The Nation

The Ugly Truth About Your Shrimp Cocktail

migrant workers from Myanmar

A Thai employer monitors migrant workers from Myanmar working on his fishing boat at a port in the town of Mahachai near Bangkok. (Reuters/Damir Sagolj)

The ocean’s culinary delights look pristine on our tables: peeled, processed and sterile. Now Western consumers are getting a taste of the human drudgery in the dregs of the supply chain.

News reports have surfaced of enslavement in the fisheries of Thailand. Men have reportedly been forced to work at boats for as many as twenty hours a day; disciplined with beatings, sometimes murders; often physically held captive on boats and at ports; and further preyed upon by usurious debts. The industry employs an estimated 650,000, with roughly 270,000 migrants on Thai fishing boats. Many have been trafficked from two poorer, less stable neighbors, Myanmar and Cambodia. Despite widespread reports of abuse and forced labor, regulatory bodies are weak and riddled with corruption, and we may never know how many have been subjected to this ferocious exploitation in order to keep our freezers stocked.

In a study by the UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), which documented extraordinary brutality on the fishing vessels, a trafficking survivor described the mechanics of modern-day captivity at sea:

“We had no choice. There was nowhere to flee; we were surrounded by the sea. After we arrived back to the shore, we were locked inside the room guarded by their men; there were too many of them. So the workers had to take one trip after another, without having a choice.”

The processing of human beings begins on shore with debt bondage, as EJF explains, “Many migrant fishers are sold to boat owners for what is known as ka hua, the price paid which the worker must pay off before receiving any wages. This can leave many fishers working for months or even years without pay.”

Their status as a commodity in a complex global trade leaves them variously disenfranchised: they’re simultaneously trapped in primitive conditions, yet their labor is governed by a fast-moving, technology-driven market run by “first world” monopolies.

Thailand’s $7.3 billion fishing-export industry is major international market, yielding hundreds of thousands of tonnes of seafood each year. But it’s also rife with illegal and environmentally destructive fishing practices, which have severely depleted fish stocks and undermined the oceanic ecosystem as well as the fishing economy. The whole regional industry embodies the kind of neoliberal profiteering embedded in the global seafood industry (one study estimates that 20 to 32 percent of wild-caught seafood imports to the United States is illegally traded).

Migrant workers from Myanmar work on a fishing boat before sailing out of the port of Mahachai. (Reuters/Damir Sagolj)

A large portion of Thailand’s catch is considered “trash fish” which also enters the supply chain after being processed into fishmeal and then indirectly fed to other fish stocks. The Guardian recently traced this fishmeal to the prawns sold in “leading supermarkets around the world, including the top four global retailers: Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.” The main purveyor of fishmeal from slave-staffed boats, Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, has also directly sourced ready-to-eat prawn to UK outlets.

Meanwhile, investigators with the US State Department and various watchdog groups have criticized the Thai government’s deeply inadequate enforcement; prosecutions for labor trafficking on fish boats are extremely rare, with just a handful of formal investigations in 2010 and 2011. Even the workers who are “rescued” must endure a gauntlet of legal bureaucracy and in many cases, indefinite detention, which can drag on for weeks or months and often fails to protect the impoverished and isolated workers from their former captors.

Following the reports of labor abuses, the industry issued boilerplate expressions of concern. Several multinationals vowed to work harder to follow ethical sourcing guidelines and improve supply-chain monitoring.

At the same time, Thai officials continue to crack down on the migrants, rather than their captors, targeting undocumented Burmese and Cambodians and spurring an exodus back across the porous border.

So far, these political responses sidestep, or potentially impede, the prospect of workers themselves—that is, those most impacted by these mass human rights violations—to change the industry. Deeming them “slaves” helps convey the gravity of the exploitation, but it also has the effect of dehumanizing or compartmentalizing the issue, rather than locating the structural inequalities and gradients of exploitation throughout the industry.

