Ecuador asylum decision sparks political controversy

By Mary O’Connor

The decision taken by the Ecuadorean embassy to offer WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, diplomatic asylum has been met with condemnation by not only the British government, but by other media sources who question the country’s motives.

Ecuador’s verdict regarding the fate of the 41-year old Australian was announced Thursday lunchtime by the country’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, at a conference in the capital, Quito. Patiño based the decision on the belief that Assange’s “fears of persecution were legitimate”. Assange originally sought asylum with the embassy two months ago to escape extradition to Sweden, where he fears further transport to the USA to face espionage charges, for which he could suffer the death penalty. Assange is wanted for questioning in Sweden for charges of unlawful coercion, sexual molestation and rape, which allegedly took place in August 2010, as the Guardian reports.

Ecuador’s decision comes as a direct rebuttal of Britain’s alleged threats to reverse the embassy’s diplomatic status and arrest Assange by force; using the 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act as the vital leverage. At the aforementioned press conference on Thursday afternoon Ricardo Patiño released official details of the letter which contained this “explicit threat” made by Britain. In the letter, the Foreign Office reportedly warned the Ecuadorean government, in no uncertain terms of the ramifications granting Assange immunity would bring, saying: “We need to reiterate that we consider the continued use of the diplomatic premises in this way incompatible with the Vienna convention and unsustainable and we have made clear the serious implications that this has for our diplomatic relations.”

Quito and Whitehall have been locked in a game of political ping pong ever since, which threatens to leave their diplomatic relationship in tatters. Following the threat on Wednesday, Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa posted on his Twitter account, “No one is going to terrorise us”, as reported by The New York Times. Further inflammatory remarks have been made, including Patiño declaring Ecuador “is not a British colony” according to the Independent. Quito has also warned that if the UK attempted to seize Assange by force, it would be an offense to Ecuador’s sovereignty as a nation, and would be viewed as an “invasion” according to the Independent’s report.

William Hague responded to the latest move by Ecuador, expressing his “regret” at their decision. Hague continued, saying that the UK was determined to achieve a “negotiated solution”, but remained firm that Assange would be arrested if he left the embassy. On Wednesday, the Times reported that police had surrounded the embassy at Knightsbridge, in a bid to disperse protesters, which Quito took to be an aggressive and “intimidating” gesture according to one Ecuadorean official.

Mr Hague justified the British position, stating that there was “no legal basis” that required the UK to allow Assange safe passage to an airport, where he would seek to fly to Ecuador. The foreign secretary maintained that Whitehall has a “binding obligation” to extradite the WikiLeaks founder to Sweden to answer charges, concluding by saying that the UK “does not accept the principle of diplomatic asylum.” Hague cast a bleak future for the rest of the case, as he predicted it would go on for a “considerable” time.

This ominous forecast comes amidst concerns for Assange’s health as he has remained in the embassy for 55 days, without going outside and foregoing exercise. As the Independent has reported, Assange has been having delivered meals from restaurants and also has access to a computer, using it to post about his case on the WikiLeaks website.

Rafael Correa has also come under fire from local media in Ecuador, as reports from the Times indicate he is being accused of using Assange as a “political trophy” to divert international attention away from his repressive measures against the Press in his country. Talking to the Times, José Hernández, of the Ecuadorian daily Hoy, claimed the Government was “playing to the gallery.” Hernández castigated Ecuadorian hypocrisy as abroad, Quito was seen to be supporting “an icon of freedom of expression” whilst at home, enforcing strict measures against the press, as he continued to explain “What Assange did is celebrated; his imitators in this country could go to prison.”

Although both nations have said they are willing to negotiate with one another to find a mutually acceptable solution, Ecuador’s rallying of support amongst other South American countries looks set to put the UK on the back foot. Angry at what they perceive to be political and physical intimidation by Britain, Ecuador have already secured support from Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela, with Brazil still pending a decision. The Times reports that in the coming days, South American countries are to gather at two emergency meetings to discuss Britain’s action. In the meantime, the Foreign Office appears “relaxed” about this.

