Monthly Archives: January 2014

Fiber Optic Cables and Surveillance

[T]he technology known as distributed acoustic sensing (DAS)… allows underground fibre-optic cables, like those used by telecoms companies, to be turned into a giant string of microphones. They can then be used to monitor all sorts of sensitive locations, from oil and gas pipelines to railway tracks, military bases and international borders. In its latest guise, DAS is even being used to help make hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” as it is known, more efficient at releasing natural gas and oil trapped in rocks.

There are some limitations to the technology. Its powers of hearing are not sufficiently acute to pick up a conversation, for example. And since the cables inside buildings are typically a tangle of short lengths interrupted by junction-boxes, it is unlikely to work there. However, a long cable buried outdoors can provide the equivalent of a microphone every ten metres.  Algorithms are used to establish acoustic “fingerprints” for the sounds that are detected; and depending where and when they occur, each is assigned a level of risk, says Magnus McEwen-King, OptaSense’s managing director. Footsteps around a guarded facility at midday may not be unusual, but at 2am they would be.

OptaSense is also using the system to monitor sounds coming from below ground, in particular those produced by the water, sand and chemicals pumped under high pressure to fracture rock during fracking. There is concern about exactly what is going on underground, and in particular if the process might contaminate aquifers. Various seismic sensors can be used to monitor the fracking process, sometimes from test bores drilled nearby. But it is a costly and tricky process.

Shell and other oil companies are using a DAS system, which OptaSense calls vertical seismic profiling, to monitor their fracking. It uses a fibre-optic cable inserted into a well bore to build up an acoustic picture of the fracking fluid going into the rock at multiple levels. This means that potential problems, such as blockages, or leaks from one layer of rock to another, can be spotted before they become serious. And by having a clearer idea of how much fluid is going where, the fracking process can be constantly adjusted so that it runs in the most efficient way.

Listening for intruders and monitoring the efficiency of fracking are just two of the potentially lucrative applications of DAS technology. No doubt there will be others in the pipeline.

Acoustic sensing: The ear underground, Economist,  January 4, 2014, at 62

Saving Forests through Forced Evictions

For decades, the Kenyan government has attempted to evict indigenous people from the forests of Embobut and Cherangany, in the western county of Elgeiyo Marakwet. Past tactics have even included torture and setting fire to homes, those affected say…The government – accused in recent weeks of preparing to carry out yet another forced eviction – maintains that communities living in 12 forest glades must leave so it can rehabilitate the degraded forest and the water services it provides to the surrounding regions and beyond.

“This is a government initiative aimed specifically at conserving the country’s second-largest water tower – nothing else,’’ said Inspector Stephen Chessa, who works for the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and is in charge of the Embobut eviction…

But one forest warder who preferred to remain anonymous told Thomson Reuters Foundation he and his colleagues had been instructed to evict forcefully anyone who resists the move.  The U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, expressed deep concern about this prospect, urging the Kenyan government “to ensure that the human rights of the Sengwer indigenous people are fully respected, in strict compliance with international standards protecting the rights of indigenous peoples”.  Most families are asking for more time to assemble their things and harvest crops before leaving the forest.   But Solomon Mibei, head of conservation for the KFS, said families would not be given extra time and the evictions would continue as planned. “They have no reason to continue staying in the forest – they were compensated,’’ he said.

The situation is complex because there are different communities living in Embobut: the Sengwer indigenous people; groups displaced by disasters and political violence; and others who have come to benefit from cultivation opportunities.  “Why should the government treat us equally with the victims of post-election violence and landslides?’’ asked Sengwer spokesperson Yator Kiptum. “The forest is our home – our case is different, it’s not fair at all.”…According to Article 63 of the constitution, community land shall be vested in and held by communities identified on the basis of ethnicity, culture or similar community of interest. Community land consists of ancestral lands and lands traditionally occupied by hunter-gatherers.

Justin Kenrick of the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), a UK-based rights organisation, said the government’s justification for evicting people is forest conservation, but research has long since shown that forests are best preserved not by evicting ancestral communities but by supporting them to regain secure rights to their land.  Payments to evictees by the government are “intended to distract the public and the communities themselves from addressing the real issues”, Kenrick said. “According to international treaties to which Kenya is a party, the Sengwer should have been consulted, and accepted or rejected the proposal,’’ he added.  Kiptum, however, claims the Sengwer were not consulted, did not sign anything, and have not agreed to hand over their land for the small amount of money that has been paid into some people’s bank accounts.  “You cannot create a humanitarian crisis for the sake of conserving biodiversity while there are other ways of doing it better,” said Stephen Cheboi, coordinator of the North Rift Human Rights Network based in nearby Eldoret town. He also called for an audit of the compensation process.

Excerpts from Caleb Kemboi, Indigenous rights clash with forest protection in Kenya, Reuters, Jan. 17,, 2014

See also Biodiversity and Human Rights

The Scramble for Antarctica

Over the past two decades China’s annual Antarctic spending has tripled to $55m, three times its Arctic investment… The Southern Ocean is full of fish. A large petroleum field was recently discovered in West Antarctica. The continent also has deposits of coal and other valuable minerals. The Protocol on Environmental Protection, a document signed in Madrid in 1991 by countries involved in Antarctica, has imposed a mining ban until 2048, when it is to be reviewed.

China acceded in 1983 to the Antarctic Treaty, which maintains the continent as a demilitarised science preserve and forms the basis of a system of governance. The goal of its current five-year polar plan, says Chen Lianzeng of China’s State Oceanic Administration, is to increase the country’s status and influence. On November 7th China’s 30th Antarctic expedition, complete with construction crew, set sail from Shanghai. It will scout a site for China’s fifth station, in Terra Nova Bay. Its fourth base, Taishan, is still unfinished.

Sovereignty in Antarctica is disputed. States assert themselves by building bases. “You put a huge flag on a flagpole close to the research station,” says Klaus Dodds, a professor of geopolitics at the University of London. “It is not very subtle.” If China builds all five planned stations it will have more than either Britain or Australia, and only one fewer than America.

Science matters, too. It gives cachet and influence in matters of joint governance. In 2008 China built Kunlun station, a base with capabilities for deep-space research in a place so remote that it took six attempts to get there. The ice underneath could help scientists work out the climatic record of the past 1.5m years, which would be a scientific coup.But the influx of new Antarctic actors has rattled the old establishment and its former scientific hegemony. “China is saying, ‘We don’t give a damn about Shackleton, Scott, all these white European heroes. You can keep that. What we’re interested in is the future,” says Mr Dodds. The Chinese have raised even more concerns by giving Chinese names to more than 350 places, including Great Wall Bay.  Chinese scholars call the Antarctic Treaty a “rich man’s club”, in which China has only second-class citizenship—with some justification, says Ms Brady, since the choicest spots for research stations were snapped up by the first countries to arrive. Publicly, though, China buries its grumbles and complies with protocol. An inspection regime installed by the treaty is ineffectual, and there is little check on states’ affairs.

