Month: March 2000

Wahid Backs Down

The new president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, is supposed to be ushering in a new era of civilian control after the ouster of Suharto’s military dictatorship. But seven months after Wahid gained office, the Indonesian military is still firmly in control.

Wahid can’t punish those responsible for the election massacres in East Timor last year. After Indonesian human rights investigators issued a report that named puppetmaster General Wiranto and five other officers as ultimately responsible for the massacres, Wahid stalled. The report was issued while Wahid was on a long trip, and rumors flew in Jakarta that the military would seize control of the government. So the president did little. In mid-February, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan gave Wahid’s government an ultimatum: remove Wiranto from office and bring these men to trial or else get ready for an international war crimes tribunal. Wahid responded by asking Wiranto to step down, but also promised Wiranto that he would pardon him if he is ever convicted of human rights abuses. Wiranto nevertheless refused to resign, and Wahid declared that Wiranto could keep his job. But six hours after his announcement, Wahid was forced to bow to intense international pressure; he fired General Wiranto from his position as Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs. Indonesian Attorney-General Marzuki Darusman promised Kofi Annan: “In a limit of three months, we will have a trial process.” That period is now halfway over, and nothing has happened yet.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian military continues to support the militias operating across the West Timor border. In mid-February Wahid promised Kofi Annan that he would curb militia incursions into East Timor from West Timor. Yet only last Monday, U.N. peacekeepers in East Timor reported that the Indonesian military is helping the militias re-arm and cross the border into East Timor, where the militias have been harassing civilians and shooting at U.N. personnel. As if to embarrass and mock Wahid, militia violence increased immediately after President Wahid visited East Timor on February 29 and made a public apology for Indonesia’s role in destroying the country.

Wahid has also ordered the Indonesian military to dismantle the refugee camps in West Timor that the militias use as their main base, but to no avail.

Wahid also continues to make excuses for the Indonesian military’s role in murdering civilians in Aceh province. Wahid claims that the human rights situation is improving in Aceh, but witnesses on the ground say otherwise. The Red Cross reported last week that military atrocities in Aceh are “commonplace,” and that the situation in Aceh is “very critical.” The numbers are bad: about 30 people disappear every week and most are never found. At least 300 corpses have turned up so far this year, many with their hands cut off. Amnesty International reports that military attacks against human rights activists in Aceh have escalated recently. Likening it to the situation in East Timor prior to the election massacres, the Amnesty report says: “These attacks on activists are creating an environment in which the security forces can torture and kill free from any kind of scrutiny, and ultimately, accountability.”

Wahid’s government has also been unable to prosecute 20 army officers accused of masterminding last year’s massacre in West Aceh. The government claims it lacks the funds; however, its main problem is that it lacks its key witness, Lieutenant-Colonel Sudjono, who has disappeared–likely gone to the same mass grave as many Acehnese and Timorese.

In spite of all this, U.S. President Bill Clinton has allowed U.S. military advisors to resume training Indonesian military personnel. So much for supporting civilian government.

When Suharto fell from power, there was a lot of talk about de-fanging the military that supported him. This same military force butchered thousands of Indonesians when Suharto took power: it hunted down trade unionists, communists, socialists, human rights activists, members of political opposition parties, and anyone who criticized Suharto or his policies. The military supported Suharto’s crony capitalism, as he and his family and friends stole billions of dollars from the Indonesian economy and left it in ruins. It’s the military that now ensures that Suharto and his supporters will never come to trial for their crimes. It’s this same military that now holds Wahid on a leash.

So Wahid has given up trying to discipline the Indonesian military. In fact, he has gone one step further and turned into an apologist. On March 20, Wahid kissed up to his military handlers: “We have witnessed, from the very beginning of this nation, that the military has always come to the defense of our national interests.”

>From Suharto to Habibie to Wahid: the figurehead changes, but everything else remains the same.

How Olympia’s Stalemate Affects You

Last Thursday was the end of the 60-day legislative session in Olympia. Before the day was out, Gov. Locke had already called lawmakers back for a special session to resolve the budget. How long that special session will last is anyone’s guess–it could run a few days or a full 30 days; it could also require a second 30-day special session, if the even 49 Republicans/49 Democrats split in the House continues to be as big a problem as it has over the past three weeks.

