An outstanding ICC warrant for his arrest hasn't prevented Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir from traveling over the last couple years. The globetrotting accused war criminal has visited countries including China, Chad, Qatar, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kenya and Ethiopia since the court's indictment was handed down. But it looks like he will have to cancel plans to attend next month's AU summit in Malawi:
Malawi already angered international donors when it hosted Bashir last year. President Joyce Banda said last month that she had asked the AU to prevent him from attending the summit as another visit could have "implications" for the country's economy.[...]
Khartoum asked the bloc that the summit - planned to run from July 9 to 16 - be held instead in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, home to the AU headquarters.
It said it had made the request following Malawi's announcement that Bashir was not welcome at the summit "upon a claimed adherence of Malawi to its obligations to the so-called 'International Criminal Court'".
It does seem like Banda, who took over in April after the death of the confrontational and notoriously corrupt Bingu wa Mutharika, has making all the right moves to stay on the good side of western donors, including repealing the country's harsh laws against homosexuality earlier this month and discarding some of her predecessors lavish perks. It appears to be working. Britain announced it was releasing $51 million in aid, almost a year after suspending assistance to the country because of Mutharika's mismanagement.
The Russian opposition group Solidarity is circulating the video above, which highlights the Russian president's taste in wrist-wear -- a collection they say exceeds his declared income of 3.6 million rubles ($112,000) per year. The Moscow Times writes:
Putin, who wears the timepieces on his right wrist, has been photographed sporting a Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar, valued at $60,000. The president has also been seen wearing a Leman Aqua Lung Grande Date by Blancpain, worth $10,500. Made of crocodile leather, sapphire glass and platinum, an A. Lange & Söhne Tourbograph may be his most expensive timepiece, valued at half a million dollars.[...]
Putin's watch collection is worth at least 22 million rubles, Solidarity says.
"Putin, it seems, did not eat or drink for six years to acquire this collection," Boris Nemtsov, a Solidarity member and former deputy prime minister, wrote in a blog post featuring the video Thursday.
Forget Occupy Wall Street. In Shanghai, the stock market itself seems to be fighting the system. The Shanghai Stock Exchange opened at 2346.98 on Monday, and the Shanghai stock market fell 64.89 points that same day. Take a closer look at that those numbers. They mark - the first one written backwards -- the 23rd anniversary of the June 4, 1989 bloody suppression of the protests in Tiananmen Square. Because of this uncanny and very likely manipulated numerology, searches for "Shanghai Composite" were blocked by Sina Weibo, China's twitter-like micro-blogging service.
Like a seasonal cold it just can't kick, every year on and around the anniversary of June 4, something happens in China. In preparation for the date, the Chinese government marshals its censors to prevent online discussion of the event. The square itself, usually lively, falls quieter, hemmed by security officers and plainclothes policemen. Prominent dissidents are guarded, and urged to stay off the streets.
In 1995 a dissident launched a hunger strike; in 2004 AIDS activist laid out a plan for a candlelight vigil before he was arrested. Other years saw other forms of protest. Bloggers try to find new and innovative ways to discuss the event; the term May 35th was popular for awhile, less so when it became too obvious.
The Dui-Hua foundation, a San Francisco-based humanitarian organization, estimates that less than a dozen protestors from June 4th remain in prison; the oldest is likely 73-year old Jiang Yaqun, convicted of the now defunct crime "counter-revolutionary sabotage." Almost all of those imprisoned in the aftermath of Tiananmen were released long ago, and still the event rankles. This year in late May the father of a Tiananmen Square victim hung himself after failing to find justice. Protests occurred in three provinces across China, according to the South China Morning Post. "We went there to vent our anger against the autocratic regime," the Post quotes a 52-year old woman named Fan Yanqiong as saying. "I'm neither a relative of those killed, nor do I have any direct connection with the June 4 crackdown...But I simply can't help bursting into tears whenever I see pictures or read articles about the suppression of the movement over the years." The protest apparently lasted for two hours, disbanded peacefully, and featured the mobilization of what the Post optimistically refers to as "more than a dozen activists."
The bizarre numbers from the Shanghai stock market is an ideal form of protest (if that is what they were; no one has claimed responsibility yet). Subtle, but eerie, and consequential: a clear signal to investors that China's stock market can fall prey to non-market forces. And to a government that's often seen as an oppressive force watching over China, it's a sign that people with other opinions are there, watching back.
In between warnings of the impending race war, I see Drudge Report is prominently touting the headline "UN appoints Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe new envoy for tourism..." If true, this is some high-quality red meat for U.N.-bashers. Unfortunately, it doesn't really seem to be true.
The headline links to a Guardian story with the slightly more ambiguous headline, "Robert Mugabe asked to be UN 'leader for tourism'."
Improbable as it seems, the Zimbabwean president, who is widely accused of ethnic cleansing, rigging elections, terrorising opposition, controlling media and presiding over a collapsed economy, has been endorsed as a champion of efforts to boost global holidaymaking.
Despite that fact Mugabe, 88, is under a travel ban, he has been honoured as a "leader for tourism" by the UN's World Tourism Organisation, along with his political ally, Zambian president Michael Sata, 75. The pair signed an agreement with UNWTO secretary general Taleb Rifai at their shared border at Victoria Falls on Tuesday.
The story quotes several opposition figures decrying the fact that Mugabe has been named an "ambassador," but also notes that "UNWTO said it had not appointed Mugabe to any formal position but acknowledged he would receive an open letter like other heads of state who have joined its leaders for tourism campaign."
Is this really such an honor? Here's how the UNWTO describes the "leaders for tourism" program:
UNWTO and WTTC will present an Open Letter to Heads of State and Government worldwide, highlighting the importance of Travel and Tourism. In turn, Heads of State and Government will accept this letter in acknowledgement of the relevance of travel and tourism in facing today’s global challenges.
Dozens of other heads of state, from countries including Mexico, South Africa, China, Ireland,Indonesia, Malaysia, Republic of Korea,Colombia, Kenya, Kazakhstan, Hungary, Burkina Faso, Armenia, Romania, Mozambique, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Thailand, Georgia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Phillipines, Seychelles, Serbia, Greece, Tunisia, and Gambia have signed on to the UNWTO's "golden book of tourism" already. In other words, not a particularly exclusive list.
There's a legitimate argument to be made that a leader like Mugabe shouldn't be invited to participate in such a program at all, or that the U.N. shouldn't be encouraging tourists to visit countries like Zimbabwe, but "Robert Mugabe signs on to boilerplate U.N. agreement on promoting tourism" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.
In fact, the initial source of the "ambassador" claim seems to be the state-owned and not particularly reliable Herald newspaper in an article quoting the country's own tourism minister. But now, thanks to the Guardian, then Drudge, and now FoxNews.com, Newser and others, the Mugabe regime's propaganda version of events has acquired a veneer of truthiness. Gotta love the Internet news cycle.
JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images
A new Pew Global Attitudes Project survey shows Europeans with a deeply ambivalent attitude about the future of the euro and a stark divide in optimism about the future. The New York Times summarizes the results here. What intrigued me most is that, with the notable exception of Greece, most Europeans still seem to have a high opinion of Germany, and its chancellor, Angela Merkel:
Merkel's political fortunes have been flagging in her own country lately, and obviously anti-German sentiment is at an all-time high in Greece, but it seems like other Europeans may not be buying the anti-German line pushed by some euroskeptics. It will be interesting to see if it stays that way, particularly in Italy and Spain.
Yesterday, I had the chance to speak with David Coltart, Zimbabwe's Minister of Education, Sport, and Culture. A human rights lawyer who campaigned against the regimes of Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe, Coltart was a founding member of the Zimbabwe's main opposition party -- the Movement for a Democratic Change. He was among the MDC politicians, led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who entered government in an uneasy coalition with Mugabe's Zanu-PF following the disputed election of 2008.
