Weapons of Mass Destruction
The discovery on Feb. 2 of the toxin ricin in the mailroom at the offices of the U.S. Senate majority leader has reawakened fears about the scope of bioterrorism.
The deadly poison ricin caused commotion when it was found in the offices of Senator Bill Frist. Some 40 employees were put through sterilization processes to make sure they weren't contaminated. None reported any symptoms from the poison.
Alarm increased when it was revealed that documents contaminated with the same chemical had been sent to the White House in late 2003.
Sudden fever, cough and excess fluid in the lungs are some of the symptoms associated with ricin poisoning. There is no known antidote. These symptoms may be followed by severe respiratory problems -- and potentially death.
Speculation about new attacks by terrorist groups have returned 28 months after letters laced with a white powder identified as anthrax claimed five lives and damaged the health of 17 people in the United States.
Some consider chemical and biological weapons among the greatest threats to humanity in the new century.
Internationally, these sorts of weapons are controlled by the Convention on Biological and Toxic Weapons that entered into force in 1975, and other multilateral agreements.
In 2002 it was believed that Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya and Syria possessed what are known as weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and the United States is thought to be the world's leading holder of such weapons.
The United States led the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, accusing the Arab country of possessing WMDs and thus posing a threat to the U.S. and the world.
However, on Feb. 5 the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the first time acknowledged that intelligence data may have overestimated the potential arsenals of illicit weapons in Iraq.
A study on bioterrorism in the 21st century says that in may 2002 the U.S. deputy secretary of state, John R. Bolton, reiterated accusations that Cuba could be using its biotechnology for other purposes, such as applying it to WMD programs.
As a result of the visit by former U.S. president , Jimmy Carter, to Cuba that same month, it was determined that there was no evidence of biological weapons production on the island and that Cuba's efforts to support the scientific development of other countries must be recognized.
Biological agents developed for war are being put to other uses. As part of Plan Colombia, a U.S.-backed campaign against drug trafficking in the South American country, it was proposed to use the U.S.-developed fungal agent fusarium oxysporum to eradicate illegal fields of coca bush, used in making cocaine.
That proposal came under fire, especially from environmental groups. The non-government Colombian organization Mama Coca charged that the fungus is a living organism that could migrate and reproduce, growing out of control and threatening fragile ecosystems, including the Amazon, where illegal drug crops are planted.
The Internet has numerous sites with information on WMDs -- biological and chemical weapons -- and about efforts to stop their proliferation.
AP - Poison Ricin Found in Sen. Frist's Office
Center for Disease Control: ricin
Biological and chemical weapons
Convention on the Prohibition of Biological and Toxic Weapons
Status of the world's biological weapons
Tenet admits gaps in CIA intelligence on arms in Iraq
Bioterrorism in the 21st century
Mama Coca - in Spanish
BBC - Carter visit to Cuba
Red Hispana.com (Spanish and English)
Fight Against Slavery
2004 is the International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and its Abolition. A half-century since its international prohibition, new forms of slavery persist around the world today.
UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) on Jan. 10 launched a series of events having to do with the international year against slavery, as a reminder of one of the darkest -- and ongoing -- chapters in the history of humankind.
The year 2004 also marks the bicentennial of one of the first nations of black people, Haiti, a symbol of slave resistance.
The existence of modern forms of slavery was resoundingly condemned by the international community gathered at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, in 2001. As a follow-up, delegates are debating the effective application of the conference's Program of Action, in a meeting Jan. 26 to Feb. 6.
Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 establishes that: "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms."
According to a factsheet from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights:
"The word 'slavery' today covers a variety of human rights violations. In addition to traditional slavery and the slave trade, these abuses include the sale of children, child prostitution, child pornography, the exploitation of child labor, the sexual mutilation of female children, the use of children in armed conflicts, debt bondage, the traffic in persons and in the sale of human organs, the exploitation of prostitution, and certain practices under apartheid and colonial regimes."
According to the non-governmental group Anti-Slavery International, 20 million people were held in bonded labor in 1999, forced to work as a means to pay off a debt of some sort.
