China misses out on Premier League

The Premier League’s top sides went on money-spinning tours of Asia this month that saw them take in a total of six countries or territories.

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But there was one glaring omission: mainland China.

Many businesses see the fast-developing country – now the world’s second-biggest economy – as “the holy grail”, says Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, adding that he didn’t “quite see it in the same way”.

Nor, seemingly, do Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs, Sunderland and Manchester rivals United and City, all of whom have been in Asia on lucrative pre-season trips, without including mainland China on their exhaustive itineraries.

Football and marketing experts said there were a number of commercial, logistical and sporting reasons for staying away.

“We are in a very fortunate position in that we operate in 212 countries and China is in the top 10 of our strategic markets,” Scudamore told AFP in Hong Kong last week, where City, Spurs and Sunderland each played two games in four days in the Premier League’s Barclays Asia Trophy.

Each team picked up STG1.2 million ($A2.03 million) pounds for appearing in the exhibition tournament, according to The Daily Telegraph.

“For a lot of businesses, in terms of business and marketing, China seems to be the holy grail. We don’t quite see it in the same way because as I said, we are in a fortunate position where we are in so many other countries,” Scudamore said.

“But clearly, just looking at the numbers, it’s a huge country and hugely emerging, emerging in terms of its sporting culture.

“And therefore we are involved in China, we have good partners in China – it took us a while to find them but we have some very good partners in China.

“It’s not just a broadcasting entity, it’s a marketing entity and we are working out in the regions in China because you cannot really describe China as a single entity, given the size, the scope and the expansion of it.”

Premier League teams in recent weeks played in front of fanatical sell-out crowds in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

The clubs charge appearance fees and they benefit from sales of official merchandise, as well as trading on their huge popularity by signing myriad sponsorship deals.

Tiger Tian, a sports marketing expert in Beijing, said a combination of factors had kept English teams out of China this summer.

Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City were all in the country last year, he noted, but said football fans in major cities were becoming increasingly “picky”.

“They’re fed-up with big names but poor performances, which unfortunately had been the case on several occasions when Premier League teams visited before,” said Tian, explaining that was less the fault of the teams and more the travelling, difficult pitches and limited quality of the opposition.

“Rapidly rising costs and limited sources of revenue are also threatening promoters’ bottom lines.

“Premier League teams, like everyone else in the world, see China as a goldmine and ask for higher and higher appearance fees.

“Obtaining all kinds of government permits is also extremely demanding in terms of both time and funds, and there’s always a danger of a last-minute shutdown.”

Several games involving European teams in China have been shelved at the eleventh hour.

In May, a friendly between Italian giants AC Milan and Dutch champions Ajax in Beijing was cancelled three weeks before kick-off because of “organisational reasons”.

The organisers had failed to pay an appearance fee on time, Chinese media said.

Barcelona also ditched their August game in Shanghai “after coming to the conclusion that it could not be played in perfect conditions”, the club said.

Julian Jackson, of the sports marketing agency Total Sports Asia, said there was “a fairly easy reason” why China had not got in on the Premier League jamboree.

The league’s failure to strike a deal to have games shown on China’s all-powerful state broadcaster CCTV means it simply does not have the same following as elsewhere in the football-mad region, he said.


Comment: Why electricity prices keep rising

By Tony Wood, Grattan Institute

If there’s logic behind the way Australian energy markets work, at first glance it’s hard to fathom.

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Increases in power bills have previously been justified by our increasing demand. But as energy demand in Australia drops prices continue to rise. This raises numerous questions. Is the type of demand changing? Is there the right type of investment in the network? Are the right energy market mechanisms in place?

In 2012-13, residential electricity prices increased by 14%, continuing a trend of double-digit increases going back to around 2007. This is a clearly a problem for homes and businesses and, therefore, for our political leaders.

The largest component of the price increase has come from costs imposed by the network distribution businesses, and yet these are regulated monopolies. The power to change rests with the regulators and, therefore, with governments. Yet, these monopolies, facing very little price or volume risk, make outsized profits. Why hasn’t the government done more to prevent this?

Grattan Institute issued a report in December, 2012: Putting the customer back in front: how to make electricity prices cheaper. This report drew four conclusions:

The allowed profits exceed reasonable levels, given the low level of risk these network distribution businesses face. Costs are being incurred to achieve unjustified levels of reliability – our electricity system doesn’t need to be as reliable as these business are telling us. The process of five-yearly reviews does not reflect the changing dynamics of the industry. Government-owned businesses are on average significantly less cost-efficient than their privately-owned counterparts.

The report made four recommendations that have the potential to deliver savings to consumers of around $2.2 billion per year, a saving to the average domestic customer of $100 per year. These are:

Align allowed equity and debt returns with the risks faced by the businesses. Give regulators, rather than state governments, the power to set reliability standards. Where governments own the businesses, they should address poor governance or privatise. Capital forecasts should be revised in line with changing demand forecasts.

In December, the Council of Australian Governments and the Standing Council on Energy and Resources (SCER) developed and moved to implement an electricity market reform package. This package is intended to strengthen regulation, empower consumers, enhance competition and innovation and balance the network investment interests of owners and consumers.

The Implementation Plan extends over 2013 and 2014 and puts considerable emphasis on strengthening the power and resources of the regulator (the Australian Energy Regulator, or AER).

It seems that expectations now rest heavily on the way the regulator responds to the various changes in its direction, powers and resources.

In March, 2013, the Australian Energy Market Commission – the rule maker – published a report on future electricity price trends. It estimated that nationally, the aggregated distribution network price will increase by 6% annually, from 2013 to 2015. This compares with an 11% increase between 2012 and 2013. These increases are estimated to represent 81% of the increase in residential retail prices.

The key questions now are will these reforms and price reductions be delivered and are they enough?

