Monday, November 27, 2006

A trace of sanity: Japanese say no to nukes

At a time when the great powers ignore their responsibility under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to rid themselves of nuclear arms, and ever more nations entertain the notion of obtaining them, it is encouraging that at least one major power has apparently opted out of the madness. In a recent poll, 78 per cent of Japanese rejected the idea of their country acquiring nuclear weapons. The survey followed North Korea's first nuclear test last month.

Japanese law currently forbids the development or possession of nuclear arms. The new Prime minister, Shinzo Abe, says he supports the policy despite misgivings about North Korea.

No doubt, once having been the target of these monstrous weapons, the only nation to be so victimized, the Japanese may be less inclined to want them around than more fortunate peoples. Nonetheless, it is encouraging to hear the voice of sanity.

Canada - an environmental pariah?

First it was the hopelessly inadequate Clean Air Act, calling for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions between 45 and 65% from 2003 levels by 2050 when science suggests the need is more like 90%. (Strike one)

Then it was Canada's opposition to a ban on bottom trawling on the high seas despite mounting scientific evidence the practice is devastating to sea bottom ecologies. Iceland and other laggards would probably have defeated the proposal anyway, but we certainly didn't help. As Jennifer Lash, executive director of Living Oceans Society, observed, "Canada didn't kill the deal, but they were definitely an accomplice." That's us -- accomplices in a crime against the environment. (Strike two)

And now, our government is slashing a host of our climate-change programs, including five at Agriculture Canada that would assist farmers in developing more environmentally sound practices. This comes after they shut down the federal climate change website,, earlier in the year. (Strike three)

Three strikes and counting against the Harper Conservatives.

George Monbiot, a British journalist who has written about climate change for years, observes, "Canada is in serious danger of becoming an international pariah on this issue." It appears our reputation around the world on the most important issue of our times, or any other time, is going into the toilet.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Salute the generous Canadian

More good news: Canadians are becoming increasingly generous. According to Statistics Canada, charitable donations in 2005 increased by 13.8 per cent over 2004. Some highlights:
• Six million Canadians donated a record $7.9 billion.
• The highest increase was in Alberta at 21.1 per cent.
• The highest median donation came from residents of Nunavut, $400 per person, almost twice the Canadian average of $240 per person.
• A quarter of tax filers claimed charitable donations with Manitoba leading at 28 per cent.
So pat yourselves on the back, you one in four tax filers. As for you other three, time to pony up.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Darfur: the first climate-change war?

The conflict in Darfur is complex, attributed to a variety of causes. A seminal cause, according to Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, is the drought of the early 1980s combined with population growth.

Tension between herders and farmers over the same land has long plagued Darfur. As the Earth warms, and evaporation from dry regions like the plains of east Africa increases, shrinking the arable land base, such tensions can only increase. This is a tale of the Earth in microcosm, growing demands on shrinking resources, despoiling the planet as we suck it dry. Richer countries are better at adapting so the effects are less dramatic, at least so far. Poor countries, on the other hand, may suffer disastrously from even small changes in climate.

Proffered solutions to the Darfur conflict focus on military action and politics, and both may be necessary to achieve a peace but, as Sachs points out, a solution will require dealing with the effects of climate change. If they aren't dealt with, any peace will be temporary.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Tony Blair and "moral imperialism"

Some phrases so perfectly capture their subject they are as much epiphanies as words. They are jewels of language. Such a phrase captured my attention while reading a story in The Guardian about British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Iraq debacle. Speaking at a private dinner held by the Fabian Society, Industry Minister Margaret Hodge referred to Blair's penchant for imposing British values and ideas on other countries as "moral imperialism."

As it turned out, the dinner wasn't quite private -- a reporter was present -- and Ms. Hodge's comments made the papers, all rather embarrassing for both the minister and her boss. Apparently she went on at length criticizing the prime minister's foreign policy, claiming she had only supported him because "he was our leader and I trusted him." This was quite the confession from someone who has long spoken out in favour of the war.

But back to Ms. Hodge's penetrating turn of phrase: moral imperialism. As Western nations bog themselves down in Afghanistan and Iraq, indulge Israel at the expense of the Palestinians and hint darkly of preemptive strikes on Iran, this is a phrase that deserves great currency in the foreign policy debates.

