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China can't find common ground with Europe, and Malaysia can't find a good lawyer

18-7-2022 |

Fresh - freshly squeezed news from the international press. We prepare it 3 times a week.

The Guardian: The Taliban believe that higher education is passed on through the male line

The Taliban have asked women employees at Afghanistan’s finance ministry to send a male relative to do their job a year after female public-sector workers were barred from government work and told to stay at home.

Women who worked in government positions were sent home from their jobs shortly after the Taliban took power in August 2021, and have been paid heavily reduced salaries to do nothing.

But several women told the Guardian they had received similar calls from Taliban officials requesting they recommend male relatives in their place, because the “workload in the office has increased and they need to hire a man instead of us”, according to one woman who did not wish her identity to be revealed.

Sima Bahous, executive director of UN Women, said in May: “Current restrictions on women’s employment have been estimated to result in an immediate economic loss of up to $1bn – or up to 5% of Afghanistan’s GDP.

“There is almost universal poverty in the country,” she added. “An entire generation is threatened by food insecurity and malnutrition.”

Maryam (name nas been changed), 37, received a call from the HR department of the Afghan ministry of finance, where she had worked for more than 15 years. She said: “I was asked to introduce a male family member to replace me at the ministry, so I could be dismissed from the job.”

Her voice quivering with frustration, Maryam, who holds a master’s degree in business management, said she had worked her way up over 15 years within the ministry to head of the department.

“How can I easily introduce someone else to replace me?” she asked. “Would he be able to work as efficiently as I have for so many years? This is a difficult and technical position I was trained for and have years of experience in. And even if he could do the same work eventually, what would happen to me?"

“Since they came [to power], the Taliban have demoted me, and reduced my salary from 60,000 Afghanis [€677] to AFN12,000. I cannot even afford my son’s school fees. When I questioned this, an official rudely told me to get out of his office and said that my demotion was not negotiable.”

Several attempts by the Guardian to seek a response and clarification from Taliban officials at the ministry went unanswered. It is not clear if women from other state departments have also been asked to send male relatives to do their job. However, Maryam said she was aware of at least 60 female colleagues from the finance department who had received similar calls.

“The Taliban have a history of eliminating women, so hearing this is not surprising or new,” said Sahar Fetrat, assistant researcher with the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has documented extensively the Taliban’s atrocities against women since they took over Afghanistan.

In a report this year, HRW investigated the loss of women’s jobs and livelihoods in Ghazni province since August 2021, when the Taliban seized power in Kabul. “Nearly all the women interviewed who previously had paid employment had lost their jobs,” an interviewee said in the report.

“Only female healthcare workers and teachers can go to work. Women working in other fields are forced to stay home now.”

Fetrat said:

“Within the Taliban’s misogyny, women belong to men, as a property and an object representing the honour of the family.

“Therefore, in some cases like this they give women’s jobs and titles to women’s male relatives, and in other cases like the hijab, they punish women’s close male relatives for women’s public conduct and clothing,” she added, referring to an earlier ban that criminalised women’s clothing. According to the decree, issued in May, the male “guardians” of women who appeared in public “uncovered” would be fined and jailed for the offence.

Fetrat said these policies imposed new standards of “harmful behaviour in society, and that is normalisation of the objectification of women.

"It has a clear message for men, and especially younger men, that they ‘own’ women in their families and they must act as a moral authority and actively police women’s conduct.”

Maryam and her colleagues are mobilising to protest against Taliban policy.

“We do not accept their order and we will try to get them to change it,” she said.

“We have created a group of female employees of the ministry. We are negotiating now, and we will demonstrate if they don’t hear us,” she added, urging the international community to extend support and solidarity.

A group of women at a demonstration for equal rights in the country. Kabul, 2021
Photo: Bilal Guler / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The country is in the grip of a severe economic and humanitarian crisis. According to the UN, 20 million people now face acute hunger, more than 9 million have been displaced since the Taliban took power, and severe drought has affected farming.

AP: Economics of war: Pain for Europe now, later for Russia

Across Europe, signs of distress are multiplying as Russia’s war in Ukraine drags on. Food banks in Italy are feeding more people. German officials are turning down the air conditioning as they prepare plans to ration natural gas and restart coal plants.

A giant utility is asking for a taxpayer bailout, and more may be coming. Dairies wonder how they will pasteurize milk.

The euro has sagged to a 20-year low against the dollar, and recession predictions are on the rise.

Those pressure points are signs of how the conflict — and the Kremlin gradually choking off natural gas that keeps industry humming — provoked an energy crisis in Europe and raised the likelihood of a plunge back into recession just as the economy was rebounding from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, high energy costs fueled by the war are benefiting Russia, a major oil and natural gas exporter whose agile central bank and years of experience living with sanctions have stabilized the ruble and inflation despite economic isolation.

In the long run, however, economists say Russia, while avoiding complete collapse, will pay a heavy price for the war: deepening economic stagnation through lost investment and lower incomes for its people.

Europe’s most pressing challenge is shorter term: battle record inflation of 8.6% and get through the winter without crippling energy shortages. The continent relies on Russian natural gas, and higher energy prices are flowing through to factories, food costs and fuel tanks.

