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“Mr Speaker. Today is the day when Britain steps back from the brink. When we confront the bills from a decade of debt.”[1]

  These were the words of George Osbourne yesterday, before he announced what are reported to be the largest cuts in a generation. Amongst the £81bn to be cut from public spending over the next six years are £7bn extra from welfare payments, 19% in average cuts from departments and the abolishment of nearly 200 quangos. 192 of these public bodies will be axed, whilst 118 more will be merged in a move which the government defends as improving accountability and cutting costs. Some of those facing extinction include the UK Film Council, the Audit Commission and Regional Development Agencies.[2]

  The Audit Commission’s role in improving accountability would appear to be negligible in the view of the government. Those bodies and departments which have remained untouched presumably play a sufficiently strong role in achieving this goal. One such organisation is the Export Credit Guarantee Department (ECGD) which helps exporters of UK goods and services to win business overseas by providing guarantees, insurance and reinsurance. A major client of this department has been the arms industry which consumed between 30-50% of its budget in the early years of the decade.[3] In one year BAE alone accounted for 42% of the ECGD budget.[4]

  The scheme is defended by the government as a vital support to British industry and British jobs. Despite employing merely 65,000 in 2006, the combined subsidies allotted to the arms industry through the ECGD, R&D and trade mission support totalled £852million a year.[5] This is equivalent to a subsidy of £13,000 per employee per year. When compared to an annual salary on Job Seeker’s Allowance of £2696.2 this appears an incredibly inefficient means of providing for workers, ignoring of course the huge profits which these companies make. Not only this, but the department was recently implicated in a court case which revealed that ECGD funds had been used to underwrite contracts obtained by bribery.[6] No cuts or reforms have been proposed for this department.

  Another body escaping the “fair” allocation of cuts is UK Trade and Investment, and its sub-division of the Defence and Security Organisation. This body is the repackaged entity for the former Defence Export Service Organisation (DESO). Set up by Dennis Healey in 1966, the organisation promoted foreign arms sales abroad and was headed by seconded executives from private defence companies. Mr Healey defended its creation to Parliament, espousing that:

“while the Government attach[es] the highest importance to making progress in the field of arms control and disarmament, we must also take what practical steps we can to ensure that this country does not fail to secure its rightful share of this valuable commercial market.”

  This aim was not forgotten, and DESO continued to play a prominent role well into this decade. It employed almost 500 staff, with around 400 in London and a further 100 based in offices across 17 countries worldwide. DESO also worked closely with military attachés in at least 80 British Embassies. It was not until 2007 when demands by the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens as well as 30 NGO’s  with a signed statement led to the organisation’s closure by Gordon Brown. [7]

  Far from the end however, DESO’s work has continued to flourish within UK Trade and Investment. The body boasts services to its clients including facilities for events and exhibitions, market analysis and opportunities to take advantage of some of the MOD’s “long-term partnerships” in overseas markets.[8] Indeed DSO continues to employ more civil servants than all the other sectors of UK Trade and Investment combined. This seems only “fair” for an industry which employs less than 0.5% of the UK work force, and at a time when other British industry such as Vestas is moving overseas. Of course these overseas deals can only take place under licence by the UK Government. These have been granted so far to 13 out of the 20 worst offending states on human rights records. [9]

  With its unrivalled assistance to private arms companies it is no wonder that the UK continues to play a leading role in global trade. One might question whether the services, expertise and taxpayer funds which are disproportionately allotted to this industry could have been used to secure the development of an IT or Green energy base within these shores. It seems that the international community has decided though. UK Trade and Investment recently won an international award for Best Trade Promotion Agency.[10]

  The Department is not ready to rest on its laurels as others around it face cuts and abolishment however. This summer it published a report identifying new opportunities for British companies in Iraqi Kurdistan, describing the region as, “a gateway for British companies looking to establish a foothold in Iraq.”[11] With the intelligence gathered from almost 8 years of occupation it is likely that UK Trade and Investment will be well placed to give British industry the edge in this “new market”.

Chris Bowles

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A World Bank arbitration panel has ruled in favour of Canadian mining company Pacific Rim in determining that a controversial lawsuit, which the corporation filed against the government of El Salvador after the latter indefinitely suspended the exploitation of a gold mine close to the nation’s capital, may proceed. Preliminary Objections to Pacific Rim’s case had been filed by the Salvadorian government in January, alleging that the lawsuit was erroneous and without legal foundation.

El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, had halted exploration at the El Dorado mine site, located around 40 miles from San Salvador, citing the potential for environmental and social damage. In June, Funes had affirmed that, “El Salvador and my government are not going to support, nor authorise, any mining exploration or exploitation which puts the country’s health at risk and which further deteriorates our environment”[1], however the panel’s ruling puts this position in serious jeopardy.

