30 September 2011

CIA undermines aid agencies

That the CIA does sleazy stuff is hardly new. Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised then that they exploited children to help track Osama bin Laden.

In order to confirm his presence in Abbottabad, they sought DNA samples from the residents of what they believed to be his compound. To this end, they recruited a Pakistani doctor to organize a vaccine program. The doctor claimed he had obtained funds for free hepatitis B vaccinations for children. Bypassing the management of the Abbottabad health services, he paid generous sums to low-ranking local government health workers to carry out the "project." The idea was to get workers inside the target compound to obtain the DNA samples.

Aid workers say the CIA's reckless behaviour has threatened the safety of genuine aid workers and endangered programs to help Pakistan's poor. Médecins Sans Frontières president Unni Karunakara said, "The risk is that vulnerable communities—anywhere—needing access to essential health services will understandably question the true motivation of medical workers and humanitarian aid." The president of InterAction, an alliance of 190 U.S.-based NGOs, commented, "Such unethical behaviour endangers not only local populations but also the lives of legitimate humanitarian workers."

These concerns have proven valid. Save the Children moved aid workers out of Pakistan after a warning from U.S. consulate officials that staff could be picked up by Pakistani Intelligence over alleged links to the doctor involved in the CIA scheme. Save the Children has 2,000 employees in Pakistan and assisted seven million people in 2010, many during the massive floods. After the security threat, its activities slowed or ground to a halt.

Other aid workers have also been forced to leave the country, and charities have experienced long delays in obtaining visas and shipments of relief goods.

Pakistan has the biggest polio problem in the world, and there is a particular concern that polio vaccination campaigns could be at risk. In northern Nigeria in 2003, local leaders suspended polio vaccination, claiming the vaccine was a plot by the West to sterilize Islamic children in order to reduce Muslim populations. As a result, annual cases more than doubled and Nigeria exported polio to nearly two dozen countries. Those suspicious of the West, and that includes a large portion of the Pakistani population, now have a powerful new weapon in their arsenal of propaganda against Western aid agencies and programs such as vaccination. One wonders how many children will die as a result of the CIA's most recent mischief.

22 September 2011

Palestine and the churlish U.S. veto

It seems so little to ask. A people, already recognized as a nation by most other nations, requests full membership in the UN. It should be a shoo-in. Palestine is recognized by 65 per cent of the world's states representing 75 per cent of the world's people, including most of the major nations such as China, India, Russia and Brazil. And yet, ever unconditionally faithful to Israel which opposes Palestinian membership, the United States intends to veto the request.

"Peace is hard," says U.S. President Obama. And a president who is fighting wars in six countries ought to know. But peace in Palestine is hard because the most powerful nation in the world unconditionally supports one side. Until the United States leans on Israel to settle fairly with the Palestinians, peace will continue to be hard.

The president insists that peace can only come through negotiations between the two parties, but relying solely on that approach has failed for over 60 years and is currently going nowhere. Every day the Palestinians see more of their land stolen and see themselves more segregated. And every day the Israelis gain more land and further isolate their victims.

There is simply no reason for the Israelis to seriously negotiate a settlement when, on the one hand, they profit every day by the lack of one and, on the other hand, can do whatever they want by virtue of having the strongest army in the region, complete with nuclear arms, and the political and military support of the United States.

The Palestinians have no recourse but to seek other avenues that will lead to their liberation, such as seeking full membership in the United Nations. Maybe it will help, maybe not, but they have nothing to lose.

The Jews have their state. It is churlish of the Americans to deny the same to the Palestinians. A writer in The Seattle Times sums it up nicely, "It angers me that the people who run this country (Democrats and Republicans alike) have become so blinded as to forget who they are: a country that once fought for freedom and representation. If the U.S. decides to veto Palestine’s request, it will be one of the least patriotic and most hypocritical actions this country has taken. At a time of world struggle, Americans need to remember who we are and stick up for the little guy."

21 September 2011

British cooking a hit in Berlin

Black is white, down is up, and British cooking is popular in Berlin. It's true! Berlin has seen the opening of a spate of cafes and bars featuring British food.