We discussed why he opposeses economic sanctions, why it would be dangerous for Mugabe to exit the scene too quickly, and an unlikely role model for democratic transition:
Robert Mugabe has called for elections to be held this year. Is the MDC preparing for them?
The call for elections comes from hardliners within Zanu-PF. It doesn't enjoy support from moderates within Zanu-PF, SADC [the Southern African Development Community], or South Africa. If Robert Mugabe decides to align himself with the hardliners, there's going to be a very high political cost to pay in terms of his support in the region.
There's also a financial cost they haven't confronted. The country's on a shoestring budget because we've adopted the U.S. dollar -- we can't print our own money. So they're going to have to find money from somewhere. What the region, all of us in the MDC, and even moderates within Zanu-PF are saying, is that the process of constitutional reform must be completed, the reform of electoral processes must be completed. Once that's happened, then fresh elections must take place.
If they do go ahead with these elections, they will be on the basis of the old laws. We may not even contest those elections. So one will be left with just another crisis. It won't resolve the political situation.
Robert Mugabe's health has been the subject of a lot of speculation lately. Does that factor into your political planning?
The bottom line is that he's 88. He's old and he's clearly tiring. But from what I've seen, he's in remarkably good health. So I don't think it helps to plan around Robert Mugabe. I think one should make the assumption that he's going to be part of the short-to-medium term political environment.
One of the ironies is that Mugabe is necessary in the short term. If he went suddenly, the divisions between Zanu-PF would come out in the open and cause a lot of turmoil. I think that there are many within Zanu that recognize that he's the glue that holds the party together.
Some might say, "great, let Zanu fall apart." But there's a danger that it would fall apart in such a way that there would be a lot of strife and the military would use unscrupulous means to stay in power.
It seems to me that certainly within the cabinet there's a fairly strong moderate wing forming under Vice President [Joice] Mujuru. Whilst I don't agree with many of the policies, on some of the basic issues they clearly are committed to seeing this reform process through and are even prepared to contemplate the loss of power.
MICHAEL KAPPELER/AFP/Getty Images
South Africa's ruling ANC is going to court this week in an attempt to have a satirical painting of President Jacob Zuma removed from a Johannesburg gallery. "The Spear" by artist Brett Murray, shown above, is a Soviet-style image of the president with his genitals exposed -- perhaps a reference to past rape allegations against Zuma. This isn't the first time Zuma has gone to court over similar works of art. In 2008, a defamation suit was filed against the Sunday Times newspaper for running a cartoon in which Zuma was shown about to rape "lady liberty."
The ANC has suggested that the painting by Murray, who is white, is not only an "abuse of freedom of artistic expression" and an "attack on the dignity and institutional office of the President of the Republic, " but blatantly racist:
"It's rude, it's crude, it's disrespectful, it's racist," said African National Congress secretary general Gwede Mantashe at a post NEC briefing in Johannesburg on Monday. He said if it had been a white man depicted, the reaction would have been very different. As far as many people were concerned, black people were just objects, he continued.
"I said how about the idea of going to court tomorrow and as we sit there we can take off our trousers... we can walk around with our genitals hanging out... it's crude," he said.
Zuma isn't the only world leader to get this treatment, though. In 2009, an Irish artist caused a stir by hanging a nude painting of then Prime Minister Brian Cowan in several Dublin galleries in a Banksy-style guerilla art stunt. Murray's painting might be a little crude, as far as satire goes, but with their lawsuit, the ANC is basically assuring that it gets international coverage as opposed to causing a minor stir in the Johannesburg art world.
The $14,000 painting has apparently already been sold, which raises the additional question of who, exactly, would want this in their living room.
Update: Looks like someone vandalized the painting.
It's hard to be an Egyptian revolutionary these days. You gave your blood and sweat to overthrow Hosni Mubarak last year -- but now one year later, some of the most senior officials from the ancien regime are leading the pack to replace him. It's a trend that appears to only be accelerating: Multiple polls this week showed Ahmed Shafiq and Amr Moussa -- Mubarak's former prime minister and foreign minister, respectively -- as leading the pack in the May 23-24 elections.
Shafiq and Moussa have long been dismissed by protesters as felool ("remnants") -- officials fatally compromised by their association with the old regime. The word's very connotation suggests that they will eventually be swept away in the new order -- but judging by their showing in the upcoming elections, rumors of their political demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Shafiq's pitch to voters is simple: Only he has the experience necessary to restore Egypt to stability and prosperity. "He has material, tangible results. You can feel them, you can see them. He's not talking what he could have done," Shafiq spokesman Karim Salem said of the former minister of civil aviation. "When you land in Cairo airport, or any airport in Egypt, you can feel the difference."
Sure, you might ask, but is it really compelling to tout one's experience in a regime that was, after all, overthrown by the Egyptian people? To hear Salem tell it, Shafiq's role was largely bureaucratic. "[Shafiq] was a core professional. He would take whatever assignment, do it, and succeed with it," he said. "You can't say from an absolute perspective that everything [under the previous regime] was corrupt, everything was bad -- there were good things too."
Not everyone is buying that line, of course. From a small office off Tahrir Square, Khaled Ali, the self-styled candidate of Egypt's revolutionary youth, dismisses the experience of his rivals. "Well, I don't have a background of suppression and killing the revolutionaries," said the 40-year old lawyer. "I don't have background of silence and submitting under dictatorial rule. [We will see] if the people want to have this background for their candidate."
But Ali is stuck in the low single-digits in most polls, at the bottom of the pack. His plight is symptomatic of the larger weaknesses of Egypt's left, which has found itself squeezed out of power by the old guard and Islamist candidates. Ali pointed to the seven seats won by the leftist "Revolution Continues" alliance and the roughly two dozen seats won by Egypt's Social Democratic Party in the recent parliamentary election to make the case that the left hasn't been left completely out in the cold. But even given a generous tally of leftists in Parliament, they appear to make up less than 10 percent of the 498-seat body.
That leaves Egypt in a very dangerous place. Politics in Cairo has moved toward the ballot box in recent months, but there is still a core of Egyptians who find legitimacy in the streets and will protest en masse should they believe their revolution is being stolen from them. And if they find themselves faced with a choice between former Mubarak officials such as Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, they will do just that.
First it was German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who was forced to resign in March, 2011, when it was found that he had plagiarized part of his doctoral thesis. Then Silvana Koch-Mehrin, vice president of the European Parliament, regisigned the following month due to accusations about her university thesis. Hungarian President Pal Schmitt resigned this year because of accusations -- that he still denies -- about his doctoral thesis. The latest victim is newly appointed Romanian education minister Ioan Mang:
The allegations first began circulating on 7 May, just hours after Prime Minister Victor Ponta, a Social Democrat, announced the appointment of Mang and other ministers of the new government. Last week, former prime minister Emil Boc, of the Democratic Liberals, called for Mang’s resignation, dramatically waving the allegedly plagiarized articles and the original papers in front of television cameras.[...]
Mang is a computer scientist at the University of Oradea in northwestern Romania, and has served on the senate’s education committee, which tried to hinder the previous government’s research reforms. One of Mang’s papers now under scrutiny (I. Mang Seria Technichni nauki 12, 129–135; 2004) is allegedly a near-identical copy of a manuscript intended for presentation at a scientific workshop and authored by cryptographer Eli Biham, the dean of computer science at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.
Biham notes that he had withdrawn the manuscript from the workshop because of conceptual errors in the work, but had been unable to completely remove the document from the Internet. Mang seems “neither to have read nor tried to understand the claims” in the paper, Biham wrote last week on his website.
Mang did not respond to Nature’s requests for comment on the allegations, but has told Romanian newspapers that the claims are politically inspired. He has pledged to resign if experts can prove the allegations to be true.
It certainly seems like the Guttenberg case has sent reporters digging through politicians' past academic work, looking for transgressions. It's tempting to wonder if the kind of people who become politicians are more likely than others to plagiarize, or if academic plagiarism is generally more widespread than commonly acknowledged but politicians are more likely to get caught.
