Truthout Stories http://www.truth-out.org Thu, 02 Oct 2014 11:15:04 -0400 en-gb We Can't Go On Eating Like This http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/26580-we-cant-go-on-eating-like-this http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/26580-we-cant-go-on-eating-like-this

Once the human race stopped throwing spears and gathering berries, our bodies suffered. Planting seeds and harvesting produce made leisure possible, but it also meant we grew shorter, fatter, sicker, and considerably more overworked.

An alien visiting from another planet during that critical transition period to a more settled existence might have thought that we were being domesticated by our livestock and not the other way around.

Sure, hunting and gathering was hard, what with hunger and saber-toothed tigers breathing down our necks. And agriculture allowed for the development of everything we associate with modernity: politics, economics, MTV.

But now that there are more than 7 billion of us on this planet, going up to nearly 10 billion by the middle of this century, we can’t resume a truly Paleo lifestyle. There’s not much big game around anymore, after all. We’re stuck with farming.

And agriculture is helping to push up global temperatures. Up to one-third of all the carbon emissions responsible for climate change come from farming, thanks to everything from fertilizer production to flying raspberries halfway around the world.

Throw in livestock, and things look even worse: a whopping 18 percent of greenhouse gasses, according to one Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, come from the mass production of cows, pigs, and chickens (and World Watch argues that the FAO undercounted by a factor of three).

Modern agriculture: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

Would a “lentil dictatorship” work? By forcing people to shift to a mostly legume diet, we would reduce the enormous drain of resources caused by eating meat — up to 16 pounds of grain goes into one pound of steak — and naturally replenish the soil by planting these nitrogen-fixing plants.

Given the difficulties that former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg faced when he tried to wean people off sodas larger than 16 ounces, I think this would be a recipe for failure.

The United Nations has come up with a good idea. Its Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture uses the latest technology to maximize yields and minimize the impact on the land.

For instance, farmers can use lasers to create level fields to reduce water use and consult precise weather forecasts to know when to sow and irrigate. This technology has already improved farming in the richer countries.

These are useful techniques. Yet they mostly help farmers adjust to rising temperatures and dwindling water resources rather than reverse the negative feedback loop pushing up the thermometer.

Organic farming advocates argue that a shift way from energy-intensive industrial agriculture will do the trick. But this transformation may not suffice. It’s not clear that purely organic farming could produce enough to feed the planet without cultivating what little land remains in the wild.

And where organic farmers have been able to scale up, they have begun to resemble the very industrial producers they aimed to replace.

Another way to go is low-tech. Instead of plowing up the land in order to plant the next crop, many farmers don’t overturn the soil of the entire field. They simply dig narrow trenches. This “no-till” agriculture produces comparable yields without the considerable erosion caused by conventional farming. Yet no-till agriculture can use more herbicides to get rid of all the weeds that aren’t plowed under.

Every technique poses risks. The danger of industrial farming is precisely its reliance on monocultures: field after field of a single variety of grain that runs the risk of being wiped out by a new kind of blight.

The solution? Diversity. “No single crop or approach to farming can possibly feed the world,” writes Michael Specter in The New Yorker. “To prevent billions of people from living in hunger, we will need to use every one of them.”

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Opinion Thu, 02 Oct 2014 10:49:33 -0400
US Nuclear Policy: Taking the Wrong Road http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26579-us-nuclear-policy-taking-the-wrong-road http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26579-us-nuclear-policy-taking-the-wrong-road

On September 21, 2014, the International Day of Peace, The New York Times published an article by William Broad and David Sanger, “US Ramping Up Major Renewal in Nuclear Arms.”  The authors reported that a recent federal study put the price tag for modernizing the US nuclear arsenal at “up to a trillion dollars” over the next three decades.  It appears that Washington’s military and nuclear hawks have beaten down a president who, early in his first term of office, announced with conviction, “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Many US military leaders, rather than analyzing and questioning the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence to provide security, are acting as cheerleaders for it.  Rear Admiral Joe Tofalo, director of the Navy’s Undersea Warfare Division, recently pontificated, “For the foreseeable future, certainly for our and our children’s and our grandchildren’s lifetimes, the United States will require a safe, secure and effective strategic nuclear deterrent.  The ballistic nuclear submarine forces are and will continue to be a critical part of that deterrent….”  He went on to argue that all legs of the nuclear triad – bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles – would be needed to “provide a strong deterrent against different classes of adversary threat.”

Admiral Tofalo was backed up by Admiral Cecil Haney, commander of the US Strategic Command, who argued, “In a world where our traditional adversaries are modernizing, emerging adversaries are maturing and non-state actors remain elusive and dangerous, we must get 21st century deterrence right…the reality is that an effective modernized nuclear deterrent force is needed now more than ever.”

All this emphasis on modernizing the nuclear deterrent force may be good for business, but ignores two important facts.  First, nuclear deterrence is only a hypothesis about human behavior that has not been and cannot be proven to work.  Second, it ignores the obligations of the US and other nuclear-armed states to pursue negotiations in good faith for an end to the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament.

The US and other nuclear-armed countries are gambling that nuclear deterrence will be foolproof rather than a game of chance, like nuclear roulette.  Rather than providing security for the American people, nuclear deterrence is a calculated risk, similar to loading a large metaphorical six-chamber gun with a nuclear bullet and pointing the gun at humanity’s head.

The only foolproof way to assure that nuclear weapons won’t be used, by accident or design, is to abolish them.  This is what the generals and admirals should be pressing to achieve.  Negotiations in good faith for abolishing nuclear weapons are required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and by customary international law.  Since these obligations have not been fulfilled in 44 years, one courageous country, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, has brought lawsuits against the nine nuclear-armed countries, seeking the International Court of Justice to order their compliance.  They have also brought a lawsuit specifically against the US in US Federal Court.

Rather than showing leadership by fulfilling its obligations for ending the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament, the US conducted a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile test on September 23, just days after the International Day of Peace and days before the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons on September 26.  Such displays of arrogance, together with US plans to spend some $1 trillion on modernizing its nuclear arsenal over the next three decades, suggest that if the people don’t demand it, we may have nuclear weapons forever, with tragic consequences.

You can find out more about the Nuclear Zero Lawsuits and support the Marshall Islands at www.nuclearzero.org.

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News Thu, 02 Oct 2014 10:34:04 -0400
Energy Efficient Buildings - Beware Possible Health Risks http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26577-energy-efficient-buildings-beware-possible-health-risks http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26577-energy-efficient-buildings-beware-possible-health-risks

The primary goal of home energy efficiency initiatives might be to reduce total energy consumption, but these projects could have a negative impact on public health if we do not take care.

Global climate change has been called the biggest global public health threat of the 21st century – and energy efficiency is a key tool in our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emission levels.

Efficiency projects allow us to more effectively manage growing energy consumption without sacrificing services that we value. In the cost-optimised 2°C scenario set out by the International Energy Agency (the temperature rise that we have to stick within if we’re to mitigate climate change), end-use efficiency improvements will be responsible for 38% of the global emissions reductions between now and 2050.

Without these emissions decreases, the World Health Organisation expects 250,000 additional deaths to occur each year, caused by climate-related malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress around the globe.

Given these numbers, it seems logical to push forward with blanketing energy efficiency investments. However, there is evidence to show that we must take care in how we implement projects.

In a 2014 article published in the British Medical Journal, James Milner and his co-authors outlined how some home energy efficiency improvements could cost lives by increasing indoor radon exposure and the risk of developing lung cancer.

According to the authors, energy efficiency projects could lead to an estimated 56.6% increase in average indoor radon concentrations. They calculate that the corresponding increase in radon exposure could lead to 278 premature deaths (the equivalent of 4,700 life years lost) each year in the UK.

After smoking, radon exposure is the most important risk factor in developing lung cancer. This colourless gas, which occurs naturally from the indirect decay product of uranium or thorium, can be found in indoor air. It produces a radioactive dust that is trapped in our airways. This radiation then causes lung damage and increases the chance that we will develop lung cancer. Each year, an estimated 1,400 cases of lung cancer in the UK are primarily due to radon exposure, and about 21,000 in the US.

The increased radon concentrations in the Milner study stem from the fact that many energy efficiency improvements alter the way that buildings exchange indoor and outdoor air. These alterations are often aimed at reducing energy losses due to leaky windows or drafts around unsealed doors. In turn, these buildings can be more effectively heated and cooled, leading to observable public health improvements and decreases in total energy use.

However, they can increase some health risks. According to Milner and co-authors, while an individual project can be “good for energy efficiency, indoor temperatures in winter and protection against outdoor pollutants, it has the potential to increase concentrations of pollutants arising from sources inside or underneath the home.”

A 2013 study suggested similar risks in retrofitted buildings from mould growth and “sick building syndrome”, where occupants appear to experience health issues from occupancy in a building. By trapping humidity inside the building, energy efficiency retrofits could unintentionally lead to dangerous mould growth. In turn, people in these buildings would be more prone to chronic fatigue, irritated lungs, and watery eyes.

Using fans and other equipment to carefully control the indoor air quality could reduce or eliminate the negative co-impacts documented in these studies. Of course, the use of these technologies would offset some of the energy savings. But, they could also prevent an array of illnesses, which could stymie future energy efficiency proposals.

