28 May 2009

U.S. security -- the ignorance factor

American ignorance about Canada is a rich source of humour for many Canadians. Generally it isn't something to be taken seriously because, after all, we are a bit player in the grand scheme of world affairs and they are a giant. Why would they know very much about us? Oh yes, we are their major trading partner but trade is dull, not something most people spend a lot of time chatting about. So they know little about us, so what.

Well, occasionally it does matter. One such occasion is their obsession with security. Their hardening of the border, to use the current expression, to bolster their security is creating considerable difficulties for both trade and travel across the no longer "world's longest undefended border." To the extent it interferes with trade, as boring as the subject may be, it has serious ramifications for the economies of both countries, particularly ours. And, unfortunately, it appears the U.S. concern about security is based to no small degree not only on paranoia but on ignorance. Leading Americans from Hillary Clinton to John McCain to, and here is where it becomes deeply troubling, the head of U.S. Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, have at one time or another claimed the September 11 attackers came from Canada. In fact, none of them had been in Canada and all had entered the U.S. on valid American visas.

Napolitano has now retracted her view but was still expressing it up until a month ago. And her retraction was phrased oddly. "Now we know the 9/11 terrorists did not use the Canadian border," she is quoted as saying, as if her agency had just discovered something new.

If senators of border states (and Clinton wasn't the only one), presidential candidates and, of the greatest importance, the key figure in the American security establishment, all believe in this blatantly false but critically important piece of information, how badly informed are the Americans about security over all? Is their intelligence about Canada on this issue of the same standard as their intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? This is a scary prospect.

Canadian Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan referred to Ms. Napolitano's comments on the issue as a "slight misspeak." Let us hope he's just being tactful.

Three women honoured, one gratuitously insulted

Yesterday's issue of The Globe and Mail stood out for its inspiring stories about not one but three women of extraordinary achievement. The first was about Canada's very own master of the short story, Alice Munro, "our Chekhov," and her winning of the $100,000 Man Booker International Prize for fiction. Selected from a short list of internationally renowned writers, Ms. Munro adds the Man Booker to her impressive list of awards, including the Governor-General's Award for fiction (three times), the Giller Prize (twice), the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award and the W.H. Smith Literary Award in Britain. She has had 48 short stores published in the New Yorker and has been described in the New York Times as having "a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America."

Appearing on the front page of the Globe with Ms. Munro was U.S. President Barack Obama's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor. Growing up poor in the Bronx, Ms. Sotomayor now aspires to the highest judicial office in her country. If she is confirmed by the Senate, as she almost certainly will be, she will become the first Latina justice on the Court.

Featured on the Globe's Law Page was Canada's most successful jurist, Louise Arbour. She achieved the highest honour available to a Canadian judge -- elevation to the Supreme Court -- and is also the most accomplished Canadian jurist internationally. She served as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia, and recently completed a term as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

At a recent meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, Ms. Arbour was praised by ambassador after ambassador, all expressing regret she was not seeking another term. All except the Canadian ambassador that is, who made no reference to her decision. The Harper government is known to have differences with her, but on occasions such as this, good manners call for differences to be set aside to say something nice about the person being honoured. But the Harperites seem to have great difficulty setting differences aside, it is always us against them. One wonders what the representatives of other members of the international community thought about this boorish slight by the Canadian ambassador toward one of his own.

Ms. Arbour will continue to play an international role, assuming the positions of president and chief executive officer of the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that analyzes conflicts around the world and proposes solutions. Congratulations to her, and to Mses. Munro and Sotomayor, and a raspberry to Canada's ambassador to the UN.

27 May 2009

Ahmadinejad challenges Obama

So Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has offered to debate U.S. President Barack Obama at the United Nations on, in his words, "... global issues as well as world peace and security." Challenging the elegant, eloquent Obama is quite the display of confidence for the bumptious Iranian.

