Friday, February 28, 2014

War of words as nations argue over human rights

In the history of the world there have been abhorrent abuses of people’s human rights. The abuses of medieval ages are past, but well into the 21st century human beings are still subject to torture, unjust incarceration, harassment or worse.

Such abuses are often detailed in reports from various organisations, including Amnesty International, Reporters Sans Frontières and Liberty.

Nation states also release reports detailing such abuses. However such reports often stir up consternation with other countries cited in such reports. At particular loggerheads are the United States and China who often engage in a tit-for-tat war of words over human rights abuses, amongst other issues.

US points finger at Syria, Russia & China

This week the US’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor published its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013 [BBC].

This year is particularly poignant since it is marked by the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But as the papers released by the State Department clearly detail, human rights abuses still continue.

While the main focus was the ongoing rights abuses in Syria, particularly singled out in the US report were Russia [PDF], that “continues to curb civil society and political opposition and target marginalized populations, including religious and ethnic minorities”, and China [PDF] for its “lack of judicial independence” which the US said “has fueled a state-directed crackdown on activists and suppression of political dissent and public advocacy.” 

In addition to the US report the US Ambassador also added his voice to the debate and called on China to respect human rights [Daily Mail].

But Russia and China were just to two biggest countries accused of abusing human rights. Ukraine which has seen a turbulent few weeks was also detailed in the report with its former government accused of exerting “increased pressure on civil society, journalists, and protesters calling for government accountability and a future with Europe.”

There were also concerns raised about Cuba and Egypt where their respective governments also “used excessive force to quell peaceful protests and dissent.” [Summary PDF]

China upset at "arbitrary & irresponsible attacks"

China, it appears, took umbrage at the US report and responded with its own dossier detailing the abuses by the United States [VoA].

In its response, published via China’s state run news agency Xinhua, the State Department of the United States was criticised for making “arbitrary attacks and irresponsible remarks” on the human rights situation in almost 200 countries and regions.

“The US carefully concealed and avoided mentioning its own human rights problems,” Xinhua notes, and goes on to list what it calls “serious human rights problems in the US”.

It talks of America’s lack of personal security due to the “increasing number of violent crimes in 2013 with frequent occurrence of firearms-related criminal cases.”

“American citizens' lives and personal safety are threatened by an increasingly dangerous environment,” the report states. 

The Xinhua report points particularly at US surveillance of its citizens, highlighting the revelations exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowdon.

“The US government took liberty in monitoring its citizens, which shocked the world,” the article lambasts.

China also accused the US of tortures in its prisons and claimed that electoral systems were “plagued by malpractices and inefficiency”.

The US is accused of flagrant disregard for life with its drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan which have left countless civilians dead or maimed.

Truth & contradictions

Both reports have certain elements of truth, but just as China accuses the US of having “carefully concealed and avoided mentioning its own human rights problems”, so too did China fail to acknowledge its own breaches of citizens rights.

Indeed both nations could be accused of being a pot calling the kettle black.

The US democratic system is perhaps far from perfect, and there may well be instances of corruption. However there is no democracy in China at all and little if any way of seeking help or representation from one’s politicians. In fact any attempt to lobby or petition the Chinese government often results in a prison sentence.

It might also be true to say that many people are badly treated with the United States’ prison system Indeed, the Guantanamo detention facility did nothing to raise the image of the country in the eyes of civil rights campaigners.

However, China locks many people up in appalling conditions, following trial which are far from open and just.

As for monitoring and surveillance, both nations are as guilty as each other. In fact all nations may well carry out surveillance in order to protect its interests. What is different is that in the west, Snowdon’s revelations are public and open for debate. Similar discussions in China would likely be deemed as “subversion of the state” and result in lengthy prison sentences for any transgressors. Can one imagine an organisation similar to the ACLU, with its slogan “Because Freedom Can’t Protect Itself”, existing in China?

Casting stones

The use of drones is certainly a valid criticism. But for a nation that fails to recognise or even acknowledge the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, which left hundreds dead, or the great famine that saw millions die in the late 1950s and early 1960s, such criticisms are rather hollow.

