Global Notebook 8/99

Robertson Goes for the Gold

MONROVIA — Liberian President Charles Taylor is known for many things:  embezzling, escaping jail, abusing human rights, and starting a bloody civil war. Now he adds another line to his resume — Pat Robertson’s business partner. The TV preacher has struck a deal with Taylor that allows a Robertson-owned company to mine for gold in Liberia’s Bukon Jedeh region. Freedom Gold Ltd., which lists Robertson as president and sole director, was formed last December in the Cayman Islands.

"If there’s profit to be made, it seems Robertson doesn’t care who he has to deal with," notes Barr Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Despite all the rhetoric and grandstanding, this deal shows Robertson is more interested in money than morality." Robertson counters that his goal is to help Liberia’s economy.

If ratified by Liberia’s legislature, the arrangement will give the government a 10 percent interest in Robertson’s company. After initial exploration, 15 percent of company shares will be offered to Liberian investors.

In the early 1990s, African dictator Mobutu Sese Seko gave Robertson mining rights in the Congo. That led to an investigation in Virginia when two pilots reported that humanitarian relief planes were actually used to transport diamond-mining equipment. The case is still pending.
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That’s a Relief

WASHINGTON — When the big day arrives, the supervisor of police Y2K planning for the US capitol says there’s nothing to fear. According to Commander David B. McDonald, "We want to reassure the residents and visitors to the District that even if Armageddon comes, we will assist and protect the public."
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Careful, They Might Hear You

CANBERRA — Breaking ranks with other intelligence agencies, the head of Australia’s Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) has revealed his country’s participation in UKUSA, a global surveillance system that intercepts private and commercial international communications. In a letter to a local TV station, Martin Brady admitted that the DSD "does cooperate with … intelligence organizations overseas under the UKUSA relationship."

Like the US National Security Agency (NSA) and its Canadian, British, and New Zealand counterparts, DSD operates a network of giant, automated tracking stations that pick up commercial satellite communications and examine every fax, telex, e-mail, phone call, or computer data message the satellites carry. Precise terms of the late 1940s secret agreement creating the system have never been revealed.

Due to a fast-growing UKUSA system called Echelon, millions of messages are intercepted every hour, then checked against criteria supplied by the five countries. They pass through a computer system called The Dictionary, which matches messages with "collection" requirements and forwards them to the spy agencies’ equivalent of the Internet. Australia’s main contribution is an ultra-modern intelligence base with four satellite tracking dishes that intercept Indian and Pacific Ocean communications.

The Dictionary searches for North Korean economic, diplomatic, and military data, Japanese trade ministry plans, and Pakistani developments in nuclear weapons technology. Dishes at another locations cover Indonesia and southwest Asia.

Until now, the US government has refused to admit Echelon’s existence. But Freedom of Information Act documents confirm that a Navy-run Echelon site at Sugar Grove, West Virginia, collects intelligence from civilian satellites. Other Echelon stations are located in Puerto Rico, Canada, and Britain. Information is also fed into the system from taps on the Internet, and via monitoring pods placed on undersea cables.

Brady claims that UKUSA nations can’t record Australian communications unless the government approves. But investigative writer Nicky Hager, who first exposed the system three years ago, notes that "when you’re a junior ally like Australia or New Zealand, you never refuse what they ask for."

Australia doesn’t deny that the DSD and its partners collect economic and commercial intelligence. Like the US, Australia thinks that’s justified if other countries or exporters behave unfairly. Neither Britain nor France places any limits on economic intelligence gathering.
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Kosovo Bombing Fuels Nuclear Scare

SOFIA — The Kozloduy nuclear power plant in Bulgaria could explode, sending radioactive clouds over much of the Balkans, if oil slicks created by NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia ever reach the plant’s cooling system. Thirteen spills on the river Danube, one 15 miles long, resulted from attacks on oil installations during the recent war.

