Archives for May 2015

Norway fund could trigger wave of large fossil fuel divestments, say experts

The Guardian reports: Norway’s decision to dump all coal-focused investments from its $900bn sovereign wealth fund could unleash a wave of divestment from other large funds, according to investment experts. The fund, the largest in the world, is one of the top 10 investors in the global coal industry.

The move, agreed late on Wednesday, is one of the most significant victories to date for a fast-growing and UN-backed fossil-fuel divestment campaign. It will affect $9bn-$10bn (£5.8-£6.5bn) of coal-related investments, according to the Norwegian government.

“Investments in coal companies can have both a climate risk and a future financial risk,” said Svein Flaatten of the governing Conservative party, which made a cross-party agreement to implement the selling of coal investments.

A series of analyses have shown that the world’s existing reserves of fossil fuels are several times greater than can be burned while keeping the temperature below the 2C safety limit agreed by the world’s governments. Furthermore, authorities such as the World Bank and Bank of England have warned that fossil fuel reserves will be left worthless if the action needed to cut carbon emissions kicks in. [Continue reading…]


Resilient societies in the Middle East are guided by strong women

Jomana Qaddour writes: This decade has revealed the scores of women leading protests in Egypt, insisting on constitutional freedoms in Tunisia, and supporting Syrian families when men have joined armed groups. It has become an unspoken rule in the international aid and policy community that resilient societies in the Middle East are guided by strong women. The reality is that even if the international community has only just taken notice of Middle Eastern women and their capabilities, it does not mean those women have been absent. On the contrary, women in the Middle East have always been dynamic actors in their communities; and since the Arab Spring women have facilitated significant societal change that has forever altered the region.

My grandmother is an illiterate, petite, 70-year old Syrian woman living on the outskirts of Damascus, yet she is the heart of her family — the lifeline — and what has kept the family together in the midst of a war that has uprooted and displaced over 11 million Syrians. She, like many Syrian women, has planted a garden big enough to feed her extended family, ensuring that they are not dependent on international aid groups to survive. She rushed to seize my uncle from a checkpoint in Damascus — arguing with regime soldiers — moments before the Syrian army shipped him off to Aleppo to fight against the rebels. My maternal aunt is the sole breadwinner in her immediate family, working as an accountant and traveling almost four hours a day to and from work because her family’s survival depends on her. [Continue reading…]

Khaled Hosseini writes: I recently returned from Jordan with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, meeting Syrian refugees and hearing about their experiences. Each encounter reminded me anew of the role of stories, why sometimes they can be more useful than numbers, why we need the tale of a Tom Joad to understand a Great Depression, why Rudyard Kipling said: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

Let me introduce you to Khalida, a bespectacled 70-year-old woman with jutting cheekbones and a schoolgirl’s laugh. Before the war, she lived a Syrian mother’s dream, surrounded, loved and supported by her nine grown children. But then war broke out, and Khalida learnt that armed groups were forcing young men to fight for them by threatening to assault and abuse their mothers. Khalida made a painful, and to me, stunning choice. She decided to deny the militants this leverage.

“I didn’t want to be the reason my sons had to fight,” she says, “so I left everything I had.”

She left her children, her home, her city. Alone and illiterate, Khalida tore herself from Syria and now lives on the outskirts of Amman, renting a nearly empty one-room apartment at the bottom of a steep hill.

In this new, tabula rasa existence, she is forced to fend for herself entirely. Her greatest expense is rent, and she pays for it with help from a kind Jordanian woman – though soon Khalida will be receiving help through UNHCR’s cash assistance programme, an initiative targeting the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.

Every day, Khalida climbs steep, battered steps uphill to the main road. She travels to a community centre in Madaba, a 40km trip taking over an hour, requiring her to hitch two car rides and board two buses, where she takes literacy classes in a room full of other Syrian women and young girls.

Khalida is the oldest and most enthusiastic student in the class, because for her, literacy is now an indispensable survival skill. She needs to read street signs, bus destinations, her medication labels. Despite a marked hand tremor, she has diligently filled entire notebooks.