The Cold War, and war of words that once used to exist between the West and Russia certainly seems to shifted further east.

But both sides need to take stock concerning these issues. Perhaps they might take note from scripture. As Jesus is once quoted as saying, "let he who is without sin, cast the first stone" [John 8:7]. The contect of his statement may have been different [See Wikipedia] but the basic principle stands.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Virtual currency concerns as MtGox shuts shop

This week saw a tumultuous upset in the currency market, though it was a story mostly consigned to the business columns of financial broadsheets. The story was that Bitcoin, a virtual currency, may soon be consigned to the virtual scrapheap [Telegraph].

MtGox shuts down

One of the biggest Bitcoin Exchanges, MtGox, had gone offline and was informing its customers that “in light of recent news reports and the potential repercussions on MtGox's operations and the market, a decision was taken to close all transactions for the time being in order to protect the site and our users.”

The exchange had already been hit by technical issues and recently halted all customer withdrawals of the digital currency after it spotted what it called "unusual activity".

But while six other major Bitcoin exchanges issued a joint statement distancing themselves from MtGox, the move to shut down such a large enterprise is a setback for backers of Bitcoin, who have been pushing for greater adoption of the currency.

The Bitcoin has had a shaky history, least of all to do with the security issues that are intrinsically tied into a virtual currency. Only days before MtGox shut shop the Financial Times was questioning whether the currency was “brilliant or bonkers”

The virtual currency went up 5,580% in price last year, which rather puts 30% equity market returns in their place, the FT’s New York correspondent Stephen Foley observed.

Such increases have raised eyebrows and prompted some individuals to make potentially unwise financial decisions. A growing number of people have been asking “what is Bitcoin?” and “should I buy some?”- but at Foley suggests, not necessarily in that order.

Given the unease concerning security, potential DDoS attacks on servers, reports of Bitcoin theft and huge fluctuations in Bitcoin’s value, one might have thought most rational people would have steered clear. Granted, it is not easy for governments to trace, thus the virtual currency has been linked to tax evasion, money laundering, and various transactions connected to illegal activity from drugs to arms dealing. As such governments are looking carefully at how they might control Bitcoin.


Bitcoin was created in 2008 by a mysterious computer scientist with the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, who conceived it as an alternative to government-controlled currencies and a means to transfer money quickly, cheaply and anonymously outside the slow, expensive and highly regulated international banking system.

Bitcoins are no more unusual in theory than Air Miles, Nectar points, or credits in online games, except that they can be transferred easily between people and used to pay anyone who wants to accept them, giving them greater currency than loyalty schemes.

The supposed maximum ceiling is 21 million Bitcoins, a built-in scarcity, a little like the gold standard, which is one of the main reasons the price has been driven up, as speculators anticipate greater use of a fixed pool of currency.

However after MtGox went offline the price dropped as concerns rose as to the future of the currency [BBC]. Others who trade in the currency tried to mitigate the damage. The closure of the site did not "reflect the resilience or value of Bitcoin", said a statement from representatives of several other Bitcoin exchanges, including Coinbase and BTC China.

"This tragic violation of the trust of users of MtGox was the result of one company's actions.

"As with any new industry, there are certain bad actors that need to be weeded out, and that is what we are seeing today.” [Business Week]


The Bitcoin might not quite be dead, but its value has slumped in the last month by almost half. Indeed it may well be a life or death moment for this virtual coin [BBC].

The latest reports have perhaps hit home and warned off investors about what some are calling the most dangerous currency in the world [Telegraph].

But Bitcoin isn’t the only virtual currency. An interesting graphic posted by the FT on its Google+ page illustrates several other currencies such as Catcoin, Dogecoin, Litecoin, Peercoin and Nxt.

Whether these virtual cryptocurrencies are any more or less secure, the MtGox shut down has affected them all [IBTimes].

According to the website CoinMarketCap, which monitors the market capitalisation of all cryptocurrencies, the various digital currencies have shown drops of anywhere between 10% and 40% for the digital currencies listed.

