venerdì, luglio 09, 2004

The Wall

A highly important issue which will come to a head today surrounds the ruling by the International Court of Justice regarding the "Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory". This is the infamous "West Bank Wall" that Israel has claimed it needs in order to protect itself from marauding, homeless Palestinians.

The issue is of such world interest that the World Court has taken the unprecedented step of actually transmitting the reading of the judgement live on the internet for everyone to see the actual process of law. Already, the judgement is seemingly well known though. The Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, claims that it has documents in its possession detailing the ruling and quotes from these documents as "The construction of such a wall accordingly constitutes breaches by Israel of its various obligations under the applicable international humanitarian law and human rights instruments". It continues by claiming that 14 out of the 15 international judges supported the judgement, with only one dissenting voice, Professor Thomas Buergenthal, a US citizen that was born in Lubochna, Slovenia. His own background would explain his negative vote, having survived the Second World War, despite his time spent in the Polish Ghetto of Kielce as well as his subsequent incarceration whist still a child in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen.

The only question surrounding his decision is more to do with why he was on the panel of judges anyway. Surely he, more than most, had a very clear involvement with Israel and could not have acted as an independant judge of this matter?

Already Israel has said it will not accept the ruling of the World Court, leaving for a very interesting situation for the rest of the world to deal with. On past history, there can be little doubt that the USA will support the Israeli position - they can hardly support any other position given their own involvement with the Arab world of late.

giovedì, luglio 08, 2004

The Eyes Have it.

At the risk of turning this into a Berlusconi blog (heaven forfend!) I am just adding to the saga of the growing portfolio of jobs that Berlusconi is trying to take upon himself. You read a couple of days ago that he has appointed himself Minister of Finance, with the 'resignation' of Giulio Tremonti over the weekend. The most likely cause being because of pressure put upon Berlusconi by his compatriots, Fini, Follini and whoever it is that is using the Bossi vote whilst he is in a Swiss clinic, recovering (?) from his recent stroke. The 'boys' took exception to Berlusconi still saying that he was going to initiate tax cuts for the Italian tax-payer, including dropping the highest rate from 45% to 33% - which would be very handy if you just happen to be Italy's richest man, eh? There was also a move against the cutting of economic help to southern Italy, where a lot of the existing political power hangs on the availability of money from the north in order to fund whatever it is that needs funding in the south. Was that suitably imprecise for you? Yes? Good.

Well, the upshot was Marco Follini leaving the coalition government - together with his votes - until Berlusconi toes the line determined by these smaller party members of the coalition. Fini is also there with the threat - but has, so far, not actually abandoned Berlusconi to the winds of change and the forces of power politics.

But, for Berlusconi, things keep going from bad to worse. The latest twist in his tale of political chicanery is that his eldest children, Piersilvio and Marina, repectively Deputy Chairpersons of Mediaset and Fininvest, are now under investigation for money-laundering and handling stolen goods. Oh dear! Not a great turn of events for their father, who is still under investigation himself for embezzlement, false bookkeeping and tax fraud by the same Milanese Investigating Magistrates (a little like a Procurator Fiscal in Scotland).

The inquiry focuses on the purchase by Berlusconi's TV empire, Fininvest and Mediaset, of the screening rights to US films back in 1994 and 1995. Prosecutors believe the deals were channelled offshore to inflate the cost to Mediaset and cut its tax bill. The operation is alleged to have boosted the group's costs by almost £100m.

All that on the back of Standard & Poor's decision to downgrading Italy's credit rating to AA- from AA. It is the first downgrade of a Group of 7 country since S&P reduced Japan's credit rating two years ago, and it means that Italy will have to make increased interest payments to persuade investors to buy, or continue to hold its bonds. Not a good thing for Italy at all.

The reaction from Forza Italia, the political party founded by Berlusconi, was predictable - although classic in its own way. Upon being told of the S&P downgrading of Italy, a spokesperson simply said that S&P were not a trusted source for financial information - "weren't they the people that rated Parmalat very highly?"

Oh well - back to Berlusconi again. He is now backtracking as fast as possible, saying that his self-appointed position as head of the powerful Ministry of Finance and Economy would only now be for a "few days", instead of the open ended "several months" announced originally.

Berlusconi, recalling how he had personally replaced the departed Tremonti at a Brussels session of European Union economic and finance ministers earlier this week, said that the EU ministers had listened to his words as "prime minister and as interim economy minister for a few days". He added nothing more to the statement.

No, it's not been a good week for Berlusconi at all, has it. Perhaps I should leave the last word to Silvio himself, when concluding a speech at the annual State Accountancy Conference, he hurridly left saying "Sorry for having to dash off, but even though someone may not like it I am still the Prime Minister!"

mercoledì, luglio 07, 2004

Golden Boy?

It seems that Mario Monti, Europe's competition commissioner, the man tipped for the role of Finance Minister in Berlusconi's ailing government, has made his decision now - and it's not good for Berlusconi. Well, it's not good for Berlusconi if you believe the version of events from Mario Monti, that is. His version is that he turned down the offer in order that he could continue working in Brussels. However, the situation presented by Berlusconi's aides is that il presidente del consiglio decided not to offer the job to Mr Monti. Instead, il presidente del consiglio, Silvio Berlusconi chose to act as interim finance minister for an undetermined period.