Meanwhile, the exploitation of Antarctic resources may come sooner than predicted. At a recent meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, delegates from 24 countries failed to agree on proposals for two marine protected areas. Plans for the reserves have been discussed for decades, but consensus was required and China, Russia and Ukraine withdrew their support. If Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are to remain some of the planet’s last unspoilt wilderness, an updated framework is needed, and quickly.

Antarctic research: They may be some time, Economist, Nov. 16, 2013, at 50

The Transparent Individual

By integrating data you want into the visual field in front of you Google Glass is meant to break down the distinction between looking at the screen and looking at the world. When switched on, its microphones will hear what you hear, allowing Glass to, say, display on its screen the name of any song playing nearby…It could also contribute a lot to the company’s core business. Head-mounted screens would let people spend time online that would previously have been offline. They also fit with the company’s interest in developing “anticipatory search” technology—ways of delivering helpful information before users think to look for it. Glass will allow such services to work without the customer even having to reach for a phone, slipping them ever more seamlessly into the wearer’s life. A service called Google Now already scans a user’s online calendar, e-mail and browsing history as a way of providing information he has not yet thought to look for. How much more it could do if it saw through his eyes or knew whom he was talking to…

People may in time want to live on camera in ways like this, if they see advantages in doing so. But what of living on the cameras of others? “Creep shots”—furtive pictures of breasts and bottoms taken in public places—are a sleazy fact of modern life. The camera phone has joined the Chinese burn in the armamentarium of the school bully, and does far more lasting damage. As cameras connect more commonly, sometimes autonomously, to the internet, hackers have learned how to take control of them remotely, with an eye to mischief, voyeurism or blackmail.  More wearable cameras probably mean more possibilities for such abuse.

Face-recognition technology, which allows software to match portraits to people, could take things further. The technology is improving, and is already used as an unobtrusive, fairly accurate way of knowing who people are. Some schools, for example, use it to monitor attendance. It is also being built into photo-sharing sites: Facebook uses it to suggest the names with which a photo you upload might be tagged. Governments check whether faces are turning up on more than one driver’s licence per jurisdiction; police forces identify people seen near a crime scene. Documents released to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a campaign group, show that in August 2012 the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “Next Generation Identification” database contained almost 13m searchable images of about 7m subjects.

Face recognition is a technology, like that of drones, which could be a boon to all sorts of surveillance around the world, and may make mask-free demonstrations in repressive states a thing of the past. The potential for abuse by people other than governments is clear, too…In America, warrants to seize user data from Facebook often also request any stored photos in which the suspect has been tagged by friends (though the firm does not always comply). Warrants as broad as some of those from which the National Security Agency and others have benefited in the past could allow access to all stored photos taken in a particular place and time.

The people’s panopticon, Economist,  Nov. 16, 2013, at 27

The Secret Weapons Production

By far the world’s fastest torpedo, Russia’s rocket-powered VA-111 Shkval (Squall) can slice through the sea for more than 11km at a speed above 370 kilometres per hour. It packs a 210kg warhead and cannot be dodged or stopped by the West’s big warships. Christopher Harmer, a commander in the US Navy until 2011, says vessels must therefore remain beyond the Shkval’s “pretty nasty range”, or strike the enemy above or below water quickly enough to prevent a launch.

No wonder, he says, that the West tries to keep tabs on each model which leaves its manufacturer, Dastan Engineering, a Russian-owned enterprise in Kyrgyzstan. That is hard: unlike big strategic missiles, the Shkval, 8.2 metres (27 feet) long, fits in an ordinary lorry. The resources used to monitor these facilities cannot be revealed, says a former Western naval chief. But, he adds, given the Shkval’s power, “Why wouldn’t you choose everything you had?”

The tracking of Shkval exports is but one part of a broad and increasing effort by the West to track a class of “showstopper” weapons that are both rare and easy to hide. Russia and other countries have stepped up the lucrative export of advanced weapons, especially missiles, designed with an eye to constraining rival Western forces, says Tor Bukkvoll, head of the Russia programme at Norway’s Defence Research Establishment, a defence-ministry body. Such “area denial” munitions allow an attack to be launched without the giveaway of first having to amass troops or hardware.

These weapons can be user-friendly enough even for non-state groups. On July 14th 2006 Hizbullah militants in Lebanon hit an Israeli corvette more than 15km offshore with an Iranian-made C-802 anti-ship missile, killing four sailors and severely damaging the warship. If Israel had known that Hizbullah possessed this weapon, the corvette’s automated countermeasure systems would not have been switched to standby and the attack would have failed, says Alex Tal, a former head of Israel’s navy.

The subsonic C-802 is not even particularly formidable. It is an old variant of a Chinese missile. Newer anti-ship or land-attack missiles fly faster and farther, and dodge interceptors. Their solid fuel means that they can be launched discreetly on short notice, Mr Tal says. Older types such as China’s widely exported Silkworm missiles require lengthy mixing and loading of volatile liquid propellants, a process which can be spotted from planes or satellites. With the newer models, the satellites have to keep watch on lorries leaving factories, which is costly and uncertain.

Among the most feared exports are Russia’s supersonic Klub (3M-54) and Yakhont guided missiles. Faster than their Western counterparts, they can be launched from land batteries, aircraft, ships and submarines, carry large warheads, and reach targets 300km away. The Klub (called the Sizzler by NATO) accelerates to three times the speed of sound in the stretch before striking. Countries publicly known to have the Klub or Yakhont include Algeria, China, India, Syria and Vietnam.

America has “a pretty good idea” of other secret exports, because it tracks ships worldwide, says Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defence under Ronald Reagan who is now at the Centre for American Progress, a think-tank. But countries without such capabilities (or close ties to America) can be left in the dark. Even top-notch spy services are uncertain about some of the most burning questions. Has Syria’s Assad regime passed along some of its Yakhont missiles to Hizbullah for use against Israel? Is Iran’s boast of possessing the Shkval a bluff? Do North Korean subs have it? (Some reports suggest that a Shkval was used to sink a South Korean ship in 2010.) Mr Harmer, now at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, DC, says that keeping track of every such device manufactured is impossible.

Uncertainty over arsenals is growing as a result of increasing “clandestinisation” of munitions manufacture and transport, says Jim Thomas, a senior Pentagon official until 2007. Now at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, another Washington think-tank, Mr Thomas says missiles are now emerging from “dual-use” factories that also ship non-military goods, and from factories made to appear as producers of solely civilian ones. This makes it harder for “squints” (intelligence officers who study satellite and drone imagery) to identify munitions of interest.

Manufacturers are marketing and designing munitions with concealment in mind. A Moscow firm called The Klubhas offered a system of four Klub missiles and an erector, with a control compartment for two operators, all concealed inside a standard shipping container. The “Club-K Container Missile System”, can be transported and fired from a merchant ship, freight train, or lorry. An expert at a European missile-maker says, “before you could see a Klub missile from space; now you can’t—you need spies.”