As regards the Bitcoin itself it has seen its value rise from $14 for a single Bitcoin to around $850 throughout 2013. But such large inflation has prompted many analysts to suggest short-term speculation is creating a Bitcoin bubble.

And where there are bubbles, there are often crashes. The danger is that even a crash in a virtual currency could cause fluctuations in real financial markets, depending how much money is tied up in the virtual currency.


Governments are perhaps rightly cautious about these new virtual currencies, not only because of the legal concerns, but also for knock-on effects on the real economy should these cryptocurrencies fail [Guardian].

But it is not just economists and governments that are raising concerns. Many comments on social networks show that the general public are still quite sceptical about such currencies.

As one man wrote on the FT’s Google+ page, “I am not an economist, but I was much happier when money was based on some physical and tangible commodity like gold. If we decide money is whatever we accept as money then  we may as well go back to barter or collecting sea shells.”

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Dalai Lama visit prompts war of words with China

China has once again been flexing its muscles and either dictating, or attempting to dictate, the new agenda this week.

Even before the Dalai Lama stepped off the plane in the US this week, China was already rattling a sabre saying that there would be consequences should President Obama meet with the spiritual leader.

Of course such threats were largely ignored by Washington, and were essentially out of China’s control.

Media controls

Meanwhile in China itself, authorities clamped down on media freedom once again, blocking CNN several times throughout the week during its In China series which focused on press freedom.

The roundtable discussion, hosted by CNN’s Kristie Lu Stout, featured The Wall Street Journal’s China bureau chief Charles Hutzler, Foreign Correspondents Club president and Christian Science Monitor correspondent Peter Ford, and Hong Kong University journalism academic Ying Chan.

However, the show was blocked within minutes as it went to air on Wednesday [The Australian]. It is perhaps unsurprising in a country that blocks most western social media websites and controls most of the news output at a central level.

China is ranked at 173 in the most recent World Press Freedom Index due in part to its track record for imprisoning journalists and censoring the Internet The situation also shows little sign of improving. There is no free discussion or an ability to air opposing views without attracting the attention of the authorities.

Reporting risks

Those that attempt to bring change often find themselves in court and imprisoned for years on end. Last month activist Xu Zhiyong found himself in court accused of having "gathered a crowd to disturb public order" after a series of small protests where demonstrators had unfurled banners in Beijing calling for officials to publicly declare their assets [CNN].

Western media who attempted to cover the trial found themselves targeted by police who manhandled several TV crews. A CNN crew was prevented from approaching and filming the court house and CNN's Beijing correspondent, David McKenzie, was kicked, pushed and punched by Chinese security before being forced into a nearby van and driven away.

“The government makes it much more difficult” to cover “the big stories” The Wall Street Journal’s China bureau chief Charles Hutzler told CNN. “And it's gotten much worse in recent years," Hultzer added [CNN].

While western media battles to get the news, it doesn’t face the problems experienced by China’s growing number of investigative journalists. They face battles not only in finding the truth behind the countless number of corruption cases, but also a battle in getting the story published.

Censorship, threats & violence

One such investigator, Wang Keqin, says the biggest problem he faces is not the threats, but the censorship imposed either by the media outlets themselves or the authorities directly.

“China today ought to be a paradise for investigative journalists, the unprecedented amount of shady deals that are happening here is beyond your imagination.” However, Wang has been warned off by officials, paid thugs, and many editors refuse to touch his stories.

He is one of a number of investigators who have been forced out of their jobs. But Wangs says this is only part of the problem. “Our biggest enemy is not physical threats, it’s censorship.”

“What they really need is a good editor in chief who’s willing to sacrifice for the story.”

For western journalists too there is a cost to trying to report the story. In recent years photographers and cameramen have particularly become the target of violence where in some cases their cameras are confiscated or smashed.

There are also inhibiting effects of so-called visa wars where journalists and reporters have had their visas refused or revoked. Both Bloomberg and the New York Times faced restrictions following the publication of stories which highlighted the financial affairs of top politicians and their family members.

Propaganda war

Clearly there is a propaganda war too. And the Dalai Lama’s visit highlighted this very strongly as Xinhua published dozens of articles criticising US policy, the Dalai Lama himself and those who seek Tibetan independence.

