Friday, February 29, 2008

Musharraf on the Skids -- or Not

As Pakistan's political parties trade and barter to form provincial and central governments that will accommodate egos and interests long muffled under military rule, former strongman Pervez Musharraf is the subject of much speculation. Is he on the skids or not? Indications that his role and future are in play come from all directions.

The main opposition parties would love to see him go softly into the good night, and that might happen even without a formal move to impeach him. For one thing, the military is reported to have made clear to the politicians that they are not wedded to Musharraf. So has the United States. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that it was Pakistan and not Musharraf that was "indispensable" to combat terrorism. Dawn reported that with the headline "Bush govt distancing itself from Musharraf: New Pakistani govt in two weeks: Negroponte."

Anwar Iqbal reporting from Washington focused on Mr. Negroponte's view that: "We cannot tell the precise colouration or individuals” who will be included in the new government but “we hope that they will be inclined towards moderation. ... We hope we will be able to work with them as well as, if not better than, we have worked with those in the past." It was, Iqbal noted, "the first time since the Feb 18 elections" that Washington had "signaled the Bush administration’s desire to distance itself from President Pervez Musharraf."

Editor of TIME at Columbia J-School

Richard Stengel, the editor of Time magazine spoke at Columbia Journalism School on 21 February. I should have posted on Stengel last week but decided not to because (a) traffic on the George Washington bridge kept me from hearing the first half hour of his presentation, and (b) I grew up in Calcutta reading Time, and wanted time to look at some recent issues of the magazine.

In Calcutta, Time was my link to the outside world; Indian magazines were mostly blind to international affairs or deadly dull in their coverage (still true, unfortunately, but that's another story). Nothing else that I read, which included Life, Reader's Digest, Scientific American and an endless supply of comics, conveyed Time's serious sense of editorial mission; its weekly dose of strongly opinionated journalism, irritating in its occasional scathing anti-Indian bias, excellent in its witty film and book reviews, gave me a sense of being in a larger loop than any Calcutta had to offer. It came as a shock, in my final year at high school, to learn from a California hippie en route to Kathmandu that Time was a "joke;" that it was read only by "blue haired karmies."

The magazine still has a "huge audience," Stengel was saying as I arrived. He is an animated and engaging speaker, a journalist who has stepped away from his profession occasionally, to manage a museum, run a presidential campaign. He was a Rhodes Scholar; is obviously smart and savvy.

But Time is losing circulation; down from 4.1 million in 2002 to 3.4 million "paid and verified" subscribers in 2007. Advertisers pay for a readership of over 20 million; each copy sold has multiple readers.

Answering a question about editorial bias, Stengel says Time reporters are asked to be assertive, to make informed assessments, not to present readers with articles that say "on the one hand this, on the other hand that." Informed assessments are not "opinion" in his view. "Bush is an asshole is an opinion, though some might say it's a fact." Time no longer snuck in opinion with questions on the cover like the famous Is Dole too old? It tried to make sense of the world; it had a "bias in favor of excellence" and that was not necessarily political. In the latest issue, he says. "I have an editorial asking if it is appropriate for publications to endorse political candidates."

Victor Navasky, the moderator of the Delacorte Lectures on magazine journalism, asks why Stengel thinks focus groups are useful. It came from managing Bill Bradley's presidential campaign, Stengel says. People are honest in focus groups; they say what they really think. Print journalism needed that kind of feedback; unlike online journalism, it had no continuous feedback, no way of knowing how many hits you get, at what time, which pages are read, for how long. A student comes to the mike to say that focus groups cannot provide "cutting edge" information, and that perhaps political endorsements are a useful measure of "transparency," letting readers know of existing editorial preferences.

What should newspapers do in the age of the Internet? Be "hyper local. Do what you do best and link to the rest." Also, be more like magazines in the use of photographs, bring in context on day one, rather than report on day one and provide context on day two. That was the only way to compete with 24/7 online reporting.

He thinks the life expectancy of print publications is directly proportional to their frequency: the future of dailies is more clouded than that of weekly and monthly magazines. The less frequent publications can provide both a wider context and a "pleasurable" experience; their "physicality" is important. Time did photo essays on a regular basis.

Responding to another question he said it was "crazy" to think of web publications as ephemeral; what you wrote stayed up for ever and was far more accessible than anything in print.

Was Time fact-checked? He'd got rid of the fact-checkers after he found they considered factual anything that appeared in books. Books were the least fact-checked source of information, but they had been given the most credibility.

Time also seems to have jettisoned copy editors.

The issue Stengel brought along for J-School students has a cover story on George Clooney. It is by an all too obviously star-struck Joel Stein, who asked the actor to dinner and was thrown for a loop by his acceptance. Not only does George come to dinner in jeans, he goes into the kitchen, stirrs the bacon on the stove top, "grabs a string bean from the pot and eats it." When Stein leaves the table to check on the lamb, "he puts extra bacon on my pasta." He also fixes an errant alarm and sits around putting away a couple of bottles of wine. "It's becoming clear to me already that somehow this guy, even in my house, really is a movie star," Stein writes giddily. "Maybe the only one we have now." The cover declares that to be a fact in heavy type next to Clooney's friendly face: "The Last Movie Star."

Stein's fan magazine piece does not ask an obvious, if slightly unfriendly journalistic question: if the actor's sudden concern for Darfur is a step towards a political future a la Ronald Reagan. There is nothing even vaguely critical in the article, not even the mundane detail that Clooney has a hundred leather jackets by the same designer. (That is in Time's ad laden Spring fashion Supplement.)

Another story in the issue is by Bob Geldof, traveling with George Bush in Africa. It's titled The Healer and comes with the following editorial blurb: "On assignment for Time, musician and humanitarian Bob Geldof reports on the presidential trip to Africa -- and why the continent's rebirth is the Bush Administration's greatest achievement." The text is even more blurby (albeit from the Amrita Bazaar Patrika): "Africa is the only continent yet to be built. It will be here that some of the great politics of our century will play themselves out. It's a continent of some 900 million potential produceres and consumers. There are more languages and cultural diversity in Africa than almost anywhere else. Many of the great rivers and resources on the planet are here."

Then there is a page of medical news from CNN's earnest MD in residence, Sanjay Gupta. His easy television style translates into print flab; the piece begins: "As a doctor, I can give you a lot of useful advice about how to get healthy and stay that way, but one thing you don't need me to tell you is that exercise is good for you. By this point, it's not news to anyone that staying active can benefit the heart, the waistline, even the mind."

There is alarming turgidity in political pieces too. A "Briefing" by Michael Grunwald on Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia begins with the slack-jawed: "It's hard to keep track of the Balkans, with all those disputed borders, ethnic hatreds and separatist movements." It goes into a Cold War time-warp with: "The modern world isn't divided between capitalism and communism; it's divided in part between nations done dealing with their secessionists and those still fighting." That leads into: "Sri Lanka sided with Serbia, mindful of its Tamil rebels. Even Spain opposed Kosovo's claim as a precedent that could threaten Madrid's sovereignty by encouraging separatists. What's the joke about putting all your Basques in one exit? Still, Kosovo is no joke because instability in the Balkans tends to spread." Grunwald concludes with this non sequitur: "The world, once again, is taking sides. There's a reason they call it Balkanization."

To top it all, there are no book reviews in the issue.

I can see why the blue haired karmies have been canceling their subscriptions.

[Disclosure: in my continuing effort to win friends and influence people, I have sent in a query asking if Time would like me for a correspondent at the UN. I am not waiting to exhale.]

Monday, February 25, 2008

Decoding Kosovo's "Independence"

The declaration of independence by the province of Kosovo in Serbia is like the proverbial Buddhist onion: every layer of reality (or illusion) peeled away reveals another, till finally, at the heart of it one discovers the powerful void, sunnata.

The outermost layer presents a picture of the Muslim Kosovars escaping predominantly Christian Serbia.

Peel that away and you find a remnant of the Cold War:
Britain, France, Germany and Italy speedily recognized Kosovo because it weakened Serbia, a traditional Russian ally (both are Slavic).

The next layer down is the revenge of the Hapsburg empire (in the dissolution of which the Serbs had a significant role); Kosovo is the final act in the implosion of Yugoslavia, which was set off by German recognition of Croatian independence.

Deeper still is the animosity left over from the Christian schism that separated
the Church of Rome from the Eastern Orthodox, and under that are layers of hostility dating back to the tribal confrontations of Teuton and Slav.

Peel away those final layers and at the heart of it all is the ineffable, all powerful nothingness of manipulative politics, Washington's masterful hand, introducing into its emerging rival, Europe, a country that will be sick and backward, violent and undemocratic, a perpetual worry and drain.