Israel already relies heavily on human sources to detect arms shipments to its enemies, says Shlomo Brom, a former intelligence officer and retired head of strategic planning at Israel’s General Staff. This is partly because Israel does not have enough satellites to monitor all the far-flung facilities where the most worrisome munitions are made. And arms shipments to Israel’s adversaries, he says, are increasingly disguised as civilian products.

The “vast majority” of munitions leaving Russian ports for Syria now travel on merchant ships that call at commercial ports rather than Russia’s naval base at the Syrian city of Tartus, says Farley Mesko, chief operating officer at C4ADS, an American investigative group. In September it published a report on concealed arms shipments calledThe Odessa Network” (pdf). Missiles are separated from their bulky launchers and transporters, and travel in containers that could just as well be carrying televisions, he says. Ten Shkvals could fit in just one container.

The spies’ efforts are bearing fruit. In January, May and July (2013) Israeli air strikes destroyed Russian- and Iranian-made missiles at locations in Syria. In October Sudan’s government accused Israel of bombing a weapons factory in Khartoum. Military-intelligence officials elsewhere are encouraged. They are pushing for more spies to conduct more missions.

Japan wants greater efforts to go into locating missiles in China and North Korea, says Narushige Michishita, a former specialist on the two countries’ arsenals at Japan’s defence ministry. His country’s intelligence on North Korea’s launching pads and procedures is excellent, he says, thanks largely to a 1998 decision to splurge on optical and radar satellites. But more human intelligence is now needed—North Korea has increased its fleet of “transporter-erector-launcher” lorries for Ro-Dong medium-range ballistic missiles from nine to about 50. Mr Michishita, now at Tokyo’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, says these can lurk inconspicuously while Ro-Dong missiles are taking on their liquid fuel—and then pull out and fire.

At least these weapons are broadly known. The next threat is arms developed in secret, so adversaries will not even know what to look for, says Mr Thomas, the former Pentagon official. Such devices may feature targeting systems which use location co-ordinates freely available from Google Earth. This would give even small and poor attackers the chance to deliver formidable weapons accurately.

Amid the growing demand for good intelligence, smaller countries see a role in helping allies. They may not be targeted by the weapons systems in question, says Todor Tagarev, a former Bulgarian defence minister, but passing nuggets along to bigger allies cultivates goodwill.

Outside the spy world, business is booming too. Big countries may be worried about the threat. But they see an upside too. It is their defence industries which are also the best source of countermeasures to the new weapons. Briefing an ally about threats can also be an implicit sales pitch. Seen this way, says the expert at a European missile-maker, insights from military intelligence are also part of defence-industry marketing.

Weaponry and espionage: A shot from the dark, Economist,  Nov. 30, 2013, at 58

BlackRock Owns Almost Everything

BlackRock, an investment manager, owns a stake in almost every listed company not just in America but globally. (Indeed, it is the biggest shareholder in Pearson, in turn the biggest shareholder in The Economist magazine.) Its reach extends further: to corporate bonds, sovereign debt, commodities, hedge funds and beyond. It is easily the biggest investor in the world, with $4.1 trillion of directly controlled assets (almost as much as all private-equity and hedge funds put together) and another $11 trillion it oversees through its trading platform, Aladdin.

Established in 1988 by a group of Wall Streeters led by Larry Fink, BlackRock succeeded in part by offering “passive” investment products, such as exchange-traded funds, which aim to track indices such as the S&P 500. These are cheap alternatives to traditional mutual funds, which often do more to enrich money managers than clients (though BlackRock offers plenty of those, too). The sector continues to grow fast, and BlackRock, partly through its iShares brand, is the largest competitor in an industry where scale brings benefits. Its clients, ranging from Arab sovereign-wealth funds to mom-and-pop investors, save billions in fees as a result.

The other reason for its success is its management of risk in its actively managed portfolio. Early on, for instance, it was a leader in mortgage-backed securities. But because it analysed their riskiness zipcode by zipcode, it not only avoided a bail-out in the chaos that followed the collapse of Lehman, but also advised the American government and others on how to keep the financial system ticking in the darkest days of 2008, and picked up profitable money-management units from struggling financial institutions in the aftermath of the crisis.

Compared with the many banks which are flourishing only thanks to state largesse, BlackRock’s success—based on providing value to customers and paying attention to detail—is well-deserved. Yet when taxpayers have spent billions rescuing financial institutions deemed too big to fail, a 25-year-old company that has grown so vast so quickly sets nerves jangling. American regulators are therefore thinking about designating BlackRock and some of its rivals as “systemically important”. The tag might land them with hefty regulatory requirements.

If the regulators’ concern is to avoid a repeat of the last crisis, they are barking up the wrong tree. Unlike banks, whose loans and deposits go on their balance-sheets as assets and liabilities, BlackRock is a mere manager of other people’s money. It has control over investments it holds on behalf of others—which gives it great influence—but it neither keeps the profits nor suffers the losses on them. Whereas banks tumble if their assets lose even a fraction of their value, BlackRock can pass on any shortfalls to its clients, and withstand far greater shocks. In fact, by being on hand to pick up assets cheaply from distressed sellers, an unleveraged asset manager arguably stabilises markets rather than disrupting them.

But for regulators that want not merely to prevent a repeat of the last blow-up but also to identify the sources of future systemic perils, BlackRock raises another, subtler issue, concerning not the ownership of assets but the way buying and selling decisions are made. The $15 trillion of assets managed on its Aladdin platform amount to around 7% of all the shares, bonds and loans in the world. As a result, those who oversee many of the world’s biggest pools of money are looking at the financial world, at least in part, through a lens crafted by BlackRock. Some 17,000 traders in banks, insurance companies, sovereign-wealth funds and others rely in part on BlackRock’s analytical models to guide their investing.

That is a tribute to BlackRock’s elaborate risk-management models, but it is also discomfiting. A principle of healthy markets is that a cacophony of diverse actors come to different conclusions on the price of things, based on their own idiosyncratic analyses. The value of any asset is discovered by melding all these different opinions into a single price. An ecosystem which is dominated by a single line of thinking is not healthy,

The rise of BlackRock, Ecomomist, Dec. 7, 2013, at 13

In Fear of China: UK, France, Germany

China sees human rights] as a self-serving diplomatic optional extra, to be discarded as soon as they jeopardise other interests. And China, unlike Sri Lanka, is powerful enough to make Western leaders hold their tongues.  Of course Western governments would deny this stoutly. Discussion of human rights, Britain says, is an integral part of its relationship with China. The two countries have held 20 rounds of a bilateral dialogue on the issue and British leaders raise it at every opportunity. But the 20th round was two years ago; and there is little evidence that Chinese leaders see the harping on human rights in private exchanges as more than an irritating quirk, like the British fondness for talking about the weather.