"If oil were taken into the cooling systems, clogging could result in the entire complex exploding," claims Ralitsa Panayotova, who works for a Greenpeace affiliate in Sofia. A nuclear safety consultant for the British government agrees, noting that slicks could jam the system and even catch fire.

Although closed for over a decade, the facility still contains a significant amount of radioactive material. Other plants in the region are also considered hazardous.

The Kozloduy safety scare comes amidst concern over the use of missiles and shells tipped with depleted uranium (DU) during the NATO campaign. DU munitions were first used during the Gulf War, and have since been blamed for a variety of illnesses.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who now heads the six-year-old International Green Cross, considers use of DU weapons just one of "the potential disastrous environmental impacts" of the hostilities. German Environmental Minister Jurgen Tritten notes that EU officials are "sure that environmental damage will not be limited to Yugoslavian territory."

The Vienna-based Atomic Energy Authority is less alarmed, but has voiced concern over corroding nuclear canisters inside Kozloduy. A UN task force has been assigned to make an assessment. A UN report released in late June says Yugoslavia’s land, air, rivers, lakes, and underground waters, as well as the food chain and public health, have been seriously affected. 
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Europe Cool on Modified Food

HELSINKI — Finland will take a cautious approach to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) during its six months as European Union (EU) president, promises the country’s environment minister. "Genetic engineering is really fundamental," Satu Hassi says, "as fundamental as nuclear power, and our basic principle must be the precautionary principle."

Finland assumed leadership of the EU on July 1, just as its 15-member Environment Council drafted a new GMO law that effectively places a moratorium on new approvals until at least 2002. Henceforth, each approval will be subject to a vote by all members. A two-thirds majority is needed.

Corporations and exporting countries like the US want Europe to ease the rules on selling genetically modified organisms. Green and consumer groups, which argue that they could damage human health and the environment, call for extra safeguards.

Hassi signaled that those expecting quick changes might be disappointed. "I would be rather strict in the procedure and be very careful," she said. "We can only see the results of our actions after a long time." She added that Austria and Luxembourg were fully justified in imposing national restrictions on GM crops.

Concerned about shortcomings in EU laws on GM labeling, Hassi notes that they don’t guarantee that food is totally free of ingredients derived from GM crops. Germany, the previous EU president, hoped to broker a compromise on the revision of licensing laws, but those plans ran into stiff opposition.

During the council meeting, France, Italy, Greece, Luxembourg, and Denmark signed a "Declaration of Suspension," saying they won’t approve any new marketing of GMOs. In Britain, Prince Charles has also weighed in, writing that the only beneficiaries of GM food will be the companies who own the technology. Sensing a backlash, British supermarket chains have begun to banish GM items from their lines.
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Community Radio Offers Cleanup Hope

KATMANDU — New brooms sweep clean, they say. And that’s just what South Asia’s first independent community radio station wants to do with its campaign to clean up the air of Katmandu Valley. Nepal’s Radio Sagarmatha calls its initiative Safa Radio (safa is Nepali for "clean"). Licensed in 1997, the station is a project of the Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists (NEFEJ), in collaboration with other Nepali NGOs and Denmark’s development agency.

Air pollution in the Katmandu Valley becomes worse each day. Toxic smoke spews from the exhausts of a mind-boggling array of vehicles. Each weekday, however, Radio Safa’s electric-powered van measures the air pollutants at various locations and presents the results on its evening news bulletin. Monthly figures are discussed at press conferences.

The station also hopes to spur a wider program of community-based radio. "The idea is not to extend Radio Sagarmatha’s Katmandu service, but rather to bring the idea of local radio to some of Nepal’s 90 percent who live in rural areas and small communities," says a project spokesperson. Last November, the station won permission to run a mobile radio service anywhere in Nepal using its Katmandu frequency, 102.4 FM. 