In any event, getting caught plagiarizing need not necessarily end a politician's career. You can even go on to be the U.S. vice president.
The industry group Business Software Alliance is out with its annual report on global software piracy and it appears that the BRIC countries are still pretty dominant. Yes, Zimbabwe has the world's highest rate of software piracy at 92 percent, overtaking Georgia for the top spot this year. And the United States has the largest illegal software sector in terms of dollar value. But as the chart on the right shows, China, Russia, India, and Brazil combined for more than $17.9 billion worth of pirated software in 2011 -- 28 percent of the global total -- at an average piracy rate of 64 percent. On the other hand, rates are down this year in all four countries according to BSA's numbers.
Overall, BSA says the global rate of software piracy remained steady at 42 percent, though the value of the shadow market in pirated software increased from $58.8 billion to $63.4 billion.
The world's most honest software users? Americans! While the value of its shadow software industry may be the highest, BSA puts the U.S. piracy rate at only 19 percent, the lowest in the world.
It was Leipzig-born Friedrich Nietzche who wrote that "God is dead" in the 1880s. As far as his fellow East Germans are concerned, he may have been on to something.
A recent study by University of Chicago sociologist Tom Smith looks at survey data on belief in God in 30 countries between 1991 and 2008. The citizens of the former German Democratic Republic have by far the highest rate of atheism at 52.1 percent. The Czech Republic is the most atheist currently existing country at 39.9 percent. They're followed by the French (23.3 percent), the Dutch (19.7 percent), and the Swedes (19.3 percent). Japan is the country with the lowest percentage of people who say they "know god really exists and have no doubts about it." (4.3 percent.)
The most religious country in the survey was the Philippines, where 83.6 percent of people are sure God exists and only 0.7 percent are atheists. The United States is pretty godly as well, with only a 3 percent rate of atheism and 60.6 percent sure that he exists.
East Germany has gotten less religious since the fall of communism -- and young people are less religious than their parents -- a trend that doesn't hold for other members of the Eastern Bloc. Russia, for instance, saw an 11.7 percent decline in atheism since 1991 and a 17.3 percent increase in belief in God. Israel saw the largest increase in belief in God (23 percent), possibly due to the influx of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The rate of atheism in the United States increased very slightly. Generally speaking, belief in God declined modestly in the 30 countries in the survey, nearly all of them in the developed world.
Die Welt digs in to the German findings:
Researchers found other reasons for atheism in the former East Germany, not least the deep mark left by the National Socialists and the Communists. But they also point to the fact that many Slavic and non-Orthodox communities present in the area since the Middle Ages were nonreligious; that the secularization movements during the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) were particularly strong in the states of Thuringia and Saxony; that the resistance of most DDR dissidents to the church was not seen, unlike the way it was perceived in Catholic Poland, as specifically religiously motivated.
The present study shows that Germany as a whole occupies a middle position on the atheism scale, as the belief in God in West Germany is still very strong – much more so than in neighboring countries like the Czech Republic or France, for example.
East Germans' general indifference to religion doesn't seem to apply to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who told a meeting of her Christian Democratic Union party in 2010, "We don’t have too much Islam; we have too little Christianity."
It will also be interesting to see whether long-term economic distress will have any effect on religious belief in countires like Greece, Italy, and Spain.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
"I sent a letter to the Swiss Consulate requesting withdrawal of my dual Swiss citizenship, which was conferred upon me by operation of Swiss law when I married my husband in 1978," she said. "I took this action because I want to make it perfectly clear: I was born in America and I am a proud American citizen. I am, and always have been, 100 percent committed to our United States Constitution and the United States of America. As the daughter of an Air Force veteran, stepdaughter of an Army veteran and sister of a Navy veteran, I am proud of my allegiance to the greatest nation the world has ever known."
The statement seems slightly misleading. According to the original Politico story, which included confirmation from Bachmann's office, she became Swiss not in 1978 but in March after her husband applied for citizenship. Marcus Bachmann had been eligible for citizenship since birth because of his parents' nationality, but hadn't claimed it until this year.
During a 10-minute renunciation ceremony in a booth with bullet-proof glass windows, embassy staff ask exiting Americans whether they are acting voluntarily and understand the implications of giving up their passports. They pay a fee of $450 to renounce and may incur an “exit tax” on unrealized capital gains if their assets exceed $2 million or their average annual U.S. tax bill is more than $151,000 during the past five years. They receive a certificate within three months, telling them they are no longer American citizens and entitled to the services and protection of the U.S. government.
It should be noted that for immigrants to Switzerland, and even children of immigrants born in Switzerland, getting Swiss citizenship is not nearly as easy as it apparently was for the Bachmanns.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Yesterday, Al-Jazeera English announced that it would be closing its bureau in Beijing after the Chinese government refused to renew the press credentials and visa of its China correspondent, Melissa Chan. Chan, based in Beijing since 2007, has an excellent reputation as a journalist, reporting hard-hitting stories on black jails, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and Chinese land grabs. (Disclosure: I worked with Chan on the board of the Foreign Correspondent's Club of China and consider her a friend.)
Chan's expulsion is believed to be the first for a foreign journalist based in China since the 1998 deportation of a Japanese journalist; writing in the New Yorker, Evan Osnos described it as the revival of "a Soviet-era strategy that will undermine [China's] own efforts to project soft power," and a clear step backwards for Beijing.
That it is, no doubt. But Chan also fits into the troubling pattern of the foreigners Beijing has targeted over the last decade: those the Chinese government views of having less protection because of their ethnicity and nationality; often with Chinese backgrounds. It appears that someone in the Chinese government wanted to give a warning to journalists without causing an international incident; Chan, a Chinese-American working for a Qatari-based television station, seemed to be an appropriate target. The thinking seems to be that a foreign government will more loudly protest the mistreatment of a citizen who is both born and raised in its own country and working for a domestic company.
It's not just journalists who are affected. In December 2009, China executed Akmal Shaikh, a British citizen accused of smuggling eight pounds of heroin into China. The execution of Shaikh, the first for a European in China in 50 years and despite protests from the British government, came as China wanted to appear tough against crime; Shaikh also happened to have been born in Pakistan.
In 2010 the Chinese government sentenced Stern Hu, a Chinese-born Australian who formerly ran Rio Tinto's iron ore operations in China, to 10 years in prison for accepting bribes and stealing trade secrets, in a case widely viewed as political; his former boss said Hu had been "thrown to the wolves." Xue Feng, a Chinese-born American citizen was sentenced to eight years in prison in July 2010 under China's menacingly vague state secrets laws for purchasing an oil database.
Following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, a handful of journalists, including Americans working for American papers and Brits working for British papers, were expelled. British-born Andrew Higgins was expelled from China in 1991 while working for London's Independent newspaper for supposedly possessing confidential information. Some journalists expelled around that time were let back in, like John Pomfret, a former Washington Post bureau chief, kicked out in 1989 for what authorities called "stealing state secrets and violating martial law provisions" and what he called writing "about Tiananmen Square." Unlike Pomfret, Higgins, who now works for the Post, has not been given the standard long-term visa to report in China, and instead covers the region from Hong Kong.
The pattern seems to be that powerful countries like the United States will be less likely to protest the mistreatment of an American working for a non-American company, or a foreigner working for an American organization, when it becomes a more complicated procedure of coordinating responses between embassies and ministries. Executives and reporters with Chinese backgrounds have many advantages operating in China. Besides language skills and local networks, they can blend in a country where different color skin clearly identifies one as an outsider. Anecdotally speaking, they seem to be given less leniency when they don't follow China's laws; like they're supposed to "know better."
Many foreign news bureaus are hosted in two diplomatic compounds in the Jianguomen neighborhood. As a reporter based out of the compound for two years, I entered freely, while foreign reporters who looked Chinese (and, of course, those that were Chinese), often had to show their IDs to get in. Injustice in China affects more than just the locals.
