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G20 at Hamburg: America Jilted, World Wilted

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The post-US withdrawal of Paris Pact at Hamburg was not adequately appropriative of the world mood. Such congregations and jamborees do create artificial camaraderie sans any tangible results, and the same has been witnessed at the Hamburg-Germany. Trump Presidency would be remembered for its biggest disservice to the cause of maintaining climate ecology on the planet earth.

Trump administration has emasculated the Paris Pact on Climate Change by shamelessly abandoning it. However, trade, security, and economic agenda have also met the predictable permutations. Despite the fact of an optimistic environment, there has been a sense of déjà vu among the members of the grouping at the Hamburg regarding many issues, particularly about climate change. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made a statement, “I think it’s very clear that we could not reach consensus, but the differences were not papered over, they were clearly stated” as reported by the BBC News on July 08, 2017. But the consensus is the hallmark of such organizations and that was conspicuous by its absence to the cheers of US capitalist and protectionist classes.

The international community has created and established many regional and international organizations and institutions like ASEAN, ECO, CARICOM, APEC, SAARC, OAS, Arab League, AU, GCC, ECOWAS, SCO, OECD, ACS, CAIS, Mercosur, Council of Europe, EAC, EU, PIF, CSTO, OECS, MSG, UM, ELAC, ACPGS, EFTA, VG, EEC, LAP, IBSA Dialogue Forum, Andean Community, ECCAS, IORA, NATO, RCEP, RECs, PLG, IADB, IGAD, SADC, NAFTA, SAFTA, BIMSTEC, BRICS, ADB, FTAs and TPPs and FAO, ILO, Interpol, IDB, UNDP, UNESCO, UNHCR, WHO outside the UN and  under the UN Charter to address the local and regional aspirations of the people in a manner that is expeditious and pragmatic. However, the establishment of these alliances is a testimony to the fact that various regions and continents of the world have got disenchanted with the functioning of the UNO. In many respects, UN architecture of post-World-War-II does not represent the present realities of the world. Thus, it has necessitated the mushrooming of these regional arrangements to attend those gaps where UN could not succeed.  

But, of late, it is being seen that these groupings have been failing in their mandate. Therefore, such a trend is not good for the world as a whole and raises highly annoying questions like; has G20 lost its relevance? What is the utility of such groupings like G8, G20, G77, or other regional alliances? Are these gatherings merely reduced to talking territories, photo-ops, and political tourism at the expense of ordinary taxpayers? What is the relevance of UNO in the contemporary world? International institutions like G20 must not be made hostage to one or few countries.  In fact, it was an occasion to underline the proactive approach of G20 on its agenda implementation within the stipulated time frame. Moreover, G20 could have put its foot down on all outstanding issues excluding the US. The President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker has rightly designated the EU is in an “elevated battle mood” to resort to the countermeasures on the US sidling to the policy of protectionism to promote the US steel industry. Further, EU has signed a free trade deal with Japan that might have the capability to defend the multilateral trade system beyond the US orbit and would neutralize the US protectionist measures against steel industries of China and Germany.  

Angela Merkel had articulated apprehensions and asserted that US exit from Paris Climate Change Accord had made the Germany and EU “more determined than ever to lead it to success.” Therefore, Angela Merkel has put the Paris Climate Change Agreement in the G20 Agenda items that created geopolitical embarrassment for Mr. Donald Trump. In this situation, she has emerged as a role model of sorts for center-left politicians across the West and established herself as an alternative leadership that is enthusiastically suave and diplomatically shrewd to the Trump Presidency. Thus, G20-Hamburg would also be remembered by the Media Mughals for their being witnesses to the moments of Historical Hand-Shakers without making any history of substance for the posterity. Putin and Trump were the cynosures of the entire assemblage, but Trump did not go beyond the usual euphemistic and optimistic averments on such occasions based on reciprocity and diplomacy. Therefore, how to decipher and decode the handshake between Vladimir Putin of Russia and Donald Trump of US? Would a domestic Donald Trump compete with a dynamic Emmanuel Macron of France? Would Angela Merkel get any dividends out of this diplomatic ostensibility? However, Justin Trudeau of Canada and Macron has extended an adorable treatment to Angela Merkel as her being their geo-strategically understandable personality of sorts. It is, indeed, a historical moment for the Europe to the lead the world on climate change under the new collective leadership of Merkel and Macron without the US. 

