27 June 2008

Civilization advances with rights for the other great apes

The progress of civilization is largely about the progress of rights. The Spanish parliament has now made a logical next step in that progress. It has passed a resolution that would extend rights to our fellow great apes -- bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. The resolution has cross-party support and is expected to become law. In addition to preventing experimentation on great apes, it will ban their use use in circuses or filming and conditions in zoos will have to be improved substantially.

The measure is inspired by the Great Apes Project, an international group founded in 1993 by philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri "to work for the global removal of non-human great apes from the category of mere property, and for their immediate protection through the implementation of basic legal principles designed to provide these amazing creatures with the right to life, the freedom of liberty and protection from torture."

In the past two centuries, we have made many advances in the realm of moral legislation. We have ended slavery, extended the vote to all citizens, recognized women as the equals of men, spared children from exploitive labour, freed minorities from the bonds of prejudice, and rescued homosexuals from the criminal code. It would now seem time to stop treating highly sentient beings other than ourselves as nothing more than property. Science has firmly established the proximity of their sentience to ours.

Morally, we have traditionally divided animals into two groups -- us and the other -- a very high standard for us and a very low standard for them, as if a vast gulf lay between us. Now we know that isn’t true. As the Great Ape Project states, the non-human great apes share with us "a rich emotional and cultural existence in which they experience emotions such as fear, anxiety and happiness." They are deserving, therefore, of similar respect and protections. A sharp dichotomy is no longer justified. Without suggesting they should be our legal equals, they must, on scientific and moral grounds, be drawn more closely to us. The Spanish resolution is an important step in this direction. According to Pedro Pozas, Spanish director of the Great Apes Project, "This is a historic day in the struggle for animal rights and in defence of our evolutionary comrades which will doubtless go down in the history of humanity." Let's hope Mr. Pozas is right. And the idea catches on.

23 June 2008

Are Chinese labour practices creeping into Canada?

Everyone knows why China appeals to corporations seeking a site to manufacture their goods -- cheap labour. Coerced labour actually. Chinese workers are spared the burdens of freedom of speech and freedom of association and are, therefore, also spared the burden of forming independent labour unions and negotiating their working conditions. They are at the mercy of their employers. China has labour laws, indeed it introduced a package of new ones this year, but government officials are notoriously susceptible to bribery or indifference so the value of such protection is questionable.

Now it seems the exploitation of Chinese workers has crossed the Pacific and appeared in Alberta. In April, 2007, two temporary foreign workers from China were killed on the job at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.'s oilsands project north of Fort McMurray. While looking into safety issues, investigators talked to the men's fellow workers and discovered they weren't receiving the money they were earning. The Edmonton Journal followed up and learned from the widows of the men killed they were only getting about 12 per cent of the men's wages.

Apparently the proper amounts were paid into the employees' bank accounts but the money never showed up in China. Coincidentally, the workers' employer, the state-owned Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company, had signing authority on the workers' accounts.

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. has since canceled its contract with Sinopec and its 120 workers have returned to China. Whether or not they will ever get their money remains to be seen. David Liu, commercial consul at the Chinese consulate in Calgary, said he will look into the matter and make sure Sinopec is following the law. Let's hope he does because apparently not much can be done at this end. Alberta's minister of employment and immigration, Hector Goudreau, admits "We cannot enforce payments or deduction agreements that are outside our jurisdiction."

The temporary worker program has merit. It provides badly-needed labour for Canadian industries and a chance for foreign workers to earn some real money. It is also ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous employers. We can control exploitation in Canada but, as Minister Goudreau freely admits, we are limited to what we can do about exploitation by foreign employers such as Sinopec who operate out of countries where ripping off workers is standard procedure. Nonetheless, we are obligated to do what we can, like closely monitoring the money trail to ensure workers get what they earn. That Sinopec was allowed to dip into its employees' bank accounts is simply outrageous.

With thousands of temporary foreign workers expected to arrive in Alberta this year, this is no small problem. They are owed fair treatment here regardless of how they are treated at home. A good start would be to mandate they be employed directly by Canadian companies and that they be members of strong, effective unions. It's bad enough Canadian workers can be coerced into accepting lower wages by companies exploiting labour elsewhere, we don't need to bring the exploitation into the country.

20 June 2008

Canada joins the Great Game

The Great Game refers to the 19th century rivalry between the British and Russian empires for supremacy in central Asia. The struggle, centered on Afghanistan, continues even though the rivals have changed.

Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have recently agreed to build a pipeline to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan's huge reserves down through Afghanistan into Pakistan and India. The pipeline would go a long way to serve the needs of energy-starved Pakistan and India. India currently produces only half the natural gas it needs and imports 70 percent of its crude oil.

India and Pakistan have also been negotiating with Iran to build a pipeline from Iranian gas fields through Pakistan into India, a cheaper and much safer route, avoiding both Afghanistan and the volatile frontier region of Pakistan. And herein lies a problem. Keen to isolate Iran, the United States opposes this project. For this reason, and also because it wants to reduce Russian influence over energy supplies in the region, it strongly supports the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India proposal. In the 1990s, the Americans were talking with the Taliban about such a pipeline. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Bloucher, has admitted his government has a fundamental strategic interest in Afghanistan that goes well beyond the terrorism issue.

The route of the proposed pipeline takes it squarely through -- now here's a surprise -- Kandahar province. It seems Canadian troops could wind up as pipeline guards.

It appears that, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned, we are not in Afghanistan only to rebuild the country and suppress terrorism. We are there for broader geopolitical reasons. We are involved in the 21st century version of the Great Game. It seems that Canada, unwittingly one hopes, has joined the sport of empires.

14 June 2008

Al Jazeera wins prestigious award

As a frequent visitor to Al Jazeera's website (I am forbidden TV access to Al Jazeera), I was pleased to see the broadcaster win Best 24 Hour News Program award at the Monte Carlo Television Festival. Jurors singled out Nour Odeh, Al Jazeera's Gaza correspondent, for her bravery in reporting from the beleaguered territory and commented on her concise and informative reports. Al Jazeera was nominated in every news category at the prestigious event.

Al Jazeera's value to me lies in its presentation of world events from a perspective at variance from most Western media, a perspective with rather more sympathy with Third World sensibilities, sensibilities I often find absent or diminished in Western news reporting.

Our very own CBC was also honoured with The National winning Best TV News Item award for "Gaza Rockets," a piece about a rocket-making factory in Gaza and the Israeli community targeted by the missiles. So kudos to our national broadcaster as well.

12 June 2008

Talking to the enemy

In his book The Soviet Ambassador: The Making of the Radical Behind Perestroika, Christopher Shulgan tells an interesting tale about the collapse of the Soviet Union. He suggests Pierre Trudeau may have played an important role, not with any grand gesture but by simply talking to and developing a rapport with the other side. Trudeau made friends with the Russian ambassador Aleksandr Yakovlev, and the two held long discussions about, according to Trudeau, "everything from world peace to the health of [his] grandchildren and of my sons." The two became so close some diplomats were worried Trudeau was being brainwashed. To the contrary, Yakovlev, a bit of a sceptic to begin with, was being seduced by Canadian and values and becoming convinced the Soviet Union had "to move in this direction." He helped arrange a trip to Canada for Mikhail Gorbachev, then the Soviet agricultural secretary. During the visit, he took Gorbachev aside and raised ideas about reforming the Soviet Union. Gorbachev later said, "It was a conversation about the Canadian experience, about using it as an example." When Yakovlev returned to Moscow, he became a member of Gorbachev's inner circle and a major influence in leading the Soviet leader toward perestroika.

This isn't surprising. Western values and ideas about democracy and human rights are powerful. We should not be surprised they can seduce a mind cultured in a closed society but open to different perspectives.

This brings us to the current presidential race in the United States. One candidate, Obama, is open to dialogue with the Americans' current nemesis, Iran; the other, McCain, is not. One cannot help but wonder why McCain won't even talk to his enemy. Does he not appreciate the lure of Western ideals? Or does he simply lack confidence in his ability to convey them? Trudeau was an insatiably curious man, intrigued by how other cultures affected the thinking of those born to them. Perhaps McCain, like George Bush, simply lacks curiosity or imagination. Whatever the case, our hopes must lie with Obama.

Iran's leaders, men like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, exhibit the righteousness and prejudices typical of men who have lived sheltered lives in a closed system, rather like Yakovlev. But, as Trudeau said about his discussions with Yakovlev, "We haven't seen eye to eye on everything, but ... we have found ways to work together to serve the interests of both our countries." Certainly Iran and the United States have powerful common interests: oil, peace in the region, a fair settlement in Palestine, etc. Who knows, dialogue might even lead to the peaceful collapse of Iran's theocracy just as it led to the peaceful collapse of Soviet communism.

