violence

Violent encounters with random strangers…

This morning on the way to work, I came across a situation and was left thinking of what responses were possible.

An obviously drunk man of about 30 carrying an open tall can of beer in his hand came up to a younger (maybe 16-18 year old) boy and started belligerently berating him on the subway in between stops. He threatened the boy that he would find and later kill him. That revenge is sweet. All sorts of angry banter. The boy sat quietly, looking down at his phone, earphones in, mostly trying to ignore him.

The man then swaggered down the subway car, stopping at least 3 times to yell at other passengers, his voice growing with each passing taunt and his aggression level clearly rising.

The boy looked up at me and the numerous other passengers in the vicinity as the man turned his back and just shrugged his shoulder and shook his head and mouthed– I don’t know him at all.

At first when I saw the confrontation– I had an assumption that the two males knew each other– and had perhaps had some previous violent background (such as gang affiliations), but as the man continuously walked up and down the subway car continuing his anger on other unsuspecting passengers, I realized that this was not the case.

I thought about the possible responses to this I could have taken and weighed each option over in my mind.

The man’s growing anger was clearly making the passengers extremely uncomfortable. The boy seemed seriously concerned, as did the other objects of his anger. Would it escalate? Would it come to the man becoming physically violent? The car sat in silence, people nervously exchanging glances outside of the man’s gaze—and others burying their noses deeper into newspapers, books or electronic devices.

The man had a beer in his hand– so he obviously got past any “security” on the TTC; did he have a knife or other weapon in his pocket? Would he be willing to use it should the situation escalate?

Would any other passengers speak or stand up against his abuses?

Would the man get off at the next stop?

Would anyone alert TTC authorities?

If I said something, what would I say? What would/could I do to de-escalate the situation?

In the end, I did nothing and I felt disappointed with myself at this response. I exchanged glances with other worried passengers, and watched as the belligerent man got off at the next stop.

Situations like this happen and often times fear holds us back from action. Fear held me back from action this morning. I was afraid that my doing something would escalate rather than de-escalate. I thought about trying to calm the man down, but ultimately thought against it, worrying that his response would turn violent against me. Sometimes there is no reasoning with people because they are emotional beyond reason. I don’t know this man and what he’s capable of.

What would you do/say? How would you respond?  How can we step in to de-escalate violent confrontations with strangers in our lives?  Is avoidance the best policy?

Semantic shifts in “terrorism”: the demonization of Muslims in the mainstream media.

The recent terrorist tragedy in Norway has garnered major attention in the news as of late, and also sparked much outrage at the instant accusations launched against Muslims for the attack. The media ran purely on speculation that the attacks were linked to an Islamist group based on incomplete and unverified information, and although the real culprit, a blonde and blue eyed Norwegian, has now been caught, the vast majority of the media has shown that so-called “Islamic” terrorists and terrorists of European descent are treated very differently within their pages. By following the media’s tone and usage of language, one can easily see that the word “terrorist” is now a label that is primarily reserved for Muslims.

On July 22nd, reporters were quick to speculate that Islamists, notably an al-Qaeda linked faction, were likely responsible for the attacks on Oslo that killed some 76 people; that the attack was to “punish Norway for deploying troops in Afghanistan” or Libya and for “unspecified insults to the Prophet Muhammad” (PBUH), including the reprinted series of offensive Danish cartoons in a Norwegian newspaper. Some reporters even went so far as to use the opportunity to defend Defense Spending against jihadists, make outrageous accusations that the “presence of so many Muslims in… Europe… is (in fact) leading to ‘cultural annihilation’”; that those attacked essentially deserved to be targeted because they “sided with Islamic terrorists”, and other strong and rather ridiculous anti-Muslim propaganda.

After it was learned that the terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, was actually Norwegian, wide speculation began that he was in fact a convert to Islam, a radical Islamist, influenced by Islam, or learned the techniques from Islamic terrorists, as if Islamists were the only ones capable of terrorism. Islam was still seen as somehow to blame for this horrendous terrorist action, ignoring Breivik’s claims that he was influenced by a small group of American bloggers and had clearly copied multiple passages of his Manifesto from Ted Kaczynski, the American Unabomber. Former UN ambassador John Bolton even noted how “(t)his kind of behavior is very un-Norwegian” and that it was classic “Islamist terrorism”. As could be expected, the commentary and public reaction was quick to turn this assumed blame into bigoted ramblings about “rag heads“, “Muzzie scum”; calling for borders to be shut against all Muslims, lumping all Muslims together and labeling Islam as a violent hypocritical religion. A few commenters realized the dangers of the impulse to place blame without full knowledge, and spoke out against the biased attacks and rush to judgment, but the vast majority across the media seemed to be intent on anti-Islamic hatred.

A UN human rights expert was quick to condemn the unverified reports, calling them “revealing” and “embarrassing” examples of “the powerful impact of prejudices and their capacity to enshrine stereotypes”, while reiterating that “proper respect for the victims… should have precluded the drawing of conclusions based on pure conjecture”. Despite printing incorrect information, many of the papers issued no public retractions or apologies for their mistake, and some even went so far as to defend the error by suggesting that it was “not unreasonable to suspect the atrocities in Norway were committed by Islamists” under the assumption that Muslims are “predominant” in committing “mass-atrocity”. Many left their publicized mistakes as is, while others quickly changed their previous content without offering apologies, retractions, or even noting the changes publicly, contrary to good journalistic practices.

Besides the initial reaction to blame Muslims, the language used by the vast majority of the media in describing the attacks and the attacker shows how the words “terrorist” or “terrorism” seem now almost exclusively reserved for describing attacks committed by Muslims. A survey of the evolution of articles following the attacks clearly demonstrates this.

For example, Reuters, an incredibly popular and reputable news site that is widely known as a first line of reporting, who describes itself as “the world’s leading source of intelligent information”, fell into the trap of relaying incorrect information and has yet to apologize or retract their mistake. Since the identity of the accused has been released, they have also, subconsciously or not, used language that avoids the “terrorist” or “terrorism” label when describing the Norwegian events.  On July 22nd, Reuters issued an article with the headline “Islamist militant attacks in Europe”, that described all the recent Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe and painted the Norwegian event by clearly framing it as a “terrorist” attack. There were six stories filed about Norway that day by Reuters, five of them extensive in their language suggesting Islamist terrorists, and describing terrorism in general. Only one, with the headline “Man arrested after shootings is Norwegian”, which came out much later in the evening, had no mention of the words “terrorist” or “terrorism”, and instead described the accused as “a gunman” and was now labelling the terrorist attack “shootings”, and “a bombing”.

The next day, on July 23rd, after it was clear that the terrorist attack had been committed by a Norwegian and not an Islamist group, Reuters ran twenty-two articles about the event, of which only two even mentioned the word “terrorism”. In the first case, “terrorism” was only mentioned when describing that Breivik could be convicted of terrorism charges; and in the second case, terrorism was only mentioned to say that the terrorism threat level was not going to be raised, despite a lack of clarity of the attack. Instead of labeling the attack as “terrorist”, it was continually described as “a shooting spree and bomb attack” and the terrorist who committed the attack was constantly referred to as “a gunman”, “an assailant” or “the killer”.

On July 24th, Reuters printed eighteen articles on the Norway terrorist attack, and of those eighteen, only two had mention of “terrorism” or “terrorist” within them. In the first case, the word “terrorist” was only present from an excerpt of the attacker’s diary, where he ironically wrote, “(t)hey would probably get the wrong idea and think I was a terrorist, lol”. In the second case, the word “terrorism” only appeared when talking about the special anti-terrorism unit of the police that responded to the crisis.

On July 25th, Reuters ran an article about the news media’s quick blaming of Muslims, describing the numerous faults other media committed, without one mention that they themselves did the exact same thing, and without apology or retraction of their previous errors. They also ran eighteen other articles about the terrorist attack, of which, only two had mention of the words “terrorism” or “terror attack”. In the first case, the words “terror attack” appear only in a quote from a Norwegian who said “Ninety-nine percent of Norwegians immediately believed this was a Muslim terror attack. When it turned out not to be, that was the second shock”. In the second case, the word “terrorism” only appeared as a description for a “terrorism expert” who was quoted within the article. The attacks were repeatedly described in the articles as a “bombing and mass shooting”, a “shooting spree and bomb attack” or the “massacre”; and the suspect as a “lone wolf”, “the killer”, “mass killer” or “the gunman”.

On July 26th, Reuters filed ten articles, of which, only two had any mention of “terrorism”. In the first instance, which had the headline “Norwegian killer is probably insane, his lawyer says”, “terrorism” was only mentioned to describe that the threat level for terrorism was not being raised. In the second instance, “terrorism” was only used within the context of a quote by a woman of Arab nationality, that said “(i)t turns out that terrorism doesn’t have a nationality or a religion—they’re people who are sick inside”. Again, the articles described the attack as a “bombing and shooting massacre”, a “shooting rampage”, a “bomb attack”, and the suspect as a “killer” or a “gunman”. It was around this time that articles began questioning the sanity of the attacker, with six out of the ten articles mentioning that the accused was likely mentally unstable.

On July 27th, Reuters again filed ten articles about the Norway attack, of which, only two mentioned “terrorism”. The first only mentioned that Breivik would be charged under the terrorism act, while referring to the terrorist attack as the “killings”, and the “bombing and shooting attacks”. In the second, the word “terrorism” is only used to describe a professor who teaches at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence and the word “terrorists” shows up in a quote only after a discussion of al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists. Again, the mentions of insanity showed up in three out of ten of the articles.

On July 28th, Reuters filed two articles on Norway, neither which mentioned terrorism nor called Breivik a “terrorist”. In one of the articles, the charge of terrorism was now referred to as “terror counts”.

On July 29th, Reuters filed six articles, this time four of the six mentioned “terrorist” or “terrorism”. In the first instance, the word “terrorist” was found in a quote by police that called the attacks “terrorist actions”, the first and only time that they were called as such in a Reuters article after Breivik had been identified by the media. In the second, the word “terrorist” shows up when describing efforts by the police to stop “terrorist networks” following 9/11; but that was careful to group Breivik into the less dangerous “lone wolves” category. The word “terrorism” was also used in that article but only to describe the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. In the third and fourth instances, the word “terrorist” is only used in the context of a quote that again reiterated that the terrorist threat has not been elevated.

On July 30th, Reuters issued three articles, two of which carried mention of “terrorists” or “terrorism”. In the first instance, the word “terrorist” was used only within a quote from a police attorney who suggested that the target locations were of “natural interest to a terrorist” without linking Breivik to the word in the slightest. In the second instance, the word “terrorism” occurs three times within the article, once within a quote and with all three cases talking about the threat of global terrorism and immigration.

Between August 1st and 3rd, there were four articles on the situation, only one of which mentions “terrorism” and only in the context of Breivik facing possible charges of terrorism. The other three articles again discuss Breivik’s possible insanity.