Consequently, this diplomatic bonhomie paved the way for Russia to refute the allegation of its involvement in hacking the US Presidential elections in 2016 and also brokered a ceasefire deal impacting the South-Western Syria. However, the leaders have been privy to the games of the doppelganger and phantom diplomacy with Trump admiring Putin moderated by the stipulations of colonial disapprobation from the coterie of cronies. Trump asserted that Russia was involved in the destabilization drive and fishing in the troubled waters in Iran, Ukraine, and Syria and testing the patience of the West. Trump further exhorted the Russia to be a part of “community of responsible nations in our fight against the common enemies and in defense of civilization itself” by adopting a policy of unilateral internationalism correctness deviant to the idea of global constitutionalism, the rule of law, diversity, and multiculturalism. However, G20 Declaration has positively claimed to create an “interconnected world” order that alluded to a trajectory of disconnects of deep roots navigating on the old miasma. Therefore, present G20 leadership could have learned from the 2016 G20 Summit in Hangzhou-China at which a trinity of targets called building resilience, improving sustainability, and assuming responsibility were unanimously agreed upon to advance the G20 Agenda by taking pragmatic actions.

But, unfortunately, the entire gamut of parleys at Hamburg got nosedived in nostrums advocating that the benefits of globalization had to be reaped collectively, markets had to be opened further (but what about the Western protectionism) while ignoring the fact that “the benefits of international trade have not been shared widely enough.”  Nevertheless, just to accentuate how the agenda has been nudged with the obsession of free markets, the diplomatic communiqué incorporated that the states had a right to protect their markets. Now, here is a problematic question as to how this objective is achieved within the theology of free trade in the present world. Moreover, the same arguments were advanced to reiterate the sovereign rights of states on the question of controlling, managing, or limiting the refugee exoduses and migrant influxes. Because refugees and migrants have created a situation that modestly pulls off the regular parochial order based on “national interests and national security” narrative in which the idea of responsibility to protect is absent.

The global financial situation and its system had to be made buoyant and robust to the hilt through the reforms by ensuring bigger financial transparency, fostering international tax cooperation, and dismantling heavens of money stashing stations reported in the Panama Papers. On the issue of climate change, G20-1 members endured their pledge of “collectively committed to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions” using a range of technologies, clean and efficient energy options. Moreover, members minus US did take note of US recantation from the Paris Climate Change Pact and maintained the irreversibility of the impugned agreement that resulted as a sharp jolt to the US and eroded its international stature. Even NGOs and unorganized protesters outside the venue of the G20 Summit have also mounted considerable pressure on the G20 leadership on a range of issues relating to climate change migration and the wealth disparities. Further, the Climate Change and Energy Action Strategy for Development released at the end of the meeting did not provide any future vision to collaborate on the most controversial parts of the climate negotiations including climate finance. The US departure from the Paris Pact has created an additional liability of $3 billion on the rest of the 19 members of the G20 that was initially promised by the US and it had paid $1 billion before reneging the same later. Therefore, there is a shortfall of $2 billion that require other countries to raise their climate change mitigation ambitions in addition to their existing shares. But, unfortunately, Hamburg exercise was subjected to intangible determination and inconsequential resolution that has vindicated a more fractured international community with less dissonance ahead. 

Ph. D., LL.M, Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University (SAARC)-New Delhi, Nafees Ahmad is an Indian national who holds a Doctorate (Ph.D.) in International Refugee Law and Human Rights. Author teaches and writes on International Forced Migrations, Climate Change Refugees & Human Displacement Refugee, Policy, Asylum, Durable Solutions and Extradition Issus. He conducted research on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from Jammu & Kashmir and North-East Region in India and has worked with several research scholars from US, UK and India and consulted with several research institutions and NGO’s in the area of human displacement and forced migration. He has introduced a new Program called Comparative Constitutional Law of SAARC Nations for LLM along with International Human Rights, International Humanitarian Law and International Refugee Law & Forced Migration Studies. He has been serving since 2010 as Senior Visiting Faculty to World Learning (WL)-India under the India-Health and Human Rights Program organized by the World Learning, 1 Kipling Road, Brattleboro VT-05302, USA for Fall & Spring Semesters Batches of US Students by its School for International Training (SIT Study Abroad) in New Delhi-INDIA nafeestarana[at]gmail.com,drnafeesahmad[at]sau.ac.in

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Biden’s Dilemma: Caught Between Israel and Iran

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

By all indication, the latest sabotage at Iran’s uranium enrichment facility in Natanz aimed at more than just disabling thousands of Iran’s centrifuges and thus cause another setback for Iran’s nuclear program, it was also meant as an indirect diplomatic sabotage vis-a-vis the on-going nuclear talks in Vienna; the latter had shown real signs of progress before the April 10th incident at the Natanz facility, blamed on Israel by the Iranian officials, who have vowed to get revenge — an attack on an Israeli cargo ship off the coast of Oman as well as an attack on an Israeli post in Iraq’s Kurdistan may indeed be the acts of Iranian retaliation.