As for child labor, the anti-slavery watchdog group estimates that 70 percent of boy workers are in the agricultural sector, while most girl workers are employed as domestics.
Among those who are trying to deal with this problem are the group Working Children in Latin America (NATS), the African Movement of Children and Adolescent Workers, and Bhima Sangha, in South Asia.
According to the American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG), among the products of today's slave labor are sugar from the Dominican Republic, chocolate from Cote d'Ivoire, paperclips from China, carpets from Nepal and cigars from India.
The Internet holds a wealth of information on treaties and protocols related to eradicating slavery. The UNESCO portal provides historical information on slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as in Africa.
International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and its Abolition
World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
World Meeting of Working Children's Movements
American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG)
World Economic Forum
Amidst criticisms from civil society groups, more than a thousand executives from the world's biggest corporations, national leaders and economists gathered in Davos, Switzerland for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, a defender of the current globalization process. Just days early, in Mumbai, India, some 100,000 people gathered to assert that "another world is possible."
Prosperity and security were the central issues of the WEF, also known simply as "Davos", which in addition to executives and political leaders, drew academics, non-governmental organization activists and religious leaders.
Founded in 1971, the Davos Forum has attempted to find solutions to the world's economic problems through its annual workshops and panel discussions. Its critics say the aim of these meetings is to seek ways to benefit the participants at the cost of global society and the environment.
In part as a response to criticisms of its closed-door meetings, since 2003 the WEF has held forums open to the public. The topic of debate this year was "Globalization or Deglobalization for the Benefit of the Poorest?"
Taking place in parallel to the WEF was the alternative meet known as Public Eye on Davos, a project of a coalition of non-governmental organizations from around the world.
Environmental watchdog Friends of the Earth notes that the first report of the WEF's Global Governance Initiative reveals just how big business fails to protect the Earth's natural resources and to attend to the needs of the poorest populations.
The initiative was designed to monitor progress on global efforts to implement the plans established by the United Nations Millennium Declaration. The report shows that the international community merited three points, out of 10, in areas like the environment, human rights and security.
As a counterweight to the Davos Forum, the World Social Forum was created, the objective being to create a platform for discussing strategies in opposition to the WEF's model of neoliberal economic globalization.
One of the criticisms of both the World Economic Forum and the World Social Forum as that they failed to produce concrete results. IPS news agency provided broad coverage of the two international events.
World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
Public Eye on Davos
Global Governance Initiative
Friends of the Earth
Global Greenhouse Gas Register
World Social Forum
Under suspicion of violating international rules against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, in late 2003 Iran signed a protocol that opens the doors to unrestricted inspections of its national territory. The apparently innumerable efforts to stop the global arms race have proved insufficient.
The protocol that Iran signed requires states to provide a detailed declaration of their nuclear activities. In February 2004 the first report of inspections will be presented, after a year of investigations.
Other countries are also under international scrutiny.
Media reports indicate that Libya's announcements in December 2003 that it had renounced acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and would cooperate with United Nations inspections of its nuclear installations came after months of secret talks with London and Washington.
But contrary to expectations, the United States then took a step against the tide by beginning development of new atomic weapons.
The decision harks back to the Cold War, when the superpowers of the time, the United States and the Soviet Union, were enmeshed in an arms race that led to the proliferation of nuclear bombs.
Britain, France, China, India, Israel and Pakistan joined the club of nations possessing nuclear arms. Today, an estimated 28,000 atomic bombs exist worldwide.
Among the numerous disarmament agreements, the Non-Proliferation Treaty stands out. Since 1968 it has been the main international commitment to prevent the multiplication of nuclear arms and arms technology. It is the only legally binding multilateral treaty and has been ratified by the greatest number of countries.
Compliance with the treaty is verified through inspections led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
An accord specific to Latin America is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, signed in Mexico in 1967. It calls for nuclear technology to be used for peaceful purposes only, such as generating electricity.
The United States and Russia signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which commits both sides to reducing their nuclear stockpiles so that by the end of 2012 their totals do not surpass 1,700-2,200 bombs in each country.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website offers an extensive list of references on treaties, reports and analyses related to nuclear weapons.
