Global Notebook 9/99


US Moves to Bottle African Lightning
LUANDA — In late July, the Clinton administration quietly agreed to resume military cooperation with Angola. According to an Angolan newspaper, the US will provide airspace control equipment, military training through a private contractor, and help in drafting a development plan. South Africa’s SAPA news agency adds that the US recently participated in military exercises with the Botswanan and South African armed forces.

These developments mark the emergence of a new and potentially risky US policy toward Africa – increased engagement, with an eye toward preventing conflicts from spreading. To this end, the administration appears willing to support Angola’s MPLA government, while abandoning the UNITA rebels it has long supported. Angola still receives aid from Russia, Cuba, and Libya.

Africa’s wars are blurring into a nearly continental conflict. Backed by the US, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) — with offices in Egypt — wages war on the Islamic government in Khartoum from bases in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda. Sudan backs Ugandan guerrilla armies, and has supported Osama bin Laden, whose terrorist network is blamed for bombing US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. 

Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s war on Eritrea has spread to Somalia. Kenya recently became more involved, assisting Ethiopia against Eritrean-backed rebels in Somalia. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Laurent Kabila’s regime has been challenged by Ugandan and Rwandan-backed Tutsi rebels. Angola’s UNITA sides with the Tutsis, while Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe support Kabila. Angola also accuses Zambia of backing UNITA, while South Africa maintains a semi-hidden hand in all the conflicts. 

Further complicating the picture are Russian and Ukrainian mercenary pilots, as well as arms from China and the old East Bloc, reportedly financed by Middle Eastern interests. Libya, which has sent Chadian troops to support Kabila, hopes to mediate both the Sudanese and Ethiopian-Eritrean conflicts while backing Somali warlord Hussein Mohamed Aideed.

In short, a web of conflict stretches from Tripoli to Harare, and beyond. The only bulwark between the central and western African conflicts has been Nigeria, which now faces its own internal ethnic conflict.

Recent US moves in Angola and Botswana are reportedly designed to prevent Africa’s crisis from spreading further. In Sudan, the US is beginning to adopt a more conciliatory approach, supporting efforts to reach a compromise with the rebels. It may also contribute troops to peacekeeping efforts in the Congo. And as Britain improves relations with Libya, the US attempts to mend fences with Egypt, a relationship that soured during Israel’s Netanyahu government. 

The immediate objective is to contain at least the Sudanese and Ethiopian-Eritrean conflicts, allowing each to be resolved individually. It might work. On the other hand, it could also lead the US into an "engagement" trap.
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Tiny Tax Could Bridge Knowledge Gap
NEW YORK – The UN Development Program (UNDP) has come up with a new solution to the growing knowledge gap between people with Internet access at their fingertips and the countless millions in developing countries who often lack books, let alone computers. The plan, a key proposal in this year’s Human Development report, is a "bit-tax" on e-mail. If it happens, sending 100 e-mails a day might someday cost about one US cent.

But that penny would translate into at least $70 billion annually, says the UN, money that could dramatically improve Internet access and education in developing countries. Of course, getting governments to accept the idea will be tough. In 1998, for example, the US Senate passed an Internet Tax Freedom Act imposing a three-year moratorium on such taxes.

The bit-tax is part of the UNDP’s effort to rewrite the rules of economic globalization. It also proposes a hike in the fees charged to grant patents, an option that may be easier to sell.

In 1996, the Internet marketplace brought in $2.6 billion. By 2002, it’s expected to reach $300 billion, making it a huge potential tax source. But individual governments aren’t likely to let an international body collect the money. Opponents say the tax would prove impractical, costing more to collect than it produces in revenue. "It’s a shame," says Tim Kelly, an analyst for the UN International Telecommunication Union, "because the idea of a Robin Hood strategy, where you take from the rich and give to the poor, is to be commended."

Still, the UN remains optimistic, seeing the bit-tax as a way to improve education worldwide. At the moment, the US has more computers than the rest of the world put together. South Asia, with 23 percent of global population, has less than one percent of Internet users.
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HRW Springs Kids from Jail Abuse
KINGSTON – Responding to criticism by human rights activists, Jamaica recently removed children from its police lockups. The action followed release of a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report documenting the detention of children in filthy, overcrowded jails where they’re deprived of food, health care or proper sanitary facilities, and often abused by older inmates and officers.