The case, brought by Pacific Rim subsidy Pac Rim Cayman, has been shrouded in controversy since it was filed in April of 2009, with the government of El Salvador maintaining from the outset that there is no legal basis for arbitration on behalf of the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), the World Bank’s dispute resolution panel. Upon filing the case, Pacific Rim announced that it would be seeking, “award of damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars from the government for its multiple breaches of international and Salvadoran law”[2], and the figure currently being demanded by the Canadian company is $77 million. An estimated 30% of El Salvador’s 6 million people live below the poverty line, and the country’s illiteracy rate currently stands at around 20%.[3]

Pacific Rim has pursued its claim under the terms of the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), to which the United States, the Dominican Republic and five Central American nations, including El Salvador, are signatories. The company’s Pac Rim Cayman subsidiary had been registered in the Cayman Islands, but relocated to the U.S. state of Nevada in 2007 – some three years after a rift had begun to emerge between Pacific Rim and the government of El Salvador.  CAFTA has no jurisdiction in either Canada, where Pacific Rim is registered, or in the Cayman Islands, but Pac Rim Cayman’s registration in Nevada has allowed it to use the terms of the free trade agreement to bring legal proceedings against El Salvador.

The Salvadorian government presented ICSID with a six-page document outlining what it describes as flagrant violations of World Bank policy last week, after the panel had determined that the case would be allowed to proceed in spite of vociferous objections. The government also charges that Pacific Rim is acting in violation of the 1996 El Salvador Mines Law, which stipulates certain prerequisites for the granting of mining concessions in the country.[4]

Pacific Rim’s President and CEO, Tom Shrake, said that the company was “very pleased” with ICSID’s decision to allow the case to proceed. “This is a positive and crucial step in the CAFTA process for Pac Rim. We are, however, reticent to celebrate as we believe a more productive outcome is possible for both the Salvadoran people and foreign investors. With this phase of the arbitration now completed, we hope to resume a mutually beneficial dialogue with the Government of El Salvador to resolve the impasse on the El Dorado project”, he added.[5]

The Salvadorian National Committee against Mining (Mesa Nacional frente a la Minería), however, decried the ICSID ruling, saying that it sets a “terrible precedent” in terms of national sovereignty and the right of a country “to reject projects that are environmentally or socially unfeasible”.[6] The committee has called on Funes’ government to join forces with groups opposed to the World Bank’s ruling, with activist Manuel Fuentes saying that by allying with such organisations the government can “strengthen its defensive strategy”.

Furthermore, there have been calls from activists in El Salvador for the government to pass legislation prohibiting outright the mining of metals in the country, to withdraw from the Central American Free Trade Agreement with immediate effect, and to rule out the possibility of signing bilateral trade accords with Canada.

Neoliberal ‘free trade’ agreements such as CAFTA and its counterpart NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement, which encompasses Canada, Mexico and the United States – have come under intensifying scrutiny in recent years, as many have pointed out that they actively erode national sovereignty and pit member states’ economies against one another in what has been dubbed the “race to the bottom” by some economists.

Republican Congressman Ron Paul remarked of CAFTA in 2005 that, “It is absurd to believe that CAFTA and other trade agreements do not diminish American sovereignty.  When we grant quasi-governmental international bodies the power to make decisions about American trade rules, we lose sovereignty plain and simple… Like the UN, NAFTA, and the WTO, it represents another stone in the foundation of a global government system.  Most Americans already understand they are governed by largely unaccountable forces in Washington, yet now they face having their domestic laws influenced by bureaucrats in Brussels, Zurich, or Mexico City.”[7]

Former World Bank Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz has also voiced opposition to NAFTA and CAFTA, observing that these agreements have had a detrimental effect on domestic agriculture in signatory states, whose markets have been flooded with cheap produce imported from the United States. In many cases, heavy subsidies offered to U.S. farmers by the federal government mean that U.S.-grown crops are able to undercut domestic produce with disastrous results for those who depend on farming to make a living. The result has been increasing rural poverty in countries such as Mexico, simultaneously fuelling migration from the countryside to the city and immigration from Latin America into the United States.

Speaking about the effects of the NAFTA agreement on Mexico, Stiglitz observes that, “NAFTA, ten years later, did not, I think, produce the benefits that Mexico had hoped for. A fairer agreement could have, but that’s not what they got. One of the key aspects of this was agriculture. The price of corn fell by half. The poorest people in Mexico are corn farmers. So you increased the poverty among the poorest groups in the country. It helps their urban workers, who buy food, but it hurts the some of the poorest. So you have seen this change in the pattern of inequality within Mexico.”[8]

In 1993, then-Vice President-elect Al Gore took part in a televised debate with independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, a passionate opponent of NAFTA, on a special edition of Larry King Live on CNN. It was during this debate that Gore uttered the now infamous line, “this is a good deal for our country”[9].