There is current speculation that Assange will give a public statement at 2pm on Sunday, outside the Ecuadorean embassy.

5 ways that Virgin’s successor can enhance the rail experience

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©Adrian777

By James Le Grice

Remember the days when train travel was about more than getting from A to B? When it was an experience, a luxury, and had a sparkle of glamour? No, neither do I. In the age of the high-speed train, there’s a trade-off mentality. You pay to get from city centre to city centre in two hours, not to be pampered. We’re told we can’t have our cake and eat it too.

But rail fares in Britain are the most expensive in Europe, and the Department of Transport announced this week that they are getting even pricier, by an average of 6.2%, starting in January. Surely at these prices we the passengers should be able to eat a little bit of cake?

Well there’s opportunity for change. Virgin Trains, which has operated the services between London Euston, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, North Wales, and Scotland since privatisation, has lost its franchise. From 9 December, FirstGroup will take over. This is a chance to start afresh, innovate, and set an example for other train companies to follow. Here are five ways that First could spruce up the West Coast service and make its new passengers feel like they’re getting some value for their money.

Number 1: Music

Music has the power to set the right moods, lift peoples’ spirits, and make the mundane seem interesting. Why not play music over the train’s tannoy system while the passengers are boarding? Airlines do it, and it doesn’t cost anything. You could have something up-tempo for the morning rush hour trains, relaxing lounge music in the evening, and Top 40 pop on off peak services.

And when the train is arriving, put on a song thematic to the destination city: ‘In My Life’ by the Beatles for arrival into Liverpool, Adele’s ‘Hometown Glory’ for London, or ACDC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ while the train’s pulling into Birmingham.

Number 2: Free Wifi

London to Manchester on Megabus costs £4.00 and Wifi is complimentary. London to Manchester on Virgin Trains costs £73.20 and Wifi starts at £4.00 for one hour. You needn’t be an art critic to see there’s something wrong with this picture.

Number 3: Outsourced Catering

Train operating companies are cutting back on catering, ostensibly so they can downsize staff. So why not outsource the catering to restaurants or farm shops from places served on the route? They would provide their own local produce, meats, cheeses, bread, etc, prepare it themselves according to their own menus, serve it themselves, and pay the train operators a percentage of their sales.

The train operating companies save money. The caterers are happy because they get to spread their local brands to a wider national audience. And the passengers would enjoy a regional variety to their train food, something less Tesco Meal Deal and more Borough Market. So everybody wins.

Number 4: The Pub

In yesteryear, trains had a restaurant car. This evolved into the buffet, where passengers are served food to take back to their own carriages, and on Virgin Trains there is The Shop, where passengers serve themselves and pay at the till. Isn’t there a logical missing link here? What about that great British institution called The Pub? Railway stations have them, so why not have pubs on trains themselves?

Tim O’Toole, CEO of First Group, says he plans to ‘completely redo’ the interiors of the Pendolino trainsets that he will inherit from Virgin, so here’s an idea: replace The Shop with more standard class seating, and convert one of the four first class carriages into a pub. It would have a kitchen, a fully stocked bar with beer on tap – not just in bottles and cans-, guest ales, counter space to stand against running up either side of the carriage, a few round tables and stools, a fruit machine, and a TV showing sport or music videos. All the pubs would have their own pubby names to give them that ‘local’ feel, and have a pub sign painted on the doors leading into the carriage.

This could actually solve some of the overcrowding issues, as having a fourth first class carriage usually goes to waste, and pubs are places where people regularly stand for a couple of hours. Judging by how busy station pubs are at peak times, plenty would probably chose to travel pub class altogether, and free up seats in the main carriages.

Number 5: A truly first class First Class

The Virgin Trains first class experience is equivalent to the Virgin Atlantic economy class experience. It’s satisfying – you get complimentary tea/coffee, food, and alcoholic drinks served to you at your seat – but it’s not luxury.

