t like Muyassar Abu Hawa, the only woman cabbie in Jordan. She began her new career after her husband died, leaving her with debts, plus several children and grandchildren to support. Luckily, she had a driver’s license, and found someone willing to lease his vehicle.

While traditionalists frown on her decision, others have praised her for breaking new ground. Many women travelling at night prefer Muyassar over male drivers, and some passengers have offered gifts such as sun glasses and a mobile phone. “One day, I took a few women on a round trip,” she recalls. “They refused to let me go without first giving me lunch.”

Her schedule – 12 hours a day – is grueling. After handling overhead, she barely takes home enough to support her family. But she hopes owning her cab will change that.

Nationally, less than a quarter of all workers are female, and private sector progress has been slow. “My job,” says Muyassar, “is proof that women can work honorably in any field and succeed as well as men can.”

Breaking the UN’s Glass Ceiling

OTTAWA – Although UN chief Kofi Annan often talks about “gender parity,” only two of his first 187 appointments last year were women. That may change, however, with the selection of Louise Frechette as Deputy Secretary-General, the UN’s number two spot. A Canadian, Frechette will coordinate UN divisions, as well as help Annan to collect the $1.4 billion owed by the US.

The lack of women in senior UN posts has been a growing concern. However, Frechette joins a select group who’ve recently won significant spots: former Irish President Mary Robinson is the new UN Human Rights Commissioner, Japan’s Sadako Ogata is High Commissioner for Refugees, Carol Bellamy heads UNICEF, Nafis Sadiq of Pakistan directs the UN Population Fund, and another Canadian, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, leads the UN Environmental Program.

Frenchette was Canada’s first woman ambassador to the UN in the early 1990s. That position brought her into contact with Annan, who was directing UN peacekeeping. Previously, she was ambassador to Argentina and Uruguay, forged closer ties with Mexico and Chile, and served as Canada’s deputy defense minister, dealing with soldiers affected by budget cuts and implicated in the torture of Somali civilians.In her new job, she’ll work with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to prove that recent UN reforms are working, and, therefore, funding should no longer be held hostage by Congress. “In 1998,” she says, “we will insist that the hostage be released.”

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