Friday, 31 May 2013

EUROPE: Tax policies & Tax Loopholes

Wealthy businesspeople shift millions of euros abroad while profitable companies use accounting tricks to minimize their taxable earnings and assets. The EU finally wants to create effective policies to curb these practices, but faces strong opposition from member states.

Again and again, major European multinationals manage to take advantage of loopholes in national tax laws. They outwit the tax authorities in different EU countries by moving around their capital and profits, and not just to faraway tax havens in the Caribbean, but to nearby countries like Belgium, Ireland and the Netherlands.

Many EU governments are tired of watching this tax carousel and want to do something about it. With Europe in the grip of a recession, government debt is limiting many governments' options while aid packages for crisis-stricken countries are straining euro-zone budgets. Many European leaders now realize that EU countries will have to coordinate their tax policies more tightly if they hope to put an end to tax flight.

Nevertheless, there are strong national forces resisting change, as was evident at a meeting of EU finance ministers last time. Their goal was to adopt a guideline on the taxation of interest income, but Luxembourg and Austria refused to play along. As a result, tax flight is still possible with the help of anonymous foundations, life insurance policies and other income from capital.

The two countries did agree to EU negotiations over a tax treaty with Switzerland, San Marino, Andorra, Liechtenstein and Monaco. But they are still unwilling to give up their banking secrecy laws, and they also voted against the automatic exchange of data with other EU countries.

According to European Commission estimates, EU countries lose €1 trillion ($1.3 trillion) a year to tax evasion and avoidance.There was great outrage when Cyprus choked on its oversized banking sector, with EU leaders declaring the island's "business model" a failure. In reality, tax dumping is part of the core business of some EU countries.

Tough competition over the most favorable business tax has been raging for years. The average rate in the EU has dropped from 35.3 percent in the mid-1990s to 23.0 percent today, according to a recently released joint report by Eurostat, the European Union's statistics office, and the European Commission. Bulgaria has the most attractive business tax rate, 10 percent, while Ireland and Cyprus both have a rate of 12.5 percent. With a 15-percent business tax, Latvia and Lithuania also offer attractive investment conditions.

But official rates often say little about the true scope for tax trickery. In theory, companies pay a 35-percent tax in Malta, but a large number of discounts and rebates bring the real rate down to 5 percent.

Belgium has come up with a special instrument to attract companies. It allows countries to claim something on their tax returns that doesn't actually exist: interest on a company's equity capital.
This creates a large incentive for companies, to legally move large amounts of capital to Belgium, because declaring the capital there reduces their tax burden.an attractive place

The Netherlands is also attracting companies. The system there works like this: A company's main office establishes a Dutch offshore company. The main office then pays the Dutch company license fees, which are tax-exempt in the Netherlands. In this manner, the parent company reduces its profits in its home country and pays fewer taxes.

The Netherlands' attractions for foreign capital are reflected in the level of direct investment. In late 2012, the kingdom posted, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) figures, $3.5 trillion in foreign investments, of which only $573 billion flowed into the real economy, while the rest went to shell companies. There are an estimated 23,000 of these firms in the Netherlands.

There have been many attempts in the euro zone to structure business taxes fairly and uniformly. In 1998, the Austrian government placed the issue on the agenda of a meeting of EU finance ministers. "The differences in the tax systems of the member states are becoming increasingly important for investment decisions," an official noted at the time.

The introduction of the euro intensified this conflict. In the past, governments could improve competitiveness by devaluing their national currencies. Because this is no longer an option in the monetary union, the easiest way to improve a national economy's standing is by cutting taxes on companies.

There are different politicians in office now, but the arguments haven't changed. "There can be no lower limit or upper limit," says Luxembourg Finance Minister Luc Frieden. "Each country must decide for itself how much tax a company should pay. A certain amount of tax competition is necessary."

"I'm opposed to harmonization at a high level," says Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter. "I support tax competition. It's in the national interest to structure the tax system in such a way as to make a country more attractive to businesses."

And so the tax carousel keeps on turning. Even a crisis-ridden country like Portugal, which has €78 billion in bailout loans to repay, has reduced its business tax. A few weeks ago, British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced that the country's Corporation Tax is being reduced to 20 percent, which would be the lowest rate among all G-20 countries.

The British intend to address the aggressive financial optimization of companies and the super-rich with international treaties. They have placed the issue on the agenda of the G-8 summit in mid-June, which US President Barack Obama is expected to attend.
The British and the Americans advocate a system involving the automatic exchange of data between tax authorities. Switzerland has bowed to intense pressure and made that concession to the Americans. The British have convinced tax havens in the Caribbean, like the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands, to agree to similar programs.

The idea of a large-scale exchange of data is also gaining traction in the EU. Last week, 17 EU countries, announced their willingness to exchange tax-related data on private individuals and companies in the future.

There probably will be more transparency in the end, but there are no signs that aggressive tax competition among the member states will end. The draft of the conclusions for the EU summit includes the promising statement that the "Code of Conduct" task force will be asked to submit proposals. But it's been doing that for a long time -- for more than 15 years, to be precise.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

AFRICA: The ICC, African leaders & Kenyan's case

The International Criminal Court, pursuing charges against the man who recently became Kenya's president, faces a trial of its own ability to prosecute the powerful. If the trial of Uhuru Kenyatta—scheduled to start July 9—goes ahead, it will be the decade-old court's first of a sitting head of state. Mr. Kenyatta took the helm of East Africa's biggest economy following a March election. He triumphed over his top rival, Raila Odinga, partly by turning the ICC's prosecution into a nationalist rallying cry.

The court alleges Mr. Kenyatta and his deputy president, William Ruto, incited gang violence that left more than 1,000 people dead following his predecessor's disputed election in 2007. Both men deny the charges. How the ICC handles the case will test its credibility amid a clash of political and diplomatic interests—a conundrum thrown into the spotlight on Monday as African Union leaders called for the ICC to turn over its cases against Messrs. Kenyatta and Ruto to local courts. Court responded that the AU's call wouldn't affect the court's procedures.

Having such a high-profile defendant in court puts high political stakes on what is really a new and problematic judicial system. A significant delay in Mr. Kenyatta's trial or a decision to drop the charges against him would risk undermining the court's credibility in Kenya and among other member states.

It would mean "the court is just like any ordinary court in our little states, not an international court that can handle the kinds of crimes it's supposed to without political interference," said Njeri Kabeberi, executive director of Kenya's Centre for Multiparty Democracy, which encouraged the court to investigate the 2007 postelection violence.

The ICC, based in The Hague, The Netherlands, was set up in 2002 by a treaty called the Rome Statute, which was ratified by more than 120 nations—including Kenya—and aims to protect ordinary people from injustice and crimes by the powerful. Following ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, supporting countries wanted to create a permanent court that could prosecute crimes more effectively and act as a deterrent.

The only person so far tried and convicted by the court is Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, another rebel leader in Congo. He remains at the ICC's detention center in The Hague, while appealing his 2012 conviction of conscripting child soldiers. The trial of Congolese rebel leader Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui led to an acquittal that is being appealed by prosecutors.

The ICC has drawn fire from some African leaders for its nearly exclusive focus on that continent—though African nations, many of which support the court, have requested some of that work. Noting that all eight of the ICC's formal investigations have been in Africa, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on Monday said the court had compromised its legitimacy, charging "the process has degenerated into some kind of race hunting."

Mr. Kenyatta, a 51-year-old tycoon who holds vast tracts of land and stakes in major Kenyan media companies and banks, has agreed to cooperate with the court, but asked that the charges against him be thrown out. Some legal scholars and human-rights activists predict the high political stakes in the Kenyatta case will mean a prolonged delay. Among other challenges, the difficulty of dealing with Kenyan authorities who might be less than amenable to pursuing the Kenyan cases could make it tough to move forward.

In Kenya, the ICC opened its investigation after a national commission reviewing the 2007 violence passed on the names of six potential suspects to ICC prosecutors. Four people, including Messrs. Kenyatta and Ruto, were eventually charged with crimes against humanity for inciting bullying, rape and murder among rival tribes after the election.

Already, in March, the ICC's case on these same charges against Kenya's former Cabinet Secretary Francis Muthaura fell apart after a vital witness said parts of his testimony weren't true. Chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said Kenya's government hadn't cooperated sufficiently in Mr. Muthaura's case by not giving access to potentially important witnesses, a charge the government rejected in a recent court filing.

