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DAWN - Editorial; December 17, 2005

December 17, 2005


The CIA ‘leak’ issue

NOW President George W. Bush is getting sucked into CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity leak scandal. On Thursday, a White House spokesman denied claims by syndicated columnist Robert Novak that instead of asking others one should ask President Bush who revealed Plame’s identity. One of the top White House staffers, Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, has already resigned and is facing trial on charges of perjury. Also under investigation is Karl Rove, President Bush’s deputy chief of staff. Apparently, the issue is the source of the leak — a criminal offence under US law — but on a deeper analysis it is one of policymaking in the Bush White House and its take-over by men who have formed a group of their own and pursued their private agenda. Former diplomat Joe Wilson, Valerie’s husband, had reported that the claims about Baghdad buying uranium were untrue. However, to his horror, he saw that the Bush administration was getting ready for war after feeding the media with the false reports that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Mr Wilson then wrote a number of articles in which he criticized the Bush administration’s pro-war policy. It was to punish him that one of the neocons in the Bush White House leaked to the media the embarrassing truth that Mr Wilson’s wife was an undercover CIA agent. The press had hinted that the leak could also have come from Vice-president Dick Cheney, but now a seasoned journalist thinks the president himself knew who the person behind the leak was.

The truth is that the neocons in the Bush administration had from day one only one agenda — to advance Israel’s cause, and since Iraq was the only Arab state with some sort of military and technological capability, the neocon cabal was bent upon destroying it. The list of the neocons well-entrenched in the Bush administration is long — Mr Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz (now the World Bank president), Richard Perle, a top Pentagon adviser, who resigned following some allegations, Mr Libby, now on trial, Mr Rove, under investigation, Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of Defence, and others. As subsequent revelations confirmed, the hard-liners wanted an attack on Iraq immediately after 9/11, even though no evidence was available that Baghdad was involved in the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

An insider who blew the whistle on the neocons’ activities was Lawrence Wilkerson, who was an aide to Colin Powell, then secretary of state. In a speech to the New America Foundation in Washington in October, Mr Wilkerson said Mr Rumsfeld and Mr Cheney, who represented America’s “military industrial complex”, had formed “an Oval Office cabal” and made their own decisions. What he was implying was that the normal policy-making process was not followed and the necons headed by these two took decisions “in secret”. They were helped by the fact that Mr Bush, according to Mr Wilkerson, was not “versed in international affairs”. No wonder, the neocons had a field day and “courted disaster” for the US in the realm of foreign policy. If not immediately after 9/11 then later, the necons did succeed in attacking Iraq on the basis of a hoax — that Iraq had WMDs. That America is now hopelessly bogged down there, and unable to give a pullout schedule, with more than 2,100 Americans killed, is the necons’ handiwork — all because Israel feels happy one of its principal foes has been punished. Hurting America to advance Israeli interests seems to be no problem with the neocons.

Getting the priorities right

THE issue of two separate aircraft purchases, one for the use of VVIPs and the other to enhance the Pakistan Air Force’s airborne radar capability, is currently being discussed in the Senate’s standing committee on defence. The chairperson of the committee is a strong, at times zealous, supporter of the military government and has consistently prevented the press from covering these meetings. Members of the committee from the opposition have raised objections to both purchases, arguing that the Oct. 8 earthquake and the increased debt burden on the country on that account require austerity measures and a rethink of spending priorities. In this context, objections have also been raised, in parliament and the media, to the government’s plans to purchase a fleet of limousines, ostensibly for the use of foreign dignitaries visiting Pakistan.

The fact is that the government needs to respect public opinion on this issue, especially since the cost of such purchasers is borne by the taxpayer. Even without the earthquake, the public would take a dim view of the idea of spending scarce resources for pomp and ostentation. People are justified in asking where is the need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase planes for VVIPs when existing aircraft can do the job? If the issue is that the planes now being used are too old, then cannot the services of PIA be used? The president has in the past flown on commercial flights, and if that can no longer be done because of security considerations, then a plane from PIA’s fleet can certainly be used for the duration of a particular foreign visit. Likewise, there is no need whatsoever to purchase limousines for foreign or domestic dignitaries given that the car pool of the cabinet division — used for such purposes — is already full of fancy vehicles. As for the PAF’s requirement, that deal is debatable at the moment in spite of the fact that India has also acquired a similar airborne radar warning system from Israel. Overall, the government does not seem to have adopted any austerity measures following the earthquake and this can be gauged from the way senior or even mid-level functionaries travel with armed escorts in style. What is the government waiting for to re-order its priorities?