There has been criticism that the regulator has been too timid in its prior regulatory decisions and has tended to err on the side of investors. For example, in assessing the appropriate risk premium that businesses could earn, the regulator leaned towards encouraging investment rather than containing costs. The end result has been excessive returns for investors.

It will be important to assess the results of changes by looking at delivered outcomes, and not the actions and processes that are set up. The critical outcome will be the reported profits of the businesses – they should align with the risks faced. Savings of around $400 million per per year could be expected in coming years.

The communiqué from the last meeting of the Standing Council on Energy and Resources contains very little language to suggest it plans to be accountable to consumers for delivering them a better system. The current level of business ownership by state and territory governments and the challenges of delivering outcomes through federal processes would seem to work against what is and should be achievable.

Given the delivered outcomes over the last few years in terms of price increases for consumers and profits for shareholders, we should probably be seeking a much better result than the 6% price rise the Australian Energy Market Commission is estimating.

Although regulation is needed to ensure that companies have incentives to invest, recent decisions have disadvantaged the public. Governments need to take a more pro-active role in ensuring that changes are made and the benefits are delivered. It is time to restore the balance, and we should not be patient.

These issues will be discussed at a public seminar in Sydney on April 22 at the University of New South Wales. The discussion will be led by Andrew Reeves, Chair of the Australian Energy Regulator (AER), who will outline what regulatory agencies are doing to address the problem. He will be joined by a panel of experts chaired by Professor Mary O’Kane – Chief Scientist and Engineer, New South Wales.

Tony Wood owns shares directly and indirectly in a portfolio of comapnies, including those operating in the energy sector.


Three Israelis, three militants killed as Gaza violence rages

Warplanes pounded Gaza for a second day as three Israelis and three Palestinians were killed in fierce fighting which began with Israel’s targeted killing of a top Hamas chief.

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Israel’s harshest assault on the Palestinian territory in four years, which comes as the Jewish state heads towards general elections, prompted an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council amid growing international concern.

Police said that since Israel’s targeted killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jaabari on Wednesday afternoon, militants have fired around 180 rockets over the border, one of which hit a house on Thursday morning, killing three Israelis and injuring another four.

And the Israeli air force has pounded Gaza with more than 100 air strikes, killing 11 and injuring at least 115, medics and Hamas officials said.

“We have three killed,” Israeli police spokeswoman Luba Samri told AFP, saying four other people were also injured in a “direct hit on a house” in Kiryat Malachi, a town which lies 30 kilometres northeast of the Gaza Strip.

The attack on Kiryat Malachi was claimed by Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades in a statement on its website.

Israeli police said they had raised the level of alert across the entire country in order to deal with “the possibility of terror attacks” in response to Israel’s killing of the Hamas chief.

“All the major cities in southern Israel were hit, and the majority of the more serious damage was in Beersheva,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP.

Schools within a 40 kilometre of Gaza were closed, and those living within seven kilometres of the strip had been told not to go to work, he said. “It’s a pretty serious situation.”

An AFP correspondent close to the Gaza border saw several Israeli jets flying south as well as convoys of military jeeps and at least two flatbed trucks carrying armoured bulldozers.

In Gaza, Palestinian medics said three Hamas militants were killed in an early strike near the southern city of Khan Yunis, raising to 11 the number of Palestinians killed since the hit on Jaabari at around 1400 GMT on Wednesday.

“Eleven people have been killed and 115 people injured,” he told AFP.

Throughout the morning, further air strikes hit northern Gaza, Gaza City and east of Khan Yunis, injuring another three, medics and security sources told AFP.

Among the dead were five Hamas militants, two children, a woman and an elderly man, he said. The identities of the other two were not immediately clear.

The violence sparked a furious response from Egypt’s Islamist administration, which has close ties with Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement, with Cairo recalling its ambassador in protest at the Israeli operation.

Israel has said the strikes were only “the beginning” of an offensive targeting Gaza militants and warned it may expand its activity, with the army saying if necessary it was “ready to initiate a ground operation.”

“If it becomes necessary, we are prepared to expand the operation,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Wednesday evening, several hours after the start of Operation Pillar of Defence.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the operation was to strengthen Israel’s deterrence, damage militant groups’ rocket-firing capabilities and stamp out attacks on Israel.

Jaabari’s death sparked fury in Gaza, with Hamas’s armed wing warning saying that by killing its leader Israel had “opened the gates of hell on itself.”

And Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said the strike was tantamount to a “declaration of war.”

In New York, the UN Security Council held an emergency 90-minute session to discuss the crisis, with Arab states pushing for a strong condemnation, but the US envoy strongly defending Israel’s right to self-defence in the face of Palestinian rocket fire.

Amid fears of a regional flareup over the confrontation, US President Barack Obama and UN chief Ban Ki-moon both phoned Netanyahu and Morsi in a bid to de-escalate the conflict.

Britain urged restraint and Russia said it was “very concerned.”

The air strikes capped five days of rising tension in and around Gaza, which saw Israel kill seven Palestinians and militants fire more than 120 rockets over the border, injuring eight.


How will a new Pope be chosen?

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

To most, the selection of a new Pope comes down to a puff of smoke — literally.

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When a Pope has been picked, it is signalled through a tradition that dates back more than a century: a puff of white smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel.

But what goes on behind the scenes before that?

In this case, what happens before we learn who will succeed the retiring Pope Benedict the Sixteenth?

“I do find this a bit like trying to read the entrails of chickens … and you can quote me on that.”

The speaker is talking of trying to analyse the conclave that will name a successor to Pope Benedict the 16th, head of the world’s 1.2-billion-strong Catholic Church.

And the speaker is Professor Neil Ormerod — a professor of theology at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney.

