Global Notebook 8-31-05

U.S. proposals could derail UN summit

NEW YORK – John Bolton, the controversial new U.S. ambassador to the UN, has demanded no fewer than 750 amendments to an agreement designed to strengthen the world body and fight poverty, the intended highlight of its 60th anniversary summit this month. He also seeks to roll back proposed UN commitments to combat global warming and push nuclear disarmament.

The amendments are included in a 32-page U.S. version, obtained by the Washington Post and the UK Independent. The changes eliminate all reference to the so-called Millennium Development Goals, accepted by all countries at the last major UN summit in 2000, as well as the Kyoto treaty and the International Criminal Court. Instead, the U.S. wants passages on fighting terrorism and spreading democracy.

Passages that point to a larger role for the UN General Assembly and the creation of a standing military capacity for peacekeeping are also gone in the U.S. draft.

Bolton‘s move has thrown preparations for the summit into turmoil. "We can’t be entirely sure there will be an agreement," one senior UN aide told the Independent. Failure could embarrass Tony Blair, who is believed to have given broad backing to the original draft.

Britain is expected to join an international alliance that hopes to salvage as much as possible of the ambitious plan, the UK Guardian reports. A British Foreign Office spokesman said that the UK and the European Union, of which Britain holds the presidency, "are broadly content with the summit draft. It reflects the ambitious agenda thrown up by [Un Secretary General] Kofi Annan."

Hoping to save the summit from stalemate, Jean Ping, president of the General Assembly, plans to bring together a core group, including British and U.S, representatives, to see what, if anything, can be done to overcome the many U.S. objections.

The problem is that the summit is two weeks away. "Time is short," Bolton warned in a letter to other UN envoys. "In order to maximize our chances of success, I suggest we begin the negotiations immediately."  At least 175 world leaders, including Pres. Bush, have accepted invitations to attend.

Nuke charges against Iran crumbling

WASHINGTON, DC – A group of U.S. government experts and other international scientists have determined that traces of bomb-grade uranium found two years ago in Iran came from contaminated Pakistani equipment and are not evidence of a clandestine nuclear weapons program. As one senior official told The Washington Post last week, "The biggest smoking gun that everyone was waving is now eliminated with these conclusions."

The Bush administration has pointed to the material as evidence that Iran has been secretly making bomb-grade ingredients. But Iran‘s actual nuclear program is no secret, dates back more than 30 years, and was initially supported by European countries and the United States.

Poking a hole in the U.S. case, David Kay, former CIA Chief Weapons Inspect, has noted that Iran got its first nuclear reactor from United States in 1967. Writing for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he also has pointed out that when the Shah of Iran wanted 23,000 megawatts of nuclear energy in 1974, Henry Kissinger made sure that General Electric and Westinghouse had the inside line on selling them the components.

“We did not say, ‘it’s a stupid idea, why would you want to do that when you are flaring gas and you have immense oil reserves?’ We said, ‘That is very interesting; it’s an example of how the Iranian economy is moving and becoming modern,'” Kay noted. “Imagine in Iranian ears how it sounds now when we denigrate that capacity. They remember. We were sellers of nuclear reactors and wanted to be sellers of nuclear reactors to the shah.”

According Asia Times, Iran also signed nuclear power construction contracts with France and Germany before the Shah was overthrown. The stated objectives were to generate electricity and desalinate water.

In 1976, Pres. Gerald Ford signed a directive offering Iran the chance to buy and operate a U.S.-built reprocessing facility for extracting plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel. The deal was for a complete "nuclear fuel cycle" – reactors powered by and regenerating fissile materials on a self-sustaining basis.

U.S. eviction alters Central Asia dynamics 

TASHKENT — The upper house of Uzbekistan‘s parliament has unanimously backed the government’s decision to evict U.S. troops from the Karshi-Khanabad air base, news agencies in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan report. Many lawmakers are also demanding financial compensation from Washington for alleged environmental damage caused by the U.S. military presence in the country.

In July, the Uzbek government announced that U.S. forces would have to be removed from the air base within 180 days. Neighboring Kyrgyzstan has also told the United States that it can no longer use one of its bases if the Afghan situation improves. Russia and China have made it clear they don’t want to see U.S. forces in the region on a permanent basis.