Iran Signs Additional Protocol on Nuclear Safeguards
Libya Cooperated Fully with UN Nuclear Inspectors
New Era of Nuclear Weapons
The Cold War
Nuclear Numbers - global stockpiles
Latin American and Caribbean Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
International Atomic Energy Agency
United Nations Security Council
Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty
Bureau of Non Proliferation
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Mountains of outdated electronics are accumulating in landfills around the world. A new law in the U.S. state of California seeks to fight the problem through a recycling program to enter into force in July.
A pioneer in this area, the new California law, known as SB20, establishes that the consumer will pay six to 10 dollars at the time of purchase of each electronic item that contains heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, or cadmium.
The products covered by this legislation are mostly televisions and computers. Items with screens measuring less than four inches are excluded.
Once the electronic device has become outdated or no long works, the consumer can hand it over to a recycling center, free of charge. Currently, consumers pay recyclers around 20 dollars per item.
Estimates are that more than 22 million computers are sold every year in the United States alone. With the constant development of new technology, computers become obsolete in just two years.
Among the biggest concerns about electronic waste in landfills is the impact on the environment, as the chemical compounds contaminate the soil and can filter into underground water supplies.
And the process of recycling is not free of controversy. In the United States, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition denounced that Dell Computers obsolete machines were being recycled by prisoners who did not have the minimum protection for working with the dangerous substances.
A large portion of electronic waste is exported to developing countries, particularly in Asia, where companies restore used computers or dismantle the machines to recover metals like gold and copper. The practice is under scrutiny by the Basil Convention, which aims to prevent industrialized countries from transferring dangerous waste to developing countries.
While the European Union is working to eliminate the use of toxic materials in electronics by 2007, in Latin America, Brazil has had a program since 2000 under which manufacturers and importers of batteries containing heavy metals must take responsibility for collecting and recycling the used products.
Other efforts include "eco-labeling" of computers, which takes into consideration the design and use of materials, energy efficiency and manufacturing processes.
Corporate strategies for electronics recycling: A tale of two systems
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
Eco-labels for computers
Ten Years of NAFTA
Amidst both enthusiastic applause and loud condemnation, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) reaches its 10th anniversary on Jan. 1, 2004. Relegated to the back seat, environment and labor rights have been only accessory issues in that trajectory.
NAFTA is a regional treaty involving Canada, Mexico and the United States to create a free trade zone and, originally, with a goal of opening borders in 2005. Other objectives include eliminating trade barriers and facilitating trans-border circulation of goods and services, respecting competition, increasing investment opportunities and ensuring intellectual property rights.
The first decade of NAFTA has left a bittersweet taste. Food First, a non-governmental food security watchdog group, says that in Mexico, while economic reports celebrate export growth -- with more than 80 percent going to the United States -- the agricultural sector is suffering the impacts of subsidies for U.S. products, against which Mexican farmers cannot compete.
Meanwhile, big U.S.-based manufacturers have cut production costs by moving their factories -- textile, automobile, electronics -- to Mexico. The U.S. Department of Labor has tallied a lost of 500,000 jobs in the United States, ostensibly as the result of NAFTA.
A study about the negotiating process states that when the leaders of the three countries agreed in 1990 to work on creating the treaty, they didn't expect environmental and labor issues to be important for ratification. But that same year, a small group of activists launched a campaign, targeting the U.S. Congress, so that their positions would be included in the talks.
Environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund, National Resources Defense Council and the National Wildlife Federation monitored and supported the process for creating an international body in charge of ensuring respect for the environment, with the authority to impose non-commercial sanctions.
But other organizations, including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Public Citizen, resoundingly rejected the process, and demanded that U.S. companies operating in other countries must be required to comply with U.S. environmental laws.
The result was the creation in 1994 of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), which operates under the terms of the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC). Its mandate is to attend to shared environmental concerns and to prevent trade-related environmental disputes among the three NAFTA partners.
That same year, the Commission for Labor Cooperation was founded to improve working conditions and living standards for employees, and to promote 11 Labor Principles.
The two commissions are the first to link environmental and labor issues with an international trade treaty.