Earlier this month the planned Tuesday start of Mr. Ruto's trial was postponed to allow the parties to address a prosecution request to add five new witnesses. Both Messrs. Kenyatta and Ruto have asked to be tried in Kenya or Tanzania, or via video link, so they can run the country rather than appear at hearings in The Hague. Mr. Kenyatta has also requested that the charges against him be dropped entirely. The ICC would weigh those requests before Mr. Kenyatta's trial begins, a delay is possible if the judges grant any of them.

The Kenyan case comes as the court wrangles with several other African cases. All eight of the ICC's formal investigations, in which ICC judges have established that the court has jurisdiction, have been in Africa. The court is also investigating whether alleged crimes in Iraq, Honduras and Georgia fulfill the criteria for the court to claim jurisdiction. Disagreement among United Nations Security Council members, meanwhile, has prevented the council from requesting an ICC investigation of alleged crimes in Syria's civil war.

The court says it can only pursue cases within its jurisdiction and where there is sufficient evidence, and only in countries that have ratified the Rome Statute, as Kenya did in 1999. To act in a state that hasn't signed up, the court needs a request either from the government of that country, or from the U.N. Security Council.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
African Affairs Expert

Photo-Credit: AP-Courtroom at the ICC in the Hague

Thursday, 30 May 2013

FRANCE:''Palace Wines'': Austerity Auction

For the first time ever, bottles of valuable wine from the presidential palace in Paris will be auctioned off this week. In an effort to raise money, the austerity-strapped government plans to buy less expensive wine with the proceeds, with the surplus going back into the federal budget.

Deep underneath the Elysee Palace, next to a bunker with the code name "Jupiter," is the best wine cellar in France. The bottles sit in crates and lie on racks in half-darkness. The air-conditioned room holds more than 15,000 bottles, from the best wine-producing regions in the country - significantly more than the cellars of the French Foreign Ministry, parliament or Senate. Among the treasures are Grand Cru wines like those of Pétrus, Lafite and Mouton, and fine Champagnes.

A small portion of this precious stock, about 1,200 bottles, are being auctioned off at a sale today and tomorrow. It is not because the Socialist French president, François Hollande, wants to completely renounce luxury. "In doing this, I am not trying to emphasize that I am a 'normal president,'" he reportedly told staff.

The reason behind the auction is that there are not enough of many of the wines to be able to serve them at banquets. He said the proceeds from the sales are supposed to go toward the purchase of more modest cuvees, and the "surplus will flow into the budget."

Wines, which are auctioned include Riesling and Gewürztraminer from the Alsace region; Chablis, Corton and Meursault from Burgundy; wine from the Loire Valley; wine from Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley. The estimated values range from between €30 and €2,500 per bottle.

A poetic press release from the auction house Kapandji Morhange stated that the sale reflects a "spectrum of our oenological Savoir faire." The wines, the auction house said, are "ambassadors of both French culture and tradition."

The wines have been especially well-cared for at the Élysée, because they were considered the country's wealth and heritage. Since 1879, when the palace was officially chosen to be the residence of the president of the republic, the best bottles of wine have been stored here for the purpose of enjoying them at ceremonious state dinners.

The palace received a new wine cellar in 1947, and after every harvest the best vintages have been added. Some of the viticultural proclivities of past heads of state are surprising:

A. General Charles de Gaulle liked to drink wine, but especially loved Drappier Champagne, which he voluntarily paid for himself.
B. François Mitterrand especially liked Haut-Marbuzet from the Médoc region.
C. His successor Jacques Chirac preferred to drink the Mexican beer Corona in his private chambers. His wife, the hostess of the palace, had the wine cellar renovated and eagerly took care of the regular purchase of prestigious wines such as Mouton-Rothschild or Margaux, leading the budget to increase by a healthy 20 percent.
D. Under the non-drinker Nicolas Sarkozy, the wine purchases were cut back because of the economic crisis. But with €250,000 annually, the Elysée Palace sommelier, Virginie Routis, still had an ample budget.

Routis, who kept her position when Hollande took office, is now overseeing the current sale. The wines chosen for auction were brought to a vault at the wine cellar Chemin des Vignes, in Issy-les-Moulineaux, a suburb of Paris, three months ago. Bottles such as a Château Suduiraut from 1967 or a Château d'Yquem Premier Cru from 1855 are ready to be appraised.

"These excellent products let people dream," said Yves Legrand, owner of the vault. And he doesn't just mean the quality of the goods, some of which are slightly dusty. Almost as important as the wine itself is the previous owner.

"The fact that these bottles come from the Elysee gives them a lot of prestige," said a staff member. And to guarantee that this prestige will be visible on the table at home, the bottles will be labeled with stickers in blue, white and red -- the colors of the Republic.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Writer/World Affairs Blogger
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP

KUWAIT: The Abyss of autocracy & Protests

Fed up with the paternalizing incompetent leadership of the ruling family, a citizen's movement is waking in Kuwait, much to the fear of its neighbors in the Gulf. In the beginning was the word. More specifically, in the beginning was a speech. "The speech," says Mundhir al-Habib, a couple dozen words for which he would willingly go to prison.

"The speech" refers to a handful of thoughts expressed out loud last October by a former member of the Kuwaiti parliament. Too loudly, perhaps. The politician, Musallam al-Barrak, was sentenced in April to five years in prison.

In response, several thousand Kuwaitis gathered in front of a prison at the edge of the city to protest. There were warning shots, tear gas and injuries. Barrak has been out on bail since. One sentence in particular especially unsettled Sheikh Sabah, the emir of Kuwait, although al-Barrak uttered it in a deferential manner: "We will not allow you, your highness, to take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy."

These are words every Kuwaiti now knows. They are spread by smartphone or called out spontaneously in parks. Sometimes at night, a car can be heard honking its horn to the rhythm of the sentence: We will not allow you, we will not allow you.

Since then, Al-Barrak, has become the country's conscience.  He certainly seems to be the emirate's most popular politician at the moment. Al-Barrak is as respected by the country's young people as he is by the Bedouin population. His attacks on the conservative elite in Kuwait City have also made him popular with the unions and with those who live on the city's outskirts.

The true danger to the regime, al-Barrak says, is the regime itself and its inability, demonstrated time and again, to run a modern state. Kuwait recently had to pay $2.2 billion (€1.7 billion) to American company Dow Chemical for breach of contract because the emirate pulled out of a deal at the last minute. Kuwait's political opposition takes this as proof of the government's incompetence, while the government blames it on an opposition constantly calling everything into question.

A civil society has formed in Kuwait, a counterbalance to the satiated, self-assured paternalism of the country's Sunni ruling family. Formerly inviolable lines are now being crossed daily. In the public park near the bus station, a group of family members of political prisoners meets every evening for a sit-in on the prisoners' behalf. People talk about "the speech" in cafés without lowering their voices. Orange ribbons, the color of the protest movement, hang from cars' rearview mirrors.

It's a true Kuwaiti protest movement, driven by citizens who, just in the last two years, have stormed parliament, forced a prime minister to resign and demanded, directly from the emir, the introduction of a constitutional monarchy.

Kuwait is the only country in the Persian Gulf with a relatively freely elected parliament. Political parties are banned, but members of parliament are allowed to form political groupings. The parliament before last was dissolved because of its refusal to meet, and the opposition boycotted the election in December, after the emir issued a decree making changes to the country's electoral law. The current parliament is considered to be full of toothless puppets doing little actual work.

The polar opposite to resplendent Kuwait City can be seen in Taima, a poor and neglected district at the ragged outskirts of one of the world's most prosperous nations. It's a place of simple, self-constructed homes with tin roofs, where barefoot children run through unpaved streets full of garbage. The people here are known as "Bedoun," literally "without." They are stateless people, without citizenship and without the right to education, health care and other civil rights held by Kuwaiti citizens.

There are more than 100,000 of these stateless people living a life without rights in Kuwait, most of them because they or their relatives didn't bother to get the necessary documents when the State of Kuwait was established in 1961. After all, they likely reasoned, things had gone just fine for centuries without such documentation.

