29 November 2011

Lest we forget: today is The International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People

The International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, a United Nations sponsored event, has been observed every year on November 29th since 1977, 30 years to the day after the partition of Palestine.

The UN General Assembly has requested that the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and the Division for Palestinian Rights organize an annual exhibit on Palestinian rights or a cultural event in co-operation with the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the UN, and to encourage member states to give the widest support and publicity to the observance of the Day.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement saying, "Let us, on this International Day, reaffirm our commitment to translating solidarity into positive action. The international community must help steer the situation towards a historic peace agreement."

This is an appropriate time to wish the Palestinians luck in their bid to become full members of the United Nations and all that entails.

23 November 2011

South Africa on slippery slope?

Normally, I'm wary of slippery slope arguments but when an African government acts to limit freedom of speech, I suspect such an argument may be valid. Unfortunately, South Africa has done just that. A law, ostensibly to protect state secrets, has been approved by the South African National Assembly. The law makes it a crime to leak, possess or publish information judged as classified by the government. Whistle blowers and journalists will face up to 25 years in jail if found guilty of such action. The government will, of course, determine what is classified. There is, crucially, no public-interest defence clause.

Critics argue that this is a first step in dismantling South African democracy. And the critics are many. Leader of the opposition party Democratic Alliance, Lindiwe Mazibuko, warned: "This bill will unstitch the very fabric of our constitution. It will criminalize the freedom so many of our people fought for." Archbishop Desmond Tutu added, "It is insulting to all South Africans to be asked to stomach legislation that … makes the state answerable only to the state. Please hear the warnings of the academics, civil society leaders, labour representatives, media corps, and legal and constitutional experts." Even the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, which rarely criticizes the governing African National Congress party, issued an "expression of concern."

Although the bill will probably be approved by parliament's upper house, it could still face a challenge in the constitutional court. For the sake of South African democracy, let us hope that it does.

22 November 2011

Why 338 constituencies? Why not 150? Or 100?

The Liberals have suggested an approach to achieving fairer regional representation in the House of Commons, and they should be listened to. Their solution is certainly better than that of Bill C-20 which will add yet another 30 seats to the House. The Liberals would achieve representation essentially as fair as C-20 without adding any more seats. They would sensibly just redistribute the current 308 seats.

But why 308? Why not save a great deal of money and reduce the number to 150, or 100? A large number of local representatives may have been necessary early in our history when communities were relatively isolated and communication slow. But in this age of instantaneous communication, that justification is archaic. As long as we achieve fair regional representation—still important in this disparate country of ours—local representation is of limited importance.

In the first place, national parties deal with national issues. Local issues are the responsibility of local, or perhaps provincial, government, and therefore a multitude of local constituencies is not required at the national level.

Secondly, the great majority of people vote for the party, not the candidate, so as long as a region is fairly represented, it doesn't require a multitude of voices saying essentially the same thing.

And finally, in the House of Commons, all the members of the same party vote the same way. Once the regions are proportionately represented, any more votes are just echoes.

Efficiency, i.e. respect for the taxpayer's dollar, demands that we achieve equitable representation for the regions at the least cost, and that means the least number of MPs. And equitable representation can be obtained with far fewer MPs than 338. Reducing the number substantially would of course require a constitutional amendment to eliminate the "grandfather clause," which guarantees each province at least as many MPs as it had in 1985, but with the increased efficiency Canadians might very well be amenable to the change. It would be a good time also to remove the "senatorial clause" which guarantees that each province have at least as many MPs as Senators. Over-represented provinces, PEI first among them, would complain but then they are a diminishing voice.

Short of changing the constitution, the Liberal proposal is a sound approach. Fix the number at 308 and adjust as necessary.

18 November 2011

Ehud Barak sympathizes with Iran's alleged nuclear aspirations

Whether or not Iran is developing nuclear weapons, it appears that Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak appreciates why they would. In an interview with PBS's Charlie Rose, when he was asked if he would want a nuclear weapon were he a member of Iran's government, he replied, "Probably, probably. I know, it's not—I don't delude myself that they are doing it just because of Israel. They look around, they see the Indians are nuclear, the Chinese are nuclear, Pakistan is nuclear ... not to mention the

He could also have mentioned that the Iranians must deal with two hostile nuclear-armed nations—the U.S. and the U.K.—constantly prowling in their backyard. In any case, he recognizes that Iran would be justified in developing nukes, at least from an Israeli point of view.