Nonetheless, the debate could prove interesting. Top of the agenda would probably be nuclear weapons with Obama demanding that Iran refrain from developing them. He would point out that Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which forbids non-nuclear nations from developing atomic weaponry.
Ahmadinejad would have little trouble countering this. He would claim Iran was not working on a weapon, but only advancing peaceful uses of the atom, and he could refer to the U.S.'s own intelligence reports to support that position. But that would just be for starters. He could then ask Obama why the Americans' best friend in the region, Israel, is allowed to have nuclear weapons and the U.S. has nothing to say about it. He could go on to point out that the Non-Proliferation Treaty also requires nuclear nations to disarm themselves of atomic weapons, which the United States is not doing and is therefore in violation of the treaty itself. Ahmadinejad wins this one easily.

Next up, probably, would be bringing peace and stability to the Middle East. Obama would accuse Iran of providing weapons to terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and thereby creating instability. A fair charge. But again, Ahmadinejad could easily rebut it, stating that in the view of most people in the region Hamas and Hezbollah are legitimate resistance organizations. Obama would have trouble with that considering both groups have been legitimized to a U.S. standard by engaging in the democratic process and in fact being quite successful at it. As for the terrorism charges, both organizations have used terror but then so have Israel and the United States. And as for Iran's support of Hamas and Hezbollah, the United States has provided massive military aid to Israel creating a huge imbalance of power in the region. It is hypocritical, the Iranian president might say, to criticize Iran for providing a much smaller amount of aid to the other side, particularly as that side is the victim. In any case, after the Iraq debacle, the Americans have little credibility when it comes to peace in the region. Once again, Ahmadinejad has the edge.

A real danger for Obama would be Ahmadinejad going on the offensive about the history of the U.S./Iran relationship. He could bring up United States collaboration in the overthrow of the democratically-elected Mossadegh government, the first Islamic democracy in the Middle East. This was where the current hostility between the two countries really began. Not only would this put Obama on the defensive, it would undermine one of his real strengths, his country's support of democracy.

Will Obama take up the challenge, assuming Ahmadinejad wins Iran's June 12th presidential election? He has said he wants dialogue with Iran -- here is a splendid opportunity. As for my prediction for the debate, should it take place: Ahmadinejad wins on facts hands down. Obama, however, seduces the crowd with his charm and eloquence. I'll leave the final verdict to the members of the General Assembly.

22 May 2009

The Tamil tragedy and their psychopathic leader

Psychopaths, bereft of conscience, commonly resort to violence in the pursuit of their pleasures. In normal human intercourse, this often leads them into behaviour that is unacceptably anti-social or even criminal. But when violence is socially acceptable, such as in war and revolution, the psychopath comes into his own. He can use violence to aggrandize himself not only with impunity but with honour, even glory. Rather than a social pariah, he becomes a revolutionary hero. History is replete with such figures: Lenin, Mao, Mugabe, the list is long. And recently another has been much in the news -- Velupillai Prabhakaran, the founder and leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Leading his Tigers in a just cause warped to his own sordid methods, Prabhakaran pursued a bloody, destructive civil war for 26 long years until finally dying, as he lived, by the sword. A master of assassination, suicide bombing and child soldiers, he was a man of considerably skill. Typical of psychopaths, despite his unimpressive appearance and unassuming manner he had a powerful charisma, described as an extraordinary "focus." He created a formidable military, complete with army, navy and even an air force.

Despite his substantial ability, his war was a miserable failure. He ruled the Tamils with the same merciless brutality he fought his Sinhalese enemies with, killing anyone who had the temerity to defy him. He brought his people 26 years of death and suffering and left them worse of than they were before. And one can't help but wonder how they would have fared if he had won. Not only does managing a country require very different skills than fighting a revolution, what would life under such a thug been like? Like Russian under Lenin? China under Mao? Zimbabwe under Mugabe? One shudders at the kind of society he may very well have created.

A more constructive, and far more enlightened, course for the Tamils was offered by a former revolutionary leader in neighbouring India. I refer of course to the greatest man of the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi, who showed all of us that great things could be done, including liberating the second largest population on Earth, without raising a hand against anyone. Such inspiration so close yet the Tamils missed it and paid a terrible price.