Britain has a legacy of glamorous trains. This is the nation of the Flying Scotsman and the Manchester Pullman, trains whose first class experience was the envy of five star hotels. In modern times, trains have surrendered this prestige to the airlines. So let’s bring some of that back to reward those willing to pay more than the already overpriced tickets.

Resurrect the porter service. When first class passengers check in to the first class lounge, let them leave their bags with a steward to take onto the train for them. Onboard the train, the first class seats should ideally be wide, leather upholstered, and be equipped with electronic massage and lumbar support capabilities.

And the dining must be able to compete with the likes of Gaucho and The Ivy, and come under the radar of The Times food critics. A first class ticket could include a complimentary three course meal and drink from a set menu, plus coffee or tea to follow, but the full menu would include plenty that passengers would have to pay extra for, albeit at lower prices than at a normal restaurant. Perhaps they want to start with a cocktail and olives, or some champagne and caviar. And while the offerings on the free set menu will be good, they will not be as good as the a la carte menu. That’s where you’ll find the vintage wines, the steamed lobster, and the Argentine steak.

First class needs to be gourmet enough to attract celebrities. Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell need to take this train, tweet about it, be photographed stepping off of it. This will bring some glamour back to train travel, and create an atmosphere that will spill over into standard class.

*****

Other major rail franchises will be up for grabs in the next couple of years. If First West Coast institute changes like these, and if they’re a hit, winners of future bids will copy them and passengers will feel like they’re getting something more than an A to B service for their money.

Scottish independence and the question of Nationalism

(C) Fayenatic london

By Jake Coltman

Speaking at the Edinburgh book festival today, Gordon Brown attempted to make the recent success of Team GB to the “Better Together” campaign what the continued success of their national football team is to Spanish Unionists.  He argued that the pooling of resources across the nation allowed a combined British team to be much more successful than the sum of the parts would have been, and that this dynamic carries over to other areas of policy, singling out foreign affairs, health and even social welfare. Warmed by the last embers of the “feel good factor” of the Olympics it is easy to mistake this for an incisive argument in favour of the Union; however, it fails to stand up under closer analysis.

Firstly, and this is a long standing problem I have with the “Better together” campaign, it very much begs the question of Nationalism. Mr. Brown may well consider that the pride of seeing Great Britain win more gold medals is an argument in favour of the Union, but this is entirely because he favours the Union.  The best way to see this is by analogy; we could undoubtedly have more success at the Olympics if we fielded a European Union team, or even if we merged with United States team, but should we do this?  Obviously not, the reason doing well makes us feel proud and happy is because we associate with the team, we consider it to represent “us”.  Now if you’re a Scottish Nationalist then it’s a fair bet that you don’t feel pride towards the Union, and you definitely won’t see it as “us”.  As with almost all non-fiscal arguments for the Union it carries exactly no appeal to those who don’t already support the Union.

However, Mr. Brown begs the question in a subtler way, namely in what independence would mean.  He (and he is hardly alone in this) seeks to portray independence as a complete separation, indeed he suggests that England and Scotland would be as separate as Bulgaria and Luxembourg.  Now this is obviously one solution, but it hardly seems the most likely one.  Even in Ireland, where independence was bought with a bloody civil war, there has been a long standing commitment, albeit exclusively by the Republic, to maintain a passport union, in addition to the economic union of the European Community.

Should the Union break up over the coming years then the realised implications would be deeply unclear.  Certainly initially one would expect there to be a trade and passport union, and most likely some form of currency union given the plight of the Euro and the risk that an independent currency would carry in the current economic climate, but it could be so much more.  If state provision of health care works best as an island-wide body to mitigate the risks of races to the bottom and welfare tourism, then there is no reason why two states should not merge their healthcare systems, especially when they are as close as Scotland and England.  Similarly, Gordon Brown mentions the army as a compelling economy of scale, well why shouldn’t two independent countries have one joint military force?  The euro area is presently going through the motions of trying to set up such a scheme across the entire continent and Benelux and the Nordic countries provide a wonderful template for close cooperation between close neighbours.  Indeed it even possible that athletes might be sent to Rio as members of a Great British team made up or two (or even three) nations!