Global warming deniers miss the point

If skeptics refuse to accept that human behaviour is causing global warming, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, that in itself is of little importance. Even if governments choose to remain skeptical, it hardly matters. What does matter is that, regardless of their skepticism, they are morally obliged to act as if it's true.

Allow me to offer an analogy. Let us assume CSIS reports to the government that 99 per cent of its agents believe terrorists are planning to plant bombs in Pearson airport that will blow everyone in it to smithereens. Skeptics in the government might very well respond by saying they can round up a number of agents (if CSIS has 1,000 agents, they could round up ten) who don't believe this, who insist it's an unproven theory, and therefore there's no pressing need to do anything. This would, of course, be a profoundly immoral approach. If 99 per cent of the government's experts say the threat is real, then the government, regardless of who it believes, has no moral choice but to act decisively and powerfully to protect the airport. The risk is simply far too great to do otherwise.

With global warming, we are not talking about the security of a few thousand people in an airport, but about the security of six billion people and a good many other species as well. If 99 per cent of scientists believe we are changing the climate, and they do, then governments, regardless of what they believe, have no moral choice but to act decisively and powerfully to protect the planet. With one per cent of scientists to play with, skeptics can easily round up a few dozen to challenge the established wisdom, but that is entirely irrelevant.

So let's by all means debate global warming ad infinitum, but in the meantime the moral imperative is unequivocal: we must act as if it's real.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Did al-Qaeda hustle Bush?

In February 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell committed what would become the most humiliating public act of his career, ultimately ending any hope he had of running for high office. He stood up before the United Nations Security Council and told the world that Saddam Hussein had offered to train al-Qaeda in the use of chemical or biological weapons. The United States knew this, he said, because they had obtained the information from "a senior terrorist operative" who "was responsible for one of al-Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan."

The operative was almost certainly Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda trainer captured in November 2001 and taken to Egypt allegedly to be tortured. It has long been known Libi lied to his interrogators, but the question was why. According to Omar Nasiri, a Moroccan who claims to have been an agent for European intelligence agencies, Libi deliberated planted misinformation to encourage the U.S. to overthrow Saddam. Nasiri claims Libi had told his followers that al-Qaeda had chosen Iraq as the best place to fight the jihad because it was the weakest Muslim state. All that stood in the way was Saddam.

Nasiri also claims jihadists like Libi would never have told the truth if tortured, that they were trained to withstand interrogation and provide false information.

If Nasiri is reliable and the story is true, what a tragic irony. In his war on terrorism, George W. Bush unwittingly collaborates with the enemy, achieving for them what they couldn't achieve for themselves. Given his life-long history of incompetence, we are saddened but not surprised.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Human rights trumps trade: what a refreshing idea, Mr. Harper!

My concern about world trade as we know it, via such organs as the World Trade Organization, is that it seems designed solely for the benefit of corporations. China is a good example. Workers in China have few rights and are denied the basic freedoms. This leaves them wide open to exploitation by employers, and international corporations take full advantage. Even though this provides in effect a huge subsidy for Chinese-made products, it hasn't precluded China from membership in the WTO. The reason, one suspects, is that while it harms workers both in China and those abroad who must compete with this artificially cheap labour, it benefits corporations.

I found it refreshing, therefore, when our prime minister declared he wouldn't allow trade to overshadow concerns about China's appalling human-rights record. He may not be talking about worker exploitation; nonetheless, he is saying the right things. "I don't think Canadians want us to sell out our values, our beliefs in democracy, freedom and human rights. They don't want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar," he is quoted as saying. Amen to all that, sir.

Sadly, I fear the business community will eventually get to him and point out that in the real world of global commerce, the almighty dollar does come first. In the meantime, he has thrown down a gauntlet to the Liberals and the NDP. Do they believe human rights trumps trade? I, for one, will be watching their response to Mr. Harper's challenge very closely.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Punishing the polluters with an international carbon tax

French prime minister Dominique de Villepin's proposal to the European Union to impose a carbon tax on industrial products imported from countries non-compliant with the second stage of the Kyoto Protocol has considerable merit. Indeed it deserves consideration as an international measure. After all, the World Trade Organization has the authority to impose sanctions on countries that violate international trade law, and dealing with global warming is vastly more important than dealing with unfair trading.

