Monday, January 31, 2005

A little bit of systematic killing never hurt anyone...

So, according to the Sudanese foreign minister, U.N. investigations have found no evidence of genocide in Darfur. Now, if forced to be intellectually honest (damnit!), I must acknowledge the possibility that genocide, as it is technically defined is not occurring in Darfur. Attempting to prove the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group is not an easy thing to do. After all, how do you prove intent?

Somehow, however, I doubt that the children who have been slaughtered in Darfur are well educated on the finer points of the definition of genocide. Unfortunately however it is going to make a big difference in their lives. Because it is not considered a genocide, the U.N. is not bound to act. Because it is not bound to act, it won't, except of course in the very typical U.N. fashion" "what's that, your home has been burned down and your daughters raped and killed? Can I offer you some water?"

The U.N. Charter needs to be changed to recognize that even in cases where genocide cannot be proven (often very difficult while the violence is occurring), the international community must be bound to act to protect people from the murderous violence of their governments.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

"Today, there's no voice louder than that of freedom"

Congratulations to the Iraqi people for successfully holding their first elections today. Initial reports are saying that 60% of the population voted, which is about the same number as voted in the last Canadian election and we did not have to face violence.

People stood in line to vote understanding the risks that were confronting them, so that their voices could finally be heard. As the Iraqi bloggers Omar and Mohammed have pointed out: the people have won.

For all of those claiming that these elections are irrelevant because of all the problems that remain, I want them to go to Iraq and speak to today's voters and tell them that after everything they've gone through, today didn't count.

Michael Ignatieff's piece in today's New York Times Magazine discusses western defeatism in the face of the election.

"Beneath the fire blanket of defeatism, everyone -- for and against the war -- is apparently preparing exit strategies. Those who were against tell us that democracy can't be imposed at gunpoint, when the actual issue is whether it can survive being hijacked at gunpoint. Other experts tell us how ''basically'' violent Iraqi society is or how tribal it is, as a way of explaining why insurgency has taken root and democracy is dying on the vine. A more subtle kind of condescension claims that Iraq has been scarred by Baathism and therefore cannot produce free minds. All this savant expertise ignores the evidence that Iraqis want free institutions and that their leaders have fought to establish them in almost impossible circumstances."

No, this will not make Iraq a perfect society overnight, but now the Iraqis have had a chance to speak and to say who they would like to represent them in building their new society. How can anyone claim that this doesn't matter? Especially those of us in the West who take that right for granted?

Thursday, January 27, 2005

We are accomplices

"I remember: it happened yesterday or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the kingdom of night. I remember his bewilderment. I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.

I remember: he asked his father: 'Can this be true? This is the 20th century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?'

And now the boy is turning to me: 'Tell me,' he asks. 'What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?'

And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.

And then I explain to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent when and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that must –at that moment– become the center of the universe . . ."

--Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech (1986)

60 Years

You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or know
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them into your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house fall apart
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.

-- Primo Levi, Survival In Auschwitz

And what have we learned?

Monday, January 24, 2005

I'm an energy sucking Canadian, you can't shut off my lifeline

So, 13 hours without power yesterday! Contrary to what all of the reports are saying, not everybody had their power back by 8 p.m, because mine came on at 9:15! And as much fun as it was watching all the lights come on in the buildings around us while we sat in the dark, it's one of those life experiences I could probably have done without. I suppose it was payback for us because we only went 7 hours without power during the big blackout.

The blackout in August 2003 wasn't a great hardship for me, I live and work downtown and my neighbourhood Pizza Pizza was open. And, most importantly, it was summer. But yesterday was painful. A Sunday without television and internet access is not a Sunday, it's like asking an evangelical to skip church. I worship the gods of media! I didn't even find out about Johnny Carson until nearly 10pm (which, frankly I blame on my parents.... the phone was working people! We knew the Aussie Open results! Apparently you have to specifically ask, "so, anyone important die?").

But it was greater than the sum of all the inconveniences (there was no heat and no hot water, damnit!). Somehow, the knowledge that there was no power had a psychological effect. I could have just resolved to spend the day reading, at least until it got dark, but I felt completely useless (luckily friends suffering the same afflication came over and entertained us for the day). It was as if I was disconnected from the grid along with all of my appliances.

And people keep pointing out that it makes you realise what you take for granted. But I'm fine with taking electricity for granted, I don't need to be reminded. I live in Canada in 2005, if I can't take a constant supply of electricity for granted, then what is civilisation for?

Saturday, January 22, 2005

How does he get away with it?