Need for a balance

IT IS rather sad that on Thursday the Supreme Court had to remind the government that it was duty-bound to implement its judgements — in this case, the ban on serving meals at weddings, which, for years, has been openly flouted. It also revoked the Punjab government’s decision in 2003 to allow serving a one dish meal at valima receptions for a maximum of 300 guests. One can only hope that those entrusted with the task of ensuring that the law is followed in letter and spirit will do their duty. However, given that history is replete with examples of people’s disregard for the law generally, it won’t be surprising if the call for enforcing the wedding meal ban is ignored or ingenious ways sought to bypass it.

Of late, one has been impressed with the Supreme Court taking note of crimes like rape or environmentally hazardous projects for such actions will go a long way in strengthening peoples’ confidence in the judiciary, long mired in controversy and apathy. However, one cannot expect the courts to step in and address issues like social evils as these are matters to be debated in the assemblies. While the court is correct in noting that customs like huge dowries are not in accordance with Islam, it should have also asked the authorities to strictly enforce an existing law on dowry, which is a far greater social evil than serving meals. Given that the ban on meals has proved to be difficult to enforce in view of traditions governing weddings, the matter needs to be reviewed by parliament and alternatives sought that do not deprive people from celebrating. Allowing people to serve one dish or putting a ceiling on the number of guests may be one way of striking a balance between principle and practice.

A flawed labour policy

By Karamat Ali and Omar Abbas

TWO years ago, the federal Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) promised a “Labour Protection Policy (LPP) to ensure protection of workers’ rights in all sectors, fair working conditions, enhancing labour productivity, encourage enterprise efficiency and competitiveness.” That promise remains without performance.

Funded by the Asian Development Bank, the finance ministry has asked the labour ministry to propose two policy documents — one on labour protection; and another on labour inspection as implementation. A separate document on “labour market flexibility” is also under preparation; this will supposedly balance labour welfare of job security with enterprise profits in hire and fire.

Reflecting the low priority attached to labour, the government is a year late in holding consultative workshops. Given its clout and goals in government, the business lobbyist SMEDA (Small and Medium Enterprise Development Authority) is organizing the workshops rather than the labour ministry which is supposed to prepare the policy. A draft of the labour protection policy was prepared by consultants in February 2005, but was only recently made available.

The draft is, in fact, an elaboration of the labour policy of 2002, as well as a supplementary document. Explicit attention on revision of legislation is excluded, except selectively to promote labour flexibility. The policy continues to be formulated in the tradition of a conservative state that gives precedence to capital over labour, and enterprises over workers for growth instead of development; and hence more stress on employment rather than decent work.

Five main areas are proposed to be dealt with: (1) ‘Basic rights’ that correspond to the country’s Constitution and the ILO declaration; (2) ‘Working rights’ which include miniages; work hours and leave; job security; (3) ‘Work environment’ as in health and safety issues; (4) ‘Social security’ to cover only work related health; unemployment and retirement (5) ‘Living environment’ that includes health in ‘non-working’ life.

Coverage is to be “progressive” and “selective” for workers and enterprises in different sectors with varying work arrangements. Presumably even minimum wages will not be accorded the status of a right of all workers. Apparently, the government and enterprises will continue to define workers rather than the workers themselves.

Workers “outside the system of formal work arrangements” — the majority — will be provided “extension services in safety and health and some aspects of social protection,” rather than be covered by labour laws since provincial labour departments “could never hope to secure compliance.”

These extension services are a reflection of a very innovative expression of diluting obligations — “to protect workers in the informal economy in an informal way.”

This logic would suggest abolishing most of laws, (even perhaps the Constitution) and hence discarding much of government. Furthermore, laws are seen more as a nuisance of being called to account, rather than acknowledging the rights around which discourse and hence social struggle can take place. More perceptive international elites, of course, recognize this force of law. Interesting discussions are to be found in ILO publications, Globalisation and decent work policy: Reflections upon a new legal approach; and in IDS monographs, Making Law Matter, and Developing Rights.

Initiatives against forced labour and child labour remain confined to the national plans of action. Even in that context, there is no attempt to respond to systemic failures in implementation, since there may be an incomplete understanding of structural issues. For child labour, a concrete target is given of removing children from tanneries and mines by end 2005. These choices may well reflect a fear of trade sanctions.