Anyone who feels that this is all so much waffle should read the lead article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs (March-April 2008). It is on "The Clash of Peoples" by Jerry Z. Muller, a professor of history at the Catholic University of America. He argues that everywhere but in the United States "ethnonationalism" has been on the march, and will not be denied, especially in the developing world, where States are "recent creations and where borders often cut across ethnic boundaries." There is "likely to be further ethnic disaggregation and communal conflict," he prophesies, much in the vein of Samuel Huntington, who predicted the "Clash of Civilizations" and the "bloody borders of Islam" just as the end of the Cold War threatened to bring about a period of world peace.

And what does Professor Muller recommend be done about the distressing prospect he foresees?

He notes that "once ethnic antagonism has crossed a certain threshold of violence, maintaining the rival groups within a single polity" is increasingly difficult. Partitioning countries would be "the most humane lasting solution." The "challenge for the international community in such cases is to separate communities in the most humane manner possible: by aiding in transport, assuring citizenship rights in the new homeland, and providing financial aid for resettlement and economic absorption." The "bill for all of this will be huge," Muller declares in conclusion, "but it will rarely be greater than the material costs of interjecting and maintaining a foreign military presence large enough to pacify the rival ethnic combatants or the moral cost of doing nothing."

Muller does not mention other reasons for creating small and bloodied rump States: they can be easily manipulated to do whatever the "international community" wants. In the case of East Timor, which was liberated from Indonesia, Australia quickly nailed down an agreement to drill for offshore oil (which Djakarta had long resisted). In Kosovo there is to be a major new American military base.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Mother Language Day Was 21 February

You might have missed the passing of International Mother Language Day on 21 February, but it was a big deal at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris. With a "round table," a seminar and an "information workshop," the agency kicked off the International Year of Languages; its Director-General, Koïchiro Matsuura warned that "more than half the world’s 6,700 spoken languages are threatened with extinction" and that "every two weeks on average one language disappears somewhere around the world."

Even though "96 per cent of the world’s languages are spoken by only four per cent of the total population," Unesco argues that everyone should be concerned about the situation, for "when a language fades, so does a part of the world’s cultural tapestry." With every language that dies, the agency says, "opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression – valuable resources for ensuring a better future are also lost." Among the information products/activities for the year are a "synthesis report on the normative tools and principles of relevance to languages;" an updated "Endangered Languages Atlas" with an “Index Translationum;” and an "international event on existing 'good practices'.”

How exactly the languages now going extinct are "valuable resources for ensuring a better future" Unesco does not say on its web site. The contention that they "are strategically important for the attainment of several Millennium Development Goals and a precondition for the enjoyment of fundamental human rights" is not explained. The assertion that "multilingualism promotes the harmonious coexistence of local, national and international languages and thus is a factor of mutual respect, intercultural dialog and sustainable development" seems to fly in the face of much recent history.

The agency says it will pursue "cultural diversity and dialog ... through the safeguarding of linguistic diversity, notably through the intellectual, literary and poetic heritage of humanity; the formulation of national language policies focusing in particular on the introduction of mother language education in formal and non-formal systems; the promotion of languages as vehicles for the transmission of local and indigenous knowledge; and the inclusion of multiple languages and the dissemination of local content in cyberspace."

I hope that means more money and personnel to safeguard the languages of tribes clinging to life in the Amazonian rainforest; maybe the tribes themselves might be saved if there is enough of an effort.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Why is the World Such a Mess?

This post is the byproduct of a discussion on an Indian email listserv about the predatory nature of much of the economic development that is taking place in India and China. I offered the opinion that our problems were rooted in the nature of industrial civilization, and that there was a Gandhian alternative. Being then asked to spell out that alternative, I came up with the following. The first part of the piece explains why industrial civilization is at the root of our problems; the second suggests how we can escape it.


Part I
Since the 17th century the world has been set on a deeply negative course. War has been continuous and ever more destructive. There have been
repeated episodes of attempted and successful genocide. The transatlantic slave trade, slavery in the Americas, and European colonial rule in Asia and Africa, saw savagery on a scale unparalleled in history. A world in which living standards were roughly on par everywhere came to be sharply divided between a small affluent elite and and billions of wretchedly poor people. Science, once the harbinger of a hopeful future, spawned technologies that poisoned every part of the planet with industrial pollutants and subjected the natural environment to such broad assault that its capacity to sustain life is being rapidly eroded: species are becoming extinct now at a rate not seen since the dinosaurs disappeared.

Why is this happening?

The only coherent explanations seem to be religious. The Hindus see it as the Kali Yuga, the Dark Age that comes at the end of a great cycle of time; Jews, Christians, and Muslims see it as the
troubled and sinful age before Judgment Day.

But even divinely ordained processes work through human mechanisms. How can we explain in rational terms what has been happening to the world?

The growth in world population is often cited as the primary reason for war, environmental degradation and the general deterioration of economic and social conditions. But I think that is a perception that will not bear close examination: the entire human population of the planet can be gathered within the municipal bounds of New York city. The problem is not in our numbers but in how we have organized life on the planet; and when we look at that aspect, it is quite clear that responsibility for the global mess we now confront devolves on the central institution of industrial civilization, the joint stock corporation.

This is not to say that by their own lights, corporations have not been enormously successful. They are by far the most efficient organizations yet devised for generating wealth. But the problem is, they have evolved far beyond the economic sphere, and have taken over the world. It's like the situation in the Matrix: the corporate machine is so omnipresent, and people in general so accustomed to the sense of reality it generates that they are no longer self-aware; only a small section of the human race understands and battles the situation.

Initially, joint stock corporations were meant to allow merchants to share the risk of international trade at a time when every voyage was an expensive and dangerous adventure; later, they became the means for entrepreneurs to raise the massive amounts of capital needed
for industrialization; and in mature industrial economies, they became the primary vehicles of industrial production, trade, technological innovation, and the development of new products. During this evolution the most successful corporations became very large through a Darwinian process: the bigger ones were far more likely to survive periods of economic volatility, and that naturally inclined them to pursue growth as a matter of policy. A paper manufacturing company, for instance, would buy up forests and logging operations to secure its essential supplies, seek a greater share of the market by assimilating competitors, and even expand into other business sectors in a bid to insulate itself against cyclical downturns in the economy (which do not affect all industries at the same time).

In that process, the original owners of businesses almost always hand over control of their diversified conglomerates to professional managers. When that happens the performance of management comes to be judged by a single criterion: the profitability of the company. The more the profits, the more the price of the company's stock is bid up by investors; when profits fall, so do stock prices. In the absence of obvious external factors, a dip in the stock market is a negative judgment on management, and usually causes large institutional investors (mostly banks, insurance companies and pension funds), to sell the stock, driving prices further down. Avoiding such a loss of confidence becomes the primary focus of corporate management; ethical, moral, environmental and social considerations take a back seat. The bottom line thus comes to be the dominant, often the only concern guiding corporate decision-making.

To prevent disruptions of their pursuit of profit, corporations enter the political and cultural arenas. They fund politicians, seek to influence public opinion through advertising, support the arts through foundations, and work through lobbyists to guide the national and international policies of States. In the case of the major Powers, corporate involvement in the formulation of state policies has been a ubiquitous factor in the direction and thrust of "black ops" such as coups, assassinations, funding of separatist and terrorist movements, and even outright war. The traditional instability of "banana republics" in Latin America (so called because they were subject to the will of the United Fruit corporation), the bloody "commercial wars" of Africa (in which mining companies have had a large role), and the terrorist movements in West and South Asia (oil companies), all owe much to such operations.

International crime, especially the drug trade, has been impervious to control because it is hugely profitable to the corporate elite. Most of the estimated $2 trillion in annual criminal revenues is not carried in suitcases to mafiosi or drug lords in Afghanistan and Colombia; it is quietly laundered by over a million shell companies and offshore banking centers into "legitimate" banks and other corporations. There is a voluminous literature on all this, but the information is not widely known because the mass media too are owned by major corporations; "independent media" could not survive without corporate advertisements, and rarely bark at those who feed them.

Because democracies tend to be unpredictable in terms of economic and social policies, corporations have historically favored totalitarian systems that can be trusted to value the economic interests of the ruling elite more than the human rights of ordinary people, social justice and environmental standards. That has been part of the great appeal of China to corporate investors for the last two decades. The belief that moving production to China makes for economic efficiency is manifestly wrong if
we take into account the energy spent on transporting Chinese goods across the oceans, the social and personal cost of unemployment in Europe and the United States, and the environmental impact both in China and globally. Having China as the "workshop of the world" makes sense only on the balance sheets of corporations; in all other ways the arrangement is wantonly wasteful.