But now, with the Tigers defeated and their leader dead, the opportunity presents itself again. If the Tamils take it, if they pursue justice in Sri Lanka, or even a state of their own, by the methods of Gandhi, or at least peacefully, one thing is certain. They will do no worse than they did under the leadership of the psychopath Prabhakaran.

21 May 2009

Chernobyl still vexes British farmers

When on April 26th, 1986, reactor number four of the nuclear power plant near Chernobyl in the Ukraine exploded, radioactive dust quickly drifted across Europe. Reaching the British Isles within days, carried in fine rain, it seeped into the hills of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland and there it remains. Hundreds of farms are still restricted in how they are allowed to use land and raise sheep. Radiocaesium-137 passes easily from soil to grass and accumulates in animals. Sheep grazed on upper pastures, where radioactivity levels are highest, have their heads painted red to identify them, and if a farmer wants to sell them for food, they must be scanned.

The number of farms requiring scanning steadily declines as the radioactivity fades, but the red-headed sheep will for a long time be reminders of the dangerous reach of nuclear power, even in its peaceful mode.

15 May 2009

If the provinces can do it ...

The provinces continue to show some enlightenment on the challenge of global warming even if the federal government continues to keep its head in the sand -- the tar sands, of course.

Quebec was first with a carbon tax albeit a limited one. B.C. deserves credit for the first substantial tax and has enacted legislation to move toward a cap-and-trade system. Quebec will have cap-and-trade legislation in place by the end of June and Ontario and Manitoba will soon follow. The four provinces, along with seven U.S. states, are part of the Western Climate Initiative, which is working toward a regional cap and trade system.

None of this is enough to deal fully with global warming, of course, but it does show a commitment to the challenge. Meanwhile, the federal government lollygags, its efforts less than inspiring. The Environment Commissioner, Scott Vaughan, states that its targets are overstated and it has no system in place to measure results. The feds suggest we must wait on the lead of our southern neighbour.

The provinces don't agree. The premiers of Ontario and Quebec have indicated for some time that, if necessary, they will go it alone on climate change. According to Premier McGuinty of Ontario, "We both agree that we have an opportunity, even a responsibility here in Canada, to put in place a carbon-exchange register that will, one way or another, serve as kind of a pilot project that the federal government and maybe even the government in Washington can use as a base for a national program."

In other words, Canada can set an example. We could be a leader rather than a follower as our current federal government seems content to be. The situation was until recently the same in the U.S. States such as California led the way in dealing with climate change while their federal administration dragged its heels. With the election of Barack Obama, that's changed. Unfortunately, there is no Obama in sight in this country, but maybe we don't need one. The four provinces setting the pace include 80 per cent of the country's population and 75 per cent of our GNP, so much can be done without the help of the dawdlers in Ottawa.

14 May 2009

What's Harper in it for?

A newly-minted Conservative attack ad on You Tube suggests Michael Ignatieff is "Not in [politics] for Canada," but only "In it for himself." My initial reaction was, are we talking about Michael Ignatieff or Stephen Harper? After all, it's something of a mystery why Harper wants to be Prime Minister of a country he doesn't seem to like very much. Consider the evidence:
  • Speaking to an American right-wing think tank, he made comments such as, "Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it," and "if you're like all Americans, you know almost nothing except for your own country. Which makes you probably knowledgeable about one more country than most Canadians," revealing a not very elevated opinion of his country and his countrymen.
  • Once asked if there was a Canadian culture, he answered, "Yes, in a very loose sense. It consists of regional cultures within Canada, regional cultures that cross borders with the US. We're part of a worldwide Anglo-American culture. And there is a continental culture." I think the answer was, in a very loose sense, not really.
  • Then there's the famous firewall letter to Premier Klein of Alberta which he signed and which stated, "It is imperative to take the initiative, to build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can approach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction."
  • About Maritimers he has said, "There's unfortunately a view of too many people in Atlantic Canada that it's only through government favours that there's going to be economic progress, or that's what you look to." So much for that benighted part of the country.
  • And then there's his infamous inability to say he loves Canada, source of much mockery in the media.
So, to paraphrase the Conservative ad, what is Harper in it for? It can hardly be for love of country if he can't even say the words. Is the ad, therefore, some kind of unconscious comment on the Conservatives' own leader? Or maybe not so unconscious? Perhaps a pre-emptive attempt to portray Ignatieff as a political dilettante before the Liberals portray Harper as a mere ideologue?

