Global Notebook 8/98

EU Freezes Human Rights Funding

BRUSSELS – Unless the European Union reconsiders a June decision, the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this December could be a major disappointment. Fearing legal liability after a European Court of Justice decision that questions its budget management, the EU’s administrative commission has frozen financial support for a wide range of human rights efforts around the world.

The action threatens the survival of hundreds of programs, including support of Nigerian advocates for democracy, medical and legal assistance to victims of torture in Turkey, prevention of violence against women, rehabilitation of street children in Latin America, and independent human rights monitoring in Kosovo.

In a petition protesting the freeze, hundreds of non-governmental organizations warn that inaction will irreparably damage the credibility of the EU, which claims that human rights is a cornerstone of its foreign policy. About to assume the EU presidency, Austria says it wants to "achieve as effective a universal Human Rights standard as possible." But the EU freeze could make that an empty promise.

Land Rights Erosion

MINNEAPOLIS – A plan by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux to put land they’ve bought from a Minneapolis suburb into a federal trust is making some people uncomfortable. If successful, the action would remove 593 acres in Shakopeeit from property tax rolls and exempt it from zoning laws. Although payments in lieu of taxes are often made on trust holdings, critics claim this kind of thing hurts local and state governments.

Currently, there are no restrictions on tribal purchase of land for non-gambling purposes. But Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is pushing a bill that would deny real estate trusts for commercial and off-reservation sites to self-sufficient tribes. The land-in-trust process, says Lieberman, "should not be used by wealthy landowners to serve their own commercial interests.” Rick Hill, chair of the National Indian Gaming Association, charges that the bill amounts to insisting that Native American nations "stay in poverty."

Nationwide, tribes are trying to reclaim ancestral lands and expand income beyond gambling revenues. The Shakopee hope to build a shopping center and other projects. In Lieberman’s state, the Mashantucket Pequot, who own over 3500 acres outside their reservation, have discussed creating a golf course or theme park.

Delays Endanger Landmine Ban

LONDON – The drive to rid the world of anti-personnel landmines may be losing steam. Shortly after the death of Princess Diana, who championed the issue, 132 countries signed an international treaty banning the weapons. Half a year later, however, many countries are dragging their feet over ratification.

Delay could not only undermine efforts to enforce the treaty, signed last December in Ottawa, but also weaken pressure on non-signatories. These include three of the world’s major landmine producers, China, Russia, and the US.

By mid-June, only 25 countries had signed on. In July, Britain finally moved toward ratification. France and Italy also are heading toward approval. But it doesn’t take effect until 40 countries sign on. Assuming this happens, those ratifying will be required to destroy their stockpiles within four years and clear minefields within a decade. As other signatories follow suit, the hope is to increase pressure on the big producers.

According to Britain’s Working Group on Landmines, maintaining momentum is essential. Mines kill or injure about 2000 people, many of them children, each month. About 100 million of the weapons are scattered around the world. If the pace of ratification doesn’t pick up, says Working Group coordinator David Hillman, the process could become "an embarrassment for the international community."

It Takes a Film to Kill a Village

POPATLA BEACH – Titanic meant big bucks for all involved. But for residents of Popatla Beach, a Mexican fishing community located near the production site, the results have been dead marine life and relocation. Now, as Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox expands its Baja Studios, locals are staging protests just beyond the cinder-block boundary they’ve branded the "Berlin Wall."

Chlorine discharges from the massive tank used to make Titanic are blamed for creating a submarine desert along the coastline. Only two tons of the fish known as liso were landed last year, compared with the normal 15 tons. Ten families have lost their homes to studio expansion.

Although some Mexicans have found work – usually $3 a day low-tech jobs – union activity has been discouraged. According to maverick director Alex Cox, "Fox Baja is just like every Tijuana maquiladora. Murdoch has gone there to break the unions."