In mid-February, the split in the House became a standoff. Both parties had agreed that no bill could come to a vote on the floor of the House unless both co-speakers (one Republican and one Democrat) had reviewed the bill and agreed to vote on it. As a result, any bill that had the support of only one party was blocked, and mostly minor, bi-partisan bills or those with no or little impact on the budget were allowed for a vote. Major bills that passed the Democratic-controlled Senate have languished and died, but the main casualty so far has been the budget, and both parties are far apart on how to address the shortfalls created by I-695.

There are four drafts of the budget in circulation: the governor’s proposed budget, the Senate’s version, and two versions from the House–the Republican’s proposal and the Democrat’s. They all vary widely, but there are two things they all share: not one of them manages to completely restore all the money lost from I-695, and they all include some kind of property tax cut–more to appease voters this November than to help balance the budget in any practical sense.

Viewed in this light, all the budget proposals are dismal, to say the least. Naturally, the House Republican version is the worst. It would drain money away from vital social services (including services for low-income women, infants, and children) and pour it into tax cuts and road construction. It would privatize one prison and cut enrollment in higher education. It would also cut the current budget by $170 million, thereby lowering the I-601 spending cap and making it even harder for the legislature to fund services next year. But the worst aspect of the Republican proposal is that it would force the state to go heavily into debt to finance road construction, meaning the state will have to allocate more money under the shrinking I-601 cap to pay bond interest, cutting social services, transit, education, and subsidies to local and rural governments even more. And there’s only a one-time $50 million grant for transit in the Republican budget (less than half of what transit needs each year to stay afloat). This is a clear sign that Republicans have accepted Tim Eyman’s argument to eventually do away with transit completely.

The two budgets proposed by the Democrats are better, but still flawed. The Democrat approach would maintain funding for many existing social services and provide more for transit, but it still doesn’t fill the I-695 gap. It would transfer funds from the emergency reserve account to fund transportation projects over three years, which the Republicans claim is not “long-term” enough for them; long-term debt is better, they assert (perhaps taking a page from Ronald Reagan’s book).

All three budget proposals share one more thing in common: they involve spending emergency reserves set aside by I-601 and/or lowering the I-601 spending cap. The Republicans argue that it will take a two-thirds vote to approve this, while the Democrats argue that a simple majority can do it. Neither side, however, has taken the necessary step of throwing out I-601 altogether. After all, I-601 has tied up a billion dollars that can’t be spent on anything. Let’s be clear about this: government is not a person and it does not need retirement savings. An emergency reserve needs to be spent on emergencies; what else is it for? And let’s define a real emergency: transportation funding and money to support local governments and social services surely qualify as emergencies–more so than a ballpark for the Mariners did. When government has to go into debt (as the Republicans propose) to afford these basic services, it’s time to spend the savings instead.

Much as we may disagree on how smart it is to spend the emergency reserves now, the legislature should recognize one thing. Most people in the U.S. don’t save very much money; a lot of folks voted for I-695 because they knew the state was sitting on a big pile of reserve cash. Like it or not (and personally, I don’t like it), if Washington residents want to spend that cash, the legislature should probably do it. But in this election year, no one has the guts to say so.

While most of the special session will be spent haggling over the budget, here’s a list of some bills that passed both houses and are sitting on Gary Locke’s desk waiting to be signed (bill numbers are in parentheses):

–A bill requiring health insurance plans to offer direct access to midwives. (HB 2031/SB 5920)

–Patients’ Bill of Rights, allowing patients to sue for harm, seek a third party review of claim denials, and protect patients’ privacy. This bill passed after it was watered down to the liking of the insurance industry. For example, it does not provide any time limits on how long the third party review would take. (E2SHB 2331/SB 6199)

–Individual health insurance bill, an outright concession to insurance companies. It skims off the 8% of the sickest people (who need health insurance the most) from the individual market and dumps them into an expensive high risk pool. People with pre-existing conditions will now have to wait nine months (instead of three) before they can get individual insurance coverage. Even worse, insurance companies can cancel a person’s policy even if that person has been paying his or her premiums. This disastrous bill provides more profit for the insurance industry, but it pushes health care reform back to the Dark Ages. Call or write to Gov. Locke and ask him to veto it (see below). (HB 2362/2SSB 6067)

