Sunday, May 18, 2008

Could Myanmar Be The First Case of RTP?

At the Summit of the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 world leaders agreed that in the event a national government failed to protect its population from "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity," the "international community" could step in and do so. That "Responsibility to Protect" (RTP) principle has not been invoked anywhere, not in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where several million people have been killed in a continuing struggle for the country's rich resources, nor in the Sudan, where ethnic cleansing has been in progress in full view of a watching world. But there is corridor talk at the UN of invoking the principle to get international aid workers into Myanmar to help with the deadly mess left by Typhoon Nargis.

Talk of such action is far-fetched, if only because China would veto any Security Council action to invoke RTP in the case of Myanmar, but the country's envoy at the UN seems nervous at the possibility. At an informal meeting of the General Assembly on Friday (16 May), at which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon briefed delegates on his so far ineffective efforts to even talk to the junta's ranking General, Ambassador Kyaw Tint Swe accused France of sending a warship to the Bay of Bengal. French Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert denied the accusation, saying that the ship was only carrying 1,500 metric tons of food and relief supplies. He told reporters that the ship also had the capacity to establish a field hospital, which could be put ashore by helicopter or by the small boats capable of navigating the shallow waters of the Irrawaddy delta.

Whether an attempt to deliver aid from the ship will be made without the authorization of the junta in Yangon is a matter of speculation. If it is indeed made, and meets armed resistance, the response could sidestep the Security Council. If there is no resistance, a more pervasive aid effort could be set in motion without the junta's ukase. The case for international action is being clearly laid by French and British comments on the situation. On Friday French UN envoy Ripert told journalists that the Myanmar government's failure to allow foreign aid could "lead to a true crime against humanity." On Saturday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the BBC that the refusal of the junta to "allow the international community to do what it wants to do" was "inhuman treatment of the Burmese people."

The possibility of international intervention without its permission is bound to weigh on the junta as it receives a third letter on Sunday from Ban Ki-moon, this one carried by UN Humanitarian Affairs chief John Holmes; the first two letters were sent through the Myanmar mission at the UN, and neither has brought a reply. Ban has failed repeatedly to reach Myanmar's "Senior General," Than Shwe by phone.

The latest assessment from the UN is that only about 500,000 of the approximately 2.5 million victims of Typhoon Nargis have received any form of aid.

Part of the problem might be that the junta itself is in the middle of a power struggle; 74-year old Than Shwe had surgery to remove an intestinal tumor last year (in Singapore), and is clearly on his last legs. Who will succeed him as head of the Orwellian "State Peace and Democracy Council" is not clear. The current "second in command" is reported to not have "political support," though it is anyone's guess what exactly that means in a country where a popular democracy movement has been brutally put down for decades.

The UN's diplomatic efforts at the moment seem to be focused on getting ASEAN countries to take the lead in pressuring Myanmar to open up to foreign aid. Ban Ki-moon is said to harbor hopes of visiting the country himself once a certain "comfort level" has been established in relations with the regime.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Fateful May

"April is the cruellest month" wrote T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land. " But as an Indian, I have always thought the cruellest month is the "depraved May" of Gerontion, Eliot's darkly allusive poem centered on the nature of history:

Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions, 35
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or if still believed, 40
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues 45
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.

I was reminded of the poem by the commentaries in the Indian Press on the 10th anniversary of the nuclear weapons tests of 11 May 1998; they were predictably pro and con, but none showed the awareness of history that anniversaries demand.

No one remembered -- and this where my Gerontion sense of May comes in -- that Vasco da Gama arrived off the coast of Malabar in May 1498; that the first great uprising against British colonial rule broke out in May 1857; that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi snuck India's first nuclear test past Richard Nixon just as the United States Congress convened hearings to impeach him in May 1974; that the day picked for that test was Buddha's birthday. But on the hopeful side: it was in May 1915 that Mohandas Gandhi established Satyagraha Ashram near Ahmedabad. It was moved later to the banks of the Sabarmati river, and from there the Mahatma fashioned the strategies the led India to freedom. There is hope yet.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ban Ki-moon Puts Pressure on Burma

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with the UN Press corps on Monday, 12 January to publicly press the repressive regime in Myanmar (nee Burma), to allow a larger number of foreign aid workers into the country to help with the huge humanitarian crisis created by Typhoon Nargis. In his opening remarks, read from a written text, Ban expressed "deep concern and immense frustration" at the refusal of the Rangoon regime to give visas to most foreign applicants, and warned that in the absence of swift action infectious diseases could "dwarf today's crisis."