Steven Spielberg is reported to have leased the studio for a new project, and many Hollywood "water" movies are likely to use it. Fox Baja is the first new studio to be built on the west coast of the Americas for years.

Education for Sale

PENANG – As Asia’s financial plunge puts pressure on education funding and makes study abroad too expensive for many Malaysians, foreign schools and businesses hope to cash in. Australia’s Monash University has opened a branch campus in Kuala Lumpur, while McDonald’s raises golden arches at the University of Malaysia.

Such developments are part of a government effort to encourage market reform in higher education, including "corporatized" state universities and joint ventures to shore up private colleges. The Monash branch will offer degrees in business management, information technology, and engineering.

About 50,000 Malaysians are enrolled in degree programs overseas. By improving domestic facilities, the government hopes to reduce that number and attract foreign students. It also wants to turn state universities into businesses, making them more responsive to market demands and reducing public spending.

But skeptics question the benefits. What’s needed, says former teacher Rustam Sani, is precisely the type of academic freedom that corporate and political interests hope to limit. Malaysian students are forbidden to participate in politics without permission. Along with growing materialism, this is promoting apathy. Critics fear that science and business will be stressed at the expense of arts and humanities, further undermining intellectual excellence.

Real Small Soldiers

GENEVA – Responding to the UN’s failure to keep children out of military conflicts, a new coalition of NGOs was launched in June. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers will push for implementation of an Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that would raise the minimum age for soldiers to 18.

The current international minimum age is only 15. "The use of children as soldiers has no place in a civilized society," says Coalition Coordinator Stuart Maslen.

More than 300,000 children under 18 are currently fighting in armed conflicts around the world; many more could be sent into combat at any moment. Although most are over 15, recruitment starts at 10, and the use of younger children has been documented.

The group is led by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Federation Terre des Hommes, International Save the Children Alliance, Jesuit Refugee Service, and the Quaker UN Office in Geneva. Its objective matches the Plan of Action adopted by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in 1995, including assistance to child victims of armed conflicts. For further information, contact Amnesty’s Office in London, 44-171-413-5566.

Low-Level Warning

COPENHAGEN – Up to 100,000 chemicals are currently marketed in Europe, according to the annual report of the European Environmental Agency and the UN Environmental Program (UNEP). But information about toxicity levels is limited, monitoring is weak, and existing laws aren’t well enforced.

Even low doses of hazardous chemicals can produce long-term health effects. Although there’s little direct evidence of widespread ill health or eco-system damage, chemical hazards are increasing, particularly due to "neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors that may damage developmental and reproductive health, cancers and allergies," the report says. Low-level chemical exposure is also disturbing wildlife and ecosystems.

Some chemical emissions and concentrations are declining in Europe. "While international efforts are encouraging," says Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s director, "the exposures and impacts of thousands of chemicals on people and ecosystems are not well-known."

Insufficient data is available for 75 percent of the large volume chemicals on the market, the report says.

Monkey Business

PORT LOUIS – Despite an export ban on the sale of monkeys for lab experiments, business is booming on Mauritius. Last year, this Indian Ocean island nation shipped out 5681, mainly to labs in Britain, France, Israel, Italy, and the US. "The whole trade is cruel," charges Sarah Kite, leading researcher for the British anti-vivisection group that forced the ban in 1995. After that, exporters just switched from trapping to breeding.

Research centers, which use the animals for experiments on AIDS, polio, diabetes, and other illnesses, say the practice contributes to science. On Mautitius, most exported monkeys come from two breeding centers. The government uses its cut of the profits to finance conservation projects.

Officials claim the animals are humanely treated before sale. But this doesn’t guarantee what happens in transport or labs. "We oppose such research," Kite says, "and are working within the European Union for an import ban." Some monkeys have been used in toxicity experiments, to gauge how dangerous agro-chemicals may be to humans.

The head of the country’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals defends the trade, but says that "only tests useful to humanity should be allowed. Not for trivialities such as cosmetics."