Whether the role of Western corporations in China will be redeemed by the transition of the country towards democracy remains to be seen. Historically, China has shown a capacity to import its governing philosophy (Buddhism, Communism, and now Capitalism), without letting go of its Confucian order, which is deeply invested in top-down hierarchic control.
Meanwhile, it should be noted, the growth of corporate power has had deeply negative effects within democracies. Even in as vigorously democratic a country as the United States, corporate lobbyists wield disproportionate and unwarranted influence; every effort to curb them, to reduce the role corporate money in elections and in policy formulation has failed.

The net result of all this is the world we now have, where the overwhelmingly positive forces inherent in human beings are everywhere subject to manipulative systems that profit a small minority. To keep those systems running it is imperative to prevent ordinary people from seeing the process; if they did, resistance would be inevitable. The use of religion to create hatred, the fomenting of ethnic violence, linguistic and regional chauvinism, all blind people to what is happening. So does fear, which has been so lavishly inspired by the threat of terrorism since 9/11. George Orwell was truly prophetic in 1984.

Part II
The need to change the global corporate system has received much attention from gurus like ex-US AID staffer David Korten (When Corporations Rule the World, and The Post Corporate World), and from thousands of activists at the World Social Forums that have convened annually in recent years. But current efforts at change have been limited to fixing the system. All the talk at the UN about global warming, resurrecting the ozone layer, and combating environmental pollution is directed at regulation and amelioration, not change. And they have been massively unsuccessful. The UN "Global Compac,t" for instance, has had little success in getting corporate commitments to uphold a set of basic human rights and environmental standards.
Of the approximately 60,000 corporations with annual revenues over $1 billion, fewer than 4,000 have joined the "compact."

How do people reclaim the world from corporations and take control of their communities and societies?

Obviously, we cannot do it by fiat or force. Legislators are unlikely to impose rules and regulations on the corporations that generate the wealth of their societies. Any attempt at forcible change through "revolution" would have disastrous economic consequences. The change must come peacefully, gradually, and productively; wealth creation must not be affected but its nature must be changed.

In seeking to address this issue, I began with Mahatma Gandhi's approach to transforming India. At the time of his death, he was working on plans that envisaged an India composed of "village republics," each aware of the national interest and capable of cooperative action to promote it. The essence of his approach was that within the right framework of values and beliefs, ordinary people could be trusted to act not only in their own best interests, but that of the country and the world. There were many social ills in India that needed to be remedied, especially caste and gender discrimination, but he believed on the basis of considerable experience that it could be done. He had devised Satyagraha (holding fast to the truth), as the nonviolent means to bring about transforming change; it consisted of awakening the conscience of those who held oppressive frameworks in place. Once people turned to the best in themselves, Gandhi believed, society could be transformed. It was in such transformation, not in science and its technologies that he saw the essence of human "development." He was gearing up to create an organization that would promote such change when he died.

There is now no Mahatma to lead us in the effort to change India or the world, but other factors -- the Internet and the Worldwide Web -- have made it possible for people of good will to initiate and carry forward the necessary action. They have also made it possible to undermine the power of mega-corporations peacefully, by organizing consumers and decentralizing production. (Mass production serves only the interests of the mega-corporation; the economies of scale once only possible by concentrating production geographically, can now be achieved by networks of small producers.) An alliance of social activists and small businesses (which are rooted in communities and thus supportive of them), should be able to put in place global networks that have the capacity to compete successfully with mega-corporations and reorganize the global division of labor along lines friendly to societies and the ecosystem.

How to organize such networks? After three decades of observing non-governmental organizations at work I have come to the conclusion that no existing institution is capable of playing the lead role. We need a new institution; I call it the Community Corporation.

I am now working on the charter of this organization. It would be established by social activists and small businesses in every economically viable community. In villages there would be one; in large cities there could be scores of them. Every CC would have the same mandate, to safeguard and promote the economic and social security of all members of the community and to cooperate with other CCs in doing so. Each CC would produce revenue by serving the community; this could include commissions on bulk purchasing of commodities, appliances and insurance, and fees for providing educational and health services. CCs would help people find jobs, support local entrepreneurs, and promote local businesses. They would facilitate the integration of newcomers to communities, and ensure the welfare of children and the aged.
Each CC would be committed to helping the poor and underprivileged sections of society, and work closely with local police to ensure that no section of the community was victimized (including by rogue elements of the police).

Each CC would have a web site, and all would be part of a network for sharing information and mobilizing joint action. As the network grew and spread, it would become a powerful democratic force, not only by keeping people informed of what has happening relevant to their welfare, but by organizing to oppose special interests.The network would also identify and support economic and social development with the minimum of bureaucratic waste; it
would be committed to help CCs in poorer communities with financial and technical aid. Economic development would not be obedient to elite interests but to the perceived needs of communities. Much of the inefficiencies and waste of the corporate economy would be avoided; development harmful to society and the natural environment would not go ahead.

The CC network would have many nodal points for cooperation and coordination, created as the need arose. There could be local, sub-regional, regional, state-level and national nodes, meshing where necessary with existing democratic structures of government. In totalitarian countries CC networks would offer the means for a peaceful transition to democracy. Globally, the United Nations System could provide the means to bring the network (and its many sectoral subsidiaries), in touch with the formulation of international norms and strategies. General Assembly resolutions, for instance, would feed into the CC network for implementation, and constant feedback would keep UN action relevant. The CC network would be extremely useful in preventing conflict and in mounting aid activities in the aftermath of natural disasters.

In sum, the global CC network would reconstitute the world economy and put in place a democratic and non-bureaucratic world government.


I would be glad to hear from anyone who wants to be involved in drafting the Community Corporation Charter.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Child Soldiers, UNMEE and the Vision Thing

When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met President Bush at the White House last Friday, there was an exchange of civilities that is worth noting. Mr. Bush expressed appreciation for Ban's "vision" and said "thank you for your leadership and your friendship." Ban thanked Bush for supporting the UN, noting that the "United States is the country with the most ability for technology and financing capacities." The UN's partnership with Washington, he said, "is the crucial and important element in carrying out my duty as Secretary General, and also making the United Nations organization more strengthened in carrying out the common challenges we share together."

That might have been the high point in the UN week. The low points were the debate in the Security Council on Children and Armed Conflict, and the humiliating blackmail of the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritea (UNMEE) by the thuggish regime in Asmara.


The debate on children was deeply disheartening. It is now over 33 years since the General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the protection of women and children in emergencies and armed conflict. In the years since then it has also adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, convened a World Summit on Children in 1990, and received the ground-breaking report on children and armed conflict by Graça Machel in 1996. The widow of President Samora Machel of Mozambique (he was killed in an air crash over South Africa in 1986), summed up the enormity of the problem. Just in the past decade, she reported:

"an estimated two million children have been killed in armed conflict. Three times as many have been seriously injured or permanently disabled, many of them maimed by landmines. Countless others have been forced to witness or even to take part in horrifying acts of violence.These statistics are shocking enough, but more chilling is the conclusion to be drawn from them: more and more of the world is being sucked into a desolate moral vacuum. This is a space devoid of the most basic human values; a space in which children are slaughtered, raped, and maimed; a space in which children are exploited as soldiers; a space in which children are starved and exposed to extreme brutality. Such unregulated terror and violence speak of deliberate victimization. There are few further depths to which humanity can sink."

More than a decade after those powerful words, the Security Council has done nothing effective to deal with the problem. For seven years it has received increasingly specific annual reports from the Secretary-General on this most unequivocal of moral issues, and done no more than call -- in 2005 -- for a "monitoring and reporting mechanism" that has neither funding nor structure. (The UN System is supposed to do the job with existing resources.) For the last five years, 16 groups using child soldiers have been named in every annual report of the Secretary-General, but rather than establish a sanctions committee and initiate meaningful action, all the Council has done is set up a Working Group. UN afficionados actually cite that as "progress."

In the Council debate there was little self-recrimination. The only speakers to highlight the lack of action by the Council were those who provided the introductory briefings. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Secretary-General's Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, noted that the Council had already expressed its intention to take concrete and targeted measures against groups that used child soldiers, and that it was important to make good on that pledge for the sake of credibility. “It is now time that the Security Council move from words toward effective action,” she said, suggesting that measures could include travel restrictions on the leaders of the groups named, their exclusion from any governance structures and amnesty provisions; the imposition of arms embargoes; and restrictions on the flow of financial resources. Jo Becker of the non-governmental organization Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict was blunter. She stressed that the Council could not expect to achieve accountability based on "empty threats." To ensure its own credibility, it should move to targeted sanctions.