Uncertainty weighs on energy-intensive industries like steel and agriculture, which could face natural gas rationing to protect homes if the crisis worsens.

Molkerei Berchtesgadener Land, a large dairy cooperative in the German town of Piding outside Munich, has stockpiled 200,000 liters (44,000 gallons) of fuel oil so it can keep producing power and steam for pasteurizing milk and keeping it cold if electricity or natural gas to its turbine generator is cut off.

It’s a critical safeguard for 1,800 member farmers whose 50,000 cows produce a million liters of milk a day. Dairy cows have to be milked daily, and a shutdown would leave that ocean of milk with nowhere to go.

“If the dairy doesn’t function, then the farmers can’t either,” managing director Bernhard Pointner said. “Then the farmers would have to discard their milk.”

In one hour, the dairy uses the equivalent of a year’s worth of electricity for a home to keep up to 20,000 pallets of milk cold.

The economic woes also appear at the dinner table. Consumer groups estimate a typical Italian family is spending 681 euros more this year to feed themselves.

“We’re really concerned about the situation and the continuous increase in the number of families we’re supporting,” said Dario Boggio Marzet, president of the Food Bank of Lombardy, which groups dozens of charities that run soup kitchens and provide staples to the needy. Their monthly costs are up 5,000 euros this year.

French President Emmanuel Macron says the government aims to conserve energy by switching off public lights at night and taking other steps. Similarly, German officials are begging people and businesses to save energy and ordering lower heat and air-conditioning settings in public buildings.

It follows Russia cutting off or reducing natural gas to a dozen European countries. A major gas pipeline also shut down for scheduled maintenance last week, and there are fears that flows through Nord Stream 1 between Russia and Germany will not restart.

Germany’s biggest importer of Russian gas, Uniper, has asked for government help after it was squeezed between skyrocketing gas prices and what it was allowed to charge customers.

Carsten Brzeski, chief eurozone economist at ING bank, foresees a recession at the end of the year as high prices sap purchasing power. Europe’s longer-term economic growth will depend on whether governments tackle the massive investments needed for the transition to an economy based on renewable energy.

“Without investment, without structural change, the only thing left is to hope that everything will work as before — but it won’t,” Brzeski said.

While Europe is suffering, Russia has stabilized its ruble exchange rate, stock market and inflation through extensive government intervention. Russian oil is finding more buyers in Asia, albeit at discounted prices, as Western customers back off.

After being hit with sanctions over the 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region, the Kremlin built a fortress economy by keeping debt low and pushing companies to source parts and food within Russia.

Though foreign-owned businesses like IKEA have shuttered and Russia has defaulted on its foreign debt for the first time in over a century, there’s no sense of imminent crisis in downtown Moscow. Well-heeled young people still go to restaurants, even if Uniqlo, Victoria’s Secret and Zara stores are closed in the seven-story Evropeisky mall.

Economists say the ruble’s exchange rate — stronger against the dollar than before the war — and declining inflation present a misleading picture.

Rules preventing money from leaving the country and forcing exporters to exchange most of their foreign earnings from oil and gas into rubles have rigged the exchange rate.

And the inflation rate “has partially lost its meaning,” Janis Kluge, an expert on the Russian economy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, wrote in a recent analysis. That’s because it does not account for disappearing Western goods, and lower inflation probably reflects sagging demand.

Some 2.8 million Russians were employed by foreign or mixed ownership firms in 2020, according to political scientist Ilya Matveev. If suppliers are taken into account, as many as 5 million jobs, or 12% of the workforce, depend on foreign investment.

Foreign companies may find Russian owners, and protectionism and a glut of government jobs will prevent mass unemployment.

But the economy will be far less productive, Kluge said, “leading to a significant decline in average real incomes.”

When exactly the economic crisis in Russia will force the government to curtail military aggression and pay attention to the needs of its own population - this question remains open.

CNN: China and Europe - friendship over before it really began

When Chinese leader Xi Jinping made his first state visit to Europe in 2014, he set out to herald a new era of cooperation in a multi-country tour, which the European Parliament President at the time called "a welcome signal of the importance that the new Chinese leader attaches to a strengthened EU-China partnership."

Eight years later, the optimism of that period has cratered, with the relationship between China and the European Union reaching what analysts call a clear low point of recent decades.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi
Photo: Global Look Press/ Schmitz

European concern about China's global ambitions and its human rights record, US-China tensions, tit-for-tat sanctions and, now, Russia's war in Ukraine -- the impact of which on China-EU ties Beijing appears to have either underestimated or dismissed -- have all brought relations to a nadir.

That was underlined last month during two summits featuring European leaders. Both the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies and NATO significantly hardened their lines on China, in a signal that views in Europe have fallen more in line with Washington's.

The shift is the culmination of a series of steps in which Beijing may have at times underestimated the extent to which it was pushing Europe away, but also appeared prepared to pay that price.

But it is a significant blow for Beijing's ideal vision: a Europe with robust China ties that provides a counterbalance to American power and posture.