"Over the weekend and throughout much of last week
I tried repeatedly to telephone senior General Than Swe," Ban said. "I wanted to ask his cooperation with the international community and offer the United Nations’ full support. I was not able to reach him and so delivered a letter earlier this morning through diplomatic channels. This was my second letter to him since Cyclone Nargis." After noting that the UN was making a "flash appeal" for $187 million in humanitarian aid for Myanmar, he took questions from the Press. It went this way:

Q: Mr. Secretary, the time is brief here. Will you ask the Security Council, or at least push, using the power of your office, for sanctions or any tougher measures on the Government, which appears to have no fear for any type of action in this current crisis?

SG: This is up to the members of the Security Council, to decide whether they will discuss or take up this matter. But at this time, what I am focusing on is to deliver humanitarian assistance as soon as possible. I would like to make this issue on purely humanitarian grounds.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, I would like to go back to that question. There are several members of the Security Council who are opposed to discussing humanitarian aid, and they don’t share the same view about the responsibility to protect civilians in case of a natural disaster. I wonder if you should really go to the Security Council and ask them to put their act together, because you need political pressure to make things work. This is not just politics.

SG: You already know the history of the Security Council’s debate on the situation in Myanmar, not necessarily on this humanitarian issue. My understanding is that there are some differences of opinion among the members of the Security Council on how to deal with the situation in Myanmar, whether it poses a threat to the region. Therefore, while I leave it to members of the Security Council to decide among themselves, as the Secretary-General, at this time, first and foremost, I am focusing on delivering humanitarian assistance to minimize as much as possible the unnecessary sacrifices on the part of the Myanmar people. And we are there to help recover and overcome these difficulties.

Q: While you are making every effort to deal with the Myanmar issue, what acts will it take to cooperate with the Chinese Government to help the people in the earthquake region?

SG: The Chinese Government, in the past and now, has been playing a very constructive role in all the questions relating to Myanmar, including the human rights situation. Now it is time – I have spoken to the Chinese authorities very closely, and they are very much fully on board, and they promised that they will do all in their power to help with United Nations humanitarian activities. And I appreciate that support and cooperation.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, based on your knowledge of the Myanmar leadership, through your constant discussion with Mr. [Ibrahim] Gambari, your discussions with them, their ambassador, your general world-view, what do you think is going on here? Is this just an isolated and suspicious regime, that just wants to cling to power? Why aren’t they more open? What is their motivation? What is their thought process, in your view?

SG: This is one of the poor countries, and it has been isolated. This is kind of some self-imposed isolation, unfortunately. They seem to be not fully confident in coming out to the international community. At this time of humanitarian crisis, the magnitude of this humanitarian crisis, is not the time when you are talking about politics. We are now talking only about saving human lives and how to stem the spread of diseases and how to keep humanitarian assistance flowing, as we have experienced in the case of the tsunami, which happened in Indonesia. We need to have constructive cooperation all throughout the international community. That is why publicly on many occasions, I have stated clearly that I will ensure that this will be a purely humanitarian operation, and we will be able to have an opportunity to discuss political issues or human rights issues. Thank you very much."

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

UN Gut Renovation Begins

I once saw Benon Sevan, when he was Assistant-Secretary-General in charge of general housekeeping at the UN, head into a meeting of the General Assembly's Budget Committee, brandishing a length of pipe crusty with age and wear. "These bastards don't believe me when I tell them the building is falling apart," he explained at the door to the conference room.

The pipe had been extracted from a bathroom that had sprung a leak and Benon held it up for delegates to see as he made the case for additional funds for repair and renovation. He got the money, but it took another leak, in the General Assembly's domed roof, to bring home to member States how decrepit the UN's physical plant had become.