Government delegates all declared themselves in favor of action to save children, but none took the Council to task for being so lethargic. Quite to the contrary. The United States did not agree that the Council should have a general policy or practice of referring cases to the International Criminal Court, as recommended in the Secretary-General’s report. States had different views about the best mechanism for combating crimes against children, and it was important to bear in mind that not all Member States were parties to the Rome Statute.

Slovenia, speaking for the European Union, encouraged the Council to take "appropriate and concrete measures" against the groups named in the Secretary-General's report, but went on to suggest a minimalist "first step:" including the crime of rape and other grave sexual and gender-based violence against children in the criteria triggering inclusion in the UN list of offenders. Belgium thought that listing offenders in UN reports was in itself "an important dissuance instrument."

France (represented by that irredeemable ham Bernard Kouchner in full Falstaffian flow), said “the tragedy of child soldiers forces us to be determined and uncompromising,”and that the United Nations "must play a central role in combating this heinous form of slavery which turns victims into assassins.” The Council, he said, must not shrink from the adoption of strong, targeted measures against parties that failed to comply with its recommendations.

The Council did nothing. It issued a statement that once again called for action -- at the national level.


On the UNMEE situation the Security Council met in "emergency session" on Friday afternoon for a briefing by Jean-Marie Gu¿henno, the Under-Secretary-General for peacekeeping. The briefing focused on the latest bid by Asmara to blackmail the UN into acting on the findings of an impartial boundary commission which demarcated the Eritrea-Ethiopia border under a 2000 peace agreement. The commission awarded the city of Badme to Eritrea, but Ethiopia refused to move out the forces that had taken the city in the 1998 war. All last week the UN repeatedly and ineffectually protested Eritrea's threats, seizures of equipment, and blockages of food and fuel deliveries to UNMEE.

Typically, the Security Council has been focused on minutiae. The basic problem of the countries along Africa's Red Sea coast has been the clash of foreign interests in an area of great strategic and economic importance. The Red Sea, with the Suez Canal at one end and oil-rich Saudi Arabia on its northern shore, is the busiest waterway in the world. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union achieved strategic dominance of the African coast by installing client regimes in Ethiopia and Somalia, intensifying the bloody power struggles that (in their modern incarnation), began with the Anglo-French rivalry over Egypt in the 18th century and continued with Mussolini's grab of Ethiopia during the run-up to World War I. The discovery of oil in the Sudan, and China's ever heavier footprint in the area (Eritrean dictator Isais Afwerki studied in Beijing), has increased the complexity of the situation. None of this is even mentioned in the extensive UN documentation of the problems of the area.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Ted Genoways at Columbia J-School

as if a scrappy farm team had demolished the Yankees in an exhibition game.

Genoways is not your stereotypical Southern litterateur (which I had half expected; but he is in the South, not of it). He has a lean skinhead look and not a hint of drawl. There was no talk of poetry or anything overtly political, which was strange, for he is a poet with strong political views. On the web site of Poets Against the War (, his poem Rural Electric appears with a statement, which says in part:

"In July 1917, Siegfried Sassoon composed his famous statement of conscientious objection "as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it." Here now, we stand at a still more dangerous precipice, because I believe that war is being perpetrated by those who have the power to avoid it. As poets, we are obligated to speak out against this prospect, even as it begins to appear an eventuality. Disgusted as I am by the reprehensible actions of our unelected leaders, I am equally appalled by the ignorance displayed by Laura Bush when she states that "it would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum." No doubt she would have found it inappropriate for Walt Whitman to speak out against the horrors of the Civil War or Wilfred Owen to decry the use of mustard gas in World War I or Miguel Hernandez to warn of coming floods of blood if no one opposed the Fascists in Spain. ... She is wrong, as this entire administration is wrong. A literary event is an ideal political forum, and we must not fail the generations of poets who came before us by falling silent now."

Genoways spoke of how he had "reconceived" the VQR, pushing the journalism at the front of the publication towards literature while seeking in the literary work at the back the "urgency of journalism." There were only three people on staff; he and a managing editor ("editorial meetings" consisted largely of their back and forth through the open door between their offices); and a P.R. person. The annual budget was $400,000, much of it coming from old endowments to the university. Of the $100,000 for each issue, $65,000 was for editorial use. With each issue running to 300+ pages, that did not allow VQR to pay writers anywhere near what they could get from commercial magazines; 20 cents per word, compared to the low-end $1.50 paid by the competition; the National Geographic paid $5 a word.

The questions from students focused on the journeyman issues of whether VQR welcomed young writers (yes!), and what he looked for in poetry ("reading a couple of issues will give you a clearer idea than anything I can say").

Professor Victor Navasky, the moderator of the Delacorte lectures (long-time editor, then publisher of The Nation), asked about the sources of financing of VQR; he recalled the Cold War era scandal of the CIA financing influential small magazines;* was Genoways concerned about the sources of his funding? The National Endowment for the Arts? There were "enough layers in the NEA" to protect recipients of its funding from political control, G said. The CIA had intended and exercised political control. It set firm ground rules, including who could write for the publications and who could not. That had led to the loss of influence of the publications they funded. Absent such political control, "I'll accept money from anyone."

I tried to get Genoway to speak more openly about political issues; how did he see the world and the large discontinuities that were taking shape? Democracy in America? But he refused to be drawn out.

[*Note for those too young to remember: during the Cold War, the CIA funded about 20 small literary publications in countries around the world. In the United States these included the Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Partisan Review; in Europe the best known were Preuves in France, Encounter in the UK, Tempo Presente in Italy, and Der Monat in Germany. There were others in Asia and even in Australia. The magazines were able to maintain a radical image largely because they were vocal on human rights issues and supported avante garde movements in art and music that were anathema to the Soviet establishment.]

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Alarming Stuff

Of late, I've been setting off alarms when I enter certain stores.

At the Home Depot, people look at me curiously as the klaxons go off.

At the Autozone near closing time, the young woman behind the counter nearly falls off her chair at the clamorous blatting.

"Has that happened before?"

She shakes her head, wide blue eyes still wary.

"What do you think set it off?"

"Probably a cell phone or something," she says.

"I don't have a cell phone," I say, going to the aisle with windshield wipers. Since 9/11 someone has been having a go at my wipers a couple of times a year, twisting them out of shape or slitting the rubber. Once the rear window was bashed in. Another time, the rear lift gate was bent out of shape with a crowbar or some equally heavy implement. The slings and arrows of tri-state life. But at least I don't have to ask where Autozone keeps its wipers now.

At the Sears Hardware store, where they know me, the alarm announcing my entrance gets a laugh. The clerk who accepts my payment says with a giggle: "Must be something in your shoe."

Another clerk calls over to let me know that she has to "log it."

Log the alarm going off or me coming into the store?

She shrugs.

This wouldn't be worth writing about if I hadn't just read an article by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive and author of "You Have No Rights: Stories of America in an Age of Repression."

The article is headlined: "The FBI Deputizes U.S. Corporations." It is about the Bureau's "InfraGard" program. "Today, more than 23,000 representatives of private industry are working quietly with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security" says the lead. They receive secret warnings of terrorist threats before the public does, and in return, "provide information to the government." And according to one business executive, who showed Rothschild his InfraGard card, "they have permission to "shoot to kill" in the event of martial law."

The program began in 1996 in Cleveland, where the FBI enlisted local businesses in investigating cyber-threats. It grew rapidly after 9/11. In November 2001, InfraGard had only about 1,700 participants; today, it is a nonprofit organization with 23,682 members representing a wide range of businesses, including 350 of Fortune 500 corporations. It's still an FBI operation, with agents overseeing operations in 86 InfraGard chapters. Rothschild quotes Phyllis Schneck, vice president of research integration at Secure Computing: "We are the owners, operators, and experts of our critical infrastructure -- from the CEO of a large company in agriculture or high finance, to the guy who turns the valve at the water utility."

The reference to "water utility" reminds me of Geetha Angara, the 45-year old mother of three who was a senior chemist at the Passaic Valley Water Commission complex in Totowa, NJ; her body was found in a massive water treatment tank on 8 February 2005. She had been strangled and dumped in the freezing water. Passaic County Prosecutor James Avigliano focused his attentions on the 85 employees who worked the same day-shift as Angara, but investigations led nowhere. Despite repeated appeals from Angara's family, the case has not been referred out of the Passaic jurisdiction, to state or federal levels; there is no longer a full time investigation. Was her murderer, I wonder, a vigilante who felt he had official authority to get rid of a brown-skinned woman with a foreign sounding name, occupying a position where she could pose a very large threat to security?