So the version of Mr Cameron’s visit to China believed by many observers is one in which he has swallowed a big chunk of humble pie. After he met Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in London last year, an incensed China froze him and his country out. British business complained it was losing out to European competitors. Mr Cameron had to reconfirm that Britain does not advocate Tibetan independence and say that he had no plans to meet the Dalai Lama again.  Only then did China welcome him back, at the head of the biggest British trade mission ever to go there. In the circumstances, he could not risk making provocative public statements about China’s “internal affairs”. It seems unlikely that the leader of any big European country will receive the Dalai Lama again. This week Global Times, a Communist Party paper, crowed that Britain, France and Germany dare not jointly provoke China “over the Dalai Lama issue. Even America’s Barack Obama delayed meeting the Dalai Lama until after his first visit to China in 2009, tacitly conceding China’s point that the meeting was not a matter of principle, but a bargaining chip.

If China is getting its way diplomatically on Tibet, it is not because repression there has eased. Over the past two years, more than 120 Tibetans have set fire to themselves in protest. This week, exiles reported the sentencing of nine Tibetans for alleged separatist activity. Similarly, although freedoms for the majority in China have expanded, dissidents are still persecuted. The most famous of them, Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel peace prize, remains in jail for no more than advocating peaceful, incremental political reform.

China has succeeded in shifting human rights and Tibet far down the agenda of its international relations for three reasons. One, of course, is its enormous and still fast-growing commercial clout. Not only is it an important market for sluggish Western economies. It is also a big potential investor—in high-speed rail and nuclear projects in Britain, for example.

Second, alarm at China’s expanding military capacity and its assertive approach to territorial disputes is also demanding foreign attention. Joe Biden, the American vice-president, arrived in Beijing from Tokyo on December 4th. Liu Xiaobo and Tibet may have been among his talking-points, but a long way below China’s declaration last month of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over islands disputed with Japan, and the economic issues on which he had hoped to concentrate.

A third factor is China’s tactic of linking foreign criticism to economic and strategic issues. Global Times, not satisfied with Mr Cameron’s contrition, used his visit to chide Britain for the support it has shown Japan over the ADIZ, and for its alleged fomenting of trouble in Hong Kong. China might argue that linkage is something it learned from the West, and the days when its normal trading ties with America were hostage to human-rights concerns. But now China itself seems happy to use commercial pressure to bully Japan or Britain, for example.

Banyan: Lip Service, Economist, Dec. 7, 2013, at 48

Mining in Africa: who gets the money?

Most west African governments have signed—or pledged to sign—the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The EITI tries to ensure that contracts and accounts of taxes and revenue generated by concessions are open to public scrutiny. But that is easier said than done. Last year Liberia’s government asked a British accounting firm, Moore Stephens, to carry out an audit of Liberian mining contracts signed between the middle of 2009 and the end of 2011. The audit, published in May 2013, found that 62 of the 68 concessions ratified by Liberia’s parliament had not complied with laws and regulations. The government has yet to take action after a string of recommendations emerged from an EITI retreat in July 2013.

Regional governments also fret over a practice known as “concession flipping”, whereby foreign mining companies that do not have the capacity to exploit sites sell their concessions to larger companies for windfall profits. “Every flip is essentially a heist on the government exchequer, with anonymous offshore firms as the getaway car,” says Leigh Baldwin of Global Witness, a London-based lobby that fights for fairer deals for local people and their governments from mining and other resources. Concession flipping, he adds, is widespread in Africa. The Africa Progress Panel, headed by Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian who once led the UN, has put out a report called “Equity in Extractives”. This, too, stresses a need for more openness in mining contracts. As people in the region demand more democracy, better deals from mining are a new priority.

Mining in west Africa: Where’s our cut?, Economist, Dec. 7, 2013, at 51

Fukushima at 2013

The building Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, is still unstable, and its spent-fuel storage pool highly dangerous. This month (Nov. 2013) Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) will start plucking out over 1,500 radioactive rods from the pool in order to store them more safely. Over the pool a crane waits to start the procedure, and a yellow radiation alarm stands at the ready. Experts call the operation the riskiest stage of the plant’s clean-up so far… Engineers will have to take out each fuel assembly one by one without mishap, and overcome the risks of fire, earthquake and the pool boiling dry. The fuel rods can ignite if they lose coolant, or explode if they collide.

The rods are being moved just when trust in the utility that owns Fukushima Dai-ichi is at a low point. A series of leaks of highly radioactive water this year, and other dangerous accidents including a power cut in March—a rat chewed through the wiring—has brought it under fierce attack. In August the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) said leaks of contaminated water were a level-three or “serious” incident on an international scale that goes up to seven. Now some are calling for the removal of spent-fuel rods from reactor four to be closely monitored by foreign experts.

Even the pro-nuclear ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) wants to take TEPCO in its current form out of the decommissioning process, which will take 40 or more years. A new entity, including the utility’s staff but separate from its commercial side, would take charge. Finding a solution to the problem of TEPCO’s structure (among other things, the company is financially precarious) would help the government’s efforts to switch nuclear power back on.

At the moment Japan is entirely without nuclear energy, but that is unlikely to last for long. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, is pushing for as many of the country’s 50 usable reactors to restart as soon as possible after passing safety checks by the NRA. The need to import energy has pushed up the price of electricity and added to a series of trade deficits since 2011. In September TEPCO won approval from the governor of Niigata prefecture to apply for a safety check in order to restart two reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, the world’s biggest… Junichiro Koizumi, a popular LDP former prime minister, has stepped in, calling for an immediate end to nuclear power. After he broadcast his views at a press conference, a poll showed that three-fifths of those who were surveyed backed his plan.

Japan and nuclear power: High alert, Economist, Nov. 16, 2013, at 47

Interpol Used for Political Suppression

‘Red Notices’, international wanted person alerts published by INTERPOL at national authorities’  request, come with considerable human impact: arrest, detention, frozen freedom of movement,  employment problems, and reputational and financial harm. These interferences with basic  rights can, of course, be justified when INTERPOL acts to combat international crime.

However, our casework suggests that countries are, in fact, using INTERPOL’s systems against exiled  political opponents, usually refugees, and based on corrupt criminal proceedings, pointing to a  structural problem. We have identified two key areas for reform.  First, INTERPOL’s protections against abuse are ineffective. It assumes that Red Notices are  requested in good faith and appears not to review these requests rigorously enough. Its interpretation of its cardinal rule on the exclusion of political matters is unclear, but appears to  be out of step with international asylum and extradition law. General Secretariat review also  happens only after national authorities have disseminated Red Notices in temporary form across  the globe using INTERPOL’s ‘i-link’ system, creating a permanent risk to individuals even if the  General Secretariat refuses the Red Notice. Some published Red Notices also stay in place  despite extradition and asylum decisions recognising the political nature of the case.

Excerpt from the Executive Summary of “Strengthening respect for human rights, strengthening INTERPOL” published by Fair Trials International, an NGO

Full Report, Nov. 2013

Trapping the Dirty Bomb

Nuclear and radiological materials slipped out of regulatory control 2,331 times between 1995 and the start of 2013, according to the Incident and  Trafficking Database compiled by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The materials are widely used in industry, agriculture and medicine. They are kept in many poorly guarded X-ray and cancer-treatment clinics. Such places are often not overseen with terrorism in min  d. They have even been bought by crooks as front operations, says Rajiv Nayan, of India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Raids on abandoned uranium mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo are more frequent, according to that country’s General Atomic-Energy Commission. The problem is most acute in the former Soviet Union: in Ukraine alone, roughly 2,500 organisations use radiological materials.