The Bedoun, the non-citizens, were the first in Kuwait to take to the streets demanding equality and dignity, concurrent with the Arab Spring. They achieved some successes and, for example, are now allowed to access the most basic services of the Kuwaiti welfare system. But those are handouts, not rights.

The protest movements in Kuwait are spreading fast, sending tremors around Gulf States.
Groups such as al-Muharib's and al-Habib's have connections throughout the region, and nowhere is there as high a density of Twitter users as in Saudi Arabia, which attempts to keep its bloggers under control with the threat of draconian punishments, so far to no avail. In Bahrain, demonstrators are arrested almost daily, and the government has hired international PR companies to turn attention away from its full jail cells and torture chambers. In Oman, around 50 bloggers were first convicted of slander against the sultan, then pardoned.

In Abu Dhabi, 94 intellectuals, dignitaries, teachers, doctors, housewives and even a sheikh from the ruling family have been on trial since March. They are charged with Muslim Brotherhood sympathies and a conspiracy to overthrow the government. The state claims the group has distorted the image of the United Arab Emirates. The accused, on the other hand, protest their patriotism. It's possible the verdict scheduled for July 2 will be followed by a pardon. Observers believe this to be a show trial, meant to demonstrate to the other Gulf States that the supposedly westernized emirs of Dubai and Abu Dhabi still know how to crack the whip.

None of the Gulf States has passed laws that actually protect the press. Even in Qatar, defamation remains a criminal offense. Criticism of the emir is allowed -- provided official permission is obtained first.

Al-Habib and his 54 fellow activists are simply waiting to see who will be arrested next. Kuwait's constitutional court is expected to reach a decision on June 16 as to whether the emir's highhanded alteration of the country's electoral law is permissible. The case against Musallam al-Barrak for his "We will not allow you" speech will also go to trial again, with neighboring Saudi Arabia reportedly pushing for a harsh sentence.

There will be further verdicts against bloggers and activists. And there will be further protests. A sense of civic engagement, once awakened, is hard to put back to sleep. And a word once spoken is hard to forget.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo Credit: AFP

HUNGARY: Constitutional amendment & EU's values

Much of Europe agrees that Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán has trampled on European Union values and infringed on constitutional democracy. His fellow European conservatives have largely kept quiet, but that could soon change.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament's Rapporteur for the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs released a draft report concluding that the most recent amendment to the Hungarian constitution violates fundamental European Union values. Specifically, the report criticized measures that restrict the scope of the country's Constitutional Court and preventing it from striking down laws passed with the support of two-thirds of parliament.

The contents of the report were not a surprise. When the Hungarian parliament passed the amendment in March, they did so despite concerns voiced by the EU and in the face of a request by the secretary general of the Council of Europe to delay the vote until the measure could be analyzed by the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's advisory body on international law.

But the draft report's findings are distinctly uncomfortable for Europe's leading center-right political group, the European. As the European Union decides whether to penalize Hungary for disregarding European values, pressure is mounting on the center-right political group, the largest bloc in European Parliament, to censure or expel its Hungarian member, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's ruling Fidesz party.

Of particular concern is that the new amendment enshrines a series of measures previously deemed unconstitutional by the country's Constitutional Court, leading many critics to accuse the Orbán government of bypassing the court to get its way.

European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has warned that if Hungary does not heed the warnings of the Justice Committee report, it risks being subject to an "infringement procedure," or penalty. Also possible, though unlikely, is that the EU could take the unprecedented step of invoking Article 7 of the EU Treaty, the "nuclear option" in Reding's words, which would revoke Hungary's voting rights in the European Council.

This month's report is only the latest element in a flood of international criticism aimed at Hungary since Fidesz swept into power three years ago with a large majority. Awkwardly for Europe's center-right parties, the loudest criticism has come from the center-left. With EU action seemingly imminent, however, the European People's Party (EPP), the center-right's home on the European political stage, must determine how to react.

The EPP is the dominant political grouping in the European Parliament and it counts Fidesz as a loyal member. Orbán himself is a vice president of the party. And publicly, the EPP has stood by Fidesz, with Chairman Joseph Daul stating: "You can't expel people or parties just because you disagree with them." But the relationship is now coming under increasing scrutiny.

Guy Verhofstadt, the former prime minister of Belgium and leader of the European Parliamentary group Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, says that there are a "number of people inside the EPP who came to me individually who are absolutely not pleased by the fact that the EPP is backing all these stupidities of Orbán and they want it to have a more critical view."

Verhofstadt says that the EPP should follow the example that his coalition set over a decade ago when it expelled the Austrian Freedom Party, which had drifted to the nationalist right. "But the official line is to say Orbán is vice president of the party and so we are behind him. Which is not a very courageous way to handle it."

Verhoftstadt has been joined in his criticism by the leaders of the European Green and Socialist blocs, both of whom have called for the enforcement of Article 7 against Hungary.

Fidesz, for its part, has sought to portray the draft report from the parliamentary Justice Committee as cynical politics-as-usual. "The document is nothing but the opening of the left wing's European Parliament election campaign," said Fidesz members of European Parliament in a statement. "This unprecedented process does nothing other than set its sights on the constitutional colonisation of

Hungary, which runs counter to European Union legal principles and values. But it is not just the European left which has criticized the Hungarian government. Justice Commissioner Reding has been one of the most outspoken critics of Orbán's policies -- and she herself is a member of the EPP. As is European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, whose warning to the Hungarian government to delay passage of the most recent amendment went unheeded by Budapest. This has led to some uncomfortable rumblings within both the EPP and in Hungary. In March, Budapest accused Reding of "waging private war against Hungary."

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had long resisted calls to publicly criticize her fellow Hungarian conservatives, issued a rare rebuke in March. Following a meeting with Hungarian president János Áder, her government issued a statement noting that Merkel had "spoken critically about the Hungarian parliament's further amendments to the constitution" and that she had urged "a responsible use of the two-thirds majority the Hungarian government has at its disposal in the parliament." The statement noted that "the concerns of Hungary's European partners and friends about the curtailing of the powers of the constitutional court, among other issues, must be taken seriously."

Following an EPP summit in Croatia last month, a Hungarian-language newspaper in Romania reported that the pan-European party was considering expelling Fidesz, whose leaders were simultaneously exploring the possibility of joining the euro-skeptic Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, an EU political bloc comprised primarily of the British Conservatives, the Polish Law and Justice party and the Czech Civic Democrats. The EPP immediately denied the report, with a spokeswoman telling the BBC that "nobody there ever asked for the expulsion of Fidesz from the EPP."

If the European Commission -- led by EPP figures like Barroso and Reding -- does call for penalties to be imposed on the Hungarian government, the EPP will have little choice but to change its tune. But with Fidesz accounting for 17 lawmakers in the EPP bloc, the sixth-largest group within the party, it seems unlikely that the EPP will make a move on its own. Even Orbán's controversial statement earlier this month, in which he likened German criticism of his policies to the Nazi occupation of Hungary in 1944, did not provoke a serious rebuke from Merkel's CDU.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo Credit: Wikipedia: Prime Minister Victor Orbán

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

TUNISIA: ''FEMEN'': Women's Spring

Three European women with the feminist activist group FEMEN were arrested in Tunis on Wednesday after holding a topless protest in front of the Ministry of Justice. Staged against the imprisonment of a fellow activist, it was their first such stunt in the Arab world.
 
The group undressed in front of the Justice Ministry in the capital of Tunis to reveal the words "Breasts Feed Revolution" scrawled on their torsos. Bystanders tried to cover them as the women chanted, "Women's spring is coming" and "Free Amina." One of their signs read "Fuck your morals."

A 19-year-old Tunisian woman who calls herself Amina Tyler shocked the country in March when she posted topless photos of herself online with the words, "My body is my own and not your honor," written on her skin. She received death threats and went into hiding after the FEMEN-inspired protest.

Then, last month she said she wanted to do a final topless protest before leaving the country for her studies. She was arrested on May 19 in the religious center of Kairouan where an ultraconservative Muslim group had intended to hold a conference before it was banned by police.

According to AFP, Tyler painted the word "FEMEN" on a wall near a cemetery shortly before being apprehended. She was charged with carrying a dangerous object, allegedly pepper spray, and will go before a judge on Thursday. She faces two years in prison.

