June 18, 2013

G-8 agrees to promote Syrian peace talks

The group of world leaders also announces new goals to combat tax avoidance by multinational companies.

By SHAWN POGATCHNIK / The Associated Press

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland — World leaders including the U.S. and Russia declared Tuesday they are united in wanting a negotiated and peaceful end to the Syrian civil war that will produce a government "under a top leadership that inspires public confidence."

click image to enlarge

President Barack Obama walks with British Prime Minister David Cameron, center, and Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny at the site of the G-8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on Tuesday.

The Associated Press

The declaration at the end of the two-day Group of Eight summit sought to narrow the ground between Syria government backer Russia and Western leaders on starting peace talks in Geneva that could end with the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

It stopped short of demanding Assad's removal as leader, nor did it advance the possibility of sending U.S., British or French weapons to rebels, an option being kept open by all three G-8 members. Russia refused to back any declaration that made such Assad's removal from power an explicit goal.

And reflecting the profound divisions that remain after two days of talks, the British host, Prime Minister David Cameron, declared in response to reporters' questions that it was "unthinkable" that Assad could play any role in Syria's post-talks government.

"He has blood on his hands. He has used chemical weapons," Cameron said, a position rejected as unproven by the Russians.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said arms supplies to the Syrian opposition would destabilize the situation even further.

"Any decisions to provide the opposition with weapons based on unconfirmed accusations against Damascus of using chemical weapons will only further destabilize the situation," Putin said at a news conference.

Significantly, the G-8 declaration said participants in any peace talks must agree to expel al-Qaida-linked fighters from Syria. That measure reflects growing Western unease at the human rights abuses being committed in rebel-held areas, including civilian executions on Muslim extremist grounds.

The declaration condemned human rights abuses committed by government forces and rebels alike, and called on both sides to permit access by U.N.-led chemical weapons experts trying to investigate the contentious claims of chemical weapons use.

In its only concrete commitment, the plan commits a further $1.5 billion in aid for Syrian refugees.

Earlier, G-8 leaders announced new goals to combat tax avoidance by multinational companies. In a joint statement they said tax authorities should share information "to fight the scourge of tax evasion" and make it harder for companies to "shift their profits across borders to avoid taxes."

But the key word in that document, often repeated, may well be "should" – because the partnership made no formal agreement on any specific reforms. The agreed aspirations will be developed at this year's G-20 summit in September.

Still, Britain heralded the agreement as a good first step toward creating a new environment of corporate transparency. A key principle in the plan would require multinationals to declare how much tax they pay in each country.

The G-8 is made up of Britain, the U.S., Germany, Russia, France, Italy, Canada and Japan. The group's tax initiative reflects widespread anger over the ability of foreign companies to funnel profits to tax-friendly countries.

Cameron began Tuesday with what his spokesman called a "brisk" swim in the chilly waters of scenic Lough Erne, the lake beside the Northern Ireland golf resort hosting the summit, before heading in to lead the summit's second and final day.

British lawmakers have sharply criticized Google, Starbucks and other U.S. multinationals operating in Britain for exploiting tax rules by registering their profits in neighboring countries such as Ireland – which charges half the rate of corporate tax – or paying no tax at all by employing offshore shell companies.

Many of the world's leading companies, ranging from Apple to the management company of U2, employ complex corporate structures involving multiple subsidiaries in several countries to minimize the tax bills in their home nation. One such maneuver, called the "double Irish with a Dutch sandwich," allows foreign companies to send profits through one Irish company, then to a Dutch company and finally to a second nominally Irish company that is headquartered in a usually British tax haven.

(Continued on page 2)

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