The Australian government, after massive debates in and out of parliament, decided that cigarettes should be sold in plain packets, marked only with shocking health warnings. The decision was validated by the Australian supreme court. But, using a trade agreement Australia struck with Hong Kong, the tobacco company Philip Morris has asked an offshore tribunal to award it a vast sum in compensation for the loss of what it calls its intellectual property.
During its financial crisis, and in response to public anger over rocketing charges, Argentina imposed a freeze on people’s energy and water bills (does this sound familiar?). It was sued by the international utility companies whose vast bills had prompted the government to act. For this and other such crimes, it has been forced to pay out over a billion dollars in compensation. In El Salvador, local communities managed at great cost (three campaigners were murdered) to persuade the government to refuse permission for a vast gold mine which threatened to contaminate their water supplies. A victory for democracy? Not for long, perhaps. The Canadian company which sought to dig the mine is now suing El Salvador for $315m – for the loss of its anticipated future profits.
In Canada, the courts revoked two patents owned by the American drugs firm Eli Lilly, on the grounds that the company had not produced enough evidence that they had the beneficial effects it claimed. Eli Lilly is now suing the Canadian government for $500m, and demanding that Canada’s patent laws are changed.
The mechanism through which this is achieved is known as investor-state dispute settlement. It’s already being used in many parts of the world to kill regulations protecting people and the living planet.
These companies (along with hundreds of others) are using the investor-state dispute rules embedded in trade treaties signed by the countries they are suing. The rules are enforced by panels which have none of the safeguards we expect in our own courts. The hearings are held in secret. The judges are corporate lawyers, many of whom work for companies of the kind whose cases they hear. Citizens and communities affected by their decisions have no legal standing. There is no right of appeal on the merits of the case. Yet they can overthrow the sovereignty of parliaments and the rulings of supreme courts.
You don’t believe it? Here’s what one of the judges on these tribunals says about his work. “When I wake up at night and think about arbitration, it never ceases to amaze me that sovereign states have agreed to investment arbitration at all … Three private individuals are entrusted with the power to review, without any restriction or appeal procedure, all actions of the government, all decisions of the courts, and all laws and regulations emanating from parliament.”
There are no corresponding rights for citizens. We can’t use these tribunals to demand better protections from corporate greed. As the Democracy Centre says, this is “a privatised justice system for global corporations”.
Even if these suits don’t succeed, they can exert a powerful chilling effect on legislation. One Canadian government official, speaking about the rules introduced by the North American Free Trade Agreement, remarked: “I’ve seen the letters from the New York and DC law firms coming up to the Canadian government on virtually every new environmental regulation and proposition in the last five years. They involved dry-cleaning chemicals, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, patent law. Virtually all of the new initiatives were targeted and most of them never saw the light of day.” Democracy, as a meaningful proposition, is impossible under these circumstances."
If you work for 50 years and receive the typical long-term return of 7 percent on your 401(k) plan and your fees are 2 percent, almost two-thirds of your account will go to Wall Street. This was the bombshell dropped by Frontline’s Martin Smith in this Tuesday evening’s PBS program, The Retirement Gamble.
This is not so much a gamble as a certainty: under a 2 percent 401(k) fee structure, almost two-thirds of your working life will go toward paying obscene compensation to Wall Street; a little over one-third will benefit your family – and that’s before paying taxes on withdrawals to Uncle Sam"
West Belfast, Northern Ireland . A clever bit of graffiti marks the passing of former British PM Margaret Thatcher, whose relationship with Northern Ireland (most particularly the Catholic population) was, well, tense. Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty.
Via The Guardian
One of these photos was taken in 1965 and the other last night. Not much has changed: #BrooklynProtest
Via Occupy Wall Street
This headline says it all.
[photo: stenciled into concreate is text that reads, “compañer@, i know that you are hurting but you are still alive. you will survive and together we will dismantle the systems that broke our hearts.” next to the text is a fist coming out of a broken heart that has on it, “racism, poverty, rape, war, homophobia, sexism, borders, STDs”]
Rio Vista, CA
Once envisioned as an 855-home suburbwith families populating the grid of freshly paved streets and sidewalks, now the only life you’ll see in this desert development are cows and eucalyptus shrubs. Thirteen abandoned model homes lie clustered in the center of the development, and streets like “Serenity Drive” stretch on past empty dirt lots into the barren distance. Construction was halted in November 2008 when developer Shea Homes abandoned the project.
Downtown Phoenix, AZBefore the housing market crash, an acre in downtown Phoenix was selling for about $90 a square foot. Today, it sells for $9 a square foot. Empty dirt lots checker the area, where developers once dreamed of high-rise condos and office buildings, and many businesses have closed their doors. Residents hope building will happen again once the market recovers, but in the meantime neighborhood organizers push for temporary fixes to the eyesore, like planting sunflowers and projecting movies onto the side of existing buildings.
Victorville, CAWhen a bank couldn’t sell 16 new homes in San Bernardino County, Calif., they decided to bulldoze them instead. Four of the homes were completed and another dozen were under construction, but the bank figured that razing the homes would be cheaper than paying fines to the city. As the brand new homes came tumbling down, nearby residents took video and watched the rubble pile up. Now, a few scraps of the homes remain in the dusty lots.
Miami High-Rises, FLOne of the worst-hit real estate markets in the country, Miami is overflowing with empty condo units. For example, the Tao Sawgrass condos, have 26 floors of empty apartments. Property records show that 36 of the 396 units sold, but most of them were to investors. The owner maintains the property, security guards stand at the entrance, and employees shuffle through the lobby, making it look like people live there, but marketing director Carolyn Van Gorder for the company selling Tao’s units told the Broward/Palm Beach New Times that she “could not confirm or deny the presence of residents.”
Fort Myers Condos, FLOne condo owner is the loneliest number, especially when you’re the last remaining resident in a 32-story tower. Victor Vangelakos paid $430,000 for his downtown Fort Myers condo in 2008, but when the building couldn’t sell the rest of the units, they hashed out deals with the buyers, except for Vangelakos, who says his lenders wouldn’t agree to a swap. He now uses the apartment as a vacation home, but he says it’s eerie at night and birds have built nests in nearby apartments. The lone light in the building pictured here belongs to Vangelakos.
California City, CAPerhaps an example of what will happen to America’s recession ghost towns, California City is one of the first real estate boom developments to become one. In 1958, a developer sectioned off lots and paved culs-de-sacs for a dream city 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. But the buyers and families never came. Today, the ghostly grid is used for skydivers and test flights by the nearby air force base and a prison lies to the north.
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