The protest of Tyler's arrest was quickly brought to an end when police took the three women -- two French and one German -- into a nearby building. It is the first protest of its kind to take place in the Arab world, said FEMEN founder Inna Shevchenko in Paris. Even so, the activists knew they were taking a risk. Immoral behavior is punished with up to six months in prison in the North African country.

FEMEN was founded in Ukraine as a protest movement against the oppression of women. The organization recently caused a stir by holding topless demonstrations in front of mosques and Tunisian embassies in several European cities. With their so-called "topless jihad," they called for the self-determination over their bodies that they say is threatened by Islamism.

The group is seen more positively abroad.  Western countries are more accustomed than those in the Eastern Hemisphere to seeing naked or semi-naked bodies in the media and on the streets. But in countries where nudity is taboo, the protests have more profound impact.

The group, born of young women who grew up without exposure to the West's culture of political correctness and who have scant respect for it; from their country's Soviet past, they know how deleterious the stifling of free speech can be. Now that they have moved to the West, FEMEN has courageously broken rules and enlivened the debate over religion's role in our world. FEMEN received a positive reception after opening their location in Paris on 18 September 2012 and another FEMEN branch in Germany on 23 January 2012.

Critics have stated FEMEN members are more interested in self-promotion than real reform, and that their antics are often tacky and undermine the cause of their protests. In Arab world, their antics are considered an insult to Islam and a crime.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
World Affairs Analyst
Investigative Journalist

Photo Credit AFP

U.K.: Lessons from Woolwich attack

As Police are to begin questioning Michael Adebowale, one of the two men suspected of murdering Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, exactly a week after the soldier's death, many people across the country are still wondering: Where did the hatred that led to the murder of a soldier in Woolwich come from? One thing we certainly know now is that the attack demonstrates how difficult it is to prevent Islamist violence in Britain.

The 22-year-old was shot by police after apparently charging towards armed officers in the aftermath of Drummer Rigby's death, but has been moved into police custody after being discharged from hospital. A second murder suspect, 28-year-old Michael Adebolajo, who was also shot by police, remains in hospital under police guard. On his discharge from hospital yesterday, Adebowale was further arrested on suspicion of the attempted murder of a police officer.

British intelligence agencies and police have launched an intensive investigation of the attack. They are determined to find out whether it was a professionally planned or spontaneous act; whether the two men are members of a terrorist network or whether they acted on their own; how they became radicalized, and by whom. The brutal murder raises the very same questions that were asked of the two bombers who attacked the Boston Marathon on April 15: How can it be that two young men who grew up in the UK could come to feel such hate?

Adebolajo's life doesn't look as if it would lead to that murder. His family comes from Nigeria. Adebolajo's father works as a mental health nurse; his mother is a housewife. Both parents are devout Christians. The son has a British passport, and most of his Facebook contacts have typical British names. He studied at Greenwich University, where he met Adebowale, whose family also comes from Nigeria and who also has a British passport. Both men converted to Islam.

British intelligence agencies are still searching homes across the country, securing evidence and questioning friends and relatives of both killers. At the same time, though, a number of errors and shortcomings have come to light. Britain's domestic intelligence service, MI5, has apparently known for years that Adebolajo and his presumed accomplice are radical Islamists. In 2010, one of the two men even wanted to travel to Somalia, probably to join the Islamist al-Shabaab militias, and was even arrested by Kenyan authorities. The British authorities were apparently aware of the incident, but evidently did not consider the two men to be a serious threat.

A man with a meat cleaver: It's an image that the British are not likely to forget anytime soon. The attack quickly and shockingly brought into focus the threat that violent Islamists still pose to the country. Ever since the bomb attacks on London's public transportation system in the summer of 2005, police have regularly arrested terror suspects. But the Woolwich murder reveals that all surveillance efforts are futile when two young men decide on a brutal plan.

When one speaks with people who knew Adebolajo, it becomes clear how surprisingly open he was about his radical views. Al-Muhajiroun founder Choudary says that he last saw Adebolajo roughly two years ago. At the time, Adebolajo was already calling himself a mujahedeen, or warrior, and wearing long, light-colored robes. He started to learn the Koran by heart.

Around 2003, shortly after he converted from Christianity to Islam, Adebolajo joined the al-Muhajiroun group. The group's leader was a Syrian immigrant named Omar Bakri Mohammed, a radical Islamist cleric who urges his followers to fight the jihad and is currently banned from returning to the UK. In 2006, from his exile in Beirut, he allegedly called for violent resistance against "the enemy," which, in his view, is primarily the British and Americans. "When you meet them, slice their own necks," he reportedly said, concluding with: "Use the sword and remove the enemy's head." It sounds like instructions for the Woolwich murder.

No wonder Bakri called Adebolajo a "courageous" man shortly after the attack last week and insisted that his actions could be reconciled with the Islamic faith because he "had not attacked civilians, but rather a soldier." Adebolajo's friends claim that he was Bakri's right hand. Working together, they aimed to rally Muslim youth throughout the country against the policies of the British government and usher them onto the streets.

Adebolajo's views, like the rest of Al-Muhajiroun's affiliates, are very much radicalized: they want to introduce Sharia law throughout the country as well as ban alcohol and gambling. And, of course, abolish the monarchy; they want to transform Buckingham Palace into a mosque ( wishful thinking); they praise the 9/11 terrorists; and they also praise the London bombers from 2005.

Last week attack has divided the country. Whether the entire country is indeed afraid is debatable. Emotions, however, have certainly been stirred. Last Wednesday evening, at least 60 masked right-wing extremists from the English Defense League (EDL) gathered in front of a pub in Woolwich. This aggressive and extremely violent group, founded in 2009, regularly holds protest marches against the presumed Islamization of the UK -- and Islamists have begun to defend themselves. The murder has increased the risk of an escalation.

It was only in late April that six men from Birmingham confessed to planning an attack on the English Defense League. Last summer, the men packed two sawed-off shotguns, knives and a homemade explosive device into a vehicle and drove to a demonstration by the right-wing radicals. They took along a letter claiming responsibility that was addressed to the queen and the prime minister. It said: "Today is a day of revenge." It was only by chance that the police took notice of the men and were able to stop them in time.

Like Adebolajo-Adebowale, and the rest, it is evidently clear that the advance of radical ideology among young Muslims is spreading fast through videos and direct preaching, and the moderate British Muslim community has been aware for years.

A report, "Case Study: London South Bank University Islamic Society," discloses that the London South Bank University (LSBU)'s Islamic Society (Isoc) has exploited social media to disseminate terrorist propaganda. The LSBU Isoc, an affiliate of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), has long been known for harboring radicals and their sympathisers.

Since there will never be a shortage of Muslims radicalized ready to do ''Adebolajo/Adebowale attack'' in the future, the problem that needs to be addressed should be ''how to combat'' the radicalization of young British Muslims.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

JAPAN: The Future of Nuclear Energy

Fukushima produced very different reactions around the world. While Germany has abandoned nuclear power, Japan is slowing embracing it again.

Despite being the only country to have suffered the devastating effects of nuclear weapons in wartime, with over 100,000 deaths, Japan embraced the peaceful use of nuclear technology to provide a substantial portion of its electricity. However, following the tsunami which killed 19,000 people and which triggered the Fukushima nuclear accident (which killed no-one), public sentiment shifted markedly so that there were public protests calling for nuclear power to be abandoned. The balance between this populist sentiment and the continuation of reliable and affordable electricity supplies is being worked out politically.

When Japan decided in September to phase out nuclear power by the end of 2030s, what policy makers had in mind was similar decisions made earlier by Germany and Switzerland, as well as opinion polls showing people are against nuclear power. That decision was put on hold three months later, when people voted the center-left Democratic Party of Japan out of power in an election in December, putting the conservative Liberal Democratic Party in its place.

Germany is seen as a country that has overcome similar challenges that is facing Japan. Both are industrial powerhouses that need lots of electricity to fuel their manufacturing industries and run economic infrastructure, but neither has many fossil fuel resources.

What has changed in the last few months, during which people were found opposed to nuclear power and the same people also voted for a pro-nuclear party? Well, not much. Yes, more people call for a moderation of the nuclear phaseout plan proposed by the previous government. Yes, more people point out Japan’s differences from Germany, a continental nation with extensive grid and pipeline connections with neighboring countries. Germany can import electricity and natural gas relatively inexpensively from neighboring countries in emergencies, while Japan, an island nation, doesn’t have such a privilege.