–A provision for part-time teachers to earn sick leave similar to full-time teachers in proportion to the hours they work. Many part-time instructors currently have no sick leave benefits at all or earn only a few sick leave hours, even though they work a full 40-hour week at a variety of different job sites. This bill is long overdue. (2SSB 6811)

–A bill to enforce current law and notify tenants when their Section 8 housing will expire and/or the building they live in will come up for renovation or sale. This will give low-income tenants more time to make arrangements to move, and it will make it easier for non-profit groups to buy former Section 8 housing to preserve the low-income housing stock. (HB 2789/SSB 6663)

–A bill that would allow people in the welfare-to-work program to count educational internships as valid work under the WorkFirst program.

–Hunting cougars with dogs. This was voted down by the people once before, but this time Gov. Locke stepped in and gave it his backing, and the legislature went along. Locke will sign this one; contact him to express your disapproval (see below).

–Race profiling. This is a bill that encourages (but doesn’t require) local police departments to keep track of the number of people of color pulled over for traffic citations. (SB 6683)

–A major cut in the state’s unemployment tax. It’s worth noting that tax breaks for you and me have to survive the budget process, but a tax break that will save businesses $600 million over six years can fly through the legislature with little debate. Tacked on to this bill is a sweetener that provides $140 million for retraining unemployed loggers, fishermen, and laid-off Boeing workers. The two don’t belong together. Call Gov. Locke and ask him to kill it (see below). (HB 3077)

Many important bills never made it to a vote on the House floor. In particular, two bills that were blocked by Republican House Co-Speaker Clyde Ballard brought down the justified wrath of organized labor on the state capitol. Steel workers and state employees sat down together and blocked hallways in the capitol building on Thursday and Friday chanting “Take the vote, Clyde!” The two bills in question: 1) to grant state employees collective bargaining rights, and 2) to grant unemployment benefits to locked-out Kaiser Aluminum workers. Legislative staffers affirmed that there were more than enough votes to pass both bills on the House floor if Ballard would only allow it (he didn’t).

To voice your support or dislike of any of the bills that have been sent to Gov. Locke, contact his office at 360-902-4111, http://www.governor.wa.gov/contact/contact.htm, or write to Governor Gary Locke, Office of the Governor, P.O. Box 40002, Olympia, WA 98504-0002. To reach your legislators, you can call toll-free at 1-800-562-6000 or visit http://www.leg.wa.gov.

One Planet – March 15, 2000

Kosovo Revisited

Nearing the anniversary of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the world is reassessing what, if any, progress has been made in Kosovo. So far, the conclusions are not good.

The U.N. was given the job of setting up a transitional civilian government in Kosovo and preparing the province for elections by the end of this year. Several big obstacles have arisen.

For one thing, the peace agreement specified autonomy for the Kosovo government, not independence from the rest of Yugoslavia (which consists of the provinces of Serbia and Montenegro). While the U.S. continues to pursue the goal of overthrowing Milosevic, the U.N. is caught in a quandary of how to set up a new government that is “autonomous,” but not fully independent–in other words, one that still affirms the rule of Milosevic’s government over Kosovo. A large number of Albanian Kosovars, however, are insisting on independence and are willing to push until they get it.

The U.N. also continues to affirm its desire to see a multi-ethnic Kosovo–something that is impossible now. Aside from the Albanian/Serb fighting that has occurred as refugees are slowly being repatriated, there is a lack of adequate social services and infrastructure to provide for them, and what services exist often discriminate and serve only one ethnic group, usually Albanians. Kosovo, which once had a population of over 150,000 Roma (gypsy) people, now has only 30,000 Roma left living in isolated ghettos without food and frequently without water, lacking supplies, clothing, and even access to nearby hospitals. Although the Roma in Kosovo are muslim, they still suffer mistreatment by both Serbs and muslim Albanians based on their ethnicity, not their religion. Jews have suffered similar discrimination in Kosovo.