That is how mysterious the process can be, so murky that even a Catholic theologian, asked if it reminds him of any other process, impishly suggests, yes, but won’t elaborate.

“It does, but not to organisations I’d want to publicly link the Catholic Church to … Look, it’s very much built on these personal relationships, relationships that people build up over years and decades. And I think it’s quite different from the sort of modern, democratic- or meritocracy-type models that we’re used to. It’s much more built on those personal relations. So it’s difficult to find modern comparisons.”

In part, that is because the papal conclave, or meeting of the Church’s College of Cardinals, dates back to the year 1274, with only periodic, mostly minor changes.

Historically, the naming of a new Pope has often been an achingly slow process.

Not this time, though.

After becoming the first Pope in nearly 600 years to resign his position instead of carrying it to his death, Pope Benedict has now pushed forward the naming of his replacement, too.

This week, he issued a decree allowing the qualified cardinals — all of those under age 80 — to move ahead with the conclave to elect his successor.

“I leave the College of Cardinals the possibility to bring forward the start of the conclave once all cardinals are present.”

Traditionally held up to a month after the papacy is vacated — including nine days of official mourning for a deceased Pope — this one will begin just days after Pope Benedict finishes.

After the 85-year-old Pope steps down, the plan is for the cardinals to almost immediately begin meeting informally to discuss the conclave.

A Vatican spokesman says they could agree on a date in the very first days of March.

The general secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Father Brian Lucas, is predicting the end result will be a new pope about 15 years younger.

“I think, probably, the (choice) would be (someone) either side of 70. Someone too much at the bottom end of the 60s, late 50s — John Paul the Second was 58 — that tends to suggest a long papacy, which is good if you get it right but not so good if you don’t get it right, and an extraordinary burden on the individual. We tend to forget that this is a human being in this role.”

Father Lucas suggests the cardinals will look for someone who is not just academic and not just bureaucrat – someone with both governance abilities and a breadth of vision.

He describes a conclave process that perhaps most closely, in modern terms, resembles a sequestered jury.

The process begins informally, with the the cardinals flying into Rome from around the world for the pre-conclave gathering.

Father Lucas says the cardinals will get to know each other, discuss the candidates and their strengths and weaknesses and hear presentations about the Church’s needs right now.

Those informal meetings could take days, but, when the actual conclave begins, the whole tenor changes.

The cardinals — about 115 in number — gather in the small Sistine Chapel, with its renowned Michelangelo-painted ceiling, and get down to selecting the new Pope.

From that point on, they will be cut off from all outside influence, all media, until they elect a Pope.

Father Lucas says the isolation is rigorously enforced.

“Once the actual voting begins, they are housed in a hostel inside Vatican City. It was built by Pope John Paul the Second precisely for this purpose — the Casa Santa Marta. It’s a hostel which normally is used by various clerics who work in the Vatican offices. They’ll all vacate. The cardinals will then walk through the Vatican Gardens to the Sistine Chapel. The Swiss Guards will ensure that there’s no influence upon them, that they can’t be accosted by anybody. All of the staff who attend to their domestic needs and so on are all sworn to secrecy.”

And the voting begins.

Father Lucas says he is told each cardinal writes his vote on a piece of paper, walks up to a table where three cardinal scrutineers accept his ballot, then announces his vote.

After that happens 115 times, the votes are counted.

Much like the run-off election of many countries, the voting for perhaps 20 to 30 candidates in the first round then narrows to the true contenders.

The cardinals hold two ballots each morning and two each afternoon until someone gets two-thirds of the votes.

It is a requirement Pope Benedict reinstated in place of a simple majority, because, Father Lucas says, the Pope felt a simple majority carried an inherent risk.

“I think that, probably, we have to appreciate that this is the person who has to be the leader of the whole Church. And unlike what we’re used to with our elections in the two-party system in Australia, the United States, where you only need to get that one extra vote to get the majority, well, if you get a hundred people and 51 vote for you, you’ve still got to remember there are 49 who voted against you. And as we know in Australia with our hung parliament, it doesn’t go much for good governance to have that sort of, uh, tight situation.”

Instead, one possibility is that the College of Cardinals actually diverts from the leading candidates in a sharply divided contest and settles for an alternative candidate.

This conclave comes with the Vatican engulfed in a climate of intrigue and scandal, capped now by British Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s resignation over allegations of improper behaviour.

He denies the allegations that he made sexual advances towards priests in the 1980s but says he will stay away from the conclave to avoid the media attention he would bring.

Some in the Church reportedly fear that pushing the conclave forward favours those working in and around the Vatican — essentially, the old guard under whom the problems festered.

But Neil Ormerod, the professor of theology at the Australian Catholic University, suggests the shift in timing is more about making one concession to modern times.

“I think it’s largely logistic. I mean, a lot of the cardinals would already be on their way there, I would think. It’s really a question of, these are busy men with large agendas in their own dioceses, or in their Roman dicasteries, and you want to be as efficient as you can so that people can get back to their day jobs.”


Comment: Portion size affects how much you eat

By Lenny R.

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Vartanian

Think about the last meal you had, and ask yourself why you ate as much as you did, not more or less. Chances are that your answer had to do with how hungry or how full you were. But that’s not the whole story.

For many years, researchers thought that how much food people ate was primarily driven by internal physiological signals: you start eating when you are hungry and stop eating when you are full.

Many people still believe this to be true. But since the 1970s, researchers have identified a number of non-physiological or external factors that influence people’s food intake in quite powerful ways.

The external factor that has received the most attention from researchers and from the media is the portion size of food. This is because people tend to eat what they are served – and larger portions can lead to overeating.

Portions and mindless eating

Portion sizes have increased dramatically over the past few decades; this is true of portions served in shops, restaurants, and even in homes.