But, from Iran’s vantage, the biggest response was the decision to upgrade the enrichment level from 20% to 60% percent, thus bringing Iran closer to the weapons grade enrichment, bound to raise the ire of Tel Aviv, which is intent on dispossessing Iran of nuclear weapons capability.  Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has followed suit by stating that Iran will not be dragged into a “protracted negotiation” with the US and that US’ removal of sanctions needs to be the first step in a future US return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).  In turn, this raises the question of how will the Biden administration respond, and adjust to, the latest developments?

On the one hand, the Iranian setback in Natanz, widely interpreted inside Iran as a major “embarrassment,” as it is the second time in 9 months that Israel has successfully inflicted serious damage on the facility, weakens Iran’s hand at the table in Vienna, no matter how the Iran negotiators seek to spin the issue.  With Iran’s vulnerability to “nuclear sabotage” irrefutably established, Tehran’s ability to utilize its nuclear chips in the bargaining with US has been diminished, perhaps for the duration of the current year, thus leading some conservative politicians to urge the government to withdraw from the Vienna talks. 

On the other hand, it is by no means clear that the Biden administration favors Israel’s spoiler role, which might lead to an escalation of tensions in the region to the detriment of Biden’s determination to re-embrace the JCPOA as part and parcel of an Iran “re-thinking” policy at odds with his predecessor’s maximum pressure strategy.  Chances are that, much like the Obama administration, the Biden administration will need to defy Israel’s will on Iran and push ahead for a new understanding with Tehran at a time Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and, to a lesser extent the Saudi rulers, are wary of Biden’s resurrection of Obama’s (perceived) conciliatory approach toward Iran.  The big question is if President Biden is willing to act independently of Israel’s hawkish recipe for Iran and make meaningful concessions, above all in the area of post-2015 sanctions on Iran, in order to achieve its key demand of bringing Iran in compliance with its JCPOA obligations?  Lest we forget, Obama’s defiance of Israel on the JCPOA caused a major rift benefiting the Republican Party opponents of the deal, such as Donald Trump, and so far there is little evidence that Biden is unmindful of that prior experience.  In turn, this may explain the timing of US Defense Secretary Austin’s Israel visit coinciding with the Natanz sabotage, which may not have been coincidental as Israel most likely had informed Washington of the coming attack on Natanz beforehand.  

Naturally, Tehran is irritated at Austin’s presence in Israel at that particular time and his expression of “ironclad support” for Israel instead of raising any criticism of nuclear terrorism against Iran, just as China and Russia have done.  In fact, none of the Western governments, as well as the EU, partaking in the Vienna talks, have bothered to condemn the attack on Natanz, thus adding salt to Iran’s injury.  Instead, the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, dispensed with any criticism of Israel and confined himself to questioning Iran’s post-attack decision to increase the enrichment level, which he called “irresponsible.”  But, is it really responsible for the US and European powers to refrain from condemning an act of sabotage with respect to a facility that, under the terms of JCPOA, is recognized to be the hub of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle? Germany, France, and England, as well as the European Union, ought to act in unison denouncing the acts of nuclear sabotage in Iran, irrespective of Israel’s prerogative.  Their failure to do so simply adds another layer of distrust between Iran and these powers, to the detriment of any prospect for tangible progress in the Vienna talks.

As for Biden’s foreign team, which has reported of its “serious proposal” on the table, it must recognize that unless there is some pressure applied on Israel to stop its spoiler role, US’s national interests maybe harmed and even sacrificed by a hawkish Middle East ally that behaves according to its own calculation of risks to its interests.  In a word, an Obamaian rift with Israel may indeed be both inescapable and inevitable for the Biden administration.

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Roads and Rails for the U.S.

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For those who expect the newly announced $2 trillion Biden infrastructure program to be a goodbye to potholes and hello to smooth-as-glass expressways, a disappointment is in store.  The largest expenditure by far ($400 billion) is on home/community care, impacting the elderly or disabled.  The $115 billion apportioned to roads and bridges is #4 on the list. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) keeps tabs on our infrastructure and their latest report (2020) gave it an overall grade of C-.  Although bridges worsened, this is a modest improvement on the previous report (2017) when the overall grade was D+.  If $115 billion in spending sounds adequate, one has to remember it costs $27 billion annually for upkeep.