The Uzbek eviction notice came days after US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld returned from a visit to neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Rumsfeld later said that he didn’t believe U.S. operations in Afghanistan would be hurt by the decision. However, officials subsequently signaled that $22 million in aid to Uzbekistan may be withheld, and several senior military and diplomatic officials, including Rumsfeld, have recently visited other ex-Soviet republics in Central AsiaTajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan – to discuss military arrangements with them.

Agence France-Presse reports that some Uzbekistan politicians want financial compensation from Washington. During the two-hour debate on the eviction, one senator said the Uzbek government spent $168 million building infrastructure to support the U.S. base but has received no financial compensation.  “We have the right to demand not only the eviction of the U.S. military from Uzbekistan but to demand compensation for environmental, economic and health damage” caused by the U.S. military presence, he argued.

Muriddin Zayniddinov, a senator representing the area where the airbase, known as K2, is located, said that the U.S. military presence has been a source of local protest for several years and asserted, without providing evidence, that it had contributed to a rise in health problems. “Since 2001, various bronchial and allergic illnesses have increased by 2.6 percent” among the population living in the vicinity of the US base, he claimed.

“We know that usually where US bases are located fundamentalist and extremist groups appear,” he added. “If you have a foreign military base in your country you will have a new enemy who will try to eliminate this base.”

Britain sets priorities for scarce bird flu drugs 

LONDON — If Britain experiences an avian flu pandemic in the coming months, there would be enough drugs to protect less than 2 percent of the population for a week. As a result, the Department of Health has drawn up a priority list of those who would be first to receive lifesaving drugs, the UK Times reports.

BBC employees are high on the list because they would have to broadcast vital information during a national disaster. They and some politicians would be given priority over sick patients, pregnant women, and the elderly.

Topping the list are health workers and those in key public sector jobs. But prominent politicians such as cabinet ministers also would be given priority to receive the scarce pills and vaccinations. Ken Livingstone, London‘s mayor, has already spent almost $1 million to make sure his personal office and employees have their own emergency supplies of 100,000 antiviral tablets.

Although senior government ministers also would be among the high-priority recipients, the department has not decided whether to include opposition politicians.

Report outlines Palestinian economic woes

GAZA – The Palestinian economy has sharply deteriorated since the beginning of the Al Aqsa Intifada in 2000, according to a report by the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Unemployment remains high, one third of the labor force was jobless at the end of 2004, and 61 percent of households live below the poverty line of $350 per month, the report says.

"Prescriptions for Palestinian economic recovery must take into account the Israeli occupation, protracted conflict since 2000, and the imperatives created by the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza," the UNCTAD report concluded.

According to the International Press Center, UNCTAD recommends a focus on forming institutions that will serve the needs of an upcoming Palestinian state rather than aiming solely at reforming a transitional government, and efforts to reduce poverty while expanding production and trade. The Palestinian trade deficit has increased faster than domestic production – from $1.8 billion in 2001 to $2.6 billion in 2004, representing 65 percent of GDP. Two thirds of the deficit is due to the chronic imbalance in trade with Israel.

"Decades of occupation made the Palestinian economy totally dependant on Israel, this should be corrected, and the Palestinian economy should be independent and productive," the report says. It also warns that the continued building of a separation wall and settlements in the occupied territories erodes the Palestinian productive capacities in the West bank and the Gaza Strip and people’s ability to feed themselves.


Evidence mounts about Bush’s obscene outbursts


WASHINGTON DC – Beneath his well-known smirk, Pres. George Bush is wearing an angry frown these days over mounting opposition to his war in Iraq. But according to Capitol Hill Blue, a political e-zine, the problem goes deeper, and White House aides are scrambling behind the scenes avoid publicity about frequent obscenity-filled outbursts at anyone who dares disagree with him.

“Who gives a flying **** what the polls say,” he reportedly screamed at a recent strategy meeting. “I’m the President and I’ll do whatever I goddamned please. They don’t know ****.” When aides suggested that he meet with Cindy Sheehan, the war-protesting mother whose son died in Iraq, Capitol Hill Blue claims that he responded, “I’m not meeting again with that goddamned bitch. She can go to hell as far as I’m concerned!”

