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web posted March 19, 2001

UN racism conference turns...well...racist

A $21-million United Nations conference on racism has become mired in a flood of anti-Western and anti-Israeli sentiment.

Asian, African, Latin American and Caribbean countries have rejected a draft UN "plan of action" to combat racism in favour of their own interpretation of racial justice.

A regional UN group representing Asia -- including all Middle Eastern nations but Israel -- wants the UN to re-equate Zionism with racism, a Cold War concept the UN General Assembly expunged from its literature in 1991. It also wants to link globalization to racism, and calls for former colonial powers to compensate the countries they once ruled.

Africa is demanding the West pay massive compensation for the transAtlantic slave trade, during which 14 million black Africans were transported to the Americas in the 16th to 19th centuries.

But the demands have upset the United States, which is rumoured to be considering boycotting the meeting -- the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, set for Aug. 31-Sept. 7 in Durban, South Africa -- if efforts to brand Israel racist persist.

The Bush administration has also already told Mary Robinson, the UN's chief human rights official, that it does not want slavery to dominate the agenda.

Canada's position is more fluid.

"We oppose attempts to equate Zionism as racism, but we haven't yet decided if we'll attend should this debate be on the agenda," said François Lasalle, spokesman for the Foreign Affairs department.

However, Asian countries have also come under fire.

Human Rights Watch, the New York-based monitoring group, criticized India for trying to exclude caste-based discrimination from discussion at the conference.

"We find it odd that the largest democracy in the world should try to stop discussion of a serious human rights abuse that affects 240 million people in Asia," said Smita Narula, the group's senior researcher for South Asia.

"This was simply a question of Indian officials not wanting to admit having serious international human rights problems at home."

Dissent arose even before preparatory conferences in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia were held to produce four regional documents.

The Asian group refused to allow Australia and New Zealand to join it, even though this made most sense geographically. The two countries joined the European group.

"The tendency in the UN system to think that it's OK to exclude some liberal democratic countries because they might not agree with the larger group is unacceptable," said Michael Colson, executive director of UN Watch, a Geneva-based monitoring group.

"But when this takes place in a conference that is supposed to be about tolerance, the irony is palpable."

Holding the Asian regional conference in Tehran also led to contradictions as the Iranian government barred two UN-approved organizations. Visas for representatives of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the Paris-based Jewish Nazi hunters, arrived too late, while those for representatives of the Baha'i faith, which arose in Iran in the 19th century but has been persecuted since the fall of the Shah, never arrived at all.

"That's the essence of racism," said Ruth Klein, national director of the Institute for International Affairs with B'nai Brith Canada, a Jewish advocacy group. "If this is a taste of what will emerge from South Africa, the conference is in trouble."

In producing the UN plan, UN officials referred to the regional documents. But they passed over sections they thought stood little chance of receiving consensus at the Durban gathering.

The plan called for combatting racism through fairer laws, better education and equal economic opportunities for all.

Robinson says in a note attached to the UN plan its contents are "necessarily selective and are inspired by the quest to identify consensus building blocks that would enable the international community to go forward together united in the struggle against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance."

Robinson has been surprised at the level of criticism of the plan.

Delegates at a four-day meeting in Geneva two weeks were the first to see it. Rejecting it, an Iranian delegate said a "compendium" of the plans from all four regional conferences is the "only basis for further discussion and negotiation."

Such talk alarmed Western countries. "The rules of the game are being changed somewhat," said Kevin Lyne, a British delegate. He reminded countries that they had agreed the UN should draft an action plan the globe could implement in unison.

The UN now plans to create a compendium of the world body's proposals, plus the regional statements, plus amendments suggested in Geneva.

"It's an impossible task," said Colson. "Pushing for this is clearly a delaying tactic by governments who wish to see this conference fail."

Failure would be a bitter blow to Robinson, the former Irish president.

"The problem is that she has clearly identified herself with the success or failure of this conference," said one insider. "If she has to preside over a conference that contains all the Asian group's proposals and also pushes for compensation and reparations for slavery, I don't know what that says for her future."

But some dissenters are speaking out. At the opening of Africa's regional meeting in Dakar, Senegal, in January, the country's President, Abdoulaye Wade, warned of the "hazardous speculation" involved in claiming reparations for the effects of slave trade. "Who pays whom? And how much?" he asked, adding, "We're wrong to cry about the past while failing to face the future with optimism."

But few countries have followed his example in criticizing the regional declarations.