In Georgia a counter-trafficking unit set up by the interior ministry seven years ago has arrested two or three teams smuggling radiological material every year save 2009. The lure of profits is so strong that some ex-cons get back into the business, says Archil Pavlenishvili, leader of the unit. Interpol has said such trafficking is growing: an acute “real threat to global security”.  It all sounds scary enough. But the reality has been less so. Moreover, by many accounts the most plausible dangers appear to be declining.

For a start, an “overwhelming” number of buyers turn out to be undercover cops, says Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank. A sizeable network of informers helps Georgia’s interior ministry to keep a close eye on the four or five cells in the country currently trying to obtain or sell radiological material, says Mr Pavlenishvili. ..Beyond this, intelligence agencies are hunting down traffickers with help from special “link analysis” computer programs. Also known as “network analysis” software, this crunches data from numerous sources to identify people whose travel, purchases, web searches, communications, schooling and so forth may spell trouble—perhaps an employee in radiation therapy who begins frequenting an inconveniently located bar whose owner receives phone calls from a drug-runner with growing operations.

Half a dozen Western governments “pay huge amounts of attention” to this, says an executive at a developer of the software. At least one spy agency in America, Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and an unnamed European country pays more than $1m a month to use it. The counter-trafficking units in both Georgia and Romania note that link-analysis software made by i2, owned by the giant IBM computer company, has helped to nab traffickers. Atsuko Nishigaki, the unit’s boss, says Japan’s economy ministry employs ten analysts to use a competitor’s software to identify traffickers in nuclear or radiological material.

America’s National Nuclear Security Administration has sponsored the installation of radiation-detection kit at ports in 23 countries and counting. The Megaports Initiative, as it is called, aims to have half of the world’s maritime container cargo routinely scanned by 2015. Networked systems are also being developed with detectors small enough to be worn on a police officer’s belt. The idea is to relay data on potentially dangerous radiation through a mobile-phone network to a central computer. Knowing each device’s location and the strength of the radiation it detects, the computer can “triangulate” the source’s approximate location.

Difficult problems remain. False alarms triggered by anything from a pallet of cat litter to radiation-therapy patients and nuclear-power-plant shipments have slowed research and development on one such network at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, says Simon Labov, a co-ordinator there. Even so, the lab’s work continues to be financed by America’s defence, energy and homeland-security departments. In October 2013 the latter’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office asked for proposals for a similar system, dubbed Human Portable Tripwire. Other outfits that have developed technology for such schemes include Smiths Detection in Britain and, in America, Berkeley Nucleonics, General Electric, GENTAG, Passport Systems and Purdue University.

The sheer danger of making a dirty bomb is a factor too. Without the right equipment and expertise, the really nasty stuff can kill the maker of a bomb before it is ready—part of the reason, perhaps, that no spectacular dirty-bomb attack has yet been launched. F

Dirty Bombs: Glowing in the dark, Economist, Dec. 14, 2013, at 67

Weapons that Kill Themselves: Arms Control

To help push Soviet forces out of Afghanistan in the 1980s, America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) gave Afghan fighters shoulder-launched Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Accurate and easy-to-use, the Stingers caused grievous losses. But after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the CIA wanted to discourage the use of the leftover missiles. It got hold of some of those circulating on the black market and booby-trapped them, so that anyone who tried to fire one would have his head blown off. The aim, according to a former CIA official, was to deter both the sale and use of the remaining missiles…

[Today] technological tweaks may be able to help limit the spread and use of small arms, making possible weapons that stop working after a certain period of time, or can only be used by specific people or in particular places. Proponents of such technologies believe they have the potential to succeed where political and legislative attempts at arms control have failed.  Perhaps the simplest approach is the use of technological tricks that shorten weapons’ lifespans. “Self-deactivating” landmines, for example, will not detonate after their battery runs down. They have been adopted by America and some of its allies, but constitute only a tiny fraction of mines deployed around the world. In a similar vein, one proposal is that launchers for shoulder-fired missiles should only work with a uniquely configured, non-rechargeable battery manufactured in a single, tightly controlled plant. This would, in theory, limit the lifespan of the weapons for anyone without access to new batteries. But there would be workarounds. This year rebels in Syria posted video online of a portable missile-launcher rigged to an external power supply for target acquisition. It fired a missile that shot down a helicopter near the Abu ad-Duhur military airbase, south of Aleppo. Similarly rigged missiles have been fired by Hamas militants at Israeli aircraft.

Shoulder-fired missiles, RPGs, mortars, and guided anti-tank missiles could also be made to stop working after a while by engineering their chemical propellants to become inert after a predetermined period, says Patrick McCarthy, head of a UN project called the International Small Arms Control Standards. It is hardly likely that governments would buy perishable weapons of the sort for their own use, but rebel groups might accept them from a sympathetic country, at least if nothing better were on offer. This might also allay fears in the donor country that the weapons might end up in undesirable hands many years later.

A second approach to arms control is to track weapons electronically. Almost all illicit small arms were legally manufactured or imported and were later diverted, often with help from corrupt officials and forged documents. Discreet monitoring and tracking of shipping containers carrying weapons makes it harder to steal or reroute them. Jim Giermanski, a former US Air Force colonel, says America’s Defence Department recently began shipping to Afghanistan, on commercial vessels, containers capable of reporting an opened door, vibrations from a break-in attempt and their location, derived from global positioning system (GPS) satellites. A container can, in essence, “report its own hijacking”, says Dr Giermanski, now boss of Powers International, a company based in North Carolina that helps shippers adopt the tracking technology. It is just now becoming practical and inexpensive enough for wide use, he says.

In some cases it is even possible to track individual weapons by building in a transmitter that regularly signals their precise co-ordinates. This is already done for larger weapons deemed “expensive enough and consequential enough”, says Lincoln Bloomfield, a former State Department official for military and political affairs who served as a special envoy under George Bush junior. Doing the same for small arms would be expensive, but the transmitter could be cleverly attached so that removing it disables the weapon.

In RPGs, a GPS transmitter could be concealed in a grip assembly, says Jean-Marc Anzian Kouadja, executive secretary of the National Commission of Small Arms and Light Weapons at Côte d’Ivoire’s interior ministry. Wrench it out, he says, and you break the trigger mechanism. Governments might be willing to foot the bill to secure their stockpiles from insurgent raids or managers who might otherwise cut deals with gunrunners. But a problem, he notes, is that cyber-savvy rebels might work out how to use the technology to track government troops…

Tracking weapons can be done without satellites, however. Some armies have started using tiny radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, like those found in contactless credit cards and public-transport tickets, which do not require batteries to operate. Instead, when they are passed close to a reader (when passing through a door, for example), the chips absorb enough radio energy to power up and transmit a short burst of identification data. Weapons passing in and out of an armoury can thus be tracked. SkyRFID, a company based in Ontario, notes that its weaponry tags are not damaged by vibration, grime or cleaning solvents. Replacing manual logging makes it harder for armoury staff to pretend munitions sold on the sly are still in stock. (A UN report on improving marking and tracing technologies is due to be published in April 2014.)