But while western media might publish both points of view, China’s media tends only to air the sanctioned view of the state.

China called on the US to hold back from meeting the spiritual leader saying he was engaged in “anti-China secessionist moves” [Xinhua].

Indeed Xinhua went on to describe the White House as becoming a “bully pulpit for Tibetan secessionists” and said the decision to meet the Dalai Lama was “both regrettable and harmful” as well as marking “a flagrant breach of Washington's pledge to refrain from interfering in China's domestic affairs

In another commentary published by Xinhua, the meeting was dubbed a “lose lose deal” that would harm Sino-US relations.

No middle ground

“While it is doomed to fail in its attempt to press for "Tibet independence," or the "middle way" approach that the high monk preaches, the third Obama-Dalai Lama in five years, planned at the White House Friday, is certain to harm China-U.S. relations,” the commentary read.

The US went ahead with its meeting regardless, but did nonetheless acknowledge China’s concerns.

In a statement the Obama administration said it supported the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way" approach to the political tensions over protests for Tibetan independence.

"The United States recognizes Tibet to be a part of the People's Republic of China and we do not support Tibetan independence," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. "The United States strongly supports human rights and religious freedom in China."

"We are concerned about continuing tensions and the deteriorating human rights situation in Tibetan areas of China," Hayden added. "We will continue to urge the Chinese government to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives, without preconditions, as a means to reduce tensions."  [CNN]

China for its part rejects the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” and the US’s support for saying the approach is “at odds with China's constitution and state system in every conceivable way” and that “It is nothing but smoke and mirrors, camouflage and deceit.” [Xinhua]

The debates on this and other issues are fraught with problems. In China there is no real debate, indeed it is one sided, and opposing or dissenting views or opinions are blocked. In the West both sides of the debate may be covered and discussed, but such discussions will not effect any change.

Those who need to hear the arguments, indeed rarely hear the counter argument. It is a situation brought about by a state that fear change, or an upset to the status quo.

But perhaps with the ongoing political and violent protest seen in the Ukraine these last few weeks, Beijing is justifiably cautious in allowing too much debate.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, February 14, 2014

Scotland's long fight for independence

While Britain reels over the continuing bad weather than has seen hurricane strength winds and almost constant rain for weeks there is another storm brewing in Scotland of a political kind, that of Scottish independence.

The Scottish government set out its plan for how Scotland would operate as an independent country, subject to a yes vote in this year's independence referendum. The 670-page White Paper on independence was hailed by First Minister Alex Salmond as being "Scotland's future in Scotland's hands".

The re-balancing of Scotland's economy, by increasing manufacturing, is noted as a priority. But should Scotland become an independent state, it may face some serious challenges.

In the last few days all parties in Westminster have said the pound may not shared with the Scots [D Mail].

Indeed with independence, Scotland may find itself not only politically independent but financially independent. This could create problems on both sides of the border with Scotland having to decide whether to join the euro or creating its own separate currency.

Some small business owners feel that independence would be an attractive proposition whilst others believe independence may come at a cost. "On the face of it, I would say with regard to small businesses it looks quite attractive," one business owner told the BBC in November as plans for a referendum were published. Another voice raised concern, saying, "Can the country really afford it?" [BBC]

Long fight for independence

Scotland joined the union in the early 17th century following the Anglo-Scottish Wars, a series of wars fought between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland. This culminated with the Union of the Crowns in 1603.

This was the last major battle between the two Kingdoms, but Scotland had been warring with England for more than a thousand years prior to this. Indeed one of Scotland’s most famous characters in history is Robert the Bruce who won a major victory over the English in 1307 at the Battle of Loudoun Hill. Robert fought successfully during his reign to regain Scotland's place as an independent nation, and even today he is remembered in Scotland as a national hero.

However battles continued between both countries for the next three centuries until Scotland eventually succumbed to English dominance.

Now after some 400 years Scotland may be reasserting itself. But this time the battle battle will be fought at the ballot box rather than in a battle field.