For the sake of comparison, let’s look at the terrorist attack in Sweden on December 11th, 2010 that injured two people, and killed the attacker, and how that attack was framed by Reuters. On December 11th, before the suspect was known, Reuters ran six articles, two of which talked of “terrorism” or “terrorists”, and another three that were only short headline clips with updates and not full articles. On December 12th, of the five articles Reuters ran, all five talked of “terrorism” or “terrorists”, while four described the attacker as a “militant” or referred to “militant Islamists”. Three of those articles also had a variation of “terror” within the headline. On December 13th, seven of the ten articles spoke of “terrorism” or “terrorists” and six spoke of the attacker being a “militant” or an “Islamist militant”. On December 14th, one of three articles posted spoke of “terrorism”, while painting the attacker as an “Islamist militant”. From December 15th to 17th, three out of four articles referred to “terrorism” or “terrorists”, while three spoke of “Islamist militancy” or “militants”. Not one of the articles discussed the sanity of the attacker. Reuters was not alone in this type of semantic slanting as many other reputable news sites discussed the situation in a similar context.

So what is “terrorism” exactly, and why has the media been avoiding using this term when describing Breivik’s actions?

The US Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological”. Breivik’s actions were an unlawful use of violence to inculcate fear, with the intention of coercing or intimidating the society to pursue political and ideological goals, clearly falling within the definition of terrorism. So why are his attacks not being labelled as such? Why are they frequently referred to only under other terms and without the qualifier “terrorist”? Why does the media seem to preserve this term for only those of purported Islamic faith? Why does the media not look into the possible mental instability of Islamic terrorists after their attacks, but automatically assumes that a white European must be insane to carry out such an attack? Why are the terms “gunman”, “killer” or “attacker” used when discussing Breivik and not “militant”?  As Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations noted “(u)nless it has been committed by a Muslim, it’s not terrorism. If a non-Muslim commits an act of terrorism, they don’t call him a terrorist. They say he was ‘a madman’”.

So what? What difference does it make if the situation is framed in these terms? What danger did this speculation do?

Besides spreading fear and loathing for Muslims in general, which can clearly be seen by the ignorant commentary that follows most of the initial news stories, this type of language essentially assigns collective guilt to an entire group of people. Following 9/11 or the Stockholm, Sweden attack in 2010, racial profiling became more prevalent, as did violence against those of Islamic faith. Following the Norway attacks, Muslims faced increased harassment, or outright attacks on their person, even though, those who commit such terrorism in the name of Islam are a fringe, and mostly disrespected, teeny-tiny percentage of global Muslims. In fact, anyone who has actually read the Qur’an or studied it in any great depth can tell you that it clearly states that it is wrong to kill innocents and also wrong to kill oneself. Yet, the actions of a small few is manipulated and misunderstood by the general Western public, who prefers to frame all Muslims as their enemy and Islam as a religion of violence, without actually researching enough to dispel themselves of their own ignorance.

What about that common axiom that “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”, there must be something to that that leads to the necessity of profiling against Muslims in the Western world, right?

Despite data to the contrary, many are still under the impression that Muslims are responsible for the bulk of terrorist activity in Europe and North America. The FBI Terrorism Report that covered acts of terrorism in the United States from 2001-2005, reported that twenty-three of the twenty-four recorded terrorist incidents were perpetrated by domestic terrorists. Eight of the fourteen recorded terrorist preventions (when a terrorist activity is successfully interdicted by investigative activity) stemmed from “right-wing extremism”; while of the remaining six preventions only  three stemmed from foreign terrorist organizations and only one from a “Muslim” group.  In both their 2006 and 2007 reports, not one US fatality was reported as the result of a terrorist attack on American soil. According to Europol reports on European terrorism, in the years 2007, 2008 and 2009, there were only three recorded acts of terrorism by “Islamist” terrorists out of a total of 1,316 terrorist attacks, while domestic “separatist” movements were responsible for some nearly 90% of attacks.“Islamist” suspects were only arrested in 110 of the total 587 arrests for suspicion of terrorism, while 413 suspects were considered domestic “separatists”. In fact, their report showed that “leftist” groups accounted for over sixteen times as many terrorist attacks as radical “Islamic” groups during this time on European soil. A recent study has also suggested that the actual  terrorist threat posed by radicalized Muslim-Americans has been severely exaggerated and that only approximately 17 Muslim-American individuals could be classified as becoming radicalized per year. Despite this information and  threat assessment reports that had warned that “right-wing extremism” was on the rise in Europe and that there was some in Norway, the Norwegian PST police security service concluded that “far right groups pose(d) no ‘serious threat’ to Norway”, instead claiming that their number one priority was with “Islamic extremism”.

So why are those in the Western world so willing to place the blame squarely at Muslims? Clearly, if it was ok to profile against Muslims following previous attacks, we can now ““start racially profiling blond, blue-eyed white guys… Fair is fair.” Right?

Europol's 2006 Terrorist Attack by Type of Terrorist

Europol's 2006 Terrorist Attack by Type of Terrorist

Europol's 2007 Terrorist Attacks by Type of Terrorist

Europol's 2007 Terrorist Attacks by Type of Terrorist

Europol's 2008 Terrorist Attacks by Type of Terrorist

Europol's 2008 Terrorist Attacks by Type of Terrorist

Europol's 2009 Terrorist Attacks by Type of Terrorist

Europol's 2009 Terrorist Attacks by Type of Terrorist

Islamophobia seems to be rising with the decline in domestic economic conditions. It’s a typical scape-goat senario—things aren’t going well at home—someone is responsible, and it can’t be us. Germany, France and Britain have all recently declared multiculturalism in their respective countries as a failure. In all three cases, these leaders cited a lack of a strong nationalist identity as fostering “Islamist extremism”. This trend also seems to be happening in Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada, the US, Australia and all across Europe, with anti-immigrant political parties gaining steam in elections and intolerance for immigrants or Muslims moving more into the mainstream. Obviously, the military and political interference throughout the Middle East has very little to do with fostering Islamist extremism; multiculturalism, the acceptance and tolerance of other cultures and diversity, is clearly at fault here. Sadly, a political editor for a Norwegian newspaper points out that, “It’s impossible to discover a person like Breivik. If you see his blogs, he sounds quite normal. He’s anti-multi-culturalism, anti-Islam, but strange to say it, … I’ve seen much crueler words and slogans on the Internet than his blogs”. It’s unsurprising that this type of hatred and scapegoating can lead to violence.  Constantly being told that a certain group is going to attack  and that your very way of life is threatened can tend to have this effect. Norway, was no exception and there were a number of warning signs that these hateful sentiments were beginning to escalate into physical violence.

In June 2007, Pamela Geller, posted an “email from Norway” that talked of a Norwegian anti-immigration extremist who was “stockpiling and caching weapons, ammunition and equipment” to ward off the Islamist “threat”. In March of 2011, the Norwegian Police Security Service published in its annual threat assessment that “a higher degree of activism in groups hostile to Islam may lead to an increased use of violence”, though was still viewing Islamist extremism as a larger threat to society. In May of 2011, a junior high school in Bergen, west Norway, received a threat that a student, claiming to have a weapon, had the intention of shooting others, “especially Muslims”. Luckily, the incident did not escalate past the initial threat, but it clearly showed that anti-Muslim sentiment was becoming more violent. Weeks before the Oslo attack, in late June, Pat Condell made a public claim that “all the rapes in (Oslo) over the past three years—all of them—were committed by Muslim immigrants using rape as a weapon of cultural terrorism”, after a news report on Norwegian TV station NRK reported that all rapes were committed by men of “foreign origin”. The police report that they cited shows that their information was in fact, faulty, as more than 50% of all rapes were committed by those of Norwegian, other European or American origin, but the damage had already been done. Just as it is hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube once it has been squeezed out, it is hard to dispel the stereotypical myths of evil and perceived threats once claims have been made, no matter if they are untrue.

While humans are certainly fallible and capable of making mistakes, the lack of apology  for or retractions of those mistakes, especially in a profession like journalism that supposedly seeks “the truth” of a situation, is unforgivable. Journalistic standards call for the verification of sources, not that personal or cultural biases can’t slip in, but that a consistent method be used to test information to ensure it is as accurate as possible. Journalists also have the responsibility, as much as possible, to avoid misrepresenting a situation or using stereotypes. In this case, the media ran with a single source of information that was based upon a single, unverified posting on a closed forum by an unknown author that even the expert who discovered it cautioned against trusting.

Language is everything in the media, and semantics and word choice makes a huge difference to the quality of the story that is being told. The media was blamed for its quick accusation of Muslims in the Oslo terrorist attack, but what has been largely ignored is the continual semantic culpability that is lumped on Muslims and the long-term effects that this can have in demonizing the Muslim population. If the media continually frames Muslims as the only ones capable of committing terrorism, it can be no surprise if public opinion is also swayed in this way.

UPDATE: “The National Secular Society” has been replaced by “Pat Condell” as the source of a quote after a reader corrected this error.

 

See Stephen Colbert and his incredibly appropriate “Norwegian Muslish Gunman’s Islam-Esque Atrocity” video:

More Canadian involvement in conflict minerals: Violent Attack on Peaceful Protesters Near the Marlin Mine

Hello all! Hope all is well!

My friend Rachel (who authors the fabulous blog under-mining Guatemala about mining abuses within the country) just posted the following blog post, which I had to share with you. Check out her fabulous blog if you get a chance.

Peace!

Rebecca


I received the following letter from Rights Action today concerning an attack on peaceful campesinos protesting the lack of compliance with a May 2010 order from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights to suspend Goldcorp’s Marlin Mine, in Guatemala.

Below it, I have included 2 letters I drafted quickly in response. Feel free to copy-paste the first, and send it to Goldcorp (addresses included). Then forward it to the government and, if you like, include the second letter I include below.

URGENT CONCERN FOR SAFETY OF HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS OF SAN MIGUEL IXTAHUACÁN FOLLOWING PEACEFUL PROTESTS
We denounce the human rights violations and abuses committed today against peaceful protesters in San Miguel Ixtahuacán, Guatemala.  The protest, demanding compliance with precautionary measures ordered by the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights regarding the Marlin mine, took place without incident during the day.  In late afternoon, participants returning from the peaceful roadblocks were reportedly confronted and attacked by community development council (COCODE) members and mine workers in San José Ixcaniche.
According to participants in the protest, Miguel Angel Bámaca and Aniseto López were beaten and threatened with lynching; one bus including approximately 40 men and women have been illegally detained and some beaten in the community of San José Ixcaniche.  As this alert is being written, they remain detained.  We are deeply concerned that the lives of human rights defenders are at risk.
Contact has been established with the local Human Rights Procurator’s (PDH) office, the local Presidential Commission for Defense of Human Rights (COPREDEH) and police, as well as national and international organizations to report these acts.
We ask you to stay alert and be ready to respond when more information and action requests are available from local organizations supporting communities resisting unjust mining in Guatemala.
In solidarity,

Francois Guindon – pancho@nisgua.org – +502 4014 7804
The Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, USA
Cynthia Benoist – collectifguatemala3@gmail.com Collectif Guatemala,
France Jackie McVicar – jmcvicar@gmail.com Breaking the Silence, Canada
Grahame Russell – info@rightsaction.org  – +502 4955 3634
Rights Action, Canada/USA

Here are two letters I drafted quickly in response. Feel free to copy-paste the first, and send it to Goldcorp (addresses included). Then forward it to the government and, if you like, include the second letter I include below.