East London, a cafe recently established in the trendy Kreuzberg district, serves scotch eggs, bacon and egg butties and steak and ale pies. Das Gift, run by Glaswegian musician Barry Burns, offers snacks such as salt'n'vinegar crisps and Tunnock's Caramel Wafers, along with a large range of Scottish ales. Hudson's, a corner cafe specializing in British baking, is so popular that weekends require reservations. There is even a chain, Broken English, which recently opened its third branch.

Prices can be a bit on the high side. At East London, a cup of tea will cost you $3.90 and a full English breakfast $13.00. People paying these prices for British cooking? Or must we now refer to it as British cuisine?

16 September 2011

Barack Obama, the world's leading assassin, and his private army

Within the U.S. military is another military, a secret military. Not secret in its existence—although even that can be shadowy—but secret in its operations. Except when it scores a public relations coup, such as the mafia-style execution of Osama bin Laden, the American people don't know what it's up to. And it's up to a lot. According to stories in the Washington Post and Al Jazeera, U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed in 75 countries last year, up from 60 at the end of the Bush presidency, and possibly 120 by the end of this year. In other words, in most countries on the planet, where they train the special forces of other countries, engage in operations with them or engage in operations of their own.

U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) now numbers over 60,000 personnel and includes the Army's "Green Berets" and Rangers, Navy SEALs, Air Force Air Commandos and Marine Corps Special Operations teams, as well as specialized helicopter crews, boat teams, civil affairs personnel, para-rescuemen, and air-traffic controllers and weathermen. In other words, essentially a complete military within the military.

And even deeper in the shadows is yet another army, composed of elements of the above, that reports directly to the president and acts under his authority. This is the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a clandestine group whose primary mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists. JSOC has made Obama the world's leading assassin. John Nagl, past counterinsurgency adviser to newly-appointed CIA Director David Petraeus, calls its extralegal kill/capture campaign "an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine."

And President Obama is using his killing machine with even more enthusiasm than his predecessor. A senior legal advisor in both Bush administrations, John B. Bellinger III, commented, "While they seem to be expanding their operations both in terms of extraterritoriality and aggressiveness, they are contracting the legal authority upon which those expanding actions are based." Obama bases his lethal operations not on constitutional executive authority as Bush did, but on the authority Congress gave the president in 2001 to use "all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons" he determines "planned, authorized, committed, or aided" the 9/11 attacks. However, as Bellinger has pointed out, most of Obama's current targets had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

The United Nations has, not surprisingly, questioned the legality of such operations under international law, particularly when they kill innocent civilians. And no doubt there are many instances where innocents are killed. An example is a JSOC attack in Takhar Province, Afghanistan, in September of last year which killed ten people and injured seven. It turns out they had targeted the wrong man and attacked an innocent election convoy.

As citizens of a democracy, Americans should be concerned about their president having this secret army of assassins at his beck and call. He is, after all, a president not a Caesar. These forces not only operate clandestinely in most countries around the world doing God knows what but they are even deployed in the homeland itself. JSOC has provided support to domestic law enforcement agencies during high profile events such as the Olympics, the World Cup, political party conventions and presidential inaugurations.
And the rest of us should be concerned as well. After all, SOCOM is engaged in its shadowy activities in most countries in the world. The Obama administration justifies this by claiming they obtain the permission of the countries their special forces operate in. Or at least the permission of the governments. That, as we know from the case of Pakistan, does not necessarily translate into the permission of the people.

Media organs such as the Washington Post and Al Jazeera do us a necessary service when they track the growth and behaviour of this ominous force. A light needs to be shone into this dark corner of U.S. government policy.

15 September 2011

The best voting system for Canada

We have seen four provincial referendums recently offering alternatives to the First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system and all failed to bring about change. A major reason for the failures may very well be the systems offered.

In B.C., a citizens’ assembly recommended the Single Transferable Vote (SVT) system and a citizens’ assembly in Ontario and a commission in Prince Edward Island both recommended the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system.

In order to see why these may have been poor choices, we need to keep two things in mind. First, the merit of the system proposed, and second, the marketability of that system to the electorate. There is, in other words, no point in recommending an excellent system, or at least excellent in theory, if the voters won’t accept it.