Financial hurdles

For many Scots independence will be welcome. But economically there maybe many difficulties ahead. With Chancellor George Osborne having make clear that Scotland could not keep the pound, an independent Scotland will face many hurdles [BBC].

Speaking in Edinburgh, Osborne said, "The pound isn't an asset to be divided up between two countries after a breakup like a CD collection...If Scotland walks away from the UK, it walks away from the UK pound."

In such a scenario, an independent Scotland would be more exposed to risks from the "volatile" energy and finance industries according to some analysts.

However, it has been widely suggested that an independent Scotland would not be obliged to take a share of UK debts. This could be a contentious issue on both sides of the border.

The UK's national debt in January 2012 stood at £988.7 billion. This excluded bank bailouts. Scotland's GDP per capita is only slightly below the UK's average, standing at about 98.7% of the UK average, so it might be a reasonable approximation to divide this debt evenly by population.

Thus, given Scotland has a population of around 5.1 million of the UK's 62.2 million people, its share of the debt would be about £81 billion. However, UK debt has increased over the past two years and may rise further still.

Should an independent Scotland be obliged to pay off its past debts, there will undoubtedly be some resentment. Conversely, should Scotland be allowed to walk away from these debts, there may be just as much resentment down south.

The oil question

Alex Salmond has hinged much of his economic dream on North Sea oil. However, according to the latest monthly report from the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries [Opec], the average oil output in 2013 from the North Sea registered its lowest level since 1977.

This represented a roughly 10% decline from the previous year of 90 thousand barrels per day [tb/d] and could undermine the arguments a number of Scottish nationalists regarding the North Sea oil and gas cash cow which would be available to Scots.

The revenues are significant, though the UK's Office for Budget Responsibility [OBR] predict oil revenue will drop from £6.7 billion in 2013 to £4.1 billion by 2017-18.

The bigger issue at hand is whether such reserves would willinngly be handed to an independent Scotland by Westminster. Under the present arrangement, oil tax revenues are assigned to an economic region set up by the UK government, which is called the UK Continental Shelf [UKCS].

This means that oil resources are not officially assigned to Scotland but instead to a region distinct from the British mainland.

But if Scotland were to become independent, and a sovereign state, it might expect the UKCS to be divided up on a "geographical" basis.

Westminster might try to negotiate a Median Line approach; drawing a dividing line on which all points are the same distance from the Scottish and rest of the UK coastline. This would be similar to the approach used to determine the boundary between Scotland and the rest of the UK for fisheries after devolution in 1999.

No discussion has yet taken place between the UK and Scottish governments on the detail of what would happen to oil revenues should Scotland achieve independence [BBC / Guardian / IBT].

Growing economy

Scotland’s GDP stood at £148.73 billion in 2013, though this included revenues from North Sea oil and gas. But even aside from energy reserves, its GDP is strong.

When thinking of Scotland many have images of Whisky, haggis and lochness monsters. But Scotland also has a thriving economy currently growing at around 0.7% per annum.

Beyond its claims on North Sea gas and oil reserves, Scotland also does well in agriculture, banking & finance, the computing sector, construction, fishing, shipbuilding, textiles, tourism as well, of course the production of its most famous of exports, Scottish Whisky.

Indeed whisky is probably the best known of Scotland's manufactured products with exports having increased by 87% in the past decade and currently contributing over £4.25 billion to the UK economy. Indeed should the UK's Office for Budget Responsibility [OBR] be correct in its projected drop in oil and gas revenues, whisky may surpass profits made from North Sea Oil ! [Wikipedia]

Scotland will likely do well on its own. The difficulties it will face will be more a psychological one as the North-South divide becomes a little wide with a potential rift growing between the English and Scots once again.

Forced to join euro?

Even without any real antagonism, England might feel even more isolated within Europe should Scotland join the euro. It would leave only Wales and Northern Ireland still using the pound, apart from a few outlying islands such as Guernsey, Jersey and the Falklands.

Scotland’s acceptance of the euro is a very real prospect, post-independence, at least according to some commentators. Writing in the Telegraph Andrew Lilico, an Economist with Europe Economics, and a member of the Shadow Monetary Policy Committee, suggests that Scotland would essentially be forced to accepting the euro if it wanted to remain in the EU due to financial rules already laid down.