Khalida misses Syria. She misses her home, and most terribly, her children. But she would rather live alone, with nothing, in a foreign country, than go back to Syria and put her sons at risk. [Continue reading…]


Flight attendant claimed can of Coke could be used as a weapon by Muslim woman

Al Arabiya reports: A Muslim traveler aboard a United Airlines flight was denied an unopened can of diet coke and was told “it’s so you don’t use it as a weapon,” just after handing an unopened can to another passenger.

Tahera Ahmad, 31, director of interfaith engagement and associate chaplain at Northwestern University was travelling Friday from Chicago to Washington when the incident occurred aboard the flight, according to her Facebook post.

Ahmad, who wears an Islamic headscarf or hijab was heading to Washington for a conference on promoting dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian youth.

Ahmad had requested an unopened can of diet coke as a hygienic precaution to which the flight attendant reported responded to by saying “we are unauthorized to give unopened cans to people because they may use it as a weapon on the plane.” [Continue reading…]


What if no one wins the war in Syria?

Aron Lund writes: Regardless of who is or is not losing the war in Syria, it is safe to say that no one seems to stand any chance of winning it. It is a lazy pattern of thought, but a strong one: wars are always discussed in terms of winners and losers, first shots and capitulations. But what this perspective misses is that many conflicts have no discernible end at all. They simply drag on until readers yawn and reporters leave, and go on to mutate into new forms, settling into spheres of influence and establishing stateless violence as the new normal.

The Syrian war may be one of these conflicts. With half of the population driven from their homes, the economy in irreparable ruin, multisided foreign intervention, and sectarianism at a fever pitch, neither President Bashar al-Assad nor any constellation of rebel groups seems able to put a country called Syria back together again.

At this point, it is almost impossible to envision a realistic and stable (never mind democratic) end state dominated by one of the three major contenders for power in Syria. [Continue reading…]


How Colombia plans to turn 32,000 ex-jungle-dwelling guerrillas into useful members of society

Jack Aldwinckle reports: A bloody civil war has gripped Colombia for over fifty years. The conflict has pitched left-wing guerrilla groups such as the FARC, right-wing paramilitary groups, and government security forces against one another. Over 220,000 people have been killed and 6.7 million have been officially recognised as victims—most of them civilians. In 2003 president Álvaro Uribe entered negotiations with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s largest paramilitary group, which led to its disbanding. Thirty-six thousand paramilitaries demobilised in the following three years. In 2012 Uribe’s successor, Juan Manuel Santos, began peace negotiations with the FARC, which are continuing in Havana.

Since the reintegration programme started in 2003 57,082 combatants have demobilized (pdf), of whom 47,944 (84%) decided to take part in the reintegration process. Of those, 8,916 people have now graduated from the program, which can take up to six-and-a-half years to complete. 27,451 fighters are currently part of the scheme — attending classes and meetings in the 120 municipalities where the ACR has a presence.

Attention is now focused on Havana, where the Colombian government is locked in fragile peace negotiations with the FARC. An agreement would bring a formal end to the country’s civil war and would vindicate president Santos, who has staked his reputation on the peace process. It would also involve demobilizing up to 32,000 former guerrillas. That presents the ACR with arguably the biggest challenge it has faced. [Continue reading…]


Thanassis Cambanis on Egypt’s unfinished revolution

Cicero Magazine: In your new book, Once Upon a Revolution, you tell a well-known story from a previously unexplored perspective—that of the revolutionaries themselves, before, during, and after Tahrir Square. Why did you choose that approach?

Thanassis Cambanis: I wanted to follow the progress of the idealistic project at the heart of the January 25 Revolution: the quest to develop new politics, new ideas, and new, more accountable forms of power. There was a comparatively small group of people who were determined from the start of the uprising to build an enduring political project. I sought out and followed members of this core group as they embarked on what was always a quixotic experiment. Against them were arrayed all the status quo powers—the state, the bureaucracy, the military, the police, the old regime cronies—as well as other regressive but organized forces, like the Muslim Brotherhood. Their story was inherently personal: the unfolding history of an idea as it played out in the struggles of individuals. I believe this story contains much of the potential for transformative change, a change sadly still unrealized in Egypt. We have witnessed remarkable transformations at the individual level, however, and I expect that many of these activists and thinkers will play a role in Egyptian life and politics for decades to come.

