Friday, September 27, 2013

Climate change alert : the heat is on

“It’s the science, stupid! Climate change is happening, humans are causing it, and action is urgent,” tweeted Connie Hedegaard, the EU's commissioner for climate action after Friday’s presentation in Stockholm of the most exhaustive and authoritative report on the state of climate science to date.
She could have added that Portugal, along with Denmark and Sweden, are showing the way.
The final report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), compiled from 9,000 scientific studies by 800 scientists in many countries, has concluded there is now a 95% certainty that humans are the chief cause of global warming.
Many sceptics will still side with the 5% uncertainty. Some are pointing to the IPCC’s findings that there has been a ‘pause’ with world temperatures barely rising over the past 15 years.
Samantha Smith, leader of the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Climate & Energy Initiative, has a more representative view.
“Whichever facts may be discussed, debated or distorted, we cannot ignore the reality that we must act or face frightening new impacts. We know that most of the pollution that causes climate change comes from burning fossil fuels. WWF calls on governments and investors to stop investing in dirty energy and start an immediate and just transition by investing in renewables.”
Portugal in its small way is already doing that - though there is certainly no room for complacency and still a long way to go in achieving previously set goals.
An earlier international report rated Portugal third least guilty out of 58 countries responsible for more than 90% of global energy-related CO2 emissions.
 The Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) for 2013 said Portugal’s high ranking was due to a reduction in energy consumption as a consequence of the  economic crisis. The downward trend in the use of electricity, gas, petrol and diesel per person is expected to continue.  So perhaps there is something to be said for austerity after all.
Another study, conducted on behalf of the European Commission and published in February this year, highlighted the promotion of renewable energy as a key element of Portugal’s energy strategy.
It noted that climate-related policies had lost priority in the political agenda due to the economic crisis. Even so, the latest national projections show that with existing measures Portugal is expected to meet its greenhouse gas emission targets for 2020.
Renewable energy technologies in Portugal made up 24.6% of the total energy consumption in 2010, placing this country in a good position to meet its 2020 goal of 31%.
Renewables, including  photovoltaic, wind and hydro power sources, now account for almost half of the electricity generated in Portugal.
Of the 58 countries evaluated in the latest annual CCPI study,  Denmark, Sweden and Portugal were accompanied high up in the approval rating by Ireland and the UK. The United States was way down. China, Russia and Canada were near the bottom. Iran and Saudi Arabia came last.
.Urgent action is now required in response to the starkest “unequivocal” warning yet, say the world’s leading climate change scientists.
Of course, climate change knows no borders. People everywhere will suffer if the predicted extremes of heat, drought and flooding come to pass.
If the IPCC's 95% certainty is more or less accurate, it is now up to the rich and powerful countries to stop dithering and take urgent steps to save the planet instead of wrecking it. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

'Queen of Europe' continues her reign

It is indicative of how much things have changed in Europe in recent years that the outcome of the general election in Germany last weekend is likely to have a much more profound effect on Portugal than the elections to be held throughout Portugal this coming Sunday.
Commentators in Berlin say the euro crisis played only a marginal role in the German election campaign, the first in that country since the start of the eurozone crisis, but it is expected to continue to be very high on Angela Merkel’s agenda during her fourth term in office.
Dubbed by some the “Queen of Austerity”, by others the “Queen of Europe,” the German chancellor is expected to stay on track without making any sudden changes of policy on Europe. But if the centre-left Social Democrats join her conservative Christian Democrats in a grand coalition government, they may push for a softer austerity program for struggling euro states like Portugal and Greece.
The triumph of the Christian Democrats met with a mixed reaction in Portugal as elsewhere in the European Union. It varied from those who see Germany as the saviour of the beleaguered eurozone, to those who believe it is trying to take control of Europe economically in a way it failed to do militarily.
While the chants of “Angie!” and “Mutti” (mother) were still ringing out among her celebrating supporters at home, Chancellor Merkel’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said the victory should be reassuring, not worrying, to Europeans.
“We will remain reliable in the role of stability anchor and the growth motor of Europe….. Germany continues to have an important leadership responsibility,” said Schäuble.
Portugal’s financial situation remains precarious. Commented the Wall Street Journal: “Now that the German elections are over, the eurozone needs to get back to crisis fighting. And top of the list of urgent problems is what to do about Portugal.”
The focus in Lisbon is on whether the troika will relax the 2014 budget deficit target that sparked a political crisis in June and resulted in immense damage to investor confidence.
The S&P credit rating agency say there is an increased likelihood that Portugal might need a second bailout.
Voters will go to the polls on Sunday in local elections in every municipality across the country with little optimism that their preferred candidates will make any difference to the bigger picture.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The pain and shame of poverty