"We’re encouraged that the government is taking our report seriously and acting quickly to protect the rights of these children," said Jo Becker, Children’s Rights Advocacy Director for the group. "The immediate removal of all children from the lockups is a very positive step forward."

The organization also welcomes other initiatives. These include the appointment of an officer to monitor cases, a 24-hour hotline to help ensure that Children’s Services is notified when police take a child into custody, and an interagency working group to improve communication between government agencies.

In 1994, HRW published a report on children in Jamaican lockups that documented the atrocious practices. Although slight improvements were made, most conditions remained the same. Many children weren’t even suspected of a crime, but were taken into custody because they had been abused, neglected, or abandoned.

Now that the government is bringing its juvenile justice system into line with international standards, HRW is seeking unqualified access by non-governmental and community organizations to monitor whether children are improperly detained. The group also wants all detained children to receive legal representation.
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Imprisoned at Three
PEGU — The world’s youngest prisoner of conscience — a three-year-old girl arrested in July by the Myanmar (Burma) military – is essentially being held hostage to force her father out of hiding, according to Amnesty International (AI). "Thaint Wunna Khin may suffer serious physical and psychological damage during her detention," the group charges. "Myanmar’s government should immediately end this meaningless and cruel ordeal by releasing the child and her mother."

The youngster was one of 19 people arrested in Pegu, a central Myanmar community, on suspicion of planning a July 19 march to commemorate the 52nd anniversary of General Aung San’s assassination. The general, who fought for independence from the British, was the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party.

Military intelligence arrested the girl, her mother, and six other family members when they couldn’t find her father, Kyaw Wunna. Detainees, especially young activists, are frequently abused and tortured in Myanmar’s prisons, particularly in the early stages of detention.

AI has urged the country’s military government to immediately release the child, as well as 17 other activists, unless they’re charged with a recognizably criminal offence. The imprisonment of a three-year-old exposes the extent of the Burmese government’s ruthlessness in trying to stamp out political dissent, the group says.
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Europe’s Colombia
PRISTINA – The Kosovo conflict has turned that province into a magnet for many of the world’s notorious drug barons, according to a director of the  International Narcotics Enforcement Officers’ Association. More than 40 percent of the heroin reaching Western Europe comes through the Serb province because of a lack of border controls, reports Marko Nicovic. "Kosovo is now the Colombia of Europe."
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Doubts about Peace
CHITTAGONG – As part of a pact designed to end three decades of fighting, a new Regional Council has finally been installed in Bangladesh’s conflict-torn Chittagong Hill Tracts area. Yet, opposition groups, particularly Buddhists in the Shantibahini rebel movement, say the deal doesn’t provide enough autonomy from the Muslim majority.

Discontent stems largely from the effects of migration. Most of Bangladesh’s 120 million people live in the densely populated plains, but past resettlement has brought about half a million Muslims to the Hill Tracts. Indigenous people fear they’ll become a minority in their own home area.

Shantu Larma, the rebel leader appointed chair of the new council, grumbles that the central government overshadows his position. Meanwhile, Khaleda Zia, leader of the country’s opposition party, charges that a secret deal has been negotiated to pull out the army and relocate Muslims. Zia also accuses the government of making a deal to "cede one-tenth of Bangladesh to India."

Treatment of the Hill Tracts people has been a thorny issue between the two countries for years. In the past, Bangladesh accused India of supporting the rebels. India still worries that a large number of refugees in areas near the Chinese border could foment ethnic tensions. The European Union promises development funds, but only when the peace pact is implemented.

Since striking the deal in late 1997, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has won a UN award for her efforts. Ironically, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger presided over that process. In 1974, when Hasina’s father was president, Kissinger dismissed Bangladesh as a "basket case."
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Drop in the Bucket to Save the World
WASHINGTON, DC — Increasing water shortages may lead to global hunger, civil unrest and even war, according to Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of a new book, Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? With population growing fast in many water short regions, problems are bound to worsen. The number of people living in water stressed countries is projected to climb from 470 million to 3 billion by 2025, Postel claims.