While preparing for a summer photo op, Bush flipped an extended middle finger to reporters, a gesture that was caught by a photographer. Aides acknowledge that the President often “flips the bird” to show his displeasure and tells aides who disagree with him to “go to hell” or to “go **** yourself.” His habit of giving people the finger goes back to his days as Texas governor, aides admit, and videos of him doing so before press conferences were widely circulated among TV stations during those days.

When Veterans of Foreign Wars members wore “bullshit protectors” over their ears during his speech to their annual convention, he told aides to “tell those VFW ******** that I’ll never speak to them again if they can’t keep their members under control.”

According to Washington psychiatrist Dr. Justin Frank, author of Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, the behavior is typical of an alcohol-abusing bully ruled by fear. In his book, Frank speculates that Bush, who claims that he gave up booze, may be drinking again.

Last year, Capitol Hill Blue reported that the White House physician prescribed anti-depressant drugs for the President to control what aides called violent mood swings. “In writing about Bush’s halting appearance in a press conference just before the start of the Iraq War, Washington Post media critic Tom Shales speculated that ‘the president may have been ever so slightly medicated,'” Frank notes.

Sheehan shifts focus to DeLay, Congress

CRAWFORD, TX – As the president returns to Washington, DC after a month-long vacation, the war protester whose vigil near his Texas ranch drew international attention plans to shift her focus to Congress. Before traveling to the nation’s capitol, however, Cindy Sheehan’s bus tour will make a stop at the office of Rep. Tom DeLay, R-TX, according to Reuters news service.

One of DeLay’s district offices is about a five hour drive from Bush’s Crawford ranch. "I just wanted to let him know so he’ll be in his office when we get there," she told reporters. "We the people need to influence our congressional representatives and I hear he’s pretty close by."

Shannon Flaherty, a spokeswoman for DeLay, said the GOP leader doesn’t plan to meet with Sheehan, and noted that he “disagrees with those who believe we should give the terrorists the timeline they want and simply cut and run from the war in Iraq."

Sheehan met once with Bush after her son, Casey, was killed, but has sought a second meeting to ask why he believes the 24-year-old Army specialist died for a "noble cause." 

A Gallup poll released last week showed Bush’s job approval rating had slipped to the lowest point of his administration, with 40 percent supporting his performance and 56 percent disapproving. Compared to other post-World War II presidents at this point in their second term, only Richard Nixon had a lower job approval rating, and he was in the midst of the Watergate scandal, Gallup said.

States to make greenhouse pact 

NEW YORK – Nine northeastern states are expected to announce a plan next month to freeze carbon dioxide emissions from big power stations by 2009 and then reduce them by 10 percent. The New York Times has published details of a regional agreement that represents a declaration of independence from national policies on climate change, embracing mandatory controls that have been rejected by the Bush administration.

The agreement, the first of its kind in the United States, would cover a region that stretches from New Jersey to Maine and generates the same volume of emissions as Germany. Pennsylvania and Maryland have reportedly signed on as observers and may join at a later date. California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico and Arizona are exploring similar agreements.

The administration withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol on climatic changes in 2001 and reiterated its position at the G8 Summit in July, arguing that mandatory emissions targets would devastate the U.S. economy.

Funding pulled for abstinence program

PITTBURGH – The Department of Health and Human Services has suspended funding to the Silver Ring Thing, a program that promotes abstinence before marriage.  A grant of $75,000 has been put on hold, Pittsburgh’s Channel 4 reports, because the group may have been using its previous government funding – over $1.2 million since 2003 – to promote religious activities.

The group must submit a corrective action plan before funding can be restored. The decision follows a lawsuit filed against the department by the American Civil Liberties Union in May, claiming that the federal government improperly used taxpayer dollars to fund the group’s Christian religious activities.

"As we have said all along, it is improper for the federal government to underwrite efforts to convert teenagers to a particular faith," said Julie Steinberg, attorney for the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project.


Climate change lawsuit moves forward

SAN FRANCISCO – For the first time, a court has recognized the potentially disastrous impact of climate change. The decision came in San Francisco last week, when federal district court judge Jeffrey White gave Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, along with four U.S. cities, permission to sue two federal development agencies that provide billions of dollars in loans to fund projects overseas.