Energy efficiency projects can help to reduce total energy consumption. They are a key part of mitigating the impacts of global climate change. But we must be aware of any potential negative co-impacts on human health and take care to reduce their effect.

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News Thu, 02 Oct 2014 10:12:25 -0400
Seeds of Greed http://www.truth-out.org/art/item/26575-seeds-of-greed http://www.truth-out.org/art/item/26575-seeds-of-greed

You get to reap what Wall Street sows.

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Art Thu, 02 Oct 2014 09:04:56 -0400
A "Little Jewish Radical" Responds to Pat Robertson: Religious Freedom and Feigned Valor in the Military http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/26568-a-little-jewish-radical-responds-to-pat-robertson-religious-freedom-feigned-valor-in-the-military http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/26568-a-little-jewish-radical-responds-to-pat-robertson-religious-freedom-feigned-valor-in-the-military

Pat Robertson doesn’t seem to like me very much. Normally, none of us with more brains than a toothbrush should give a damn as to why that’s the case, but times are hardly normal these days. Therefore it does matter, so please let me fill you in. First, a little backstory here:

One would think that as Americans, most of us can agree on certain core foundational values that have made our nation great; freedom of speech and the freedom to worship (or not) as we see fit stand out as two shining examples. However, the enjoyment of these freedoms means that we must also witness the heinous words and deeds of those who don Ku Klux Klan hoods, wear swastika armbands, and call for modern-day inquisitions against perceived “enemies of the faith.” Indeed, some have amassed fortunes and built veritable “evil empires” by peddling twisted, violent ideologies like fundamentalist Christianity, to cite one example. Foremost among these evil opportunists and parasitic jackasses is the Reverend Pat Robertson.

Robertson recently flew off the handle when the US Air Force (USAF) was forced to make the Constitutionally correct decision to end the mandatory requirement that USAF airmen recite “So Help Me God” in their official reenlistment and commissioning oaths. This blatantly unconstitutional religious test came to the world’s attention after an airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada learned that unless he performed the sectarian oath, his days as an airman would be through. Shamefully reprehensible, isn’t it?

Eventually, the Air Force and the Pentagon “saw the light” of Constitutional fidelity, with no small amount of pressure from organizations like the Military Religious Freedom Foundation(MRFF, the organization I head), the American Humanist Association, and other valiant allies. It was, after all, a no-brainer from a legal perspective. As I said in my last Op-Ed, “The case law is so universally settled in this precise area that even actors who play lawyers on TV or in the movies could win this one in court. 

Well, no sooner was the law upheld before the bitter juice from sour grapes began flowing in rivers from the pulpits of arch-hypocrites like Robertson and his wretched ilk, who condemned the decision as “crazy.” Continuing, Robertson took specific aim at yours truly, stating:

“There’s a left-wing radical named Mikey Weinstein, who has got a group about people against religion or whatever he calls it, and he has just terrorized the armed forces… You think you’re supposed to be tough, you’re supposed to defend us, and you got one little Jewish radical who is scaring the pants off of you… You want these guys flying the airplanes to defend us when you got one little guy terrorizing them? ... That’s what it amounts to. … How can [USAF] fly the bombers to defend us if they cave to one little guy?”

“Little Jewish radical,” eh? Got anti-Semitism, Pat? Perhaps Robertson forgets that he apparently claims to worship another "little Jewish radical” who is said to have “terrorized” the authorities of his day? Anyway, his asinine anti-Semitic comments aside – the man has on numerous occasions voiced openly racist, bigoted sentiments – the record clearly shows that Robertson has no right to speak of toughness in the armed forces.

Indeed, voluminous allegations corroborate a scenario showing that Robertson deserves an honorary medal for being a Class A Coward of the highest rank. This vile specimen is to human dignity and sanity and integrity and character what dog shit is on the menu of a fine French restaurant.

Let me explain. In his 1972 autobiography, Shout it From the Housetops, Robertson boasted about his outstanding service as a “Marine combat officer in Korea.” The only problem with the claim is that many of his former comrades allege that never once did he ever see battle. Robertson filed a libel suit against McCloskey, only to be unceremoniously dropped later on. Contradicting Robertson’s claims, war hero and former seven-term Congressman Paul “Pete” McCloskey alleged that the “Marine combat officer” may have used his privileged family ties as the son of a Virginia Senator to pull the strings and skirt his combat duties. Apparently, the order from General Lemuel Shepherd was to "Take good care of him; his Daddy is Chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Appropriations Committee." 

Therefore, the future televangelist (and saber-rattling warmonger) was reassigned from combat duty to the far less heroic undertaking of keeping the barracks watering hole stocked with liquor. As numerous fellow marines claimed, throughout the Korean War the “Marine combat officer” was known as the Masan Liquor Officer. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a ‘liquor officer.’ However, speaking as a former Air Force officer and Air Force Academy honor graduate, whose two sons, daughter-in-law, and son-in-law are all, likewise, Air Force Academy graduates as well as either current or former proud members of the US Air Force, I am positively pissed that such a putrid example of cowardly cretinism in the ignoble person of Pat Robertson would have the gall to question the bravery of our USAF airmen. Every American, every service member, should know well to ignore the attention-hungry ravings of this false prophet and posturing poseur of the first order.

But don’t take it from me; take it from the late Corporal USM.C. Leo T. Cronin, who participated in the first-wave amphibious assault by Marines who fought tooth and nail in the Battle of Inchon, Korea. Commenting in a Letter to the Editor penned amidst Robertson’s failed Presidential run in 1988, Cronin didn’t mince any words:

There is a person who calls himself a combat Marine. He is not. His name is Pat Robertson. I saw him often in the division headquarters where he was clean-shaven and clothed and showered. He was in charge of making sure that the officers' booze ration was handed out and re-supplied. He was a lieutenant. He was in my battalion. The line company marines I saw smelled badly, looked poorly. For months at a time they were cold, eating C-rations. Trying to stay warm and dry was a constant battle. These line-company men were the combat Marines of the First Marine Division. Neither Pat Robertson nor I could carry their gear. He is trying to get elected by standing on those frozen bodies I saw, by putting himself in the company of those seven Marines who repulsed the enemy. Imagine a person who aspires to be President being so loose with the truth, so lacking in grace and so dishonorable. He says God talks to him. I'd like to hear what God says to him about this.

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Opinion Thu, 02 Oct 2014 09:01:40 -0400
On the News With Thom Hartmann: The Sonora River Poisoned by the Mining Industry, and More http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26557-on-the-news-with-thom-hartmann-the-sonora-river-poisoned-by-the-mining-industry-and-more http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26557-on-the-news-with-thom-hartmann-the-sonora-river-poisoned-by-the-mining-industry-and-more

In today's On the News segment: The mining industry pollutes the Sonora River and drinking water in Northern Mexico; a federal judge has restored protection for wolves in Wyoming; Archbishop Desmond Tutu has added his voice to world leaders calling for action on climate change; and more.

TRANSCRIPT:

You need to know this. We all know the saying, "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me." But, when it comes to drilling and mining, big business thinks that they can fool us over and over again. Last week, authorities in northern Mexico had to tell 25,000 residents not to use water from the Sonora River, as it had been stained orange by a toxic spill from a copper mine. Just like the coal ash spill by Duke Energy in North Carolina, the waste water spill by TransCanda in Alberta, and the various others in between, corporations have proven that they can't be trusted to protect us, or our planet. The recent spill in Mexico occurred less than a month after 10 million gallons of heavy metals and acids contaminated two rivers and a dam. The back-to-back spills have left farmers in the area struggling to keep crops alive, and left tens of thousands of people without access to a clean water supply. And, just like spills in the US and Canada, the mining firm Grupo Mexico is being accused of lying about containment and clean-up measures, and of failing to properly supervise the massive mine. Carlos Arias, the director of Sonora's civil protection agency, says that the mine has "blocked access to investigators," but warned that authorities will return "backed up by security forces." This is what happens when corporations are allowed to amass too much power. Companies that ignore regulations should not be granted the privilege of doing business in a nation. These mining and drilling companies have shown that they will always put profit over people, and it's time that the people fight back. They've fooled us way more than once, and in the words of George Bush, we can't get fooled again.

A federal judge has restored protection for wolves in Wyoming. Last week, Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled that the state's plan to maintain wolf population did not include adequate safeguards. The gray wolves were previously protected under the Endangered Species Act, but that protection was partially lifted as their numbers began to rise. A special season allowed trophy hunters to kill the wolves, and they were labeled as predators that could be shot if they endangered livestock in other areas of the state. Judge Berman said that Wyoming's population management plan was "arbitrary and capricious," and she placed the wolves back under full protection until the state has an adequate plan to protect the species. Bonnie Rice of the Sierra Club's Wild America Campaign said, "We think the court is right to require them to develop a plan that's more science-based, and [that] doesn't treat wolves as vermin in the majority of the state." Although many of us would love to see a ruling that offers even more protection for this native species, the fact that wolves are once again protected in Wyoming is good news.