Send to Goldcorp CEO: Chuck.Jeannes@goldcorp.com

CC: Kim.Keras@goldcorp.com,
Tim.Miller@montana.com.gt,
Dina.Aloi@goldcorp.com,
david.deisley@goldcorp.com,
Jeff.Wilhoit@goldcorp.com,
Directors@goldcorp.com,
jamess@montana.com.gt,
lisa.wade@montana.com.gt

Dear Mr. Jeannes,

I am very concerned with the events I’ve just heard of, that occurred today near the site of your Marlin Mine, in Guatemala.

I understand that an outbreak of violence occurred this afternoon against a group of primarily Mayan-Man campesinos, peacefully protesting the fact that neither your company nor the government of Guatemala has yet complied with a May 2010 order from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights to suspend Goldcorp’s mining operation.

Miguel Angel Bámaca and Aniseto López were beaten and threatened with lynching; one bus including approximately 40 men and women have been illegally detained and some beaten in the community of San José Ixcaniche.  I am deeply concerned that the lives of these individuals who remain detained are at enormous risk.

Whether or not your mining operation is directly linked to this latest bout of violence, the indirect link is clear, and I await your response on how you are mitigating this violent situation. Further, I am joining the chorus of voices within Guatemala and international who are calling for a suspension of the Marlin Mine.

Forward the above letter to Leeann McKechnie, Canada’s ambassador to Guatemala, who can be reached at:

karin.reinecke@international.gc.ca,
jennifer.chacon@international.gc.ca,
gtmla@international.gc.ca

CC:

info@gg.ca,
DMousseau@gg.ca,
HarpeS@parl.gc.ca,
cannol@parl.gc.ca,
kent.p@parl.gc.ca,
ducepg@parl.gc.ca,
laytoj@parl.gc.ca,
emaytowin@greenparty.ca,
ignatm@parl.gc.ca,
RaeB@parl.gc.ca,
LalonF@parl.gc.ca,
DewarP@parl.gc.ca,
bagnell.l@parl.gc.ca,
days@parl.gc.ca,
julian.p@parl.gc.ca,
SorenK@parl.gc.ca,
Allison.D@parl.gc.ca,
Marketa.Evans@international.gc.ca

Dear Ambassador Leeann McKechnie,

Please find below the email I have sent to Goldcorp, expressing my concern over the violence a number of peaceful protesters near the Marlin Mine faced this afternoon. They were protesting the fact that neither the company nor the government of Guatemala has yet complied with a May 2010 order from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights to suspend Goldcorp’s mining operation.

Immediately following their peaceful protest, Miguel Angel Bámaca and Aniseto López were beaten and threatened with lynching; and one bus including approximately 40 men and women was illegally detained in the community of San José Ixcaniche.  I am deeply concerned that the lives of these individuals who remain detained are at enormous risk.

In addition to my concern for these individuals’ personal safety, I am shocked and dismayed by the failure of your embassy, and of the Canadian government at large to urge this Canadian company to comply with the May 2010 order from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.

I await your response on how you are working to ensure the safety of these  peaceful campesinos. Further, I ask that you join the chorus of voices both within Guatemala and internationally who are calling for a suspension of the Marlin Mine.

Sincerely,

Politicizing the holidays. Maouloud in Côte d’Ivoire.

Today in Côte d’Ivoire there is public holiday; at least for some. Others will take the holiday tomorrow.

Sadly, the holiday to commemorate the birth of the Prophet (peace be upon him), known as Maouloud/Mawlid (and numerous other spellings), is now being used as a political weapon between Gbagbo and Ouattara’s camps. On Monday, Imam Idriss Kudu Kone, chairman of the National Islamic Council (CNI), declared Tuesday the paid holiday, which was supported by the Gbagbo government. However, Sheikh Fofana Boikary, Chairman of the Higher Council of Imams in Côte d’Ivoire (COSIMA) announced that Wednesday would be the paid holiday, the date backed by Ouattara’s government.

The date of the holiday typically fluctuates within the Gregorian calendar, as it is traditionally set according to the lunar Arabic calendar that doesn’t run its months in the same fashion. Sunni Muslims typically celebrate 5 days earlier than Shi’as. There are also commonly other date variations depending on the country and cultural beliefs of the person. Burkina Faso, for example, celebrate their public holiday this year on Wednesday (the same date as COSIMA), but in several other Arabic countries, such as Mali, and Lebanon the holiday this year falls today, Tuesday (the same date as the CNI). Saudi Arabia does not have a public holiday at all, and some sects also abstain from celebration altogether.

The altering dates however, have caused some stir among the local population. Managers and owners of industry and business must give their employees one day off with pay, but both Presidents are stating that their date is the “proper” date that must be legally followed and many employees are angered that they are forced to work on their day of rest. The result has been divisive. One’s sympathies become much more apparent publicly, as they must chose when to work or not to work, when to worship or not worship. It’s a hot topic of conversation at the moment and I’ve listened as numerous verbal conflicts have ensued around me.

And of course, the local papers are awash with the same slanted political rhetoric I’ve come to dread; one side alleging that the CNI Imam is working to divide the Muslim community while sitting in Gbagbo’s pocket, the other is filled with rumours that Burkina’s President collaborated with Ouattara to create a controversy. Conspiracies and rumours run wild. This was supposed to be a holiday, a day of rest. Now it is another wedge in the community. Another block between people.

I’ve heard countless stories lately of families breaking up over politics in this country. The economic effects are crippling on many families, as food and goods prices have all skyrocketed. Exports are slowed, imports are slowed. Banks are closing. I’ve also heard now from those in some of the neighbouring countries who say they are also feeling the economic effects.

Moves like this continually force politics into the public sphere, manufacturing cultural violence that only eventually fuel violent structural policies that are exclusive or insensitive to some parts of the population, in turn only creating more incidences of direct violence as people become incensed at the inequalities. Frankly, I’m disappointed to not see more attempts at lessening the cultural violence within the country. So far, I’ve read tons of suggestions and strategies aimed at economically hurting Gbagbo, using military invasion, using mediation between the leaders to lessen the crisis; but where are the strategies aimed at healing the divisions being created within society? Where is the funding and aid being directed to peacebuilding projects? There are a few organizations like the Search for Common Ground (SCG) in the country trying to do just this, and they have been having relative success. SCG’s balanced radio program is currently a voice of reason in a sea of escalating propaganda and their conflict resolution strategies for land conflicts have shown to be quite effective.

Lately, I fear this country may just end up split in two. Getting Gbagbo out of power will not instantly heal this country, as land conflicts, majorly corrupt justice systems, disenfranchisement of certain populations in certain areas, slanted media that marginalizes moderate voices and numerous other cultural, economic and sociological factors are at play here, working to divide the population. It makes me wonder why the focus for de-escalating conflict within the international community seems always directed at the political and economic sphere. There always seems to be a focus on the macro, to the detriment of the micro. Leaders come and go (and sometimes stay longer than we’d like), but the lingering effects of the cultural and structural conflicts that are manufactured remain for many years to come.

 

Is peace a possibility for Cote D’Ivoire in 2011? Part 1.

This past month or so has been a particularly stressful one for me. I have been living in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire for most of the past year and have watched as the country has been sinking deeper and deeper into violence and intense propaganda. Sadly, I’ve found I no longer believe a word I read in both local and international news, as I have read “news” that is in direct contrast to what I have seen and heard with my own eyes and ears. The stories seem to be escalating the situation further and further, and I’m finding myself extremely frustrated that everything seems to be so one-sided (either pro-Ouattara or pro-Gbagbo). It hurts me to think I have posted articles and comments that are seen as even slightly defensive of Gbagbo in the international sphere in an effort to elicit some form of balance in the reporting, as I have been (and still am) heavily critical of him. It hurts to try and have discussions with locals within Abidjan in defense of Ouattara, to try and bring reason to fervent Gbagbo supporters. I hate playing the “other-side” game in response to one-sided arguments, but I think it’s important to try to play devil’s advocate with those die-hard supporters who only paint one side of the story. Frankly, I wish both presidents would move on and allow a fresh batch of politicians that aren’t tainted with past violence to step forward to take the country to a more peaceful future, but this is not reality.

I was last here in 2004, during the previous civil war and saw the violence as it spread and resulted in the intense hatred of all things foreign. It was sometimes scary and devastating to watch. I heard many horrific personal stories from friends of the violence they experienced at the time. Despite this, I was ecstatic at the opportunity to come back here. I love this country. I love the mostly kind and friendly people I have encountered here. I love the rich culture and delicious food. I love the countryside, the beaches and the thick, lush forest. I love the way of life here, barring the corruption that sometimes makes things difficult. It’s a beautiful country with a lot of really amazing treasures.

The November 28th presidential elections resulted in a political crisis, with two different entities announcing two different results. Both Presidents were sworn in, in separate ceremonies and the country has been awash with reports of violence and violent-rhetoric ever since. The crisis didn’t really begin here; it has been festering for many years but it is now looking likely to outbreak into civil war, political assassinations or exiles and further inter-group hatreds.

Though I have been writing detailed personal notes throughout this situation, I must admit that I have been fearful to publish anything on the situation in the past few weeks. After writing a critique of the nearly unanimous support for Ouattara (the opposition) demonstrated by the international community on this site and several posts on the subject in a few other forums, I received some rather scary death threats from one person and many comments that broke my non-violence, non-discrimination, non-racism policy. I decided to take a bit of a break from posting on the subject.

The results of the elections sadly, is no longer even really relevant to the discussion. Whoever “really” won did so in a circumstance of intimidation and irregularity that can be attributed to both parties, depending on where one is situated in the country (with Gbagbo-supporters being intimidated mostly in the north, and Ouattara supporters being intimidated mostly in the south). The events that have happened since have only worsened the possibility of the “truth” being told. Propaganda has run wild, with increasingly violent-rhetoric being spread among both state and opposition media. Any probing of results or investigation at this point will be lost behind propaganda I’m afraid.

There has been acts of violence and the country is at real threat of returning to civil war, which it never fully recovered from in the first place. At least 150 are confirmed dead, and probably somewhere closer to several hundred. Dozens (and perhaps many more) have disappeared, and hundreds are said to have been arrested. Many thousands have fled to neighbouring Liberia, escaping violence in the south perpetrated mostly by Gbagbo-supporters, alleged mercenaries and the security forces; and violence in the north perpetrated mostly by Ouattara supporters and the Forces Nouvelles. Further investigation is needed to assess the refugees and their experiences of violence.

Some 120,000 Liberian refugees reside within Cote D’Ivoire, thousands of Burkinabes, and other West Africa refugees; and there have been hints from some sources within the UNHCR that suggest that many of those flooding out of Cote D’Ivoire are these long-term refugees who have long worked the system. They are appearing heavily at the UNHCR border office rather than being evenly distributed throughout Liberia or other neighbouring countries (this is taken from both personal communications with officials and comments made to Chris Blattman from a UNHCR official). I do however believe, that even if these refugees “know how to work the system”, they are still experiencing violence, as foreigners are often scapegoated during domestic troubles.

Regardless of who these refugees are and where they came from, they must be assisted and resettled with caution. The increase of people into Liberia, itself prone to instability, leaves an already burdened population with more mouths to feed and endangers peace in that country as well. Armed groups have been cited crossing borders to intimidate refugee populations and take the conflict to new populations as they do. Instability in the region could easily pass borders if things in Cote D’Ivoire worsen.