"Countries might disagree, but they have to defend the group," said Colson.

U.S. Attorney investigating all Clinton pardons

Justice Department officials on March 13 confirmed the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan has been given authority to investigate all of the clemencies and pardons announced by President Clinton on his final day in office.

"An organizational decision was made a couple of weeks ago for a routine consolidation of allegations in all the pardon cases," said a Justice Department official who asked not to identified.

The allegations will be investigated by attorneys in the Southern District of New York under the control of U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, a Clinton appointee.

The Justice Department officials dismissed a published report which said "a special team of prosecutors" had been designated to pursue the investigations.

"There's no special team, there's no expansion of authority, there's no additional resources," an official said.

Although officials working for Attorney General John Ashcroft in Washington will be informed of White's findings, no prosecutors from the Justice Department in Washington will be involved in the probe, the sources said.

The former President announced 177 pardons and commutations on the morning of January 20th, only a few hours before he left office.

White's office has launched a criminal investigation into circumstances surrounding the pardon of fugitive businessman Marc Rich, for the commutations for Hasidic Jews convicted of fraud.

Officials refused to speculate on whether FBI investigators from New York or White's prosecutors will seek assistance from other field offices or U.S. Attorney's offices. Jurisdictional issues could require potential prosecutions to be transferred eventually to the federal districts where crimes were allegedly committed.

Scalia slams 'living' document philosophy

The Constitution is an enduring document but not a "living" one, and its meaning must be protected and not repeatedly altered to suit the whims of society, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said in Milwaukee on March 13.

Antonin ScaliaScalia, often reviled as an arch-conservative who would do the nation harm, admitted to a respectful crowd of more than 1,000 people at Marquette University that his "originalist" judicial philosophy is not popular.

In contrast, the idea of a "living Constitution" in which the meaning can be interpreted as society changes is "seductive," he said.

But Scalia also insisted that only his approach - interpreting the Constitution based on the Framers' precise words and the meaning they intended at the time - can preserve the Constitution's guiding principles.

"The Constitution is not an organism," the justice said, "it is a legal document."

Scalia spoke to 500 people inside Weasler Auditorium and to more than 500 more in an adjacent building in the first appearance of a U.S. Supreme Court justice on Marquette's campus in more than 33 years. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a Shorewood native, spoke at a Marquette commencement off campus in 1988.

Scalia, who was appointed to the high court by President Reagan in 1987, is widely regarded as possessing a surpassing intellect and as being an articulate voice for political conservatism on the court. Although there were no disruptions inside the auditorium, outside more than 100 protesters espousing liberal views chanted anti-Scalia slogans before his 5 p.m. speech.

Scalia, however, sought to distinguish himself as sitting not on one end of the political spectrum, but as a judge who utilizes a philosophy that seeks to preserve the original meaning of the Constitution. Judges who don't adopt an originalist or "textualist" approach, he said, have no judicial philosophy and issue rulings based on the majority view of society at a given time.

That "living Constitution" approach, Scalia observed, has led to U.S. Senate hearings in which candidates for federal judge or Supreme Court justice are grilled about which rights they believe are in the Constitution. Eventually, voters will choose and demand judges based not on their ability to interpret the Constitution but on the political positions they hold, he warned.

"The horrible consequence of that, you understand, is that it places the meaning of the Bill of Rights in the hands of the very entity against which the Bill of Rights was meant to protect you against, that being the majority," Scalia said.

The protesters bashed Scalia for his votes against affirmative action and abortion rights. They also railed against his vote to stop the manual recount of votes in Florida, which ultimately led to President Bush's election victory over former Vice President Al Gore.

"He's against civil rights, he's against women's rights, he's against the voters in Florida," said Brian Verdin, 48, of Milwaukee, who wore a skeleton mask and held a sign that read, "Scalia is scary."

During a half-hour question-and-answer session that followed his half-hour speech, Scalia dismissed one questioner who asked why the Supreme Court decided to hear the voting case, saying the high court generally takes important cases. But Scalia was also glib, joking that with backers of the "living Constitution," "I am left to defend the 'dead' Constitution."

Scalia's clear aim, however, was to get his audience to care about how judges interpret the Constitution. "Originalists" such as him, he said, are in the minority throughout the legal system.

Scalia began by saying that an originalist or a textualist takes meaning from the Constitution "from its text, and that meaning does not change." The text itself is augmented only by examining what the Framers of the Constitution intended at the time - not by what a majority in society might prefer today, he said.