Many of the world's greatest leaders have already called for action on climate change. Now, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has added his voice, and said that it's time to "move beyond the fossil fuel era." The Nobel Prize-winner released a special video last week, calling on world leaders to come up with real solutions at the UN Climate Summit. The Archbishop said that individuals and nations must redirect investment from oil and gas into renewable energy, and hold the fossil fuel industry legally liable for damaging our environment. He said that "time is running out," and that the Climate Summit is "a decisive moment in the struggle to maintain God's Earth." Mr. Tutu echoed the spirit of the massive People's Climate March, and explained that protecting the environment is the human rights challenge of our time. He said, "We can no longer tinker about the edges. We can no longer continue treating our addiction to fossil fuels as if there were no tomorrow." Hopefully, Desmond Tutu's powerful message helps convince world leaders that now is the time to act.

Monsanto may control many of our lawmakers here in the U.S., but it looks like they don't have much sway with the Dutch Parliament. Last week, lawmakers in the Netherlands passed a ban on Monsanto's RoundUp herbicide, and said that the glyphosate-laced chemical must be kept away from the public. Various studies have shown that the herbicide is linked to cancer, kidney disease, birth defects, and other health issues, and the Netherlands doesn't need more proof to know that the chemical is toxic. As of 2015, the sale of RoundUp will be prohibited for agricultural or private use, and farmers and gardeners will have to use safer products to keep weeds away. The Netherlands joins Mexico, Tasmania, and Russia in saying "no" to Monsanto, but here in the U.S., our regulators and lawmakers continue bowing down to the chemical giant. Millions of people around the world have called for an end to GMOs and toxic pesticides, and it's time for those in power in all nations to start listening.

And finally... From the time we learn to speak as children, most of us understand the concept of "fairness." Well, science says that evolution may be the reason that even little kids often use the phrase "that's not fair." According to new research published in the journals Science and Nature, humans may have developed a sense of fairness to help us survive. Scientists conducted an experiment by having two Capuchin monkeys perform the same task. When they gave one of the monkeys a superior reward, the other would become extremely agitated. Researchers found that some primates, like humans, will give up some of their own reward in order to equalize the benefits, and maintain long-term cooperative relationships. In other words, even apes understand that short-term selfishness doesn't benefit them in the long-term. Scientists hypothesized that the ability to think about the future and the self-control to turn down a reward helped humans form early societies, which helped us survive as a species. It looks like science may have explained why we feel strongly about injustice in our current economy. However, it appears we may have to wait for more research to explain why most billionaires can be so selfish.

And that's the way it is for the week of September 29, 2014 - I'm Thom Hartmann, on Science & Green News.

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News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 13:36:36 -0400
Underestimating ISIS: An Indictment of Decades of Failed US Policy in the Middle East http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26552-underestimating-isis-an-indictment-of-decades-of-failed-us-policy-in-the-middle-east http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26552-underestimating-isis-an-indictment-of-decades-of-failed-us-policy-in-the-middle-east

Lawrence Wilkerson is a retired United States Army soldier and former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. Wilkerson is an adjunct professor at the College of William & Mary where he teaches courses on US national security. He also instructs a senior seminar in the Honors Department at the George Washington University entitled "National Security Decision Making."

TRANSCRIPT: 

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: This is The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Welcome to this edition of the Larry Wilkerson report. Larry is joining us from Williamsburg, Virginia. He is the former chief of staff for the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary.

Thanks so much for joining us, Larry.

LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.

PERIES: Larry, President Obama, in an interview on 60 Minutes with Steven Kroft, acknowledged that the U.S. underestimated the IS and overestimated the ability of the Iraq military to fend off the militant group IS. Stephen Kroft actually challenged President Obama on that. Let's have a look.
~~~
STEVEN KROFT, CORRESPONDENT, 60 MINUTES: How did they end up where they are in control of so much territory? Was that a complete surprise you?

BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Well, I think our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that, I think, they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.

KROFT: You mention James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. I mean, he didn't just say that we underestimated ISIL. He said we overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight.

OBAMA: That's true. That's absolutely true.
~~~
PERIES: So, Larry, could that be so, that the greatest military in the world cannot properly do estimates of their threat?

WILKERSON: I think it's another indication that the $100 billion plus that we spend on 17 different separate intelligence agencies in the United States is money not well spent. I don't think we've done a real good job at strategic level intelligence in a long time, and even operational level intelligence has suffered majorly.

The idea that we didn't know that the Iraqi military was inadequate, inadequate to almost any task other than eating, sleeping, and drinking, is probably as much a product of General David Petraeus and others in Iraq, who spent billions of dollars over the course of a decade-plus training this Iraqi military and ensuring all of us that it was going to be competent and able at a minimum to defend the borders of its own state.

The argument my party, the Republican Party, is advancing, that three years have elapsed since we left, and that in that three years they fell apart, is ludicrous. They never were very good, and they probably never will be very good, and they aren't very good now. And to say that we overestimated the Iraqi army's ability is to say that we fooled ourselves for a decade-plus and spent a lot of taxpayer money, and actually spent a lot of blood, too, in trying to ensure that, and we certainly did not.

PERIES: Is there any evidence that they actually knew the strength of the ISIS, that this is actually a way of easing us back into a war?

WILKERSON: Oh, I don't think they knew anything about the Islamic State, ISIL, ISIS, whatever we're calling it today, the term of art that they're using, the intelligence community is using. I think it's a fair assessment to say the intelligence community didn't realize that the Islamic State forces in Syria, hardened by two, three years of civil war, couldn't come out, cross the border into Iraq, and with a great deal of Saudi money and a great deal of Sunni help, the very Sunnis that David Petraeus awakened in Iraq to turn against al-Qaeda and defeat it in Iraq and to help him stabilize Iraq, that those forces, once joining the Islamic State forces, wouldn't present a fairly formidable force. I mean, that's a complex assessment for the U.S. intelligence community to make, and I really don't think they're capable of those kinds of assessments today.

PERIES: And then the point you were making about the Republican Party--let's have a look at what Boehner had to say just recently.
~~~
JOHN BOEHNER, SPEAKER FOR THE U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: At some point, somebody's boots have to be on the ground. That's the whole point.

INTERVIEWER: Americans?

BOEHNER: Listen, the president doesn't want to do that. If I were the president, I probably wouldn't have talked about what I wouldn't do. And maybe we can get enough of these forces trained to get them on the battlefield. But somebody's boots have to be there.

INTERVIEWER: And if no one else will step up, then you would recommend putting American boots on the ground?

BOEHNER: We have no choice. These are barbarians. They intend to kill us. And if we don't destroy them first, we're going to pay the price.
~~~
PERIES: So, Larry, this is Boehner, who on Good Morning America just recently stated that they are prepared to support boots on the ground. This is consistent with Republican Party policy. What do you think of that?

WILKERSON: I think it's nonsense. I think John Boehner ought to get his M16 and get his little butt right on over there to Syria, and maybe if he's got any family, he ought to send them to, 'cause what he's talking about is sending the all-recruited military force back into the maelstrom of Iraq and Syria.

I think there are two possibilities, both of them very dangerous, with regard to that. You send major American ground forces back over there and you are, one, apt to solidify all those forces who write now are disparate and separated and organized into a unified Arab whole, no sectarian split at all, against those forces until they've rid the region of those forces. The second dangerous development is that we will in fact make it into a Shia-Sunni sectarian war. And it will be bloody indeed, and we'll be right in the middle of it. So I don't see any positive to sending American forces back over there, unless, of course, unless, of course, Mr. Boehner and all the rest of the people in my party, like Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who are warmongers par-excellence, want to get their butts over there, too, their families' butts over there, and bring back conscription in the United States, and draft half a million to a million young men and women, and send them over there in a serious effort to stabilize the region, and of course stay there for the next hundred years in order to maintain and sustain that stability. So Mr. Boehner speaks of that which he knows not, just like Lindsey Graham and John McCain and all the other warmongers in my political party.

PERIES: Larry, President Obama also stated that Shia-Sunni conflict is the greatest issue in the Middle East right now. Let's have a look at what he had to say.
~~~
OBAMA: But what we also have to do is we have to come up with political solutions in Iraq and in Syria in particular, but in the Middle East generally, that arrives at an accommodation between Sunni and Shia populations that right now are the biggest cause of conflict not just in the Middle East but in the world.
~~~
PERIES: What do you think that statement?

WILKERSON: Well, I think you're correct. I think this didn't exist, not in any real fashion, before we invaded Iraq and sort of cemented the two sides and caused it to start. I think that was a disaster, invading Iraq in 2003, and we're seeing the results of that disaster right now.

But I don't think--that said, I don't think that adding more American troops to it is the answer to the problem. The answer to the problem is a political answer, but it's a political answer that's very complex and would take a long time to work its way out. It involves Ankara, it involves the Turks, of course, it involves Tehran and the Iranians, it involves Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council, it involves Lebanon, it involves all the region--and I don't preclude Israel from being in there too--and taking on all the problems that are causing this Islamic State force to be supported by increasing numbers of Muslims, continue to be able to recruit, and recruit even better than before, and continuing to be able to prosecute its agenda in the region. You don't stop that with bombs. You don't stop that with aircraft. You don't stop that with troops on the ground, for that matter, unless you're willing, as I said, to mobilize the nation and really go to war. The way you stop that is with political solutions to problems that are causing these people to do what they're doing, and more importantly, causing Muslims all around the world to support them.

Until you've done that--and George W. Bush said it back in my day in the George W. Bush administration; Colin Powell said it; others of note said it--you've got to drain the swamp that supports them. You've got to take away the reasons that the majority of these people flock to guns and want to kill people. That's what you've got to do. It's not that they're all paranoids and they're all misogynist or masochist or some kind of form of life we haven't seen before; it's reasons that they're out there on the battlefield. There are reasons that they're carrying weapons and reasons that they're killing people.