But that doesn’t mean that people have forgotten the risks they’ve taken with their heavy dependence on nuclear power. The memories of the March 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi, and a massive earthquake and tsunami that had caused it, are still alive. Much of the soul-searching has centered on one question: why Japan couldn’t change its course in the past 50 years, while Germany has made a series of decisions that have eventually created the world’s most dynamic renewable energy sector? It has become clear to Japanese that a major shift in energy policy cannot be made with just one ballot.

In the past decades, Germany has terminated a fast-breeder reactor project; discontinued nuclear fuel recycling arrangements with France and Berlin; scrapped a fuel recycling project; began to study direct nuclear waste disposal; broke up vertically integrated power monopolies; developed an electricity exchange market; strengthened linkage with Europe's power grids; developed gas pipeline networks; introduced feed-in-tarrifs. Most of these steps are yet to be put in place in Japan.

Instead, Japan kept its monopoly power suppliers essentially in tact in the past century. At the core of this structure is a cost-plus-profit pricing system, which allows utilities to pass on any costs of investments to rate payers, so they could make capital investments without worrying about recouping the costs.






The system worked well in the immediate aftermath of the World War II, when Japan needed lots of new power plants to support industrial growth. But the system has also led to overinvestments and one of the highest electricity rates in the world.

Tokyo Electric Power Co.‘s (Tepco) Kashiwazaki Kariwa plant is an example. Built during the height of Japan’s asset bubble, the plant is the world’s largest with seven reactors, despite concern that siting so many in one location would create safety problems during a nuclear disaster, a danger that critics say was highlighted by Fukushima Daiichi.

Uneconomical projects proliferated. A fast-breeder reactor, a program long abandoned in Europe, is still kept alive in Japan, at the cost of tens of billions in taxpayer money a year. A nuclear fuel recycling project is still under way, even though it has no prospects of commercial operations after more than Y2 trillion of investments.

Japan’s heavy investment in a nuclear future – often in apparent defiance of economic logic – was made possible by the heavy influence of the country’s utilities. These utilities, nine of them in total, are economic titans in their respected regions, even while demand for power widely is projected to go down in line with a decline in population.

Following the Fukushima accident, in October 2011 the government published a White Paper confirming that “Japan’s dependency on nuclear energy will be reduced as much as possible in the medium-range and long-range future.” It also highlighted weaknesses in the energy system and said that a new energy policy would be developed.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in his first policy address on Jan. 28, made no mention of energy. His speech was focused on dealing with the strong yen and the deflation. The proposed change faces powerful opposition. It means cutting back on subsidies for communities hosting nuclear plants. It means restructuring at politically influential utilities. But it could also mean new business opportunities and potentially lower electricity rates. Whether Japan’s new administration will choose this path remains to be seen.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

EUROPE: A sharp rise in synthetic drugs

Last year, some 73 new psychoactive substances were identified by the European Union, according to statistics presented on Tuesday. The long-term effects of these so-called "legal highs," sold online and in specialty stores often under fake labels, are little known.

A new European Union report shows a sharp rise in synthetic drugs -- so-called "legal highs" that are often deceptively labelled and sold on the Internet. While there are some signs that the use of heroin, cocaine and cannabis are declining, the study posits that these are being replaced by "new synthetic drugs and patterns of use."

The findings are part of the ''European Drug Report'', presented on Tuesday by the EU's drugs agency, the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

In 2012 alone, reads the report, 73 new psychoactive substances were identified by EU member states through the body's early warning system, compared to only 24 such substances that were identified in 2009. These new psychoactive substances are developed to mimic the effects of controlled drugs.

Substances come and go quickly, though some will establish themselves on the illicit market. The EU early warning system received a report of a new substance about once every week in 2013, says the study. The lack of pharmacological and toxicological data on the substances "means it is hard to speculate on long-term health implications of use," the report says.

"The growing availability of 'new psychoactive substances' that are not controlled under international drug control treaties represents a relatively new development on European drug markets," it continues. "Commonly produced outside of Europe, these substances can be obtained through online retailers, specialized shops, and are also sometimes being sold along with controlled substances on the illicit drug market."

The term "legal highs" is often a misnomer, as the substances are quickly controlled in parts of the EU through the early warning system. To avoid controls, the drugs "are often mislabelled, for example as 'research chemicals' or 'plant food' with disclaimers that state the product is not intended for human consumption." By January 2012, the EU had identified 693 online shops offering new psychoactive substances to European consumers.

The European Commission is currently working on a proposal for strengthening the EU's response to new psychoactive substances.

A quarter of European adults -- some 85 million people -- have used illegal drugs at some point in their lives, according to the EU study. Most report using cannabis (77 million) with lower rates for cocaine (14.5 million), amphetamines (12.7 million) and ecstasy (11.4 million). The UK ranks highest in cocaine, amphetamine and ecstasy use, while Denmark and France consume the most cannabis.

There were about one million seizures of illicit drugs made in Europe in 2011, mostly small quantities confiscated from users and the majority from two countries: Spain and the United Kingdom. The most-seized drug by far in Europe is cannabis -- 41 per cent of it marijuana, and 36 per cent hash. Cocaine and crack are second at 10 per cent.

In 2011, heroin seizure was at its lowest point in a decade -- the equivalent of half as much as was confiscated in 2001. Amphetamine and ecstasy remain the most commonly used synthetic stimulants in Europe, though methamphetamine's increasing availability in some markets is seeing it displace amphetamine. After taking a massive dip of about two-thirds between 2006 and 2011, there are some indications that ecstasy is making a mild resurgence.

The Internet poses a particular challenge when it comes to drug control, the study says, "both as a mechanism for rapid diffusion of new trends and as a burgeoning anonymous marketplace with global reach."

By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Blogger
Investigative Journalist

U.S.: Suicide by Sequester

The pain of the sequester has been bearable thus far, but that will soon change. This summer, thousands of Americans will suffer due to cuts triggered by the entrenched budgetary battle in Washington -- and the damage could last for generations.

A sequester is a compulsory budget cut, the kind of idea only politicians could come up with. With the country deeply in debt and President Barack Obama and the Republicans unable to agree on how to make long-term budgetary cuts, the two factions cobbled together a ticking time bomb of austerity, set to go off in 2013. The idea was that these cuts would be so absurd that one side or the other would have to back off and yield ground in order to prevent the bomb from going off. That's what the president thought would happen. That's what the Republicans thought would happen. It didn't.

The grace period expired on March 1 with no agreement reached, and since then the government has been cutting programs at random, lawn-mower style -- $85 billion (€66 billion) in spending cuts have to be made by the end of September, an amount roughly equal to the entire federal budget of Austria.

In other words, within the space of half a year, the US needs to slash the equivalent of Austria from its budget. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are at stake. And if politicians in Washington still haven't reached an agreement by that point, the cuts will continue. The country is in danger of existing in a perpetual sequester, with another $1.2 trillion in budget reductions needed by 2021.

Since the effects of the first wave of cuts were hardly noticeable at first, many Americans have already almost forgotten about this bizarre construct called a "sequester." The TV broadcaster CBS recently conducted a survey asking Americans if they were affected by the sequester. More than two-thirds answered that they weren't. Now, though, as summer starts, the sequester is about to hit in earnest.

Thirty-seven per cent of Americans say sequestration cuts have negatively affected them, according to a poll.  Shortly after sequestration went into effect in March, 25 per cent of those polled by the news outlets reported experiencing a negative impact from the cuts. Fourteen per cent said then that the effect was major, and 11 per cent said it was minor but still negative.

The latest poll, conducted May 16-19, found that those figures have risen to 18 per cent and 19 per cent, respectively.  Americans' overall views of sequestration soured slightly between the two polls. Fifty-six per cent disapprove of it in May, up from 53 per cent in March. Thirty-five per cent approve, down from 39 per cent in March.

The per cent of those who strongly disapprove of sequestration rose from 34 per cent to 39 per cent, while the number that strongly approve--16 per cent--held at that level in both polls and also in another poll conducted by the same entities in April.

Respondents who say they have felt negative effects from sequestration were far more likely to disapprove of it. While 39 per cent strongly disapprove overall, 66 per cent do if they also report experiencing negative impacts.