Rothschild's article gets progressively scarier. InfraGard is not open for anyone to join. You must be sponsored by "an existing InfraGard member, chapter, or partner organization," and the FBI has to vet the applicant. Members are told to contact the FBI if they "note suspicious activity or an unusual event," and to inform on "disgruntled employees who will use knowledge gained on the job against their employers."

The American Civil Liberties Union warned in August 2004 that some InfraGard members could do more: they may be able to report on the activities of millions of individual customers of businesses. It issued that warning in a report titled "The Surveillance-Industrial Complex: How the American Government Is Conscripting Businesses and Individuals in the Construction of a Surveillance Society." The ACLU has pointed out that communications of InfaGard members with the FBI and Homeland Security are beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act because they fall under the "trade secrets" exemption.

Rothschild notes that the InfraGard member website cautions that the "interests of InfraGard must be protected whenever presented to non-InfraGard members;" and that in "interviews with members of the press, controlling the image of InfraGard being presented can be difficult." It urges "proper preparation for the interview" to "minimize the risk of embarrassment." It says that the "InfraGard leadership and the local FBI representative should review" questions submitted by the Press, "agree on the predilection of the answers, and identify the appropriate interviewee." Questions concerning "sensitive information should be avoided," it says.

Among the advantages of belonging to InfraGard is advance warning from the FBI through a "secure communication network complete with VPN [virtual private network] encrypted website, webmail, [e-mail] listservs, message boards, and much more." There are "almost daily updates" on threats "emanating from both domestic sources and overseas." Says Schneck: "People are happy to be in the know."

Since May 9, 2007 InfraGard has an additional role under National Security Presidential Directive 51, which instructs the Secretary of Homeland Security to coordinate with "private-sector owners and operators of critical infrastructure, as appropriate, in order to provide for the delivery of essential services during an emergency." Hundreds of InfraGard members are reported to have participated in emergency drills.

One business owner told Rothschild "that InfraGard members are being advised on how to prepare for a martial law situation." At one small meeting he said, agents of the FBI and Homeland Security discussed in astonishing detail what InfraGard members may be called upon to do. "The meeting started off innocuously enough, with the speakers talking about corporate espionage. From there, it just progressed. All of a sudden we were knee-deep in what was expected of us when martial law is declared. We were expected to share all our resources, but in return we'd be given specific benefits" such as the right to travel in restricted areas. "Then they said when -- not if -- martial law is declared, it was our responsibility to protect our portion of the infrastructure, and if we had to use deadly force to protect it, we couldn't be prosecuted."

Rothschild confirmed that such a meeting was held, but reports that another participant denies any discussion of the use of lethal force. The FBI also denies it -- vehemently.

I want to believe the FBI. But I wonder at the secrecy of the whole matter. Shouldn't we get everyone involved in preparing for disaster? Why make some people more equal than others? And I wonder at the people who participate in all this; don't they see the danger it poses to fundamental American values?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Gandhi's Grandson and the Holocaust

On 7 January Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, 71-year old Arun Gandhi, the founder/president of the M.K. Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence at the University of Rochester, posted a three-paragraph item on the On Faith blog of the WashingtonPost. It was titled "Jewish Identity Can't Depend on Violence," and expressed some surprisingly obtuse thoughts. This is what it said:

Jewish identity in the past has been locked into the holocaust experience -- a German burden that the Jews have not been able to shed. It is a very good example of a community can overplay a historic experience to the point that it begins to repulse friends. The holocaust was the result of the warped mind of an individual who was able to influence his followers into doing something dreadful. But, it seems to me the Jews today not only want the Germans to feel guilty but the whole world must regret what happened to the Jews. The world did feel sorry for the episode but when an individual or a nation refuses to forgive and move on the regret turns into anger.

The Jewish identity in the future appears bleak. Any nation that remains anchored to the past is unable to move ahead and, especially a nation that believes its survival can only be ensured by weapons and bombs. In Tel Aviv in 2004 I had the opportunity to speak to some Members of Parliament and Peace activists all of whom argued that the wall and the military build-up was necessary to protect the nation and the people. In other words, I asked, you believe that you can create a snake pit -- with many deadly snakes in it -- and expect to live in the pit secure and alive? What do you mean? they countered. Well, with your superior weapons and armaments and your attitude towards your neighbors would it not be right to say that you are creating a snake pit? How can anyone live peacefully in such an atmosphere? Would it not be better to befriend those who hate you? Can you not reach out and share your technological advancement with your neighbors and build a relationship?
Apparently, in the modern world, so determined to live by the bomb, this is an alien concept. You don't befriend anyone, you dominate them. We have created a culture of violence (Israel and the Jews are the biggest players) and that Culture of Violence is eventually going to destroy humanity.

The reaction from American Jewish groups was predictably negative, and on 10 January, Mr. Gandhi posted an "Apology for My Poorly Worded Post" that said:

I am writing to correct some regrettable mis-impressions I have given in my comments on my blog this week. While I stand behind my criticisms of the use of violence by recent Israeli governments -- and I have criticized the governments of the U.S., India and China in much the same way -- I want to correct statements that I made with insufficient care, and that have inflicted unnecessary hurt and caused anger. I do not believe and should not have implied that the policies of the Israeli government are reflective of the views of all Jewish people. Indeed, many are as concerned as I am by the use of violence for state purposes, by Israel and many other governments. I do believe that when a people hold on to historic grievances too firmly it can lead to bitterness and the loss of support from those who would be friends. But as I have noted in previous writings, the suffering of the Jewish people, particularly in the Holocaust, was historic in its proportions. While we must strive for a future of peace that rejects violence, it is also important not to forget the past, lest we fail to learn from it. Having learned from it, we can then find the path to peace and rejection of violence through forgiveness.

That did little to appease critics, and Mr. Gandhi resigned -- or was "forced" to do so according to some reports -- from the M.K. Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence. Since then the matter has received much attention on Internet lists, and there is now a petition afoot to have him reinstated; it is being pushed by Indians who bill themselves as liberal. Before anyone signs the petition I suggest a simple self-administered test: replace the words Jews and Israel with your own religious and national affiliations and see whether you would find it objectionable.

In addition to being overtly anti-Jewish and anti-Israel, Mr. Gandhi reveals a staggering lack of understanding when he writes of the Jewish holocaust as the "result of the warped mind of an individual who was able to influence his followers into doing something dreadful." What happened in Germany was far more complex, and the best argument for continuing to examine and reexamine the historical record is the fact that so many people seem to want to brush it under the carpet and "move on." As a Hindu Mr. Gandhi should know that there can be no moving on from bad karma; it has to be understood and countered with good karma.

The state of Israel has certainly generated its own bad karma, and its policies in the occupied territories are profoundly destructive of its own best interests; but that is happening within a deeply negative context. Both Israel and the Arab states are responsible for the plight of the Palestinians, who themselves are by no means helpless victims. (I suggest that before any further peace negotiations, all parties involved, including Britain, France and the United States, gather at the Wailing Wall and engage in a full and frank confession of their own sins.)

That is unlikely to happen as long as the Arab mindset takes color from history: the century-long resistance to the medieval European crusades that ended with Saladin retaking Jerusalem. But Zionism is not a long distance crusade; it is the national movement of the Jews, and likely to endure as long as Arab nationalism. If the Arab states do not come to terms with that fundamental fact, there can be no happy ending for anyone in the region. Or indeed, for the world at large.

The Ageing UN

If the age and seniority structure of United Nations professional staff were depicted as a human body, it would have tiny feet, a very large middle, and a swollen head. Only 58 of the organization's 6280 professional staff are at the entry P-1 level, barely one per cent. The middle P-3 and P-4 ranks account for 62 per cent, and the top (Director-1 to Under-Secretary-General), has 9 per cent of the total. The average age is 46.2, with entry on duty averaging 35. In the entire UN System of 28 Specialized Agencies and Programs, only 680 Professional staff out of a total of 23,006 are below 30; those over 50 account for 41 per cent.

The agency with the youngest average age of professional staff is the Geneva-based UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 42.6. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), also in Geneva, and the International Civil Aviation Organization in Toronto are the oldest, with an average of 48.9. WMO has the oldest average age of EOD: 43.6.

In a report on the age structure of UN staff two inspectors appointed by the General Assembly say that the "recruitment and retention of young professionals continues to be a challenge across the system." They note that there is increasing competition for young talent from other international and regional organizations. Officials in charge of personnel are said to be concerned about the inadequacy of career development and "long-term prospects" for the young.

The inspectors do not mention it, but one serious implication of these figures is that the concept of an independent international civil service has gone out the window. Most UN staff come from government bureaucracies, and for many the UN is a second career. Staff from a few affluent countries have for decades been subsidized by their own governments in violation of UN rules. While this is mostly done because UN salaries are too low to attract recruits from countries where better paid jobs are on offer, it has an inevitably corrupting effect.