What’s perhaps most striking about this research is that people eat more from larger portions even when they are not particularly hungry and even when the food doesn’t taste very good.

When people eat in response to external cues such as portion size, their behaviour is described as “mindless” eating – either they are unaware of the presence of the external cue, or are unaware that the cue is influencing them.

If that is the case, then increasing people’s awareness of these external factors should put them in a better position to resist the influence of those factors. Education may be the key.

Becoming mindful

Some colleagues and I recently put this idea to the test. In our study, female students took part in an educational exercise before being served a small or a large portion of pasta for lunch.

In both groups, the pasta was served on dishes of the same size, but participants in the small-portion condition were served 350 grams of pasta, and those in the large-portion condition were served 600 grams.

The educational exercise required participants to read a brochure that described a variety of external influences on food intake, including portion size.

They were then asked to write about their experiences of being influenced by these types of factors. This exercise was designed to raise the participants’ awareness of the impact that these external influences can have on their food intake.

If the lack of awareness of influential external factors was key to people eating more, then by educating them about these factors, the exercise should have decreased the influence of portion size on their subsequent food intake.

It did not. Those in the large portion group ate 30% more pasta than those in the small portion group.

Getting smaller

It seems that the influence of portion size is resistant to simple awareness. This is probably because the amount of food that we ought to eat is fairly ambiguous in many situations.

Take, for example, an all-you-can-eat buffet, a cocktail party, or even dinner at your grandmother’s house. How much should you and do you eat in each of these situations? Is it the same amount across all of them?

Because the appropriate amount to eat is often not very clear, people rely on a range of external cues to help guide their behaviour. They might just eat what they are served. And the more they are served, the more they will eat.

If this is the case, then education on its own may not be enough.

One strategy frequently suggested as a way for people to avoid overeating is to use smaller plates; smaller plates should hold smaller portions so less food will be consumed.

It turns out that this is only partly true.

Smaller plates appear to reduce food intake only if there is less food available overall. If people are serving themselves from a large supply of food, then they will either pile more on their plates, or go back for seconds or thirds.

What can be done

If these strategies are unable to reduce how much we eat, is it time to start talking seriously about regulations, such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt last year to institute a ban on jumbo-sized soft drinks in certain food outlets?

These types of proposals are typically met with a fair bit of resistance and the terms “nanny state” and “food police” creep into the discussion. Opponents argue that people should be able to make their own food choices.

But if people are generally unable to overcome the influence of external factors on their food intake, if more reasonable portions of food are not readily available, or if economic incentives continue to favour purchasing larger portions, how much confidence can we have in people’s ability to make healthy choices?

If we expect people to take personal responsibility for their food choices, then we need to provide them with the genuine opportunity to make healthy choices. That opportunity does not seem to be available in our current food environment.

Lenny R. Vartanian receives funding from the Australian Research Council.


Year in review: African warlords face the courts

Crimes against humanity, aiding and abetting war crimes, recruiting child soldiers are just some of the crimes former and sitting African leaders and rebel leaders were found guilty or accused of in 2012.

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Santilla Chingaipe looks back at the year that was in some high profile African legal cases.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

The year began with the International Criminal Court ruling that two presidential candidates in Kenya must stand trial over crimes against humanity following post-election violence in 2007.

The ICC said Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and former minister William Ruto will both face charge.

They are among four prominent Kenyans – all of whom deny the accusations – who the ICC said will stand trial.

But as 2012 drew to a close, Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto were still free men, and planning to run for the Kenya’s presidency at the 2013 presidential and parliamentary polls.

Liberia’s former president Charles Taylor became the first head of state to be convicted by an international court since the Nazi trials at Nuremberg following the Second World War.

The 64-year-old was sentenced to 50 years in prison for war crimes in the neighbouring African nation of Sierra Leone in the 1990s.

The sentence came after five years of hearings at the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague.

Taylor was charged with 11 counts of aiding and abetting war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

He showed no emotion as Presiding Judge Richard Lussick delivered the guilty verdicts.

“Count one, acts of terrorism, a violation of article three common to the Geneva conventions, and of additional protocol to, pursuant to article 3D of the statute. Count two, murder. A crime against humanity, pursuant of article 2A of the statute. Count three, violence to life, health and physical or mental well being of persons, in particular, murder. A violation of article 3 common to the Geneva conventions.”

Taylor was found guilty of training, financing and helping Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front rebels.

The rebels entered Sierra Leone from Liberia in 1991 and waged a terror campaign in the civil war that claimed an estimated 120-thousand lives over a decade.

Prosecutors alleged that the rebels paid Taylor for his support with illegally mined, so-called blood diamonds.

Taylor was indicted in 2003, before he was arrested in Nigeria in 2006.

During the trial, he pleaded not guilty, denying all the allegations.

“I, Charles Ghankay Taylor, never, ever, at any time, knowingly assist Foday Sankoh (leader of Sierra Leone rebel militia) in the invasion of Sierra Leone.”

The trial began in 2007 and saw some 94 witnesses take the stand for the prosecution and 21 for the defence before wrapping up in March 2011.

British model Naomi Campbell was one witness.

She told the court she received a gift of diamonds from Taylor at a charity dinner hosted by then South African President Nelson Mandela in 1997.

“I had a knock on my door and I opened my door and two men were there and gave me a pouch and said ‘a gift for you’.”

While the court convicted Taylor of aiding and abetting atrocities by rebels, they cleared him of direct command responsibility.

The special court of Sierra Leone had already convicted eight Sierra Leoneans of war crimes and jailed them for between 15 and 52 years following trials in Freetown.

The year also saw Senegal and the African Union sign an agreement to create a special tribunal toof Sudan’) try former Chadian leader Hissene Habre.

Mr Habre has been living in Senegal since fleeing his country in 1990 after being ousted.