The personal impact of sequestration correlate with views of whether an economic recovery is underway. Of those who say the cuts hadn't affected them personally, 66 per cent say the recovery had begun. Of those who say the cuts had a major impact on them, 63 per cent say the recovery had not begun.

Respondents were also asked in the May poll whom they trust more to handle the federal budget deficit. Forty-three per cent say President Obama and 38 per cent say Republicans. Two per cent say both, and 13 per cent say neither, though neither of those responses were presented as options. Five per cent chose "no opinion."

Defense-industry leaders are issuing warnings on the consequences of drastic defense budget cuts. The danger that sequestration poses to the economy and our national security cannot be overstated. More than 2 million jobs are at stake from all sectors. Sequestration affects all Americans.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel just announced 11 furlough days for around 650,000 civilian employees of his department. Federal law enforcement, disaster response teams, financial oversight, science and research -- all are experiencing cuts.

The absurdity of the cuts angers the people they affect. The US can undoubtedly see how Southern Europe is driving itself into the ground with its belt-tightening measures and how unemployment there is skyrocketing. But, here, the country is pulling its own plug. "Austerity, including sequestration, is the economic version of medieval leeching," wrote Jared Bernstein, former chief economic adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden, in the New York Times in early May. People in the Middle Ages believed a sick person needed to lose supposedly bad blood in order to regain health.
That, of course, was nonsense.

In fact, more than a few American economists advise investing rather than making cuts. Such investing could come in the form of the kinds of massive infrastructure projects that have traditionally been used to create jobs in times of economic slowdown. And, as can be seen by Thursday's collapse of a bridge on a highly trafficked interstate highway in Washington State, there's plenty of evidence that the US could use upgraded infrastructure. Looking at bridges alone, in its 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers rated one out of nine of the country's over 600,000 bridges as "structurally deficient."

What's more, the federal deficit is already decreasing faster than expected. The independent statisticians at the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) expect new debt of $642 billion in 2013, around $200 billion less than had been predicted at the start of the year. And the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warns that the US shouldn't overdo it with budget cuts, with the country's unemployment rate still high, at 7.5 per cent.

Other government programs, though, have fared better. For example, private donors have seen to it that the Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks will be able to stay open all summer. And in other places, the lawn-mower method has been called off entirely. For example, Democrats and Republicans were suddenly very much in agreement on a decision to end air traffic controller furloughs. Lawmakers have given the Federal Aviation Administration more spending flexibility to cuts its budget, preventing long lines at airports.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: Reuters: U.S. President: Barack Obama

SYRIA: Civil Wars and Syria

Most of the international debate about Syria policy focuses on how to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power.

Options for NATO states and key Arab League partners include everything from enlisting Russia’s help in a diplomatic approach, with a conference now envisioned for early June, to arming the rebels to perhaps even supporting them with limited amounts of airpower. Removing Assad, however, would no more end the Syrian conflict than overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003 brought stability to Iraq. The United States must create a more integrated overall strategy.

Not just the Iraq example, but broader scholarly studies on civil war and recurrence suggest that should the House of Assad fall, the likelihood of continued bloodshed in Syria will remain uncomfortably high.

Studies indicate that more than a third of all civil conflicts have some form of relapse after they end. Though there is much disagreement about the particular causes of war renewal, certain factors are widely recognized as relevant Many are present in the current Syrian context.

First, the human cost of the Syrian conflict is already high. To date, roughly 80,000 deaths are attributed to the war. In contrast to the “war weariness” adage that longer and bloodier conflicts are eventual precursors to peace, violence tends to beget more violence. The more intense a conflict, the greater the risk it will reignite down the road, according to a host of literature on the subject.
This argues against the likelihood that, even if Assad falls or flees, remaining partisans will quickly make peace among themselves.

Second, so-called existential wars are hard to stop. Fights for regime change and control of the state can quickly evolve into all-or-nothing contests. Even if different groups pledge to work together and share power once an ancien regime is displaced, it is difficult for them to trust each other, given the high stakes they are fighting for. Contesting the government’s legitimacy can also shrink any potential scope for future bargaining and compromise.

Third, weak political institutions do not bode well for a country’s chances of stability in the wake of a civil war. The Syrian government, built around the Baath party and the Assad family, does not have a great deal of institutional depth. While the effect of political structures on war recurrence is debated, there is some agreement that only more consolidated democracies can avoid renewed conflict.

Political participation often lowers the likelihood that disaffected citizens will take up arms once wars are over. Autocracy, therefore, is generally more associated with both civil war onset and recurrence.
Finally, when wartime coalitions are tenuous and factionalized, the odds of conflict recurrence increase considerably. This is particularly true in Syria, with its dozens if not hundreds of insurgent groups.

These factors indicate that supporting the overthrow of the Syrian regime, perhaps through directly arming rebels, may invite sectarian conflict to widen, not subside. Understanding these complicating factors is key to building any chances of peace.

So what do now? There are a number of options beyond the increasingly unspeakable – standing aside while Assad’s forces try to win the war, or at least take back most of the country. One option is to acknowledge all the above, accepting the brutal logic of civil warfare and deciding not to do much about it. This could mean relegating Syria to become the next Somalia, if and when Assad falls.

Over time, the huge number of insurgent groups now operating in Syria might merge into a more modest number. But the warfare could resemble the protracted militia combat witnessed until recently in Somalia – or in 1990s’ Afghanistan. Beyond its disastrous humanitarian implications, this approach would also allow a sanctuary for terrorists to develop in the heart of the Levant and on the borders of five countries now crucial to the United States — Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

A second option is to go in strong with a multinational ground invasion force, capable of imposing consolidation on the opposition and order on the country. But as we learned in Iraq, this is easier said than done – and is likely to involve more than 100,000 foreign troops, taking casualties at a likely rate of dozens a month for several years. It is a nonstarter.

The most amenable strategy, therefore, is some form of political settlement followed by deployment of a smaller (but significant) international force to help monitor the deal and cement the peace. This could involve a simple power-sharing formula with a strong central government, as well as a guarantee of safe passage out of the country for Assad.

Given the degree of sectarian animosity and distrust now prevalent in Syria, this peace accord might have to resemble the Bosnia model, with a relatively weak central government and autonomous regions. Each region would be run predominantly by one confessional group or another, but with strong protections for minority rights. Multiethnic major cities in the country’s center would have to remain multiethnic in any case.

Accepting a number of foreign boots on the ground will be asking much of the international community. Yet there is probably no other way to do it given where Syria is today and what we know about civil wars. The alternative, if not a regionalized war, is some type of victor’s justice followed by a distinct possibility of conflict renewal. Done right, the multinational approach would not have to require more than 10,000 to 20,000 Americans, as perhaps 20 percent to 30 percent of a total force starting in the range of 50,000 or so. It should have large contributions from Turkey, Arab League states, NATO Europe and possibly Russia too.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Blogger

Friday, 24 May 2013

EUROPE: Homophobia in Europe

Harassed at work and the doctor's office, bullied and assaulted in public: The gay, bisexual and transgender community is still widely discriminated against in Europe. In a new EU survey, the most comprehensive to date, more than 90,000 participants report on the extent of their harassment.
 
In Europe, the acceptance of homosexuals, bisexuals and the transgendered is far from a foregone conclusion. Many still face discrimination, social isolation or outright assault. That's the conclusion reached by the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) in its largest study to date. The survey shows that a large portion of the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) community feels it cannot openly acknowledge its sexual orientation.

Nearly half of respondents (47 per cent) said they had experienced discrimination because of their sexual orientation in the past year. Around one in four participants reported being the victim of an assault or threats of violence in the past five years.

Six per cent of survey participants said they had been physically attacked in the past 12 months, a portion of which occurred within their own families. Women were more frequently the victims of sexual assault. Transgender respondents reported that they consistently experience more intolerance than do gays and bisexuals.
 
The FRA calls the study the most comprehensive of its kind to date. The data was collected online from more than 93,000 respondents, who came from the 27 countries of the European Union and Croatia. All of the participants were over 18 years old and identified themselves as transgender, gay or bisexual. At least 20,000 of the answers came from Germany -- more than from any other country.
 