Let us ask first what Canadians would want in a new voting system. I suggest it should satisfy at least the following criteria:

1. Be fair to all voters (and political parties).
2. Be sensitive to the regions.
3. Provide equal opportunity to all potential candidates.
4. Provide local representation.
5. Enhance the power of voters over parties.
6. Be easy to understand.

Some of these have little to do with the theoretical merit of the system but are of vital importance in selling the system to the citizenry. Local representation, for example, is of limited value because most people vote for the party, not the candidate, yet the idea remains dear to the hearts of many voters. Not being easy to understand may not be a handicap to a good system, but it is a major handicap in selling it.

The citizens’ assemblies and the commission did a good job of choosing systems of merit, as we would expect from people who considered voting systems thoroughly, but failed when it came to marketability. It would seem the two choices appealed more to students of electoral systems than to the average voter.

The choice in B.C., Single Transferable Vote, maximizes the power of the voter but, unfortunately, presents about the most complicated ballot one can imagine. I may be underestimating the average voter, but I think he or she just wants to go into the booth and make an X (it’s getting increasingly difficult to get them to do even that), not engage in a convoluted analysis comparing candidates.

I was once a fan of Mixed Member Proportional, the choice offered in Ontario and PEI, but have increasingly come to dislike it, largely for its two classes of candidate, one elected by FPTP, the other from party lists. Many people are suspicious of the list candidates because they are chosen by the parties rather than the voters, a criticism that doesn’t stand up to analysis but seems tenacious, nonetheless.

I have come to believe that a simple PR system may not only be a very good system, but may be the easiest to sell. The only change from the current system would be multi-candidate constituencies.

To see how a simple system would work, consider my home city, Calgary. Calgary currently has eight constituencies, all of which elect Conservative MPs. Under simple PR, Calgary could be one constituency with each party presenting up to eight candidates on their list. Calgarians would still elect eight MPs but, if the popular vote were distributed as it was in the last election, elected would be five Conservative MPs, one NDP, one Liberal and one Green. Not only would the four parties—and Calgary voters—be represented fairly, but all six of the above criteria could be met.

As a PR system it would satisfy Criteria 1. PR systems also tend to provide better opportunities for women, thus helping to meet the biggest challenge of providing equal opportunity for potential candidates, i.e satisfying Criteria 3. The candidates would be local, therefore satisfying Criteria 2 and 4. Indeed this system would substantially improve local representation. Currently, NDP, Liberal and Green supporters have no meaningful local representation in Calgary. Under simple PR, they would.

Regarding Criteria 5, many voters are uncomfortable with PR because it presents lists of candidates and that makes them feel they are losing power to the parties. In fact, PR can increase the voter's power over FPTP. The simple PR ballot can be set up in two ways: the voter chooses a party or the voter chooses a particular party candidate. Under the first setup, the five Conservatives elected in Calgary would be the first five on the Conservative party list, i.e. they would be elected according to the party's ranking. Under the second setup, however, the five Conservatives elected would be the five who got the most votes—in other words, the party offers the voter a short list from which to make the final choice. This gives the voter more power than he or she has under FPTP where the Conservative voter’s only choice is the candidate offered by that party (of course, he or she can abandon his or her philosophy and vote for another party).

And finally, simple PR satisfies Criteria 6—it is easy to understand. The only significant change from FPTP is multi-candidate constituencies rather than single-member constituencies, and the voter is required to do no more than mark an X. If we want to sell PR to Canadians, this may be the way to do it.

12 September 2011

Democracy week Sept 12-18

The United Nations has declared September 15th the International Day of Democracy. Fair Vote Canada is expanding the day to Democracy Week, September 12th to the 18th. The week, according to Fair Vote's website, is all about "participating, celebrating, understanding, and improving our Canadian democracy."

As I contemplate those four words "participating, celebrating, understanding, and improving," I can't help but feel this country need a great deal more of all of them and not just during Democracy Week. Participation has not been impressive recently with some very low voter turnouts at all levels of government. As for celebrating our democracy, well, that we hardly do that at all. With the rampant apathy toward the weaknesses in our democracy, such as our lamentable first-past-the-post voting system, we obviously need both more understanding and more improving of democracy.