The special tribunal will be set up in Dakar to judge him for war crimes 22 years after he left power.

A 1992 truth commission report in Chad said that during his time in power, he presided over up to 40-thousand political murders and widespread torture.

Rights groups called on the Senegalese government to act swiftly in trying the former Chad president.

Spokesman of the Dakar-based African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights Alioune Tine says the people of Chad are a step closer to getting justice.

“It’s very good information (news) for all the victims of Hissene Habre. There is hope. What we want now is to begin the trial very quickly. To build these mechanisms very very quickly because there is a long time that victims have been waiting for this Hissene Habre trial.”

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, former congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga was sentenced by the International Criminal Court to 14 years in prison for enlisting child soldiers in his rebel army.

The 51-year-old was convicted of recruiting children for his rebel group, the Union of Congolese Patriots, during fighting in 2002 and 2003 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Lubanga also made history by being the first person to be convicted by the ICC since it was launched a decade ago.

Presiding judge Adrian Fulford delivered the verdict.

“The chamber reached its decision unanimously. The chamber concludes, that the prosecution has proved beyond doubt that Mr Thomas Lubanga Dyilo is guilty of the crimes of conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 years into the FPLC (militia group) and using them to participate in hostilities from early September 2002 to the 13th of August 2003.”

Nick Grono is from the non-profit organisation, the International Crisis Group, which researches conflicts.

He said Lubanga was convicted on several charges.

“Lubanga was a militia leader in the eastern Congo in the very nasty war that was going on there through and including the early 2000s and he was accused of three war crimes of recruiting, conscripting and using child soldiers and the court found that he committed those crimes, used child soldiers, and including using them as his bodyguards and these are the kind of crimes that we see in other conflicts in Africa, in particular the Lord’s resistance Army and Joseph Kony for instance and other conflicts that are ongoing elsewhere in Africa.”

Lubanga had pleaded not guilty, saying he was only a politician and was not involved in violence.

A United Nations report in October accused Rwanda’s defense minister of commanding a rebellion in eastern DRC that is being armed by Rwanda and Uganda.

The confidential report, leaked to Reuters news agency, said the minister also sent troops to aid the insurgency in a deadly attack on UN peacekeepers.

The UN Security Council’s Group of Experts say Rwanda and Uganda, despite their denials, continue to support M-23 rebels in their six-month fight against Congolese government troops.

M-23 is a group of army mutineers made up of Tutsi ex-rebels from the Rwanda-backed National Congress for the Defence of the People.

It is headed by Bosco Ntaganda who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

They were integrated into the regular army in 2009 as part of a peace deal on March 23, 2009 for which they are named.

But they mutinied in April, demanding better pay and a full implementation of the March 23rd peace deal.

The UN said M-23 has expanded territory under its control, stepped up recruitment of child soldiers and summarily executed prisoners.

Speaking to the BBC, Uganda’s Foreign Minister Henry Okello-Oryem dismissed the report as rubbish.

“I can only say that this is mischief by those who do not intend for success in the progress being made. But we’re not going to accept our name of the government of Uganda, the people of Uganda to be tarnished in an unjustified and unproven ground.”

Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame also told the BBC his government was not involved in the conflict.

“The main problem in this situation is a mix of ignorance an arrogance, people not listening. it’s just that, we don’t know what they’re about or what they want. We are not even involved at all and it wouldn’t make sense because for us our relationship with the Congo before this thing happened was actually very good and we were working together to eliminate the problem that has existed between the two countries.”

But perhaps the most prominent of Africa’s accused war criminals this year was Joseph Kony.

He became the focus of an internet campaign by a United States Charitable group to bring him to justice.

The indicted war criminal is head of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, which is known for atrocities including war crimes, abducting children to act as soldiers, sexual slavery and rape.

The ‘KONY2012’ campaign was launched, Invisible Children, with a 30-minute video which has been viewed by more than 100 million people since it was posted online.

This is an extract from the clip:

“For 26 years, Kony has been kidnapping children into his rebel group the LRA. Turning the girls into sex slaves and the boys into child soldiers. He makes them mutilate people’s faces and he forces them to kill their own parents. And this is not just a few children, it’s been over 30-thousand of them.”

Despite the viral internet campaign to stop Joseph Kony, the accused warlord has yet to be captured.

Meanwhile, the first woman and African to head International Criminal Court was also appointed this year.

Gambia’s Fatou Bensouda vowed to work for justice for Africans.

She said her list of priorities as chief prosecutor include the arrest of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir who is wanted by the ICC for war crimes and the trial of Ivory Coast’s ousted leader Laurent Gbagbo who is waiting the commencement of his trial in the Hague.

 

 


Thai police fire tear gas at protesters

Thousands of police have been deployed for the rally, organised by the royalist group Pitak Siam, which wants Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government to step down.

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The authorities expect tens of thousands of people to attend the demonstration, the first major street protest against Yingluck’s 16-month-old administration.

Police estimated that about 10,000 protesters were gathered by about 9:00 am at the Royal Plaza in the city’s historic district.

“In the name of Pitak Siam and its allies I promise that we will topple this government,” the movement’s head, retired general Boonlert Kaewprasit, told demonstrators from the rally stage.

Police fired 10 tear gas canisters at a group of protesters who removed barbed wire and barriers blocking their route in front of a UN building close to the main rally site, police said.

“Tear gas was used in one area because protesters did not comply with the rules,” said national police spokesman Major General Piya Uthayo.

Three people, including one police officer, were taken to hospital because of the effects of the tear gas, while several others received first aid at the site, according to the city’s Erawan emergency centre.

The authorities said they would allow the rally to go ahead at the Royal Plaza so long as protesters gathered peacefully.