Besides the refugees, there are many foreigners with money who have decided to return to their home countries by more planned means (via plane with actual luggage) as their embassies sent messages urging them to quit the country before more violence came. This has had some effect on the local economy, although it appears many major business owners will be staying and instead sending their wives and families back home.

Nearly half the population was already unemployed before the conflict began and the vast majority lives on little more than $1 a day. Those that work often support large numbers of people on their meager salaries. Many workers have been laid off since the crisis, and the prices of food staples has doubled. As the population becomes more food and job insecure, so the risk for conflict increases. Strikes called by Ouattara’s camp affected some of the services of the buses, gbakas (minbuses) and taxis for a few days, but as most of the population is living day to day, long-term or full out striking is extremely unlikely. Most can simply not afford to take the time off without severe repercussions to themselves and their families.

Rallies have been held and marches planned. Ouattara’s march on the RTI television station ended without real success and resulted in much-expected clashes between security forces and protesters. Despite the violence, Ouattara was calling on his supporters to continue the attempt the following day, again without success. He has since repeatedly warned Gbagbo of imminent consequences should he not back down immediately, though it is difficult to administer consequences when one is backed into hiding and the consequences have yet to be seen. The notorious Ble Goude (Gbagbo’s Youth Minister) has been busy rallying up Gbagbo supporters and spinning them into an angry frenzy, readying them for the moment he can unleash them to try to take the Golf Hotel (where the Ouattara camp is currently residing under UN and Force Nouvelles protection) by force. Two major marches planned by Ble Goude have been canceled the night before they were even begun, allegedly to prevent further violence (though they were called using the extreme violent-rhetoric Goude is famous for).

The local political humour paper Gbich has taken the opportunity openly mock both candidates and their behaviours, much to my enjoyment. However, in the serious papers (both state and opposition); violent, inciting rhetoric makes me skeptical of the veracity of anything printed inside and angered that more peaceful dialogue is not the popular option. Rumours of local media intimidation by Gbagbo forces haven’t stopped most opposition papers from writing, as they can still be found daily in many places around the city. I’ve personally been threatened by a pro-Ouattara supporter, so I know that the intimidation definitely goes both ways, but I can also say that I fear writing anything hyper-critical of either candidate should the situation deteriorate further.

On the streets, during the day time, things are pretty normal. The streets and markets are crowded with people again going about their daily business, though people are still cautiously stocking up on supplies and keeping an eye out for any signs of coming danger. The police in many parts of the city have even returned to using radar to ticket speeders. I’ve found no trouble or signs of blatant violence while traveling throughout the city in the past two weeks, except for roadblocks and neighbourhood patrols in a few districts at night. In fact, on New Years eve, I traveled throughout several districts (including both known pro-Ouattara and pro-Gbagbo districts) and saw drunken partying, fireworks and dancing as if nothing was wrong.  I couldn’t sleep that night as the music, cheering and fireworks of those partying around my apartment blared in through my windows.

I have detailed some of the local situation and the underlying tensions that exist in this post. I will discuss in further detail some of the proposed “solutions” to the crisis and the effects I see coming from those in the next post.

The Empathic Civilisation

I read the book The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin about a year ago and found his arguments compelling. Rifkin explores the evolution of empathy and how it has changed our society over time. He argues that despite all those who have exclaimed that humans are hardwired for aggression, violence, war and narcissism; human beings are actually more biologically hardwired to have empathy towards others and that based upon our past expansion of empathy (from tribes to nations and other groups) there should be no stopping us from expanding that empathic connection to include all of humanity, other life forms and the biosphere.

I have just found this beautiful little video that covers his argument in an easy to understand, concise form. I think it’s a great message that we can hopefully use to begin to connect humanity in new ways. I hope you will enjoy it!

What does climate change have to do with conflict? Part 2

In my previous post, I discussed the key concerns that will exacerbate conflict in fragile states during climate change from the Initiative for Peacebuilding’s report on climate change, conflict and fragility. This post will reflect on the policy and adaptation recommendations for reducing conflict risk.

The report outlines five main policy objectives for reducing climate-induced conflict:

1)  Adaptation needs to be conflict- sensitive

2) Peacebuilding needs to be climate-proof

3) Shifts toward low-carbon economies must be supportive of development and peace

4) Steps must be taken to strengthen poor countries’ social capacity to understand and manage climate and conflict risks

5) Greater efforts are needed to plan for and cope peacefully with climate-related migration

Ensuring these policy objectives requires a fundamental shift in the way institutions are organized and the way inter-linkages between organizations are addressed. Institutions responsible for climate change adaptation need to be structured to maximize the participation of ordinary people and focus at the local level to hedge against uncertainty. This includes disseminating information in ways that ordinary people can understand and utilize.

The first step that is necessary is to undergo a large-scale systematic study of the likely costs of adaptation that includes both the social and political dimensions. This study needs to be done in tandem with thinking about how that money should be used, what governance and institutional changes must be made and considering the role of actors from development and peacebuilding communities, as well as the private sector in adaptation. These sectors must work with existing structures to create more adaptable institutions that are able to draw on shared research, ensure the right people know how to access the right information, interpret the information, communicate it in the field and are able to adapt and evolve to accommodate uncertainty. These new institutions must consider things holistically, by wrapping issues of climate change, conflict and governance, poverty and livelihood all together.

Discovering how power is organized within the current structures will help in the building of new structures that can alleviate the privileged access to economic and political opportunity, and ensure that the provision of goods and services does not become a corrupt money making scheme. Good governance means increased resilience to violent conflict or poverty. In many cases this will mean not merely how are institutions “presently organized (to) meet the challenges of climate change,” but rather “how should institutions be organized in order to meet these challenges?” It becomes a case of adapting development to adapt to climate change. Separating development and adaptation funding is fundamentally misconceived as cooperation across and between sectors is necessary for any real chance at success.

Many rich countries will be simultaneously shifting to low-carbon economies to meet demands on climate change adaptability. This shift must be peace-friendly and supportive of the adaptive development happening in poorer countries. For example, a switch to bio-fuel in richer countries caused food prices to rise by 30% in 2008, which directly caused violence in over 30 countries. This type of shift will be counter-productive.  Migration must also be dealt with in a responsible manner, with immigrants seen as an asset for local society rather than a burden in their new areas.

Internal incentives for receiving funding within existing donor institutions are frequently based around meeting quantitative targets rather than qualitative issues that might be more appropriate. Establishing rules, norms, guidelines and incentives that reward for innovation will better equip a country to manage uncertainty. Large-scale humanitarian responses will be necessary on top of the restructuring.

This report outlined the necessary adaptation needed in fragile states, but completely neglected that of powerful states, which are susceptible to climate conflict as well. One needs only look to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the southern US states six years after Hurricane Katrina to know that even rich states are often ill-equipped to deal with weather crises. If these crises are compounded and not isolated to one location within a nation, or result in large-scale destruction of entire areas, even rich states may be unable to deal with the crises that emerge. The expectations in richer states for action is higher, therefore state failure may be reacted to with all the more intense violence. Informing the public of options and creating local structures able to deal with uncertainty are necessary to hedge against this type of crises in richer states as well.

What does climate change have to do with conflict? Part 1

The Initiative for Peacebuilding’s report on climate change, conflict and fragility covers policy recommendations and adaptational capabilities that will be necessary to hedge off violent conflict in fragile or weak states.  One needs only see the example of the Haitian earthquake, the current flooding in Pakistan or even the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in the southern US to know that extreme weather can have an effect on peace and security in an area. Whether or not you believe climate change is caused by man-made global warming makes little difference; major weather patterns are currently disrupting areas where peace is fragile at best or where war may already be full-blown. Massive death or displacement of people, combined with state fragility, means overwhelmed security services and government systems, and a lot of angry people who feel completely abandoned.  The impact is felt the greatest among the poorest and most vulnerable members of society who have little means to escape and inequitable access to necessary resources. This inevitably heightens the risk of violent conflict in an area.

Current international negotiations on reducing global warming and responding to climate change almost entirely ignore the aspect of this heightened risk of conflict. Development and humanitarian workers are rarely well informed about the security implications that climate change will have for their work and so adaptation is not being included in long-term rebuilding or restructuring policies within organizations. These potential conflict implications are one of the most compelling arguments for richer states to take serious climate change action as the costs will be massive from loss of life, livelihood and humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping perspectives. Current estimates of costs range from $49 to $380 billion per year by the year 2030, without even taking into account private sector and peacebuilding problems. However, over-stating the conflict dimension can lead to oversimplification and inaccurate perceptions of security which risks overlooking cost-effective and sustainable options in favor of high cost and likely ineffective militarized ones. The key remains in shifting the way institutions are organized, their ability to cope with change and the way they are interlinked with one another.

Managing water supply is vital. Not only is it necessary for human life, but water shortages also affect agriculture causing increased food insecurity, especially for the poor.  The risks to human health from both water borne diseases caused by poor water management and inadequate diets caused by food insecurity will put increased pressure on already strained medical and government resources. Water shortages and food insecurity often lead to violent conflict where poverty, weak governance, political marginalization and corruption reign supreme. Climate change will only exacerbate this problem as already fragile systems become even more overburdened.

Migration of people increases the likelihood of conflict, as newcomers are seen as an unwanted burden that compound social pressures or even transfer conflict from one location to another. Attempting to block immigration with regulations and physical barriers may exacerbate the conflict risk. Migration will be primarily to urban centres, which will increase the strains of maintaining livelihoods and many of the current mega-cities are already in low-lying coastal areas which are at long term risk from rising sea levels. Changing climate will result in the fluctuation of the supply of key resources, which will in turn affect land values and will present money-making opportunities for the already rich and resourceful. Social and economic consequences will not be randomly or “fairly” distributed among the population—in most cases, the rich will get richer while the poor will be the ones to suffer.

Current natural science knowledge is also unevenly distributed and used, with the richer countries having greater access than the poorer countries. Lack of information leads to poor policy making and weak adaptation, which means there is a greater chance of conflict. For example, the UK currently has over sixty different climate change models to work with. Nepal, who has for the past several years been experiencing severe weather changes, has none.

So how can fragile states deal with these inequities and potential conflict risks? In the next post, I will detail the report’s recommendations for adaptation to climate change.

There are no innocent victims.

North Americans and Europeans love to victimize people. We love to package the poor forsaken souls of the “third world” as “helpless”, in need of our savior, and of course as “innocent victims” who then essentially have no voice or control in their own lives. This is simply a fallacy that will lead to more destruction and violence in the long run.

One thing we often misunderstand is that there really are no “innocent victims”, except for maybe babies and small children (but then again, who’s to say of the evil they committed in womb or in their tiny minds??). There are people who have experienced misfortune in their lives. There are people who are poor. There are people who have had terrible things happen to them. To label a person as victim– in my opinion– only re-victimizes. It belittles their experience and makes the actor helpless. Takes away their control, their personal choice and agency in their own lives. Instead of being actors in their own life, they are merely pantomiming someone else’s script. That of their “saviour” who expects them to behave in a certain way to receive assistance.