Not surprisingly, the rules of the World Trade Organization may forbid such a tax. The WTO, after all, puts trade uber alles. A French spokesman expresses confidence that EU lawyers could circumvent such opposition. Let's hope he is right. If he isn't, if the WTO places trade even above the health of the planet, then we have yet another reason to question its rules if not the legitimacy of the organization itself.

Canada spins into international irrelevance

Only a few months ago Prime Minister Harper announced Canada would be playing a larger role in the world. Judging by a number of articles on the front page of The Globe this morning, the international community hasn't taken its cue.

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference opening in Hanoi this week, the PM had planned on a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, seeking, one imagines, to patch up our fraying relationship with Asia's emerging economic giant. At the last moment, the Chinese announced they weren't interested. This sort of snub does little for either our credibility or our prospects in the fastest growing economic arena in the world.

The French Prime minister, meanwhile, is calling for the European Union to impose punitive import taxes on goods from countries that don't sign on to the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol. There is little doubt we are one of the malingerers he has in mind. If we ever had any influence on this critically important issue, we've lost it.

Yet another article discussed Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor kicking off "a cross-country public-relations blitz" to sell the Afghan war. This is our government's major international effort and it isn't going well either. Quite aside from lagging support for the mission at home, other NATO countries are showing little interest in providing the number of troops we insist are necessary for success -- a quid pro quo, perhaps, for our anemic efforts on global warming.

Economics, the environment, "peace-keeping" -- our role on the world stage seems to be rapidly turning into a bit part.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Pakistan: the next Afghanistan?

Some pundits claim Pakistan is no more stable than Afghanistan. Recent events offer support to that argument.

Two weeks ago, Pakistani helicopter gunships attacked an Islamic school in the frontier region killing over 80 people. The army claimed they were militants. Security officials claimed, furthermore, that the school was run by a local Taliban commander who had been sheltering insurgents and who was among the dead. However, local leaders said many victims were civilians, including children.

The attack has powerful political implications. The deputy chief minister of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province threatened to resign. The attack was also condemned by the provincial assembly. Tens of thousands of armed tribesmen crowded into Khar, six miles from the school, to angrily protest.

Meanwhile, militants promised revenge. Last Wednesday they got it. A suicide bomber gained entry to a military camp northwest of Islamabad and killed 42 soldiers, wounding dozens. Talat Masood, a retired army general and media commentator, called the bombing "the beginning of an insurgency in Pakistan." He went on to say, "We should not be fighting America's war. We have to solve our own problems. If we are dictated to by outsiders it will end up like Iraq or Afghanistan."

If we didn't understand Pakistani President Musharraf's balancing act before, it should be coming increasingly clear. As he said on the Jon Stewart show, he has to be careful a Taliban movement doesn't become a Pashtun movement. We in the West should be careful, too. Very careful.

Australia is burning

Summer has only begun in Australia and already the continent is scorched. The Murray-Darling river system, which provides three-quarters of the water consumed in the country, is flowing at barely half the previous record minimum. Sydney's largest reservoir is only 40% full. Half the country's farmland is suffering drought.

Scientists are predicting it's only going to get worse. Australia's leading scientific body -- the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation -- predicts rainfall in parts of eastern Australia could drop by 40% by 2070 while temperatures rise 7C.

Yet Australia continues to be the world's worst per-capita producer of greenhouse gases while its prime minister refuses to sign on to Kyoto. As our minister of the environment, Rona Ambrose, has kindly assured us, we are not alone in our environmental folly. Some company, however, I would rather not keep.

Want to commit a crime? Try Italy.

Earlier this year, the Italian parliament approved the so-called "indulto" or pardon law. The law, supported by both government and opposition MPs, wipes three years off the sentences of people convicted of crimes before May 2nd, 2006. Some crimes have been excluded but not fraud, corruption and tax evasion.

Almost 25,000 convicted criminals have been freed. The result, critics claim, is a crime wave and a serious blow to fighting organized crime.

But the really interesting part is that the law applies not only to those convicted of an offense but also to those charged but not yet tried. Nonetheless, trials are continuing at great expense even though the judiciary has claimed over 90 % will be pointless because the normal sentence if convicted would be less than three years.