And those reasons, by and large, are reasons that can be dealt with if you're smart enough and you do complexity well enough to deal with it. It takes a lot of leaders. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of effort. It's going to take some money, for example, to take care of the millions of refugees that we've now created. I'm told the refugee situation is the worst since World War II. We've got Jordan being destabilized, Lebanon being destabilized. We've got Iraq and the north with a lot of the refugees. I'm even told that some of the Syrian refugees have hit the western coast of Australia. So this is a tremendous humanitarian problem, and I for one don't see us taking care of that very rapidly, or with much money either.

Still, there are a lot of components to this problem, and I don't see any of them being settled by dropping bombs on people.

PERIES: Let's pick up on that political solution. To be fair to President Obama, he actually mentioned the political solution as well. But that would mean that he has to engage Syria and Iran in the discussion. Is that likely to happen? And if they do enter more discussions about a political solution, who might actually head that kind of negotiation up in the current government?

WILKERSON: Well, I think Turkey is absolutely essential to a solution. Turkey's got to stop doing some of the things that it is doing, playing both sides against the middle, and start doing things that would bring a long-term solution.

But I think you're right. I think Tehran, I think Riyadh, and I think Baghdad, and I think other capitals, Damascus, are integral to this. And I think that we probably should re-examine what we're looking at with regard to Bashar al-Assad. I mean, I know Susan Rice and Samantha Power probably told President Obama that, hey, Hosni Mubarak went; Assad's going to go, too. But they didn't do their homework. Syria is not Egypt, and Egypt is not Syria, and Hosni Mubarak is not Bashar al-Assad. Bashar al-Assad's not about to go. Bashar al-Assad has major support inside Syria. And I don't care what kind of tyrant he is; he's holding on and he's going to hold on. Unless we're prepared to do what I said, mount a major invasion of the Middle East, we're not going to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. No matter how much Ankara wants to, no matter how much Tehran wants him to stay, we are not going to be the determinant, nor are they. The Syrians and Bashar al-Assad are going to be, and that means he's going to stay. So why are we opposing him in the way we're opposing him?

I like to think that in secret we're talking to Bashar al-Assad, or at least his people, and I like to think that in secret we're talking to Tehran about common interests and settling those common interests or meeting those common interests. I hope that's going on. I don't know if it can go on publicly, because we have such a fractured political situation in this country now, with my party leading the way to the fractured ditch, that we can't seem to do anything unified, anything together. But we should be talking to the Syrian government, and we should be talking to the Iranian government, and we should be using those talks to bring some solution to this very complex but difficult and disturbing situation.

PERIES: Larry, when President Obama made his ISIS speech two weeks ago, he never mentioned the Khorasan Group, which is supposed to be a strengthened al-Qaeda group. Some media is now reporting that this group is perhaps bigger than the ISIS group. Yet the group Intercept formed by First Look has challenged this theory, saying that this is another way to escort us into more war. What do you know about the Khorasan Group and their potential threat?

WILKERSON: I assume you mean a bigger threat to the United States. I don't see how they could possibly be a bigger threat to Bashar al-Assad or to Syria or to Iraq or anybody like that. It's a small group spun off from, I'm told, Ayman al-Zawahiri's al-Qaeda, and its purpose was to take advantage of the situation in Syria, much the way they tried to take advantage of the situation in Somalia, and form a group that could find some sanctuary, if you will, in order to train and plan for attacks on the United States. In that sense, if that is true--and I have no reason or hard intelligence in front of me to say it's true--if it is true, though, that's probably a more dangerous threat to the United States--not the region or to Syria or Bashar al-Assad, but to the United States--because they could do something similar to what al-Qaeda did on 9/11. Hopefully, we've learned enough from that and we're alert enough to where we could thwart it or stop it. I'm not reassured by that prospect, however. So if all those imponderables are fact or this group really is doing what I'm told it's doing, then yes, they're probably a bigger threat to the United States in terms of doing something directly that would impact adversely our interests.

PERIES: And yet they're supposed to be only a group that is about 100 people strong. Do you think they're capable of carrying out something in the United States?

WILKERSON: Well, we'd have to assume that they had access to the same kind of assets, planning, operational assets, capabilities, and so forth that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was then the number-two man in al-Qaeda, had prior to 9/11. That doesn't take a whole lot. I mean, if they're planning on something like 9/11, that doesn't take a whole lot. But I have not seen anything hard about this group, and I'm a little reluctant to start pronouncing on them, because I haven't heard anyone in the administration doing anything but using them to justify the military action we're presently taking it Syria. So I don't know if they're a real hard threat or not. I simply don't know.

PERIES: Alright, Larry, that's a good point to end on. Thank you so much for joining us.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 12:32:51 -0400
Umbrella Revolution: Hong Kong's Biggest Protests in Decades Challenge China on Political Freedom http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26551-umbrella-revolution-hong-kong-s-biggest-protests-in-decades-challenge-china-on-political-freedom http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26551-umbrella-revolution-hong-kong-s-biggest-protests-in-decades-challenge-china-on-political-freedom

Hong Kong is facing its biggest political unrest in decades as tens of thousands of protesters defy a police crackdown to demand greater freedom from China. The new round of protests began last week when thousands of college students launched a boycott to oppose China's rejection of free elections in 2017. The protesters want an open vote, but China's plan would only allow candidates approved by Beijing. After a three-day sit-in, police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowds. But that only fueled a public outcry which brought even more into the streets, with estimates reaching up to 200,000 people. Protest leaders have vowed to remain until the resignation of Hong Kong city leader, Leung Chun-ying, and a free vote for his successor. Originally organized by the group "Occupy Central," the protests have been dubbed Umbrella Revolution, for the umbrellas protesters have used to hide from the tear gas. The police crackdown is the harshest since China retook control of Hong Kong in 1997 after 150 years of British rule. The crackdown is being felt in mainland China, where the government has blocked the mobile photo-sharing app Instagram and heavily censored references to Hong Kong on social media. We are joined from Hong Kong by journalist Tom Gundy, who has been covering the protests.

TRANSCRIPT:

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

From Pacifica, this is Democracy Now!

I was there when they started the first tear gas. We were harmless people. You see here we're using umbrellas to come and protect themselves.

AARON MATÉ: We begin in Hong Kong, which faces its biggest political unrest in decades. Tens of thousands of protesters are in the streets defying a police crackdown on their pro-democracy movement. This new round of protests began last week, when thousands of college students launched a boycott to oppose China's rejection of free elections in 2017. The protesters want an open vote, but China's plan would only allow candidates approved by Beijing. After a three-day sit-in, police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowds. But that only fueled a public outcry which brought even more into the streets, with estimates reaching up to 200,000 people. The mood turned festive on Monday, with the scene of a massive street party taking over key parts of the Central business district. The government claims it's pulled back riot police and has urged protesters to leave. But on Monday, Hong Kong's second top local official, Carrie Lam, rejected heeding the protesters' demands.

CARRIE LAM: I have to stress that it remains our most important objective to achieve universal suffrage in the selection of the chief executive in 2017, and we will work according to that objective. It would not be entirely realistic to expect us to reverse the whole decision of the National People's Congress Standing Committee.

AMY GOODMAN: Protest leaders have vowed to remain until the resignation of Hong Kong city leader, Leung Chun-ying, and a free vote for his successor. Originally organized by the group "Occupy Central," the protests have been dubbed Umbrella Revolution, for the umbrellas protesters have used to protect themselves from the tear gas. The police crackdown is the harshest since China retook control of Hong Kong in 1997 after 150 years of British rule. Since then, Hong Kong has operated under different economic and political systems than mainland China as part of a policy known as "one country, two systems." The crackdown is being felt in mainland China, where the government has blocked the mobile photo-sharing app Instagram and heavily censored references to Hong Kong on social media.

For more, we go to Hong Kong, where we're joined by Tom Grundy. A journalist and blogger, he was tear-gassed over the weekend while covering the protests.

Tom, why don't you lay out the scene for us? Describe what happened, how people gathered this weekend, and what has happened since.

TOM GRUNDY: Well, on Sunday morning, it seemed that the movement had lost some momentum. Students were gathered around a closed-off area around government headquarters, but as the day progressed, people were watching scenes at home of them being pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed, and I think that motivated others to come onto the streets. And there were repeated clouds of tear gas filling the area down at Admiralty, the government building area. By the next day, it seemed that the police presence had almost disappeared, and then you began to see waves of protesters coming into three different areas of the city—Admiralty, the government area; Causeway Bay; and another shopping thoroughfare in Kowloon.

And in the absence of any police now, there's somewhat of a more jovial and festive atmosphere. Things are very peaceful. There was even a DJ in Kowloon last night and barbecues. Some buses have been caught up in these occupation zones, which have been barricaded by some of the protesters. The drivers have had to obviously abandon them. And they've been decorated with placards by some of the protesters. At the moment, there are tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of demonstrators gathered in these three key areas. Instead of goggles and face masks, now they're generally donning black T-shirts, a mournful black, with yellow ribbons for universal suffrage.