But who knows what goes on in the minds of people who deal in attack ads. We are in a murky realm, a part of the political world that does so much to explain why decent people want little to do with politics. Best to just leave them to their silly games.

13 May 2009

Will B.C.'s electoral choice harm Canada?

To say I'm disappointed with the B.C. referendum on electoral reform is putting it mildly. Not only did the voters of that province reject proportionality, they opted overwhelmingly for the corrupt first-past-the-post system (FPTP). Not that it necessarily makes all that much difference in B.C., a largely two-party province. In this election, for example, the Liberals approached a majority with 46% of the vote to the NDP's 42%. If a proportional system were in effect, the Liberals would have required a coalition to form a government and would probably have gotten one with the support of the Greens who, like the Liberals but unlike the NDP, supported B.C.'s carbon tax.

The real disappointment is what this might mean to the possibility of change at the federal level where it is most sorely needed. Not only does FPTP grossly corrupt the results of federal elections, it rewards division and punishes unity, the last thing a highly regionalized country like ours needs. In the 2008 election the Bloc Quebecois, the most divisive party in the country (it only bothers to run candidates in one province), was awarded 16% of the seats in the House of Commons for 10 % of the popular vote. The NDP, which runs candidates and wins seats in every region, won 12% of the seats with 18% of the popular vote. The Bloc was rewarded for its separatism with 61% more seats than it deserved and the NDP was punished for its all-Canadian approach with 33% fewer seats than it earned. The Conservatives commonly win more seats in the West than they deserve and fewer in the East, the Liberals just the opposite. So, thanks to FPTP, the two major regional divisions in the country, Quebec/English Canada and East/West, become greatly exaggerated in our national legislature.

This aggravation of regional differences is unhealthy and dangerous. Inasmuch as the B.C. referendum result discourages federal reform, it harms the entire country.

08 May 2009

Who will run U.S. Middle East policy - Obama or AIPAC?

U.S. President Barack Obama has indicated he may do the only thing that will bring peace to Palestine and justice to the Palestinians. He will put pressure on Israel to agree to a fair settlement. During his election campaign, Obama said he regarded the lack of a resolution to the conflict as a "constant sore" that "infect[s] all of our foreign policy." It is indeed that serious and it has infected more than American foreign policy. It was a contributing factor to 9/11 and to Islamic hostility toward the U.S. generally. Recently, Obama's national security adviser, General James Jones, has said the new administration would be more "forceful" with Israel.

This is promising, but the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has other ideas, and this is a group to be reckoned with. It has sent a veritable army of lobbyists to Washington to convince members of Congress to sign a letter to the president dissuading him from a tougher approach to Israel. AIPAC may be the most powerful lobby group in the United States. When it holds a conference, half of Congress attends. Critics claim it has unseated members who, in its eyes, have been too critical of Israel. Its letter was in fact written by two influential Congressmen, Steny Hoyer, Democratic majority leader in the House of Representatives, and Eric Cantor, the Republican whip.

The letter, although calling for peace, in effect insists on allowing Israel to set the pace of negotiations. Israel, which steals more Palestinian land every day and continually intensifies the segregation of the Palestinians, is of course in no hurry to change the status quo. Asking the Palestinians to wait on the pleasure of the Israelis is reminiscent of Martin Luther King's words in Letter from a Birmingham Jail about requests for blacks to have patience: "'Wait' ... rings in the ear of every Negro ... This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'" It rings similarly in the ears of Palestinians.

So will Obama emulate the impatience of Martin Luther King and demand justice for the Palestinians now or will he succumb to the political muscle of AIPAC and ask them to wait. This may be the most important foreign policy decision of his term.

01 May 2009

On listing "terrorists"

Terrorism is once again in the news. The end of the Tamil Tigers, pioneers of suicide bombing, is nigh in Sri Lanka. In the United States, increasingly disturbing revelations about the Bush administration's use of torture in their "war on terror" is riling tempers. And our government leaves Canadian Abousfian Abdelrazik to rot in the Sudan because it has concluded, against all evidence, that he's a terrorist.