A 2003 report into the effect of NAFTA on the U.S. economy, however, contradicts Mr. Gore in the strongest possible terms. Robert E. Scott’s report, The high price of ‘free’ trade, notes that in the first ten years following the 1993 inception of NAFTA, over 870,000 jobs were lost from the United States, mostly “high-wage positions in manufacturing industries”[10]. In addition, NAFTA “contributed to rising income inequality, suppressed real wages for production workers, weakened workers’ collective bargaining powers and ability to organize unions, and reduced fringe benefits”.

Scott’s damning report observes that, “no protections were contained in the core of the agreement to maintain labor or environmental standards”, and that NAFTA, “tilted the economic playing field in favor of investors, and against workers and the environment, resulting in a hemispheric “race to the bottom” in wages and environmental quality”.

The report goes on to state that advocates of NAFTA, such as Al Gore and former President George W. Bush, “misrepresent the real effects of trade on the U.S. economy: trade both creates and destroys jobs. Increases in U.S. exports tend to create jobs in this country, but increases in imports tend to reduce jobs because the imports displace goods that otherwise would have been made in the United States by domestic workers.”

The result of nearly two decades of unchecked neoliberal economic policy has been a sharp decline in real wages and living standards in the United States, spurred on by the near-total obliteration of the country’s manufacturing sector as companies seek to maximise profit margins by moving their factories south of the border where land and labour are considerably cheaper. With support for such policies unsurprisingly strong among Washington D.C.’s political elite, this trend shows no sign of relenting in the foreseeable future.


[1] Pacific Rim expresa su satisfacción por victoria en tribunal internacional, http://noticias.terra.es/2010/economia/0804/actualidad/pacific-rim-expresa-su-satisfaccion-por-victoria-en-tribunal-internacional.aspx

[2] Arbitration panel favors Canada miner in dispute with El Salvador, http://www.laprensasa.com/2.0/3/309/796002/America-in-English/Arbitration-panel-favors-Canada-miner-in-dispute-with-El-Salvador.html

[3] The CIA World Factbook – El Salvador, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/es.html

[4] El Salvador busca frenar demanda de Pacific Rim, http://www.elsalvador.com/mwedh/nota/nota_completa.asp?idCat=6374&idArt=5040098

[5] Pac Rim Cayman LLC – ICSID Tribunal Rejects Government of El Salvador’s Preliminary Objection, http://www.allbusiness.com/legal/trial-procedure-decisions-rulings/14892156-1.html

[6] Ambientalistas consideran un “precedente nefasto” la decisión contra El Salvador, http://es.noticias.yahoo.com/9/20100811/tsc-ambientalistas-consideran-un-precede-23e7ce8.html

[7] CAFTA: More Bureaucracy, Less Free Trade, http://www.house.gov/paul/tst/tst2005/tst060605.htm

[8] Fair Trade for All: How Trade Can Promote Development, http://www.cceia.org/resources/transcripts/5339.html

[9] NAFTA: Ross Perot and Al Gore Debate 1993, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhwhMXOxHTg

[10] The high price of ‘free’ trade – NAFTA’s failure has cost the United States jobs across the nation, http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/briefingpapers_bp147/

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a meeting of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee in Washington D.C. on Tuesday evening that the call from the international community for Israel to temporarily freeze settlement construction in territory it has been illegally occupying since 1967 was an “illogical and unreasonable demand”.[1] Netanyahu’s comments came after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had called on the Zionist state to make “difficult but necessary choices”, a reference to Israeli plans to construct around 1,600 new homes in illegally occupied East Jerusalem which were announced during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the country.

Clinton used her appearance at AIPAC to underscore her “rock solid” dedication to “Israel’s security”, saying that this is “more than a policy position for me. It is a personal commitment that will never waver”. She went on to say, however, that Israel’s continuing settlement expansion “undermines mutual trust” between the two nations.[2] Such tame chastisement came less than 24 hours after Netanyahu had told his cabinet that, “As far as we are concerned, building in Jerusalem is like building in Tel Aviv”.

According to international law, however, there is a clear distinction. Israel has resisted repeated United Nations Security Council resolutions to withdraw from all territory it occupied in 1967, and has continuously expanded illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which have more than doubled in size since the failed Oslo peace accords of 1993. The total number of inhabitants of Jewish-only settlements in illegally occupied territory currently stands at over 650,000.

Despite the fact that the construction of settlements in territory acquired by war is roundly condemned by the international community and the practice is forbidden by international law, the BBC insists on including the concession that “Israel disputes this” whenever settlements’ legal status is mentioned, further clouding the issue and giving the illusion of legitimate contention where there is none.

Aside from their outright illegality, settlements are routinely constructed in strategic areas which give their inhabitants preferential access to scarce supplies of water and arable land to the detriment of the impoverished Palestinian communities who live on their margins. A network of roads and highways administered by Israel cuts through the West Bank, in many cases isolating Palestinian villages from one another and making travel between towns just a few miles apart unfeasible.