Another entire category of staff, and one which has ballooned in the post 9/11 period, is that of paid informer; fleering telltales are everywhere. Professional spooks, of course, form yet another category, one with an older lineage. Not surprisingly, paranoia is rampant; one staff member told me he photocopies nothing at the UN, not even official papers; he believes all the machines collect information for the CIA.

The cynicism engendered by all this must be a major factor driving the idealistic young away from UN employment, and there is very little to be done about it. One can only weep for a lost ideal.

Monday, February 11, 2008


There have been a number of reports that in 2007 some 17,000 small farmers in India committed suicide. P. Sainath of The Hindu in Madras has been writing about the growing number of farmer suicides for several years, and his theme has been that the main cause of these deaths is economic distress, which he ascribes to globalization. According to him, small farmers borrow money to buy commercial fertilizers and improved seeds marketed by transnational corporations like Monsanto; when the expected high crop yields fail to materialize, off they go to drink pesticide or hang themselves. Among certain circles in India it is now an article of faith that globalization drives the poor to suicide.

I don't think corporate-driven globalization is good for the societies involved or for the natural environment; economic decisions driven by the need to maximize profits for a small elite cannot work to the general good. But the thesis that the rising rate of suicides in India is linked to globalization seems far-fetched to me. It is far more likely that the real reasons are embedded in the stresses generated by the overall economic and social development of the country, a process much broader than globalization. It is also possible that the increased attention in the popular Press is a factor in the rising rate of suicides (up from 5 to 11 per 100,000 since the 1960s); in fact, the World Health Organization advises caution in Press coverage because of the danger of copy cat suicides.

WHO reports that there were some 1.5 million suicides globally in 2004 (the latest year for which statistics have been compiled); the highest rate is in Eastern Europe, and globally, men are four times more likely to off themselves than women.

Global statistics are probably an underestimate, for few African countries report suicide statistics,and even where statistics are more reliable, there is a tendency towards under-reporting. In the United States, which does not officially report national suicide rates, the American Association of Suicidology (www.suicidology. org) estimates it to be the same as in India, 11 per 100,000.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Why Karzai Nixed Paddy Ashdown

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's refusal to accept Paddy Ashdown as "High Representative" overseeing foreign support for the country needs more of an explanation than it has received in mainstream media. Ashdown is always described as a "British politician" on the strength of his leadership of the rump Liberal Democrats, but his background is much more interesting.

Jeremy John Durham Ashdown (dubbed "Paddy" by English schoolmates) was born in colonial India in 1941 in a traditionally military family. His father, a captain in the 14th Punjab Regiment, left India in 1945 to settle in Northern Ireland as a farmer. Paddy joined the Royal Marines after high-school in England. From the Marines he graduated to the Foreign Service and postings, reportedly as an operative of MI-6, Britiain's external spy service, to Hong Kong (where he learned to speak Mandarin), and Geneva. After resigning from the Foreign Service he worked for arms manufacturer Westlands (which was, for a while, part of US defense contractor Sikorsky).

Ashdown entered politics as a member of the Liberal Party, later the Liberal Democrats, of which he became the leader. His main claim to political fame was the 1992 revelation of a nine-month affair with his secretary, which earned him the nickname "Paddy Pantsdown" from Britain's ever ribald tabloids. After quitting politics in 1999 he was made Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon in 2000, and appointed High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2002. Two months before that appointment he told the International Criminal Court in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic that in June 1998 he had been at Junik on the Kosovo-Albanian border, and had seen through binoculars the shelling of several villages by Serbian forces; the defense then presented photographs showing that heavily wooded hills lay between Junik and the villages in question, making his claim impossible. Ashdown countered by producing coordinates of a position from which he could have seen the villages.

The appointment of a British political/intelligence operative to a post combining the authority of the United Nations, the European Union and NATO, at a time when some 90 per cent of the country's administrative and development budget is drawn from foreign aid, would have made Karzai a political cypher. Perhaps more importantly, the appointment would have done nothing to improve the situation in Afghanistan. Neither the corruption in government nor the Taliban insurrection is responsive to more coherent administration of foreign support; both would become far worse if such coherence came to be applied to political manipulation and control.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Jon Meacham at Columbia J-School

Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek (2.5 million hard copy circulation, 50 to 60 million www page views per month), gave the first of the Delacorte Lectures at Columbia University's Journalism School yesterday evening. When it came to question time the event turned into a very polite lynching, for which Meacham brought the rope and the audience provided an incurious ignorance.

The rope was a presentation decidedly narrow and a tad too smug. Meacham said little that illuminated the substantive travails of a weekly news magazine in the age of the internet. He did not say how -- or if -- Newsweek dealt with the themes explored in his excellent books (Franklin and Winston: An intimate portrait of an epic friendship. Voices in Our Blood: America's Best on the civil rights movement. American Gospel: God, the founding fathers and the making of a nation.) He said little about the personal and professional difficulties of vaulting to the top at Newsweek after a very short career that began at the Chatanooga Times (the first newspaper that Adolph Ochs acquired on his march to The New York Times). And his response was almost comically inadequate to the second questioner, a blonde with an Australian accent who wanted to know how he had "paid his dues" (as journalism students are constantly told they must, before hoping for advancement). For three years, said Meacham, he had a "stress vomit" at the end of every week. After asking if anyone in the audience read Newsweek, Meacham greeted the "nice lady" who was the solitary respondent, only to be told "I work in the library. I'll read anything." Meacham danced on the rope a few more times by quizzing a young man who said he read The Economist but not Newsweek.

As for the audience, it seemed to be unaware that Meacham is a gifted and insightful writer who has explored in his books issues that should be of consuming interest to every young journalist.
  • The Roosevelt-Churchill "friendship" was hardly that, and encapsulating as it did the changing equation between two super-Powers, it is the essential backdrop to a time of renewed tectonic shifts in international affairs.
  • The American civil rights movement changed race relations globally, and its legacy, mixed as it is with that of Gandhian nonviolence, is critically important at a time when enormous adjustments are necessary in the structures of economic and political governance to avoid cataclysmic disasters.
  • The deistic beliefs of America's founding fathers might seem irrelevant to our Godless age, but precisely for that reason they are important. There is a quantum difference between secular humanism and belief in a universal creative intelligence; one is rooted in a mechanistic, and the other in an organic conception of universal reality. How journalists report on world affairs will certainly be affected by how they view themselves, as cogs in a lifeless universe or as sparks of a greater fire.

Pretending to Prevent Conflict

The ringing preamble of the United Nations Charter committed the organization to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war," but so far, it's been a worthless pledge. About a hundred million people, most of them black, brown and yellow, were killed by the proxy conflicts of the "Cold War" (a term utterly racist in its premise but one that continues to be used without embarrassment or explanation). The killing has continued after the end of East-West confrontation under the rubric of "ancient ethnic hatreds" (the Balkans), tribalism (which seems to affect only resource-rich regions in Africa), and "jihadist Islam" (rooted in Muslim countries but justifying the global "war on terror"). The death toll has been horrific. In just the last decade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo some four million people have been killed in a proxy war over resources.

The United Nations has been a bystander to this continuing carnage, its peacekeeping and humanitarian roles underlining its core failure to prevent war. In the late 1990s, when that failure became uncomfortably salient amidst the dashed hopes of post-Cold War peace, there was a great beating about in the diplomatic bush and a resolution was procured in 1998 on "conflict prevention." There was much talk of "early warning" mechanisms -- as if the suddenness of developments was a major reason for lack of preventive action -- and of "rapid response." A number of the middle Powers began to train troops ready for assembly into formed units for deployment at short notice.

Ever since the 1998 resolution, the Secretary-General has submitted periodic reports apprising the Security Council of developments. I have just finished reading the latest of these, and can report that we stand in no danger of seeing the UN become suddenly effective in preventing conflict. The 17-page document begins with an upbeat statement:

"A culture of prevention is taking hold at the United Nations; awareness of the importance of prevention has spread, and the commitment to building and mainstreaming its tools has taken root. Progress is being made in strengthening the Organization’s ability to respond to disputes or situations that might lead to violence and to address the root causes of conflict. Efforts are under way to strengthen the Organization’s conflict-prevention mechanisms and instruments, with a view to making them a core component of the collective security architecture of the United Nations."

After that obligatory feel-good statement, the report does a slow jig towards reality (or what passes for it at the UN), and winds up with: "However, despite the increased recognition of the utility and effectiveness of preventive measures, a considerable gap remains between rhetoric and reality." It explains why: "Conflict prevention is a multidimensional task involving political, humanitarian, development and other measures tailored to each specific context."