In partnership with Denmark’s MS Nepal, it plans to outfit a vehicle with a small studio and transmitter. The goal is to demystify radio and get communities interested in starting their own stations. So far, the government has licensed eight FM frequencies in the Katmandu Valley. Within five years, the country could have local stations in at least a dozen other communities.
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Down on Religion

LHASA — China’s cultural assault on Tibet continues with a three-year propaganda campaign aimed at stamping out religion and ending support for the Dalai Lama. Announcing the crusade on Tibetan television, the government called it "an important measure to strengthen the struggle against separatists, to resolutely resist the Dalai clique’s reactionary infiltration, and to help peasants free themselves from the negative influence of religion." One party secretary added, "We need to indoctrinate the peasant on the Marxist stand on religion."
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Islamists Threaten Turkey’s Stability

ANKARA — Although Turkey’s Democratic Left Party (DSP) won the largest vote in recent elections, none of the country’s political parties achieved a majority. Meanwhile, the far-right National Movement Party (MHP) re-entered Parliament with 19 percent, ensuring continued political instability. An early sign was the dispute over a newly elected female MP’s request to wear an Islamic-style head scarf to work.

Officially secular, Turkey has banned the head scarves in public institutions. Angry MPs forced Merve Kavakci, elected on the Islamic Virtue Party line, to leave the building before she could take her oath.

Islam has dominated Turkish politics for several years, leading to the banning of five radical leaders. The MHP believes Islam is crucial to national identity, and considers Western attitudes arrogant and hypocritical. Some of its MPs are accused of past involvement in race-motivated murders.

According to columnist Oral Calislar, the current nationalist upsurge is "a reaction to Kurdish nationalism and the war in the southeast. The situation in Kosovo and the Balkans, with the attacks on Muslims there, has also contributed."

Turkey’s economy has been hit hard by crises in Russia and Asia, as well as Kurdish separatist threats to target foreign visitors. In the southeast, the majority Kurdish population continues to lobby for native language education and broadcasting. Criticism of Turkey’s human rights record also persists. Under these circumstances, maintaining a stable coalition may prove impossible.  
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Permanent Childhood

HARARE — In a quiet but unanimous decision, Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court has ruled that "the nature of African society" dictates that women aren’t equal to men. According to cultural norms, the Court announced, women "should never be considered adults within the family, but only as a junior male, or teen-ager."

According to Welshman Ncube, the nation’s leading constitutional scholar, "Basically, there’s nothing left of the gains women’s rights have made in the past 20 years. It’s a full-bench decision, 5-0, by the Supreme Court. There is no appeal. They meant to settle this question once and for all."

The case sparking the decision involved 58-year-old seamstress Vennia Magaya, who sued her half-brother for part of her father’s estate after her sibling threw her out of the house. According to Zimbabwe’s laws and constitution, she had a clear claim. But the laws have now been erased.

A Zimbabwean columnist, living in the US, apparently typifies Zimbabwean men’s attitude to women. Ridiculing gender relations in the US, he wrote that equal rights for women have resulted in "huge numbers of sissified men" who are turning to homosexuality because women frustrate their "natural desires."

President Robert Mugabe has played a poisonous role, railing against homosexuality, free speech, and feminism. The nation is sliding into economic ruin and political chaos, most recently wasting millions on troops sent to fight for Laurent Kabila’s Congo regime.
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Nader Says Maybe

HARTFORD — Ralph Nader has given the California Green Party permission to enter his name in next year’s presidential primary. State party rules and election laws made his permission necessary. But Nader will make no official announcement until next January.

Urged to run for two decades before he allowed his name to be used in the 1992 presidential primary, Nader doesn’t hand out such permission lightly. Yet, at a June meeting of the Association of State Green Parties, he took pains to resolve nagging questions remaining from his 1996 bid and pledged a full commitment if he tries again.