AARON MATÉ: And, Tom, can you explain what set off these protests? There are supposed to be elections in 2017. China then recently changed the rules to say that it must approve the candidates. And do these protests have the support of the broader public, or is that still in flux?

TOM GRUNDY: Well, the joint agreement, the handover agreements between Britain and China, were put down about 30 years ago this month. And since then, there's been a debate about universal suffrage, which China promised would be implemented in Hong Kong under "one country, two systems." But it seems that Beijing has constantly redefined or moved the goal posts, as Martin Lee, one of the democracy icons here in Hong Kong, said. So, I think there is a lot of frustration, and the Occupy movement here, Occupy Central, Central being the Central business district, has been discussed for more than a year and a half. It seemed to be all but fizzling out this time last week, and there have been multiple pro-democracy protests over the years, but it seems that things began to come to a head with the student strikes over last week, people witnessing how they were treated. And now, that Occupy Central plan was brought forward to Sunday. It was originally going to be quite a modest sit-in in the Central business district starting tomorrow. So that began on Sunday.

The students and the Occupy movement seemed to merge under this umbrella movement, Umbrella Revolution. And as we go into two public holidays now—it leaves just Friday before the weekend—it seems that the momentum will just continue. Every night, more and more protesters have come onto the streets. Hong Kongers are late to rise, late to bed, so the rhythm seems to be very similar every day, in that as people finish work and school, they pour out onto the streets. And it still seems that it's being led by young people, but I imagine with it being National Day tomorrow, a public holiday, and another one Thursday, you'll begin to see even more Hong Kongers expressing dissent.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Grundy, can you give us a little history lesson, for those who are not so focused on Hong Kong and its relationship to China, the "one country, two systems" philosophy? Go back to Britain and what happened with the transfer, and then what exactly those people in Hong Kong who are protesting are calling for today.

TOM GRUNDY: Yes, in 1984, it was negotiated between Britain and China that the territory would be handed over to Beijing, and it would be a special administrative region. So, the way of life, they said, of Hong Kongers would be maintained. It has its own monetary, immigration policies. There is no censorship. It is quite separate to the mainland in many ways.

Since 1997, when the handover happened, people have felt that there has been a slow erosion of civil liberties. And although approval of Beijing was perhaps at an all-time high in 2008 during the Olympics, it has slowly declined to an all-time low now, and particularly under the current leadership here in Hong Kong of CY Leung. It has come to a climax, I suppose, with these annual democracy protests, where people are asking Beijing to fulfill its promise within the "one country, two systems" agreement of "one person, one vote." At the end of August, the National People's Congress in Beijing said that, in fact, the selection—an election committee of just over a thousand people would be selecting two or three candidates from which everyone could choose from. And Occupy Central said that as a protest of last resort, they would stage the sit-in you're now seeing now all over the city.

I think some people find Occupy Central quite controversial in its obviously illegal civil disobedience methods. They don't have permission. You have to usually get prior permission to protest in Hong Kong. But certainly, many are sympathetic to the students and how they were treated by the police. And when surveys are done in Hong Kong, most people basically believe in having, you know, some degree of democracy here, as was promised in its 50 years of a autonomy agreement with Beijing. It's unclear, when that expires in 2047, whether Hong Kong will look more like the mainland or the mainland will look more like Hong Kong, but there is a freedom of protest in Hong Kong, and they're certainly expressing it now.

AARON MATÉ: Tom, Hong Kong has a poverty rate of 20 percent, but also a surging number of millionaires and billionaires. How does inequality fit into these protests?

TOM GRUNDY: Yeah, Hong Kong has actually the widest rich-poor gap in the developed world. The Economist had it tops on their crony capitalism index. Corporations actually get votes here. It's the freest economy in the world, the capital of capitalism, if you will. But that poverty gap is visible on the streets every day. You have the highest concentration of millionaires and Mercedes Benz, you know, in Asia, but at the same time you have elderly people picking up boxes in the streets to recycle and people living in cage homes or subdivided flats, which are tiny boxes which they pay quite a premium for, actually.

There has been some criticism that the Occupy and pro-democracy movement over the years have failed to identify with these social issues and link them to democracy. Some people feel, perhaps, that the Occupy movement is a little high-headed with its constitutional reform kind of language. But I think it is true that if people are properly represented, then they may get, you know, obviously more of a say in some of the lack of social welfare, for instance, in Hong Kong and that ever-increasing poverty gap.

AMY GOODMAN: Fearing we'll lose the satellite, let me just ask you about the crackdown on social media and the overall police response.

TOM GRUNDY: Yeah, police came under quite a lot of criticism for how they acted with pepper spray at close range, with tear gas on Sunday. The police themselves have been asked by the commissioner to remain unified. They've disappeared seemingly completely from the streets today and yesterday. They were in full riot gear on Sunday. But, you know, Hong Kong is a city of protests. There are over a thousand a year. It is how people express themselves politically, because they don't have a voice at the ballot box. So it was very unusual. The police are renowned for being very professional in Hong Kong, and we haven't seen clouds of tear gas like this on the streets since some unrest during the 2005 WTO protests. So, you know, I think it really shocked Hong Kongers. Everyone was changing, I suppose, their images on social media to yellow ribbons, showing solidarity with the protesters. And as you see now, there are tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands sitting down in the streets in these three key areas all over Hong Kong. And more seemed to be arriving just as I was leaving the area.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it a rejection of Chinese rule, Tom, or a modification of how China is ruling Hong Kong, that they're calling for?

TOM GRUNDY: I'm sorry, could you repeat the question?

AMY GOODMAN: Is it a rejection of Chinese rule or a modification of how China is ruling Hong Kong that the protesters are calling for?

TOM GRUNDY: Some people feel that what has happened is somewhat of a modification in itself. People are not anti-China. People are Chinese. It is part of China. But what the protesters are calling for is for Hong Kong's leader, CY Leung, to step down. He's deeply unpopular. Approval ratings are at an all-time low now. And they want the constitutional reform package to be revised, so that people have more of a say in who they get to vote for. At the moment, for instance, the functional constituencies system, which is quite complicated, gives corporations thousands of votes which would normally go to people. For instance, the metro system, the MTR, gets tens of thousands of votes, and it's actually partly owned by the government, so you have an absurd system whereby the government is voting for itself. And the chamber, the Legislative Council here, is dominated by pro-Beijing figures. I think China fears that if more pro-democracy politicians are allowed into the Legislative Council, they will somehow declare independence or something like that, but I think that's unfounded. China is also concerned about its own situations in places like Tibet and Xinjiang and, you know, how these protests might spread.

They are very much in the greatest tradition of civil disobedience. The organizers have been citing Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King. And it really is a textbook example in how people are helping each other. There are boxes and boxes of supplies. People could probably hang around for days. People are giving out free meals, sharing food, actually putting signs onto closed businesses and abandoned cars, which are caught between barricades, apologizing for the inconvenience. They are possibly the politest protesters in the world, and I am not sure where else you would see such scenes.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think these protests could possibly spread, for example, to Beijing?

TOM GRUNDY: It's hard to tell. People often utter Tiananmen Square 1989 in the same breath as what is happening here. I don't think there will be similar scenes in Hong Kong, but perhaps China is concerned about similar scenes emerging in the mainland. And that's why you've have seen the greatest yet social media censorship efforts by Beijing and its complete blackout. But I was told today that young people in the mainland, they're certainly aware of what's going on.

As to what will happen next, there are a couple of public holidays. I imagine this will just continue until the government makes more of a concession or CY Leung steps down. I think it's not beyond feasibility, in that in 2003 you had almost a million people on the streets here, and they managed to oust the first leader of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa. So, we could see a repeat of that. These protests are certainly broader. So, we'll see what happens tomorrow.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Grundy, we want to thank you for being with us, Hong Kong-based journalist. He was tear-gassed, like so many other protesters were, over the weekend while covering these protests in Hong Kong. He tweets at @TomGrundy.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we'll look at the new vice president of Afghanistan. Stay with us.

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News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 12:00:07 -0400
As US-Afghanistan Sign Troop Deal, CIA-Backed Warlord Behind Massacre of 2,000 POWs Sworn-In as VP http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26549-as-us-afghanistan-sign-troop-deal-cia-backed-warlord-behind-massacre-of-2-000-pows-sworn-in-as-vp http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26549-as-us-afghanistan-sign-troop-deal-cia-backed-warlord-behind-massacre-of-2-000-pows-sworn-in-as-vp

Afghanistan has inaugurated its first new president in a decade, swearing in Ashraf Ghani to head a power-sharing government. Joining him on stage Monday was Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan's new vice president. Dostum is one of Afghanistan's most notorious warlords, once described by Ghani himself as a "known killer." Dostum's rise to the vice presidency comes despite his involvement in a 2001 massacre that killed up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners of war. The victims were allegedly shot to death or suffocated in sealed metal truck containers after they surrendered to Dostum and the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance. The dead prisoners — some of whom had been tortured — were then buried in the northern Afghan desert. Dostum, who was on the CIA payroll, has been widely accused of orchestrating the massacre and tampering with evidence of the mass killing. For more than a decade, human rights groups have called on the United States to conduct a full investigation into the massacre including the role of U.S. special forces and CIA operatives. We speak to Jamie Doran, director of the 2002 documentary "Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death," and Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy at Physicians for Human Rights, the group that discovered the site of the mass graves of the Taliban POWs.