Another alternative to GPS transmitters would be to track weapons by outfitting them with the inexpensive SIM cards that allow mobile-phone networks to identify subscribers. A weapon would communicate with nearby mobile-network towers to indicate its position within a rough area, says Mr Kalbusch. And a system of this sort could, in theory, form the basis of a “remote control” feature, allowing weapons to be disabled from a distance.

Kill switches” or “backdoors”, as these features are sometimes known, have so far been associated with expensive weapon systems that must send and receive data to operate. David Kay, America’s most senior arms inspector in post-Saddam Iraq, has noted that one of the reasons why Russia’s best air-defence systems have not been installed in Iran is probably because the Iranians fear that Russia might be capable of countermanding missile launches against certain countries’ aircraft. Now similar “override” systems are being applied to small arms, too.

TriggerSmart, a company based in Limerick, Ireland, has developed a motorised mechanism that can block or unblock the trigger of an assault rifle. It is controlled not by a switch on the weapon itself, but rather by a command sent from an aircraft, satellite, mobile-network tower or radio station. Weighing less than 30 grams (including a standard AAA battery), the mechanism allows an “offending weapon” to be remotely disabled, says Patrick O’Shaughnessy, TriggerSmart’s head of research and development. It costs about $150 to retrofit an existing rifle or build the technology into a new one.

The biggest buyers, Mr O’Shaughnessy reckons, will be armies that work with foreign security forces. American officials have expressed interest. One in six of the Western troops killed last year in Afghanistan was slain in an “insider attack” by a partner in the country’s security forces. TriggerSmart’s technology could allow any member of a unit to block the use of firearms by partner forces. But being expected to use weapons that can be remotely disabled hardly seems likely to engender trust. And it would be impractical to introduce light-weaponry override systems in their current form for large numbers of soldiers or police, says Richard Rowe, a retired US Army major-general who oversaw the instruction and equipping of 550,000 Iraqi security recruits.

Even with further technological advances, few armies will be eager to adopt such kit, Mr Kalbusch says. Governments would worry that their arsenals could be neutered by an adversary, or, more straightforwardly, by the country that supplied the arms. Attempts to mandate use of the technology seem unlikely to succeed, because small arms are made in many countries. And sometimes foreign powers want rebels to steal a government’s weapons and use them against it, as Western-supported opponents of Libya’s Qaddafi regime did in 2011.

Away from the battlefield, other arms-control technologies are being developed to prevent the unintended or unauthorised use of weapons belonging to civilians or police officers. In the decade to 2010, 1,217 American minors were killed in accidental shootings, according to the most recent data from the Centres for Disease Control. And it is not uncommon for a police officer to be shot with a service weapon that has been wrested away.  Accordingly, new “personalised” firearms are being developed which fire only when held by the owner or another authorised person, with the specific aim of preventing a gun owner (and his family or co-workers) from being killed with his own weapon. Because the verification takes place within the weapon itself, its backers note, the technology is more likely to be accepted than remote-override features on military weapons… One example is a .22-calibre pistol called iP1 made by Armatix, a German firm. It only fires if the shooter is wearing a special wristwatch containing an RFID chip, which is detected by the gun. If the gun is more than 40 centimetres from the RFID chip, its trigger locks. Attempting to disable the trigger lock destroys the iP1 “irrevocably”, according to Maximilian Hefner, the firm’s boss. The list price is $1,699.

A similar system for shotguns, called M-2000, has been developed by iGun Technology Corporation, based in Florida. When an RFID chip embedded in a ring is brought near the shotgun, a solenoid switch instantly unlocks the trigger. (Alternatively, the chip could be surgically implanted in the owner’s hand.) The system is seamless, according to Jonathan Mossberg, the firm’s founder. “You pick up the gun, pull the trigger, it goes boom—no thought involved,” he says. The battery inside the gun that powers the RFID reader lasts for more than eight years, and it sounds a warning alarm after six years. It costs about $200 to add to a firearm.

A wristwatch or a ring could be stolen, however, so other smart guns rely instead on biometric characteristics of their owner’s body, such as a fingerprint. The New Jersey Institute of Technology has devised a personalised Beretta pistol. When its magnetic trigger is pulled past a sensor in the trigger guard, a chip is switched on to crunch data from pressure-sensing piezoelectric sensors in the handgrip. Only if they match the owner’s bone geometry and “grip dynamics” does the trigger unlock. All this happens within the tenth of a second it takes to pull the trigger all the way back. The system is not foolproof: on average, around 1% of people with the same hand size will be able to fire a gun personalised for a particular user. But a gun set up for an adult cannot be fired by a child. The US Army is testing the system at an armaments laboratory in Picatinny, New Jersey.

Firearms that are unlocked with a fingerprint reader have been developed by Kodiak Industries, based in Utah, and Safe Gun Technology, based in Georgia. Biomac Systems, a firm based in Los Angeles, California and Ferlach, Austria, is designing a biometric kit to retrofit pistols. Barack Obama has encouraged the development of such technologies and has directed America’s attorney general to review them. Smart-gun technology also received a boost last year when it won the fictional endorsement of James Bond in “Skyfall”. Issued a gun coded to his palmprint that only he can fire, Bond is told that it is “less of a random killing machine, more of a personal statement”.

And yet demand looks weak, especially in America, by far the biggest market for civilian firearms: the iGun M-2000 failed to sell at all. Maxim Popenker, an author of firearm reference books based in St Petersburg, Russia, observes that sooner or later a bad guy will shoot a good guy because the latter’s personalised gun refuses to fire due to “gloves, dirt, sweat, blood or stress”. Gun enthusiasts have raised similar objections: personalised smart guns are simply less effective for self-defence, they argue, because of the risk that the safety technology will fail to work properly. Triggers could be unlocked by voice, but this risks betraying the position of someone hiding.

Smart weapons: Kill switches and safety catches, Economist, Nov. 30, 2013, at 11

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Water Sharing Agreement – Middle East

Drained by farms along its banks, the River Jordan is barely a trickle by the time it dribbles into the Dead Sea, and most of that is sewage coming out of Jerusalem and West Bank settlements. Israeli and Jordanian factories also use the water to recover potash.So fast are the Dead Sea’s briny waters shrinking that it has already shed its southern half. Much of the seabed is now as crusty as the pillar of salt that Lot’s wife turned into after fleeing Gomorrah. Hotels built on the shores in the 1980s have a cliff-top view today. Arthritic pensioners keen on the sea’s therapeutic powers are reduced to swimming in saline hotel pools. By 2050, say Friends of the Earth, a conservation group, the sea will be little more than a pond the size of two football fields.