Since the size of the LGBT portion of the entire population can only be estimated, the authors of the study acknowledge that the results should not be seen as representative of the entire European LGBT community -- but just as the largest collection of related data ever assembled. Discrimination and concealment of sexual orientation are prevalent throughout every age, gender and geographical category.
 
In school, Two-thirds of respondents conceal their sexual orientation. The vast majority of participants recall harassment against LGBT students during their time in school. Many describe school as "hell." Ninety-one per cent say they witnessed students being poorly treated just because they were perceived as gay.
 
Two-thirds of respondents say they do not dare hold the hand of their same-sex partner in public. In the case of homosexual and bisexual men, the proportion is 75 per cent. Half of all respondents avoid certain places -- public buildings, squares or public transportation -- for fear of being harassed, threatened or attacked on account of their sexual orientation. Approximately one in five participants (19 per cent) feel discriminated against at work or on the job search.  
 
The respondents generally expect assistance from the authorities only in exceptional circumstances. "Nothing would happen or change" is the most cited reason for why only about one in five assault or discrimination cases was reported to the police. The responses "It happens all the time" or "Did not want to reveal my sexual orientation and/or gender identity" were heard frequently from those surveyed.

The Fundamental Rights Agency recommends that law enforcement officials be better trained to deal with the subject. If an assault occurs because of the victim's sexual orientation, that should be considered an aggravating factor with a higher penalty -- similarly to how racially motivated attacks are handled in some countries.

The leaders in Europe when it comes to rights for homosexuals and transgender citizens, are Denmark, Sweden and the UK. There, policy already takes homophobic violence into account. But even in those countries, say the study authors, there are those who need to catch up.

According to the study, prominent role models are extremely important. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who is open about his homosexuality and lives in a registered partnership, is seen in Germany as a  leading role model. "This is, of course, an important difference from other countries," said the spokeswoman for the FRA, Waltraud Heller. Interviewees from countries in which leaders make derogatory statements about homosexuality feel discriminated against more often.

One's own openness can also lead to greater acceptance, according to the study: Outed people in all countries reported less discrimination than those who do not openly deal with their orientation.
The results of the study is to be presented today, which also happens to be the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, in The Hague.

FRA Director Morten Kjaerum said that the EU should take action "to break down the barriers, eliminate the hate and create a society where everyone can fully enjoy their rights, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity is."

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: Reuters: Anti-Homosexuals Protest in London

Thursday, 23 May 2013

EUROPE: '' AI'report: Human Rights & Asylum Policies

Millions are fleeing from war and violence, but Europe is sealing itself off to those in need, a new report from Amnesty International alleged on Thursday. The human rights organization urged EU countries to act and save lives.

The numbers are shocking. Between 800,000 and 1.1 million people were killed in 131 civil wars around the world last year. The Syrian rebellion alone claimed some 60,000 lives by the end of 2012. Since then, the United Nations has raised its estimates to nearly 80,000 victims.

According to human rights organization Amnesty International, the situation in Syria has escalated dramatically in recent months. Yet European Union countries have welcomed only 40,000 refugees from the war-torn country -- a fact that Amnesty harshly criticizes in its annual assessment of global human rights abuses, released late on Wednesday.

"The EU is holding back on this issue," said Selmin Caliskan, the general secretary for the organization in Germany, at a press presentation of the report on Wednesday. Germany and other European nations must offer generous support to the countries surrounding Syria that are taking in refugees, she added.

The "restrictive" asylum and refugee policies of the EU, which collectively won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, have been "unworthy" of such an honor, the Amnesty International said. Not only have border controls become even tougher, but Europe has sealed itself off that this must change. "The EU has so far taken on no responsibility for the refugees, which is why so many people die in the Mediterranean Sea,".

In fact, the European Union is using border control measures "that put the lives of migrants and asylum-seekers at risk and fail to guarantee the safety of those fleeing conflict and persecution," a press release said.

Amnesty also pilloried EU member Hungary for making controversial changes to its constitution that limit human rights. Soon, "insulting the honor of the Hungarian nation" will also be a crime there, and Europe must try to stop such policies, the organization urged. Furthermore, Germany must end the deportation of asylum seekers to Hungary, where they face human rights abuses, the organization said.

The list of countries that violated human rights in 2012 is long. Having analyzed 159 countries for the report, Amnesty concluded that 12 states abused and tortured people, while security forces in more than 50 countries were responsible for illegal killings. Some 21 governments had people executed, while unfair trials took place in 80 countries. Non-violent political prisoners were held in 57 countries, and 101 states suppressed free speech.

Meanwhile, human rights activists around the globe are in danger because of their work. Among the best-known cases from 2012 was that of 15-year-old Pakistani student Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban in retaliation for her education and women's rights activism in October. Though her prognosis was grim, Yousafzai survived.

Russia also garnered fierce criticism from Amnesty for its actions against foreign non-governmental agencies (NGOs). After parliament there ruled last year that any political organizations with funding from abroad must register as "foreign agents," a number of foreign NGOs were raided in March, including Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a political think tank aligned with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party, and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES), the think tank of the center-left Social Democratic Party. Ethiopia, Egypt and Uganda were also cited for having stifled civil engagement in 2012.

The news wasn't all bad, though. Amnesty reported progress in some places, such as Malaysia and Singapore, countries that began taking steps to end the death penalty. The US state of Connecticut, which banned the death penalty in April, was also singled out.
Another positive development included the approval of a historic global arms treaty in the United Nations General Assembly by the 155 countries. Only Iran, Syria and North Korea voted against the treaty, which aims to regulate the international trade of weapons.

"Our demand is that where there is a substantial risk that these weapons will be used to commit violations of international humanitarian law or serious violations of human rights law -- the transfer should be prohibited," wrote Salil Shetty, the organization's secretary general, in an essay accompanying the report.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

SWEDEN: Riots in Stockholm

Youth in several Stockholm suburbs have rioted for four nights in a row, throwing stones at police and setting cars on fire. Leaders have appealed for calm, but the violence has spread to the southern city of Malmo.

Riots continued for the fourth straight night in Sweden Wednesday, as youth set fire to cars and threw stones at police in immigrant suburbs of Stockholm and the southern Swedish city of Malmo.

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has appealed for calm in the wake of the violence, which appears to have been instigated by the police shooting of a machete-wielding 69-year-old man in the Stockholm suburb of Husby this month. Police said the shooting was an act of self-defense, but it has triggered accusations of police brutality.

Riots began in Husby, which has a large immigrant population, on Sunday night and have spread to other locations, including the southern suburb of Fittja.

A police station in another southern suburb was set on fire, but no one was injured in the attack and the fire was quickly extinguished, according to media reports. Dozens of cars have been set ablaze during the riots, testing the resources of the local fire departments, according to the police. At least one police officer was injured in the riots Wednesday night, and two schools, a restaurant and a cultural center have been damaged this week.

The violence has been attributed to the growing disparities between rich and poor in the country, where immigrant communities have been affected the most by cuts in state benefits over the past two decades. Official unemployment among the foreign-born is at 16 percent.

Some 15 percent of the population is foreign born, the highest in the Nordic region. The rise of the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party, which has called for a curfew in response to the violence, has polarized Swedes. Society has become much more segregated, with a large, poor immigrant population living in areas of major cities where unemployment is dramatically higher than elsewhere.

Metros and trains out of Stockholm center late at night are full of exhausted-looking Arabic or Spanish speaking immigrants returning home from menial jobs. Even second generation immigrants struggle to find white collar employment. Conversations with residents of this immigrant neighborhood soon bring tales of fruitless job hunts, police harassment, racial taunts and a feeling of living at the margins that are at odds with Sweden's reputation for openness and tolerance.

"The reason is very simple," Rouzbeh Djalaie, editor of a local newspaper in Husby. "Unemployment, the housing situation, disrespect from police. It just takes something to start a riot, and that was the shooting." Djalaie also said: local youths are often the subject of unnecessary identity checks from police, who reportedly called them "apes" during the recent riots.

The country ranks fourth among 44 industrialized nations in the absolute number of asylum seekers. Swedish Justice Minister Beatrice Ask called attacks on police officers or rescue personnel "unacceptable," but said she understood why many people in these suburbs are angry. "Social exclusion is a very serious cause of many problems, and we understand that," she said.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

U.K.: Woolwich Attack: Terror attack/Nigeria Connection?