Yingluck on Thursday voiced fears the protesters aimed to use violence and to “overthrow an elected government and democratic rule”, in a televised address to the nation.

The government has invoked a special security law, the Internal Security Act (ISA), in three districts of the capital to cope with possible unrest.

“We will evaluate the situation daily and if it escalates we are ready to invoke emergency rule, but so far I think the ISA will be sufficient,” Thai police chief General Adul Sangsingkaew said on national television.

Politically turbulent Thailand has been rocked by a series of sometimes violent rival street protests in recent years, although an uneasy calm has returned after national elections in 2011.

Two months of mass opposition protests in 2010 by “Red Shirt” supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra sparked a deadly military crackdown that left about 90 people dead and nearly 1,900 wounded.

Thaksin’s sister Yingluck is now prime minister after his political allies won a landslide election victory last year.

Thaksin, who made billions as a telecoms tycoon, is adored by many poor Thais for his populist policies while in power, but reviled by many in elite, military and palace circles who see him as authoritarian and a threat to the monarchy.

“This government ignores widespread disrespect of the monarchy and even supports the perpetrators. It is a puppet of Thaksin,” Pitak Siam spokesman Vachara Riddhagni told AFP ahead of the demo.

Observers say prosecutions for insulting the monarchy have surged since royalist generals toppled Thaksin in a coup in 2006. Many of those targeted are linked to the Red Shirt movement.


Life goes on in Gaza City

It’s approaching a week since an unexpected but welcome ceasefire halted air strikes on Gaza, and rockets falling on Israel.

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SBS correspondent Luke Waters and cameraman Jeff Kehl visited Gaza to see how Palestinians have been affected by eight days of fighting between Israel and Hamas.

A ward in Gaza City’s main hospital is littered with semi-conscious bombing victims, and in some ways they are the lucky ones with at least a chance to recover. Unspeakable injuries and maiming have been the norm in Gaza for a fortnight.

WATCH LUKE WATER’S REPORT HERE (VIA YOUTUBE)

Dr Iman Chbnni says brain injuries have been very common during the fighting.

Of all the suffering Dr Iman Chbnni has seen recently, images recorded on his phone move him deeply. One shows an 11-month old boy with burns to his entire body drawing his final breath, another shows a five-year-old girl with brain haemorrhaging.

It was a near miss for shopkeepers whose businesses are across the road from a Palestinian Ministry building which was levelled in an early assault. Amazingly, no-one was killed in the attack.

Salah Aljolo was 20 metres away when the bombs hit. He says he heard aeroplanes, explosions and then struggled to breathe as smoke engulfed the shopping precinct.

But in Gaza City, life goes on.

“In spite of all this bombing, we say we are victorious. Why? Because we are still in our land,” says Gaza City resident Soheil Mohommad Shanti. “We didn’t leave – no force can get us to leave now!”

Many Gazans say they are focused on the future and they hope sustained peace will one day prevail.


Comment: The short-lived feminism of Tony Abbott

By Rob Brooks, University of New South Wales

Having watched Christopher Pyne’s sexist treatment of Kate Ellis on Q&A on Monday (see Ben Pobjie’s excellent analysis), I couldn’t decide whether to watch Abbott or Pyne as the Prime Minister handed them their medicine.

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This wasn’t quite Cicero denouncing Catiline in the senate. Not least because of the pathetic sordidness of the Peter Slipper affair. And commentators who followed the full day’s incendiary proceedings have a less glowing assessment of the speech’s impact than those of us who saw only the speech itself.

But what excited me, and no doubt animated the video’s viral spread, is the way in which the Prime Minister stood up to Tony Abbott’s aggressive, bullying political style.

Much has been made of Abbott’s so-called “problem with women”. I have no knowledge of how he personally relates to women. But with the way in which he has conducted himself as opposition leader, he has earned the public perception that he has a problem with women, especially women in authority.

He wields his robust aggression so effectively in trying to dislodge and disrupt the government. But now that it is harming his standing with voters, he’s suddenly attempted to remake himself as a feminist. Last week Abbott’s wife, Margie, stepped up to rebut the idea he’s on “some kind of anti-women crusade”. She even went so far as to call him a feminist.

Yesterday, when he got the chance he has been begging for, to move that Peter Slipper be removed as speaker, he made his case on the basis of Slipper’s gross sexism. Suddenly, when the polls start telling him that his perceived sexism is costing him votes, Abbott reveals that he’s a feminist. The last time I was so surprised at a coming-out was when the Insane Clown Posse announced they were actually evangelical Christians.

Abbott’s is the kind of clumsy “re-branding” that only a PR zombie who has never actually met a real voter could have dreamed up. Nobody builds feminist cred overnight. Having a wife and three daughters doesn’t confer it. Especially when Abbott admits to having told his daughters that their virginity is “the most precious gift” they could give someone.

Perhaps, as some regular readers of this column like to point out, I read too much sex, gender and reproduction into modern affairs. Perhaps I should stick to thinking about sexual conflict in other animals.

But then I look at politicians like Tony Abbott and Cory Bernardi here in Australia, and Todd Akin and Paul Ryan in the USA, and I cannot help but see the narrow reproductive self-interest that permeates so much of their politics.

If you talk and behave like a man who has never given a moment’s thought to what it is like to live as a woman, then the best you can hope for is to represent other men who have given just as little thought to what life is like for their daughters and wives (should they be so lucky).

And if you speak and think like someone who has never considered what it is like to be gay, then don’t act surprised when gay people actively oppose your re-election.

And if, like Alan Jones, you make your considerable living giving a life-like rendition of a bully who exploits their listener’s self-interest, then don’t whinge about cyber-bullying when the public push back at you.