Another study, released by the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute, predicts that a third of the world’s population will experience severe water shortages within 25 years. The number of people without access to safe drinking water will jump from 1.4 billion to 2.3 billion by 2025 unless governments take faster action to address water shortages, adds the UN Environmental Program.

The price of bringing safe water to those who need it would be about $25 billion annually over eight to 10 years. Current world investment in clean water supplies is only $8 billion, according to the Environment News Service ( The $15 to $17 billion shortfall is about the same amount spent annually on pet food in the US and Europe.
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JOHANNESBURG – Just a month after a new president took office, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the nation’s biggest labor group, launched a series of strikes protesting job losses across the country. Two days later, on July 17, miners and their families marched on the British and Swiss embassies, angered about the sale of gold reserves they say are at the heart of labor cutbacks across the gold-mining industry. At least 350,000 miners have lost their jobs since 1987, and another 11,500 are set to go.

Clothing and textile workers also took to the street, creating human chains in major cities to demand that the government delay tariff cuts for four years. Last year alone, 20,000 workers in the clothing, textile and leather industries lost their jobs to cheaper imports.

As the pain of restructuring becomes worse, workers are exercising their right to strike, enshrined in the new constitution. COSATU and other labor alliances want the government to reassess its Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy (GEAR), a three-year-old plan that reduces the deficit by making cuts in public spending. Government is also under pressure to privatize, which could eliminate another 25,000 jobs. Lauded by the IMF, the strategy has produced a trade and development deal with the European Union. But industries unable to compete with cheaper imports — steel, engineering, clothing, and textiles – have taken the hit.

Labor says the country must temper global economic integration with slower tariff reduction, greater public spending, and more negotiation on job losses. Unions also want to slow the pace of privatization. While government flaks chant the mantra of "There Is No Alternative" (TINA), workers are organizing to replace it with TEMBA – "There Must Be An Alternative."
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Playing God with Killer Bugs
LONDON – Britain’s defense ministry is secretly creating lethal genetically modified (GM) organisms to prepare for a new era of germ warfare. Tests of the "supergerms" are being conducted at Porton Down, headquarters of the government’s chemical and biological defense establishment. Using genetic engineering techniques similar to those that create the GM foods sold in supermarkets, the program was allegedly launched to study the implications if an enemy used the technology to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Genetic techniques can make biological weapons more dangerous to humans, and less easy to detect or counter. It’s already feasible to introduce a lethal toxin into a pathogen (an organism that attacks humans), increasing its killing potential. Organisms can also be modified to resist antidotes.

Eventually, it may be possible to wipe out an army with mutant germs that would then be made benign by a genetic flaw, enabling an army to safely invade. Enemies may be more ready to deploy such "controllable" GM weapons than existing organisms such as anthrax.

Ultimately, the world may see an "ethnic destruction" germ — that is, an organism that would attack the genes of a particular race. In January, a study by the British Medical Association warned that a plague or toxin designed to kill specific racial groups could be less than 10 years away.

Britain has signed treaties prohibiting the creation of biological weapons for military purposes. The reason for the research, claims the defense minstry, is to protect against any threat to the population or servicemen. "Our scientists have to be at the cutting edge of biological scientific knowledge, including the techniques of genetics," a spokesperson argues. The research has been going on for at least five years.
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Sleepless in Tokyo
TOKYO – Cramped, harried and pressed for time, at least one in five Japanese has problems sleeping. According to one study, about 20 percent suffer from insomnia alone, just one of dozens of sleep disorders.

"If you look at Japan’s situation today, suicides by middle-aged men are up, and suicide is linked to depression," says Yuriko Doi, a sleep researcher with the National Public Health Institute. "And depression is linked to sleep disorders."

The recent spate of research was prompted by sleepiness-related industrial and traffic accidents. Although the situation in the US isn’t that different – up to 40 million US citizens have sleep disorders – the Japanese findings are getting government attention and sparking a commercial response.

In new salons, customers get rubdowns, listen to dreamy music, and inhale soothing herbal scents. A Tokyo planetarium stages monthly "Star Light Healing" concerts where thousands of listeners lean back and snooze.