Many Israelis are unhappy with Mr. Barak's observation. The last thing they want to hear from their defence minister is empathy for Iran developing a nuclear weapon. But there it is. Maybe, disarmed by Charlie Rose's charm, he just allowed his tongue to slip. Nonetheless, what he said simply made sense. If you are quarreling with nuclear-armed nations, as Iran is, then if you don't have the ultimate weapon, you lack leverage. If you want to play with the big boys you have to carry the big stick. Israel, as the defence minister has indicated, certainly understands that.

17 November 2011

Say goodbye to the frogs

Frogs are delightful little buggers. Look at this little rascal in the photo, a red-eyed tree frog. With his goofy expression and padded toes, you can't help but love him ... or her.

Too bad, really, that they are doomed. As we humans press on causing the world's sixth great extinction, amphibians are perhaps the most in danger. About half of amphibian species are in decline with a third facing extinction. They face three major threats—climate change, habitat loss and disease—two of which at least are created by us. Now scientists have discovered that these threats often overlap to the extent frogs' future may be grimmer than formerly realized.

And after the frogs, what next? My bet is the creatures of the coral reefs. As carbon dioxide levels driven by fossil fuel use increase in the atmosphere, so does the amount absorbed by the world's oceans. This leads to acidification and an environment that erodes corals. The oceans are now more acidic than they have been at any time in the last 800,000 years, and at current rates will be more corrosive by mid-century than they have been in the past 20 million years. At least one quarter of all species of life in the oceans are associated with coral reefs. Most can now look forward to the same bleak future as the frogs.

If any of these species on land or sea survive the holocaust, I hope the red-eyed tree frog is among them.

15 November 2011

APEC—Environment one, Keystone zero

Despite Stephen Harper's 25-minute walk in the garden with Barack Obama during the recent APEC forum, the president was not dissuaded from his decision to conduct a thorough review of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project. Apparently he is unconvinced by our prime minister's declaration that approval of the pipeline is a "no brainer." Perhaps the president, as Harper suggests, is just playing politics, or perhaps he recognizes that Keystone, which has been referred to as the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet,” is about much more than a pipeline. That it is about the health of our planet and the future of global civilization.

Perhaps, during that stroll in the garden, the president got a little of this through to Mr. Harper. The prime minister joined with the other APEC leaders in signing off on the "Honolulu Declaration" which, among other things, commits the members to promoting environmentally friendly growth, including the need to "rationalize and phase out inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption."

According to President Obama, "We raised the bar on ourselves and will aim for even higher energy efficiencies.... This would be a huge step toward clean-energy economies and fighting climate change." Fine words, easily said, and perhaps I'm grasping at straws, but it does seem to indicate that the environment is on their minds, even Mr. Harper's, and that they recognize much more needs to be done. That, with the delay of Keystone, offers some small reason for optimism.

14 November 2011

Obama's sartorial slip

"I was persuaded by our team to perhaps break tradition, and so we have not required you to wear your aloha shirts."

Thus President Obama broke the 20-year tradition of having the assembled leaders at an APEC forum ditch their power suits and don the traditional local dress.

Kind of a shame. After all, they were meeting in Obama's home state of Hawaii and those aloha shirts are pretty spiffy. They looked great on Elvis.

On the other hand, checking out Putin and Bush in traditional silk jackets at the 2001 forum in Shanghai, maybe it's a wise move.

11 November 2011

Canada's climate change policy—drinking the Kool-Aid

The warnings continue. And they are ominous. In its annual World Energy Outlook released November 9th, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that the world will lose the chance to limit global warming if it doesn't act now. This isn't news of course. Climate scientists have been trying to tell us for some time that the problem isn't so much a greenhouse effect as a runaway greenhouse effect. While many scientists predict catastrophic results if warming of the Earth isn't limited to two degrees centigrade, the IEA predicts that the current promises by the world's nations to reduce emissions will result in an increase of over 3.5 degrees, and of course there's no guarantee these commitments will be met.

Although Canada contributes only a small portion of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, that does not prevent us from setting an example, of being a leader in dealing with the greatest threat facing global civilization. We have, after all, exercised leadership in the world in the past despite our size. But that time has apparently passed. Now we seem content to be a follower, and this is sadly the case in dealing with climate change. We can expect no leadership here, not as long as we have a government whose movement on the climate change issue is bound by the ball and chain of the tar sands.