TRANSCRIPT:

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to Afghanistan, which has inaugurated its first new president in a decade, swearing in Ashraf Ghani to head a power-sharing government. During his inaugural speech on Monday, the former World Bank executive called on militants to join peace talks.

PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI: [translated] We are tired of this war. Our message is a message of peace, and the message of peace doesn't mean we are weak. I call on Afghan government enemies, particularly the Taliban and Hezb-e Islami, to prepare for political negotiations.

AARON MATÉ: Afghanistan's new president, Ashraf Ghani, speaking Monday. Joining him on stage was Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan's new vice president. Dostum is one of Afghanistan's most notorious warlords, once described by Ghani himself as a, quote, "known killer." Dostum's rise to the vice presidency comes despite his involvement in a 2001 massacre that killed up to 2,000 Taliban POWs. The prisoners were allegedly shot to death or suffocated in sealed metal truck containers after they surrendered to Dostum and the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance. The dead prisoners, some of whom had been tortured, were then buried in the northern Afghanistan desert. Dostum, who was on the CIA payroll, has been widely accused of orchestrating the massacre and tampering with evidence of the mass killing.

AMY GOODMAN: For over a decade, human rights groups have called on the United States to conduct a full investigation into the massacre, including the role of U.S. special forces and CIA operatives. The Bush administration blocked three investigations into the alleged war crimes, and the Obama administration quietly closed its own inquiry last year without releasing its findings. After the massacre, Abdul Rashid Dostum left Afghanistan but returned in 2009 to help Hamid Karzai win re-election. Since then, he has served in a largely ceremonial role as commander-in-chief of the Afghan National Army.

We're joined now by two guests who have closely followed the story of the 2001 massacre as well as the rise of Dostum. Jamie Doran is with us, independent documentary filmmaker who directed the 2002 film, Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death. In 2003, Democracy Now! became the first U.S. news outlet to air the film. He joins us by Democracy Now! video stream from England. And with us in Boston, Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy at Physicians for Human Rights, the group that discovered the site of the mass graves of the Taliban POWs.

Susannah, let's start with you. Talk about what happened back in 2001, why you're so deeply concerned about the new vice president of Afghanistan, Dostum.

SUSANNAH SIRKIN: Yes, well, a large group of fighters, mostly Taliban, surrendered to General Dostum's Northern Alliance, which was working as an ally of the United States at a time when indeed U.S. special forces, as you mentioned, were on the ground. And these surrendered prisoners were loaded like sardines into trucks, according to a lot of testimony and evidence that we have, and transported across the desert. Many of them suffocated, probably within days, because they were not given water. They were locked up in these, essentially, coffins, packed in. We have reports of gunshots being fired into the trucks, possibly to create air holes, but indeed the way in which they were fired indicates that they were fired straight into the trucks, so killing some of the surrendered prisoners. And then, reportedly, they were all brought across to this area now known as Dasht-e-Leili near the Sheberghan prison.

Physicians for Human Rights sort of came upon this site when we were visiting the horrific conditions—or, discovered the horrific conditions in Sheberghan, which is near the northern capital of Mazar-e-Sharif, the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan. And we found that prisoners in Sheberghan were dying, dozens a day, for lack of food, illness, horrible sanitation. And we noticed that there were bodies on the surface, or remains, bones, etc. And within a month or two, under United Nations auspices, we did a mapping of this grave and went back and exhumed a number of bodies and indeed documented that the deaths were consistent with suffocation.

And it appears that U.S. forces were certainly cognizant of these deaths. We know this because Physicians for Human Rights actually filed a Freedom of Information Act query in 2006, and eventually we had to sue to get the information. And when it came out, we have reports from U.S. officials that indeed they knew that as many as 2,000 surrendered prisoners had died in this—what we call a "convoy of death," and also that witnesses were reportedly tortured and executed, eyewitnesses to these crimes. And we've been advocating for a full-out investigation by the international community and by the United States, and of course by the Afghan government itself, ever since. Now it's 12 years and counting, and we still do not know what really happened at Dasht-e-Leili.

AARON MATÉ: Well, can you lay out how these investigations have progressed, in terms of how this went down under the Bush administration, and then, when Obama took office, calling for an investigation, and then one concluding last year but not being made public?

SUSANNAH SIRKIN: Yes, well, Physicians for Human Rights and other human rights groups have repeatedly called for an independent investigation. And in 2008, when we uncovered evidence that there had been apparent tampering of the site, we were able to obtain satellite imagery that showed that the pieces of the site had actually been destroyed. And when that was revealed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jim Risen in a front-page New York Times story, CNN's Anderson Cooper asked President Obama if the U.S. government was finally going to investigate this apparent major war crime, and President Obama said, "If this has happened, we will certainly find out all the facts, and we must, if there are allegations of serious crimes in which our forces may have been involved, and certainly our allies." And I have to say that, since then, we have absolutely no evidence of any serious investigation conducted by the Obama administration.

What Jim Risen's New York Times piece also revealed is that, under the Bush administration, three separate federal investigations were basically shut down, and that includes FBI agents on Guantánamo who were interviewing detainees who had been brought from Sheberghan prison to Guantánamo and who had started talking about this massacre. They were told not to pursue those queries any further and not to gather that information. And the war crimes ambassador at the State Department also wanted to go up to Dasht-e-Leili and was prevented from doing so. And the Senate investigation was also stopped. So, that was under Bush. And the president, the current president, has basically a year ago said, "We've completed an investigation, and we are satisfied that the U.S. was not involved." End of story, full stop, no transparency whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2009, as you said, New York Times reporter James Risen, who's now being prosecuted by the Obama administration for another story he broke, not wanting to give up a source on that—Risen spoke about his findings on Democracy Now!

JAMES RISEN: The evidence was overwhelming that something had happened and that it was the responsibility of the Bush administration to look into this or at least to push for an international investigation, because Dostum had been on the CIA payroll, was part of a U.S.-backed alliance that was taking over Afghanistan. And what I found was, time after time, in different agencies and as far—and in the White House, Bush administration officials repeatedly ignored evidence or just decided or discouraged efforts to open investigations into the massacre.

AMY GOODMAN: Soon after James Risen's report was published in The New York Times in 2009, CNN's Anderson Cooper asked President Obama about opening a new investigation.

ANDERSON COOPER: It now seems clear that the Bush administration resisted efforts to pursue investigations of an Afghan warlord named General Dostum, who was on the CIA payroll. It's now come out there were hundreds of Taliban prisoners under his care who got killed.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Right.

ANDERSON COOPER: Some were suffocated in a steel container. Others were shot, possibly buried in mass graves. Would you support—would you call for an investigation into possible war crimes in Afghanistan?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, the indications that this had not been properly investigated just recently was brought to my attention, so what I've asked my national security team to do is to collect the facts for me that are known, and we'll probably make a decision in terms of how to approach it once we have all the facts gathered up.

ANDERSON COOPER: But you wouldn't resist categorically an investigation.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think that, you know, there are responsibilities that all nations have, even in war. And if it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of the laws of war, then I think that we have to know about that.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama on CNN in 2009, actually, interestingly, in Ghana. Jamie Doran, you have been following this story for well over a decade. What about President Obama's response and what's happened since? You were just recently in Afghanistan. And your response to Dostum, the general, becoming the vice president of the country?

JAMIE DORAN: Yeah, well, I think it's kind of a picture of Afghan politics that you can have a man, as you said at the very beginning of your program, where the president, the new president, described him as a murderer and then appoints him as his vice president simply for pragmatism purposes to get 13 percent of the vote. Uzbeks represent 13 percent of the entire electorate. Dostum leads the Uzbeks. [Ashraf] Ghani needed Dostum by his side in order to win that election.

AARON MATÉ: Jamie Doran, when we had Jim Risen on our show, he was skeptical that U.S. special forces were involved in this massacre. What's your take on that?

JAMIE DORAN: Well, first of all, you probably don't know this, but I actually gave Jim Risen the FBI contacts that led to his story and his front-page news. So, you know, let's clear that up right away. And the FBI agent was in fact a man called Dell Spry, an extraordinary man, who reported his findings from Guantánamo to his bosses in Washington. He was told, "Don't"—you know, "Get away from that. Don't let us—don't continue investigations. Don't file any report." Dell refused to buckle, if you like, and insisted in filing yet another report, even under threat from his superiors.

I think it's been a great shame that Obama, we thought—you know, we understood Bush would want to hide as much as possible. We thought Obama might be a fresh broom. It's not been the case. He, too, has not got involved. He has not pushed it in any way. Dostum is now the vice president of the country. It's quite bizarre. You know, I don't know if you're aware that Dostum actually apologized for his war crimes last year in the run-up to the election—again, an example of pragmatism. He apologized, but wasn't specific. He just tried to give a kind of general apology for all the terrible things he had done. And the Afghan people seem to have bought that.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2011, Jamie, WikiLeaks published a classified cable from then-U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry about Dostum's return to Afghanistan. Eikenberry wrote in a 2009 cable, quote, "Dostum's return would endanger much of the progress made in Afghanistan over the past five years, create a source of friction in the Afghan government's relations with the international community, and could well cost Karzai's government the continued support of the United States and most of the international community." Your response?