The nationalist Kosovo Liberation Army officially demilitarized in September of last year, but its leader, Hashim Thaci, continues to wield enormous political power. As recently as two weeks ago, Thaci addressed a crowd of 20,000 people, including over 1,000 former KLA fighters; he pledged to “liberate” Kosovska Mitrovica, a town near the northeastern border with Serbia. Mitrovica is divided by a river whose bridges are guarded by U.N. troops. On one side of the river lives most of the Albanian population, and on the other side is the Serbian population. It has been the site of several recent ethnic clashes. Thaci exclaimed: “Mitrovica, like all the other parts of Kosovo, will be liberated. Kosovo will be ruled by Kosovars.” He ended his speech with a rousing call of “Long live the KLA!” and was cheered on with prolonged bursts of automatic weapons fire from his supporters.

There are signs that large-scale fighting could erupt again. Former KLA fighters have formed a paramilitary group (the UCPMB) inside southwestern Serbia near the Kosovo border, where some 75,000 ethnic Albanians live. This group has already clashed once with Serbian police who routinely patrol villages in the area and search houses for weapons. The UCPMB’s goal is to liberate this portion of Serbia and make it part of an independent Kosovo state.

In the meantime, the U.N. transitional government in Kosovo is fighting insolvency. The coffers were nearly empty at the end of January, but an emergency infusion of cash from France and the U.S. have kept the show going until March 23, when Bernard Kouchner, the head of the transitional government, will have to fly around the world again and beg for more cash. It costs $325 million per year to pay doctors, school teachers, police, judges, utility workers, and government staff in Kosovo. Kouchner, who helped found the group Doctors Without Borders, is livid about the situation: “It’s like being on a drip, a resuscitation bottle for the whole society. It keeps us barely alive month to month, but only if we reduce the dosage to the minimum for survival, so we don’t collapse.” Why the lack of support? For one thing, the U.S. and Britain originally insisted that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe should run Kosovo and not the U.N.; both countries have a stake in seeing the U.N. fail in Kosovo. But other nations are also at fault; a lot of money and help has been pledged for Kosovo, but very little has been delivered.

Meanwhile, General Klaus Reinhardt, the head of the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo, has been begging for more troops to deal with the continuing outbreaks of crime and ethnic violence. Without enough money for the transitional government to set up a police force and a judiciary, unarmed K-FOR troops have had to be both cop-on-the-beat and judge and jury–and they usually fail. Robbery, kidnapping, beatings, theft, extortion, and murder are becoming more frequent. More K-FOR troops, however, are not the answer. Yet that’s exactly what the Clinton administration’s proposed foreign aid package would do: send more U.S. troops to Kosovo.

A year ago NATO sought to make Kosovo an example of why Europe needs an enormous military machine. Today, a year later, the NATO bombing and occupation of Kosovo can clearly be seen as a disaster. Ethnic tensions are worse than ever, the infrastructure of both Kosovo and Serbia has been destroyed, the environment is a mess, and the political situation is the same as before the bombing–only this time, as the situation deteriorates, the KLA will be fighting NATO and the U.N., instead of Serbia.

It Could Happen Here

It started on January 30, when water overflowed a containment dam at the Baia Mare gold mine in Northwestern Romania. The water, contaminated with cyanide and heavy metals, coursed through nearby streams and into the Szamos and Tisa rivers, which flow into Hungary and Serbia, and eventually into the Danube, the longest river in Europe.

Within a week, several tons of dead fish of all sizes and species washed ashore along the banks of the Tisa. All aquatic life in the river–from algae and the tiniest aquatic creatures up to fish that weighed as much as a grown human–were killed. Some species of fish that live only in this water system were completely wiped out–extinct within a matter of days. Within two weeks, the spill covered a 30-mile stretch of the Tisa and the Danube. Witnesses claimed that parts of the Danube were “all white with the bellies of dead fish.” Hunters began to find dozens of dead cattle, cats, dogs, seagulls, deer, pheasants, ducks, and wildlife that rely on the Tisa river for drinking water.

In a part of Europe that is largely rural and serves as a breadbasket for the region, farms along the river banks cannot use water from the Tisa or the Danube–or even their own nearby wells–to irrigate their crops. Drinking water is being trucked in to towns that pump water from the Danube.