What missed opportunities were there to put Egypt on a better path in the first year after Tahrir Square?

Firstly, it’s important to emphasize that revanchist old regime forces defeated the uprising. A concerted campaign to restore military-authoritarian role won out. Even had the revolutionaries made fewer mistakes, or smarter strategic moves, they might well have been foiled by the machinery assembled by Egypt’s new dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—who built his comeback on the scaffolding of military intelligence. [Continue reading…]


U.S. citizen Mohamed Soltan freed from Egyptian prison

The Washington Post reports: Tears, tight hugs and cries of “Welcome home” greeted a frail American citizen on his sudden return to the United States on Saturday night after nearly two years spent in an Egyptian jail cell.

It was a surreal homecoming for Mohamed Soltan, 27, a citizen journalist and activist who survived a year-long hunger strike and a life sentence, only to be whisked from his cell and later onto a plane bound for Washington, the product of months of advocacy by his family and quiet, frantic negotiations between the U.S. government and Egypt, his family said.

Soltan, an Ohio State University graduate who was once chubby and energetic, entered the arrivals area of Dulles International Airport on Saturday night in a wheelchair, his frail frame quickly mobbed by family and cheering friends.

He clutched his 1-year-old nephew for the first time and the tears came. Then a fierce embrace from his sisters, and then came the sobs.

In a surprise move, Egyptian authorities on Saturday had quietly shuttled him onto an airplane and sent him home to be with his family in Virginia.

In April, a Cairo court sentenced Soltan to life in prison for his support of the protests that followed the group’s overthrow, including financing a weeks-long sit-in and “spreading false news” in his role as unofficial spokesman of the protest.

It was unclear what ultimately decided Soltan’s release. There was no court ruling to reverse his April sentence to life in prison and no formal announcement of clemency from Egypt’s president. [Continue reading…]


ISIS destroys infamous Syria prison as regime bombing kills scores

AFP reports: Islamic State group jihadists demolished a notorious government prison in the historic Syrian city of Palmyra on Saturday, as barrel bombs dropped by regime helicopters killed more than 70 civilians in Aleppo.

In neighbouring Iraq, government forces retook an area west of the city of Ramadi, which IS overran earlier in May.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said IS planted explosives that “largely destroyed” the Palmyra jail, which was for decades a symbol of abuses meted out on regime opponents.

Opponents of President Bashar al-Assad welcomed on social media the destruction of the long-feared prison at Palmyra, which IS seized 10 days ago after government forces pulled out.

In rebel-held areas of Aleppo province including the city itself, “at least 71 civilians were killed, and dozens wounded when regime helicopters dropped barrel bombs,” the Observatory said. [Continue reading…]


ISIS skilled at gathering intelligence, adjusting tactics

VOA reports: While U.S. and coalition partners pluck intelligence on Islamic State extremists from the militants’ communications or movements and then bomb them from the air, the militant group is gathering its own intelligence from city streets and preparing the ground for its next battlefield moves.

The result, according to experts, is that Washington is consistently lagging behind in its effort to destroy the Islamic State group.

“We are about 60 to 90 days behind ISIS,” former intelligence officer and military adviser Michael Pregent told VOA, referring to the Islamic State by one of its acronyms.

Last year when Washington finally paid attention to Mosul, Pregent said, the extremists were already planning their next move. And this pattern has repeated itself as IS has moved across Iraq: “We are now looking at Ramadi, and ISIS is looking ahead at pushing into Baghdad,” he said. [Continue reading…]


Pro-Iran militias take upper hand after U.S.-backed forces crumble in Anbar

The Washington Post reports: Iraqi forces have seized from Islamic State militants a string of hamlets and villages in the dust-choked desert southeast of Ramadi in recent days, closing in on the key city for a counteroffensive.

But the yellow-and-green flags that line the sides of the newly secured roads and flutter from rooftops leave no doubt as to who is leading the fighting here: Kitaeb Hezbollah, a Shiite militia designated a terrorist organization by the United States.