Settlements in East Jerusalem have been constructed so as to “ring-fence” the portion of the city under illegitimate occupation, with Israel claiming the whole of Jerusalem as its “eternal and indivisible” capital. The location of such settlements makes any transfer of sovereignty over East Jerusalem to a Palestinian government under a future peace deal practically impossible should the current inhabitants be allowed to remain where they are. The dominant forces within the international community have steadfastly refused to take collective action against Israel’s repeated and flagrant violations of internationally accepted practice in refusing to withdraw from territory it acquired following the 1967 war, and have thus undermined any genuine prospect of peace between the two sides.

British arms sales to Israel skyrocketed under Tony Blair’s stewardship and currently stand at their highest ever level. The prospect of a potential future Conservative government bringing pressure to bear on the Zionist state looks remote to say the least: a Channel 4 programme entitled Dispatches: Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby, screened in late 2009, found that roughly 80% of Tory MPs are members of Conservative Friends for Israel. The United States currently sends Israel, a nation with a population of just over 7 million, around US$3 billion in foreign aid annually, more than to any other single country and more than to every country in Sub-Saharan Africa combined.

Speaking at AIPAC on Tuesday, Netanyahu said that illegal settlements in East Jerusalem were an “inextricable” part of Israel and would remain so under any subsequent peace deal. Incredibly, he went on to state that their construction, “in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution.”[3] President Barack Obama appeared to agree with Netanyahu’s position in September of 2009, when he dropped an official demand for Israel to cease illegal settlement construction.[4] Even more bizarrely, this humiliating capitulation was reported by CNN as if it were a major step in bringing the two sides together.

Quite how Obama and the United States manage to retain any credibility whatsoever as neutral peace brokers in this conflict is a testament to the power of the mainstream media upon which the majority of Americans and Britons rely for information about world affairs. Obama, who had won glowing praise from the Israeli press for a now infamous performance at AIPAC prior to his victory at the polls in late 2008, effectively extinguished any faint hopes of positive action from Washington on the matter when he appointed former IDF volunteer Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff shortly after being elected. Emanuel is widely acknowledged to be one of the most potent figures in Obama’s administration, and it is against this backdrop that any call by the United States’ government for peace talks to resume can be discarded as fading rhetoric.

Clinton at AIPAC: Iran threatened once again

Speaking on behalf of the planet’s foremost nuclear power, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the latest contribution to the burgeoning collection of threats targeted at Iran by political figures from the United States and Israel, calling for “sanctions that bite” against the Persian nation and stating that the United States is “determined to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons”. Clinton was greeted by applause from the 7,500-strong audience, comprised of members of arguably Washington’s most powerful political lobby representing the interests of a foreign nation, no less than 25 times during Monday’s speech. She called Iran’s mythical quest to procure nuclear weaponry “unacceptable to the United States, unacceptable to Israel and unacceptable to the region and the international community”.

Russia and China have hitherto resisted proceeding with sanctions against Iran, while the U.S. began a programme of sanctions during the presidency of Secretary Clinton’s husband Bill which were dutifully extended by President Obama shortly after the latter took office early in 2009.

The double standard underpinning the frequently recited mantra that Iran is not entitled to obtain nuclear armaments and should be considered a pariah if it wishes to do so is palpable: not only does the U.S. have the world’s most formidable nuclear arsenal; it stands apart from the other members of the coveted nuclear club, having used such weapons to devastating effect against the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

In addition, Israel is believed to have several hundred nuclear warheads and senior Israeli politicians have been repeatedly threatening military action against Iran in recent years. Israel allowed “cursory inspections” of its nuclear facilities once a year between 1962 and 1969, going to great lengths to conceal underground areas of its sites which contained incriminating evidence of the country’s clandestine nuclear weapons programme.[5]

When covertly taken photographs and information regarding Israel’s secret nuclear weapons facilities were released to The Sunday Times in October 1986, Israeli whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu was kidnapped in Rome before being flown to Israel where he served years in prison, spending longer in solitary confinement than any known prisoner in modern history. Iran, meanwhile, denies categorically that it is seeking to enrich uranium for the purpose of weapon development and maintains that its intentions are purely peaceful.

Tom Kavanagh


[1] Benjamin Netanyahu says Mid-East talks face new delay, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8583589.stm

[2] Hillary Clinton warns Israel faces ‘difficult’ choices, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8579766.stm

[3] Netanyahu reaffirms ‘right to build’ in Jerusalem, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8582190.stm

[4] Obama drops demand that Israel freeze settlements, http://edition.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/09/22/us.mideast/index.html

[5] Israel’s Nuclear Weapons, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/cpc-pubs/farr.htm

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The acceleration of the war in Afghanistan by the new administration is well publicised, representing a greater surge in the war against terrorism, with the use of unmanned drones playing an increasing role. What is slightly less known is the use of these technologies in neighbouring Pakistan.