After years of regional squabbling, Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian ministers signed a deal ( a Memorandum of Understanding)* on December 9th, 2013 to slow desiccation. Backed by the World Bank, they plan to build a desalination plant on the Red Sea and pipe the run-off 180km (112 miles) north to the Dead Sea.  Some see advantages in diluting the Dead Sea’s nose-twitchingly sulphurous tides with ocean water. But there are drawbacks. Mucky algae might spread, turning the sea red. “It’s playing with an entire ecosystem,” says Mira Edelstein of Friends of the Earth.

The Dead Sea: Emptying out, Economist, Dec. 14, 2013, at 58

*The MoU outlines in broad language three major regional water sharing initiatives that will be pursued over the coming months by the cooperating parties. These initiatives include the development of a desalination plant in Aqaba at the head of the Red Sea, where the water produced will be shared between Israel and Jordan; increased releases of water by Israel from Lake Tiberias for use in Jordan; and the sale of about 20-30 million m3/year of desalinated water from Mekorot (the Israeli water utility) to the Palestinian Water Authority for use in the West Bank. In addition, a pipeline from the desalination plant at Aqaba would convey brine to the Dead Sea to study the effects of mixing the brine with Dead Sea water. In order to proceed with these actions, especially the desalination plant at Aqaba, technical work and studies will need to be undertaken.  See World Bank

What is the Cost of Carbon?

The market price of carbon is €4.90 ($6.70) per tonne of CO2 in the EU, $11.50 in California. Big oil companies charge $34 or more. That is closer to the “social cost of carbon”—the damage from an extra tonne of CO2—than to the market price. America’s administration recently estimated the social cost at $37 a tonne. These prices change behaviour. A huge amount of attention is paid to government action. But the sort of carbon price some companies are using for planning would, if it became a market price, have a much bigger impact than any of the policies that governments are now talking about.

Companies and Emissions: Carbon Copy, Economist, Dec. 14, 2013, at 70

Genetically Modified Food – China v. US

Public unease about genetic modification is common around the world. In China, alongside rising concerns about food safety, it has taken on a strongly political hue. Chinese anti-GM activists often describe their cause as patriotic, aimed not just at avoiding what they regard as the potential harm of tinkering with nature, but at resisting control of China’s food supply by America through American-owned biotech companies and their superior technology. Conspiracy theories about supposed American plots to use dodgy GM food to weaken China

They are even believed by some in the government. In October an official video made for army officers was leaked on the internet and widely watched until censors scrubbed it. “America is mobilising its strategic resources to promote GM food vigorously,” its narrator grimly intoned. “This is a means of controlling the world by controlling the world’s food production.”  Peng Guangqian, a retired major-general and prominent think-tanker, echoed these sentiments in an article published by official media in August. He said America might be setting a “trap”. The result, he said, could be “far worse than the Opium War” between Britain and China in the 1840s that Chinese historians regard as the beginning of a “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers.

China already uses plenty of GM products. More than 70% of its cotton is genetically modified. Most of the soyabeans consumed in China are imported, and most of those imports are GM (often from America). The technology is widely used for growing papayas. The government wants to develop home-grown GM varieties and has spent heavily on research, eager to maintain self-sufficiency in food. Officials see GM crops as a way of boosting yields on scarce farmland.

In 2009 China granted safety certificates for two GM varieties of rice and one of maize. This raised expectations that it might become the first country in the world to use GM technology in the production of a main staple. But further approvals needed for commercial growing have yet to be granted. To the consternation of GM supporters, the safety certificates for the rice are due to expire next August.

Public opinion is a big reason for the delay. Environmental groups in China have rarely succeeded in changing government policy. Officials have long treated such NGOs with suspicion and made it hard for them to register or set up offices in more than one place. The only NGO in China that devotes much time to the GM issue is an international one: Greenpeace. But the anti-GM lobby has thrived, thanks not least to the adoption of the cause by conservatives in the establishment as well as by informal groups of diehard Maoists who see America as a threat.

To the Maoists, opposing GM food is an urgent priority. Hardly a speech is made by one of them without mentioning it. “I support Mao Zedong thought,” shouted one of the protesters outside the agriculture ministry. The police usually treat them with kid gloves; unlike others who protest in public, they are ardent supporters of Communist Party rule. And on this issue, at least, the Maoists enjoy much sympathy; public anxiety about food safety has soared in recent years thanks to a series of scares. Of 100,000 respondents to an online poll in November, nearly 80% said they opposed GM technology.

Since a change of China’s leadership a year ago, however, supporters of GM food inside the government and among the public have begun fighting back. In October Chinese media reported that 61 senior academics, in a rare concerted effort, had petitioned the government to speed up the commercialisation of GM crops. The Ministry of Agriculture was also said to be preparing a new public-education campaign on the merits of GM food…One of the recent petitioners, Li Ning of China Agricultural University, laments that the issue remains ensnared by nationalist sentiment.

Excerpts, Genetically Modified Crops, Food Fight, Ecomomist,  Dec. 14, 2013, at 53

Getting Rid of Chemical Weapons: logistics and compromises

Nobody thought it would be easy to transport several hundred tonnes of highly toxic chemical agents on a road that runs through territory fought over by two sides in a civil war. Speaking in Oslo on December 9th, a day before collecting the Nobel peace prize awarded to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ahmet Uzumcu, its head, warned that a December 31st deadline for getting the Syrian government’s most lethal substances out of the country would be “quite difficult” to meet.

Yet much has been achieved. A joint team from the UN and The Hague-based OPCW was sent to Syria two months ago as part of a deal to avert an American missile strike in response to President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons on August 21st. Co-operation from the Syrian government, which has a legal responsibility for implementing the plan, has been all that could have been hoped for, says Sigrid Kaag, a Dutch diplomat who leads the mission. Key milestones for the verification of chemical-weapons stockpiles and the functional destruction of the facilities where they have been produced were met on time (October 27th and November 1st, respectively). Of 23 sites, 22 were visited by inspectors. The one that proved inaccessible because of fighting is believed to have been dismantled and abandoned.

Destruction of unfilled munitions will be completed before the target date of January 31st. At least for now (and assuming there has been no cheating), it is unlikely that Syria has the capacity to make or fill any new weapons. However, by the end of this month, 500 tonnes of nerve agents, such as sarin and mustard gas (known as “priority weapons”), have to be removed for safe destruction. This task is daunting.

First, the weapons must be sealed and packaged in special containers brought across the border from Lebanon by Syrian technicians who have been trained there by OPCW specialists. Then they must be transported by road from multiple sites to Syria’s biggest port, Latakia. Once there, they will be loaded onto ships provided by Norway and Denmark and taken to an American government-owned vessel, the Cape Ray* a 200-metre (650-foot) cargo ship that is part of a reserve fleet used for transporting military hardware. The Cape Ray has been fitted with equipment for breaking down lethal chemical agents into a sludge similar to industrial toxic waste. It will eventually be handled by commercial firms in a number of countries, according to Ms Kaag.

The biggest obstacle is getting the lorries carrying the chemicals through to Latakia, because the highway between Damascus and Homs, which they have to use, remains contested. In recent weeks fighting for control of towns along it, such as Qara, Deir Attiyah and al-Nabak, has been fierce. The first two are in government hands but al-Nabak, some 80km from Damascus, is disputed. A pro-government newspaper, al-Watan, claimed this week that the highway had reopened after 20 days of bloody fighting around al-Nabak, but rebels claimed still to be holding on in parts of the town.