There seems to be a growing movement among European politicians to use the upcoming Euro cup -- co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland -- as an opportunity to take a stand on human rights conditions in Ukraine, particularly the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is now on a hunger strike and reportedly in poor health.
EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Redding and EU commission President Jose Manuel Barroso both say they will boycott the event. Czech President Vaclav Klaus and German President Joachim Gauck have already canceled participation in summit planned in Ukraine for next week because of Tymoshenko's treatment. Chancellor Angela Merkel says she will not attend Euro 2012 unless Tymoshenko's conditions improve. The Dutch parliament has passed a resolution saying that no one representing the government should attend.
So far there's no talk of teams or players boycotting the games, though Bayern Munich president and German soccer icon Uli Hoeness did say that he "would have respect for every player who publicly took a stand on this issue."
In an interview with Der Spiegel, Ukrainian boxer and pro-democracy activist Vitali Klitschko said he did not support a boycott, but asked players to be aware of the conditions in Ukraine:
I am against the politicization of sports. But athletes also need to be clear about what is happening in a country in which they are competing. Think about the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. At the time, regime opponents were tortured and killed by the military junta, in some instances in the very stadiums where the World Cup matches were later played. Berti Vogts, the captain of the German national team at the time, said only that he hadn't seen a single political prisoner and that Argentina was a country where order was maintained.
Klitschko said he hoped the tournament would be "an excellent opportunity to draw the world's attention to the maladministration in our country."
After the Beijing Olympics, I'm a bit skeptical of the argument that events like these can effectively highlight human rights issues in a host country. The incentive of the organizers, sponsors, and players is to have a smooth-running competition, not provide opportunity for Jesse Owens moments. On the other hand, the recent Formula 1 Grand Prix in Bahrain did seem to draw some attention to a forgotten human rights crisis.
In any event, the Ukraine controversy may be just a prelude to Sochi 2014.
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
The big takeaway is that global approval of U.S. leadership in 2011 continued its slow slide since the excitement of Barack Obama's election -- though the country is still much more popular than it was in the last years of the Bush administration:
While some of luster of the Obama administration does seem to be wearing off, what's interesting is that it's not in the countries you might think, given the rhetoric of the presidential election. The "allies" that most frequently come up in Republican rhetoric still pretty much like us. Even after a contentious year in mideast diplomacy, approval for U.S. leadership in Israel is basically unchanged at 55 percent. In Britain, despite various perceived snubs, approval of U.S. leadership improved by 13 points. As for the countries that Obama has supposedly thrown under the bus as part of the Russia reset, Georgia and Poland both showed slight improvements.
The fall in support was actually driven by Africa, where approval fell by 10 percent last year but is still quite high at 74 percent, Latin America, where it fell by 6 percent, and European countries like France, Germany, Spain and Sweden, all of which posted double-digit declines in U.S. support. If, as Mitt Romney charges, “This president takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe," they don't seem very appreciative of it. I would guess that the culprit in Latin America is the perceived lack of change in U.S. policies on trade, immigration, and drugs under Obama. Africans might be upset that despite his Kenyan roots, the president hasn't made the region much of a priority in his foreign policy.
Gallup's data from the Middle East and North Africa is a little spotty, but there doesn't seem to have been that much of a change in approval following the Arab Spring -- the U.S. remains pretty unpopular.
The country with the biggest drop popularity was Liberia, where approval of the U.S. when down 25 points. Perhaps non-Ellen Johnson Sirleaf supporting Liberians were unhappy with Washington's tacit endorsement of the Nobel Prize winner in last year's election? That doesn't really seem like a big enough factor to explain that big a drop, so I'm guessing this was something a fluke.
Belgium saw the biggest improvement from 29 percent to 45 percent. Anyone have any guesses on how America got out of the Belgian dog house?
After Barack Obama released his long-form birth certificate last year, I wrote a short explainer piece looking at constitutions around the world and what they require in terms of presidential eligibility. The topic is back in the news this week after the popular Islamist candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail was disqualified from Egypt's presidential election after it was revealed that his mother was an American citizen.
As it turns out, the provisional constitution that the SCAF government adopted in March 2011 is oddly specific when it comes to eligibility requirements, even banning foreign spouses:
It is required for whoever is elected president of the republic to be an Egyptian who has never held another citizenship, born of two Egyptian parents who have never held another citizenship enjoying his political and civil rights, not married to a non-Egyptian, and not falling under the age of 40 years.
A lot of this is new. Egypt's previous constitution, adopted in 1971 by Anwar Sadat, makes no mentions of previous citizenships or spouses:
The person to be elected President of the Republic should be an Egyptian citizen born to Egyptian parents and should enjoy civil and political rights.
His age must not be less than 40 Gregorian years.
The SCAF constitution also added the requirement that candidates demonstrate the support of "at least 30,000 citizens, who have the right to vote, in at least 15 provinces whereby the number of supports in any of the provinces is at least 1,000." That requirement was the grounds for disqualifying the candidacy of former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who apparently fell 31 signatures short.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Writing last year on the peer-to-peer digital currency Bitcoin, I noted that while "the disruptive power of Bitcoin on banks and central governments has surely been overstated, but these institutions might be better served to take its emergence as a warning rather than a reassurance: They may not be the only game in town forever."
It seems that at least one country is taking the Bitcoin phenomenon seriously: Canada. The Canadian mint is launching research and development on its own "virtual currency" with the tasty-sounding name MintChip. Jesse Brown of MacLeans explains:
Like BitCoin, it’s as anonymous as cash, leaving no electronic record of who paid what to who. Unlike BitCoin, it’s backed by a central authority, which is bad news for the anarcho-crypto Illuminati-fearing libertarian crowd, but good news for people who actually use it. Will it be hacked? Probably. But a currency guaranteed by a wealthy and stable mint can sustain a certain amount of fraud without collapsing. The Royal Canadian Mint has launched an app challenge to kickstart MintChip.
I suspect that a lot of potential users -- not just "the anarcho-crypto Illuminati-fearing libertarian crowd" -- are going to wonder just how anonymous a government-backed electronic payment method will be. I'd imagine there will be at least some safeguards to prevent the underground drug markets that have given Bitcoin a bad name.
Whatever happens, it should be an interesting experiment to watch. This is been a month of currency innovation for Canada, which announced it was eliminating the penny last week. It still has a ways to go to catch up with increasingly-cashless Sweden though.
Update: I neglected to mention the glow-in-the-dark dinosaur coin. The hits just keep coming from those wild and crazy guys at the Canadian Mint.
Just days after releasing its new video, Invisible Children -- the U.S.-based NGO behind the phenomenally successful "Kony 2012" campaign -- has yet again found itself in the midst of controversy over a U.S. diplomatic cable released last year by WikiLeaks, which reports that the group cooperated with the Ugandan military to facilitate the arrest of a former child soldier who was allegedly involved in the formation of a new rebel group.
The cable, released as part of WikiLeaks' massive "Cablegate" series, was sent on June 11, 2009, and signed by then ambassador Steven Browning. Titled, "GAMES THE ACHOLI DIASPORA CONTINUE TO PLAY," it concerns reports of a "new rebellion in northern Uganda" organized by members of the Acholi ethnic group, of which Joseph Kony is also a member. The cable describes Ugandan government reports of a "new resistance group called the Peoples' Patriotic Front (PPF)" that had "begun stockpiling weapons in the districts of West Nile" and was attempting to win support of Acholis abroad for a new effort to overthrow the government of President Yoweri Museveni.
In early 2009, the Ugandan army arrested a number of people alleged to be involved in plots by the PPF (originally known as the Uganda Patriotic Front or UPF) to attack military targets, including Patrick Komakech, who had reportedly been impersonating senior LRA commanders on behalf of the new rebel group. Komakech, reportedly a former LRA child soldier, had been involved with Invisible Children for some time and appeared in several of its videos. (A 2007 Des Moines Register story describes a bike trip he and other former child soldiers took across Iowa organized by American missionaries.)