But if I'm going to talk about terrorism, I should first define it. To me, it means the use of terror against a civilian population to coerce it into adopting a certain political position. A definition is necessary because the word tends to be applied highly selectively, used by governments and others to demonize some individual or group they find disapprove of.

Essentially, terrorism is a military tactic, like an air raid or a blitzkrieg. It is sometimes called the weapon of the poor because it tends to be used by those who lack formal militaries, the Palestinians for example. Nonetheless, it is used by a range of agents, some poor, some not so poor. The greatest terrorist attacks in history, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were carried out by the United States, the richest, most powerful nation on Earth. and a democratic nation it is important to note. Probably the greatest use of terror overall has been by governments against their own people.

We consider terrorism to be particularly repugnant because it's directed at civilians rather than military personnel, i.e. at innocents. This is a finer distinction than it immediately appears, however. In modern warfare, most casualties are civilian. Consequently, when a nation decides on military action, it is consciously deciding to kill civilians. Distinguishing terrorism from conventional war is, therefore, somewhat arbitrary. Whether you die from a specifically terrorist attack or from collateral damage in a war zone is small consolation to the dead.

This reveals the rather arbitrary nature of terrorist lists. Placed on a list, an individual or organization becomes a pariah, not to be dealt with in any way by respectable people, possibly under threat of prosecution. The Canadian government has listed the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization, and therefore put them beyond the pale, and they have indeed done terrible things, but then so has the government of Sri Lanka, including the systematic repression of the Tamil people, yet with them we maintain full diplomatic relations. We have also put the Palestinian organization Hamas on a terrorist list and that both lacks logic and adds to the difficulty of creating peace in the Middle East. Yes, it has a military arm and that arm has used terrorism, but it also has a social arm that has brought much needed social services to the Palestinian people, and it has a political arm that is willing to participate in the democratic process which it has done with great success. To categorize a comprehensive organization such as Hamas as a terrorist organization makes no more sense than categorizing the United States and Israel as terrorist states because they have also used terror when it suited their purposes.

Listing groups as terrorists can at times be downright perverse. For instance, al-Qaeda and Hamas get lumped into the same do-not-touch category, yet have little in common. Hamas is an organization willing to subject its political and ideological goals to negotiation and democratic process. As a major player in Palestine, it can and should be a participant in the Middle East peace process. Al-Qaeda on the other hand answers only to God and therefore does not negotiate and pursues its ideological objectives only by violence. Hamas has goals amenable to reason, al-Qaeda does not. Hamas can be treated as a political entity, al-Qaeda only as a criminal organization. Treating Hamas as if it were al-Qaeda is a folly that leads only to hostility and lost opportunity, an action neither useful nor justified.

The situation with individuals is parallel. Abousfian Abdelrazik has broken no law, yet our government abandons him in a foreign land. The ostensible reason is that he is on the UN blacklist, yet the very placing of an individual on the blacklist egregiously violates due process. A government simply submits a name to the Security Council along with supporting details. The government doesn't have to publicly identify itself (in Abdelrazik's case it hasn't) and no formal standards of evidence are required. If there is no objection within five days, the person is added to the list. Their assets are frozen and they are not allowed to travel internationally. The person doesn't get a hearing and can't submit evidence to refute the allegations. They are guilty until proven innocent.

In Abdelrazik's case, the RCMP and CSIS have both vouched for his innocence, but our government remains unmoved. They do this to him because he is accused of being a terrorist; he'd be much better off if he were accused of being a common criminal. And that of course is how such situations should be dealt with. If he is suspected of committing a crime, subject him to due process; if he isn't, treat him as an innocent man. The same applies to groups who practice political and ideological violence. If they commit crimes, treat them as criminals. The law has ways of dealing with members of a criminal organization.

Listing is an arbitrary process that does more to confuse and subvert the search for peace and security than it does to enhance it. It should be abandoned along with the curious construct, the "war on terror," that gave it life.