The first Predator was rushed to Afghanistan just four days after September 11th 2001 as part of the U.S.’s remarkably rapid mobilisation. Since then unmanned aircraft have become integral to U.S. efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now increasingly, in Pakistan. Military claims of greater accuracy and technological superiority, together with likely benefits in reducing military casualties, have resulted in drones gradually replacing F-16’s over the battlefield.

The Air Force is currently spending $3 billion a year in procurement and operation of the aircraft, and now holds more than 7000 units in its arsenal.[1] The most commonly used drones are the Predator and the Reaper; both equipped with hellfire missiles and manufactured by General Atomics.[2] Operated from ground bases in either Afghanistan or the United States, pilots have access to multiple computer screens displaying live video feeds, high definition cameras and various other logistical intelligence. These capabilities, according to military analysts, allow pilots to be a lot more accurate in their strikes and reduce civilian casualties.  This claim may possibly explain why the Obama administration has carried out more attacks with the technology in its first ten months than the previous administration did in its last three years.

Since the first U.S. invasion force landed in Afghanistan in late 2001, insurgent forces have sought shelter in the bordering state of Pakistan, particularly in the inaccessible regions of North Waziristan.[3] The issue of preventing raids and attacks from outside the field of war has understandably been a difficult one for coalition forces. Without a remit for war against the Pakistani state, justifying ground force troop deployment has been impossible. Instead, the United States has been forced to use its relations with the government to ensure that the Pakistani military exerts pressure against Al-Qaeda strongholds. This method has had at best, mixed success.

The U.S. therefore simultaneously launched its own covert offensive against Al-Qaeda suspects in Pakistan using drones. The avoidance of ground troops in this programme enables greater detachment from issues of legality, as well as allowing the United States to fluidly adjust the pace of its campaign. Success on this new front has been praised by news outlets for killing scores of militants over the last few months, including 12 in a single attack recently on what was once a religious school. The total estimated death toll runs as high as 700 for this campaign in Pakistan, with many questioning the proportion of these which are connected to Al-Qaeda.

Whilst the government in Pakistan has been co-operating to a certain degree with the United States, the reactions of its citizens has made the relationship difficult. As attacks under the Obama administration have increased, the Pakistani government has increased its demands, both public and private, to the Americans. A surge in attacks at the start of this year lead to public Pakistani pressure for its own drone force to defend against militant incursions.[4] [5] Privately, certain analysts argue that the U.S. has been able to maintain its campaign by adding to its list of suspects, enemies of the Pakistani government.[6]

The inability to confirm such assertions is maintained by the fact that the Pakistan drone offensive is not directed by the U.S. Air Force, but instead by the C.I.A. . As such, the list of suspect targets is confidential, together with the terms of what constitutes a militant target. As the government has also justified its use of force in this region as the only direct method of tackling the militancy, some might also ask where they are gaining the intelligence on which to base their attacks, if not from ground sources.

The attacks are justified under the legal framework of the Bush Administration, which sidestepped the U.S. ban on assassinations. Instead, terrorism was re-classified from a crime, to an extension of war, enabling forces to retaliate to attacks anywhere as a new front in their war on terror.

The C.I.A.’s lack of experience in direct military offensives, together with the ease with which these new aircraft can be piloted, has led to significant outsourcing within their campaign. Some of the practical operations have been assumed by civilian contractors, raising significant questions of legality in the assassinations of foreign nationals.

The drone war in Pakistan certainly represents a novel development in the field of warfare, it remains to be seen whether the costs of subduing suspected militancy outweigh the ‘complications’ of civilian casualties.

Chris Bowles


[1] Drone pilots have a front-row seat on war, from half a world away

http://www.latimes.com/news/nation-and-world/la-fg-drone-crews21-2010feb21,0,5789185,full.story

[2] U.S. drone crashes over Pakistan

http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/01/us-drone-goes-down-over-pakistan-again/

[3] U.S. Unleashes Unprecedented Number of Drone Attacks in Pakistan

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,293,583001,00.html

[4] Zardari asks US to transfer drone technology to Pakistan

http://news.rediff.com/report/2010/jan/08/zardari-asks-us-to-give-drones-to-pak-forces.htm

[5] U.S. to supply Pakistan 12 drones

http://www.thehindu.com/2010/01/23/stories/2010012359791000.htm

[6] Jane Mayer on Predator Drones and Pakistan

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2009/10/jane-mayer-predators-drones-pakistan.html

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The Venezuelan government announced on Saturday that Manuel Zelaya, the Honduran President overthrown in a bloodless military coup last June, will serve as the political leader of the Petrocaribe alliance. Petrocaribe was created by the government of Hugo Chávez in 2005 and allows participating countries, including some of the poorest nations in the Americas, to finance shipments of Venezuelan oil over a period of 17 to 25 years at an interest rate of 1%, paying a small fraction up front[1]. Member states can also finance part of their petroleum imports with export commodities such as rice and bananas, which are sent to Venezuela in part-exchange for market-rate oil.