While the law was passed ostensibly to relieve Italy's overcrowded prison system, critics suggest other reasons. A former top prosecutor, Antonio di Pietro, claims it is really an "agreement between the government and opposition to resolve the murky affairs of people close to them." The people with murky affairs include the opposition leader and former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who faces trials for corruption and fraud. The sentences for these crimes would likely be less than three years which means, even if convicted, he would serve no time at all.

There must be a lot of smiling Mafiosi in Palermo these days.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

If only Nancy Pelosi sets a trend

Of all the success stories in the recent U.S. election, one of the most encouraging is San Francisco congresswoman Nancy Pelosi becoming speaker of the House of Representatives, the first woman to achieve that high office, and now second in line to the presidency.

At only 15 per cent, the United States has one of the lowest proportions of women in national legislatures in the Western world. We don't do much better with our 21 per cent, particularly compared to Sweden's 47 per cent. If Ms. Pelosi's achievement influences more American women to run for office, and they are given a full opportunity to succeed, both American politics and American society should be improved. We might see an America with a great deal more concern for social justice and the environment and a great deal less for foreign adventures. A society, in other words, more like Sweden's.

Nancy Pelosi, a lady of great charm and intelligence, has done an impressive job of disciplining her caucus and leading them to victory, perhaps no more than you might expect from a woman who had five children in six years.

She is an inspirational politician who has proven she can work with both liberals and conservatives. Let's hope she inspires many American women to follow her lead.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Britain goes Big Brother

What would George Orwell think? In the famous futurist's native land, Big Brother really is watching. Britain is now among the most spied-upon societies today, right up there with Russia, China and Singapore, according to a survey by Privacy International, a civil liberties group.

The nation has been labeled an "endemic surveillance" society. The average Brit is captured on film about 300 times a day, not surprising in a country with over four million security cameras. And more watching is on the way. The government is proceeding with plans for biometric identity cards and Tony Blair wants to expand the police's DNA database.

According to the
37-country survey, Canada and Germany scored highest for safeguarding liberties. Kind of comforting that.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Iraq as a work of art

According to Major General William Caldwell, chief spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, the country is a "work of art" in progress. According to the general, "Every great work of art goes through messy phases while it is in transition. A lump of clay can become a sculpture. Blobs of paint become paintings which inspire."

The general may be right, but lumps of flesh and blobs of blood are somewhat less inspirational, particularly when they're scattered about the streets.

However, the military aesthetic may differ from that of us civilians. With 1,272 Iraqis killed in October alone, the general must be expecting a masterpiece.

The most expensive painting in the world

A painting by Jackson "Jack the Dripper" Pollock has reportedly been sold at Sotheby's in New York for $140-million US. At $4-million per square foot, this would make it the world's most expensive painting. Entitled Number 5, 1948, the painting was sold by David Geffen, America's 45th richest man according to Forbes, to David Martinez, a Mexican financier.

The artist created the work during his drip period, when he was getting in touch with his subconscious by simply pouring paint onto the surface. Jackson is considered by many to be America's premier artist, the man who broke away from the European tradition.

Still, $140-million is lot of money, even for the drippings of genius.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Way to go, Annie!

Cape Dorset artist Annie Pootoogook has been invited to exhibit at a major art show next summer in Germany, according to the CBC "one of the most prestigious invitational contemporary art shows in the world."

Pootoogook's drawings depict day-to-day life in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. Her work contrasts the older culture with all the trappings of modern living. According to Pat Feheley, owner of the Toronto gallery that represents her, "Annie ... only talks about the life that she has lived -- she cannot talk about anything before her own experience."

Both her mother and grandmother were major Inuit artists, and her work shows their influences.

The Matriarchist congratulates Ms. Pootoogook on attaining yet another honour.

The hungry get hungrier

The good news is that the percentage of underfed people in the world is declining. The bad news is that the absolute number is increasing. By four million a year in fact.

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, the number of hungry people in the world dropped by 37 million in the 1970s, by 100 million in the 1980s, and by 26 million in the first half of the 1990s, but in the last half of the 1990s it began to rise again. One in three people in sub-Saharan Africa lives in chronic hunger.

At the 1996 World Food Summit, the world's leaders pledged to halve the number of underfed people between 1990 and 2015, a target that will almost certainly be missed by a very wide margin.

This is not surprising at a time when the world is growing less food than it eats, reserves are shrinking, and crop yields have stopped rising. Things are not rosy on the world food front.