Friday, June 30, 2006

Nuclear hypocrisy

Once again the hypocrisy in the war of words about nuclear weaponry is made manifest. British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, deputy and heir apparent to Tony Blair, says he wants Britain to renew and fortify its nuclear-weapons arsenal. The United Kingdom, along with other Western powers, is critical of Iran for its plans to enrich uranium, a preliminary to developing a bomb.

If Iran were to build a bomb it would be violating The Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to which it is a signatory as a non-nuclear-weapon state. However, Article VI of the Treaty also requires the nuclear states " ... to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." None of the nuclear states are fulfilling their obligations under Article VI, and now the deputy leader of Britain's ruling party is talking about renewing and fortifying its arsenal.

If the world leaders won't set an example and honour their agreement, how on earth can we expect lesser powers to do so?

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Israel and collective punishment

In response to the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants, Israel, as is its custom, is making all Palestinians in Gaza pay the price. It has sent in its army which so far has destroyed three bridges, cut off a water pipeline that provides water to 750,000 people, and blown up the territory's only power station, leaving 65 per cent of Gaza without electricity.

That the Israelis resent having one of their soldiers being kidnapped is understandable, but so do the Palestinians. Apparently seizing the soldier may have been due at least in part to retaliation for an Israeli commando raid into Gaza which resulted in the kidnapping of two Palestinian brothers suspected by Israel of militant action.

In any case, all Palestinians in Gaza are now being punished for the actions of a few militants. Mounting an invasion over one hostage seems somewhat disproportionate considering the entire Arab population of the West Bank and Gaza have effectively been hostages of Israel for generations.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

... nothing to lose but their chains

It appears the Spanish parliament will be the first legislature in the world to extend rights to life and liberty to the other great apes. Parliament will ask the government to approve the Great Ape Project which demands "the extension of the community of equals to include all great apes: human beings, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans." A resolution will be voted on later this year and is expected to pass.

We have long been inclined to obey a rigid dichotomy -- Homo sapiens on the one hand and all other animals lumped together on the other, us and them. It is past time to recognize the special nature of fellow creatures who, in the words of the Great Ape Project, "enjoy a rich emotional and cultural existence in which they experience emotions such as fear, anxiety and happiness ... share the intellectual capacity to create and use tools ... remember their past and plan for their future." Sentience deserves its due.

Extending rights to sentient beings with so much in common with us seems no more than a logical step in the progress of rights over the last 250 years. It doesn't mean other great apes will enjoy the same rights as humans; it does mean safeguarding their lives, liberty and freedom from abuse. The Spanish, to their great credit, have taken a step as moral as it is bold.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

According to U.S. Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales, America's top law officer, the seven men arrested last week in Florida were planning to "wage a full ground war against the United States." According to the press, the story behind this terrifying threat unfolded roughly as follows:

A group of labourers and indigents hang out in an abandoned warehouse in one of Miami's seedier neighbourhoods. There they commiserate about how unfair life is and how they should maybe blow a few things up to show their displeasure. The authorities get wind of these dangerous characters and arrange for an agent to gain their confidence. The agent has them swear an oath of fealty to al-Qaeda. Odd that, because apparently there isn't a Muslim among them. The agent then helps them to set up a digital camera, rents a van and guides them around Miami to take pictures of federal buildings, including FBI headquarters. He then offers to supply them with guns and explosives. How this group of misfits is to pay for the items poses no problem because the agent also offers to provide them $50,000 in cash. Having now become a "homegrown terrorist cell," squads of heavily armed police descend and arrest them.

Some questions for Mr. Gonzales. How in God's name could sane men take seriously the plans of seven labourers and indigents to "wage a full ground war against the United States"? Why were squads of heavily armed police required to arrest them when the authorities knew they were unarmed? And, considering a government agent signed them up for "al-Qaeda," supplied them with camera and van, suggested targets, offered to provide them with guns and explosives along with the money to make the purchase, weren't the wrong men arrested? And finally, has American law enforcement lost its collective mind?

Friday, June 23, 2006

The PM snubs the AIDS forum

Boos and catcalls to Prime Minister Harper for declining an invitation to open the International AIDS Conference in Toronto in August. The biennial forum attracts 20,000 scientists, journalists, activists and victims of the disease. It was an embarrassment to this country when Jean Chretien failed to attend in 1996, the last time it was held in this country, and it's an embarrassment now.

Mr. Harper recently stated the biggest problem facing the world's policy makers is terrorism. I would think it was global warming, but his government has no policy on that issue and didn't even include it in its five key priorities. Now it seems a disease that kills three million people a year doesn't even rate opening a conference. The PM's detachment from the big issues facing humanity is matched only by George W. Bush's.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Good news from the Lord!