At the end of the day it will be the Scottish people who will decide the direction they wish to go.  

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Floods hit east Britain

Those in the the east of Britain might have thought they had escaped the flooding that has plagued much of the south-west and brought misery to hundreds of thousand of families and businesses. However that all changed this week as incessant rain finally forced river levels up to the point where many burst their banks.

While not as serious as the situation seen in Somerset and other parts of the south-west, for many the resultant floods were just as upsetting and disruptive for many.

Essex was one of the worst hit counties in the east especially to the north-west of the county. The river at the picturesque village of Finchingfield burst its banks after torrential rain fell on Thursday night. By the following morning the village had a what resembled a large lake instead of a river. Teenagers joyfully cycled through the water which was more than a metre deep in parts, though local businesses looked on concerned as water levels lapped at their doors.

The B1053 which runs from Wethersfield, through Finchingfield, to Saffron Walden was almost impassable at many points and several vehicles became stuck.

The owner of one BMW needed the assistance of a local man to tow him to safety using his Range Rover after becoming stuck in water more than half a metre deep [pictured].

Many motorists failed to take the advice of the local fire service which were called to dozens of incidents where cars had become stranded. The Essex County Fire and Rescue Service urged drivers to exercise “a little common sense and consideration” when confronted with flooded roads.

Not only were drivers creating problems for themselves, they were also creating problems for others. Inconsiderate motorists continued to drive into water, creating waves which pushed water into homes near the road and in some cases trapping themselves, their passengers and their vehicles in the water.

Assistant Divisional Officer Dave Moore, who was on scene at several flooding incidents, said, “It beggars belief, we have signs telling motorists the roads are closed and instead of stopping and finding another way around they are accelerating into the water.”

“This creates a wave which pushes water from the road into people’s homes. It is both inconsiderate and stupid. There are fire crews, signs saying the road is closed and deep water in the road and that is not enough to stop people driving into water.”

Just 60 cm of water is enough to float a car and 15 cm of water will reach the bottom of most passenger cars. This depth can cause loss of control or possible stalling as water is sucked into the exhaust or washes into the air intake. “When confronted with flood water the best thing to do is to find an alternative route,” ADO Dave Moore added.

Fire crews meanwhile attended multiple flooding incidents in the Saffron Walden, Newport and Stansted areas of the county. In Saffron Walden soldiers from the nearby Carver Barracks added support to those affected by the floods, helping to sandbag properties [BBC].  

The occupants of 20 flats in Radwinter Road, Saffron Walden, were helped to safety by fire crews. Across the north of the county thousands of pupils were also affected having been sent home because of the flooding.

Meanwhile the Environment Agency issued flood warnings for five rivers; the Stour, Brook, Chelmer, Colne and Box. The flood risk is unlikely to diminish in the coming days as the Met Office forecast heavy rain for much of next week.

tvnewswatch, Essex

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Ten injured after explosion at Essex house

Ten people were injured in a suspected gas explosion that virtually destroyed two houses on a street in Clacton, Essex.

A man in his 70s and a woman in her 50s were badly burnt in the fire that followed and were flown by an air ambulance to Broomfield Hospital in what was initially described as a serious condition. Both were later said to be "stable".

Emergency services were on the scene with minutes of the blast, though some local residents had already mounted their own rescue attempts dragging victims from the wrecked houses.

Debris was strewn over a wide area and into adjacent streets damaging cars and breaking windows of several houses. A power outage also forced the local school to close. Police evacuated several homes close to the scene though most were allowed to return later in the day.

Fearing there might be others buried beneath the rubble Search and Rescue teams scoured the scene with dogs. Fortunately no further people were found.

All the emergency services described it a miracle that no-one was killed. Meanwhile late into Wednesday evening Essex police were continuing to work with Essex County Fire & Rescue Service to establish the cause of the explosion.

BBC / Guardian / Telegraph / D Mail / Mirror / Daily Star / Express

tvnewswatch, Clacton, Essex