Scalia said that by adopting this judicial philosophy, he is often treated as if he were "eating little babies." But the originalist approach in fact is orthodox, widely held by jurists throughout most of the nation's history, he said.

Only in the past 40 or so years, beginning probably with the ascendancy of former Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, did judges see the Constitution as an evolutionary document that could be interpreted differently with the passage of time, Scalia said.

Scalia said he understood why judges, and much of the public, would support the "living Constitution" because with such an approach, the Constitution can say anything you want it to. But this nation was not built on the principle that judges, attempting to gauge the will of society, would interpret the Constitution differently as time goes by, he said.

The Constitution, Scalia declared, must remain static, but that does not mean that laws cannot change to reflect changes in society.

The answer for advocates of, for example, abortion rights or the death penalty is to garner enough support from the public and pass laws - not have Supreme Court justices and judges continually revising their views of the Constitution in order to satisfy society, Scalia said.

"That's flexibility," he said. "What the proponents of the 'living Constitution' want to bring you assuredly is not flexibility; it is rigidity."

The protesters, who were kept off Marquette property, said they believed they made an impact on public opinion. One of them, Milwaukee attorney Art Heitzer, said, "People are really scared of this court - what it's doing and what it might do."

Clintons still owe nearly $4 million in legal fees

The Clintons are nearly $4 million short of paying off their legal bills despite years of intense fund raising to rid themselves of legal debts racked up from various investigations, including Whitewater and the impeachment scandal, their trust said March 14.

The Clinton Legal Expense Trust -- the fund created to pay the legal bills for former President Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York -- and an earlier fund have paid $7.4 million in legal fees so far.

But that is far short of the $11.3 million of fees accrued during eight years in the Oval Office from January 20, 1993, to January 20, 2001. The Clinton fund has raised $8.7 million in contributions since its formation in 1998, receiving more than 116,000 donations for an average of $75 per contributor.

Some of the money has gone toward administrative expenses. In 2000, for example, the trust accepted a little more than $1.5 million in donations. About $1 million went toward legal expenses and roughly $450,000 went toward various administrative costs, including direct mailing expenses and office rent, according to an audit of the trust done by a private accounting firm.

The firm is Argy, Wiltse & Robinson of McLean, Virginia.

The trust accepts contributions of $10,000 or less per person a year from individuals who are U.S. citizens and are not registered lobbyists.

The trust, bound by law, cannot accept contributions from corporations and partnerships. Nor can it take money from political action committees, labor unions or other politically oriented groups.

North Korea Calls U.S. a nation of cannibals

North Korea issued on March 14 one of its toughest warnings against the United States since relations with South Korea began to thaw after the North-South summit meeting last year.

The North has been ratcheting up its criticism since President Bush, in talks with the South Korean president, Kim Dae Jung, in Washington two weeks before, expressed "skepticism" about the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il.

The Bush administration has cited a threat from North Korea as a large part of the reason for its determination to push ahead with building a missile shield. And Mr. Bush said he was concerned about "verification" of any agreement with North Korea under which it might pledge to give up efforts to develop missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

Calling the United States "a cannibals' nation" and charging the Bush administration with "escalating its provocative and reckless diatribe" against the North, the Communists pledged a "thousandfold revenge" if "the U.S. imperialists turn to confrontation."

The announcement, using language that was typical of the North's tone until last year, came in an editorial titled "Don't Make a Mistake," broadcast on national radio and in the Workers' Party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun.

The editorial was issued a day after the North deeply disappointed South Korean officials by canceling, with an hour's notice and without explanation, cabinet-level meetings that were to have taken place here last week as part of a broadening of contacts.

On March 15, the two sides planned their first exchange of letters between members of 300 families separated since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. Today the border between the two Koreas is among the most heavily militarized on the planet, secured by some 37,000 American troops.

A South Korean official, acknowledging that analysts were still "puzzled" by the North's intentions, said cancellation of the week's talks had "greatly embarrassed" Kim Dae Jung, the guiding force behind efforts at reconciliation.

"Nobody knows what to think," the official said. "It is a blow to everything the government has been doing."

The opposition Grand National Party, which holds the largest bloc of seats in the National Assembly, charged that the North, by stepping up a propaganda offensive against the United States, hoped to bring about direct negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, bypassing Seoul.

The very rich pay growing tax share

The political battle over President Bush's tax-cut plan has centered on charges that it tilts too heavily to upper-income taxpayers. But the debate has obscured one fact about the nation's progressive tax system -- an increasingly small segment of the population pays a huge share of federal income taxes.