Paul Martin is now claiming that he is willing to hold an election on the issue of gay marriage. Because he is all about human rights. He is and Stephen Harper isn't. Because as we all know, Paul Martin has been fighting for same sex marriage rights the early days of the battle. That's why he has now twice voted in parliament to define marriage as the "union of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others".

It is great to be a Liberal in this country. Seriously some days I wonder if it wouldn't be worth it to just give up my principles join the party and run for office. Because you can pretty much say whatever you want and nobody ever calls you on it.

Meanwhile in China this week Conservative Jason Kenney (who I have always thought of as a slimy weasel in the past) visited the home of Zhao Ziyang to pay his respects to the former Chinese politician who died last week. Zhao had been under house arrest since the Tiananmen Square Massacres, when he was the only Chinese leader willing to voice his opposition to the actions of the government. So, given that he is all about human rights, Paul Martin is falling over himself to offer Kenney praise, right? Well, no not exactly. It seems that Paul cares a little more about trade than he does about human rights, when it comes to China. He announced that he is "...quite disappointed that Mr. Kenney was not prepared to respect the family's feelings". Paul is pretending to believe the lie that Zhao's family has asked to be left alone, when actually it is the Chinese government who has been working to make sure that their is no public outpouring of grief for Mr. Zhao. It was the death of a similarly beloved reformer that led to the Tiananmen Square movement in the first place.

Listen Paul, I don't care if you want to be a weaselly sack of shit who cares nothing for people and only for money. That's your business. But then don't go around saying that the principles of human rights mean so much to you that you're willing to hold elections on them. Because (newsflash) things do not become human rights because the Supreme Court of Canada says they are. The very definition of Human Rights is that they are the inalienable rights of all human beings across the world, not just Canadians.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Just like in Chile!

So, apparently some in France think it would be a good idea to make former French presidents senators for life after they leave office. That way Jacques Chirac could avoid prosecution for corruption when his term is up.

Now, I'm not a big fan of French politicians, but doesn't this seem a little low even for them? Didn't Pinochet create the same position for himself before he left office? It would do Jacques well to remind himself what has been happening to good old Augusto lately.

Can someone please explain how I fixed my wireless connection?

Okay, I have been unable to access my wireless connection for over a week now. This evening I tried one more time to fix it. I tried nothing new, but this time it worked.

Perhaps the little man that lives inside my computer was on vacation. If so, welcome back little man.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Yushchenko wins

It is now official, Ukraine's Supreme Court has declared that Viktor Yushchenko won the December 26th election. The inauguration is expected to be this week.


Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Air Canada employees hold travellers hostage

An illegal strike by Air Canada ground crew disrupted flights and forced some passengers to remain on planes for hours on the runway at Pearson.

I don't give a shit what your problems with your employers are (though from what I've heard so far, I'm siding with management), you do not have the right to hold travellers captive as part of your labour dispute.

According to the union representing the workers, no disciplinary action will be taken as a result of the strike. Typical.

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Europeans get things completely wrong, as usual

So, Harry's decision to dress as a Nazi at a recent fancy dress party for the privileged and inbred has brought up the issue of banning racist symbols in Europe. Now, trust me when I tell you that no one is more disgusted by Harry's behaviour than I. But frankly what do you expect when you let cousins marry? I suspect that, unlike some of his ancestors, Harry is not a Nazi sympathizer (he is however a monarchist and they don't come off looking too good in my world either). The reason that what he did was so obscene is that, because he has been given such a privileged place in society by nature of his birth, he has to be held to significantly higher standards than anyone else (that's right, we own him. If he doesn't like it, he should renounce his position and become a commoner). But what he did was not a crime, nor should it be.

The proper response to this is not to ban the symbol. Silencing free speech is never the correct answer to anything, certainly not fighting fascism. I don't care what your first year semiotics class taught you, the symbols are not the issue. People have the right to believe what they want. Yes, I think that the Nazi swastika is a hate-filled image and that anti-semitism is indefensible. But if you start putting limits on speech then where does it end? And who gets to define what is acceptable speech? And what possible benefit is there to driving this kind of thing underground and further sidelining people who already have extremist opinions? People are allowed to have unpleasant thoughts, what they are not allowed to do is act on them. If Europe thinks that it has a problem with racism (and I have no doubt that it does), it should think about how to confront this problem. But it should not simply ban racist symbols and pretend that the problem doesn't exist.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Let them vote!

Thomas Friedman weighs in on the side of forging ahead with the Iraqi elections for the end of the month.

The notion that delaying the elections for a few months would somehow give time for the "Sunni moderates" to persuade the extremists to come around is dead wrong - literally. Any delay would simply embolden the guys with the guns to kill more Iraqi police officers and to intimidate more Sunnis. It could only convince them that with just a little more violence, they could scuttle the whole project of rebuilding Iraq.