Astounding it might be the backlog in spending for roads and bridges runs at $12 billion annually.  Go back 20 years and we have a quarter trillion shortfall.  Add all the other areas of infrastructure and the ASCE comes up with a $5 trillion total.  It is the gap between what we have been spending and what we need to.  Also one has to bear in mind that neglect worsens condition and increases repair costs. 

One notable example of maintenance is the Forth rail bridge in Scotland.  A crisscross of beams forming three superstructures linked together, it was a sensation when opened in 1890 and now is a UN World Heritage Site.  Spanning 1.5 miles, its upkeep requires a regular coat of paint.  And that it gets.  Rumor has it that when the unobtrusive painters reach the end of their task, it is time to start painting again the end where they began — a permanent job to be sure though new paints might have diminished such prospects.

Biden also proposes $80 billion for railways.  Anyone who has travelled or lived in Europe knows the stark contrast between railroads there and in the U.S.  European high-speed rail networks are growing from the established TGV in France to the new Spanish trains.  Run by RENFE, the national railway, Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) trains run at speeds up to 310 km/h (193 mph)  — a speed that amounts to a convenient overnight trip between Los Angeles and Chicago.

The hugely expensive new tracks needed can be considered a long-term investment in our children’s future.  But it will take courage to contest the well-heeled lobbies of the airplane manufacturers, the airlines and big oil.

If Spain can have high-speed rail and if China already has some 24,000 miles of such track, surely the US too can opt for a system that is convenient for its lack of airport hassle and the hour wasted each way in the journey to or from the city center.  Rail travel not only avoids both but is significantly less polluting.  

Particularly bad, airplane pollution high above (26 to 43 thousand feet) results in greater ozone formation in the troposphere.  In fact airplanes are the principal human cause of ozone formation.

Imagine a comfortable train with space to walk around, a dining car serving freshly cooked food, a lounge car and other conveniences, including a bed for overnight travel; all for a significantly less environmental cost.  When we begin to ask why we in the US do not have the public services taken for granted in other developed countries, perhaps then the politicians might take note.

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Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas

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Image source: U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan

The FBI notably has an extended international presence running 63 offices in select countries overseas. The offices are called “legats” and are situated at the US Embassy in the host country. One of the major reasons for FBI’s international presence is fighting international terrorism.

The FBI legat personnel at the US embassies are fully accredited diplomats enjoying full diplomatic immunity but that poses several questions that are worth asking, such as: how is it possible for law enforcement to be diplomats and is that a good idea, legally speaking?

Police work should not enjoy diplomatic immunity because that opens the door to abuse. Does the FBI’s immunity overseas mean that the FBI attaches can do no wrong in the host country? How do we tackle potential rights infringements and instances of abuse of power by the FBI towards locals in the host country? The DOJ Inspector General and the State Department Inspector General would not accept complaints by foreigners directed at the FBI, so what recourse then could a local citizen have vis-a-vis the FBI legat if local courts are not an option and the Inspector Generals would not look into those cases?

This presents a real legal lacuna and a glitch in US diplomatic immunity that should not exist and should be addressed by Congress and the new Biden administration.

While FBI offices overseas conduct some far from controversial activities, such as training and educational exchanges with local law enforcement, which generally no one would object to, the real question as usual is about surveillance: who calls the shots and who assumes responsibility for potentially abusive surveillance of locals that may infringe upon their rights. It’s an issue that most people in countries with FBI presence around the world are not aware of. The FBI could be running “counter-terrorism” surveillance on you in your own country instead of the local police. And that’s not nothing.

When we hear “cooperation in the area of counter-terrorism”, as recent decades show, there is a great likelihood that the US government is abusing powers and rights, without batting an eyelash. That exposes local citizens around the world to unlawful surveillance without legal recourse. Most people are not even aware that the FBI holds local offices. Why would the FBI be operating instead of the local law enforcement on another country’s territory? That’s not a good look on the whole for the US government.

The legal lacuna is by design. This brings us to the nuts and bolts of the FBI legats’ diplomatic immunity.