The take away here is not that independence would have no concrete effect, it is simply that one should not expect independence to be everything that those on either side make out.  In today’s interconnected world, the border between Northern Ireland and Eire is incredibly fluid, and many of the benefits that we today possess could easily survive long after the blue of the Scottish has been taken from the Union flag.

Greenpeace reports highlights risk of future water crisis in China

The Yangtze river (C) NASA

By Angeli Datt

On August 14th, Greenpeace East Asia released the findings of a report it commissioned on water usage by Chinese coal plants in the northwest of the country. The report describes the expected water usage of the new coal plants being built to handle China’s huge energy demands, and suggests that this will lead to an inevitable water crisis. These new plants will consume 9.98 billion cubic meters of water in 2015, which is equivalent to one-sixth of the annual total water of the Yellow River. Water resources are very uneven in China, with the north accounting for one-fifth of the nation’s water but two-thirds of its cropland.

China plans on constructing 16 large-scale coal plants as a part of the energy targets of the current 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015). The country currently gets 70% of its energy from coal, which is needed to fuel the country’s rapidly developing economy. The report, undertaken by the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, questions the feasibility of China’s ambitious coal energy plans. Aside from the enormous usage of water, poorly developed projects would both drain groundwater and pollute existing water resources affecting other industries and communities.

Fourteen large-scale coal mining bases will be constructed, which will in turn fuel the 16 coal plants that will have a total expected capacity of 600 GW. Several of the mining operations will be located in Inner Mongolia, which has 26% of the nation’s coal but only 1.6% of its water.  These mining operations together will account for 56% of China’s coal output in 2015. The report estimates that by 2015, the coal bases in Inner Mongolia will require a water volume equal to 139% of industrial water usage in 2010.

Coal mining in Inner Mongolia has already led to student protests in Xilin Gol over land property rights. As one of China’s autonomous provinces, any form of protest in the province is viewed as a possible security threat by the central government. While Inner Mongolia does not have the same kind of ethnic unrest as Xinjiang or Tibet, officials in China are extremely fearful on any kind of threat to social stability. As such, the reaction by the government to these protests was very heavy-handed.

China’s uneven water distribution has led to such monumental projects as the North-South Water Diversion Project. The aim is to divert water from the Yangtze River to the Yellow and Hai Rivers.  The multi-billion dollar project will aim to transfer approximately 45 billion cubic meters of water from the south to the water-scarce north, though the environmental and social impact will be huge.

The North-South Water Transfer Project was originally conceptualized by Mao Zedong, and includes controversial plans to divert water from the Brahmaputra River (Tsangpo in China). This water system flows south through Tibet into Assam, supplying Northern Indian and Bangladesh. The government in Beijing has stated that there are no plans to divert the river, though there is the fear that the resource-hungry nation will have no choice in the future.

Water resource security is of great concern between neighbours in South Asia and Southeast Asia.  Indian politicians, journalists and activists have written of their fear of China’s upstream control of the Brahmaputra, forcing India’s prime minister to release a statement in 2011 restating China’s assurances that it was not going to divert the river. Southeast Asian nations are already locked in several long-standing disputes over water resources. China has built a series of dams on the upstream portions of the Mekong River, leading to accusations from activists that it is drastically reducing water levels downstream.

It is clear that water is of the utmost importance to countries economic and social security. However, it is unclear if China is willing to put its economic growth above everything else, including long-term water stability. The resources that fuel its economic growth are finite, and will become more important if China wishes to enjoy sustainable economic growth.

The one issue with Mitt Romney’s campaign – Mitt Romney

(C) Gage Skidmore

By Devon-Jane Airey

With the Democratic and Republican National Conventions quickly approaching and ‘across the pond’ news reports of America’s preparations for the most expensive presidential election in history beginning to flood the headlines, it is perhaps reasonable to take a look at Obama’s Republican rival, Mitt Romney and his chances of electoral success in November.