I grow ever more convinced – although I don’t have the evidence for this yet – that women and men each inherit a kind of gendered myopia that makes it difficult to empathise completely with members of the opposite sex. Which makes it genuinely difficult for us to truly understand one another. Abbott, Jones and the like have built their careers catering to men who’ve spent their lives not thinking deeply about the lives their daughters and wives lead, or would like to lead.

If Tony Abbott wants to undo his damaged reputation with women, he needs to start in the right place. Simply calling yourself a feminist will only lead to more trouble.

Which is one of the reasons I so enjoyed the Prime Minister’s speech. She called Abbott on his rank hypocrisy in trying to paint himself as a feminist when it suddenly became expedient to do so. And, as Anthony Sharwood put it at The Punch – Tony Abbott “got owned”.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.


Stingers reach world water polo final

Australia’s women’s water polo team has earned a shot at a first world title since 1986 after beating Russia to reach the final in Barcelona.

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The Stingers won 9-6 on Wednesday to set up a showdown with hosts Spain in Friday’s decider.

Australia, bronze medallists at the London Olympics, reached only their third world championships final and first since 2007.

They will attempt to add a second crown after winning the inaugural world championships in Madrid 17 years ago.

Despite a slow start, the Stingers assumed control in the second term to lead 4-3 at halftime and never looked back as they thwarted Russia’s counter-attack.

Nicola Zagame scored three goals in the win, which evoked memories of Australia’s 2007 semi-final triumph over Russia in Melbourne en-route to a silver medal finish behind the US.

Proud Australian coach Greg McFadden was excited by the challenge of facing Spain in the final.

“We are in the gold medal match now and it’s been a great journey and it would be awesome to beat Spain in front of their home crowd as it will be a tremendous atmosphere,” McFadden said.

Stingers star Ashleigh Southern said Wednesday’s win helped overcome the disappointment of missing last year’s Olympic final after an extra-time semi-final loss to eventual champions the US.

“It’s an amazing feeling being in the final. We really wanted to come out here and play for the world championship,” she said.

Olympic silver medallists Spain won a see-sawing encounter against Hungary 13-12, with the winning two goals coming from Laura Lopez in the final quarter.

The hosts had already achieved their best world championships result, having never finished higher than seventh.

Australia’s men’s team lost in the quarter-finals, falling in a heartbreaking extra-time defeat to Olympic champions Croatia on Tuesday.


The politics of ‘orphans’ and the dirty tactics of the adoption lobby

By Patricia Fronek, Griffith University

You might not have realised it, but it is Adoption Awareness Week.

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Every year at this time lobbyists pull out the big gun – the celebrity card – and Deborra-Lee Furness hits the airwaves.

The messages are clear – we must rescue more orphans, cut red tape, privatise adoption like in the US, and anyone who opposes us, especially the government, is anti-adoption. The reality is the informed members of the adoption community (and there are many) understand intercountry adoption for what it is – a very complex matter.

Everyone has a right to an opinion but when a small, well-connected and media-savvy group of lobbyists claim personal opinion as fact and claim to be the voice for the adoption community in Australia, there is a problem. My PhD research shed light on the tactics used by lobbyists in Australia – keep the message simple and emotional.

“There are millions of orphans in the world that need to be saved” fits that bill. It sounds a lot better than “a single mother is encouraged by an adoption agency to send her child overseas for adoption and then when she changes her mind and returns the next day, she is told it is too late” or “the family who does not understand what intercountry adoption really means and thinks their child is leaving to go to school” or “some children adopted into Australia have been trafficked”.

In many countries as many as 4 out of 5 children living in orphanages have living parents. US Navy

The other tactic, first used in the US, is to create an enemy; that way there is someone to fight and it keeps the emotions all churned up. This is where the “anti-adoption culture” tag comes in handy. “Anti-adoption” was readily taken on board by the politicians involved in the 2005 Inquiry into Overseas Adoption, while other voices were shut down.

The trouble is the more we hear opinion spoken as fact and don’t hear about the research on intercountry adoption, the more dangerous it becomes.

Where is the evidence? Why don’t we ever hear about the research from overseas that tells us what is really happening in sending countries of children and the voices of those affected – those who lose their children much like the Australian mothers to whom we are now apologising. Why don’t we hear about the research happening in this country? Adopted children are other people’s children. Even after children have been adopted they will always have two families even if they don’t know who their mothers, fathers and first families are. Maybe, just maybe, there are more options than the two we are presented with: life in an orphanage or adoption. Do we lobby governments to improve the conditions of families where adoption occurs? It would cost a lot less.

At this point, I feel I have to say I am not “anti-adoption”. I have spent many years assessing prospective parents here in Australia and can honestly say our adoptive families are good parents and do their best for the children they adopt and love them as their own. Adoption does have a place, but when we focus only on Australia we only see the parents who want to adopt a child. We do not see what happens overseas and we believe the hype. It is the pressure we put on overseas countries to allow intercountry adoption that create opportunities for bad practice and at worst, trafficking.

So what does the research say? Most adopted children are not orphans – they have families. The stories of many mothers are so similar to those of Australian mothers several decades ago, you wouldn’t know the difference by reading them. Orphanages are often created to feed the adoption industry – conflicts of interest abound. Children are often placed into orphanages temporarily during hard times for families, much as they once were in Australia if dad was widowed and had to go to work. Reports of parents coming to get their children (sometimes after saving up to pay the fine) only to find them adopted overseas are many. Of course every country is different and there are different circumstances affecting families, but sadly the threads are all too common.

Unfortunately, intercountry adoption research does not dig up simple messages, does not appeal to the emotions as children in need of rescue do. In fact, there is a lot of grey.

Opinion is much more exciting than evidence. For a long time, adoption scholars here and overseas have talked about what could be done for families and children in trouble overseas. The issue doesn’t start with a child in an adoption agency – the problems start before that.