Consider this: The 400 wealthiest taxpayers pay about as much in federal income taxes as more than 40 million individuals and families at the bottom of the income scale, according to Internal Revenue Service data.

Those 400 taxpayers paid about $8.7 billion in taxes last year, more than enough to fund the State Department and its 30,000 employees in 250 embassies, consulates and other offices around the world.

The rising disparity in incomes between the wealthiest and poorest Americans, rather than changes in the tax system, is largely responsible for the increasing share of the tax burden on the wealthy.

In 1980, the top 1 percent of taxpayers (about 1 million individuals and families) paid about 19 percent of the federal income taxes; in 1998, the top 1 percent paid 35 percent.

Meanwhile, millions of low-income Americans pay little or no federal income tax, or receive a share of more than $30 billion in tax credits for the working poor.

"The principal reason taxes are so skewed is that income is so skewed," said Joel Slemrod, a leading tax expert at the University of Michigan. He said the share of total income reported by the top 1 percent of taxpayers rose from 8.5 percent in 1980 to 18.5 percent in 1998.

That may be one reason some of the richest of the rich don't appear to resent their multimillion-dollar tax bills.

"Speaking for myself, I don't need a tax cut or tax relief," said David Geffen, the music mogul who has amassed a $3.3 billion fortune and is 70th on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans. "It is a privilege to be an American citizen," he said. "It is appropriate to pay a greater share of taxes."

On average, each of the 400 top taxpayers paid more than $21 million in federal income taxes last year on income of more than $64 million, according to estimates based on the IRS data. Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, who earned more than $60 million last year as chairman of Alcoa Inc., may fall into this category this year. He said he expects to pay about $24 million when he files his tax return in April, an amount he considers appropriate.

The estimate of the taxes paid by the 400 top taxpayers was calculated by a Harvard University professor who asked not to be identified. The estimate, from the IRS's Statistics of Income database, was derived from a 1995 microdata file of 401 taxpayers with the highest taxable income, the last year for which such information is publicly available. The database is used by the Congressional Budget Office and other agencies for research on the individual tax burdens.

In 1995, the 401 top taxpayers reported total taxable income of $17.1 billion and paid $5.8 billion in income taxes before certain credits, according to the professor. The information in the data file is obscured so that researchers are not able to identify individual taxpayers. The professor updated the income to 2000 levels.

Bush has proposed an across-the-board cut in federal income taxes, meaning that those who pay the most in the taxes will generally get the biggest share of the tax cuts. On average, the top 400 taxpayers would get a tax cut of about $4 million each when the tax cut was completely phased in.

"Given the state of the tax system, it is really hard to design an income tax cut that is not in absolute dollars the biggest for the wealthy,"said Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago professor who has studied how the rich respond to changes in tax policy.

The picture changes somewhat when payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare are included. About 80 percent of American workers pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes, according to the CBO. The bottom 40 percent of the taxpaying population, who contribute about 1 percent of income tax revenue, pay about 14 percent of overall payroll taxes. The top 1 percent pay only 4 percent of all payroll taxes.

There is a cap on the amount of earnings subject to Social Security payroll taxes; in 2000, all wages above $76,200 were exempt from payroll taxes. In 1993, however, as part of President Bill Clinton's deficit-reduction plan, the cap was lifted on payroll taxes for Medicare hospital insurance, so even the very rich pay Medicare taxes on all income.

O'Neill, for instance, said he paid $874,000 in Medicare payroll taxes last year. His employer, Alcoa, paid an equal amount.

Bush has not proposed to reduce payroll taxes, except in the context of broader Social Security reform. But several Democrats and some Republicans have proposed a credit against some payroll taxes, which if adopted could significantly alter the distribution of the tax cut and possibly help the president win some Democratic votes on Capitol Hill.

Hargrove calls for purge of NDP leadership

It's time for Alexa McDonough to step down as leader of the federal New Democratic Party, says Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union.

Ontario NDP leader Howard Hampton should also bow out, the high-profile labour leader said in March 14 in Kitchener.

As well, Hargrove believes the long-standing marriage between the NDP and organized labour is over.

''There's no respect for the relationship now ... it's not working and it's not something that can be fixed,'' Hargrove said. ''I'm not feeling good about it at all. We've all but destroyed our party. I'm incredibly disenchanted.''

Hargrove was in Kitchener to speak to the Confederation Club about the makeup and activities of the 250,000-member auto workers union.