How times have changed in a few fractious years! An alarming number of once prosperous Portuguese have joined the so-called “embarrassed poor,” unable to afford even basic food needs and dependant on handouts.
Severe austerity measures and high unemployment have caused the steady disintegration of middle class society. Poverty has become rife and it continues to spread.  
The European Union has been donating €20 million in food aid annually to Portugal, Western Europe’s poorest country, but this may soon be curtailed under a revised and less specific aid program now being drafted in Brussels.
Isabel Jonet, president of the European Federation of Food Banks (EFFB), is concerned that the impending cut could be as much as 40 per cent.
EFFB, with 253 affiliates in 21 countries, works with many multinational food producers and hypermarket chains. It is dedicated to minimising food waste and maximising nutritional distribution to those in dire need. Last year it supplied the equivalent to 776 million meals to 5.4 million people in the EU.
Isabel Jonet is also president of the Lisbon-based affiliate, the Portuguese Federation of Food Banks (Federação Portuguesa dos Bancos Alimentares). It has a network of associates collecting and distributing food across mainland Portugal and in the Azores and Madeira.
In the decade to 2011 the federation tripled the amount of food it handled. In how dispenses about 120 tons each weekday. Nearly 400,000 of Portugal’s population of 10.5 million benefit each month.
The worry is that the EU “Food for the Needy” program that has been donating the €20 million each year is to be replaced by the “Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived,” which is expected to be more diverse and have fewer food resources. The present program is to end this year but no date has yet been announced for the start of the replacement program.
The Portuguese government, preoccupied as it is with strict bailout repayment terms, has no firm plans yet to deal with any interrupted or additional food requirement problem.
Rendered virtually bankrupt by the global credit crisis, the harsh reality is that Portugal has been under the dictate of the Troika of moneylenders and a government that has felt it necessary to impose severe austerity measures.
Record high unemployment has pushed people into poverty.  Things have been deteriorating so swiftly that it is impossible to keep up with the true figures. Two years ago, the Portuguese National Statistics Institute reckoned that 18% of the Portuguese population – roughly 1.8 million people - were living below the poverty line. The situation is undoubtedly much worse now.  
As impressive or shocking as all these raw statistics may be, they tell nothing of the personal humiliation on top of the hunger suffered by individuals and whole families. While many have no option but to swallow their pride, a whole generation of skilled labour is being lost to emigration.
In terms of rich and poor, Portugal is now the most unequal country in the eurozone, according to Oxfam and other sources.
Reuters recently quoted a Lisbon mother of two students who has had to stop work because of cancer and whose husband is unemployed. She appealed to EU food policy makers. “Please think about those who struggle, many of them are not speaking up because they are ashamed. Please consider all the other bad things the government is already doing to us.”