Zelaya’s appointment was announced by the Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nicolás Maduro, during a conference of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Maduro stated that the decision to appoint Zelaya demonstrates the Venezuelan government’s commitment to “continue supporting the restoration of democracy in Honduras”[2]. Following June’s coup, President Chávez of Venezuela was one of the international community’s most vocal supporters of Zelaya, demanding his immediate reinstatement as an interim government under Roberto Micheletti took control of the poverty-stricken Central American nation.

In elections held in November of last year, Porfirio Lobo was elected Honduran President, with many nations, including Venezuela, refusing to recognise Lobo’s victory, taking place as it did in the shadow of last summer’s coup d’état. Venezuela has indefinitely suspended oil exports to Honduras, but has stated that Caracas would restore relations with Tegucigalpa if the new government permitted Zelaya to return to the political scene in the country[3].

Zelaya, a wealthy landowner in his own right, had begun to institute significant changes which sought to alleviate the plight of the millions of Hondurans living in abject poverty. These included a 60% increase in the minimum wage which provoked criticism and anger on the part of multinational companies operating in the country, who had hitherto benefitted from unchecked access to the labour of the roughly 60% of Honduras’ 8 million inhabitants who live below the poverty line.

U.S. banana-giant Chiquita, formerly The United Fruit Company, which was instrumental in pushing through the CIA-led overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 in response to his drastic land reform policies, was among the more vocal critics of Zelaya’s minimum wage increase, and maintains substantial holdings in Honduras[4].

Honduras is the poorest nation on the mainland of the American continent, with an estimated 75% of the country’s rural population living in poverty[5], and is characterised by “an extraordinarily unequal distribution of income and high un- and underemployment”[6]. President Lobo, educated at the University of Miami, was quick to exonerate those members of the Honduran military who took part in the coup which toppled Manuel Zelaya, confirming that they would not face prosecution for their part in the overthrow and promising to put Honduras “on the path to democracy”, in February of this year[7].

During his inauguration in January, Lobo publicly thanked U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the backing he had received from the government of Barack Obama following his victory at the polls in November 2009, while Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela were among a group of several Latin American nations who boycotted Lobo’s swearing-in and refuse to recognise the Honduran government, considering it illegitimate[8].

The Obama administration is extremely unpopular in much of Latin America, with widespread anger at the decision to place U.S. troops on the ground at several military bases in Venezuela’s neighbour Colombia as part of the United States’ “war on drugs”. Obama’s decision to extend crippling sanctions against Cuba, in spite of having made noises to the effect that relations could thaw between Washington and Havana during his campaign, has also done little to alter the image of his administration in a region which has seen countless U.S. and U.S.-backed military interventions in preceding decades which have left deep physical and emotional scars which endure to the present day.

Honduras had been receiving oil shipments from Venezuela under a Petrocaribe agreement until dispatches were suspended following last June’s coup. Zelaya said of his new role as political head of Petrocaribe, “I am going to accept this nomination and this appointment from President Chávez with a view to strengthening the democratic processes in this continent”. Commenting on the role Chávez played in supporting the ousted President following the coup, Zelaya remarked, “it’s false that Hugo Chávez came looking for me, I went looking for him in order to help Latin America”.

Interviewed after the conclusion of three hours of talks with Zelaya held at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Chávez affirmed that Porfirio Lobo’s electoral victory in Honduras “was no defeat” and that Zelaya is still the “legitimate President of Honduras”.

Tom Kavanagh


[1] Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. – Petrocaribe, http://www.pdvsa.com/index.php?tpl=interface.sp/design/readmenuprinc.tpl.html&newsid_temas=48

[2] Designan a Zelaya como nuevo presidente del Consejo Político de Petrocaribe, http://www.telesurtv.net/noticias/secciones/nota/67940-NN/designan-a-zelaya-como-nuevo-presidente-del-consejo-politico-de-petrocaribe/

[3] Chávez contrata al ex presidente hondureño Zelaya para dirigir Petrocaribe, http://www.cnnmexico.com/mundo/2010/03/06/chavez-contrata-al-ex-presidente-hondureno-zelaya-para-dirigir-petrocaribe

[4] Chiquita in Latin America, http://www.counterpunch.org/kozloff07172009.html

[5] Honduras, http://www.ifad.org/media/success/honduras_2.htm

[6] CIA – The World Factbook – Honduras, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ho.html