The only hope for the future of the social democratic party is ''radical change,'' he said. But Hargrove is not optimistic, citing the movement to more centrist policies intended to attract a broader spectrum of voters.

''With this fuzzy, middle-of-the-road stuff, you lose the energy, the passion and the enthusiasm.''

Hargrove's comments are the latest salvos in an ongoing criticism of the party's leadership and perceived drift away from its traditional, core policies.

Asked about the call for McDonough's departure, MP Bill Blaikie, the party's house leader, said in a separate interview: ''As far as I know, Buzz is the only one who has said this. The consensus in the party is that Alexa is doing the right thing by staying on.''

Hargrove noted the federal NDP under McDonough garnered 21 seats in the 1997 election but wound up with only 13 in 2000 with a mere 8.3 per cent of the national vote.

The party did worse in 1993 with leader Audrey McLaughlin, when it plunged from 43 to nine seats.

Still, under McDonough, Hargrove said: ''We've had one of the worst showings in the history of our party ... and now Alexa has to move on. We have to elect a new leader.''

As for Hampton, the Ontario New Democrats reaped a record low share of the popular vote, 12.6 per cent, and took only nine seats in the spring election of 1999.

Last December, Hampton took sharp aim at Hargrove's repeated criticisms of the NDP and said: ''At every opportunity, he either tries to embarrass, to criticize or to undermine.''

Last week, Hargrove called that an ''unprovoked attack'' which, among other things, shows ''he hasn't got the leadership qualities that are needed to lead a major political party.''

He added: ''Howard has to come to grips with the fact that he's part of the problem and not the solution.''

Canada changed position on Cuba's participation in Summit, minister reveals. About time.

Canada is no longer an advocate of Cuba being permitted to participate in future hemispheric summits or the Organization of American States, the foreign affairs minister says.

John Manley revealed at a parliamentary committee on March 15 that Canada has taken the same position as the United States and others that Cuba does not yet deserve to be at the table. Barbados and other Caribbean nations have said they support Cuba's presence. Mexico has also never supported Cuba's suspension from the OAS.

"Canada agrees that Cuba is not ready to participate in the summit because it lacks a commitment to democratic principles," Manley said after the committee meeting.

That's a reversal of the position the Liberal government has taken at two previous summits.

At the 1994 Summit of the Americas in Miami, Prime Minister Jean Chretien suggested it was hypocritical for the OAS to include other known dictatorships, but exclude Cuba.

"We always felt Cuba should have been invited to the summit but it was evident there was not unanimity about it," he said at the time.

Four years later, at a summit in Chile, Chretien took a strong stand again, announcing he would visit Cuba shortly afterward.

Since then, Canada's relationship with the Caribbean country has cooled considerably. During his Cuban trip, Chretien appealed on behalf of a group of dissidents who were on trial. His appeals fell on deaf ears, and the activists were jailed.

NDP MP Svend Robinson said Canada is "obviously taking its directions from the United States."

"Frankly it's appalling and it's hypocritical when we look at the fact that OAS has included in its membership some of the most brutal military dictatorships," Robinson said.

Manley said countries like Haiti and Colombia, who have poor human rights records and shaky democracies, are included in the OAS and negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) because they at least hold elections.

During the parliamentary committee, Robinson accused Manley and Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew of being secretive in negotiations on the FTAA, a common complaint of citizens groups.

The NDP, the Bloc Quebecois, and dozens of non-governmental organizations have clamoured for the government to release the negotiating text for the proposed agreement.

They say parliamentarians and the public have a right to know what is being discussed, and how it could affect society.

Pettigrew said Canada is trying to gain consensus from the 34 members of the OAS to release the text, and is hoping that will occur during a meeting of trade ministers in Buenos Aires early next month.

He noted that Canada could not release the text unilaterally.

That meeting is schedule for two weeks before the Summit of the Americas, scheduled for Quebec City from April 20-22.

The government has been trying to take the emphasis of the summit away from the trade agreement, and focus more on other discussions planned on issues such as social development and connectivity.

But the FTAA has been a sore point with many human rights, labour, environmental and anti-poverty activists, who say there should be firm clauses in any agreement to protect rights.

Pettigrew made it clear that environmental and labour rules would not be included in the text of the FTAA, but would be negotiated in separate side deals.

"Imposing our labour standards and our norms that we have as developed countries right now . . . is perceived by these countries as protectionism by the back door," Pettigrew said.

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