According to the cable, it was Invisible Children that gave the government the tipoff on where to find Komakech:
The latest plot was exposed when the Government received a tip from the U.S. non-governmental organization (NGO) Invisible Children regarding the location of Patrick Komekech. He was wanted by the security services for impersonating LRA leaders to extort money from government officials, NGOs, and Acholi leaders. Komekech is purportedly a former child soldier abducted by the LRA. Invisible Children had featured him in its documentaries. Invisible Children reported that Komekech had been in Nairobi and had recently reappeared in Gulu, where he was staying with the NGO. Security organizations jumped on the tip and immediately arrested Komekech on March 5. He had a satellite telephone and other gadgets, which were confiscated when security forces picked him up.
Komakech is currently facing treason charges, along with over a dozen other alleged PPF members.
While the cable has been online for months, its contents seem to have been first reported on Sunday by the obscure New York-based website Black Star News under the inflammatory headline, "Invisible Children, Makers of Kony2012, Spied for Ugandan regime." The story has been picked up in the Ugandan media as well.
Invisible Children has been criticized by a number of observers in the United States and Uganda for working with the Ugandan government -- which has itself been implicated in a number of human rights abuses -- as part of its campaign to apprehend Kony. The group responded to this critique last month on its website, noting that it "does not defend any of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ugandan government" and "none of the money donated through Invisible Children has ever gone to support the government of Uganda," but that nonetheless, "The Ugandan military (UPDF) is a necessary piece in counter-LRA activities."
Komakech, however, was not alleged to have been a member of the LRA at the time of his arrest. And some Uganda watchers have suggested that Museveni's government may be playing up the threat from the PPF to distract from more pedestrian problems of governance, now that the LRA threat has been largely neutralized in Uganda. The diplomatic cable itself suggests that "Several sources outside the security services say that various Government officials may be overplaying the level of threat posed by the rebel group for their own interests."
Invisible Children Uganda Spokesperson Florence Ogola was quoted in Uganda's Daily Monitor newspaper yesterday denying the truth of the cable. "That is not true. We are not involved in anything to do with security. We only deal with development," she said. She described the allegations as part of the "propaganda" campaign against the group.
Felix Kulayigye, a spokesperson for the Ugandan People's Defense Force, also told the paper, "That's a lie. Komakech was arrested in broad day light and we didn't need a muzungu [foreigner] to tell us where he was."
In an e-mailed statement to Foreign Policy, a spokesperson for Invisible Children did not elaborate on whether it had played a role in Komakech's arrest, but did say it had discussed his case with the U.S. Embassy:
"In 2009, Invisible Children was contacted by a member at the US Embassy in Kampala regarding Patrick Komakech, a former LRA combatant who Invisible Children had been supporting in attempts to assist with his personal recovery and academic development, in keeping with Invisible Children's mandate to provide assistance to individuals affected by LRA violence. At the time, it was brought to our attention that Mr. Komakech and a group of others were allegedly involved in activities that could be jeopardizing the lives of civilians and putting the organization and its staff at risk.
"Invisible Children was deeply saddened to learn of these allegations; the organization was cooperative in providing information to the US Embassy regarding the nature of our relationship with and academic support to Mr. Komakech. In light of the severity of these allegations, the organization severed all ties immediately with Mr. Komakech. In this case and as always, Invisible Children acts in good faith to preserve the integrity of our programming and uphold the protection of human rights in the communities we work."
"[W]e do not conduct intelligence efforts of any kind for a foreign government," the spokesperson said.
There's still a lot of confusion surrounding the death of Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika from a heart attack yesterday, but from what Reuters is reporting, it seems that his country's shoddy infrastructure and medical system may have played a role:
The 78-year-old was rushed to hospital in Lilongwe on Thursday after collapsing but was dead on arrival, the sources said. State media said he had been flown to South Africa for treatment although his immediate whereabouts remained unclear.
Medical sources said the former World Bank economist had been flown out because a power and energy crisis in the nation of 13 million was so severe the Lilongwe state hospital would have been unable to carry out a proper autopsy or even keep his body refrigerated.
Many Malawians blamed Mutharika personally for the economic woes, which stemmed ultimately from a diplomatic spat with former colonial power Britain a year ago.
"We know he is dead and unfortunately he died at a local, poor hospital which he never cared about - no drugs, no power," said Chimwemwe Phiri, a Lilongwe businessman waiting in a snaking line of cars for fuel at a petrol station.
It's impossible to say if Mutharika would be alive today if he could have made it to a properly supplied hospital, but as BBC Kampala correspondent Joshua Mmali put it on Twitter last night, "Lessons outta
#Malawi 4 #AfricanPresidents: You can't go to the UK or Germany to treat a heart attack. Improve your health systems"
It has indeed become a depressingly common occurence for leaders to head abroad for major medical treatment -- an option Mutharika didn't have. In recent years, we've seen Venezuela's Hugo Chavez travel to Cuba for cancer treatment, Saudi King Abdullah come to New York for tests, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh travel to Saudi Arabia to treat injuries sustained in an attack, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari go to Dubai for undisclosed medical treatment, and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani head to Jordan for treatment of exhaustion and dehydration. There are plenty of other examples from Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to New Guinea Prime Minister Michael Somare.
It's always a bit surprising that this isn't more politically embarrassing. If there isn't even one hospital in a leader's country where he feels confortable getting treated -- presumably by that country's best doctors and the most advanced equipment available -- that would seem to be a pretty damning indictment of his leadership.
ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
This Telegraph story has been making the Internet rounds today:
It is an admission that is verging on sacrilegious for a French president. But Nicolas Sarkozy's top chef has revealed that the French head of state has banned cheese from the table at the Elysée Palace.
Charles de Gaulle once famously declared: "How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?"
The fitness mad Mr Sarkozy has chosen to remove the source of De Gaulle's angst from his sight, according to presidential chef Bernard Vaussion, who is cooking for his fifth French head of state.
J'accuse! The notion of a French president removing cheese from his sight -- at the request of his supermodel wife, naturally -- is pretty delicious. Unfortunately, that's not what Vaussion said at all. The quotes come from an interview with the AFP, which is neither cited nor linked in the Telegraph story. Here's what the chef said about the cheese:
The right-wing president personally approves the menu every morning, as his predecessors Francois Mitterrand and Valery Giscard d'Estaing did before him.
"He writes 'yes' in the margin next to the dishes I propose," said the cook, who happily notes that the incumbent has a healthy appetite.
But Sarkozy is also health conscious, preferring "light, balanced meals and poultry to red meat", in a clear break with his predecessors who were not afraid of rich fare, even at lunchtime.
Sarkozy also did away with cheese after meals, he noted.
That's it! Sarkozy has chosen to forgo a cheese course after meals. That is not the same thing as issuing some kind of anti-fromage fatwa.
The Telegraph might want to clarify before angry mobs start pelting him with wheels of camembert.
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images
The New York Times reports on the ceasefire in Northern Mali:
France on Thursday ruled out a “military solution” in its former colony of Mali to counter rebels in the north, who announced that they had achieved their territorial objectives and sought outside backing for a secessionist state they call Azawad.
The declaration by the main Tuareg rebel group on their Web site came after other Islamic rebel fighters, who helped seized the ancient city of Timbuktu over the weekend, were quoted by local officials as saying they planned to impose Islamic law there. [...]
In their statement, the rebel Tuareg fighters, calling themselves the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, said that they had decided “to unilaterally proclaim the end of military operations as of midnight on Thursday April 5.” The rebels said they had achieved “the complete liberation” of the territory they claim.
The statement invited outside powers to “guarantee the people of Azawad against all aggression by Mali.”