New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord plans on holding a referendum on electoral reform in early 2008. The referendum is in response to a report by the New Brunswick Commission on Legislative Democracy, established by Lord in December '03. The commission recommended a mixed-member system which would include 36 representatives elected under first-past-the-post (the current system) supplemented by 20 representatives elected regionally to ensure that each political party's share of seats in the legislature accurately reflects their share of the popular vote.

Lord will also follow up on other recommendations of the commission, including fixed election dates and limitations on political contributions.

In March, Premier McGuinty announced the formation of a citizens' assembly to study Ontario's voting system, to report in early 2007. A proportional system received 58 per cent support in a British Columbia referendum in 2005; however, this fell short of the 60 per cent threshold established by
Premier Campbell. B.C. will hold another referendum in 2009.

The movement to ensure every vote counts rolls on.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The increasingly popular Mr. Ahmadinejad

American officials have claimed that not only is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a threat to world peace, he faces insurrection at home. They wish. Threat to world peace he may be but he is very popular in Iran and becoming more so every day. Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political science professor at Tehran University, believes Ahmadinejad has a 70% approval rating. Opinion polls in Iran don't mean much; nonetheless, Western diplomats agree his support is increasing.

His populist style and biweekly meet-the-people tours of the country contribute to his image as an honest man of the people, and standing up to the West on the nuclear issue doesn't hurt. As George W. Bush well knows, nothing rallies the folks around a leader like standing up to an enemy, particularly a foreign devil.

He has even pleasantly surprised Iranians by being less of a religious conservative than expected. He has criticized the perks enjoyed by some of Iran's ruling clerics and even attempted to allow women to attend soccer games (he was overruled).

Ahmadinejad's staunch defence of Iran's nuclear program, and his virulent criticism of Israel combined with Iran's strong support for the Palestinians, has made him a hero on the Arab street. The U.S. might want to be very careful about messing with this guy.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Stephen Harper's sorry priorities

Speaking at the United Nations' World Urban Forum in Vancouver, Prime Minister Stephen Harper used the occasion to do a George W. Bush bit about terrorism being the most serious challenge facing policy-makers today. More important than dealing with climate change? More important than fighting disease and poverty in Africa? More important than providing the world's one billion slum dwellers with clean water and sewage disposal?

Delegates from Third World cities must have thought they'd stumbled into the wrong conference. Or maybe PM Harper stumbled into the wrong conference.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Rt Rev Katharine Jefferts Schori, Primate of the Episcopal Church

Heartiest congratulations to The Right Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, Bishop of Nevada, at being elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church in the United States. Chosen out of seven candidates, Bishop Schori is the first woman to be elected primate of an Anglican province.

As an atheist I have little concern generally for the internal affairs of religions; however, I was baptized and confirmed as an Anglican, so seeing my old church departing from its misogynist ways is pleasing. It still has a long way to go, however. Many Anglican congregations around the world have not yet accepted women as priests, never mind bishops. And the head of the church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, did not make haste in offering his congratulations to the new primate, his office saying he would send a letter the next morning. Nonetheless, yet another male bastion has fallen to women. Now among Christian churches at least, only the Catholics and Orthodox persist in universally treating women as spiritually inferior to men.

So, bonne chance to Bishop Schorri. May she do many good works.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Iggy the warrior

Michael Ignatieff, in his enthusiasm for our military adventure in Afghanistan, seems to be getting carried away with his rhetoric. He is quoted in The Globe as saying, in reference to the Rwanda debacle, "The Liberal government, all Canadians even, promised it would never happen again. We are in Afghanistan to keep that promise."

Did we make that promise? I don't remember any such thing. And how would we be keeping that promise in Afghanistan? It is an entirely different situation. Rwanda was about genocide, Afghanistan about theocracy. I've heard claims we are in Afghanistan to bring democracy to its people or to fight terrorism, but nothing about preventing genocide. I do believe Mr. Ignatieff is making things up.

If the leading candidate for the Liberal leadership needs an analogy, he might try Vietnam. There, too, a Western nation thought it could bring democracy to an Asian country even though the odds were very much against it. They failed, and at least 3,000,000 people died, the greatest slaughter since the Second World War, a monument to good intentions gone catastrophically wrong. How many Afghans is Ignatieff willing to see die for Western hubris?