Authorities are treating the brutal attack in broad daylight on Wednesday afternoon as an act of Islamist terror, with Prime Minister David Cameron meeting with top security officials on Thursday morning. Investigators are looking into a possible Nigeria connection.

The call came at 2:20 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon. When the first police officers turned into John Wilson Street in the Woolwich neighborhood of southeast London a short time later, they were greeted with a sickening sight: A young man lay on the street, covered in blood. Nearby stood a pair of men, one holding a pistol and the other a butcher knife and a meat cleaver.

One of the offers opened fire when one of the perpetrators began approaching her police car. Both suspected attackers were taken to the hospital with gunshot wounds. But for the badly injured victim, a British soldier, help came too late.

The two men were not shy about broadcasting their motives, praising Allah at the scene and using rhetoric often heard in Islamist videos. Indeed, Prime Minister David Cameron, in Paris on Wednesday for talks with French President François Hollande, was quick to say that there were "strong indications that it is a terrorist attack." He quickly returned to London and is chairing a meeting of the government's emergency response committee, Cobra, on Thursday to discuss further security measures.

Shocked eyewitnesses reported that the two men slaughtered their target, a soldier from the nearby Royal Artillery Barracks, like an animal. "They were hacking at this poor guy, literally," an eyewitness identified as James told the local radio station LBC. They were treating him, he said, "like a piece of meat." Dozens of people were in the area at the time of the attack and photos and videos appeared almost immediately on the Internet.

"I first thought it was a car collision," Lauren Collins, who lives in the area, told the BBC. But then she learned what had happened. "I hope that nothing more happens," she said.

The murder in full daylight raised a number of immediate questions. Witnesses reported that the perpetrators, both black men, posed for photos at the scene of the crime and made no effort to flee, apparently preferring to wait for police to arrive. Officials have released no details regarding the identities of the murderers, but Reuters is reporting on Thursday that officials are looking into a possible connection to Nigeria.

The perpetrators left little doubt as to the motivation for the brutal killing. On Wednesday evening, broadcaster ITV aired a mobile phone video made by a witness. It shows one of the perpetrators, hands covered in blood and holding a knife, saying directly into the camera: "We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. The only reason we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day." The man, who appears to be in his 20s or 30s, then says: "The British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."

The man spoke with a London accent, leading observers to conclude that he is a local. He added: "I apologize that women had to witness that, but in our lands, our women have to see the same thing. You people will never be safe. Remove your government. They don't care about you."

The British tabloid The Sun shows more scenes from the same video on its website. In one of them, the perpetrator demands: "Tell them to bring out troops back so we -- so you -- can all live in peace." The wording recalls that found in videos made by Islamist terrorists when claiming responsibility for attacks. Still, it was initially unclear whether the attackers had any connection with terrorist groups or were simply uttering similar phrases.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who had been in Brussels for an EU summit before driving to Paris together with Hollande, immediately called an emergency meeting of the Cobra committee. Home Secretary Theresa May, Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond and London Mayor Boris Johnson were kept abreast of developments by Scotland Yard as were MI5 and MI6, the domestic and foreign intelligence services, respectively. The meetings clearly indicate that the British government is treating the incident as an Islamist attack.

Speaking at a news conference at the Élysée Palace in Paris, Cameron said: "We have had these sorts of attacks before in our country, and we never buckle in the face of them." Cameron then quickly returned to London, while Labour opposition leader Ed Milibrand cancelled a planned visit to Germany.

British police appealed to residents to remain calm and avoid "unnecessary speculation." The fact that it has not raised the terror warning level would seem to indicate that the government does not fear additional attacks. However, police presence was heightened in Woolwich. Officers on Wednesday evening halted a demonstration in Woolwich as about 50 members of the far-right English Defence League began shouting insulting slogans about the Koran and singing nationalist songs.

Several Muslim organizations have strongly condemned the attack. "This is a truly barbaric act that has no basis in Islam," the Muslim Council of Britain said in a statement released Wednesday. "This action will no doubt heighten tensions on the streets of the United Kingdom." The council called on all Muslims and non-Muslims alike to "come together in solidarity to ensure the forces of hatred do not prevail."

Despite these various calls for peace, there have already been reports of anti-Muslim actions. One member of parliament reported via Twitter that a 43-year-old had been arrested after forcing his way into a London mosque armed with a knife. A second man has reportedly been arrested in southeast England on suspicion of racially motivated property damage.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

U.S.:Obama's ''neo-Kissingerism''

Henry Kissinger, the hawkish national security advisor to Nixon who popularized realpolitik, turns 90 this week. Few would have expected President Obama to pick up his mantle, but the erstwhile idealist resembles Kissinger more every day.

When Henry Kissinger was at the height of his power, the US media dubbed then President Richard Nixon's national security advisor "the true president." At the time, he was traveling around the world at such a breakneck pace that journalists speculated that there must be five Kissingers (four doubles and one real). Around that time, a reporter asked him a question: Why are Americans so fascinated by a young man from Fürth in the German region of Franconia, who fled the Nazis at the age of 15?

Kissinger replied: "I've always acted alone. Americans like that immensely. Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse."

At Harvard University, the German émigré wrote his senior thesis about Austrian statesman Count Clemens von Metternich. Some 388 pages long, it prompted the university to introduce a page limit. His theory was that while Metternich might have temporarily destroyed the beginnings of liberalism in 19th-century Europe with the help of his secret diplomacy, he also preserved the balance of powers.

Kissinger, who celebrates his 90th birthday on May 27, has more in common with Metternich than he would like to admit, after having made his mark in history with a number of cool diplomatic strokes. He balanced the fragile equilibrium of horror among the nuclear powers in the Cold War. And, to his credit, Kissinger's secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese communists secured the relatively orderly withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

Kissinger secured Mao's China as a strategic partner and practiced Bismarckian realpolitik in Latin America. In the Kissinger system, unrest was more dangerous than injustice, and a functioning balance of power was more important than human rights.

His policies, however, often collided with America's self-image. The country likes to think it can save the world, if not actually reinvent it. But it also wants to be loved, a wish Kissinger neither could nor wanted to fulfill.

Before Washington's withdrawal from Vietnam, Kissinger, together with President Nixon, had Cambodia bombed practically back into the Stone Age. He also resisted an early end to the war for a long time, and wrote to Nixon: "Withdrawal of US troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public: The more US troops come home, the more will be demanded."

Kissinger supported Chilean General Augusto Pinochet, which helped bring about an economic recovery, but Pinochet also proved to be a brutal dictator. Kissinger's diplomacy opened up China, but it also made Beijing's nomenclatura policies socially acceptable. He still openly admires what he sees as China's wisdom today.

For such realism without moral scruples, he was chided even in the United States as a manipulative monster with a German accent, and even as a war criminal who "lies like other people breathe," as investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote.

After Nixon, American presidents, instead of citing the national interest, preferred once again to invoke America's God-given mission, most notably former President George W. Bush and his neo-conservatives. They even wanted to free the world from the "axis of evil." But the neo-cons are history, while Kissinger's realism, stemming from the 19th century, still remains valid, as President Barack Obama, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, demonstrates today.

During the election campaign, Democratic candidate Obama portrayed himself as an idealistic "citizen of the world." But he was hardly in office before he began pursuing the maxim that idealists give nice speeches, while realists shape policy.

In this fashion, the president turned himself into a lone judge who personally approves which Islamist is to be killed with a drone attack somewhere in the world. He launched a new era of conflict with massive investments in "cyber war." And Obama prosecutes betrayers of state secrets even more relentlessly than any of his predecessors.

The president has coldly recognized that war-weary Americans prefer progress at home instead of elsewhere in the world. This is one reason he has threatened Syrian dictator Bashar Assad while following up with little in the way of action. Not unlike Kissinger's approach in Chile, Obama looks the other way when America's allies, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, subjugate their people, or when China harasses dissidents. US author Jacob Heilbrunn calls this approach "neo-Kissingerism," and notes: "Obama may even start speaking about foreign affairs with a German accent."

Kissinger is a realist with a weakness: He is vain, and he was never indifferent to how other people felt about him. It must make him jealous to see that Obama is so popular in many parts of the world, despite his cold-blooded actions. But as he turns 90, Kissinger probably relishes the notion that the president resembles him more and more every day.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: Exposay: Henry Kissinger