In early 2004, an independent committee made up of environmental officials will assess the operations and effectiveness of the NAAEC.
NAFTA - 10 Years Later - IPS Special Coverage
Food First - Genetic Pollution and Maize Diversity
Negotiating NAFTA: Political Lessons for the FTAA
Decade of NAFTA brings pains, gains
Ten Years After NAFTA: How Has Globalization Affected Mexico?
World Wildlife Fund-WWF
National Resources Defense Council - NRDC
National Wildlife Federation
Friends of the Earth
Curbing Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Efforts are underway to convert 20,000 hectares of Brazilian pastureland back into the rich forest ecosystem it once was. Picking up the bill are polluting companies that want what is known as a carbon dioxide "sink" to clean up their sins against the environment.
This is one of the many greenhouse gas mitigation projects being carried out around the world, under the special mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, an agreement that has yet to be ratified.
The pastureland reconversion plan is centered in the area of the southeastern Brazilian city of Curitiba with a price tag of 20 million dollars.
Financing the initiative are the U.S.-based corporations ChevronTexaco, General Motors and American Electric Power, which are warming their engines for the potential enactment of the Kyoto Protocol.
The mechanism must be ratified by 55 countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and whose combined greenhouse gas emissions represent at least 55 percent of the world total.
Ratification of the protocol is now in the hands of an indecisive Russia. The United States, alone responsible for 25 percent of emissions, has refused to support the treaty.
The Protocol contains legally binding goals under which industrialized countries are to reduce emissions by 2008-2012 of six types of greenhouse gases by at least five percent with respect to their 1990 levels.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, countries can attain their goals by trading emissions credits. The buying and selling of these credits, joint implementation projects (like that underway in Curitiba), and so-called "clean development" are the three established mechanisms.
Through these channels, a country that helps reduce emissions in others is given credit towards its reduction objectives stated in the treaty.
However, this does not exempt the country from reducing greenhouse gas production -- at least in part -- at home.
The World Bank's Prototype Carbon Fund, create in 2000, is a public-private initiative for clean development and aims to reduce poverty.
Its projects generate certified emissions credits that are purchased by the fund and then distributed among the participants, which can use them to meet their greenhouse gas reduction goals.
In the private sector, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development alongside the World Resources Institute in 1998 launched a greenhouse gas initiative aimed at developing practices that help companies monitor and report their emissions.
In early December the World Economic Forum announced the creation of a global greenhouse gas registry to facilitate management of companies' emissions worldwide. The information will be available on the Internet.
More information on climate change and greenhouse gases, as well as the market for emissions credits can be found on the websites for the Secretariat of the Convention on Climate Change (and the recent COP9 meeting), and the International Emissions Trading Association.
Framework Convention on Climate Change and Kyoto Protocol
A Beginner's Guide to Climate Change
Tierramérica Special Edition on Climate Change
World Bank Prototype Carbon Fund
World Business Council on Sustainable Development
World Resources Institute
International Emissions Trading Association
World Economic Forum
Secretariat of the Convention on Climate Change
COP 9 - Ninth Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC
More than half a century since the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is celebrated on Dec. 10, the struggle for the right to a healthy environment is growing fast.
In this section, we provide several informative web-sites on the linkages between human rights and the environment.
The right to food, health and housing and freedom of expression are several of the aspects that the universal declaration covers with the aim of guaranteeing just and peaceful coexistence among humankind.
Reports indicate that the first steps to link human rights and the environment within the sphere of the United Nations began in the early 1990s, when the Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities named a special rapporteur on human rights and the environment.
Later, the Stockholm Declaration, drafted at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, established the foundations for linking human rights and protection of the environment by declaring that human beings have the “fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being.”
The declaration also states that human beings bear “a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.”
In 1992, the Rio de Janeiro Conference on the Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, proclaimed the public’s right to know, to participate, and to work on improving environmental conditions.
In January 2002, a conference was held to assess the progress made since the Earth Summit. The meeting’s web site presents several documents that study the link between human rights and the environment.
According to experts while environmentalists have long been using human rights as a platform to analyze the negative effects of environmental degradation on health, human rights groups are now beginning to comprehend that many of the injustices committed against humanity are environmental in essence.