Monday, September 16, 2013

McCanns’ €1 million libel action

 The unanswered question of what happened to Madeleine is at the root of the McCanns vs Amaral libel hearing now underway in Lisbon.
With the hearing in recess for a few days, it is perhaps a good moment to reflect dispassionately on just how polarised public opinion is over the mystery of Madeleine’s disappearance more than six years ago.
The question is not for the libel hearing to consider, of course, but this legal action once again highlights the fact that public opinion is broadly split into two camps.
The McCanns have always insisted their daughter was abducted. During the original investigation, the lead detective Gonçalo Amaral became convinced she died in the holiday apartment, that her body was secretly disposed of, and that the McCanns lied about it.
In the absence of proof beyond all reasonable doubt, both theories remain just that – theories. Broadly speaking, the mainstream media in the UK seem to have accepted abduction and are sympathetic to the McCanns. Internet forums dedicated to the subject are generally of the opposite view and are awash with criticisms of the McCanns. Defamation laws restrain the mainstream media. Not so the Internet.
Central to the present libel action is the book The Truth of the Lie in which Amaral sets out his considered conclusions. The McCanns argue that not only does the book defame them personally, but by influencing public opinion it has also hindered efforts to find Madeleine.
What is being contested is not only Amaral’s views, but his right to express them publicly. It is a freedom of expression issue.
It was inevitable that the libel case would further rally supporters on either side. Many strongly believe the McCanns have been shamefully treated. Many others equally strongly believe Amaral has similarly suffered.
“That man has caused so much upset and anger because of how he has treated my beautiful Madeleine and the search to find her,” Kate McCann has written.
“I’ve been left with no chances, no way of paying my debts and liens on my property. I’ve had to move away from my family in order to protect them.” Amaral told a reporter who interviewed him about the pending libel action.
The courts have been ponderous. The controversial book published in July 2008, and a video of the same title made from a documentary shown on Portuguese TV, were both banned by a civil court in Lisbon in September 2009. The ban was confirmed in January 2010. A higher court overturned the ban in October of 2010 and this was upheld in March 2011.
The current civil case against Amaral, his publishers and the video makers had been much delayed. It was last postponed in January this year to give both parties time to reach an extrajudicial agreement. This did not happen. The case finally went ahead on Thursday and Friday with the McCanns demanding more than €1 million in damages.
The main testimony so far has been that of a psychologist specialising in dealing with children who have suffered trauma. He told the hearing that Madeleine’s twin siblings could be in danger of developing mental problems if they were to discover the claims made in Amaral’s book.
The seven-day hearing is being strung out over several weeks. It is scheduled to continue next Thursday and Friday (19th and 20th), then again on October 2nd and 8th, concluding on the 5th of November.
The strength of public opinion is such that many have already made up their minds, but the court could go either way.
Mrs McCann told reporters on arrival in Lisbon: “I’m here to stop the damage that has been caused and is still being caused, both directly and indirectly, to the search for our daughter.”
The book has been out for five years. It is said to have sold 200,000 copies, been translated into nine languages and its contents are available on the Internet.   
Meanwhile, more than six years after she disappeared, there is still no hint of a definative answer to the question, what happened to Madeleine?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Syria worries Portugal’s neighbours

Portugal’s nearest Arab neighbour, Morocco, is increasingly feeling repercussions from the crises in North Africa, as are Portugal’s EU partners along the shores of the Mediterranean.
Morocco is a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, the same as Syria, but like many other Sunni states it has little sympathy for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which is led by Shia Muslims. Nor has it much time for Assad’s neighbour and close ally, Iran, with which it has fallen out badly, accusing Iran of trying to promote Shia Islam in Morocco.
Portugal and Mauritania, immediately to the south of Morocco, are currently joint presidents of Dialogue 5 + 5, a forum on security and economic matters. The other member states are Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia (all predominantly Sunni), plus Spain, France, Italy and Malta.
The foreign ministers of Dialogue 5 + 5 met in April. The next high-level meeting is next month in Barcelona. It is scheduled to focus on business co-operation, but no doubt there will also be discussions about the regional consequences of the Syrian crisis.
The most pressing threat for the European members is an invasion of refugees from Syria and the Maghreb countries situated on Europe’s southern doorstep. The Spanish port of Melilla on the north coast of Morocco, adjacent to Malaga, is one of the hot spots for entry into Europe by tens of thousands of Muslim migrants and asylum-seekers.
Many of these desperate people have left their own countries for economic reasons. Many others are fleeing from the turmoil at home and are trying to get a foothold in Europe, even in Greece where they are increasingly unwelcome because of the dire economic crisis there.
While a US punitive strike against the use of chemical weapons in Syria is now “on hold,” there is no lull in the fighting and no end in sight to the civil war. The Portuguese government must be aware that worsening hostilities in Syria could ignite a regional conflagration that could spiral the already massive refugee problem beyond control.