Some Greens are skeptical because of Nader’s self-imposed $5000 spending limit in 1996 and the sense that he didn’t seriously campaign. Others think a better-organized and -funded campaign could push him far beyond the one percent he received last time out. Nader urged the party to aim for ballot status in at least 40 states. More details are available at
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Making Shell Pay

LONDON — The family of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed in 1995 by the Nigerian government, is seeking millions in damages from Shell Oil in a US lawsuit. Human rights violations perpetrated by the government are partly the responsibility of the company, the suit charges. "We believe Shell facilitated Saro-Wiwa’s execution," says Jenny Green, a lawyer for the family. "There is a basis in US law to hold Shell accountable."

Shell hopes a jurisdictional technicality can prevent the lawsuit from being heard in the US. Arguments in New York’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals are scheduled for this fall. Human rights activists want to extend legal precedents that make multinational corporations financially liable for abuses in the Third World.

Saro-Wiwa’s family and others from the Ogoni tribe reportedly have affidavits proving that when the writer was in custody, a Shell official advised, "If you call off the international campaign [against Shell,] maybe there’s something that can be done to help."

The environmental effects of over 100 oil wells, most Shell owned, in Ogoni territory have been severe. Between 1976 and 1991, almost 3000 oil spills, averaging 700 barrels each, occurred in the Niger delta. To protest Shell’s actions and government indifference, the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) was launched in 1992, under Saro-Wiwa’s leadership.

Seized from his home on May 22, 1994, he was held without charge for months before being charged with murder. Although evidence was never presented, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were sentenced to death. The subsequent international outcry led to Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations.
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Papal Work Ethic

SOSNOWIEC — During his June return to Poland, Pope John Paul II attacked the excesses of free market economies that promote production at the expense of human rights. Speaking to 300,000 people in Sosnowiec, a left-wing industrial town, he devoted an extended homily on the right to work and related issues.

"Because of the laws of the market, human rights are forgotten; this happens in varying degrees all over the world," he said. "It happens, for example, when the claim is made that economic profit justifies taking away the job of someone who loses not only a job but every prospect for maintaining himself or the family.

"It also happens when, to increase production, the worker is denied the right to rest, the right to care for the family, or the freedom to plan his daily life."

The Pope also condemned the dehumanizing impact of work carried out solely to meet economic demands. "The man who does the work is no longer important, and all that matters is the material worth of what is produced," he said. "Man is no longer regarded as a craftsman, as one who creates, but as an instrument of production." Born Karol Wojtyla near the Polish city of Krakow, the Pope worked in a caustic soda factory during World War II.
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Literacy Gap

NEW YORK — Nearly a billion people will enter the new millennium unable to read a book or sign their names, according to UNICEF’s annual "State of the World’s Children" report. A growing number of functional illiterates, two-thirds of them women, won’t be unable to operate a computer or even understand a simple application form.

More than 130 million children currently have no access to basic education. UNICEF links this with mortality rates, noting that a 10 percent increase in girls’ enrollment would decrease infant mortality by up to 5.6 per 1000. In Pakistan, for example, an extra year in school for 1000 girls could prevent roughly 60 infant deaths.

Rather than attending classes, millions of children work full-time, often in hazardous or exploitive situations. Cost, distance to school, and a lack of qualified teachers create additional obstacles. UNICEF estimates that providing education for all children would cost an additional $7 billion a year for the next decade, less than the amount spent on cosmetics in the US or ice cream in Europe. But the $2.2 trillion in external debt carried by the world’s poorest nations makes that investment unlikely. Meanwhile, technological advances deepen the gulf between rich and poor.
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Growing Pains

SAN DIEGO — Only immediate government action will prevent severe environmental collapse around the US-Mexican border, say researchers at several universities on both sides. The situation will deteriorate significantly, they predict, if population and economic growth continue at present rates without significant changes in regional development.

Smarter land use planning along the 2000-mile border is needed to cope with an expected population explosion, expanding trade, and a stew of related environmental troubles, concludes the report, issued by the San Diego-based Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy. Fresh planning entities are essential, along with solutions tailored to communities that share cross-border air pollution and dwindling water supplies. The researchers also suggest diversifying local economies with industries such as nature-based tourism, and greater efforts to reuse water and waste.