However, there are worker-led structures in place that can wage a meaningful challenge against both the criminal trafficking underground and the legal plunder of the ocean economy. In fact, there is a long tradition of radical maritime unionism. In the early twentieth century, dock and ship workers were at the helm of militant internationalist labor campaigns, organizing at key trade chokepoints across global ports. But in Thailand today, less than 5 percent of the workforce is unionized, and many, particularly undocumented migrants, lack real collective bargaining rights. In the fisheries, EJF Executive Director Steve Trent tells The Nation via e-mail, “the prospect of meaningful workplace representation is even more remote…. Workers on piers and fishing boats complain that grievances have to be channeled through gangmasters—the same individuals often responsible for their abuse and exploitation in the first place—who are typically bi-lingual and free to mediate between the management and workers according to their own interests.”

Though lax regulation and huge consumer demand help Western retailers to prosper while suppressing labor costs, conversely, empowering workers would not only help remedy the gravest abuses but also ensure the industry’s sustainability in the long term.

Migrant workers from Myanmar clean a fishing net as they sail out of the port of Mahacha. (Reuters/Damir Sagolj)

Trent says policymakers need to understand “the clear link between illegal fishing, declining fish stocks and human rights abuses.” Environmental stewardship can provide a more sustainable economic balance in the ecosystem. Better management of catch rates would mean less pressure for long, arduous and high-risk forays into foreign waters. So by restoring some ecological balance, the ocean economy becomes more sustainable, less risky and less prone to labor exploitation.

Liz Blackshaw, leader of the ITF-IUF (International Transport Workers’ Federation–International Union of Food Workers) Catcher to Counter program), says that so far efforts to regulate the fishing industry haven’t linked sustainability measures with corporate accountability. “If you look at the policy framework in this industry, the majority of it is in place to safeguard the catch not the catchers,” she explains via e-mail. Effective international labor accords or trade regulations would trace the product and the labor to corporate actors.

In ITF-IUF campaigns in the Asia Pacific region, Blackshaw says, “the challenge is to find a way to organize that incorporates different facets” of a fractured contract-based production system. For example, one approach might be to start with organizing cannery workers, using their demands to anchor a baseline for working conditions, and then “work backwards along the supply chain to the fishing fleet.” A pilot project based on this model has made some inroads in Papua New Guinea’s embattled maritime sector, where the union says that incremental organizing around wages and infrastructure have helped advance labor reforms, including measures to raise the minimum wage.

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In addition to strengthening international monitoring of the industry, workers can organize at the grassroots on multiple fronts—consolidating consumer support for human rights, environmentalists’ focus on sustainability, and cross-sector labor organizing.

In Blackshaw’s view, “we are now at a point where we could start calling for consumer boycotts, revocation of fishing licenses for breaches of fundamental rights; demanding safety inspections for trade purposes, etc. We cannot organize this industry vessel by vessel; plant by plant, we have a sophisticated and systematic model for organizing which is already introducing a labour narrative into what has historically been a sustainability-only debate.”

Until the seafood business starts valuing workers lives as much as it does the size of the catch, the precarious labor system on Thailand’s waters is destined to sink under its own weight.


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My Final Post: So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie. (Library of Congress)

When I launched this blog on May 3, 2010, I promised, “Every day…we’ll probe the latest media outrages, and uncover a few ourselves, while also providing links to important articles and blog posts at other sites (both mainstream and alt-), along with essential or amusing video. Since this is The Nation, we’ll pay special attention to media politics and media culture, and update often, even at night and on the weekends.”

The blog’s original title and logo, MediaFix, soon bit the dust, but for more than four years, this promise, I believe, was largely fulfilled (especially the weekend part, as it would turn out). Today, however, marks my final post here. So, a few reflections and highlights.

Certainly worth recalling are two long-running, nearly “live” blogs.

The first, covering WikiLeaks revelations and controversies, started in November 2010 and ran nearly 24/7 for six months, establishing what some called the all-time record for a blog devoted to a single subject, with a dozen or more updates daily. (At least two fans created artwork likening this to Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak or Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak.) A Nation intern, Kevin Gosztola, played a strong supporting role. It would be the “most-read” offering on the Nation site almost every day for nearly the entire six months. Out of this, I wrote the first book about WikiLeaks and then, with Gosztola, the first book about Chelsea Manning.