The spread of terrorism presents another deeply troubling threat. The Al-Qaeda organisation, most commonly associated with Afghanistan, was officially launched in the Islamic Maghreb in 2007. It now exists and is thought to be on the rise, not so much as a central organisation but as disparate splinter groups, in a number of North African countries, including Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.
It is believed that among the many foreign al-Qaeda inspired groups currently fighting on the side of the rebels in Syria is one announced just last month by a long-time Moroccan jihadist and former detainee of Guantanamo Bay, Brahim Benchekroun. He has been using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to attract Moroccan recruits to the cause.  
“We consider democracy to be kufr (blasphemy) against God Almighty and a doctrine that is in contradiction to God's sharia,” is one of their mantras.
Other Moroccans were already fighting in Syria under the banners of rival jihadist groups before Benchekroun came on the scene, according to Abdellah Rami, a Moroccan researcher specialising in Islamic organisations.
The latest group is not just about recruiting fighters for jihad in Syria, says Rami. Benchekroun’s real goal is to build a Moroccan jihadist organisation that will also turn its attention to the home country.
Dr Cherkaoui Roudani, a Moroccan legislator and geopolitical expert, agrees that the target of the new pro al-Qaeda group of Moroccans is Morocco itself.
Could Spain and Portugal be somewhere down the line in the jihadists’ ambitious sights? The idea was espoused by Osama bin Laden and other leading jihadists. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is among those who have long dreamed of reclaiming the far-flung medievial Muslim empire that expanded early in the 8th century to include much of Spain and Portugal.
Concerns about al-Qaeda activity in the Iberian Peninsula have been growing in recent years. Three months ago Spanish security forces broke up a network that was sending combatants to terrorists groups in Syria linked to al-Qaeda. They arrested eight suspects in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in Morocco. Spain’s internior minister said the network had been involved in fundraising and indoctrination activities, as well as arranging and financing travel for dozens of jihadists to Syria

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Portugal’s partners confer on Syria

While the main international organisations with which Portugal is most closely associated have all condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria, there is no consensus yet on what should be done about it and little support for President Obama’s call for military intervention.
NATO and the European Union believe the Syrian government was responsible  for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus and must be censured in some way, but neither body has fully spelt out how. The Vatican is adamant that military action would be “futile” and should be ruled out in favour of diplomacy.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen insists that a firm international reaction is needed to show not only President Bashar al-Assad, but also dictators around the world, that such weapons cannot be used with impunity.
“It would send a dangerous signal to dictators all over the world if we stand idly by and don’t react,” said Rasmussen.
NATO, of which Portugal is a founder member, has stopped short of offering to get involved militarily, at least for now. It would, however, strongly defend Turkey if this member state were attacked in any widening of the Syrian conflict.
On President Obama’s call for a punitive military strike, Rasmussen said,” I’d envisage a very short, measured, targeted operation, and you don’t need the NATO command and control system to conduct such an operation.”
EU defence ministers meeting in the Baltic state of Lithuania agreed that the evidence presented so far indicates that the Assad regime was behind last month’s chemical weapons attack on his own people. The ministers agreed that “those responsible must be held accountable” and tried by the International Criminal Court, but there was no mutual support for military action.
The French government is the most hawkish and the only European country likely to materially back any American strike, even though polls show that the majority of the French people would oppose it.
The Vatican’s view is unequivocal. Pope Francis wants an end to the “senseless massacre” of innocent people in Syria. He has called for a negotiated diplomatic settlement to the prevailing “one-sided interests.” The Vatican insists the main priority should be to stop the current violence that risks involving other countries and creating “unforeseeable consequences in various parts of the world.”
An opinion poll conducted before last month’s chemical weapons attack indicated that 80 per cent of Portuguese respondents rejected military action in Syria. Almost three-quarters of all Europeans and 62 per cent of Americans questioned in the survey said their government should not intervene in the Syrian civil war. 
Portugal, like other NATO, EU and Catholic countries believes that Syria’s flagrant breach of international law banning chemical weapons must be condemned, but it is concerned that a military strike may  jeopardise the prospects for peace and make any United Nations Security Council resolution all the more difficult.
Russia’s President Putin has said the “ridiculous” suggestion that the Syrian government was to blame for the attack was “a provocation by those who want to drag other countries into the Syrian conflict.”
The Iranian government has said a foreign military response could turn the civil war in Syria into a regional conflict. Intelligence reports indicate that Iranian-backed Shiite militias are threatening retaliation inside Iraq should the US strike Syria.
The pro-Assad Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon has reportedly put “tens of thousands” of fighters and reservists on alert in anticipation of a US strike. A Hezbollah response to US action could involve Israel.
In the meantime, confused and divided Syrians of all religious and political persuasions are reportedly trying to prepare for some sort of US intervention but do not know what President Obama means by a “limited” attack and what consequences it could have.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Syrian chemicals pose moral dilemmas