When Kofi Annan first broached the idea of a general overhaul of the iconic UN building complex, he was asked why repairs couldn't just be done as and when they were needed. A study on options showed that the cost of such maintenance, some $1.1 billion, would be roughly the same as a gut renovation. The repair-as-you-go option would not have allowed the removal of the asbestos in UN walls, or brought the building into compliance with New York City fire and safety codes. Nor would it have upgraded security or expanded facilities which were originally meant to accommodate a membership of 75 countries and some 700 meetings a year. There are now 192 member States, and they hold over 8,000 meetings a year in New York.

The decision to go ahead with a total renovation was made in 1995, and the Swedish firm Skanska was given a $7 million pre-construction contract to chalk out what should be done. After much exciting talk of UN staff working in a cruise liner moored in the East River, or in tents pitched on the North Lawn, it was decided that a new building on a little-used city park across 42nd street, should be used as "swing space" while the renovation was in progress. But then some powerful real estate interests in New York raised the immortal question "What's in it for us!" Under pressure, the City Council and the state legislature in Albany turned down the proposal, and the UN decided to rent rather than build office space for staff. In March it signed a deal for 460,000 square feet of office space at 380 Madison Avenue. Most UN staff will operate from there once the Secretariat building is emptied in 2009; others will be scattered to several other locations, including the new UN Credit Union building across the East River in Long Island City.

The only new construction will be a temporary three-storied structure on the North Lawn, to house the UN's main intergovernmental bodies and the Executive Office of the Secretary-General. The UN Press corps will also continue to have a presence in the headquarters complex; where exactly has not been revealed. Whether the temporary facilities will have a Delegate's Lounge and Dining Room has also not been announced. UN Guided Tours will presumably be discontinued during the renovation, but the refurbished building will have a much expanded Visitor's Center.

On 5 May, there was a groundbreaking ceremony for the temporary building. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a cohort of other "stakeholders" donned blue hard-hats and turned shovels of grass and dirt. "Today we turn the soil which the United Nations stands on to mark the rebirth, or renovation, of our headquarters," Ban intoned before he dug. "Over the next five years, we will make our facilities safer, greener, and more modern and efficient."

The architect overseeing the project, Michael Adlerstein, former Vice President of the New York Botanical Garden, told reporters that the temporary building on the North Lawn will be an ugly one, to prevent any proposal that it be kept in place permanently. He also said that most of the 25 trees on the site will be saved, and the site itself restored after the building comes down in five years.

The cost of the entire "Capital Master Plan" will be nearly $1.9 billion. (Donald Trump boasted in February that he could do the job for less -- $750 million -- and in less time than the currently projected five years; the UN responded that he should have put in a bid.) The money will come from governments, the bulk of it from the UN's richest member States. All of it will flow back into private coffers in a few affluent countries. Here's the line-up of major contractors:

Program Manager: Gardiner & Theobald, London
Construction Manager: Skanska USA Building, Parsippany, N.J.
Architect - Structural Engineer - Secretariat Building: HLW, New York
Architect - Conference Building, General Assembly Building: Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering, Albany
Architect - Library: Helpern Architects, New York
Curtain Wall Consultant: R.A. Heintges & Associates, New York
M-E-P Engineer: Syska & Hennessy, New York
Space Programming Consultant: Perkins + Will, Chicago
Security Consultant: Kroll Schiff & Associates, New York
Building Code Consultant: Charles Rizzo Associates, New York.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Social Values

This is an edited version of a message making the rounds of email lists:

Social values are an important element in voting for a president. Take the following quiz and see if you have what it takes to make the right choices:

Question 1:

If you knew a woman with syphilis who was pregnant and already had 8 kids, three of whom were deaf, two blind, and one mentally retarded, would you recommend that she have an abortion?

Question 2:

Who would you vote for among the following three candidates for national office:

Candidate A, who associated with crooked politicians, consulted an astrologer, was unfaithful to his devoted wife, chain smoked and drank 8 to 10 martinis a day.