Look to the very definition of the word “victim”:

  1. one that is acted on* and usually adversely affected by a force or agent
  2. “one that is injured, destroyed*, or sacrificed under any of various conditions”
  3. “one that is subjected to oppression*, hardship or mistreatment”

(*emphasis added)

My grandmother used to tell me that someone can not oppress you unless you let them. Sure, they can enslave you. They can beat you senseless. They can make you do degrading and horrible things– but they can never oppress your mind unless you give them that power. It’s easy enough to say, but much harder to live under extreme conditions. Still, there is truth there. There are many who rise up out of what some would call extreme oppression and do not feel “oppressed”– crushed by the abuse of power– but rather they feel empowered by it. Enraged into action by it enough to even oppress their oppressors.

“Innocent” is also a relative term. Does a person deserve to be raped or tortured or killed because of their own wrongdoing or guilt? Does it matter the level of guilt or wrongdoing? Do they become more deserving of rape or torture if they say injure someone as opposed to simply lie about something? What if they severely injure someone, or even kill them? Do they deserve it then? Do they become deserving of death if they merely spout hatred or have racist feelings in their hearts?  There is a scale of innocence that varies greatly depending on one’s background and belief system. If a person doesn’t injure, steal or hurt anyone directly, does that make the person completely uncorrupted? Completely without sin? Is one only a victim if they are completely “innocent”. Are they only worthy of assistance if they are uncorrupted?

Take for instance the Rwandan genocide in the mid-90s. Humanitarian aid poured in for the poor helpless refugees flooding into the neighbouring countries. Many of these “helpless refugees” were also mass murders who openly admitted their willing participation (page 25) in the slaughter of their countrymen. They were also dying by the thousands of dysentery, cholera, starvation and other such things and painted as “victims” to the outside world. Their innocence was played up with pictures of their young children beside them, their swollen bellies and sad stories of hardship. But were they all really “innocent”? Would they still have received our sympathy, our assistance and our money if we were told they were murderers? Did we really only “rescue” them so that they could continue to oppress and murder others in the future?

People can not be separated from their politics, but when it comes to those in disaster or war zones, we infantilize them and make them apolitical. We infantilize those in need to ease our own morality about helping them. In doing so, we further jeopardize the political situation that is happening on the ground. We take sides with the “victims”, even though they may be less “innocent” than their oppressors. We help them overcome their perhaps temporary “victimhood” allowing them to gain strength over their opponents. In doing so, we perhaps create more “victims” in the future.

Do we feel better about ourselves feeling that the “victims” we help are “innocent”? It certainly eases the mind. One wouldn’t want to think of giving a Hitler or a Pol Pot aid so that they can could continue their crimes, yet this type of thing does happen in humanitarianism.

So what’s the answer? How do we avoid making a further political or humanitarian nightmare while still assisting those who need help?

Lately, I’ve been reconsidering extreme non-intervention and wondering about the possibilities of such an action. It is intervention to militarily invade a country, but is it not also an intervention to take on the function of the government by providing services such as health care or education through the work of international NGOs? How much is humanitarian intervention really helping and how much is it really harming in the long run?  Many NGOs are extremely corrupt and wasting money, but evade responsibility due to their so-called “philanthropic” spirit. Others can be compared to colonial imperialism (on page 60 and 243, also Chomskey and Delany among others ), justifying their takeover of a country on humanitarian grounds much as the colonial powers justified taking over Africa to “save” the poor “savages”.

Now I know that if tomorrow all humanitarian assistance were to be removed from trouble zones, massive chaos would erupt; but we also can’t expect them to stay forever either. So many governments now feel they can neglect their own people, knowing that NGOs and international assistance will come in and fill the gaps and that the international aid will continue to flow as they line their own pockets with little chastisement.

Instead of a government capable and willing to actually take care of its people, the population are left with a patchwork of services that are reliant on continual funding streams that may or may not be there in the coming years. Now those receiving assistance are perpetual “victims” in need of help, who will be reliant on handouts instead of their own capabilities (and they ARE capable). Instead of working towards securing small patches of land for these people, where they could grow their own food and be sustainably self-sufficient, NGOs rush in with handouts of western food assistance that only helps to continue western domination in agricultural markets.

So quick is the western world to jump to judgment of conflict in fledgling nations that are struggling to fully etch out their boundaries and constitutions, little remembering that their own struggles for independence were fraught with wars, slavery and massive human rights abuses. Let’s not forget that slavery was still alive and well in the US for nearly a century after independence and that its Manifest Destiny resulted in brutally conquering Mexicans, British settlers and Native Americans. And can we also not forget that American Independence came on a wave of warring and human rights abuses such as the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War of 1846-8, the American Civil War, the American Indian Wars and the Trail of Tears, the women’s suffragette movement, and the civil rights movement to name a few. And in Europe, the current nations were only made through war and rights abuses; the Battle of Trafalgar, the Finnish War, the Spanish Peninsular War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Belgian Revolution, the November Uprising in Poland, the Carlist Wars in Spain, the Spanish Inquisition, the 1848 Revolutions in Europe, the Crimean War, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, and even WWI and WWII.

But yet, we feel it necessary to rush in and chastise those fledgling countries for doing exactly what was done during our nation-building processes because we have suddenly decided on a new sense of morality? Nations have been built on human rights abuses and war, as opposing interests struggle to etch out their own ideas of how to control their country and homogenize their ideas through slaughter and suppression of the opposition. Yet, we expect so many countries, barely 50 or 60 years old and left with brutal, segregationist colonial legacies to set aside their differences and now live in harmony according to OUR standards? Sounds an awful lot like continued imperialism to me. Do as we say, not as we did.

These nations do not need our continued meddling. They need time to develop their own governments free from external pressure to “democratize” and create “free” markets. Interventionism has so far not really proven to create more human rights respecting states. If anything, many governments have become more corrupt on the western aid dime. We continue to fund many proven brutal dictators with vast streams of cash flow and no accountability so they can increase their power, while those in need suffer at their hands. Will the dictator be the one to pay the debt he incurred? Hardly. We then swoop in to “save” those who suffer, spending even more money in humanitarian ventures that will again help line the dictator’s pocket. How is this “helping” anyone?

It’s time to stop meddling and trying to “save” the “innocent” victims and instead looking to our own problems that may be helping to contribute to wars and human rights abuses in other parts of the world. The inequitable and unfair privilege of certain states or communities within the international community. The inequitable policies of the international financial organizations and trade organizations, based in and primarily backing the “richer” nations at a disadvantage to the “poorer” nations. The “richer” nations’ increasing need to consume and pollute the planet that will result in war and death across the globe. The increasing state repression and rescinding of rights that is being found in Canada, the US, and Europe. The discrimination, racism and slavery that still occur across Europe and North America. The North American, European and international systems are still far from being peaceful and respectful of rights, and perhaps we should clean up our own act before we judge others for theirs.

International Day in Support of Torture Victims

Objective:
A day to celebrate and support torture victims and stand united against this cruel violation of human rights.

26 June was the day that the Convention against Torture came into force. It was also the day that the United Nations Charter was signed – the first international instrument to embody obligations for Member States to promote and encourage respect for human rights.

To mark 26 June, torture rehabilitation centres and other human rights organisations around the organise a multitude of events. On the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims’s website, campaign tools, information, materials and suggestions are made available for all who want to join us.

http://www.irct.org/about-us/what-we-do/awareness-raising/day-against-torture-on-26-june.aspx

Freedom Flotilla and Israeli rights of self-defense

So, in the past I have neglected to write directly on Israeli/Palestinian issues because of the overwhelming hatred and backlash that seems to follow anything that is written on the subject and the claims of bias, antisemitism, brainwashing or worse. I feel now, however, that I should write something, since the “facts” I keep reading are often ludicrous and so shrouded in propaganda that I’m frustrated beyond belief and have been ranting non-stop on the issue since the attack took place. I’m going to try my very hardest to be as impartial as possible… though, given the situation, this will be difficult for me.

On May 31st, 2010, a flotilla destined for Israel’s Gaza strip was embarked by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), resulting in the death of at least 9 people (other reports I’ve seen say at least 19) and injuring many more. The exact numbers of deaths and injuries so-far remains shrouded in secrecy. The remaining 400 or so (again, I’ve seen other reports as high as 610) people on board were immediately escorted and allegedly given a choice to be instantly deported, or be detained and possibly imprisoned in Israel. Many simply refused to give their names or identification and will be detained. One hundred and twenty have so far been deported and the rest are said to be held in Beersheba or being given care in hospitals throughout the country. The attack happened in international waters, some 70-150 km off the coast of Israel (again, disputed reports), an act which has subsequently been called piracy by many onlookers. But Israeli military spokesperson Avital Leibovich has stated that the attack may have “happened in waters outside of Israeli territory, but we have the right to defend ourselves“.

The question remains whether this ship was bound for violence or an actual humanitarian venture. Some claim that the so-called humanitarians are actually Hamas supporters bringing in weapons, who intended the outcome, and perhaps even opened arms on themselves; self-sustaining their injuries to gain sympathy for the cause. They even show the terror of a dozen or so kitchen knives, utility knives, wrenches and other “weapons” on board the ship that could have potentially brought harm to the fully armed and trained IDF. Grainy videos show some people (we’re told IDF forces) being attacked by supposed grenades and other such weapons, but it’s hard to really tell the true situation from just these few minutes of video. Others see this as a massacre, just another blatant misuse of force by the Israeli forces, who are taught to shoot first and ask questions later.

What does appear clear to me is that the flotilla was looking for a protest demonstration and had decided that a confrontation would gain them the most international media, which is why they continued towards Israel while the five other ships in their convoy were halted and inspected without incident. Did the passengers expect the level of violence they received and were they ready to defend their cargo at all costs? This remains to be seen.

The passenger list of the ship, however, opens these thoughts to scruitiny. According to Turker Kaan Cetin who was released from Israeli custody along with her 13-month-old-baby, about half the people on the boat were women. The ship was also said to be transporting many renowned world leaders and approximately 10,000 tons of humanitarian supplies. Would Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire, former US Representative Cynthia McKinney, 81 year old former US ambassador to Mauritania and deputy director of former US President Reagan’s White House task force against terrorism Edward Peck, two German MPs, a retired US army colonel, and lawmakers from a dozen European countries be on a mission to supply Hamas with arms? Would these people submit to opening fire on and attacking the Israeli Defense Forces with such violence? Would such a ship have the blessing and endorsement of Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu? Maybe. It is possible that the ship also contained terrorists and commandos who accompanied these leaders with the intent to discredit Israel. But what would these leaders have to gain from being associated with such violence? Why would they submit to such action willingly?

So far, it seems that the contradicting videos of the incident can not definitively say who attacked who first aboard the ship; however we must remember, the Israeli military stopped, boarded and attacked a Turkish-flagged ship in international waters. Normally this type of action could be seen as a blatant act of war. The only reasonable justification for boarding a ship in international waters is if the ship causes an imminent threat to the state (ie. it is about to bomb the state or other such extreme military action), and in that case, the action taken against the ship must be absolutely necessary and proportionate.

Some reports suggest that the passengers were barraged with bullets even as they waved a white flag of surrender. Did the ships passengers have the right to defend themselves from such an attack? Or did the IDF have the right to invade the ship in international waters to protect themselves and their country? Had the IDF stopped the flotilla within the 3-mile limit covered under maritime law, the flotilla’s resistance could have been prosecuted under both international and Israeli law and the passengers would have had no leg to stand on. However, it did not happen in this manner.