Health problems like diarrhea and respiratory ailments, the main causes of death among the world’s poor according to the World Health Organisation, are preventable if a safe and healthy environment is provided, including, in this case, clean water and adequate health infrastructure.
In November 2002, the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Committee declared access to clean water a human right, citing it as an indispensable requisite for the fulfillment of other rights.
In March 2003, the Third World Water Forum was held in Kyoto, Japan, where more than 24,000 participants discussed the actions needed to overcome global obstacles standing in the way of guaranteeing access to clean water.
The right to information has given rise to an initiative known as the International Right to Know campaign, aimed at requiring companies based in the United States or traded on U.S. stock exchanges and their foreign subsidiaries and major contractors to disclose information on their overseas operations.
The campaign is an attempt to prevent abuses and ensure that companies respect the environmental, labour and human rights of local communities in the countries where they operate.
The web site of the The People's Movement for Human Rights Education lists international treaties and laws that link human rights and the environment.
Declaración Universal de los Derechos Humanos (Español)
Movimiento de los Pueblos para la Educación en Derechos Humanos (Español)
Comité Económico, Social y Cultural de las Naciones Unidas (Inglés)
Tercer Foro Mundial del Agua (Inglés)
Integrating Human Rights and the Environment Within the United Nations (Inglés)
Declaración de Estocolmo (Inglés)
Conferencia de Río de Janeiro sobre Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo (Inglés)
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (Inglés)
Organización Mundial de la Salud (Español)
Joint UNEP-OHCHR Expert Seminar on Human Rights and the Environment, Geneva 2002 (Inglés)
International Right to Know (IRTK) (Inglés)
Environment and Human Rights Project (Inglés)
The Information Society
The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) gets underway on Dec. 10 in Geneva. Eight thousand people are expected to take part in deliberations on how to bridge the digital divide and reduce the imbalance in knowledge -- which are seen as the main obstacles on the road to sustainable development in the new economy.
Among the key objectives of the Summit is the interconnection of all cities, educational institutions, health centers and hospitals and local and central government bodies before 2015.
Among the WSIS participants will be more than 50 heads of state, and thousands of representatives of governments, international organizations, civil society groups, the private sector and the communications media.
In the first phase of the WSIS, in Geneva, the delegates are to adopt a Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action. The second phase, in Tunis in 2005, will revolve around issues of development and evaluation of progress made.
The 2000 report by the United Nations Economic and Social Council says that the revolution in information and communications technologies (ICTs) offers new opportunities for economic growth and social development, but that it also poses new challenges and risks.
The report points to applications for development such as electronic commerce and access to financial markets, the creation of jobs, increases in agricultural and industrial production and even "tele-medicine" and "tele-education" -- providing services to communities in remote areas.
But the text underscores that the majority of the global population still lives in poverty and has yet to benefit from the ICT revolution.
The report "Sustainability at the speed of light" states that of the eight billion micro-chips produced in 2000, just two percent ended up in computers. Most people around the globe live in continuous proximity to technology -- in their cars, toys, cellular phones and even their sports shoes, says the study.
Dubbed by some as "the second industrial revolution", the rise of the ICTs is expected to continue, and could ultimately reach each person in the world.
Some observers fear that the pace of expansion could mean that issues like the environment and sustainable development will be ignored.
Among the proposals to anticipate the spread of this new economy is the Digital Opportunity Initiative, a public-private association involving the Accenture company, the Markle Foundation and the United Nations Development Program.
Launched at the G-8 Summit in Okinawa in 2000, the initiative aims to identify the roles of ICTs in promoting sustainable economic development and social equalities.
Among the case studies are Costa Rica and Brazil, as the Latin American examples of successful government strategies to insert themselves in the economy of the future.
If you are looking for more information about the WSIS and links related to ICTs, Inter Press Service is providing special coverage on the unfolding of the information society.
World Summit on the Information Society
2000 ECOSOC Report
Sustainability at the speed of light: Opportunities and challenges for tomorrow's societ
Digital Opportunity Initiative
United Nations Millennium Declaration
IPS - Information Society - Special Coverage