To address that complex undertaking the United Nations is "developing increasingly multifaceted approaches to the prevention of conflicts, drawing on the cooperation of many different actors, including Member States; international, regional and subregional organizations; the private sector; non-governmental organizations; and other civil society actors." There are no specifics about what is being done, but we are assured that:

"This comprehensive approach includes structural prevention efforts to address the root causes of conflict; operational prevention to ensure the effectiveness of early warning mechanisms, mediation, humanitarian access and response, the protection of civilians, and targeted sanctions in the face of immediate crises; and systemic prevention to prevent existing conflicts from spilling over into other States."

There is not a word about who supplies the arms that make African conflicts possible, or who profits from them. Most of the weaponry comes from other regions, especially Europe; the resources looted under cover of war also flow to other regions. Africa is being subjected to colonialism by other means.

While addressing "situations of hardship, deprivation, difficulty and inequality, which breed war, is not new to the United Nations," the report says, the Organization has recognized "that these different approaches must be linked so as to create a comprehensive conflict-prevention strategy." That "has allowed for a more holistic and systemized approach to the maintenance of international peace and security and international collective security mechanisms."

The actions envisaged in the report are all of that nebulous variety, with one exception: the Department of Political Affairs is being "strengthened" to cope with the manifold and multidimensional tasks of prevention. In short, more jobs for the boys.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Suspicions Grow on Undersea Cable Breaks

The series of breaks last week in undersea cables carrying much of India's Internet traffic to Europe and points West has been the subject of much speculation because of a report from the Egyptian government that its camera surveillance showed no ship traffic in the problem area. That would exclude the possibility that the breaks were caused accidentally by a ship dragging its anchor, and point to sabotage as the likely cause.

"There's a growing uneasiness in the global Internet community" wrote tech blogger Mark Wedland at "While no evidence of sabotage has been forthcoming, the four breaks seem to many observers to stretch the bounds of coincidence."

Colonel R.S. Parihar, the secretary of the Internet Service Providers Association of India told the International Herald Tribune that the incidents have been a wake-up call to the global telecommunications industry. The cables were "owned by private operators, and there are no governments or armies protecting these cables," he said.

The breaks have not had a major impact on India's largest outsourcing companies because they use satellite channels or have backup cable routes running overland, but some 85 million internet users in South Asia and the Middle East experienced slow connections. The countries most affected are India, Pakistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Qatar, Sudan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates

Two of the severed lines are owned by Indian companies, and they have people working with the crew of an Egyptian repair ship off Alexandria. Repairs are expected to take about a week.

US State Department Now Hiring

According to the Associated Press today, the Bush administration's 2009 budget proposal envisions adding 1,076 jobs at the State Department and diplomatic missions in one of the largest one-year boosts to the ranks of the foreign service.

It seems the State Department is facing a critical shortage of diplomats, and many embassies are operating at 70 percent of their desired staffing levels. Some 10 percent of vacant positions remain unfilled this year because of a lack of personnel.

The new positions will include 450 new jobs intended to free diplomats for intensive language and national security training; 350 posts for a new "Civilian Stabilization Program" aimed at improving conditions in post-conflict zones; 200 diplomatic security agents; and 50 political advisers for military commands.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Accountability Framework For UN Staff

Kofi Annan had performance compacts with each of his senior managers, but they were kept private. Ban Ki-moon has publicized the existence of the compacts by having a formal signing ceremony for his senior staff and declaring that together, they constitute an "important step towards a full and effective accountability framework within the Secretariat."

At the ceremony at which senior staff signed their compacts, (Monday, 4 February), Ban said that the framework would "provide a performance-driven and results-oriented approach to tackling the many and varied mandates" set by governments." It would assure all UN "stakeholders" of the Secretariat's "integrity, consistency, predictability and professionalism." Managers would be able to set "clear roles, responsibilities and authorities for all levels and stakeholders of the Organization." Posted on the UN Intranet accessible to all staff, the compacts would "bring transparency," enabling Staff to "clearly understand their duties, and the manner in which they will be evaluated." A Management Performance Board chaired by Deputy Secretary-General Asha Rose Migiro will keep tabs on actual performance. Ms. Migiro will also head a "task force on reform" to "formulate proposals for overcoming long-standing difficulties in human resources management."

Ban did not mention how the UN's "many and varied mandates" had been boiled down to manageable proportions, or indeed, if any attempt had been made to do so. My suspicion is that the reference to the mandates is purely to mollify the Group of 77 (the 132-member caucus of developing countries), which feels, with ample reason, that the Secretariat is attuned more to the preferences of a handful of powerful States than to formal directives handed down by intergovernmental bodies, especially the General Assembly.

At a more elevated level, there is the question of whether the compacts will make any difference in UN effectiveness when the Organization is so unmoored from the power structures that actually shape the world. But they might prove useful in getting rid of "deadwood." Of course, that word has a different connotation at the UN than anywhere else; it includes not only the incompetent but anyone who is a thorn in the sides of the powers that be. [In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess to having exited the UN Secretariat in 1991 with a buyout meant to get rid of just that category of staff.)

S.G Meets the Press at the UN

Speaking to the Press outside the Security Council on 5 February 2008 Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke of the crises in Kenya (post-election violence); Chad (Sudan-supported rebel forces threaten the French-supported government); Darfur (slow progress on deploying a hybrid UN-African Union force); and the appointment of an Algerian diplomat as chair of the panel reviewing arrangements for UN staff security (an artful dodge to get around Algerian objections to an independent inquiry into the bombing of the UN office in Algiers that killed 17 staffers in January). Other issues were raised during questioning.

The unofficial transcript:

SG: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. As you know, I have just briefed the Security Council on the serious developments in Africa. Over the past month, I have been deeply engaged in the evolving situation in Kenya. As I warned at the African Union summit last week, ethnic clashes threaten to escalate out of control. During my visit, I told Kenya’s leaders, President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, that they bear a particular political responsibility for the future of Kenya. I stressed to all the Kenyan leaders the need to stop the unacceptable violence and killings and to resolve their differences through dialogue and the democratic process. I also appealed to all the political leaders to think beyond their individual interests or party lines, and to look to the future of Kenya as one country. I reiterate my support to the mediation efforts of the Panel of Eminent African Personalities led by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. When I met him in Nairobi, we discussed in depth his roadmap for the talks.

The parties are now talking and discussing practical measures to stop the spiral of violence, to address the humanitarian crisis, and to restore fundamental human rights and liberties. I have assigned several members of my staff to provide necessary assistance to Mr. Annan’s team, and we have established a UNDP trust fund to support this. With our partners, we have been able to meet the initial basic needs of displaced populations, totaling around 310,000 IDPs spread over 192 sites in the western and central provinces, and I am going to dispatch Mr. John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, to look after these issues. Needless to say, much more needs to be done. I urge donors to provide additional funding to address this grave emergency.

Turning to the situation in Chad, I am alarmed by the deteriorating security situation in the capital, N’Djamena, and elsewhere. We can no longer guarantee the safety and security of UN staff in Chad and we have evacuated, with the help of the French Government, most of the personnel into neighbouring countries, in Cameroon and Gabon. However, a small number of personnel from MINURCAT in N’Djamena, and some other UN agencies, some essential members, are still remaining. We will take necessary measures in close cooperation with the French Government when it is necessary. The United Nations will do its utmost to help resolve the crisis. I welcome the initiative of the African Union to have designated leaders of Libya and the Republic of Congo to mediate this issue. I urged the Council to act swiftly to help bring this terrible crisis to an end. It has devastating consequences not only for the people of Chad and Darfurian refugees seeking shelter there, but also for Darfur itself.

The situation in Darfur is no less troubling. Insecurity continues to severely restrict humanitarian access to civilians in need of assistance. UNAMID troop contributors must speed up their preparations. We need our forces in the theatre of operations as soon as possible. UNAMID still lacks required aviation and ground transportation—chiefly helicopters. Additional troops will not make up for this shortfall. Countries that called for intervention in Darfur are under a special obligation to deliver on their promises. On the margins of the AU Summit, I discussed the major outstanding UNAMID issues with President [Omar al-]Bashir of Sudan. I am pleased to report that we are making good progress on the Status of Forces Agreement. The Government has indicated that we can expect the signing to take place this week. However, the deployment of UNAMID will only be as effective as the political process it is mandated to support. My special envoys will therefore continue their efforts to bring the government of Sudan and the movements to the negotiating table.