Saturday, June 17, 2006

And you thought Abu Ghraib was bad

Five U.S.-run prisons in Iraq, containing over 15,000 prisoners, were recently scheduled to be turned over to Iraqi authorities; however, Pusho Ibrahim Yei, deputy minister of justice, has asked that the turnover be delayed, stating, "We cannot control the prisons. It is as simple as that."

And why can't the Iraqis control the prisons? Yei explained, "Our jails are infiltrated by [Shia] militias from top to bottom, from Basra to Baghdad." He went on to say hundreds of prisoners had been helped to escape while Sunnis had been tortured and taken out of jail and shot. A Sunni MP, after visiting a prison run by the interior ministry, claimed dozens of inmates had been raped and families of prisoners had been tortured to force the captives to testify.

The horror continues.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Palestine and manifest destiny

The newspapers are full of articles attempting to explain why a certain number, a very small number actually, of young Muslim men are angry enough at the West to resort to violence, even against their fellow citizens. The explanations run from teenage angst to ethnic alienation to "they hate us for our values," and so on. Convoluted psychological analyses are not, however, required. One word will suffice: Palestine.

Muslims have been forced to watch year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, as their coreligionists in Palestine are ethnically cleansed, conquered, occupied, humiliated and have more of their land stolen every day. Anyone who doesn't understand why Muslims might be angry has lost touch with human emotion. The Americans are assaulted once and they invade two countries.

Of course it's not only Palestine. It's Iraq. It's support for brutal dictators like the Sauds. It's the overthrow of democracy in Iran. It's the whole colonial legacy.

Nothing on this long list justifies the slaughter of innocents. Nothing ever does. But we are talking about understanding, not justification. If we are to preclude attacks on innocents, we must try to understand why they occur, why young men commit them. After all, they do have reasons. Unfortunately, those who strive for understanding are often accused of justification. It's almost as if their accusers are afraid a kernel of justification may be found and this seems to irritate them.

And Palestine certainly contains kernels we might prefer to leave unexamined. Prior to the Second World War, Winston Churchill supported a Jewish state "by the banks of the Jordan." Asked if this might inflict an injustice on the Palestinian Arabs, he replied, "I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia. I don't admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher race, or a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place." This belief in Manifest Destiny persists today, advantaging Israel over the Palestinians in the eyes of the West while infuriating Arabs and their fellow believers. Justification for violence? Perhaps not, but certainly for anger.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

In Helmand's fields the poppies grow, and grow, and grow ...

The farmers of Helmand province in Afghanistan are expecting a bumper crop this year, a record in fact, double last year's. The crop is, of course, opium poppies. Helmand produces about a third of the world's heroin.

The opium poppy produces far more revenue per acre than any alternative, such as wheat, and is an ideal cash crop. It grows in relatively poor soil and is reasonably drought resistant. The product is durable, increases in value with age rather like good wine, has a reliable international market and is easy to transport. Not surprisingly therefore, the West's anti-narcotics campaign, which has cost $2-billion US since 2001, has been a complete failure. This is particularly embarrassing to the British, who have 3,300 troops in Helmand and are in charge of the anti-drug effort. Meanwhile, the drug lords, possibly including the minister in charge of counter-narcotics, Muhammad Daud, operate with seeming impunity.

The Taliban have shrewdly allied themselves with the opium producers while the U.S. and NATO oppose the business. Winning hearts and minds isn't easy when you want to destroy the country's top income earner and the "bad guys" are defending it. A number of American politicians want to eradicate the poppies with crop-spraying planes, a strategy that might be a little hard to explain to the farmers.

We Canadians, always pure of motive, are there to help the Afghans, but how exactly do you help a narco state?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Visit beautiful Bolivia and walk the Che trail

In an effort to increase tourism, Bolivia has created a "Che trail" connecting the landmarks in "Che" Guevara's campaign to overthrow the government in the 1960s. After his death at the hands of Bolivian troops, the guerrilla leader became a left-wing icon. As the left regains strength in Latin and South America, Guevara's popularity is making something of a comeback. Entrepreneurs may not be part of his fan base, but they know a good thing when they see it and are taking advantage of renewed interest in the revolutionary to make a few bucks. They have even got a grant from the Bank for International Development to turn haciendas along the trail into "Che" museums and way stations for travellers.

The trail will complement the Ruta Guerrillero in Cuba which traces the advance of Guevara's column of rebels from Bayamo to Havana during the Cuban revolution. And of course the web gets into the act with which offers "the largest collection of Ernesto Che Guevara merchandise found anywhere in the world." A nice tank top or authentic beret, perhaps, for your hike along the Che trail or the Ruta Guerrillero.