Not that that situation will pass without comment though. Berlusconi has barely managed to keep his hands off every political lever available to him, causing many of his 'colleagues' to feel that he is just too pervasive in the affairs of state these days.

This feeling has been voiced by Italy's Union of Christian Democrats leader, Marco Follini, who said it will quit il presidente del consiglio, Silvio Berlusconi's coalition government unless the premier "shakes up" his cabinet, Follini continued, saying "There is lack of innovation and too much concentration of power". It is interesting to note that the UDC, of which Follini is head, was very much against the spending cuts of around €7.5 billion proposed by Berlusconi, saying some of them will hurt southern Italy, where unemployment is about 18 percent, more than four times the rate in the north.

Follini has also criticized Berlusconi's plan to cuts taxes for all Italians, including lowering the top tax rate to 33 percent from 45 percent. Follini says the highest earners should be excluded from the cuts.

So, the story continues with Berlusconi looking more and more like a 'Billy No-Mates' with all of his 'friends' putting as much distance as possible between him and themselves. What he does next will be critical for his political future now, despite the remarkably strong support he has enjoyed from parts of southern Italy in the past as well as the public support that has been his because of his skillful media manipulation which has resulted in Italy being downgraded in a global survey of press and TV freedoms, to the same "partly free" class as Albania, Mongolia and Burkina Faso. Oh, to be a media mogul and a world ruler - why do I find myself suddenly humming the tune to "Goldfinger" now?

martedì, luglio 06, 2004

A French Tale.

It's strange how you come across things sometimes, isn't it. I was reading EUbusiness, looking at the latest reports on the financial situation with regards to the recent Italian plea for leniency (see item below) and came across this interesting litle item about France declaring that it could be the protector of Europe, seeing as it has a nuclear capability. Interesting, I thought. Especially so as the offer of protection was made by the French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie in an interview Monday with the German newspaper, Berliner Zeitung. She then went on to say that France has a "mobile, flexible and highly-motivated military" and that it was the "second or third best in the world."

She also added that "Today in Europe there are only three countries who spend more than 2.0 percent of GDP on defence. They are France, Britain and Greece. The others are not doing enough". So, the suggestion to Germany was that they should, together with the majority of other EU Member States, increase spending on arms and armaments - which, strangely enough, France actually manufactures in abundance.

Surely this couldn't be just simply a ploy to increase the sale of French arms - could it?

In fact, arms sales throughout the world are still doing very well - with sales barely touched by world-wide concerns regarding terrorism issues. Obviously (!) the USA is at the top of the heap when it comes to sales of armaments, with around 45% of the total world market in arms sales - 13.3 BILLION dollars! Russia is still doing well with sales of 5.7 Billion dollars, putting it into second place in the league table of arms sellers, followed by the Ukraine with a mere 1.6 billion dollars. Interesting to see the Ukraine getting in to 3rd place as that has traditionally being France's league position - so, obviously they have to do something to drum up a little more business again.

One of the new initiatives has been to tackle the growing market for arms in China. In January of this year, French President Jacques Chirac held a joint conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao to celebrate the "Year of China" in Paris. What was the main thrust of that meeting? It was to call for the lifting of the embargo that the EU has had in place against China with respect of arms sales since 1989. This would have to also displace the 1998 EU Code of Conduct baring the sale of equipment that could be used in regional conflicts or domestic repression, which would still be enforceable on arms sales to China, despite any possible lifting of the 1989 embargo. Despite this, France, together with Germany, has pushed for a full review of the embargo, paving the way to recommence arms sales to China again.

France is, of course, no stranger to the selling of arms to countries with little or no record of the responsible use of such weapons. Back in 1975 France won a major contract for the supply of arms to Iraq, with payment being in part, the supply of oil and petroleum products.

Now that the old 'Soviet Bloc' has broken up, of course, there is a substantial influx of new arms dealers competing in the marketplace. The fact that the Ukraine is now holding 3rd place in the world chart of arms manufacturers is a result of this breaking up of the old Sovietski. There are other countries bucking for a share of the lucrative arms market though - not all with the moral standards of the established dealers - whatever that standard may be.

But, morals aren't something to talk about in the same breath as any of the arms dealers, are they. Any of them. The UN Register of Conventional Arms makes for interesting reading. There is little else that can be said - only thought and felt.

A Man for all Ministries

I was amazed to hear that Austrian Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser said after Monday's meeting of EuroZone Finance Ministers: "Berlusconi is ambitious ............................. we trust him."

With all the too-ing and fro-ing of the last week, where Italian Minister of the Economy, Giulio Tremonti, left the multi-party Italian Government - or did it leave him, I wonder - and il Presidente del Consiglio, Silvio Berlusconi, bravely stepping into the breach and taking on the job himself - as well as being il Presidente del Consiglio of course - it has been interesting here in sunny Italy as well.