There is only one thing that will enable the Sunni moderates in Iraq to win the debate, and that is when the fascist insurgents are forced to confront the fact that their tactics have not only failed to prevent the elections, but have also dug the Sunnis of Iraq into an even deeper hole.

By boycotting the elections, not only will they lose their unfair share of the old Iraq, they will also have failed to claim even their fair share of the new Iraq. The moderate argument among the Sunnis can prevail only when the tactics of their extremists have proved utterly bankrupt.

I don't think that anyone is claiming that the elections are going to be perfect, but putting them off just seems to guarantee more trouble. And why should the vast majority of Iraqis who have demonstrated a desire for democracy have to wait because a band of thugs have decided it is not in their interest?

And the fact of the matter is that you can never convince extremists to come around to your way of thinking. That is why they are extremists. The only solution is to defeat them. By helping the people of Iraq move towards democracy through these elections, we help them to defeat the extremists in their midst.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Anyone wanna watch some killing?

The senior UN envoy to Sudan wants to send some human rights observers to Darfur. Perhaps their new theory is that the janjaweed won't kill in front of the UN observers. You know how some people are uncomfortable performing in front of strangers.

Hey, it just might work. I mean, they've tried... nothing else.

Darfur needs to suffer some kind of natural disaster, because apparently that is the only way to get the world to care.

He gets to stay... for now

A judge has issued a stay of deportation in the case of Yakub Mohamed stating that "the applicant would face irreparable harm if he was returned''. This is despite the claim by government lawyer
Alison Engel, that Mohamed's family that his family would not be hurt if he was forced to be returned to Somalia. Do you think she sleeps nights?

I've read a little too much this week about how it is routine to separate families during the immigration process, and that there is nothing special about this case. Is the government actually proud of this fact?

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Herr Hitler, please put down that canister of Zyklon B. Please?

Apparently a suitable of time has passed since the tsunami that we can now turn our attention back to things that we could theoretically do something about. I won't dwell on it too long because we have other things to think about, what with Brad and Jennifer breaking up. But there is still the little matter of the slaughters in Darfur. And damn it Kofi is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

All sides, Annan said, "must be persuaded, by a combination of pressure and assurances from influential member states, that it is truly in their interests to pursue a settlement."

What is it that we will be pressuring them to deal with?

The crisis in Darfur was sparked in February 2003 when pastoral rebel groups took up arms against the government in a struggle over power and scarce resources. Khartoum retaliated by arming nomad militia, accused of conducting a campaign of murder, rape and arson against villagers.

So yes, clearly you can see that these are the sort of people who will be convinced that it is in their best interests to "pursue a settlement". Could it be? Peace in our time?

Friday, January 07, 2005

But the fucking Khadrs can stay???!!!!!!!

I don't even know how to respond to this one. Yakub Mohamed is being deported to his native Somalia next week as his refugee claim has been denied. Mohamed has been in Canada since 1989. He has nothing to go back to since his wife and four children (one of whom was born here, the other three were granted asylum in 1994) are all Canadian citizens. How can the government possibly justify separating this family? Or perhaps they think that the whole family should go back to war ravaged Somalia?

Meanwhile, we are falling over ourselves to accomodate people who have been affected by the Tsunami, with absolutely no thought for people suffering in other parts of the world.

The pathetic thing is that we have actually convinced ourselves that we are a caring nation.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Dramatizing Genocide

The new movie Hotel Rwanda seems to have been getting more attention in the media lately than the actual genocide on which it was based did in 1994. I can't comment on the quality of the film, because it doesn't come out in Toronto until this weekend, although it does seem to be getting good reviews. Although the natural instinct is to think that anything that brings attention to events such as this is a good thing, something has been bothering me. Reading an article on CNN's website today comparing Paul Rusesabagina to Oscar Schindler made me realise what that is. Rusesabagina was the owner of the Hotel Milles Collines. During the time of the genocide, he was responsible for protecting over a thousand people from the genocidaires. Both he and Oscar Schindler -- who helped save thousands from death at the hands of the Nazis -- deserve to be honoured for acting righteously when so few others would. Unfortunately, these films only serve to further the public's general ignorance about these events. Why? Because the message they give is hope. No matter how bad things get, there are always the few who will stand up against evil. But if you are going to take away one lesson from these two events, that should not be it.

People are woefully misinformed about history. As topics go, the Nazis and World War Two get a disproportionately large amount of coverage in popular history. But nonetheless, people are still largely unaware of the facts of the Holocaust. Most people are still willing to believe the lie that the average German had no idea what was happening to the Jews during the Holocaust. Really? Where did they think all their neighbours went? Regular German citizens were responsible for the attrocities of the Holocaust. We need to come to terms with this fact. In teaching people about the Rwandan genocide, the challenges are even greater because most people know nothing about Africa. Because the average Westerner sees Africa as a hopeless, lost continent, we cannot fathom that Rwandans had regular lives with jobs and families, and therefore it is hard to grasp the significance of what happened over those 100 days.