"China and the EU should act as two major forces upholding world peace, and offset uncertainties in the international landscape," Xi told EU leaders at a summit in April, urging them to reject "rival-bloc mentality."

But those words appeared to fall flat with the European side, which focused instead on pressing China to help broker peace in Ukraine.

"The dialogue was everything but a dialogue. In any case, it was a dialogue of the deaf," EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said afterward.

Beijing had carefully crafted its relationships in Europe in recent decades -- creating a dedicated annual summit with Central and Eastern European countries and seeking inroads for its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, which won support from one G7 member when Italy signed on in 2019.

US concerns about the risks of collaboration with China resonated in Europe. And European nations were themselves watching Xi's China grow increasingly assertive in its foreign policy, from the combative tone of its "wolf warrior" diplomats to the establishment of a naval base in Africa, rising aggressiveness in the South China Sea and toward Taiwan, and the targeting of companies or countries that ran foul of its line on hot-button issues.

Allegations of major human rights violations in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang, and its dismantling of civil society in Hong Kong also played a role in shifting European perceptions, analysts say. Chinese officials have called allegations that it held more than a million Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in internment camps in Xinjiang "fabrications," and slammed discussion of these issues as "interference" in its internal affairs.

The EU declared China a "systemic rival" in 2019 and ties have continued to fray since.

China was the third largest export market for European goods and the largest source of products entering Europe last year, but frictions have taken their toll on the economic relationship between the EU and Beijing.

The greatest financial casualty was the long-awaited trade deal between the EU and China, which stalled last year after being caught in the crossfire of a sanctions exchange. Beijing slapped penalties on EU lawmakers and bodies, European think tanks and independent scholars after the EU sanctioned four Chinese officials for alleged abuses in Xinjiang.

"This overreaction (from Beijing) was not a wise move," said Ingrid d'Hooghe, a senior research associate at the Netherlands-based think tank Clingendael, pointing to the harmful effect on public opinion.

"China's strategy toward Europe was falling apart and it apparently didn't understand that all these actions -- the over-reactive sanctions, coercive diplomacy -- in the end worked against China's diplomatic goals ... and also pushed Europe closer to the United States," she said.

It is China's most recent calculations over how to respond to Russia's war in Ukraine that may end up the most costly when it comes to European ties.

As European countries and the US united in support of Ukraine, China refused to condemn the war -- instead bolstering its relationship with Russia and joining the Kremlin in finger-pointing at the US and NATO.

There were leading policy analysts in China who understood the negative consequences China's position would have on its European ties, according to Li Mingjiang, an associate professor and Provost's Chair in International Relations at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. But that assessment may have been "underestimated" by decision makers, Li said.

Calculations about the geopolitical importance of ties with Russia, and also the close bond between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin also likely came to bear, he added.

Nevertheless, according to Ingrid d'Hooghe, there are still voices in many countries in favor of a balanced approach toward China. It seems that the future will not lead to disengagement, but rather to a rethinking within Europe of how to cooperate with China while maintaining security and balance.

Reuters: Sultan's heirs want to ruin Malaysia

The heirs of a 19th century sultanate are seeking to seize Malaysian government assets around the world in a bid to enforce a $14.9 billion arbitration award they won against the Southeast Asian nation, despite a stay on the case handed by a French court, their lawyers told Reuters.

A French arbitration court in February ordered Malaysia to pay the sum to the descendents of the last Sultan of Sulu to settle a dispute over a colonial-era land deal.

Malaysia said on Wednesday the Paris Court of Appeal had stayed the ruling, after finding that enforcement of the award could infringe the country's sovereignty.

Law minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said the stay would prevent the award from being enforced as Malaysia works to set aside the ruling. Malaysia had not previously participated in the arbitration.

Lawyers for the claimants, however, say the February ruling remains legally enforceable outside France through the New York Convention, a U.N. treaty on international arbitration recognised in 170 countries.

"The 'stay' that seems to comfort the Malaysian government temporarily delays local enforcement in one country, France itself," said Paul Cohen, the heirs' lead co-counsel, of London-based law firm 4-5 Gray's Inn Square.

"It does not apply to the other 169."

With some exceptions, such as diplomatic premises, any Malaysian government-owned asset within nations party to the U.N. convention is eligible for the purposes of enforcing the award, said Elisabeth Mason, another lawyer for the heirs.

Wan Junaidi, the Malaysian law minister, declined to comment when contacted.

The heirs claim to be successors-in-interest to the last Sultan of Sulu, who entered a deal in 1878 with a British trading company for the exploitation of resources in territory under his control - including what is now the oil-rich Malaysian state of Sabah, on the northern tip of Borneo.

Malaysia took over the arrangement after independence from Britain, annually paying a token sum to the heirs, who are Philippine nationals.

But the payments were stopped in 2013, with Malaysia arguing that no one else had a right over Sabah, which was part of its territory.

The claimants last week moved to seize two Luxembourg-based units of Malaysian state oil firm Petronas as part of efforts to enforce the award.

Petronas, which has described the seizure as "baseless", has said it will defend its legal position, adding that the units have divested their assets.

Picked and squeezed for you: Irina Iakovleva