Iraq’s two main allies — Iran and the United States — have vied for influence over Iraq’s battle to retake ground from Islamic State militants in the past year. While Iranian-linked Shiite militias have spearheaded the fight elsewhere, the U.S.-backed Iraqi army and counterterrorism units had been on the front lines in Anbar province, supported by an eight-month American-led air campaign.

But with the fall of Ramadi, the province’s capital, this month, paramilitary forces close to Iran are now taking the upper hand. They include groups such as Kitaeb Hezbollah, responsible for thousands of attacks on U.S. soldiers who fought in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

Until recently, the Iraqi government had held back from ordering Iraq’s so-called popular mobilization units, a mix of Shiite militias and volunteers that formed last summer, to Anbar. Authorities were concerned that sending them to battle in a Sunni majority province could provoke sectarian conflicts. But Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi dispatched them when regular forces crumbled in Ramadi and local politicians asked for the units’ help.

Now Shiite militias including the Badr Organization are pressing toward the city from the northeast, in an operation its commanders claim to be planning and leading. Meanwhile, a push to flank Ramadi from the southeast is dominated by Kitaeb Hezbollah. [Continue reading…]


Rand Paul vows to force expiration of Patriot Act

The Washington Post reports: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) vowed that he would force the Patriot Act to expire Sunday when the Senate reconvenes after not taking action last week to extend or replace a controversial surveillance program.

“Tomorrow, I will force the expiration of the NSA illegal spy program,” the Republican presidential candidate said in a statement, which was first reported by Politico.

The Senate will convene a rare Sunday session after it rejected a compromise bill on bulk surveillance by the National Security Agency last week. The bill would prohibit the government from engaging in the mass collection of phone records, but would leave those records in the hands of private telephone companies, which would keep them for 18 months. The Sunday session will take place hours before the Patriot Act expires.

Paul said Saturday that he would disrupt efforts to extend the Patriot Act or green light the compromise bill, known as the USA Freedom Act.

“I am ready and willing to start the debate on how we fight terrorism without giving up our liberty,” Paul said in the statement. “Sometimes when the problem is big enough, you just have to start over.”

Paul plans to prevent Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) from expediting debate on the USA Freedom Act. Even if a vast majority of senators agree to extend some version of the Patriot Act, Senate rules would allow Paul to force about five days of debate over the issue, which would lead to a temporary halt to some techniques used by the nation’s spy agencies. [Continue reading…]


Burma’s ugly Buddhists

The Daily Beast reports: Anti-Muslim protestors supported by Buddhist monks gathered in Burma’s main city of Rangoon this week to denounce the United Nations for “bullying” their country into accepting desperate migrants who have been stranded at sea in abandoned boats.

People waving multi-colored Buddhist flags led a column of several hundred marchers as they chanted slogans against the Rohingya minority who, with their distinct language and darker skin, are considered outsiders and denied citizenship in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

It was the latest in a series of Buddhist hate rallies in the country, a phenomenon that has become common here but has yet to penetrate the psyches of many westerners who associate saffron-robed monks with peace and compassion.

“Yes, we have compassion for all people in our Buddhism, but we have to protect ourselves against our enemies,” said Thuta Nanda, a monk, as people gathered with placards and t-shirts bearing slogans urging the international community to “Stop blaming Myanmar” for the boat crisis.

“In Buddhism, we want to help others,” added protester Htet Htet Soe Oo, “but Muslims are different, their religion teaches that they should kill us.”

If any group of people could benefit from the compassion that many associate with the teachings of the Buddha, it is Burma’s Rohingya Muslims. The group of roughly one million is almost completely friendless, widely despised inside predominantly Buddhist Burma and unwanted by neighboring countries. [Continue reading…]


U.S. tried Stuxnet-style campaign against North Korea but failed

Reuters reports: The United States tried to deploy a version of the Stuxnet computer virus to attack North Korea’s nuclear weapons program five years ago but ultimately failed, according to people familiar with the covert campaign.

The operation began in tandem with the now-famous Stuxnet attack that sabotaged Iran’s nuclear program in 2009 and 2010 by destroying a thousand or more centrifuges that were enriching uranium. Reuters and others have reported that the Iran attack was a joint effort by U.S. and Israeli forces.