Before concluding, let me say a few words about the security and safety of United Nations staff and premises. Recent events in Kenya, Chad, Darfur and Algeria serve only to underscore this matter’s urgency. I am therefore setting up, as I already announced in Geneva two weeks ago, an Independent Panel on Safety and Security of UN Personnel and Premises. The panel will be chaired by Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, who possesses vast experience and knowledge of UN operations. I will also be engaging with Member States in the coming weeks and months to strengthen the security and safety support they are providing to UN staff posted in their countries. Thank you very much.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, two questions. You said that you urged the Security Council to do more in Chad. Yesterday, the Council adopted a Presidential Statement giving a green light for other countries to support Chad, the Chadian Government. What more did you ask them to do? And in terms of Sudan and Darfur, have you gotten any pledges of helicopters at all, and what more are you doing to try and resolve that issue?

SG: On Chad, it will be up to Member States to provide the necessary assistance, whatever may be possible and available, in accordance with the PRST [Presidential Statement] adopted yesterday. On the helicopters and other critical assets, we have received some offers from at least two countries. I will continue to urge the Member States to provide such critical assets.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, also on Sudan, does your prediction that there will be a signing of a Status of Forces Agreement mean that you have reached agreement with the Sudanese over the composition of that force, or is the Sudanese government still objecting to some countries participating in that force?

SG: The Status of Forces Agreement is a bit different from a Composition of Forces. Without the legal framework under this Status of Forces Agreement – SOFA - it would be very difficult for the peacekeepers to operate properly. We have agreed to the contents of this Status of Forces Agreement during my meeting with President Bashir, and we will be able to sign during this week. On the composition of forces, again, that was one of the major subjects which I discussed with him, particularly in deploying non-African soldiers. Our understanding is that even though it may have to still be worked out at technical levels, we will first try to deploy African peacekeepers who are readily available, for example, Egyptians or Ethiopians. Then, as this deployment is taking place, we will try to deploy Thailand and Nepalese soldiers.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, two things on that, just to follow up. You will try to deploy the Thailand and Nepalese soldiers, which means, I am assuming that the Sudanese Government, President Bashir, has not agreed yet to that and you will have to continue discussions on that. And secondly, may we assume from what you said about the SOFA agreement that the UN has gotten Sudan’s agreement to all things that were the sticking points – night flights, landing agreements, possible communications blackout during Sudanese affairs, or advance notice of UN movements – all those things that were sticking points. Have those things been settled in the UN’s favour, or at least in terms of what they need, or feel they need, to conduct the mission appropriately?

SG: For detailed matters, I would like to say that my meeting with President Bashir went reasonably well. I was encouraged by a very constructive meeting with President Bashir. On the composition of forces, as I said, we will first try to have African soldiers deployed. Considering the agreement, and that the nature of this UNAMID is a hybrid – the African Union and the United Nations – then there will have to be some composition of African and non-African. We have already Bangladesh and Chinese engineering units already on the ground. We will work out, in very close consultation with the Sudanese Government, on the Status of Forces Agreement and all other administrative issues, we will continue to consult. However, President Bashir told me that he is forward-looking in addressing all these issues. Therefore, we will have to continue to iron out all these remaining issues.

Q: The situation in Gaza is getting very dire, and the population is under collective punishment. Also, we hear more and more threats that fuel has been stopped there. It has been a year almost that Gaza is under siege. What is your plan, or what initiatives would you follow in order to alleviate the situation there?

SG: On this issue, I share your concern. You have seen how much I have been working hard to address this issue. I have met with President Shimon Peres in the Davos Forum, and I have spoken to Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert on this issue. And the Quartet members had a telephone conference a few days ago to address all these issues. We are still working on that. My message is quite clear that, while I appreciate and understand the security concerns of the Israelis, therefore the rocket firing should be stopped, and at the same time, the Israeli Government should also take the necessary measures to ease these humanitarian difficulties brought by these crossings and crossing this [inaudible] - they should not take this as collective punishment.

Q: There are reports that you intend to appoint Lakhdar Brahimi to head the Algiers commission. Could you confirm that…?

SG: I have announced this.

Q: You just did…Is it okay that a man who is both Algerian and a former UN [official], is he well positioned to be independent? And also, on the Gaza situation, the Israeli Supreme Court just declared Gaza under the control of, not Israel actually, it’s a hostile entity. My question is, can Gaza be still defined as an occupied territory, as it is all across the United Nations?

SG: About Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi taking this very important role as Chair of the Independent Panel, I am sure that everybody will agree on his integrity; even though he is an Algerian, he is more known as a cosmopolitan leader. He has been working on many important agendas in world affairs during the last 10-15 years. Therefore we full confidence and trust. And I have discussed with some key members on his nomination, and I have not received any such concern about his integrity as chair of this independent Panel. I am quite sure that he will lead this independent panel with fairness and objectivity, to bring a very important recommendation for the safety and security of the UN staff.

On this Gaza situation, I again would like to urge the parties concerned first of all to refrain [to] the maximum [extent] from these violent actions, and the Israeli Government should also take necessary measures to look at these humanitarian situations.

Q: That doesn’t answer my question: Is it occupied territory?

SG: I am not in a position to say on these legal matters.

Q: I wanted to ask you if you are satisfied with the percentage of your senior officials who have followed your advice and filed voluntary public financial disclosure. It seems that almost half have not, and some have said that they choose to maintain confidentiality. And also more timely, on this event that is taking place tomorrow night on the North Lawn of the UN. Questions have arisen about whether Gucci has put out [a release] saying that it celebrates the opening of a store on Fifth Avenue, and there’s questions about one of the non-profits that would benefit from it. What are the standards that the UN applies before entering into that kind of an arrangement with a commercial entity?

SG: One of my priorities is to ensure the accountability and transparency of our staff. This is a commitment which we are showing to the Member States. As a part of that commitment, we are now disclosing the financial assets, and yesterday, all the senior managers have signed an individual compact with me. This is a very good commitment we are showing to the Member States. As for the exact numbers of advisors who have disclosed their financial declarations, I hope that remaining people will also follow suit. The registration will begin from March 1st for the year, starting this year, therefore I am expecting that more will follow soon.

On this event which will take place tomorrow, I understand that the proceeds will be used for a proper purpose as agreed between UNICEF and the organizers.

Q: But what about a company saying that a UN event is in celebration of the opening of a store? Who here polices, in there, there’s a logo of UNICEF and Gucci intermingled; who is in charge of policing the integrity of the UN, its logo and its “brand”, so to speak?

SG: You know what kind of humanitarian efforts UNICEF has been carrying out during the last several decades. I understand that the main purpose of this event will raise funds for a humanitarian purpose, and I am sure that the proceeds will go to the purpose of this event.

Q: On Lakhdar Brahimi, was that the only way to get the cooperation of the Algerian Government on that matter?

SG: I have very closely consulted with the Algerian Government. We have thought that Mr. Brahimi would be a very appropriate person to lead this independent panel. This independent panel will be composed of several experts coming from all different countries; therefore, as far as integrity, fairness and objectivity and neutrality of this independent panel, you should have not have any doubt about that.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Those Who The Gods Would Destroy...

Those who the gods would destroy they first make mad.

By that Shakespearean dictum, Shireen M Mazari, Director General of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, seems well on her way to perdition. Speaking in Delhi at the 10th Asian Security Conference on 'Asian Security in the 21st Century,' Mazari dismissed those who are concerned that Pakistan's nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists. They should worry, instead, about American "loose nukes", she said.

Speaking from a written text on the threat of nuclear proliferation among non-state actors in Asia, Mazari defended A Q Khan, the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, who ran an international bazaar in nuclear weapons technology, selling complete plans to build a bomb and the hardware to do it with to such countries as Libya, North Korea, and perhaps Iran. "Why should he be punished when he did not break any of Pakistan's international commitments?" she asked: "Why does nobody talk about his counterparts in other countries who break the laws of their countries?" At worst Khan was guilty of nothing more than "corruption." The United States and France, she said, had proliferated nuclear weapons technology to Israel; they had broken the laws of their own countries in doing so.

Mazari also told the reportedly stunned audience that in her view non-state actors were "not a major concern in the nuclear proliferation context." Nuclear weapons were too difficult for terrorist groups to manage and too destructive for their political ends, she said. "Purely from the operational point of view, in the context of terrorism, the target and victim are separate entities and destruction of the victim is intended to send a message to the target. But with the fallout from the use of nuclear weapons, the separation will be difficult to sustain,"

The "mobile strategic doctrine" of terrorist groups would not allow them to use nuclear weapons which could not "simply be carried around endlessly. ... So, logic suggests that nuclear weapons will not be the weapon of choice for terrorists." From her "vantage point" the "whole cacophony of non-state actors seeking and acquiring nuclear weapons," was no more than "a strategy of victimising particular states seen as untrustworthy in terms of loyalty to the US and its interests," Mazari said.