Thus the revolutionary icon becomes a marketing icon. Who'd of thunk it.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

British business goes green -- how refreshing

Business people demand greater effort in fighting global warming. Oh, if only we heard those welcome words in North America.

Executives of 14 top British companies, including Tesco, Shell and B&Q, wrote Prime Minister Tony Blair a letter calling for stricter limits on industrial greenhouse gas emissions. They insisted government regulation of emissions was necessary to encourage green technologies. The letter stated, "The scientific evidence is showing that human-induced climate change may be happening even faster than expected. It is clear to us that the need for ambitious and long-term action is becoming ever more urgent." The group suggested the government should seek the maximum possible cuts under the next phase of the European emissions trading scheme.

In response to the oft-heard lament that regulation threatens economic growth, the business leaders countered that it would provide opportunities, offering British businesses an advantage in global markets for new technologies.

Needless to say, environmental groups applauded the companies' progressive action. Now if we could only bring some of that enlightenment to business groups over here.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Drowning railways

"God's railway," the engineering miracle designed by the great British engineer I. K. Brunel, which runs to the English counties of Devon and Cornwall, is threatened by rising sea levels. Some of the most scenic stretches of the line, along the magnificent south coast of Devon, are succumbing to advancing seas and worsening storms caused by global warming.

Other rail lines in the UK are similarly threatened, all among the nation's most picturesque. Tourists viewing these lovely areas now have the added pleasure of witnessing the ominous workings of climate change. One wonders how many will reflect upon the irony that the trains themselves contributed to the phenomenon that literally undermines them.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Climate change and too big ideas

Some truths are just too big for contemporary minds to envelop.

Heliocentricity was one of these. When, in the 16th century, the great polymath Nicolaus Copernicus postulated that the Earth rotated around the sun, and not the other way round, he wisely refrained from revealing his theory until he was on his deathbed, realizing the trouble his revolutionary idea was likely to create for him. A century later when Galileo Galilei, supported Copernicus's theory in his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, he did indeed get into trouble. He was convicted of heresy and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Evolution is another too big idea. When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, in which he revealed the mechanism of evolution, he stirred a whirlwind of protest. Leading scientists and, needless to say, clergymen, attacked his ideas vigorously. Even today, most Americans cannot deal with evolution, preferring a magical explanation of life on earth.

Now climate change joins this select group. The great majority of earth scientists agree it threatens the health of our planet and possibly the very existence of our species, yet a disturbing number of politicians, business leaders and journalists are reluctant to take the threat seriously, if they accept it at all. Al Gore has noted that while the scientific community considers global warming a virtual certainty, 55 per cent of the articles in the popular press consider it questionable.

Why are these ideas too big? Why do they overwhelm the human mind? Certainly not because of stupidity. Pope Urban VIII, the man principally responsible for Galileo's trial, was an educated man, a poet and patron of the arts. And many who attacked On the Origin of Species were leading scientists as well as clergymen. And not all those who avert their minds from climate change are among the benighted.

The reason is quite likely because these ideas diminish us. They assault our ego.

If they are true, we are not at the centre of the univese, we are not separate from beasts, indeed we are a beast, and we are furthermore a beast fouling its own nest, destroying its own environment. We are too much reduced by these truths. We are an organism that has constructed elaborate ideologies, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, to name a few of the more important, and included detailed handbooks, the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, to verify our status as God's chosen species. For such an arrogant lot, these ideas are profoundly ego-shrinking, and many of us refuse the insult. The mythologies are much more comforting, so we will remain loyal to those, thank you very much.

In the past it didn't much matter. If a lot of people, even most people, didn't accept heliocentricity or evolution, so what? The sky wouldn't fall. Life would go on as always. Ignorance posed little threat. This is not the case with climate change. This is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. If we don't deal with this issue, no other issues will matter. This is the big one. If it proves too big a reality for enough of us to accept, we will fulfill one myth at least: we will all burn in eternal hellfire as our planet turns into another Venus.

A new paradigm?

Are the imperialist chickens finally coming home to roost?

For half a millennium, the West has had its wicked way with the rest of the world. It has murdered millions, enslaved millions, stolen entire continents, and robbed others of their resources. And it has done all this with impunity. Not in the lands raped and pillaged, where sometimes the victims resisted, but in the homelands. As Western nations carried out their dirty work abroad, they could rest assured their own people were secure from the anger of those they tormented.

It appears this is no longer true. The West has made an enemy of some nasty people, militant Islamists, an enemy who doesn't go by the old rules. It sends a new and clear message: come to our world and kill our people and we'll go to your world and kill your people. This comes as a nasty shock to the West. This isn't the way it's supposed to work.