Diplomatic immunity is governed by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, under Chapter III on privileges and immunities. The US is also a state party to the Convention, along with most states around the world. While there could be some variations and disagreements on bilateral basis (including on weather for example one state could be hosted and represented through the embassy of another state in a third state), on the whole there is a universal consensus that the Vienna Convention sets the rules establishing diplomatic immunities and privileges.

Under the Vienna Convention, only top diplomats are given the highest degree of immunity from the law. This means they cannot be handcuffed, arrested, detained, or prosecuted by law enforcement officials of the country in which they’re stationed. Diplomatic immunities and privileges also include things like diplomatic “bags” (with very peculiar cases of what that could entail) and notably, protection and diplomatic immunity for the family of diplomats.

It is a universal consensus that not everyone who works at an Embassy has or should have diplomatic immunity.  Immunity is saved for diplomats whose role has to be protected from the local jurisdiction of the country for a reason. Not all embassy staff should enjoy diplomatic immunity. Granting law enforcement such as the FBI full legal immunity for their actions is bad news.

Only the top officials at an embassy are diplomats with an actual full immunity — and that’s for a reason.

It makes sense why a diplomat negotiating an agreement should not be subjected to local courts’ jurisdiction. But the same doesn’t go for a law enforcement official who acts as a law enforcement official by, for example, requesting unlawful surveillance on a local citizen, in his law enforcement capacity, while thinking of himself as a diplomat and being recognized as such by the law.

Law enforcement personnel are not diplomats. Dealing with extraterritorial jurisdiction cases or international cases is not the same thing as the need for diplomatic immunity. If that was the case, everyone at the export division at the Department if Commerce would have diplomatic immunity for protection from foreign courts, just in case. Some inherent risk in dealing with international cases does not merit diplomatic immunity – otherwise, this would lead to absurdities such as any government official of any country being granted diplomatic immunity for anything internationally related.

The bar for diplomatic immunity is very high and that’s by design based on an international consensus resting upon international law. Simply dealing with international cases does not make a policeman at a foreign embassy a diplomat. If that was the case every policeman investigating an international case would have to become a diplomat, just in case, for protection from the jurisdiction of the involved country in order to avoid legal push-back. That’s clearly unnecessary and legally illogical. Being a staff member at an embassy in a foreign country does not in and of itself necessitate diplomatic immunity, as many embassy staff do not enjoy diplomatic protection. It is neither legally justified nor necessary for the FBI abroad to enjoy diplomatic immunity; this could only open up the function to potential abuse. The FBI’s arbitrary surveillance on locals can have a very real potential for violating the rights of local people.  This is a difference in comparison to actual diplomats. Diplomats do not investigate or run surveillance on locals; they can’t threaten or abuse the rights of local citizens directly, the way that law enforcement can. Lack of legal recourse is a really bad look for the Biden administration and for the US government.

The rationale for diplomatic immunity is that it should not be permitted to arrest top diplomats, who by definition have to be good at representing their own country’s interests in relation to the host state, for being too good at their job once the host state is unhappy with a push back, for example. The Ambassador should not be exposed to or threatened by the risk of an arrest and trial for being in contradiction with the interests of the host state under some local law on treason, for example, because Ambassadors could be running against the interests of the host state, by definition. And that’s contained within the rules of diplomatic relations. It’s contained in the nature of diplomatic work that such contradictions may arise, as each side represents their own country’s interests. Diplomats should not be punished for doing their job. The same doesn’t apply to the FBI legats. Issuing surveillance on local citizens is not the same as representing the US in negotiations. The FBI legats’ functions don’t merit diplomatic immunity and their actions have to be open to challenge in the host country’s jurisdiction.

The FBI immunity legal lacunae is in some ways reminiscent of similar historic parallels, such as the George W. Bush executive order  that US military contractors in Iraq would enjoy full legal immunity from Iraqi courts’ jurisdiction, when they shouldn’t have. At the time, Iraq was a war-torn country without a functioning government, legal system or police forces. But the same principle of unreasonable legal immunity that runs counter international laws is seen even today, across European Union countries hosting legally immune FBI attaches.

Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas. It can be argued that for any local rights infringements, it is the local law enforcement cooperating with the US Embassy that should be held accountable – but that would ignore that the actual request for unlawful surveillance on locals could be coming from the FBI at the Embassy. The crime has to be tackled at the source of request. 

When I reached out to the US Embassy in Bulgaria they did not respond to a request to clarify the justification for the FBI diplomatic immunity in EU countries.

To prevent abuse, Congress and the Biden Administration should remove the diplomatic immunity of the FBI serving overseas.

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