Primo Levi used to say that in speaking to young people about his experiences during the Holocaust, they often could not understand why more people just did not escape. Movies that tell the story of one good man who saved the lives of hundreds or thousands of people feed into this mentality. Because films are often the only information that many people will get about these tragedies, they have a false understanding of the history. You can't learn history at the movies, it is not possible (read a book). Narrative film can do a good job of humanizing an event, making it seem more real. But when you are ignorant about the facts of that event, watching a movie about it gives you only a very small piece of the puzzle. Often that is worse than not knowing anything at all. For example, I shudder to think what message people took from the abysmal piece of filth that was 'Life is Beautiful'. I hesitate to compare Schindler's List or Hotel Rwanda to a movie that turned Nazi concentation camps into a fairy tale, but in focusing on a message of hope above all else they fail the victims.

Millions of people died in the last century to genocides throughout the world. More are dying right now. We have not yet come to terms with the fact that it was ordinary people who were responsible for this. Society as a whole is not yet ready for a message of hope from other people's misery, we do not deserve it. First we must learn our own complicity. We must learn to act to prevent acts like this from occuring. Because the messages of hope that we have learned so far are "I hope that someone else is going to do something about this" or "I hope that this somehow stops".

I know that Steven Speilberg and Terry George have the best of intentions. They want to bring attention to these events of which so many are uninformed. But in trying to find the few stories that show human goodness in the midst of all of the despair, they mask the true horror of the situation.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Let's just throw money at the problem!

There is an essay by Jeffrey Sachs in Time Magazine dealing with the fact that those in poor countries suffer much greater from natural disasters than those in wealthy ones. His solution: more development dollars. He blames the developed world for not providing sufficient funding to impoverished nations. This is an obscenely simplistic argument. He makes the same point that I would expect to see in a first year undergraduate political science essay: "Currently, [U.S.] military spending outpaces our development aid by roughly 30 to 1. " Evil Americans, they sure are evil.

In 2002, the United States spend 3.4% of its GDP on military spending. That's a lot of money. Keep in mind, however, that the U.S. has by far the largest military in the world and is fighting the war on terror and helps to maintain peace in large parts of the world. How do other countries stack up? Countries, say, that receive development funding? Angola spends 3.7% of it's budget on military spending, Sri Lanka (to whom we are sending all that aid) 3.1%, India (again with the Tsunami aid) 2.3% (nukes cost $$) Pakistan 4.7% (ditto on the nukes), Ethiopia 5.2%, Yemen 7.1%, Burundi 7.6%, and Eritrea a whopping 23.5%!!! (all figures to SIPRI). Given the role of the U.S. military in the world, it is not a reasonable point of comparison. How do other nations spend? Canada spends 1.2% of GDP on the military, Australia, 1.9%, Germany 1.5%, and the relatively militaristic (by modern European standards) France 2.5% and England 2.4%... and they can afford it.

I happen to be sympathetic to the idea that wealthy countries should be spending more on development aid, but it needs to go to countries that aren't already wasting money on vast military budgets. And, ultimately, development aid is not the answer. No amount of aid could have prepared these countries to protect their citizens against the kind of devastation caused by the tsunami. For that, these nations need to turn their economies around so that they are equipped to respond to the needs of their citizens. This requires political, as well as economic, reforms.

Sachs mentions the fact that millions die unnecessarily each year due to malaria, a fact that can be remedied in part with the use of mosquito nets. What he failed to mention is that a number of African countries continue to impose high tariffs on bed nets, thus making them unaffordable to the average citizen. While some have committed to getting rid of these tariffs as part of the Roll Back Malaria project, the fact that they exist in the first place says a lot about the governments in those countries.

Keeping large parts of Africa and Asia on welfare is not the solution. We need to help these countries to build their ecomomies through trade, not just toss more money at them year after year. We have been doing that since independence and it hasn't solved anything. Nations, like people, need to become self-reliant if they want any hope of a decent future. There are definitely things that wealthy countries could do: encourage freer trade, get rid of agricultural subsidies that have helped to destroy agrarian economies -- especially in Africa, and reward countries that show a real commitment to improving the lives of their citizens. But if we want real change, poor countries are going to have to do a lot of work themselves. It is easy to fall into the mindset that they are so poor and we are so rich, so it is all our fault. Besides not being true, it doesn't solve anything.