Candidate B, who used opium in college, put away a quart of whiskey every evening, and thought the genocide of American Indians was entirely in keeping with the natural order of things because they were replaced by a superior race.

Candidate C, who was a decorated war hero, a painter, a vegetarian and a non-smoker, who restricted his drinking to an occasional beer and never cheated on his wife.


If you recommended an abortion for the unfortunate woman in Question 1 you would have killed Beethoven.

The descriptions in Question 2 are of :

Candidate A: Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Candidate B: Winston Churchill.
Candidate C: Adolph Hitler.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Food: The New Colonial Imperative?

The search for food security has always been a major factor in establishing patterns of dominance among groups of people, but can it happen in the globalized 21st century? The front page story in London's Financial Times of 9 May didn't spell it out in those terms, but the meaning between the lines was unmistakable.

"Chinese companies will be encouraged to buy farmland abroad, particularly in Africa and South America, to help guarantee food security under a plan being considered in Beijing," said the lead. Under a proposal from the Agricultural Ministry, reported Jamil Anderlini from Beijing, China would officially encourage "offshore land acquisition" by domestic companies. If approved, "the plan could face intense opposition abroad." He cited "an official close to the deliberations" saying the proposal by the Agricultural Ministry "was likely to be adopted" even though opposition to the plan "might come from foreign governments unwilling to give up large areas of agricultural land."

Anderlini reported that food-poor oil-exporting countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa are also exploring similar options. Libya is talking to Ukraine about growing wheat; Saudi Arabia has said it will invest in food production abroad.

Chinese inability to meet the growing food demands of its population is driving the new policy, Anderlini noted: "China has about 40 per cent of the world's farmers, but just 9 per cent of the world's arable land." He cited a Chinese scholar's argument that "domestic agricultural companies must expand overseas" if the country is to "guarantee its food security and reduce its exposure to global market fluctuations." This was seen as a "win-win" situation, benefiting all parties involved, even if other countries might not see it that way. Anderlini noted that "Some countries would find it particularly problematic if Beijing supported Chinese companies to use Chinese labor on land bought or rented abroad - a common practice for most companies operating overseas."

Whether intentionally or not, the article will make developing countries insecure about cooperating with China on large "Model Farms" and infrastructure projects like ports and railways that ease access to agricultural resources. Such projects are spread across a number of key countries, from Pakistan to the Sudan, and they are often lauded as disinterested "South-South" cooperation.

The 2007-2009 "Beijing Action Plan" adopted at the 2006 China-Africa Forum stressed the importance of intensified agricultural cooperation in "ensuring food security for both sides. " China pledged to "Send 100 senior experts on agricultural technologies to Africa and set up in Africa 10 demonstration centers of agricultural technology with special features; Give encouragement and support to Chinese enterprises in expanding their investment in agriculture in Africa and getting more involved in agricultural infrastructure development, production of agricultural machinery and processing of agricultural produce in Africa."

India, Russia and South-East Asian countries are also likely to experience increased mistrust in Chinese protestations of goodwill, for they have rich agricultural regions on which China has or had territorial claims. China has significant territorial disputes with the Russian Federation, India, and Vietnam.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

UN Acts to Avoid Global Famine

Perhaps there won't be a "great famine of 2008 -2009."

If we do avoid mass starvation, much of the credit should go to the UN System. Here's what happened in the last few days:

The UN System's Chief Executive's Board (CEB) met in Berne, Switzerland, and agreed on a coordinated strategy with short, medium and long-term aims. Those were, respectively, to feed the hungry; improve food security; and address the "structural" problems responsible for precipitating the current situation. UN field staff will monitor and assess the impact of changes in food price and sound the alarm when necessary.

The meeting urged donors to ante up an additional $755 million for immediate relief by the World Food Programme, and $1.7 billion for the Food and Agriculture Organization to boost food production in poor countries. On longer term action, the meeting did not agree on much.