Over 300 tons of dead fish have been pulled from the Tisa and the Danube rivers in three countries. In the Yugoslavian section of the Danube alone, over 400,000 birds rely on the fish in the river to help them survive the winter. In another week or two, birds dead from starvation or from eating poisoned fish may become as common as the heaping piles of dead fish wrapped in nylon bags that litter the region. The problem of how to dispose of the contaminated carcasses–now officially toxic waste–is only the first step in a cleanup effort that could last for decades and cost well over $100 million dollars.

And the problems will get worse as time passes. Currently, there are few places to bury the fish carcasses, because seasonal heavy rains have turned portions of the region into a swamp. Also, the bottoms of the slow-flowing Tisa and Danube rivers are littered with piles of cold, dead fish that are perfectly preserved, because the cyanide killed the bacteria that would have decomposed them. Once the weather warms up, those fish will float to the top and wash downstream onto the banks of towns and cities, creating a second, larger mess.

The spill also carried high doses of heavy metals: iron, copper, mercury, and lead. These contaminates won’t become diluted over time, like the cyanide will. They will persist as poisons in the river, the soil, the groundwater, and the food chain for decades.

The Baia Mare spill has been called the worst environmental disaster in Europe since Chernobyl.

It couldn’t happen here in the U.S., right?

Wrong. A comparable cyanide spill has already occurred in the U.S.–at the Summitville mine in southern Colorado in 1992. Cyanide water spilled into the Alamosa River system, killing everything in the water within 17 miles of the spill site. The Alamosa cleanup continues to this day, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the final costs will be at least $170 million. Said Steve D’Esposito of the Mineral Policy Center: “You’re having to re-establish an entire ecosystem … So it takes years, if not decades.” D’Esposito also acknowledged that the Alamosa spill contaminated groundwater and soil in the region; to this day, local farmers have to test their crops every year for cyanide contamination.

Cyanide is used in gold-mining to increase the yield (and the profits) from low-grade ores. Cyanide compounds are mixed with water and flushed through ores to extract tiny flecks of gold; the process is so efficient that it can extract nearly 100% of the gold from a pile of ore dust. But the process produces a highly-toxic waste, which is usually stored in containment ponds. Experience shows that, over time, containment ponds can fail, and the results can be devastating.

The Baia Mare mine is operated jointly by the Romanian government and an Australian company, Esmeralda Exploration Ltd., and both claim the affects of the spill into the Tisa and Danube rivers have been exaggerated. Similar claims about the effects of cyanide have been made by the Houston-based company, Battle Mountain Gold Inc., which is still pursuing a cyanide-leaching gold mine in Okanogan county in Eastern Washington.

The proposed Crown Jewel mine has survived a number of setbacks. Last March, the federal government ruled against it on the basis of the 1872 mining law that limits the per-acre amount of rock that can be dumped in the area surrounding a mine. Senator Slade Gorton, always ready to serve big business, came to the rescue by inserting two paragraphs into an unrelated bill on relief for victims of Hurricane Mitch; those two paragraphs exempted the Crown Jewel mine from the 1872 law.

Hardworking opponents of the mine, including the Okanogan Highlands Alliance (a citizens’ watchdog group) and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, continued their fight by filing an appeal at the state level. On January 19 of this year–less than two weeks before the Baia Mare disaster in Europe–the Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board ruled against the Crown Jewel mine. In their ruling, the pollution board said that Battle Mountain Gold Inc. had not adequately provided for pollution control, and the mine would pull too much water from the overused creeks in the area.

The struggle over the Crown Jewel mine, however, is not finished. On February 10, the company met with Gov. Gary Locke (who supports the mine) and the State Department of Ecology (which initially issued the permits for the mine) to hammer out a strategy to save Crown Jewel. The mine may yet go forward.

Battle Mountain wants to rip at least 97 million tons of rock from the eastern face of a mountain located mostly on publicly owned U.S. Forest Service land. They expect to employ about 140 people. But if cyanide spills over into the local watershed and spreads down 30 miles of river, destroying everything in its path, those jobs will mean nothing. Surely eastern Washington farmers, a powerful lobby in Olympia, should be taking a closer look at something that could so easily threaten their livelihoods.

And, of course, all the talk about saving the salmon in the Columbia River watershed will be meaningless if a large portion of that river system is completely and thoroughly destroyed.

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