This Reuters analysis has more on the security implications of the news, including the possibility that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb may exploit the instability in Northern Mali. (The MNLA has vowed to expel al Qaeda from the region in the past but in recent weeks has formed an uneasy partnership with the more stridently Islamist militant group Ansar Dine, who have vowed to impose sharia law.)
Security concerns aside, with the MNLA have staked its claim to a significant swathe of territory, including the city of Timbuktu, and the Malian army in something of a state of disarray after last week's coup, it raises the question of whether Azaria actually has a chance of emerging as a state -- or at least joining entities like Somaliland and Abkhazia among the world's established but mostly unrecognized states.
As I've written before, the recognition of new states has much more to do with politics than any objective standard under international law. To get a better idea of the obstacles Azawad will face, I spoke with Carne Ross, executive director of Independent Diplomat, a diplomatic advisory group that worked with South Sudan and Kosovo on their statehood bids.
In Ross's view, the three main criteria for statehood are democratic legitimacy -- whether the people in a territory actually want to be independent -- protection of minority rights, and recognition by other states. The last is probably most important from a diplomatic point of view:
The thing that is most important for a state to be recognized is that other states recognize it. It sounds circular but it does happen that way.
This is bad news for prospective new states in Africa, says Ross, because of a strong political bias against recognizing new countries. With a couple of notable exceptions -- South Sudan, Eritrea, Namibia -- the continents borders haven't changed much since decolonization:
Particularly problematic is the African Union. The AU’s constitution, when it was set up, says that there should not be any alteration to the original borders of Africa as established by various colonial authorities like the 1884 Berlin Conference. It’s a strange position and one that makes the establishment of new states in Africa problematic.
Aside from concerns about Islamist militancy and the fact that Azawad doesn't seem to have a government or defined territory yet, the region's history makes it an unlikely candidate for recognized statehood:
As far as I can tell, there is no legal basis, or indeed a particularly strong political basis for the establishment of a new state. At least in the case of Somaliland, there is a case that Somaliland pre-existed the establishment of the State of Somalia. In the case of the Western Sahara, there is a legal premise in the referendum. In this case, there seems to be no legal basis whatsoever.
So far, there hasn't been much communication from the MNLA to the outside world other than some vaguely-worded proclamations on their website and Facebook page. It will be interesting to see if the new movement attempts to make its case to the world in the coming days.
GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images
How much does euro-skepticism pay these days? About $325,000, to be exact. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Simon Wolfson, the British CEO who sponsors the Wolfson Economics Prize, will award 250,000 pounds to "the person that puts forward the most elegant scenario for how a country or countries might leave the euro zone - or how the 17-nation compact might unwind."
The essays written by the five finalists "are more or less free of politics," and "are a reminder of the vast challenge that Europe confronts it is to keep the euro zone intact."
Roger Bootle and his team at Capital Economics, a London-based consulting firm, argue that "A country currently in difficulties on the southern periphery should embrace the idea of currency depreciation rather than fearing it. It's part of the solution, not the problem. One way or another these countries have got to become more competitive, and the only way they can do that without causing a disaster ... is by leaving the euro."
Jonathan Tepper, the Chief Editor of macroeconomic research group Variant Perception, emphasizes the success of past currency breakups in Czechoslovakia, the former Soviet Union, and the Austro-Hungarian empire:
"In almost all these cases, currency breakups went relatively smoothly. They were complicated, but they were feasible."
Jens Nordvig and Nick Firoozye at Nomura advocate for introducing "a European currency unit similar to what we had before the euro was created," while Neil Record of Record Currency Management argues that "a very small group should create a plan with a secret taskforce ... and the plan in my opinion ought to be that if there is one exit of a country, if that becomes inevitable, then the whole of the euro ought to be abandoned."
The judges were "particularly taken" with the "original and elegant" solution of former analyst Catherine Dobbs, who "proposes that the euro disappears, with all holders of euros having their euro claims replaced by claims on the new currencies, according to a set proportion."
The Wolfson Economics Prize is "the second biggest cash prize to be awarded to an academic after the Nobel Prize." This year's 425 entrants included analysts, investment bankers, and traders, but it was 11-year-old Jurre Hermans of the Netherlands who won the judges' hearts with his intricate pizza diagram explaining how Greeks could swap their euros for drachmas. Here is the "clever" part of Jurre's plan, as translated into English by his father:
"The Greek people do not want to exchange their Euro's for Drachms because they know that this Drachme will lose its value dramatically. They try to keep or hide their Euro's. They know that if they wait a while they will get more Drachmes. So if a Greek man tries to keep his Euros (or bring his euros to a bank in [sic] an other country like Holland or Germany) and it is discovered, he gets a penalty just as high or double as the whole amount of euros he tried to hide!!!"
According to Policy Exchange, Jurre "will receive an €100 gift voucher for his efforts." If an "amicable divorce" is really what the euro zone needs, a pizza diagram may be the most diplomatic way to go about it.
EMILY WABITSCH/AFP/Getty Images
On his FP blog today, Stephen Walt writes:
"When Washington gets lucky and the African Union endorses a Nigerian economist with a B.A. from Harvard and a Ph.D. from MIT, who also has ample experience at the World Bank, and who is a woman of color to boot, the smart thing to do is get behind it immediately. This course is such an obvious no-brainer that I'm amazed the Obama administration didn't leap at the opportunity."
As my former colleague Annie Lowrey writes in the Times, U.S. nominee Jim Yong Kim is still virtually assured victory because of the makeup of the World Bank's governing board, but the fact that this three-way race is even taking place -- José Antonio Ocampo of Columbia is also in the running -- marks a historic shift. It's also striking some of the voices most loudly advocating for the Bank to overturn half a century of tradition and nominate a non-American president, are some of the normally staunchest defenders of the economic status quo.
The Economist editorializes:
WHEN economists from the World Bank visit poor countries to dispense cash and advice, they routinely tell governments to reject cronyism and fill each important job with the best candidate available. It is good advice. The World Bank should take it. In appointing its next president, the bank’s board should reject the nominee of its most influential shareholder, America, and pick Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
Felix Salmon of Reuters chimes in:
Kim is still the favorite for the job, just because he has the full and awesome power of US international diplomatic pressure behind him. But in any fair fight, Okonjo-Iweala would win. And if there are any signs at all that the European vote might not be completely in the bag, we might yet have a real contest on our hands here.
The Financial Times has tripled-down on its support for the Nigerian finance minister with an editorial, a column by Washington bureau chief Edward Luce, and a letter from economist Jagdish Baghwati supporting her candidacy.
Nationality may play something of a role here. These are all British publications and mostly British authors -- Bagwhati is Indian-American -- whereas the New York Times and Businessweek have both editorialized for Kim.
But supporting Okonjo-Iweala is also an easy "reformist" stance for economic conservatives to take. As these sources all note in their endorsements, Okonjo-Iweala is a fairly orthodox, free market, growth-oriented economist with a long institutional history at the bank. Kim, meanwhile, is an outsider and something of an unknown quantity: A public health expert with little background in economics whose book on inequality and health expresses skepticism about growth-led development and was favorably blurbed by Noam Chomsky. The Economist quips drily: "Were Mr Kim hoping to lead Occupy Wall Street, such views would be unremarkable."
While picking Okonjo-Iweala would of course be historic for bank-- she's non-American, a person of color, and along with Christine Lagarde of the IMF, would put women in charge of the world's two main multilateral financial institutions. But from an ideological point of view, she may actually be the status-quo choice.
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images
The Washington Post reports:
Funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a panel of experts in psychology and economics, including Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, began convening in December to try to define reliable measures of 'subjective well-being.' If successful, these could become official statistics.
The idea of the government tallying personal feelings might seem frivolous -- or impossibly difficult. For decades, after all, the world has gotten by with gauging a nation’s quality of life on the basis of its GDP, or gross domestic product, the sum of its economic output. But economists and others have long recognized that GDP, a dollars and cents measure, doesn’t count everything that might be considered important when assessing living conditions."