JAMIE DORAN: Well, you know, I'm still waiting for the massive protest from the White House or elsewhere over the fact that a murderer has been appointed vice president of Afghanistan. I mean, it really is that simple. It was fascinating during the election that [Ashraf] Ghani did not even bring a single photograph of Dostum when he went south to kind of to the Pashtun areas. And as everyone—if you go down there, everyone down there knows what Dostum did. Most of them, or many of them we've met, have relatives who were in that convoy and who died in the most horrific circumstances.

And one of the questions that, you know, doesn't seem to come up too often is: Why were they there for up to 10 days in those containers? And my information is: Because Americans on the ground demanded that every single person coming off the containers had to be identified to ensure that no Qaeda—no al-Qaeda slipped through. And so, these men were forced to stay in those containers for all those days in searing heat, suffocating, biting into each other's limbs to try and get fluid of any kind, because, as far as I've been told, the Americans needed to know the identity of every single person.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is where, at Sheberghan prison, is this right, that John Walker Lindh was discovered? Can you explain who he is and the significance of this?

JAMIE DORAN: Yeah, Sheberghan prison. No, well, what happened was that when that the thousands surrendered at Kunduz—I think it was 8,300 surrendered at Kunduz, a bunch of them—but 700 broke away and went to a place called Qala-i-Jangi, a fortress, which is actually controlled these days by Dostum, but went to Qala-i-Jangi, and they were held in Qala-i-Jangi. There was a revolt. Most of them were killed. American special forces, British special forces were involved in the fight. John Walker Lindh was one of the survivors of that attack. And it is quite fascinating that John Walker Lindh's private eye came to this very office to see me to ask whether or not, you know, I had come across Lindh, and had he been involved in any of the fighting, any of the trouble. Sure enough, he then showed me footage of where Lindh claimed to have been. And my cameraman was sitting beside me and said, "That's where they were shooting from." They were trying to prove that Lindh wasn't involved at all, when in fact he was directly involved, which is probably why he bought the 20 years.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to break and then come back to this discussion and a clip of your film, Jamie, this remarkable film, Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death; also speaking with Susannah Sirkin of Physicians for Human Rights. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté.

AARON MATÉ: Jamie Doran, I wanted to ask you—we're going to play a clip of your film, Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death. And can you set the scene for us, how you went about telling this story?

JAMIE DORAN: Well, I mean, it's funny. Just a few moments ago, you mentioned John Walker Lindh. The entire kind of press corps became fascinated by the American Taliban and literally ran to follow that story, when at the same time we had been told on the ground in Afghanistan that something very bad has happened, that some people had been tortured and maybe murdered at Sheberghan itself, which is why we ended up basically being the only journalists going in that direction, while everyone else was chasing Walker Lindh. And what we managed to do was get soldiers, first of all, to persuade soldiers, Afghan soldiers, who had been present throughout, to actually talk to us on camera and to tell us, including the one who admitted to shooting into the containers and killing prisoners—you know, they started to tell us the information. And literally, it was over a year investigation that we carried out in order to bring to the screen what we found.

AMY GOODMAN: We're going to turn right now, as we continue to talk about Afghanistan's new vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum—his rise coming despite his involvement in the 2001 massacre that killed up to 2,000 Taliban POWs—we're turning to the excerpt of Jamie Doran's documentary, Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death. Jamie traveled to the site of the massacres and the mass graves. The witnesses who testified in the film are unidentified, have their faces obscured, because they're afraid. But two of them are now dead. The clip begins with our guest, filmmaker Jamie Doran.

JAMIE DORAN: Originally loaded onto trucks at Kunduz, many of these men were crammed 200 to 300 at a time into the backs of sealed containers. After around 20 minutes, the prisoners began crying out for air.

EYEWITNESS: [translated] The weather was very hot. They put too many people inside the containers. Many died because there was no air.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many containers were at Qala-i-Jangi when you were there?

EYEWITNESS: [translated] The condition of them was very bad, because the prisoners couldn't breathe, so they shot into the containers, and some of them were killed.

EYEWITNESS: [translated] They told us to stop the trucks, and we came down. After that, they shot into the containers. Blood came pouring out of the containers. They were screaming inside.

JAMIE DORAN: One Afghan soldier admits that he personally murdered prisoners.

AFGHAN SOLDIER: [translated] I hit the containers with bullets to make holes for ventilation, and some of them were killed.

JAMIE DORAN: You specifically shot holes into the containers. Who gave you those orders?

AFGHAN SOLDIER: [translated] My commanders ordered me to hit the containers for ventilation, and because of that, some prisoners died.

JAMIE DORAN: But this was no humanitarian gesture. Rather than shooting into the roofs of the containers, the soldiers fired at random, killing those nearest the walls. A local taxi driver had called in at a petrol station on the road to Sheberghan.

TAXI DRIVER: [translated] I smelled something strange and asked the attendant where the smell was coming from. He said, "Look behind you." There were three trucks with containers fixed on them. Blood was running from the containers. My hair stood on end. It was horrific.

JAMIE DORAN: Whether or not the prisoners in the containers were ever really destined to reach Sheberghan must be open to question. The jail was full, and those already incarcerated were facing hardships of a different kind at the hands of American soldiers. They were reluctant to talk, particularly when the prison chiefs hovered close by, listening to our conversation. But one Taliban, who had been filmed during the surrender, was more forthcoming when we interviewed him out of earshot of the prison guards.

TALIBAN MEMBER: [translated] They were searching for bin Laden and questioning us about al-Qaeda. They were cruel. They took some of our men to Cuba, and they did a lot of things in here which scared us. The American commandos beat many of us to scare us into talking.

JAMIE DORAN: One of the Afghan officers, present at the time, confirms his story.

AFGHAN OFFICER: [translated] They cut their hair and beards, mainly the Arab prisoners. Sometimes they chose one for pleasure, took the prisoner outside, beat them and then returned them to the prison. But sometimes they were never returned, and they disappeared. The prisoner disappeared. I was a witness. They came after two or three days. They broke some prisoners' necks and were beating others. They were crying, but everyone ignored them.

JAMIE DORAN: These things you saw specifically yourself?

AFGHAN OFFICER: [translated] Yes.

JAMIE DORAN: But for those prisoners crammed inside the containers, a quick death would have come as a blessing. Some of them remained for days in the desert before reaching Sheberghan. Accounts from survivors talk of licking the sweat off each other's bodies and even biting their fellow captives in a desperate effort to gain fluid in any form. The Pentagon has stated frequently that it knew nothing of the container convoy.

WITNESS: [translated] The Americans were in charge.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] Where were they? On the walls or near the gates of the fort?

WITNESS: [translated] They were standing at the front gates, where the prisoners were.

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] When we got to Sheberghan prison, there were some Americans and some Afghan soldiers. They wanted to unload the trucks, and they were taking charge of the area.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many American soldiers were there?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] About 150 to 160. We didn't count the number.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] What were the Americans doing in the prison?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] They were there to make sure the prison was secure. There were so many Americans, and they were all armed and wearing their uniforms.

JAMIE DORAN: As the containers were opened, the full extent of the carnage became apparent. One soldier, who has since fled from Afghanistan, describes the scene in an interview with a Pakistani newspaper.

AFGHAN SOLDIER: [translated] I shall never forget the sensation as long as I live. It was the most revolting and most powerful stench you could ever imagine: a mixture of feces, urine, blood, vomit and rotting flesh. It was a smell to make you forget all other smells you ever experienced in your life.

JAMIE DORAN: For 10 days, the Red Cross tried to get access but were refused. They were told that they couldn't enter because American soldiers were working inside. And this picture taken at Sheberghan on December 1st, 2001, during the period when the containers were arriving at the prison, confirms their presence. Witnesses speak of U.S. soldiers searching the dead for identification before insisting that the Afghans remove the bodies from the prison. The Pentagon, however, will not comment.

ROBERT FOX: It was particularly important to find any identification on these bodies, because they were desperate for intelligence on al-Qaeda. They had underestimated the strength of al-Qaeda and its spread. They knew very little about it. So, human sensibilities did go out of the window.

JAMIE DORAN: The healthy captives were led into the prison and the dead packed into single containers. But many of the prisoners had not died. Some were so badly wounded they were thrown back into the containers with the dead. Others were simply unconscious following the journey to Sheberghan.

Using a small tourist camera to avoid detection, we traveled to the deserts of Dasht-e-Leili, just 10 minutes from the prison, with two drivers who agreed to show us where they were ordered to take the containers.

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Some of the Taliban were injured, and others were so weak they were unconscious. We brought them to this place, which is called Dasht-e-Leili, and they were shot there, there and over there.

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] They took my truck and loaded a container onto it, and I carried prisoners from Qala-i-Jangi to Sheberghan, and after that, to Dasht-e-Leili, where there were shot by the soldiers. I made four trips backwards and forwards with the prisoners.

JAMIE DORAN: The mounds of sand show clearly where many of the bodies lie. Human bones and a few pieces of clothing with Pakistani labels are all that remain of those buried near the top of the piles.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many people were you carrying?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] About 140 to 150 each time.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] Did you bring them here?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Yes.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] What was done with these people?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] They were brought here and shot.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] They were alive?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Some of them were alive. Some of these were injured, and the rest were unconscious.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] When you brought the prisoners here, were there any American soldiers with you?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Yes, they were with us.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] Here, at this spot?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Yes, here.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many American soldiers were with you?