[7] Presidente de Honduras exonera militar que executou golpe, http://noticias.uol.com.br/ultimas-noticias/afp/2010/02/25/presidente-de-honduras-exonera-militar-que-executou-golpe.jhtm

[8] Lobo Assumes Presidency as U.S., Latin America Split, http://www.businessweek.com/news/2010-01-27/lobo-set-for-presidency-as-u-s-latin-america-split-update1-.html

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The assassination of senior Hamas official, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh on the 19th January in a Dubai hotel room has sparked an international row with Israel at its centre.  Al-Mabhouh had been linked by Israel to the abduction and murder of two Israeli soldiers in 1989, he is also a prominent member of the militant party which continues to hold political control in the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has refused to confirm or deny accusations of Mossad’s involvement, stressing his country’s “policy of ambiguity” regarding Special Forces operations.[1] Several of the false passports linked to the assassination squad by Dubai police are registered with individuals currently residing in the Israeli state.  This, together with Israel’s significant motivation, has led the chief of police in Dubai to assert his 99% certainty of Israeli involvement, and to demand an Interpol warrant for the arrest of Mossad chief, Meir Dagan.[2]

In an interview with the Qatar based media source, Al-Jazeera last year, al-Mabhouh  confessed to the 1989 murders and stated that, “To the Israelis, my hands are stained with blood, but to God? This is what matters.”[3] Analysts argue that although this was a probable cause of the official’s death in playing against Israel’s pride, more important are accusations of his role in the arms smuggling. These centre on links with the state of Iran and the use of tunnels to transport tactical equipment (most importantly rockets) into the Gaza Strip. International speculation on this latter subject has always been intense, with many questioning the strength of relations between the Shi’te state and the militant Sunni party.

Although the row with Arab states has inevitably focused on the operation of Israeli forces on their home soil, many Western governments having also professed anger at the logistical details of the assassination.[4] The use of forged passports from several European countries by the squad has led to demands for explanations from Israel and appears to continue Israel’s notable habit of making life difficult for its friends.

6 British passports, as well as 5 from Ireland and a further few from France and Germany have already been linked to the investigation. The UK passports in particular appear to have been clones, replicating the identity of British citizens currently resident in the Jewish state. British Foreign Secretary David Milliband and his European counterparts have already lodged their stern disapproval and demanded answers from Israel.[5]

Despite the international furor, official and civilian responses in Israel have however been fairly relaxed. Although recognizing that Israel was almost certainly responsible, most press sources have expressed their certainty that the scandal will blow over. The columnist Eitan Haber, of Israel’s largest newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, described al-Mabhouh as a “master terrorist” and that Israel had achieved its objectives in eliminating him; he predicted that the foreign headlines would “be gone in a day or two.”[6]

After revelations by the UK’s “Daily Mail”, Israeli opinion has become particularly impatient with the international reproach it has been receiving.  In a special expose on the incident, the paper quoted an unnamed diplomatic source as reportedly confirming that Britain had received advance warning of the use of its passports, and that Israel would simply receive a “slap on the wrist.”[7]

Despite the international press headlines there is considerable evidence that media and government are merely completing the necessary overtures, and that Israeli conviction of the incident “blowing over” is indeed correct. Despite expressing their concern and condemnation, diplomatic comments have been significantly vague. The UK’s Gordon Brown has demanded, “a full investigation into this,” but conceded that, “it is necessary for us to accumulate that evidence before we can make statements.” The characteristic technique of using “proper procedures and channels” will likely yield the desired time for both parties.

The format of international press coverage is perhaps best represented by the “NY Daily News”, which features a poll in which readers can express their opinion out of two available options:

“Take our Poll: Hamas big executed

What do you think of the assassination of Hamas guerrilla Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai?

  • It’s a disgrace: The hit ignored international laws.
  • It’s great: That’s one less terrorist to worry about.”

It is significant that neither option questions the guilt of al-Mabhouh, but rather the procedure of the operation. Indeed the paper pertinently adds that, “Much of the European uproar is because the killers used British, Irish and other European passports,” rather than because they murdered an official in the government of a foreign state.[8]

With the near universal condemnation of Hamas in official circles there has been predictably little comment on this model of the extra-judicial killing of a foreign official. Investigation into the murder has, however, implicated the involvement of two Palestinian individuals who are former officers of the Palestinian security services. Their current employment is with a private security firm owned by Mohammed Dahlan; a senior member of Hamas’ rival, Fatah.[9] Dahlan was a former strongman in the Gaza Strip and was given assistance by both Israel and the U.S. in an attempt to topple the Hamas government following their election victory. After  the 2007 failed coup attempt, Dahlan, along with other Fatah members, was  expelled from the territory and has since established himself in the West Bank. The logistics of this operation would appear to implicate Fatah once again in assisting Israel with its security concerns.