Claims were made that the 10,000 ton shipment posed a risk to Israeli security. So what was actually found in that shipment? Children’s toys, medicines, text books, wheel chairs… but so far, no weapons have been revealed as part of the shipment in the media. Some have charged that the contents of the shipment were not the issue, but rather the flotilla’s denial of explicit offers to deliver the aid through land crossings so that it could undergo scruitiny and inspection to ensure Israel’s safety. Many would argue that much needed supplies are routinely stopped at the borders and denied to the Gazan citizenry and that they only way to get the materials to those in need was to break the blockade.

Israel’s deputy Defense Minister has hinted that Israel sabotaged the other ships that were scheduled to accompany the Freedom Flotilla, while the Israeli PM paints the blockage of the flotilla as a “clear case of self-defense“. Interestingly, the PM also suggests in his statement that Israel has “no argument of fight with the population of Gaza. We are interested in allowing them to continue their regular routines.” The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, however, seem to show otherwise, with reports that 61% of Gazans are “food insecure” and that the level of anemia in infants is as high as 65.5%. Other UN statistics show that about 70% of Gazans live on less than $1 a day, 75% rely on food aid and 60% have no daily access to water. Much of the population remains unemployed and thus have no money to buy supplies for themselves. They live in what has been called the world’s largest open-air prison, unable to move freely or have free access to many of the necessities of life. The UN resolution 1860 calls for the unfettered access of aid and commercial goods to Gaza, although it would appear this call has been mostly ignored by the Israeli government’s blockade. An apparent 15,000 tons of supplies reaches Gaza each week, but clearly, this is either not enough for the 1.5 million Gazans, or is not reaching those who need it most. Since this debacle, Egypt has open the Rafah border crossing, which has been closed since 2007,  to allow medical and humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip, and enable those in need of medical treatment to pass through.

Israel has lost many of its “friends” with this action, most namely its last real Muslim ally, Turkey. The ship was heavily populated with Turkish citizenry, was waving a Turkish flag, and most of the dead and those now being held are thought to be of Turkish nationality. Since the attack, the Turkish government has recalled its Israeli ambassador, canceled their joint military exercises and warned of unprecedented and incalculable reprisals. They have vowed that further supply vessels will be sent to Gaza, only this time they will be escorted by the Turkish navy. The Turkish government has also called on the US to condemn the raid and support their fellow NATO-member against this “act of aggression” (much as the US called upon NATO to assist them after the 9/11 acts of aggression). If Turkey were to invoke the NATO charter in this case of what they call a blatant attack, and the US were to ignore it, it would surely mean an end to NATO. All is not lost however, as the planned delivery of $180 million worth of Israeli-made Heron drones will still make their way to Turkey. Good thing they still care enough about each other to share war devices.

Despite the propaganda that surrounds this issue, UN ambiguity in wording of their resolution calling for a credible investigation into the killing leaves the possibility of Israel investigating themselves in their possible crimes. US deputy UN ambassador Alejandro Wolff, “We are convinced and support an Israeli investigation, as I called for in my statement earlier. And, have every confidence that Israel can conduct a credible and impartial and transparent, prompt, investigation internally.” Clearly, the only way to get to the “truth” would be if the investigation were done by an independent, impartial body, but sadly, it appears the truth will never be told and those responsible may never see justice.

A second ship, the MV Rachel Corrie (named for the American activist murdered by bulldozers demolishing Palestinian homes in Israel in 2003) is still bound for Israel, carrying more humanitarian goods for the Gazan population. We can only hope another such tragedy does not occur this time around.

Halifax Initiative Mining Map- Mandatory not Voluntary

Here is copy of the Halifax Initiative ‘s mining map. It highlights some of the atrocities happening in Canadian mines all around the world.

Mandatory not Voluntary. Regulate Canadian Mining Companies Overseas!

Below are some of the legislative and corporate initiatives to stop mining abuses. These efforts are only a start and truly need to be increased. They are not enough to stop the violence.

In Canada:

Act respecting Corporate Accountability for the Activities of Mining, Oil or Gas in Developing Countries

In the US:

Conflict Minerals Trade Act of 2009

Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009

In the EU:

Global Witness pushes for legislation

Some of the corporations:

Congo tracking project aims to end IT industry’s use of “blood tin”

Supply chains unite to start iTSCi mineral traceability project in DRC

Global e-Sustainability Initiative

Part I: Summary of Human Rights Watch- World Report 2010

Human Rights Watch recently released their latest Human Rights Watch Report  for 2010.

As I read through the list of countries profiled in the report, I found myself disappointed that Canada, the UK, Australia or any Western European countries had not made the list. I have read reports of almost all of these governments committing human rights violations  or allowing their companies to do so and the populations of these nations do still experience routine violations against human rights. In fact, considering these countries have signed numerous conventions and incorporated human rights laws more thoroughly into domestic laws than most of the rest of the world, their breach of them is all the more abhorrent and worthy of reporting. I thoroughly respect the work that organizations like Human Rights Watch do and I understand that Human Rights Watch is limited in their scope and resources as indicated in the end of the first report; so in no way do I mean to undermine the work that has been done to compile this report. I simply wish that it would cover the entire world and not just pieces of it.

The main violations of concern in the report this year are described in four sections followed by individual country reports. These sections are as follows:

1) The Abusers’ Reaction: Intensifying Attacks on Human Rights Defenders, Organizations and Institutions

2) Civilian Protection and Middle East Armed Groups: In Search of Authoritative Local Voices

3) Abusing Patients: Health Providers’ Complicity in Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment

4) In the Migration Trap: Unaccompanied Migrant Children in Europe.

I will cover the details of the report over the next little while in a series of posts. The first post will address the first section of the report.

Intensifying Attacks on Human Rights Defenders, Organizations and Institutions.

Putting a spotlight on human rights violations can be risky, and often those who defend human rights face extreme abuse, imprisonment, harassment, intense intimidation and even death. Organizations fighting this fight have been suppressed, denied funding, shut down and worse. Russia received a great deal of attention for its attacks on human rights defenders. Many victims reported cases of arson, arbitrary detention, disappearances of loved ones, torture, and brutal executions in Chechnya and other parts of the country. Also specifically mentioned in this section was Kenya, Burundi, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Malaysia, India, and Uzbekistan. Several states were also listed as completely closed or restricted for activism. At the top of this list are Eritrea, North Korea, and Turkmenistan. Burma and Iran bar international human rights groups completely. Saudi Arabia will not acknowledge NGO supporting human rights promotion and clamps down tightly on any who speak out. Danger in Somalia makes human rights monitoring essentially impossible. Libya allows international visits but completely suppresses any independent civil society. Syria will not license any human rights groups and prosecutes those who push for registration. Indonesia prohibits international human rights groups to visit to certain areas of the country, as has Israel into the Gaza strip. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam all refuse to allow access to UN special procedures, including on torture and human rights defenders. As does Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Zimbabwe and Russia have also prevented the special rapporteur on torture from entering their respective countries. Sudan has shut down human rights organizations and expelled several international humanitarian NGOs working in Darfur. China closed the Open Constitution Initiative (a legal aid organization) because of controversy over Tibetan protests and melamine-poisoned milk that sickened hundreds of thousands of children.

Other governments have been accused of openly harassing, detaining or attacking human rights defenders including Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Cambodia, Syria, and Yemen. The governments of Columbia, DR Congo, Sri Lanka, and Nicaragua have been accused of using threats of violence to deter or punish human rights defenders. Russia, Ethiopia, India, Israel, Jordan, Uganda, Turkmenistan, Libya, Venezuela, Peru, Cambodia, Rwanda, Kyrgyzstan and Egypt have all been accused of creating restrictive laws on NGOs and associations in an attempt to restrict the monitoring of human rights. China, Iran and Syria have all disbarred lawyers, refusing to renew their professional licenses to prevent them from representing victims of human rights abuses. China, Uzbekistan, Rwanda, Iran, Morocco, Serbia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka have been accused of trumping up criminal charges to silence human rights defenders.

The report then details the efforts made by some leaders to silence or curtail the activities of the International Criminal Court (ICC). After the ICC issued an arrest warrant for sitting Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the African Union (AU) adopted a resolution urging African states to not cooperate with the arrest proceedings. The AU accused the court of unfairly targeting Africans, even though no objections were raised when the court indicted several warlords and the African governments themselves had requested the court to open the investigations. The ICC has also been hampered by the lack of ratification in the areas it is most needed, namely Sri Lanka, Iraq, Gaza, and Chechnya and a seeming double-standard that allows major Western powers and their allies to escape impunity.

The UN Human Rights Council is also described as problematic. The report demonstrates the bias and subjective nature of inquiries into human rights violations. Regional solidarity reigns in voting procedures over human rights principles, with members convinced to ignore their domestic principles for their allegiances to repressive neighbouring governments. Repressive leaders at the Council seemed determined to silence voices of dissent whenever possible. Similar problems have occurred within the UN NGO Committee, who has the power to decide which NGOs are able to gain “consultative status” and the right to speak before UN bodies. Several governments who are extremely restrictive towards NGOs seem to actively seek membership within the Committee to ensure that certain voices are silenced. For example, a Christian group from China was rejected for refusing to provide a list of its Chinese members, an action that would have severely endangered the lives of those involved. Another group, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, was denied the right to speak because it had not complied with Ethiopia’s new stringent civil society laws.

The European Court of Human Rights has repeated issued rulings against Russia (more than 100) for the abduction, torture, and execution of the people in Chechnya, and failing to properly investigate the crimes. Russia has refused to implement structural reforms ordered by the Court, as well as share relevant documents with the court in over 40 cases. The Russian government continually postpones visits by the rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on human rights situations in the North Caucasus and has so far faced little consequence.

The ASEAN Commission on Human Rights was highlighted as a potentially positive new institutional development in the eastern world. Launched in late 2009, the 10-member Association vowed to adopt a “constructive”, “non-confrontational” and “evolutionary” approach to human rights, however, its non-interference policy ensures that member states cannot be monitored and investigated properly, giving each state the right of veto. Engagement with civil society remained repressive as each state was allowed to chose the civil society organization it wished to be part of an “interface meeting” on human rights.

More vigorous governmental defense of human rights activists and institutions is necessary, even in the face of abuse by allies. The attack on those who would defend human rights is an attempt to silence. The world cannot sit silent in the face of abuse. Voices must be heard. Human rights is a relatively new concept on the earth, but is one that must be vehemently defended if our rights and freedoms are to be respected.

Please read through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Is there anything written there that you wouldn’t want for you and your family?

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The DR Congo, MONUC and Joseph Kabila.

MONUC, the UN’s mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will sadly soon be coming near an end, even though the country is arguably home to one of the most deadly and violent humanitarian crisis the world has ever seen. In December 2oo9, the UN extended their mission to run until May 2010 and have spent this time discussing plans for withdrawal. Recent talks suggest the troops will most likely stay past Congolese president Joseph Kabila’s hopeful June 30, 2010 deadline until the least devastating exit strategy can be fully devised. This will probably delay a full withdrawal until at least 2011.  The UN troop’s effectiveness and the necessity of their continuation in the country has been hotly debated. Congolese President Joseph Kabila calls for their immediate departure. Human Rights Watch has accused MONUC of complicity in massive abuses against the local population. Locals protest the UN headquarters, tell rumors of lizard-eating UN troops, and the abandonment of many bastard children parented by MONUC workers should they pull out of the country. Yet there is an obvious necessity for some stability as the local population is in desperate need of protection from wide-spread violence and an incredibly corrupt government system.