Our behaviour reflects that followership. We muzzle our climate change scientists. We drag our feet at international conferences. We tie our commitments to those of the U.S. which has no federal climate change plan. Nor will we sign international agreements unless they are signed and ratified by all major emitters. The fact that these emitters are not doing nearly enough does not bother our government. Apparently, if they choose to drink the Kool-Aid, we too will fill our cup.

05 November 2011

Did former Israeli security chiefs rat out Netanyahu?

Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, is no admirer of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has accused Netanyahu of being "irresponsible and reckless" and feels that Israel's security is being mismanaged by the prime minister and Ehud Barak, the defence minister.

According to a story in the Guardian, Netanyahu is now said to believe that Dagan and Yuval Diskin, former head of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency, are trying to sabotage plans being drawn up by him and the defence minister to attack Iranian nuclear sites. Apparently, he has ordered an investigation into leaks of the plans and suspects the two former security chiefs of being the culprits. Netanyahu's suspicions are justified. When Dagan ran the Mossad, he referred to an attack on Iran as "the stupidest idea I've ever heard."

Dagan is no dove. He was once described as "one of the most right wing militant people ever born here ... who ate Arabs for breakfast, lunch and dinner." As head of Mossad, he was in charge of operations that included sabotaging computers and assassinating scientists to delay Iran's nuclear program, setting up an attack on a Syrian nuclear reactor, and assassinating Hezbollah and Hamas agents. When a man with this record considers his prime minister "irresponsible and reckless," alarms should go off.

In the West, we tend to focus on Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when we think of troublemakers in the Middle East. Perhaps we should pay closer attention to Benjamin Netanyahu.

04 November 2011

The UNESCO vote and the decline of American influence

Following the vote Monday to admit Palestine into UNESCO, Hamas official Ahmed Yousef said it "shows that Israel and America are not dictating politics to the world anymore." Hamas's view carries its own bias, nonetheless Mr. Yousef has a point. U.S. opposition to the vote does indeed serve as another example of the empire's declining influence in the world.

In the U.S.'s own backyard, once secured by the Monroe Doctrine, South American nations are increasingly drifting left and away from American political and economic policies. If they have an exemplar at the moment it is Brazil. Only Colombia remains a loyal ally.

In the far east, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is expanding both its membership and its agenda and seems intent on squeezing out the influence of both NATO and the United States in that part of the world. With China and Russia as members, and India and Pakistan likely to join, that seems a reasonable ambition. The United States applied for observer status in 2005 but was rejected.

In the Middle East, the Americans have almost become spectators to rapidly evolving events. They watched helplessly, and seemingly in confusion, as the Egyptian people overthrew Hosni Mubarak. Egypt is the most important country in the region and the U.S. had invested billions in the Mubarak regime, an investment now down the toilet. In Libya, the Americans participated only as followers and seemed content to be relegated to that unfamiliar role.

Even in Europe, American policies are often looked at askance. When the U.S. insists that the Europeans do more in this or that war effort, it often receives a Gallic shrug. And surveys show that majorities in most European nations believe China either will replace or already has replaced the United States as the world's leading superpower.

China steadily advances on American economic primacy and takes an increasingly assertive approach in international affairs as it does. The BRIC bloc—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—is also assuming a greater presence on the world stage. The financial and economic collapse of 2008, triggered by American malfeasance, did nothing to enhance the U.S.'s financial reputation.

The U.S. remains the world's largest economy and is the only country with global military reach. It possesses the world's reserve currency, superb universities, powerful corporations and an ability to bounce back from adversity. Yet its reputation is dragged down by a bellicose foreign policy, a widening gap between rich and poor, a massive debt and balance of payments deficit, excessive energy use and high levels of violent crime.

Its UNESCO vote against Palestine and its withdrawal of funding only made it look like a bully. Indeed, the 107-14 vote in itself illustrated the decline of its ability to influence other nations. Latin America, Africa and Asia strongly supported Palestinian membership. The BRIC bloc all voted for. As did France. So, interestingly, did Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Libya. Even America's most important friend and ally, Britain, abstained. The American empire seemed just a little less on Monday.