"This is the first time a U.S. court has given a plaintiff the right to go to court solely on the global warming issue," Geoff Hand, a Vermont-based lawyer in the case, told The Independent. "It’s a great advance."  Arthur and Anne Berndt, who operate a 16,000-tree sugaring operation in Sharon, VT, also joined the lawsuit.

In the suit, Boulder, Colorado, and the Californian cities of Oakland, Santa Monica and Arcata argue that the impact of global warming – including rising sea levels and warmer ocean temperatures – would have a negative impact on their communities. Jerry Brown, the Mayor of Oakland, said, "Tragically, the federal government is violating federal law, which requires an assessment of cumulative impacts. This injures the citizens of Oakland, and every person in this country."

The lawsuit names two government agencies – the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (Opic) and the Export-Import Bank of the United States, and claims that 8 percent of all the world’s greenhouse gases come from projects supported by the two agencies. The projects include power plants that emit greenhouse gases and pipelines for the transfer of oil.

Tests point to health damage of DU in Iraq

NEW YORK — After National Guardsman Gerard Matthew returned home from his Iraq tour a year and a half ago, he learned that members of another unit, who accepted an offer by the New York Daily News, had tested positive for depleted uranium (DU) contamination. Since he had spent much of his time lugging around DU-damaged equipment, Matthew also decided to get tested, and it turned out he was the most contaminated of them all.

According to a story by Dave Lindorff for In These Times magazine, Matthew next urged his wife to get an ultrasound check of their unborn baby. They discovered that the fetus had a condition common to those with radioactive exposure: atypical syndactyly. The right hand had only two digits. Now Matthew is angry at a government that never warned him about DU’s dangers.

No one knows how many U.S. soldiers have been contaminated. Despite regulations authorizing DU tests for anyone who suspects exposure, the military avoids doing them-or delays until they are meaningless, Lindorff writes.

At the war’s start, the United States refused to allow UN or other environmental inspectors to test DU levels within Iraq. Now the UN won’t go near Iraq because of security concerns. Yet the Pentagon still insists, without field evidence, that DU is safe.

To date, only about 270 returned troops have been tested for DU contamination by the military and Veterans Affairs. But those tests, mostly urine samples, are useless 30 days after exposure; by that time most of the DU has left the body or migrated into bones or organs.

The Daily News paid for costlier tests that could pinpoint uranium inside the body and identify the special isotope signature of man-made DU. Four of the nine tested positive; all had symptoms of uranium poisoning.

Even harder evidence may soon arrive. Connecticut State Representative Pat Dillon, D-New Haven, an epidemiologist, has crafted legislation that both Connecticut and Louisiana have unanimously passed, authorizing returned National Guard troops to request and receive specialized DU contamination tests at the Pentagon’s expense.

Bob Smith, a veteran in Louisiana who spearheaded the push for legislation in Louisiana, claims that 14 to 20 other states are considering similar measures. If enough Guard troops test positive, reservists and active duty troops and veterans are likely to demand similar tests, which can cost upwards of $1000 per person.

Costco beats Wal-Mart in salary smackdown

ISSAQUAH, WA — Costco, the fourth-largest U.S. retailer, pays its fulltime employees an average hourly wage of $17, while Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, pays $9.68. According to Bloomberg News columnist Graef Crystal, who examined salaries and CEO compensation packages at the two companies, the disparities go from the bottom all the way to the top of the corporate ladder.

Total 2004 pay for James Sinegal, CEO for the Issaquah, WA-based Costco, was $2.7 million; for Wal-Mart’s H. Lee Scott it was $17.9 million. But Scott’s salary isn’t necessarily in line with the stock performance of his company, Crystal found. Measuring from January 2000, when Scott became CEO, to the market close on August 19, 2005, Bentonville, AK-based Wal-Mart’s cumulative total return was negative 25.5 percent. "As for Costco, its cumulative return was negative 5.4 percent, relatively more favorable than that of both Wal-Mart and the S&P 500," he reported.

"For Costco, the employees won,” Crystal concludes. “The shareholders also won in the sense that, during the period covered by Scott’s tenure, Costco’s total return, though negative, was better than that of the S&P 500 and much better than Wal-Mart’s. But Sinegal lost. For Wal-Mart, the employees lost, the shareholders lost, and Scott won."