President Kabila has been asking the troops to leave now for years, claiming things are getting better and that the government can manage on their own, however the poor human rights record in the DRC would suggest otherwise. The atrocities happening in the DRC rival any crisis and brutality our planet has ever seen, yet seems hidden in the media behind violence in Afghanistan, Iraq or the Sudan. The DRC has been wracked with war for more than a decade, pushed to the brink after colonial independence, decades of poor despotic governance, enormous global theft of resources, and the violent militias fueled by ethnic hatreds spilling into the country following the Rwandan genocide. It is still enraged in severe violence with as many as 45,000 people dying each month from war or war related causes.  The violence has not diminished over these last few years. In fact, if anything, it seems to be increasing. According to OSCHA (the UN office for the coordination of Humanitarian affairs), violent incidents against aid workers increased 26% in the first six months of 2009 compared to 2008. They also report that security incidents in Goma were up 44% and up 63% in North Kivu over the past year. People are still dying at alarming rates, with mass violent atrocities regular, daily occurrences. One would be hard-pressed to find a person who hasn’t been personally affected by violence in the country. Yet, it seems to drop from our view here in North America so easily.

The UN mission in the Congo is the largest and most expensive in history with now more than 20,000 personnel on the ground. 150 UN personnel have lost their lives since the mission’s inception in 1999.   These troops have been accused of atrocities ranging from rape and murder, to assisting local militias and rebel groups in their massacres and have faced protests at the UN doorstep in extreme anger and frustration by local populations who feel they are not being fully protected. We cannot forget that despite all this negativity these troops have also been credited with protecting thousands of local Congolese on a daily basis who would surely die if not for their presence and assistance; they have also had their hands essentially tied by vague mandate and lack of funding. Millions and millions of locals have died (at least 5.6 million in the past decade and probably much more than that), millions more have been displaced, many tens of thousands have been raped (if not more) and these atrocities still continue daily in the most brutal fashion. More than half of the remaining 55 million people in the country are children who are vulnerable to recruitment into fighting factions, are subject to a lack of access to education, malnutrition, or other major human rights abuses, which makes long-term peace increasingly difficult. If these children grow up in constant violence and war, how can they ever know peace?

The peacekeepers’ are under a Chapter VII mandate which allows them to take “necessary action, in the areas of deployment of its infantry battalions and as it deems it within its capabilities, to protect United Nations and co-located JMC personnel, facilities, installations and equipment, ensure the security and freedom of movement of its personnel, and protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.” Their role on paper is essentially to provide stability, security and protection in the country while monitoring human rights abuses and assisting in disarmament, demobilization, resettlement and reintegration of rebel troops. The mission is clearly flawed as violence keeps increasing around them. By supporting the Congolese government, the UN peacekeepers are routinely found being complicit in operations that could be construed as war crimes. Peacekeeping is not enough for this mission. The corrupt government, police and army systems meant to protect are often accused of raid, rape, abuse and murder and the communities propagandized to continual vengeance by rumors that separate and demonize entire ethnic populations. Peacemaking, peacebuilding and regulation of government systems are a necessity on top of the peacekeeping force if any semblance of peace within the country is to be established.

President Joseph Kabila has been a controversial leader of the DRC since 2001. Taking control after his father’s assassination, he was elected as president three years later. His history (including even his age) is highly debated and the subject of great rumor. His lineage and parentage are also debated. Many local rumors claim he is the son of a Rwandan who was adopted by Laurent Kabila after his marriage to Joseph’s mother (Laurent was said to have as many as 13 wives and more than 25 children). There are also many claims of Joseph’s relation to and alliance to Rwandan forces, as he is feared as a puppet of Rwandan President Paul Kagame with an eventual plan to occupy and annex the eastern Kivu provinces from the Congo. Joseph spent many years of his life in neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda, making his life even more of a mystery to many Congolese citizens. He was commonly known as the commander of the famous army of kadogos (child soldiers) in his father’s campaign to oust the Mobutu regime. Kabila is also said to have studied at the Makerere University in Uganda and the PLA National Defense University in China. He had to change the Congolese constitution in 2006, lowering the eligibility age for elections from 35 to 30 so that he could himself run for office legally. His government troops have been accused of mass atrocities and continuing violence that seem to go unpunished. Despite this violence and lack of accountability, his government continues to receive extensive funding and assistance from many foreign sources.

The IMF has loaned over $502 million to the government of the Congo, requiring with it a roll-back of government services that have had some devastating effects. The World Bank and many other agencies continually supply the Congolese government with financial assistance, despite claims of massive human rights abuses by governmental parties. The DRC currently owes billions in debt from Mobutu’s dictatorial period with interest payments consuming more than 10% of the government budget each year, although talks are currently underway to try to reduce this debt. CIDA, Canada’s international development agency funnels over $30 million per year to “political and economic governance” programs with little accountability and transparency of where this funding actually goes. Natural resource wealth is the prime fuel for much of the violence including that earned from uranium, cobalt, coltan, gold, copper, tin, zinc, diamonds, and tantalite often found in many electronics products or packaging for products such as cans. Rebel and government groups battle it out for control of resources; a single mine able to provide them with upwards of $20 million per month in profit, enough to fund more weapons, power and control. The Chinese, Belgians, French, Canadians and Americans (among others) all have a vested monetary interest in the country and often take the opportunity to politically maneuver the government for their own interests.

Refugees returning to the Kivus are adding to the tensions as local politicians and rumor say the returnees are not Congolese Tutsi but rather Rwandans who have never even lived in the Congo. They are accused of throwing locals off their land, fueling further ethnic tensions and hatred in the region. Armed militias for several different ethnic groups who claim to “provide protection” for local and refugees populations are themselves accused of mass rape, murder, forced recruitment of soldiers (including child soldiers), and using slaves to illegally exploit minerals. There is little place to really turn for protection. The intense violence has caused dwindling humanitarian services (see also here, here, here, and here) that will surely diminish even further if the UN does withdrawal.

Something must be done to stop this violence. Proper oversight of natural resources is an absolute necessity combined with awareness in consuming nations to pressure the change within North American, Chinese and European consumption and lending habits. UN withdrawal will only bring more devastation, murder and abuse to the civilian population and must be avoided at all costs.

Please speak out against these crimes to anyone who will listen and be aware of what you purchase as you may be much more connected to this war than you might think. If you would like to read more about conflict resources in the Congo, please read about my quest for a conflict free laptop.

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Some hope for the future.

In Canada:

Act respecting Corporate Accountability for the Activities of Mining, Oil or Gas in Developing Countries

In the US:

Conflict Minerals Trade Act of 2009

Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009

In the EU:

Global Witness pushes for legislation

Some of the corporations:

Congo tracking project aims to end IT industry’s use of “blood tin”

Supply chains unite to start iTSCi mineral traceability project in DRC

Global e-Sustainability Initiative


Misconceptions surrounding the Afghan detainee issue in Canada.

“Human rights commissions, as they are evolving, are an attack on our fundamental freedoms and the basic existence of a democratic society…It is in fact totalitarianism. I find this is very scary stuff.” (Stephen Harper, BC Report, January 11, 1999)

I have heard so many rumors and comments as of late and I wanted to address some of the major misconceptions that I so frequently hear about the Afghan detainee scandal. PM Stephen Harper’s recent proroguing of Parliament has been linked by Canadian media to the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan interrogations into allegations of the torture of Afghan prisoners after they were handed over by Canadian Forces to Afghan authorities. The handing over of prisoners to torture is in breach of international laws and conventions, Canadian laws, as well as the technical agreements for the Canadian mission in Afghanistan that could result in possible war crime charges for some officials in the Canadian government. Michael Byers and William A. Schabas have formally requested the ICC investigate these allegations after pleas to apply the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms during the armed conflict in Afghanistan in the Federal Court of Canada, were denied. Sadly, the vague nature of the international laws makes justice illusive.

Firstly, I completely disagree with some of the statements I have heard that essentially say that discussing the issue or calling for an inquiry on these allegations is tantamount to not supporting our troops. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The international laws and conventions that prohibit torture or handing over prisoners to torture are in place to protect soldiers and those involved in war. Ignoring international conventions and laws not only disgraces our public image and any moral ground for our military intervention anywhere, but also puts all our soldiers at greater risk.  How can our government expect to invoke these laws for our own troop’s protection when they don’t have respect enough to follow them or investigate internal breaches fully? I will repeat my favorite comment from Brigadier-General Kenneth Watkin during the November 4, 2009 Committee meeting, “Respect for the rule of law is an essential aspect of Canadian Forces operations. Fostering respect for the rule of law is a key reason why we are in Afghanistan.

I would like to clarify that it is not individual soldiers who would be held responsible for war crimes, but rather those who ordered the troops and officials to ignore international laws. If you have doubts of this, please refer to the history of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and its proceedings. Brigadier-General Kenneth Watkin further details who has this authority in the Canadian Forces, “The decision to transfer such persons rests with the Canadian Commander of Joint Task Force Afghanistan and is made on a case-by-case basis.”

Secondly, some seem to believe that direct proof of torture must be found before we are to stop transferring detainees to Afghan officials. This is simply untrue. Those handing over prisoners or detainees “must be satisfied that there are no substantial grounds for believing that there exists a real risk that a detainee would be in danger of being subjected to torture or other forms of mistreatment“. Suspicion of torture is enough. Was there any suspicion of torture?  I think it is fairly clear that there was. Here is just one report by Graeme Smith from 2007. Amnesty International also reported on these concerns (and took the matter to the Federal Court of Canada), as did the Independent Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, Mrs. Ouimet of La Presse, the U.S. State Department, several UN reports and the Red Cross. Even General Hillier has suggested that he knew of allegations of torture when asked, “Were you aware of those reports about torture in Afghan prisons?”  he responded “yes, absolutely. You could not not be aware.” (November 25, 2009), but these reports were dismissed without full investigation or follow up to ensure the laws were being properly respected.

Sadly, there have also been allegations that there was a scripted cover-up ordered by the PM and allegations of intimidation of witnesses and the obstruction and interference of Committee work by Government officials in the Committee in the House of Parliament. I quote from the above document, “That the Committee believes a serious breach of privilege has occurred and members’ rights have been violated, that the Government of Canada, particularly the Department of Justice and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, have intimidated a witness of this Committee, and obstructed and interfered with the Committee’s work and with the papers requested by this Committee.” This does not sound like the behaviour of leaders. It sounds like the behaviour of criminals. For shame. The truth must be told and any problems immediately rectified. According to the Parliamentary Journals (see particularly under the sections labeled “Business of Supply”) the majority of the house voted in favor of being supplied with access to uncensored documents currently being withheld by members of the government invoking the Canada Evidence Act (YEAS: 146, NAYS: 143). Despite this majority vote, the documents have yet to be supplied. The Committee must continue and investigations to prove or disprove the allegations must be made. Richard Colvin recently put forth this document to refute some of the evidence that was brought out during committee. Colvin has stated that he sent several emails about the issue that went ignored, with those in charge claiming that they never received emails from him that detailed anything about possible torture.