Ms Kaag recently met moderate opposition leaders in Turkey, but despite assurances that they support the safe removal of the regime’s chemical weapons it is questionable whether they have any influence in implementing temporary ceasefires that would ensure safe passage. The OPCW is in the uncomfortable position of relying on the military success of regime forces, supported by local militias led by Hizbullah, the Lebanese party-cum-militia, to meet its timelines. A further 800 tonnes of less lethal industrial chemicals destined for incineration at commercial toxic-waste plants outside Syria must also be transported to Latakia by early February.

Ms Kaag says that although “the situation remains complex and the security situation volatile…we intend to forge ahead.” Mr Uzumcu is equally bullish about meeting the overarching objective of destroying the entire Syrian chemical arsenal by the end of next June. However, the UN’s secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, in a leaked letter to the Security Council last week, expressed his concern both about the “highly dangerous” nature of this stage of the mission and about the vulnerability of the team’s headquarters in Damascus. An alternative base in nearby Cyprus is being considered.

The joint mission has already achieved a lot in a very short time. Ms Kaag describes a week of the current operation as being the equivalent of several months of any other the OPCW has undertaken since its formation in 1997. But there is no guarantee that it can maintain the momentum. The Syrian government has asked the international community to provide armoured vehicles to help it move the chemicals. The request is understandably being treated with suspicion but it might have to be granted if there is no other way of getting the chemicals to Latakia. Russia, an Assad ally, has said it is willing to step in. Working closely with a regime that has done terrible things to its own people has always been morally compromising. It is becoming even more so.

Syria’s war: An inconvenient truth, Economist,  Dec. 14, 2013, at 58

*The 648-foot Cape Ray, built in 1977, is generally used to transport vehicles to war zones from the United States. The ship has been outfitted, by Army civilians, with two portable hydrolysis systems designed to neutralize chemicals weapons in Syria’s arsenal.
Under the United Nations-backed plan, some 700 metric tons of chemicals will be loaded into shipping containers and moved to Latakia, a Syrian city on the Mediterranean Sea, where they will be placed onto cargo ships and eventually transferred to the Cape Ray. Once the chemicals are destroyed aboard the vessel, the waste, some 1.2 million gallons’ worth, will be offloaded at an unspecified commercial treatment facility. See Official Homepage of the United States Army

Smuggling Endangered Species and Drugs

Criminals involved in smuggling endangered species from Latin America into Spain are using the same routes as drug traffickers, Spanish police told Efe.  Some drug traffickers have actually turned to the business of smuggling exotic animals because it is lucrative and less dangerous than the narcotics trade, Spanish Civil Guard Wildlife Protection Service Capt. Salvador Ortega said.  Spain is one of the main entry points used by animal smugglers from Latin America to penetrate the European market, Ortega said.

The trade in exotic species is “very lucrative” and continues growing, the police officer said.  Animal smugglers use “the same routes as the drug trade and some have traded their businesses for exotic species,” Ortega said.  A small egg can easily be smuggled across international borders, with the parrot that later hatches being sold for more than 15,000 euros (about $20,500), Ortega said   Reptiles, amphibians, turtles – smuggled from Morocco – and parrots are the exotic animals most commonly illegally introduced into Spain, the police officer said.

Animal Traffickers Use Same Routes from Latin America as Drug Smugglers, Police Say, Latin American Herald Tribune, Jan. 3, 2014

Private Military Firms: business in Africa

But Blackwater’s demise created space for two rivals: DynCorp International, a 60-year-old firm that diversified into military security, and Triple Canopy, founded in 2003 with a similar business model to Blackwater’s.  Groups such as Human Rights First campaign against governments’ use of private military contractors…Post-Blackwater, two trends have dominated the new industry...globalisation and indigenisation. On the supply side, there are a growing number of private military firms, and not all of the new ones were formed by former special forces from Western powers, such as Aegis and Blue Mountain, two British firms. Warlords in places such as Afghanistan and Somalia ainre creating contracting firms that they staff with local talent. Their embattled national governments are seeing the merits in contracting out security. So America is no longer the only big buyer of private force…

One thing that would greatly improve the industry’s prospects is if the United Nations began using private contractors for peacekeeping missions, as it is said to be considering. Today, such missions are staffed by soldiers from poorer countries, who are often badly trained. Mr Prince thinks that private contracting would make the UN more effective, but he has no intention of going after that business. For him, the new promised land is Africa, where he is investing in firms providing services to the oil and gas industry, in places where he thinks his expertise in providing logistics and security can give him a competitive edge.

Private military contractors: Beyond Blackwater, Economist, Nov. 23, 2013, at  65

How to Make Money in Frontier Markets

A desperate search for bonds that pay a decent rate of interest and a keen desire for exposure to economies that are still growing quickly have taken rich-world investors to some exotic places. The raciest bets are made in so-called frontier markets, poorer places with even less mature financial sectors than emerging markets. Africa is full of them. Rwanda and Tanzania, for example, have found willing buyers this year for their debut issues of dollar-denominated bonds. The farthest edge of the investing frontier has now reached Mozambique.

In September Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas raised $500m on behalf of EMATUM, a state-owned company in Mozambique. Credit Suisse advanced the $500m; slices of the debt were then sold as loan-participation notes, maturing in 2020, at a yield of 8.5%. VTB, a Russian bank, raised a further $350m for EMATUM shortly afterwards. Such a deal can be done more quickly and with less fuss than a typical bond issue. VTB had already raised $1 billion for Angola in a similar fashion. Those notes are included in J.P. Morgan’s emerging-market bond index, an industry benchmark.

The concern is less about the way the money was raised than how it will be used. Mozambique is poor. Its budget is part-funded by grants and low-interest loans from rich countries. Its public finances were solid in part because it has been granted extensive debt relief. When such countries borrow in private markets, it is usually to fund projects, such as toll roads, airports or power stations, which might have broad enough benefits to justify the expense. But EMATUM is a tuna-fishing venture that came into being just a few weeks before the $850m was raised in its name.

It is not obvious that a state-run fishing startup is a compelling business proposition. But investors know there are huge gas reserves off the shores of Mozambique that will eventually bring in lots of foreign exchange, even if tuna does not. The bonds come with a guarantee from the finance ministry. And the handsome yield (far higher than the rate on comparable Treasury bonds) is some reward for the risks.

A French shipyard has received orders worth about $300m for two dozen fishing vessels and a handful of patrol boats. It is not yet clear what the rest of the money, which is accruing hefty interest, will be used for. What is clear is that the temptation to grab at easy money offered by yield-hungry investors is proving too great to resist for some countries. As usual, the role of party-pooper has fallen to the IMF. It has called for the cost of the guarantee and for “possible non-commercial activities” related to the EMATUM bond to be clarified in the next budget.

Investing in frontier markets: Fishy tale, Economist, Nov. 23, 2013, at 73