It is about inequality and disadvantage – let’s build a school, let’s educate women, let’s work towards a basic system of support for widows, let’s trace the children’s families. These steps should come first.

According the The Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, adopting children from foreign countries is a last resort. Yet all our resources are poured into responding to the claims of lobbyists. While we do this, we are failing to provide adequate post-adoption services for the children and adults we have adopted. If we’re going to have a discussion of adoption this week, let’s get the facts right.

Patricia Fronek is a member of the National InterCountry Adoption Advisory Group (NICAAG) for the Australian Attorney-General’s Department


Aust MotoGP organisers chase Casey Stoner

Australian MotoGP organisers are pursuing retired two-wheel ace Casey Stoner in the hope he’ll return to Phillip Island for this year’s event.

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The 27-year-old quit the sport last November but will jump back on a bike this week for a two-day test in Japan with his former MotoGP team Honda.

He is slated for another two sessions in August to ride a prototype of Honda’s 2014 model.

Stoner admitted he missed the thrill of competing on two wheels in announcing the brief comeback, having struggled to stamp his mark on four in the V8 Supercars’ second-tier category.

The move fuelled speculation the two-time MotoGP world champion could make a dramatic comeback to the sport – a prospect that has the Australian Grand Prix Corporation excited.

“Honda had three bikes in their garage last year with (Andrea) Dovizioso – this year Casey might be that third rider,” chief executive Andrew Westacott told AAP.

“I’d love him to be there (at Phillip Island) and if he can make it down, we’d throw out the welcome mat.

“Now that he’s back on the bike from a Honda point of view, we’ll always look to have him down there – in the same way we’ve always extended the invitation to any of our previous legends.

“We’ll have some conversations over the next three months now that there’s a little bit more of a plan when it comes to Honda’s involvement.”

The October 18-20 event has been billed as the `New Era’, with the absence of Stoner – who has won the past six races – opening the door for a new victor for the first time since 2006.

But Westacott conceded it had been harder to promote this year’s event and match the hype around Stoner’s final race at home in 2012.

“Nothing can compare with last year. It was just one of those unbelievable Australian sporting moments,” he said.

“The one-off interest last year was great for the ongoing awareness of the event and ticket sales but it is a little bit more difficult (in 2013) because what we’ve got to do is promote how open the season is rather than having a hero.”

Regardless, Westacott said ticket sales had so far been on par with events held in 2011 and 2010.

“It’s realistic that we’ve got sales more aligned to the 90-100,000 people who come along to MotoGP across three days rather than around 125,000 who came because they wanted to see an end of a sporting icon’s career,” he said.

“In every sport we go through eras – whether it be motorsport, tennis, golf … and now we’re moving onto a new one (in MotoGP).”


Who should pay for flood damage?

Flooding in Australia’s eastern states has seen more than 24,000 insurance claims lodged so far, with estimates that total costs will run higher than $200 million.

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Queensland is bearing the brunt of the clean-up bill, with costs in excess of $187 million.

Obvious comparisons have been made to the 2010/11 Brisbane floods, however those costs exceeded $2.4 billion.

The resounding similarity is the criticism leveled at insurance companies over adequately and accurately covering their clients while offering market-driven premiums, amid rising costs linked to flood coverage.

A new survey from consumer advocate Choice has reported that 60 per cent of people have seen an increase in insurance premiums almost always connected to flood costs.

“Consumers are seeing their premiums double, triple and in some instances increase five-fold with often inappropriate justification from the major insurers as to why,” CEO of Choice, Alan Kirkland said.

“One minute major insurers have been telling consumers the price rises are necessary due to the large payouts from the 2011 floods, while the next they are saying the rises are because a property has been specifically checked out and identified as being in a high-risk flood zone.”

He said that consumers being priced out of the market is a major reason for under-coverage.

“Our major concern is that some consumers are forgoing household insurance altogether because they simply cannot afford the new premiums.”

CHOICE’s research shows that major insurers are also using inconsistent techniques to assess flood risk, including Google Maps and “secret” assessments that they will not reveal to homeowners, local government or the National Flood Risk Information Portal.

The explosion in premium prices also saw a 35 per cent increase in general insurance disputes lodged with the Financial Ombudsmen Service in 2011-2012.

Some insurance companies were state-owned, like the precursor of SunCorp, were privatised in the 80s.

Justin Malbon from the Monash University faculty of Law says that it’s a public policy question over whether homeowners should be subject to insurance industry market forces or a return to tax-funded government disaster coverage.

He also said that revisions to the Insurance Contracts Act since the 2010/11 floods have gone some way to properly define “flood damage” and “storm damage”.

“The terminology in a lot of policies was very unclear in their definition of what a flood was, it was extremely confusing, and for consumers it was hard for them to know and to some extent insurance companies were relying on the confusion to get out of paying up.”

Insurance Council of Australia CEO Rob Whelan said earlier this week that some of the recent flood damage could have been avoided if the state and local governments had done more.

“$40 million is good but it needs way more than that,” he told ABC’s Lateline program on Tuesday.

Queensland Premier Campbell Newman doesn’t have a problem with a debate about what more could be done for flood mitigation, but questioned the appropriateness of the timing of Mr Whelan’s comments.

He said a statewide flood mitigation program is underway, where local government chips in $20m and the state $40m.

“We’re getting on with it. Would we like to put more money in? Yes.”

Investors were not spooked at the underwriting responsibilities of the major insurance companies, with Insurance Group Australia (IAG) jumping six cents to $4.99 and QBE Insurance climbing 47 cents today.

Although the Brisbane-based Suncorp, owner of AAMI and GIO and set to be the worst affected of the major insurance companies, has already fielded about 4000 claims for flood and storm damage and their share price dropping a few cents in response.