Way back, before the invisible primary had raised its ugly head, Romney proclaimed his campaign would only focus on one thing: the economy. Not gun rights. Not gay marriage. Not abortion. Not immigration. Purely the economy, and how President Obama was handling it. And yet, in focusing on the economy Romney has forgotten to define the most important focal point: himself.

Indeed, the House Speaker’s (John Boehner) comments on Romney are all too telling:

‘The American people probably aren’t going to fall in love with Mitt Romney. I’ll tell you this: 95 percent of the people that show up to vote in November … are going to vote for or against Barack Obama. … Mitt Romney has some friends, relatives and fellow Mormons … some people that are going to vote for him…’

It is perhaps, then, his lack of ‘narrative’ to which Boehner is referring. The ‘narrative’ in recent years has become a huge part of American politics (and, some would argue, is increasingly prevalent in Britain too.) The candidate’s background (or what they project as their background) is something that has continually proven to influence American voters – increasingly taking precedence over policy details. Indeed, beyond ideology, candidates seek to craft a narrative that makes them seem ‘real’ to the nation.

However, unlike George W. Bush’s tale of absolution and Obama’s inspiring of insolent hope, little is known of Romney’s ‘narrative’. And, what’s more, this is believed to be deterring the ‘average American’ voter – something, surely, the Romney campaign must fear.

So let me help put this into a little more context. This is, largely, what is known about Romney:

▪He’s the son of a wealthy businessman and statesman who attended elite universities before founding a Wall Street firm that made millions for shareholders while sending thousands of American jobs overseas.

▪He’s an influential member of the Mormons, a group most Americans do not fully understand.

▪ His father, George Romney, was the head of the innovative car company (AMC), a firm that made things, as opposed to a private-equity firm like Mitt’s Bain Capital that makes nothing. He was also a progressive Republican who fought for civil rights and even contravened his own party to achieve equal opportunity while Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Nixon.

▪ And Romney the son is the former (centrist) governor of the only state to initiate universal health care. That would be something to crow loudly about if Romney were a Democrat or if this were 2008. But in 2012, the Republicans’ conservative faction has disqualified the fact that he set the example for the biggest domestic policy program of 21st-century America.

So this much is clear: Romney likes to keep himself to himself. And surprisingly little is known of a man who has spent the past 4 years (and, if we include his run in 2008 probably more than that) on the electoral frontline. But if he hasn’t created a sufficient persona for America to regard him, three guesses (and I bet you you won’t need all of them) as to who will. Obama.

In what can only be described as ‘negative campaigning’ (something increasingly prevalent in American politics) the Obama campaign have done much to damage Romney: presenting him as a corporate businessman who destabilises companies and sends all forms of employment to Mexico and China. Obama’s slandering has been dubbed by some American journals as being ‘Karl Rove Mark II’ – adopting the techniques of America’s ‘dark lord’, if it were, who was acting as George W. Bush’s campaign director and responsible for ‘swiftboarding’ Vietnam War hero John Kerry. Though, Lou Dubose of the Washington Spectator has suggested there is a significant difference: where Karl Rove was infamous for grounding his campaign on speculation, lies and the odd bit of conspiracy, Obama’s is based, rather nobly it would seem, on fact.

So, with the Obama team working overtime to slate Mitt and little being done in way of response, Romney, clearly, has one main problem: himself. His failure to build a sufficient narrative may well be his undoing. But, there’s still time… Some commentators have suggested that all Romney need do is convince the public the election is a referendum on Obama’s first term and, if successful, he may be on to a marginal victory. And regardless of Romney’s individual success as a politician, they may be right. Indeed, this is where one can perhaps find Boehner’s comments particularly telling: ’95 percent of the people that show up to vote in November … are going to vote for or against Barack Obama.’ November, then, will be Obama’s victory or defeat and, perhaps, very little to do with his opponent.