Of course the Trudeau/Yakovlev chemistry may have been unique: two exceptionally inquisitive minds meeting at the right time and place. Maybe no similar chemistry exists between Obama and Ahmadinejad. But what can possibly be lost by at least opening a conversation? Or at least encouraging conversation. Two compatible minds might exist on another diplomatic level as with Trudeau and Yakovlev -- a prime minister and an ambassador. Nothing else seems to be available to mitigate the dangerous hostility between the two countries.

Now if Obama wins and can be convinced to open a dialogue with Hamas as well, even the seemingly intractable Palestinian problem might finally be solved.

11 June 2008

Why am I apologizing?

In 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he brought catastrophe down upon the Native people of the Americas. He introduced greedy and rapacious empires to two unspoiled continents and they took full advantage. The aboriginals were obliterated by disease, their lands were stolen, many were enslaved, others had their children taken from them ... the list of tragedy and abuse is long and sordid. Few peoples have suffered such a cataclysm.

Today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will apologize on behalf of you and I, and all Canadians, for our country's role in one component of this story: the Canadian Indian residential school policy. This seems like the right thing to do. It seems appropriate, even noble. And yet. And yet ... there is something not quite right about it, something offensive even. Mr. Harper is apologizing on my behalf, but I have done nothing wrong. I didn't elect the governments that established the residential schools and I certainly wouldn't have supported the churches running the schools. I have little use for organized religion and wouldn't put churches in charge of much of anything, certainly not children.

So why am I apologizing, by proxy, for offences I'm not guilty of? I am apologizing for nothing I have done but simply for who I am, i.e. a Canadian. I am guilty only by association.

Yet isn't guilt by association the problem? Isn't this why Japanese-Canadians were taken from their homes in the 1940s and interned in camps? They had committed no crimes, they were guilty simply for being Japanese.

Or as Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations puts it: "We were unjustly wronged as a people over generations simply because of who we were." Exactly. And now Canadians innocent of these wrongs are apologizing not for what they have done but simply because of who they are. The source of the wrongs -- guilt by association -- is being perpetuated.

I am prepared to accept responsibility for my actions. I'll go further than that and, as a citizen of a democracy, accept responsibility for the actions of a government I vote for. But I am not guilty of the wrongs of previous generations and do not deserve to be charged with their sins and will not accept responsibility for them. My responsibility is to the wrongs of the present, the ones I can do something about. Only if I fail there, am I to be apologized for. I will not wallow in misplaced guilt.

As moral beings, we have a responsibility to help the disadvantaged in our society, regardless of why they are disadvantaged, to live a life of dignity. Indeed, why they are disadvantaged is irrelevant, except in helping us understand the challenges they face.

The tragedy of the aboriginal people should be accurately recorded in history and remembered. Understanding the past is essential to understanding the present and thereby to righting those historic wrongs that persist, perhaps in other forms, into the present. But the guilt for those wrongs belongs solely with those who perpetrated them. As for guilt by association, it too should become a thing of the past.

05 June 2008

Obama to be Israel's poodle?

There is no better example of the tail wagging the dog than the United States' unequivocal support for Israel. The U.S. complains from time to time about Israeli behaviour, about the continued theft of Palestinian land, about the wall, and so on, but all it takes is a visit to Washington by the Israeli prime minister and all is forgiven. The hope that Barack Obama as president might present a more balanced approach seems to have been extinguished.

In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Council, possibly the most powerful lobby group in the U.S., Obama laid out a policy unconditionally pro-Israel. He even upped the ante by not only pledging support for Jerusalem remaining as Israel's capital but as an "undivided" capital, an idea that will pre-empt most road maps to peace currently on the table. And he persisted in the foolishness of refusing to talk to Hamas unless they accept the usual self-defeating preconditions.

As for Iran, Israel's nemesis, he threatened to do "everything" -- "and I mean everything" to prevent that country getting nuclear weapons. One must assume "everything" includes war, possibly even nuclear war. His words were ominously familiar: "It [Iran] pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms race and raise the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to terrorists." This could have come straight out of George W. Bush's mouth when he was justifying the Iraq war.

If Obama means what he says, peace in the Middle East will remain a dream and the hostilities there will continue to spread their toxic influences around the world. The Americans' Israel uber alles policy will never bring peace to the region or security to Israel.

But let's be optimistic. After all, this guy is supposed to be about change and hope and all that good stuff. Maybe his tough talk is just swagger to counter the foreign policy assault John McCain is launching against him. After all, he did say he would talk to the Iranians at least, something McCain won't do. And sucking up to the powerful Israeli lobby is mandatory for presidential candidates. If he wins the election, perhaps he will adopt a more rational approach.

We can only hope, while keeping firmly in mind the alternative is the frighteningly belligerent John McCain.