The incendiary Jean Ziegler, the "expert" on the Right to Food appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, called for a five-year moratorium on the production of biofuels from grain. He accused the United States and the European Union of having taken a "criminal path" by using food grains to produce biofuels. He claimed confidently that "speculation on international markets was behind 30 per cent of the increase in food prices," and that a third of the US corn crop had been diverted to produce biofuels; the EU, he said, planned on replacing 10 per cent of its petrol consumption with them.The US food multinational Cargill, he added, controlled "a quarter of all cereal production." Further, hedge funds were "also making huge profits from raw materials markets;" he called for "new financial regulations to prevent such speculation." The UN's News Service, which reported Ziegler's statements, did not mention if he attributed his statistics to any particular source.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a long-winded "first lecture" in a series on global issues organized by UNITAR* made only a single passing reference to speculation as a cause of food inflation. "We are familiar with the causes" of the current crisis, he said in the 29 April speech: "rising oil prices, growing global demand, bad trade policies, bad weather, panic buying and speculation, the new craze of biofuels derived from food products and so on and so on." [*UNITAR stands for the UN Institute for Training and Research. As it draws on many ex-UN staff, it is also known fondly as the UN Institute for the Tired and the Retired.]

Neither Ban nor Ziegler mentioned agricultural subsidies doled out by the United States and the European Union to their own farmers as a major, perhaps even the most significant, reason for the low agricultural productivity of many poor countries. There is an extensive expert literature on that subject; for instance, this is what a 2005 report of the World Resources Institute had to say:
  • "The United States, the European Union (EU), Japan, and other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries provide about $300 billion annually in support to farmers (Chigunta et al. 2004; OECD 2004). This is the equivalent of 1.3 percent of GDP in OECD countries and roughly six times all official development assistance (Greig-Gran 2003). The $300 billion figure refers to total support and includes payments to farmers as well as import restrictions and other government interventions such as research and development (Elliott 2004). Of support that is considered most trade-distorting, OECD countries are estimated to have spent approximately $180 billion a year between 2001 and 2003 (Elliott 2004)." [Subsidies have gone up since 2005.]
  • "While agricultural subsidies’ original goals were to enable small family farms to operate and to ensure food security, their current use is far from this vision. The distribution of subsidies is uneven, significantly skewed in favor of larger farmers and agribusiness with capital-intensive, highly mechanized operations on vast commercial estates rather than small farmers considered poor by developed-country standards (Cline 2003). The WTO Annual Report (2003) estimates that in the EU, United States, Canada, and Japan the largest 25 percent of farms receive 70 percent, 89 percent, 75 percent, and 68 percent of total agricultural subsidies, respectively. In the United States, 60 percent of farmers are provided no support at all, while the biggest 7 percent account for 50 percent of government payments (Diao et al. 2003)."
  • Overproduction of certain crops in developed countries, encouraged by subsidies, has led to dumping — selling at prices below those that would prevail in undistorted markets and, in many cases, at prices below the cost of production — of excess agricultural commodities on the world market (Diao et al. 2003). This has contributed to the general downward trend of world market prices for agricultural commodities over the past several decades. The impact of developed country subsidies is felt by agricultural sectors in developing countries. According to a WTO report (2003), these subsidies “constrain agricultural growth and development opportunities in non-OECD countries.” One estimate shows that trade distortions caused by agricultural subsidies cost developing countries $200 billion per annum (Akande 2002). Among the developing countries, those in sub-Saharan Africa have suffered the largest loss (in percentage terms) of about 10–15 percent of total agricultural and agro-industrial incomes (Diao et al. 2003)."
The report also said that subsidies to cotton farmers in the United States lowered prices globally, cutting the income of poor farmers in developing countries. "Estimates suggest that in West and Central African countries, where an estimated 10 million people rely on cotton for their livelihood, up to $250 million is lost every year as a result of these subsidies" it said. Citing a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the report said that "a 40 percent reduction in farm-level cotton prices leads to a 21 percent reduction in income for cotton farmers and a 6–7 percent increase in rural poverty."

As long as the world's food security depends on international markets that are deeply distorted and subject to a variety of speculative pressures, the dodging of the crisis of 2008 will be a temporary achievement. Not till we root food security firmly in local and subregional production-consumption cycles, with broader trade providing no more than an additional cushion against shortages, will we be able to say goodbye to the specter of global famine.