The voting system is by no means the only area where we need improvement. We have precious little democracy in one of our most important places—the workplace. Our mass media is seriously flawed in serving its function as the chief public forum of democracy, vested as it is in corporate interests who shamelessly use it to promote their own agenda. Indeed, we allow corporations to intrude excessively on the citizens' democratic prerogative in a variety of ways: contributing to political parties, funding front organizations such as the Fraser Institute, and of course dominating the economy to the point they can bend any political party to their will. We are as much a plutocracy as a democracy.

So yes, we need a lot more "participating, celebrating, understanding, and improving," with the emphasis on improving, 52 weeks a year. The International Day of Democracy and Democracy Week will hopefully serve as reminders of this.

As my blogging participation in Democracy Week, I plan to write a short essay discussing what I believe would be the best voting system for Canada and post it this coming Thursday, the International Day of Democracy.

10 September 2011

Barbie dolls are killing Chinese workers

Harmless, Barbie dolls are not. They are, in fact, responsible for exploitation, misery, and even death for thousands of innocents. According to the human rights group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), a Sturdy Products factory in Shenzhen, China, that makes Barbie dolls uses child labour and forces its staff to do three times the amount of overtime allowed by law. One worker reportedly killed herself after being repeatedly shouted at by bosses while others expressed concern about poisonous chemicals.

SACOM, which helped expose abuses in Apple's Foxconn plant in China earlier this year, recently assisted in an undercover investigation of the Sturdy Products factory. Barbie dolls are one of the products made for the giant Mattel company which last month announced quarterly profits of $76 million. The factory also makes toys for Disney and Walmart.

Disney, Walmart and Mattel all said they had carried out investigations. Mattel declined to comment directly on any of the allegations other than to say it was "deeply saddened" by the suicide. We must hope the investigations bring some relief to the workers, but a spokeswoman for SACOM is not optimistic. She observed, "Mattel, Walmart and Disney ... always claim they strictly comply with local laws and adhere to their respective code of conduct. The rampant violations at Sturdy Products, including excessive overtime, arbitrary wages, unfair punitive fines, child labour and negligence of occupational health, prove that the pledges are empty statements. There is no effective enforcement mechanism and remedies for workers at all."

Her words were underlined by Sturdy Products record. An investigation in 2007 uncovered similar problems. It found that employees were working up to 288 hours a month with a compulsory seven-day week during peak periods, and the company was failing to pay the minimum wage. Nothing, it seems, has changed.

This exploitation of Chinese workers is the essence of globalization as our governments have created it—providing cheap labour for corporations at almost any cost. It is upon this altar that the welfare of Western workers, too, is being sacrificed.

09 September 2011

Sweden: hIgh taxes and highly competitive

The daily press, diligently promoting the interests of its corporate owners, continually insists that taxes must be kept low to ensure Canada's economy is competitive. This refrain is dutifully chorused by conservative politicians. It is not, however, true. It has, in fact, been utterly disproved—beyond a reasonable doubt as they say in the legal community—by various European countries.

For example, in the Global Competitiveness Report for 2011-12, produced by the World Economic Forum, Sweden ranks third, ahead of the United States (fifth) and Canada (twelfth), as the world's most competitive economy. And yet Sweden is the highest taxed country in the world with 54.2 per cent of its GDP going to taxes, compared to only 29.6 for the U.S. and 35.8 for Canada.
The World Economic Forum is an institution composed of various corporate communities so we can dismiss any suggestions of left-wing bias in the report.

The Forum ranks competitiveness on the quality of a nation's institutions; its infrastructure such as roads, ports and electricity supplies; macroeconomic factors such as government budget balances and gross national savings; health and education; goods and labour market efficiencies; technological readiness; market size; business sophistication; and innovation.

Northern and Western European nations, i.e. relatively high tax nations, dominated the top 10 rankings. This makes sense. Countries with good social and physical infrastructure, i.e. countries with well-educated, healthy workforces and good roads, ports and other facilities should be highly competitive economically. And good infrastructure does not come cheap. We might expect, therefore, that to maximize its prosperity, a country must have high taxes—just the opposite of what the corporate message tirelessly tells us.