There is much speculation on exactly how it was that Giulio Tremonti came to resign his post as Minister of Economy though. There is certainly a substantial school of thought which considers he was pushed out into the cold by the actions of Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Alliance, Gianfranco Fini. Although, that of course is purely speculation - of course.

Naturally, we all realise that Silvio cannot stay on as Finance Minister - as well as Prime Minister - and head of Fininvest, etc. and still perform any of these jobs without actually killing himself in the process. So, Mario Monti, current EU Competition Commissioner, is tipped for the job - soon.

Which brings us back to the comment by Austrian Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser about Berlusconi.

It was actually in response to Berlusconi attending the meeting of Finance Ministers in order to state the case for Italy and convince the EU that Italy were, indeed, going to achieve the EU requirement of bringing the Italian budget deficit to withing 3% of the Gross Domestic Product - currently standing at 3.2%.

Perhaps the fact that both France and Germany have also exceeded the EU requirement, without incurring any penalty so far other than the wrath of the other Member States that actually did achieve the targets, has helped Italy here though. It would be exceedingly difficult to justify fining Italy for breaking the same targets that France and Germany have already done.

I was interested to see that the departure of Tremonti has brought to a halt the tax cuts that Berlusconi had been promising though. Do I smell a scapegoat being prepared for slaughter there?

lunedì, luglio 05, 2004

Diego Garcia.

30 years on..

We like to think of ourselves as humane, caring, responsible and as a beacon of compassion that all those strange people from other parts of the world should be following as an example for their own lives.

So, how do we explain away what has happened and continues to happen on Diego Garcia, a small island in the Indian Ocean, part of the Chagos Archepelago, that used to be part of the Seychelles until it's own independance from Britain back in 1976.

OK, so what is the problem, you ask? Diego Garcia has been part of the old "British Empire" ever since the British beat the French for title to it in the 19th century - after the French had themselves taken it from the original colonisers of the island, the Portuguese, who 'found' it back in the early 16th century. It has had a simple existence since that time, with pretty much the only work and revenue for the island's population coming from the growing and harvesting of coconuts - some 4 million of them every year. A very simple life which kept 1500 people alive and happy with life on their island paradise.

Until the 23rd January 1971, when the first US forces arrived on the island, looking for a suitable location from which to create a major US military base in order to combat the danger of communism presented by China and Russia. Life on the islands was about to take a devastating turn for the worse.

The US government liked the island so much that they entered into negotiations with the British government, discussing and agreeing on terms for the lease of the Island to the US for an extended period up to the year 2016 - one of the conditions imposed by the US military was that the indigenous population be removed so as to prevent any "complications" for them. Complications? The USA required that the entire population of the Island be removed so they could carry out their activities in peace (sic) and without anyone there to see or witness what they were doing?

The British government, obviously, couldn't see anything wrong with that idea - but didn't see why they should actually tell anyone about it. Least of all the inhabitants themselves. A problem, you might think? Well, no actually. A clever civil servant had a bright idea that he thought would both save a lot of money and some unwanted public criticism. When Islanders left the island to see a doctor - or to go shopping - or to sell coconuts, they were prevented returning home again with the simple ploy of telling them that there were no boats going back there - ever. Simple, eh? Get them to leave and then simply shut the door behind them. Well, it certainly got them out and the US military moved in swiftly with the "joint" base. I say "joint" as there are about three thousand US troops stationed there, but only 50 British ones. Caretakers, I suppose - or toilet cleaners for the US troops latrines, perhaps?

The Islanders were bitterly unhappy with having been tricked out of their homes - homes that they and their families had occupied for several generations. They have stayed mainly in Mauritius - certainly not "settled" there. They only want to go home again. With that aim - and with the support of much of the international community (except, of course, Britain and the US) they petitioned the High Court in London for the right to return home again. The High Court found in their favour and criticised the diplomats' behaviour as beyond "any proper limits" and ruled that the islanders had a right of return. The Foreign Office, after six hours of agonising, opted against appeal, and announced a study on the feasibility of resettlement.

The islanders were ecstatic at the thought that, after some 30 years of living in slums in Mauritius, they were about to be allowed home again. This feeling of hope ended abruptly this June 10, when Bill Rammell, as the colonial potentate, summarily changed the law to overturn the high court ruling and decreed that the islanders had no right of abode now or in the future.

But why has this over-inflated politician stopped the application of the British High Court judgement in such a careless and cavalier fashion? He cited several reasons, all of them implausible. One of the most ridiculous was the effect on the delicate marine and terrestrial life of the return of the islanders. Possibly - but more so than the US military contingent of 3200 troops together with the activities of B-52 and Stealth bombers?

Another reason given was cost. True, it would be expensive to resettle the islanders, but the cost would be insignificant compared with the profit from the US deal. The Foreign Office said last week that Britain received nothing for the base. In reality, the US had made secret payments, including a $14m reduction in the cost of the Polaris nuclear missile system.

There is so much more that can be said about the awful situation there - a situation affecting the lives of an entire population of people. But, to say anything would be to criticise the US military and the pandering, obsequious behaviour of the British government.