The attacks of 9/11 are an example of the new paradigm. The United States has inflicted itself upon the Middle East for a long time and in major ways: collaborating with the British to overthrow the democratically elected Mossadegh government in Iran, supporting Israel at the expense of Palestinian Arabs, befriending sordid dictators like the Sauds in Arabia, and so on, and so on. Indeed, apparently the last straw for Osama bin Laden was the stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia, the most sacred ground in Islam. In any case, a litany of offensive behaviour fuelled the anger that brought reprisals against the American homeland.

We Canadians had generally avoided the imperialist schemes, opting for a more neutral foreign policy. When we put troops in Third World countries, it was to keep the peace. But that has changed. In Afghanistan we have taken sides, and have soldiers actively seeking out and killing militant Muslims. They have taken note. Mullah Dadallah, a Taliban commander, has said about us, "If they return to where they came from ... we will not view them like the Americans," and if not, "We will wreak vengeance upon them one by one."

His words should not be taken lightly. Militant Islamists have been wreaking a fair bit of vengeance lately. And to assist them they now have a fifth column of eager young recruits in the homelands of their enemies. The presence of these recruits is in itself largely a product of imperialism.

This is not to confuse explanation with justification. The atrocities visited upon New York, London and Australians in Bali were no more justified than the horrors inflicted for centuries upon the Third World by the First, but let us not pretend those attacks are without explanation, that they are irrational. They are perfectly rational. They are just outside the cosy old paradigm of Western domination.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The stock option swindle

When CEO John Roth of Nortel Networks retired in 2001, the company was collapsing around his ears. The stock, selling at $105 a share when he became CEO in 1997, now sold at $6 a share. Tens of thousands of workers were being laid off. The company had shrunk by over a quarter. But Mr. Roth, unlike his company, was in fine shape. Although his salary was a mere pittance at $1.5 million a year, before the sky fell he managed to cash in $135 million in stock options.

Stock options were meant to be a reward for creating company value. Cynics often suggest they are more a matter of creating value for CEOs. Now the cynics seem to have been proven right. Ontario Teachers Pension Plan recently conducted a study of the relationship between the compensation of top executives and their companies' performance and found no such relationship exists. CEO pay and shareholder return simply didn't correlate. Indeed, the most mediocre companies were generously providing the highest executive incomes. The study's authors were so surprised by the result they redid their work various ways but kept coming up with the same sad answer.

The Pension Plan people shouldn't have been surprised. The world of CEOs and boards of directors is one of financial incest, one of good old boys taking care of other good old boys. If shareholders want to pay their top people top dollar only when they've earned it, they are obviously going to have to be a lot less forgiving of their boards. In fact, considering we all pay for these golden handouts one way or another, perhaps we should all be a lot less forgiving.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Talks or an ultimatum?

Yet another headline that isn't quite what it seems. The Globe and Mail boldly announces top of the front page, "U.S. Offers Talks with Iran." Some talks. The Americans will join multilateral negotiations, but only if Iran agrees ahead of time to suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities, and only to discuss Iran's nuclear program, nothing else.

According to the always charming U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, "This is a very specific choice that is being given to Iran: Abandon your nuclear weapons ambitions or face isolation." Sounds like she's planning a very short conversation. That is if Iran will accept a U.S. presence if it requires pre-conditions. They've indicated they won't, and why would they? With all due respect to Ms. Rice, the Chinese, for example, might rank their need for oil ahead of isolating Iran.

Say it ain't so, Joe

As a Liberal sympathizer (I even vote for them occasionally), I find their affinity for sleaze depressing. Jean Chretien brings in excellent legislation to limit political contributions from corporations, one of the kindest favours our democracy has received in decades, and guess who is first to try slipping through a loophole. Why, a Liberal, of course. The friends-of-Apotex bunch had 11-year old kids making $5,400 donations to Joe Volpe's leadership campaign. Five current and former executives of Apotex Inc. and 15 members of their families contributed $108,000 total in identical amounts.

The Volpe campaign has now issued instructions to return the donations if they violate the spirit of the Canada Elections Act, but only after the national campaign co-ordinator had earlier said nothing was wrong with them. Why, oh why, does it always seem to be Liberals who get caught with their financial pants down? Maybe they lack the ideological fervour that drives generosity in the other parties, or maybe they're just having a run of bad luck, but this is not a good start to the leadership race.

Whoever wins is going to have to wield a wicked ethical whip before the party embarrasses itself into oblivion.