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– by Wolf Dagmar
Slum dwellers in Mombasa: inequality is growing in many countries.
Oxfam: Global wealth distribution is inequitable
The world’s wealth is distributed in an extremely unequal manner. This insight is not new, but the figures in a recent Oxfam report are staggering nonetheless. Based on statistics published by Credit Suisse, the investment bank, Oxfam calculates that the world’s 85 wealthiest persons own as much as the 3.5 billion people who are the poorer half of the world population. One percent of the world population, Oxfam points out, owns half of humankind’s wealth. "Extreme economic inequality is damaging and worrying for many reasons: it is morally questionable, it can have negative impacts on economic growth and poverty reduction, and it can multiply social problems," the document states.
The international non-governmental organisation warns that the fight against poverty cannot succeed unless wealth is distributed fairly. Disparities are said to be growing in most countries.
Increasing inequality, Oxfam argues, is likely to undermine the institutions that democracy depends on. Oxfam calls for higher taxes on incomes and wealth in order to tackle extreme inequality. (sb)
Tunisia’s new constitution in force
In late January, Tunisian legislators passed their country’s new constitution with 200 yes votes, twelve no votes and four abstentions. President Moncef Marzouki signed it the next day (see photo). In the new legal order, Islam is considered the state religion, but not the root of legislation. Moreover, gender equality is enshrined in the new constitution. In future, men and women are to be represented in equal number in legislative bodies.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke of a model for other countries. Other international observers similarly said that the new constitution, which is now in force, is an important step towards democracy.
Legislators started drafting the new constitution in late 2011, hoping to finalise it within one year. An important reason why it took them longer was a dispute over the role of religion. In the end, Ennahda, the Islamist party, agreed to a pluralistic order. Ennahda shares ideological roots with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Tunisia is currently governed by a newly installed technocratic cabinet. (dem)
Syrian peace talks start in Switzerland
A UN peace conference involving both sides of Syria’s civil war started in late January in Switzerland. Shortly before, a team of legal and forensics experts asserted the credibility of 55,000 photos documenting atrocities committed in government prisons. The pictures were allegedly taken by a former photographer from the Syrian military police.
The peace talks made little progress. Observes considered it a good sign that the delegations of both warring parties met in one room however. The mediator was Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s and the Arab League’s special envoy to Syria.
After five days of talks, Brahimi spoke of a "modest beginning" that could be built on. The gaps between the two sides were huge, he said. "Nevertheless, during our discussions I observed a little bit of common ground, perhaps more than the two sides themselves realise or recognise." The talks were set to resume on 10 February. When D+C went to press in late January, the opposition delegation had confirmed the date, but the government delegation stated it needed to consult with Damascus first. (dem)
Opposition against Jacob Zuma in disarray
In January, anti-apartheid heroine Mamphela Ramphele was announced to become the top candidate for South Africa’s major opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) in the next general election. A few days later, the decision was reversed. DA chairwomen Hellen Zille said Ramphele was unreliable.
Many South Africans still regard the DA as the party of apartheid. Ramphele would have been the first black person at the forefront of a DA election campaign. The former life partner of Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist who was killed in detention, had started a new party of her own last year. This party was to join the DA, but Ramphele now says there was no sufficient roadmap for doing so.
South Africa must hold elections by July. The new parliament will then elect the president. Incumbent Jacob Zuma is embroiled in various scandals and increasingly unpopular. Nonetheless, observers expect his ANC to stay South Africa’s dominant political party. (dem)
Capital flight from emerging markets
Emerging markets saw stock prices and curreny exchange rates drop in January as capital was withdrawn from their economies. The trend was exacerbated by the US Federal Reserve (Fed), which indicated it was slowly tightening its monetary policy. The Fed did not announce higher interest rates, but declared it would reduce "quantitative easing" by a monthly $ 10 billion. Quantitative easing is an unorthodox monetary policy. It means that a central bank buys government bonds and other securities in order to keep interest rates low. In practical terms, quantitative easing is similar to printing money. In recent years, the European Central bank has been buying securities too.
After the outburst of the global financial crisis, many international investors transferred cheap money from rich economies to emerging markets in search of higher returns. As the outlook is getting better for the US economy, however, investments in North America are beginning to look more promising again. Accordingly, capital is becoming more scarce in emerging markets (see interview with Iwan J. Azis in D+C/E+Z 2013/12, p. 480 f). (dem)
Focus on Latin American law
Göttingen University has established a new Centre for Studying Criminal Law and Criminal Justice in Latin America (Centro de Estudios de Derecho Penal y Procesal Penal Latinoamericano – CEDPAL). The Centre’s first seminar dealt with Colombia’s peace process in the light of jurisdiction by the country’s Supreme Court. This seminar was organised in cooperation with Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation. Two other seminars will consider the Brazilian police and money laundering in Peru this year. Moreover, a course in criminal law and justice has been announced for Brazilian jurists this year. Next year, CEDPAL plans to host a summer school for jurists from all over Latin America. CEDPAL’s working languages are Spanish and Portuguese. Apart from teaching, the Centre is also designed to do research. (sb)
The coalition led by the Awami League of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (shown on election poster below) won an overwhelming majority in the general election in early January. However, only 40 % of the electorate went to the polls, according to the government. Observers believe the share was probably even lower since the opposition called for a boycott. In more than half of the constituencies, nobody ran against the government candidate.
The opposition parties were furious because Sheikh Hasina refused to step down ahead of the election to let a caretaker government manage the event. Doing so would have been the standard procedure that was established in 1996. Religion mattered too. This time, the fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami was barred from running. It belongs to the opposition alliance which is led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The alliance organised protests, and dozens were killed in riots.
Last year was a particularly bloody year in Bangladesh. Some 500 people are said to have died in politically motivated clashes. Tensions were exacerbated by controversial trials that were supposed to deal with crimes committed in the war that led to independence from Pakistan in 1971. Back then, Jamaat-e-Islami supported Pakistan’s troops. One of its leaders, Abdul Quader Mollah, was recently sentenced to death and executed for crimes committed four decades ago (the background was elaborated in an essay by Abdullah Al-Farooq in D+C/E+Z 2013/04, p. 172 f.).
The Awami Leage bases its understanding of nationhood on the Bengali language, whereas the BNP emphasises Islam. Problems are compounded by the fact that the fates of the leaders of the two major parties are marked by the country’s traumatic recent history. Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Bangladesh’s first Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who was murdered by the military. Khaleda Zia, the leader of the BNP, is the widow of Ziaur Rahman, a former general and president who was also assassinated by soldiers. The women are known for deep mutual resentment. (dem)