According to one U.S. intelligence source, Stuxnet’s developers produced a related virus that would be activated when it encountered Korean-language settings on an infected machine.

But U.S. agents could not access the core machines that ran Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, said another source, a former high-ranking intelligence official who was briefed on the program. [Continue reading…]


Music: Ulf Wakenius — ‘Bretagne’


The future of power: Going beyond coal

Michael Grunwald reports: The war on coal is not just political rhetoric, or a paranoid fantasy concocted by rapacious polluters. It’s real and it’s relentless. Over the past five years, it has killed a coal-fired power plant every 10 days. It has quietly transformed the U.S. electric grid and the global climate debate.

The industry and its supporters use “war on coal” as shorthand for a ferocious assault by a hostile White House, but the real war on coal is not primarily an Obama war, or even a Washington war. It’s a guerrilla war. The front lines are not at the Environmental Protection Agency or the Supreme Court. If you want to see how the fossil fuel that once powered most of the country is being battered by enemy forces, you have to watch state and local hearings where utility commissions and other obscure governing bodies debate individual coal plants. You probably won’t find much drama. You’ll definitely find lawyers from the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, the boots on the ground in the war on coal.

Beyond Coal is the most extensive, expensive and effective campaign in the Club’s 123-year history, and maybe the history of the environmental movement. It’s gone largely unnoticed amid the furor over the Keystone pipeline and President Barack Obama’s efforts to regulate carbon, but it’s helped retire more than one third of America’s coal plants since its launch in 2010, one dull hearing at a time. With a vast war chest donated by Michael Bloomberg, unlikely allies from the business world, and a strategy that relies more on economics than ecology, its team of nearly 200 litigators and organizers has won battles in the Midwestern and Appalachian coal belts, in the reddest of red states, in almost every state that burns coal.

“They’re sophisticated, they’re very active, and they’re better funded than we are,” says Mike Duncan, a former Republican National Committee chairman who now heads the industry-backed American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. “I don’t like what they’re doing; we’re losing a lot of coal in this country. But they do show up.”

Coal still helps keep our lights on, generating nearly 40 percent of U.S. power. But it generated more than 50 percent just over a decade ago, and the big question now is how rapidly its decline will continue. Almost every watt of new generating capacity is coming from natural gas, wind or solar; the coal industry now employs fewer workers than the solar industry, which barely existed in 2010. Utilities no longer even bother to propose new coal plants to replace the old ones they retire. Coal industry stocks are tanking, and analysts are predicting a new wave of coal bankruptcies.

This is a big deal, because coal is America’s top source of greenhouse gases, and coal retirements are the main reason U.S. carbon emissions have declined 10 percent in a decade. [Continue reading…]


Spot the difference: Being or not being subject to mass surveillance

On Sunday night, at the stroke of midnight, will a shroud of fear be lifted from freedom-loving Americans?

Let’s assume that a last minute deal isn’t reached in Congress and the surveillance powers of the Patriot Act are indeed allowed to expire.

This might not amount to the kind of statutory protection of privacy that critics of the NSA have hoped for, and yet physically pulling the plug on the actual mechanisms of mass surveillance will highlight the difference between living in a world where all our information gets sucked into data warehouses and a world in which it remains a tad more secure under a blanket in the Cloud — or wherever else we’ve chosen to keep it hidden.

Of course, a lot of people won’t believe the plug got pulled — certainly not at a moment when they believe the Federal government is about to impose martial law in Texas — and so the reported suspension of surveillance will more likely reinforce their paranoia.

But for those who believe that a measure of freedom lost has been reclaimed — at least for now — how will that freedom be enjoyed?

That’s where I draw a blank.

I’ve seen the polls in which some people say that NSA surveillance has changed how they use email and made them inclined to censor themselves and yet I’ve always been baffled by these reactions.

Most NSA critics who have studied the issue are acutely aware that mass surveillance is virtually useless for gathering information about terrorism, so how exactly might it accumulate useful information about you or me?