Chris Bowles


[1] http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2010/02/20102219289545873.html

[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/feb/18/dubai-assassination-forged-british-passports

[3] http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/2010/02/21/2010-02-21_no_remorse_in_israel_over_guerrillas_death.html

[4] http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2010/02/20102219289545873.html

[5] http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/02/18/2822956.htm

[6] http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/2010/02/21/2010-02-21_no_remorse_in_israel_over_guerrillas_death.html

[7] http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/136085

[8] http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/2010/02/21/2010-02-21_no_remorse_in_israel_over_guerrillas_death.html

[9] http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1151245.html

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In the last hours of 2009 a US judge dismissed all charges against 5 Blackwater employees held in connection with the Nisoor Square masacre in September 2007. The case centred on claims that guards from the private security firm shot at random at unarmed civilians as their convoy passed a junction, killing 17 and injuring dozens more. The firm, which has changed its operating name to Xe services, argues that their employees we’re responding to an ambush by insurgents.

The case has acted as a focusing point for Iraqi resentment at the presence and immunity of private security contractors within the country. Many civilians claim that their behaviour has long been conducted with a disregard for Iraqi sovereignty, and that this recent victory for Blackwater’s defence highlights the impression that they are able to operate free from prosecution. Five of the six men charged in the case have been released while the fate of a sixth remains unclear due to his guilty plea.

Blackwater is one of the largest and most controversial of the private contractors operating with the Coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although it has been formerly banned from Iraq by the national government, expectations that private staff will soon comprise 50% of armed forces capacity in Afghanistan will likely lead to further growth of its operations. The practice of contracting private firms for security and the protection of expatriates was hugely accelerated after 9/11, but has since seen employees embroiled in numerous cases regarding human rights and improper conduct.

During the Abu Ghraib investigations it was found that more than a third of the guards involved in abuse were employees of Blackwater. Following the Nisoor Square masacre, a 2007 House of Representatives report on the conduct of the company found several more issues. This House Oversight and Government Reform Committee found that between 2005 and 2007 there had been 195 reported incidents in which employees had fired weapons. Despite its legal remit to use only defensive force in the protection of State Department officials, it was found that in 80% of the cases Blackwater guards had fired first (often from a moving vehicle). Their reputation for over-zealous force was not assisted by further revelations that 122 people from their 800 strong operating capacity in Iraq had been fired from employment, due mostly to weapons-related incidents and substance abuse. Xe Services claims this figure represents its firm commitment to the highest standards within its workforce.

In the case brought by the Justice Department against the 6 employees, the judge dismissed the case on the grounds of improper practice, claiming that their prosecution was, “contradictory, unbelievable and lacking in credibility”. District Judge Ricardo Urbina pointed to flaws in the collection and presentation of evidence. Sworn testimonies were collected from all 6 of the accused under specific terms from the State Department. These were obtained after threatening the men’s employment if they chose not to co-operate and under the formal understanding that they could not be used in legal proceedings. As government contractors, the guards were obligated to give an immediate report to State Department officials, but since the Constitution prevents the government from requiring a defendant to testify against himself, these statements could not be used in a prosecution.

It was on these grounds that Urbina dismissed the case, citing the fact that the testimonies had been used to obtain warrants, been presented to the jury, and had been leaked to witnesses. He was able to crush the case before trial without any reference to its merits from a criminal perspective. Although the Justice Department has 90-days from the date of dismissal to appeal the decision, they are unlikely to seek this. Due to the fact that the indictments sought by the department were so heavily dependent on information gained from the forced testimonies, it will prove difficult to pursue their case without them.

Iraqis and many human rights organisations have accused the U.S. justice system of deliberately avoiding an opportunity to secure accountability in its operations. Many argue that this ‘surprise’ action by Judge Urbina is reflective of the U.S.’s wish to avoid bringing its actions into public focus.

However the flaws in the Justice Department’s case have led others to question the practice of the prosecution. The errors made in the collection and handling of evidence should have meant that Urbina’s decision on December 31st came as no surpise. These errors, unacceptable under even normal legal practice, become more pronounced after claims that prosecutors ignored advice from senior department lawyers. These officials in the “taint team” warned the prosecution about the serious legal issues in their case, yet to no avail. Attorney Kenneth C. Kohl, who led the prosecution, has over 20 years experience and would have been expected to have foreseen the issues arising from the accuser’s testimonies.

Critiques of the Justice Department case claim that prosecution lawyers knowingly and deliberately sabotaged their own case in order to protect a politically sensitive issue from gaining legal examination. In his final assessment of the case, Judge Urbina himself provides perhaps the most damning indictment from this perspective:

“The only conclusion the court can draw from this evidence is that Kohl and the rest of the trial team purposefully flouted the advice of the taint team when obtaining the substance of the defendants’ compelled statements, and in so doing, knowingly endangered the viability of the prosecution.”

 

 

Chris Bowles

 

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