The Portuguese government would like to see a military punative response to the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria, but only if it is backed “as far as possible” by an international organisation such as the Security Council of the United Nations.
This cautious view is in contrast to the blustering hostility and hypocrisy that has been streaming out of the United States.
Portuguese Foreign Minister Rui Machete has said there is “little doubt” chemical weapons were used and he understands “the need to sanction a practice that flagrantly violates international law.” But he notes that it is very difficult to accurately predict the consequences for peace of a military strike. “We await developments,” he said.
Machete was speaking after the British parliament’s rejection of military action and before the matter is fully discussed by the US Congress. His hope that no action will be taken without UN approval is in line with that of President Putin of Russia.
Meanwhile, an air of confusion prevails. In reporting all the rhetoric coming out of  St Petersburg,Washington, Damascus and elsewhere, the mainstream media has largely ignored the moral dilemma posed by the current outrage.
While it does not make the killing of 1,429 men, women and children near Damascus with chemical weapons any less heinous, it should be remembered that an estimated 100,000 Syrians have been killed by conventional weapons in the current civil war.
    The argument that the use of chemical or biological weapons is in some way more evil than other forms of slaughter is highly questionable when it is remembered that the North Korean dictators Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il reputedly killed thousands if not millions of their own people through starvation. 
 Humans have been carrying out appalling mass killings since the dawn of history. For example, historians estimate that during the 16th century Lisbon Pogrom, otherwise known as the 1506 Easter Slaughter, between 2,000 and 4,000 suspected Jews were massacred and thrown into pyres across the Portuguese capital.
Although it was already considered “uncivilised,” poison gases were widely used during World War I. Well over a million tons of chemical agents claimed hundreds of thousands of casualties.
The United States used Agent Orange extensively during the Vietnam War. It resulted in the death or maiming of 400,000 people. Half a million children suffered birth defects. The US government disputes the figures, but the Vietnam Red Cross estimates that up to a million people are disabled or have health problems due to Agent Orange.
During the Iran-Iraq conflict in the 1980s, tens of thousands of Iranian soldiers were killed during Iraqi chemical weapons attacks, aided by intelligence reports on Iranian troop movements from President Reagan’s administration, which was well aware of Iraq’s chemical weapons capabilities at the time.
In the 1990s, the United States itself had a huge stockpile of chemical weapons and it is said to have retained 15 per cent of its Sarin gas arsenal even after the international chemical weapons ban was introduced in 1997.
The United States and Israel, as well as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, have been accused of using white phosphorus in battle in the past ten years.
International law still allows the use of napalm against military targets. While most famously used by the Americans in Vietnam, this deadly chemical incendiary agent has been used by several other countries, including Portugal during its 1961-74 colonial war.
“Is there a sliding scale for the ethics of a heinous action? Is it worse to die of gas or hunger?”  asks Carl Hausman, editor of Ethics Newsline, among the few journalists to tackle the moral issue over Syria head-on this week.
On the other hand, “What level of certitude must we attain before the United States can commit ethically to a punitive strike? In a similar vein, can we ever hope to definitively conclude that every diplomatic option has been played out before we attack? Is waiting for a larger consensus always the ‘right thing to do,’ even if it draws out the risks associated with an already demonstrably deadly situation?”
Peaceful Portugal is preoccupied with its own dire domestic problems and has no real option but to urge caution and view the Syrian crisis from the sidelines. Caution seems preferable to President Obama’s aggressive blustering.
Don’t forget, this is the same Obama who in 2009 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”