Building on Nelson Mandela's legacy

U.S. President Barack Obama paid tribute to the inspiration of Nelson Mandela at the weekend during his first presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa, and offered a vision of his own for the continent's future. Obama spoke of the importance of embracing democracy and shaking off aid-dependency.

Despite his Kenyan bloodline, Obama's only previous visit to sub-Saharan Africa was a 20-hour stopover in Ghana in 2009. Since then, Chinese presidents or vice presidents have visited 30 African nations, striving for influence and to secure Africa as a source of strategic raw materials. Soon after he recently took office, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a beeline for Africa, leaving no doubt about the importance Beijing attaches to the continent's vast mineral resources. China far outstrips the US as Africa's biggest trading partner. The Addis Ababa headquarters of the African Union has been built with Chinese money and an exclusively Chinese workforce. On their frequent visits, Chinese leaders have faced no protests against China's exploitation or its attitude to human rights.

By contrast, Obama, in Johannesburg, has been confronted by muddle-headed "Nobama" protesters, some from organizations allied to the ruling ANC, demanding his arrest for "crimes against humanity" and denouncing "US colonialism". This is despite the annual $1 billion the US provides Africa to combat AIDS, and Washington's training African armies to fight jihadists linked to al-Qai'da.

Faced with such hypocritical protests, Obama has emphasized the importance of democracy and the rule of law. He has underlined the need for Africa to break out of the aid dependency trap and ensure its resources are not exploited in a way that returns little to its people. Long-standing and exploitative Chinese aid to Zimbabwe is an example of what to avoid. As with other autocratic and kleptocratic African rulers, Beijing has helped sustain the Mugabe dictatorship, but done nothing to improve the lot of Zimbabweans.

Five of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies are African and the World Bank believes the continent is on the brink of an economic take-off like China and India a generation ago. That promise will be fulfilled, however, only if African leaders wean their nations off the aid-dependency trap and make democracy and human rights an essential part of economic progress.

--The Australian, Sydney, July 1

Hobby Lobby's battle against Obamacare mandate

Score one -- a big one -- for Hobby Lobby, and for all those offended by the Obama administration's assault on religious liberties in this country.

Last week the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver said Hobby Lobby had the right to sue over a Health and Human Services mandate included as part of Obamacare that requires companies to provide insurance covering birth control.

The administration had argued that for-profit companies couldn't claim that the mandate violates their constitutionally protected religious freedoms. The Denver court called the argument bogus.

Like many Christians, the family was floored by the original mandate announced in January 2012. It required faith-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and charities to offer free contraception and abortifacients as part of their health insurance coverage. One month later the administration "improved" the rule by making insurance companies, not the religious employer, offer contraception free of charge. This was of no help to self-insured companies such as Hobby Lobby.

Of course, organizations that didn't get on board would be fined -- Obamacare is loaded with potential fines and penalties. In the case of Hobby Lobby, these fines would have been about $1.3 million per day.

The struggle is sure to continue, too, because Barack Obama is a true believer in the cause of abortion-rights advocates. As a state senator, he opposed a bill designed to prevent partial-birth abortions. The National Abortion Rights Action League gave then-U.S. Sen. Obama a 100 percent score on his abortion-rights voting record. In April, he gave a speech to Planned Parenthood -- becoming the first sitting U.S. president to do so in the nearly 100 years Planned Parenthood has been in business.

In his remarks there, Obama said that as long as there's a fight to defend women's reproductive rights, "you've also got a president who will be right there with you, fighting every step of the way." Part of that battle plan includes forcing employers' insurance companies to pay for drugs that can stop a pregnancy.

We're heartened by Hobby Lobby's court victory, and by the knowledge that this good company is in it for the long haul. Others who cherish religious liberties should be as well.

--The Oklahoman, July 2

Bangladesh and worker rights

After the Bangladesh garment factory collapse in April that left more than 1,100 workers dead, their broken bodies mingled with brand-name clothing tags, the country's politicians and sweatshop owners no doubt hoped the resulting furor over worker rights and safety would soon blow over. It hasn't.

Bangladesh's garment workers are notoriously poorly paid, making as little as $38 a month to produce cheap clothing for consumers in far richer countries. They are commonly abused, largely non-unionized and routinely exposed to fire and other workplace hazards. The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka was one of the worst industrial disasters ever.

Now, in a stinging rebuke to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government, U.S. President Barack Obama is moving to suspend Bangladesh's trade benefits until its officials deliver on promises to improve worker rights and workplace safety. Under pressure from American trade unions, Obama served notice late last week that he intends to revoke the break on some tariffs that Bangladesh enjoys, and make it harder for certain products to get into the U.S. market.

At root this is a symbolic gesture, affecting barely $40 million worth of Bangladeshi products such as tobacco and sports gear.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has no plans to follow Washington's lead, partly out of a principled concern not to put poor workers out of jobs. But the European Union has been mulling trade action, and Washington's move can only strengthen the hand of those who want to rescind Bangladesh's duty-free privilege.

That threat should concentrate minds around the Hasina cabinet table, where politicians have been scandalously tolerant of employer intimidation and brutality, appalling working conditions and criminally unsafe workplaces.

Galvanized by the Rana Plaza disaster, and fearing a consumer backlash, Canadian and international brand-name clothing firms that have goods made in Bangladesh are marshaling their collective commercial clout to force some changes. ...

The Hasina government has promised to increase wages, to let workers form unions and to better enforce its safety laws. Yet as the Obama administration's frustration has just signaled, its efforts have been half-hearted at best. It still reflexively defers to affluent and politically connected factory owners who balk at improving workers' rights or investing in safety. That has to change.

Profits shouldn't trump lives. And the world is no longer looking the other way.

--The Star, Toronto, July 2