Thirdly, I have heard the excuse to the effect of, “what were they supposed to do about it, they had little choice but to hand them over”. This is also simply not true. As mentioned below in the Committee meeting from November 18th, 2009, other countries in a similar position have acted in a more responsible manner. Please read up on the actions of the Dutch and British armies in relation to our actions (it’s lengthy so I won’t quote it all here). Clearly, there was a choice and the choice made was to ignore international laws.

I urge you all to actually read the transcripts of the evidence as it is quite substantial and in parts quite disturbing. You can find the full disclosed details of the Afghan committee here.

You can watch the Richard Colvin testimony here:

I have chosen to highlight some of the evidence before Parliament that I feel is incredibly important to not overlook.

From November 4, 2009:
Brigadier-General Kenneth W. Watkin (Judge Advocate General, Department of National Defence– the legal adviser to the Governor General, the Minister of National Defence, the Department of National Defence, and the Canadian Forces, in matters relating to military law.): “Torture is abhorrent and can never be tolerated. The prohibition against torture is a peremptory and non-derogable norm of international law. The transfer of detainees to a real risk of torture or ill-treatment is contrary to international humanitarian law, also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict. It is a specialized body of law that governs the conduct of Canada, its officials, and its military forces during the armed conflict in Afghanistan. The policies and procedures put in place by the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan and the legal test that must be satisfied before detainees can be transferred are all meant to ensure compliance with these international legal obligations.”

” The technical arrangements expressly state that, [d]etainees would be afforded the same treatment as prisoners of war. Detainees would be transferred to Afghan authorities in a manner consistent with international law and subject to
negotiated assurances regarding their treatment and transfer. The reference to detainees being afforded the same treatment as prisoners of war does not mean they have the status of prisoners of war. Rather, it demonstrates that we
are extending well-established and comprehensive international law protection for such detainees.”

“The court found that under the technical arrangements the detention of persons adverse in interest or providing support in respect of acts harmful to the Canadian Forces and coalition forces, and the transfer to Afghan custody of such persons, is to be carried out in accordance with international law. Prior to transfer, detainees are held in a temporary Canadian facility on a multinational base. The decision to transfer such persons rests with the Canadian commander of Joint Task Force Afghanistan and is made on a case-by-case basis.”

“The legal test that must be met before a detainee can be transferred by the Canadian Forces to Afghan authorities, and this was confirmed by the Federal Court of Canada and the Federal Court of Appeal in the Amnesty case, is clear: the commander of Joint Task Force Afghanistan must be satisfied that there are no substantial grounds for believing that there exists a real risk that a detainee would be in danger of being subjected to torture or other forms of mistreatment at the hands of Afghan authorities.”

“…that there is no “legal no-man’s land” concerning the transfer of detainees to the Government of Afghanistan. International humanitarian law applies. Canada has “applied” the words of that code by making arrangements and establishing procedures to guarantee that detainees transferred by the Canadian Forces are protected.”

And my personal favorite: “Respect for the rule of law is an essential aspect of Canadian Forces operations. Fostering respect for the rule of law is a key reason why we are in Afghanistan.”

From November 18, 2009:

Mr. Richard Colvin: “What was the nature of our detainee system in Kandahar? Perhaps a good place to start is to compare our practices to those of our principal NATO allies in southern Afghanistan: the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. What we were doing differed in five crucial respects.

First, we took and transferred far more detainees. …As of May 2007, Canada had transferred to the Afghan authorities six times as many detainees as the British, who were conducting military operations just as aggressive as ours and had twice as many troops in theatre, and we had transferred twenty times as many detainees as the Dutch.

Second, we did not monitor our own detainees after their transfer. Again, unlike the British and Dutch, Canada’s memorandum of understanding on detainees, signed by General Rick Hillier in December 2005, had no provision for our own officials to follow up on what happened to our detainees after they were handed to the Afghan intelligence service, the NDS, or National Directorate of Security.”

” Instead, our detainee system relied upon two human rights groups to monitor the well-being of detainees after transfer: the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, or AIHRC, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Unfortunately, the AIHRC had very limited capacity, and in Kandahar were not allowed into the NDS prisons. So for the purposes of monitoring our detainees, they were unfortunately quite useless. The Red Cross is a very professional and effective organization. However, they were also no good for us as monitors. Once a detainee had been transferred to Afghan custody, the Red Cross, under their rules, could only inform the Afghan authorities about abuse. Under those strict rules, they are not permitted to tell Canada.

The third important difference is that, again unlike the Dutch and British, Canada was extremely slow to inform the Red Cross when we had transferred a detainee to the Afghans. The Canadian Forces leadership created a very peculiar six-step process. Canadian military police in Kandahar had to inform the Canadian Forces command element at Kandahar airfield, who in turn informed Canadian Expeditionary Force Command, or CEFCOM, in Ottawa.”

“The Dutch and British military, by contrast, had a one-step process. They simply notified the Red Cross office in Kandahar directly. The Dutch did so immediately upon detaining an Afghan, and the British within 24 hours.

In other words, in the critical days after a detainee was first transferred to the Afghan intelligence service, nobody was able to monitor them. Canada had decided that Canadians would not monitor. The AIHRC could not do so, because they had very weak capacity and were not allowed into NDS jails. The Red Cross in practice could not do so either, because we did not inform them until days, weeks, or months after we had handed over the detainee.

During those crucial first days, what happened to our detainees? According to a number of reliable sources, they were tortured.”

” The most common forms of torture were beating, whipping with power cables, and the use of electricity. Also common was sleep deprivation, use of temperature extremes, use of knives and open flames, and sexual abuse–that is, rape. Torture might be limited to the first days or it could go on for months.

According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured. For interrogators in Kandahar, it was standard operating procedure.”

” The final difference, which is a very important one, is that Canada, unlike the U.K. and the Netherlands, cloaked our detainee practices in extreme secrecy. The Dutch government immediately informed the Dutch Parliament as soon as a detainee had been taken. The Dutch also provided their Parliament with extremely detailed reporting on every stage of detention and transfer and on the results of monitoring after transfer. The U.K. also announced publicly the number of their detainees.

The Canadian Forces, by contrast, refused to reveal even the number of detainees they had taken, claiming this would violate operational security.

When the Red Cross wanted to engage on detainee issues, for three months the Canadian Forces in Kandahar wouldn’t even take their phone calls. The same thing happened to the NATO ISAF command in Kabul, who had responsibilities to report detainee numbers to Brussels. They were told, “We know what you want, but we won’t tell you.”

Further from November 18, 2009:

Why should we care about Afghan detainees being tortured?:

Mr. Richard Colvin: “As a final section, asking kind of a rhetorical question, even if Afghan detainees were being tortured, why should Canadians care? I think there are five compelling reasons.

First, our detainees were not what intelligence services would call “high-value targets”, such as IED bomb-makers, al-Qaeda terrorists, or Taliban commanders. High-value targets would be detained under a completely different mechanism that involved special forces and targeted intelligence-driven operations. The Afghans I’m discussing
today were picked up by conventional forces during routine military operations, and on the basis typically not of intelligence but suspicion or unproven denunciation.

According to a very authoritative source, many of the Afghans we detained had no connection to the insurgency whatsoever. From an intelligence point of view, they had little or no value. Frankly, the NDS did not want them.
Some of these Afghans may have been foot soldiers or day fighters, but many were just local people: farmers, truck drivers, tailors, peasants, random human beings in the wrong place at the wrong time, young men in their fields and villages who were completely innocent but were nevertheless rounded up. In other words, we detained and handed over for severe torture a lot of innocent people.

The second reason that Canadians should care is that seizing people and rendering them for torture is a very serious violation of international and Canadian law. Complicity in torture is a war crime. It is illegal and prosecutable.

Third, Canada has always been a powerful advocate of international law and human rights. That is a keystone of who we are as Canadians and what we have always stood for as a people and nation. If we disregard our core principles and values, we also lose our moral authority abroad. If we are complicit in the torture of Afghans in Kandahar, how can we
credibly promote human rights in Tehran or Beijing?

Fourth, our actions were counter to our own stated policies. In April 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said publicly that Canadian military officials don’t send individuals off to be tortured. That was indeed our policy. But behind the military’s wall of secrecy, that unfortunately is exactly what we were doing.

Finally, even if all the Afghans we detained had been Taliban, it would still have been wrong to have them tortured. The Canadian military is a proud and professional organization, thoroughly trained in the rules of war and the correct treatment of prisoners.”

** A side note (RS- not from the transcript): There has been a great attempt to discredit Mr. Colvin since this evidence was given. Here is my favorite quote dealing with that issue:

“If [Colvin] had no credibility, why was he promoted from Afghanistan to a senior intelligence position in the Canadian embassy in Washington? That is a very senior job that that man is holding so there is no credibility on trying to discredit him.” (Bob Fife, CTV Power Play, November 18, 2009)

From November 25, 2009:

Hon. Ujjal Dosanjh (Vancouver South, Lib.): “I want to talk to you about the issues about law, the command responsibility. You know that better than anybody else. It requires no actual knowledge of the risk of torture. If the risk of torture is widely known, as it was to the U.S. State Department, UN reports, Afghan Independent Human Rights reports, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, our own human rights reports, their knowledge can be imputed. In fact, ignorance is not a defence either, for want of reports, and you know that better than I do.”

“…Justice Anne Mactavish in February 2008? She stated that: “Eight complaints of prisoner abuse were received by Canadian personnel conducting site visits in Afghan detention facilities between May 3, 2007 and November 5, 2007.” Moreover, she noted that in some cases prisoners bore physical signs.”

Mr. Claude Bachand: “Everyone here recognizes that the suspected torture we are dealing with has certainly not being inflicted by Canadian soldiers. What we are trying to find out is if Canadian soldiers like you, on the ground, knew that torture was being practiced and if, despite that, they still transferred detainees. That is our main concern.”

“Can you explain to me how you can state that absolutely nothing happened when Amnesty International, the Independent Afghanistan Human Rights Commission and the Red Cross all stated that torture was being practiced in the prisons? Even a guard in the Sarposa prison stated that torturing prisoners it was routine. International diplomats said the same thing. Today, a Canadian diplomat repeated statements made by Mr. Colvin as well as by many reporters. You referred to the Globe and Mail but I can also mention Mrs. Ouimet of La Presse who reported on what she saw there. All the Opposition parties believe that torture was being practiced. Why are you trying to convince us that it was not?”

Mr. Paul Dewar to Gen. Rick Hillier: “Were any of you aware of these independent groups’ assessments on torture in Afghan prisons from 2005, 2006, and onwards?I guess by 2006 everyone knew, so were you aware of the independent assessments by other groups? They’ve all been listed: the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the Red Cross, the State Department, etc. Were you aware of those reports about torture in Afghan prisons?”

Gen Rick Hillier: ” How could you not be aware of individuals saying that everything was bad and the sky was falling? So yes, Mr. Dewar, absolutely. And then I’d just balance that against a comment I heard from somebody in the ICRC or read somewhere back in February 2007, saying there’s no problem whatsoever with respect to detainees. So I tried to balance the specific against the generalities, which had no substance against specific–“
“So yes, absolutely. You could not not be aware.”
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Some links for further reading:
40th PARLIAMENT, 2nd SESSION