Alan Krueger, the chair of the president's Council of Economic Advisors is a leading researcher in the field of happiness measurement. According to the Post, President Obama has "welcomed" the effort.
The U.S. wouldn't be the first country to try something like this. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan famously pledged in 1972 to measure his country's progress not in GDP but in "gross national happiness." The idea has been somewhat discredited since, as Bhutanese government's definition of happiness seems to include ethnic cleansing and bizarrely intrusive authoritarianism.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy rolled out a new happiness measurement as an official economic indicator in 2009 after commissioning a special report from Nobel Prize winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. British Prime Minister David Cameron has also suggested including happiness measurements along with GDP.
I'm all for investigating alternatives to GDP, and happiness measurement seems like a promising area for economic research. But politically -- particularly during a time of measurable economic distress -- this seems like a hard sell.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
With all the talk about an April 13 date being set for nuclear talks between Iran and the world's top powers, another important milestone got lost in the shuffle: today, March 30, when President Obama is required by a U.S. sanctions law to determine whether, as Reuters puts it, "the price and supply of non-Iranian oil are sufficient to allow consumers to 'significantly' cut their purchases from Iran." If the answer to that question is yes, then, beginning in June, the United States can proceed with its effort to isolate Tehran by sanctioning foreign banks that continue to purchase Iranian oil.
Obama's conclusion? There may not be oil, oil everywhere, but there's enough of it to greenlight sanctions. The Associated Press has more:
The president said he based his determination on global economic conditions, the level of spare oil capacity, and increased production by some countries, among other factors. He said he would keep monitoring the global market closely to ensure it can handle a reduction of oil purchases from Iran.
With oil prices already rising this year amid rising tensions over the nuclear dispute between Iran and the West, U.S. officials have sought assurances that pushing countries to stop buying from Iran would not cause a further spike in prices.
That's particularly important for Obama in an election year that has seen an increasing focus on gas prices.
Iran meter: Obama's decision clears a path for the administration's aggressive sanctions strategy, which it favors over military conflict.
But there's a wrinkle. Globalization has proven a double-edged sword for sanctions regimes. As scholars Steve Smith, Amelia Hadfield, and Tim Dunne note, an interdependent world economy can make countries more vulnerable to international sanctions. Yet globalization also means that countries facing sanctions can seek out alternative markets and suppliers.
This reality has been on vivid display recently. Bloomberg takes a look today at how China and India are evading U.S. and EU financial sanctions by buying Iranian oil in exchange for local currencies or goods such as wheat, soybean meal, and consumer products. During a meeting in New Delhi this week, the BRICS group of emerging world powers -- Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa -- declared that they would continue trading with Iran in defiance of U.S. sanctions.
This doesn't necessarily mean Western sanctions are doomed. Turkey, the fifth largest buyer of Iranian oil, announced today that it would cut imports of oil from Iran by a tenth in the face of U.S. pressure. And the Congressional Research Service's Kenneth Katzman tells Bloomberg that Iran's "junk-for-oil" program with countries such as China and India is economically unsustainable. "Iran cannot stabilize the value of its currency with such unorthodox payment methods," he explains.
But the big question is whether, come June, the United States will actually sanction Chinese and Indian banks -- an action fraught with political landmines. Obama's announcement today doesn't get us much closer to answering that question.
For more support for keeping the Iran meter at Natanz to Worry About, check out Amir Oren's argument for why Israel may be postponing an attack on Iran and Karl Vick's report on Israel's intelligence services scaling back covert operations inside Iran. (And for a gripping account of how an Israeli strike might play out, read Gary Sick.)
Note to readers: Earlier this month, I dismissed the importance of Azerbaijan's pledge to prevent any country from using its territory as a launching pad for an attack on Iran, arguing that Israel probably wouldn't strike Iran through its neighbor to the north anyway.
This week, Mark Perry reported at Foreign Policy that Azerbaijan has granted Israel access to airbases near its border with Iran, which could heighten the prospect of an Israeli strike. Authorities in Azerbaijan have denied the allegations, and some others have expressed doubt that Israel would actually use Azeri airbases as part of an attack. But the report does raise the question of whether my headline -- "You can stop worrying about Azerbaijan" -- needs revising.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Turns out Libya's former ruling family was pretty heavily invested in Italy:
The most valuable single item seized was a 1.26% interest in Italy's biggest bank, Unicredit, worth more than €600m (£502m). Other significant shareholdings included stakes in the oil and gas giant, ENI, the defence firm Finmeccanica and two companies in the Fiat motor group.
All the assets were held through Libya's sovereign wealth fund, the Libyan Investment Authority, which was set up in 2006, ostensibly to manage Libya's oil revenues and diversify the country's income. LIA's stake in Unicredit was its biggest single investment.
Several bank accounts holding cash and shares were destined to be put under temporary, special administration as a result of Wednesday's operation. Also put under sequester was a flat in the centre of Rome, close to the Via Veneto. The Harley-Davidson was one of two motorcycles confiscated by the revenue guard.It was not immediately clear which of the assets belonged to Colonel Gaddafi, which to his son, Saif Al-Islam and which to his former head of intelligence, Abdullah Senussi.
The Qaddafis also had a 1.5 percent stake in the Juventus football club.
Senussi was arrested in Mauritania earlier this month in an operation involving French intelligence, setting the stage for a custody battle between Libya, France and the ICC -- all of whom want to try him. According to Reuters, the prevailing rumor among Arab intelligence agencies is that the French want to try him in order to prevent information about the Qaddafi's financing of Nicolas Sarkozy's election campaign from going public.
That sound like a bit of a stretch, but it's safe to say there are quite a few government that would probably prefer to keep Senussi quiet.
The once proud Communist Party propaganda arm-turned-supermarket tabloid/LOL-aggregator unloads on the GOP frontrunner:
Electing Mitt Romney as the next President of the United States of America would be like appointing a serial paedophile as a kindergarten teacher, a rapist as a janitor at a girls' dormitory or a psychopath with a fixation on knives as a kitchen hand. His comments on Russia are a puerile attempt at making the grand stage and boy, did he blow it...
Romney's "number one geopolitical foe" remark seems to be bringing out the best in Russian official bombast:
...Public Chamber Foreign Affairs working group head Alexander Sokolov [compared] him to one of the “Marlboro men, those so-called cool guys, for whom only America’s interests exist and all other countries are potential enemies – or at best, rivals.”
Even the normally staid Dmitry Medvedev said Romney's remark "smacks of Hollywood" and advised him to "check his watch": “It’s 2012, not the middle of the 1970s,”
Romney reiterated his attacks on the president's open-mic incident in a piece for FP yesterday, in which he said, "It is not an accident that Mr. Medvedev is now busy attacking me. The Russians clearly prefer to do business with the current incumbent of the White House."
Obama's foreign-policy advisors responded here.
Sanctions-saddled Iran may be importing fewer BMWs than it used to, but recent reports suggest that it's voraciously raking in wheat. Today, Bloomberg highlights a pending deal to buy as much as 3 million metric tons of wheat from India, which is engaged in the high-wire act of trying to do business with Iran while maintaining good relations with the United States and Israel.
Some 120,000 tons of hard red winter wheat grown in the Plains is on its way to the Islamic Republic, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The sale of another 60,000 tons has been finalized, according to trade sources, and Iran may ultimately buy some 400,000 tons of U.S. wheat this year.
Iran can import wheat from the United States and other countries because sanctions don't cover agricultural products. But why is Iran on a wheat shopping spree in the first place? After all, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has dubbed the new Iranian year the "Year of National Production" and argued that Iran can overcome sanctions by consuming domestic products. What's Iran up to with all the wheat?
Iran meter: The short answer is we're not exactly sure. Iran may be stockpiling grain for reasons unrelated to sanctions to the specter of conflict (such as concerns about dry weather and the quality of the domestic wheat crop), but sanctions are most likely influencing the decision. And the aggressive purchases would seem to enhance Iran's ability to withstand the international isolation that President Obama is betting on to head off a military confrontation.