Equality and non-discrimination goals remain confined to gender issues. These are extremely important, but this narrow vision suggests the need for a careful re-reading of the conventions underlying the declaration or even the Constitution. Excluding any workers from common standards of protection is blatant discrimination.

“Compliance and enforcement is the responsibility of the labour inspection system.” There is considerable stress on self-inspection and the use of technical experts. Self-regulation and third-party monitoring by private firms can be a naive suggestion unless Enron is kept in mind — a useful reminder by the ILO in Economic Security for a Better World.

It would have been complementary to government efforts in compliance, but collective bargaining is to remain weak with the government encouraging “bilateral interactions” at the enterprise level. There is nothing serious ventured about using workers and employers organizations to promote compliance and broaden coverage.

Since the National Minimum Wage Council is not working, the labour protection policy draft asks for it to be replaced by a wage commission of “eminent” persons. Periodic adjustments would reflect inflation, as well as enterprise and labour productivity, and social security benefits. Social security in micro enterprises is to be on a voluntary basis. This will also be available to self-employed workers, but not to agricultural workers. No government contributions are recommended.

Curiously, the only two types of agricultural workers mentioned are those in corporate farming and farmers. The MoU between the ministry of agriculture and the ministry of labour is mentioned, but without any attempt to remedy its shortcomings, including denial of the national minimum wage even to workers in corporate farming, despite the declaration.

Unemployment benefits “cannot be seriously considered at this stage” by bank consultants because it is considered by the government to be “beyond the nation’s capacity.” It would appear that the ADB will not fund any scheme for unemployment benefits, preferring to strengthen market provision of secure jobs (which is a contradiction of its advocacy of flexible labour markets). If debt bondage results from job insecurity, so be it, seems to be the attitude.

The labour protection policy is sketchy on social security. Perhaps the government is awaiting directions from the study on social protection, also funded by the ADB.

The policy is yet another instance of enterprise lobbies striving to weaken the implementation of legislation. The commission for the consolidation, simplification and rationalization of labour laws (2000) was rendered ineffective because the chair kept waiting for a new labour policy — ignoring the obvious fact that the Constitution and ILO conventions already provide comprehensive policy directions. Then, instead of focusing on serious implementation of its own much-delayed (and weak) labour policy 2002, the government is now seeking further postponement through the process of preparing the labour protection policy and labour inspection policy.

Workers clearly must await a socially just leadership in government that actively promotes state obligations enjoined by the Constitution and international conventions. Without mass mobilization of informal workers, such a leadership is unlikely to come forth.

Stakes in Hong Kong

FOR a brief moment after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the world’s leading nations wanted to extend a ladder of opportunity to poor and potentially resentful nations.

They launched a new round of global trade talks, calling it a “development round” because it was supposed to cut farm tariffs and other obstacles to poor countries’ progress. The good intentions didn’t last. A follow-up summit of trade ministers in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003 broke down chaotically when the European Union and the United States tried to impose an unsatisfactory pseudo-deal on developing countries.

Now, after another two-year interval, trade ministers are meeting in Hong Kong. Progress has been shamefully slow, and the chances that the round will realize its development potential are almost nil. Still, it’s important that the next few days yield at least a modest deal. A collapse could destabilize the global trading system.

Congress has granted President Bush “trade promotion authority,” the power to negotiate trade deals and get an up-or-down vote in Congress without having the document picked apart in a series of amendments. But this authority expires in the summer of 2007 and is unlikely to be renewed; it was granted in 2001 in that anomalous moment of post-Sept. 11 lucidity. Negotiators therefore have about a year to put together a hugely complex deal, but their efforts so far have been confined mainly to agriculture. Even there they have stalled, largely because the European Union has offered a loophole-ridden proposal that would barely reduce its farm protectionism.

If this trade round collapses, it would fuel the disturbing trend toward regional and bilateral trade pacts, which boost prosperity less effectively. These smaller deals tend to come with burdensome red tape: For example, the United States has granted preferential market access to African exporters, but it insists that African goods be laboriously certified as genuinely African to screen out products that might be shipped from another region to take advantage of the special access. Regional deals also tend to divert trade as much as they create it, shifting prosperity from one region to another rather than actually generating it.

The collapse of the trade talks would also threaten a dangerous burst of litigation.

— The Washington Post

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2005