TRUCK DRIVER: [translated] Lots of them. Maybe 30 to 40. They came with us the first two times, but I didn't see them on the last two trips.

JAMIE DORAN: If American soldiers were involved in covering up their role at Sheberghan prison, it would border on war crimes. If they stood by as the summary execution of prisoners took place, when they could have intervened, this would be positively criminal. But could the United States argue they were not in a responsible position?

ROBERT FOX: They would not have taken orders from Afghans. They would have been in charge of security there; therefore, it is an American command, therefore it is ultimately an American responsibility for whatever went on under the eyes of those American soldiers.

ANDREW McENTEE: It's quite clear that because you have film evidence of a mass grave, people confessing, that the relevant authorities, be they American, Afghani or international, must carry out an investigation. You have identified the site of a mass grave. You've identified bodies in those graves. And it's quite clear again that pathologists, forensic pathologists, exhuming the bodies, could identify the cause of death and, I think, very importantly, could identify who these people are, because their families have the right to know. They have been disappeared involuntarily after being murdered.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Jamie Doran's film, Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death, the film looking at how Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum orchestrated the killing of up to 2,000 Taliban POWs in 2001. Dostum was sworn in as Afghanistan's new vice president yesterday. Jamie Doran, in this minute that we have left, what does this mean for the future of Afghanistan and the Afghan relationship with the United States? Today, the new president, Ashraf Ghani, is signing the bilateral security agreement with the U.S., which will keep up to 10,000 U.S. soldiers there, something Hamid Karzai wasn't willing to sign.

JAMIE DORAN: Well, again, Dostum is quite a divisive character. The reason that [Ashraf] Ghani wanted him on board was largely the Uzbek vote, but also his representation, if you like, in the north. [Ashraf] Ghani is well known amongst the Pashtun population. He needs to carry the north with him if they're going to keep Afghanistan together and keep the battle against the Taliban going. So, in that way, you know, he had very, very little choice. The real power in northern Afghanistan is not him. It's not even Abdullah Abdullah. It's another man entirely. But Dostum is, if you like, a middleman to them who can actually keep it together. But it's, frankly, a shocking state of affairs when a man who has been accused of being a murderer by his own president is now the vice president. That's beyond my understanding.

AMY GOODMAN: Jamie Doran, we want to thank you for being with us, independent documentary filmmaker. We'll link to our broadcast of the film, Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death.

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News Wed, 01 Oct 2014 11:38:21 -0400
Modi and the Environment http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/26547-modi-and-the-environment http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/26547-modi-and-the-environment

As India's NDA government led by Narendra Modi settles into the corridors of power in New Delhi, its policy directions are becoming clear. The initial trends are not very encouraging for environmentalists. Proactive decision-making is normal for new regimes and not unique to the NDA. Many thousands of hectares of forestland were cleared for development projects - mainly mining - in the last three decades. But the process of obtaining clearances for a range of projects has been fast-tracked.

2014 1002 modi stPrime Minister Narendra Modi of India at the US Capitol, September 30, 2014. (Photo: Caleb Smith)As India's NDA government led by Narendra Modi settles into the corridors of power in New Delhi, its policy directions are becoming clear. The initial trends are not very encouraging for environmentalists. Proactive decision-making is normal for new regimes and not unique to the NDA. Many thousands of hectares of forestland were cleared for development projects - mainly mining - in the last three decades.

But the process of obtaining clearances for a range of projects, from mining to roads, has been fast-tracked in the last few months. Over a short four months, more than 92 projects have been approved, requiring the clearing of 1,600 hectares of forests. Pursuant to an office memorandum issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, demanding easing of conditions for certain projects such as coal mining, clearances for projects located near sanctuaries and national parks have also been fast-tracked. An extraordinary procedure of making states responsible for clearances has also been implemented, which is a new thrust in India's center-state relations. It is a public secret that the state pollution control boards are under-staffed, under-equipped and corrupt.

Safeguards that existed in the clearance procedure, such as required public hearings, have also been largely bypassed or diluted. Wherever possible, subjecting projects to public hearings and consent of the gram sabhas (a body of all eligible voters in a village) have been avoided. The NDA and the media apparently view the mandated requirements of environmental impact assessments and public hearings as impediments to development. Existing coal-mining projects can now apply for a one-time capacity expansion of up to 25 percent without any public hearing. Moreover, small coal mines, producing less than 8 million tons annually, have been allowed to double their capacity without any hearing.

High-Level Committee Headed by T.S.R. Subramaniam

Especially worrisome, the government has constituted a four-member committee, under the erstwhile cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramaniam, to review laws relating to the protection of the environment and forests, with the ostensible aim of suggesting amendments that will make these laws more effective. The committee will review the implementation of five major green laws: Environment (Protection) Act 1986, Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974, and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1981. The committee is to recommend amendments to bring them into conformity with "current requirements," according to the memorandum of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Most disturbingly, this panel will take into account various court orders and judicial pronouncements relating to theseacts. This seems a veiled threat to negate the Supreme Court's handful of environmentally protective judgments.

This raises the pertinent question of what the Ministry's current requirements are. Activists have claimed that the clearances in question are an attempt to dilute the laws related to environmental protection for purposes of economic development. Strict procedural norms, such as those relating to public hearings, may inconvenience industrialists. The leadership in the NDA government has spoken repeatedly about how projects were being held up for "frivolous" reasons and that they were proving to be "roadblocks" to development. It is believed that two laws of the previous government, the UPA, namely the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010, and the Forest Rights Act, 2006, have delayed, among others, the 52,000 crore (roughly $90 billion) POSCO project in the high unemployment state of Odisha. While the government has denied wishing to dilute the laws, it is clear that the government considers the environment laws, as currently implemented, as constituting a roadblock, and wishes to expedite the process of development at the cost of environmental protection and sustainable growth.

Not only is the policy of the government unlikely to benefit the environment; it is also unlikely to benefit its own objectives. Most projects are not rejected on environmental grounds. The developers continue to pollute. The NDA is not doing much more than furthering the policy of the UPA in a more transparent manner, since less than 3 percent of the projects were rejected under the UPA on environmental grounds. While reform of the legislation may definitely be required, the need of the hour is not fast-tracked clearances, but rather the consolidation of clearances, called single-window clearances, and greater transparency, including publishing all information related to environmental clearances in the public domain. Not only does this help the environment and communities, but it is also likely to increase the speed and efficiency with which environmental clearances occur.

National Green Tribunal

One important thrust of Modi's actions seems to be to undermine the National Green Tribunal (NGT). Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta told The Hinduthat many dilutions have been in the offing for a long time, but in the case of the NGT, it would be very difficult to recast it as an administrative or quasi-judicial body, as suggested by reports. When asked, new Minister of Environment Javadekar ruled out any such change in the NGT. Dutta said that the NGT was instituted by an act of Parliament and could not be wished away. "While green laws have been facing threats throughout, what is different now is the lack of concern for environment protection . . . [There is] emphasis on transparency in the form of clearances, [but] what about compliances? You cannot be selectively transparent."

The Environment Ministry wants the NGT to make recommendations to the government instead of issuing directions like a judicial body. In its view, only the impressionable Supreme Court of India should have the right to reject clearances. A year ago, the ministry asked the tribunal to limit its jurisdiction, but the proposal was rejected. The move to amend legislation was initiated by Javadekar himself. A cabinet note - prepared by his ministry - to water down the powers and jurisdiction of the tribunal would be circulated for inter-ministerial discussion soon, sources said.

Since its inception in 2010, the NGT, which is headed by a former Supreme Court judge, has stayed approvals for several projects. In the POSCO case, the NGT asked the Environment Ministry to review clearances after some local villages refused to consent to the project under the pro-tribal Forest Rights Act, 2006. Officials say the requirement of mandatory consent from the gram sabha for initiating any project is the biggest hurdle in pushing infrastructure development in mineral rich, poor regions.

Consolidated Green Clearances

An alternative to the current government's actions would be to consolidate all green clearances, be they related to environment, forests, wildlife or coastal zone, so that decisions can be taken understanding the overall impact of each project. Multiple clearances required separately lead to delays and poor decision-making. The Supreme Court has asked the executive to establish and empower a national regulator for environmental clearances. It is either this officer, or a comparable red tape cutter, who should oversee all clearances.

As of now, 99 percent of projects manage to get environment-related clearances; 94 percent get forest clearances. Industries are able to bag these clearances due to a multiplicity of regulations and regulators that help unscrupulous elements in industry. In the current scenario, the government has no system in place for independent appraisal of project clearances. The authorities lack the capacity to monitor compliance with clearance conditions. And lack of access to reliable and relevant information related to project clearances makes them contentious.

These deficiencies must be addressed and this can be best done if an independent body is set up to oversee clearances. The body should be given enough powers and resources to conduct a proper assessment of relevant conditions as well as to impose fines and sanctions. It must be transparent and accountable and encourage public participation in green clearances. All information related to green clearances should be put in the public domain. The process of public hearings must be strengthened and made more transparent. Governance is not only about faster clearances and industrial development alone, but also about compliances, sustainable development and equity for future generations. Modi must not forget the millions of people who voted for him hoping for an equitable share in India's economic growth.

Anjali Kumar and Yogendra Singh Mertiya helped research these issues.

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Opinion Thu, 02 Oct 2014 11:04:05 -0400