Christopher Gadd of the Macquarie Group, for example, has noted that wheat imports may help Iran keep high food prices -- and especially bread prices -- from fueling Arab Spring-style unrest. The purchases also highlight the fact that Iran still has trading partners -- even if these relationships are increasingly predicated on complex barter deals such as sending Pakistan iron ore and fertilizer in exchange for wheat.
But while sanctions don't technically apply to grain, they are making it difficult for Iran to finance imports of raw materials such as wheat, since many banks are reluctant to offer Iranian traders letters of credit (Turkish banks, among others, are stepping in to fill the void). Gadd tells Bloomberg that around 400,000 tons of mostly Russian and Ukrainian grain are currently idling outside Iranian ports for this very reason.
Plus, the sanctions drumbeat continues, with the U.S. Senate now eyeing Iran's oil revenues. And while a report by Iran's Press TV today suggests that the energy sector is doing just fine -- the country's oil minister boasts of a world record in making "62 percent physical progress [in building a gas refinery] in 20 months" -- it's going to take a more momentous (and comprehensible) milestone to make a convincing case that Iran can weather a seemingly relentless barrage of sanctions.
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Today's news paints a picture of an Iran increasingly hemmed in by sanctions. SWIFT, a Belgium-based organization that facilitates banking transactions, announced that it will block Iranian banks targeted by EU sanctions, effectively cutting Iran off from the global financial system. Reuters reports that Iran has been frantically stockpiling wheat to blunt the impact of sanctions, while the Obama administration is threatening to impose sanctions on India if it keeps buying Iranian oil. These developments have been accompanied by spurts of tough talk from Tehran; Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, for instance, declared that an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites would spell "the end of the Jewish state."
And yet, out of the headlines of isolation, comes a surprising glimmer of cooperation: Israel and Iran are actually collaborating on something. Haaretz reports:
In an extraordinary act of regional cooperation, Israel, Iran, Jordan, and Turkey are to jointly provide funds for a particle accelerator as part of their commitment to a UNESCO-sponsored scientific project, it was announced on Wednesday.
Each of the four countries has pledged $5 million toward the SESAME facility, which is being built near Amman. SESAME stands for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East. According to the UNESCO website, the project aims to "foster scientific and technological excellence in the Middle East and neighboring countries (and prevent or reverse brain drain) by enabling world-class research," and to "build scientific and cultural bridges between neighboring countries."
If the $100 million SESAME center, which is slated to go online in 2015, succeeds, the Middle East will get its first synchrotron.
Iran meter: Could science be both central to the nuclear dispute and key to resolving it peacefully? Sadly, the SESAME project has been as much a source of tension as teamwork. Last year, the Financial Times noted that two Iranian scientists who had worked at the center -- Massoud Ali Mohammadi and Majid Shahriari -- had died under mysterious circumstances in the course of a year.
Some speculate that their involvement in SESAME "exposed the scientists to suspicion that they were complicit in sabotaging Iran's nuclear program," the FT explained. "In Tehran's political and diplomatic circles, the killing of Ali Mohammadi was seen as a possible act of revenge by the regime" (at the time of Ali Mohammadi's death, an Iranian researcher who was also involved in the project maintained that there were no direct meetings between his delegation and the Israelis). Iranian news outlets and officials blamed both deaths on Israel and the West.
Beyond particle physics, Israeli-Iranian contacts are very limited, but they're not nonexistent. Last May, Ynet reported that dozens of Israeli companies trade with Iran secretly through third parties in countries such as Dubai, Jordan, and Turkey.
Israeli exports to Iran focus on agricultural production means: Organic fertilizers, pierced irrigation pipes, hormones boosting milk productions, and seeds.
The Iranians sell the Israelis pistachio, cashew nuts, and mainly marble -- one of Iran's biggest industries.
The news today about cooperation on SESAME is heartening, of course. But we have a long way to go between particles and peace.
Johannes Simon/Getty Images
Yesterday, I had the chance to speak with Betty Bigombe about this week's explosion of interest in Joseph Kony. For over two decades, as State Minister for Northern Uganda and as an independent negotiator while taking a leave of absence from a job at the World Bank, Bigombe served as point person for talks with the LRA. She met numerous times with Kony throughout the '90s and 2000's as part of a mediation effort that set the stage for the 2006-2008 Juba talks, which collapsed after Kony refused to sign a peace agreement. Bigombe today serves as Uganda's state minister for water resources and spoke to FP by phone from France:
FP: Do you think it’s helpful to have this amount of international attention focused the Joseph Kony?
BB: It’s coming rather late, and I’m not quite able to understand the objective. Is it fundraising? Is it awareness creation? This kind of thing -- Twitter, YouTube, video production -- it’s not something new. It’s been there for quite some time. And Invisible Children could have used it at a time when we needed more attention.
I remember back when I really was trying to make all the effort to negotiate with Kony -- I could have been killed, I could have been held hostage, I could have been blown by landmines -- that’s when the call to pursue him would have been very, very meaningful. Right now, it’s coming a little late. Kony has been very, very much weakened. But also, I must say, we must keep it on the screen of everybody.
My problem with all this is that it’s being portrayed as “This is us; it’s all we Americans, we can do it; we, the world, can do it; we don’t need them; we don’t need the Ugandans; we don’t need the countries that are actually going through this.”
We [Africans ] are not going back to the days where decisions were made for us, and things done for us without our participating as partners.
FP: So having interacted with Joseph Kony before and having spoken with him, do you think he’s aware of the international attention he’s getting? Does he follow his international press? Does he know his global reputation?
BB: Oh yes, he does. He once told me, “One day you’ll just discover that I’m dead. I’m going to die like Hitler. Nobody will know the circumstances. Nobody will know how it happened or where my body is.” He definitely knows [how he's seen]. I discussed with him the option of going to The Hague as a better option than being pursued and followed by everybody, and he said, “I know my options. I know I’m going to be either dead, or prison.”
FP: How aware do you think his followers are of how he is viewed?
BB: Having interacted with him for all these years, this is really just a spell, this belief that he’s got supernatural power. You know, and I believe strongly that his followers totally believe in him, as somebody with vision, who knows what’s going to happen, that has predicted so many things that have all come to pass. Now, they’re broken up into very small groups. He moves, at the most, with around 5 to 10 people. In a vast area, sparsely populated. It’s like looking for a pin in a haystack.
He no longer has big gathering, and by the way, only a few senior commanders are allowed radio communication. They can listen to ordinary radios, tune in, but the majority are not allowed to have a radio or know what is going on. So majority do not know [how he is portrayed]. It’s up to him to make it known to them.
FP: So you think there’s still hope for negotiated settlement or a negotiated surrender, or is the only way this ends is him being killed?
BB: The Obama order that sent hundred American advisers – that has already had some impact, in the sense that LRA commanders have been losing wives and children. They know that the Americans are coming, so those who cannot run fast, they release them. Now some of them are Sudanese, Congolese, or from Central African Republic. Now, this is a positive development. All these years, we, I, have been asking Joseph Kony to release these children and women, and one time he told me, “you know, if we release them, it will confirm the accusation that we are abducting women and children, so we won’t.” Another time he told me “I need the women, especially the young ones. I am gifted. I have the power to cure many ailments, including HIV/ADIS.”
Now for the first time, voluntarily, they’re telling these women, “go”. Now, I talked to some less than two weeks ago that just returned to their country, and they say he no longer holds long meeting, he no longer carries satellite phones, neither does he carry the radio to communicate with a different groups. He believes that the Americans will monitor his movement and pick him up.
So with this kind of campaign, [Kony 2012], I do not know whether it makes any difference as far as taking him out is concerned. However, what is important is bringing this to the attention of policymakers. I hope that something innovative will come out of it.
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