Phelps – Greatest Olympian?

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(C) Telegraph

To reach the heights of an Olympian takes guts, courage and dedication that most of us can barely comprehend. In establishing the greatest Olympian, do you rank athletes on the medals won or the hours spent in the gym? How do you measure the sacrifices they’ve made or the transformation they’ve wrought? Michael Phelps has won 21 Olympic medals – more than anyone else in the entire history of the Olympics. Does this make him the greatest Olympian of all time?

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Live or Let Die? 3 ways the young could influence the Coalition’s future

(C)impawards.com

By Devon-Jane Airey

After David Cameron’s decision to cut housing benefits for under 25’s, his overseeing of the closure of EMA, the tripling of tuition fees and youth unemployment still over one million (not to mention Connexion services and the Future Jobs Fund scrapped) , it’s been reasonable to ask what exactly the government has against us young folk. Though, more pressingly, what the young folk can have against the government. I was reading an interesting piece of research this morning that touched upon this subject and so I did a bit of poking around to see how and in what areas the youth have the upper hand.

(1). Young people are often heavily influential in electoral steering points. Youth flocked in their thousands to support Thatcher in 1979 but, with the same merciless hand, were one of the largest groups to distance themselves from the ‘Iron Lady’ when austerity became a sickening cry. What’s more, it was the younger generation of Britain’s electorate that aided Tony Blair to his landslide victory in 1997 – with a remarkable 49% voting for the first ‘New Labour’ leader. However, this figure dropped to a mere 30% when Labour lost power in 2010. In that sense, efforts to secure the youth vote in today’s political climate aren’t solely directed towards the right: research by the Electoral Commission shows that both party leaders will have to work hard to secure this potentially tight grip on electoral victory. Indeed, apparently young people make up one of the biggest groups of unregistered voters and with the aforementioned cuts, the government have the potential to see this group expand even more. Labour’s proposals, therefore, of a mooted voter registration drive could well be a strategic move against their Conservative opponents. But there’s a moral advantage too: if you demonstrate a need to protect and enhance the voice of a certain demographic, they’re more likely to vote for you.

(2) Parties associated with a group’s enfranchisement are also a valued way of gaining a certain group’s vote. Migrant communities and their electoral loyalty towards the Labour party since the party secured their voting rights are a case in point. And, with the debate on reducing the voting age to 16 wedged within political woodwork, this could well be a band wagon party officials searching for a ‘youthful edge’ may want to jump on. There is, however, an element of risk that comes with focusing campaigns on the younger generation as statistics show the older you are, the more reliable you are to turn up to the polling station. In fact the Guardian ICM poll shows that on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being certain to vote, 18-24s score an average of less than 6, compared to over 65s who score 8.6. But with previous examples of their serious clout when rallied to turn out en masse ever present, there perhaps needs to be a more concerted effort to replace political fatigue and disillusion with political enthuse. A job for the politicians, not the people.

(3) Finally, and what is perhaps most telling, is that since the 1970s victorious parties in the general elections have always secured at least a third of the youth vote. Indeed, 42% of 18-25 year olds voted for Maggie T when she mounted her campaign to gain No. 10. The interesting exception for the Conservative party is David Cameron who secured only 30% of the youth vote in 2010. Youth representation in parliament that year, however, rose sharply due to the Lib Dems who have the lowest average age of supporter.  That said, the Lib Dems’ political forecast amongst the young folk in 2012 is, at best, patchy. Interestingly, in a month before the general election some 48% of 18-25’s were prepared to vote Lib Dem. Two years later and that figure has dropped 7 percentage points. Indeed, the Lib Dems’s decisions in office and their subsequent relationship with the younger generation has been compared to that of being dumped by your first love: a painful experience that can burn rather deep. Gaining back such trust, therefore, proves rather difficult.

So with the Lib Dem favourite out of the running, the Conservatives increasingly antagonising the young and Labour clinging loosely onto unstable proposals, it looks like the potentially valuable youth vote is there for the taking…

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