From Sunday to Monday, we will cross over from a world in which we are watched but unseen, into a world in which we will remain unseen. If that seems like a profound transition, I’d say your fixation on personal freedom has become a distraction from much more serious issues that truly shape our world.

There are plenty of good reasons to be opposed to mass surveillance — including the principle that no democratic government should claim the right to spy on its own citizens. But we have less reason to be concerned about intrusions on our privacy than that over-funded intelligence agencies have exploited public fear and manipulated Congress in order to create programs of negligible value.

If mass surveillance is about to quietly die, maybe the lesson that can be drawn is that the threat it supposedly posed and the need it supposedly met, were both wildly overstated.

The NSA’s appetite to gather information has always exceeded its capacity to use it, but the same cannot be said for Google or Facebook. The NSA never was and never could become more than a flea on the back of a digital infrastructure that primarily serves Silicon Valley.

Most of the information that is being gathered about each and every one of us is not being swept up in secret but dished out freely down what we have come to regard as lifelines connecting us to the world.

Rather than being subject to unwanted surveillance, we are far more subject to networks of dependence which affect what we want, what we expect, and how we live.

Big Brother is less inclined to breath down our neck than hold our hand. And if the grip feels too tight it’s because we’re afraid of letting go.


Reality checks in debate over surveillance laws

Charlie Savage reports: As the Senate moves closer to a Sunday night showdown over whether it will let Patriot Act surveillance powers expire on Monday, supporters and critics of how the government has used those authorities have been using increasingly alarming language.

But there is little evidence in the history of the expiring laws — including the one that the government uses to justify the once-secret National Security Agency program that vacuums up Americans’ phone records in bulk — to support the arguments that either side is making.

Republican senators who want to keep the program are warning that any lapse in “this critical tool would lead to attacks on the United States,” as Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, recently put it. Yet throughout the program’s existence, it has never thwarted a terrorist attack, studies and testimony show.

At the same time, proponents of ending the program say it poses risks to Americans’ private lives, by permitting the government to know who has been calling psychiatrists or political groups, for example. But despite the discovery of technical violations of the rules several years ago, no evidence has emerged that the program has been misused for political or personal gain. As a result, the privacy-minded critics have had to couch their warnings in hypothetical terms. [Continue reading…]


Inside NSA, officials privately criticize ‘collect it all’ surveillance

Peter Maass writes: As members of Congress struggle to agree on which surveillance programs to re-authorize before the Patriot Act expires, they might consider the unusual advice of an intelligence analyst at the National Security Agency who warned about the danger of collecting too much data. Imagine, the analyst wrote in a leaked document, that you are standing in a shopping aisle trying to decide between jam, jelly or fruit spread, which size, sugar-free or not, generic or Smucker’s. It can be paralyzing.

“We in the agency are at risk of a similar, collective paralysis in the face of a dizzying array of choices every single day,” the analyst wrote in 2011. “’Analysis paralysis’ isn’t only a cute rhyme. It’s the term for what happens when you spend so much time analyzing a situation that you ultimately stymie any outcome …. It’s what happens in SIGINT [signals intelligence] when we have access to endless possibilities, but we struggle to prioritize, narrow, and exploit the best ones.”

The document is one of about a dozen in which NSA intelligence experts express concerns usually heard from the agency’s critics: that the U.S. government’s “collect it all” strategy can undermine the effort to fight terrorism. The documents, provided to The Intercept by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, appear to contradict years of statements from senior officials who have claimed that pervasive surveillance of global communications helps the government identify terrorists before they strike or quickly find them after an attack.

The Patriot Act, portions of which expire on Sunday, has been used since 2001 to conduct a number of dragnet surveillance programs, including the bulk collection of phone metadata from American companies. But the documents suggest that analysts at the NSA have drowned in data since 9/11, making it more difficult for them to find the real threats. The titles of the documents capture their overall message: “Data Is Not Intelligence,” “The Fallacies Behind the Scenes,” “Cognitive Overflow?” “Summit Fever” and “In Praise of Not Knowing.” Other titles include “Dealing With a ‘Tsunami’ of Intercept” and “Overcome by Overload?” [Continue reading…]