The second “streak” concerned Occupy, and this time the daily, almost-live blog, started in October 2011, would run for five months or so. This too led to an ebook, the first on the movement. Like the WikiLeaks blog, this one would prove to be the popular material on the Nation site most days for many weeks.

Also popular, though not quite as long-running, were my daily postings on the 2012 election, which also led to an e-book. What I remember most vividly was somehow covering the final week of the campaign, with frequent updates, from a hotel room with spotty Wi-Fi—after we got knocked out of our home due to Hurricane Sandy. Never thought I ‘d cover an election night from a Comfort Inn without the excuse of a candidate’s headquarters in the ballroom.

I can’t possibly cite, or even recall, many other highlights of roughly 1,000 blog postings. Although of much shorter duration, my coverage of the Steubenville rape case drew tremendous readership and linkage. An interview with my friend and co-author Robert Jay Lifton produced just about the wisest commentary on the Obama drone program anywhere, if I say so myself. I interviewed Oliver Stone and Alex Gibney and often tackled the scourge of executions—state murder—in this country. Along the way there were tributes to everyone from Beethoven and Upton Sinclair to Phil Ochs and Bruce Springsteen (not to mention Kurt Vonnegut, Steve Earle, Pete Seeger, Sam Cooke and Billy Bragg). I debuted my Vonnegut and Me book here. Also my book on when Hollywood turned left.

I tried to rally the forces that ultimately convinced President Obama not to bomb Syria last year. Very recently, I’ve attempted to do the same (with outcome uncertain) re: a return to air strikes in Iraq.

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Although the subjects ranged widely, in nearly every case I focused partly or mainly on media or pundit failures. Rarely did I go after Fox—that was too easy, as Stewart and Colbert show every week. Although hardly the worst actor, The New York Times probably drew most of my attention—for coming up short far too frequently. Several columnists—notably Bill Keller, Thomas Friedman and David Brooks but also Nick Kristof—drew criticism. At the same time, I often tipped my hat to the Times’s excellent public editor, Margaret Sullivan.

I regret that I won’t be able to write my multiple annual pieces here related to the atomic bombings of Japan in 1945, the aftermath and the nuclear lessons for today, but you can find some of the previous ones using the search function or check out my Atomic Cover-up book here.

But now, as they’ve told me, it’s time to go. If you remain interested, please check out my long-running and popular blog, Pressing Issues, which also concentrates on politics and media but with (even) more rock ’n’ roll and humor in the mix. (My e-mail remains epic1934@aol.com). For now, I’ll just quote one of this magazine’s patron saints, Woody Guthrie: So long, it’s been good to know you…I got to be driftin’ along.

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What the SCOTUS Decision Ending Obama’s Recess Appointment Power Means

Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

President Obama overstepped his power when he named three people to the National Labor Relations Board at the end of 2011, the Supreme Court decided unanimously on Thursday.

Here’s the background: since 2009, Senate Republicans undertook routine obstruction of President Obama’s appointments by wielding a filibuster that required sixty votes to break. They did this against all sorts of nominees, for offices big and small; in some cases, Republicans didn’t even bother to claim a substantive problem with the nominee. The only criteria for a filibuster, at times, seemed to be that Obama nominated that person.

One area where this was extremely problematic was the National Labor Relations Board—three members had their five-year terms expire in 2012, and Senate Republicans filibustered Obama’s replacements. With three empty seats, the NLRB would not have a quorum to function, and the practical effect would be that US labor law would no longer be enforced. (It’s not hard to see this as the GOP’s goal here).

The White House didn’t want this to happen, and Obama contemplated and ultimately made “recess appointments” to the three seats.

The law around presidential appointments during recess has historically been vague. Article II, section 2, clause three of the Constitution grants the president “power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.” That was a sensible clause for an era when it could take weeks for Congress to return to Washington via horse and buggy—if the war secretary died of tuberculosis, it would not be practical to wait that long to confirm a replacement.

In the modern era, how should that clause be interpreted? Presidents began making recess appointments when the Senate gaveled out of session, even for a few days, which was clearly within the letter of the law, though probably not the original spirit. That was legally fine—even three Supreme Court members were appointed in that fashion.

In the aughts, to prevent President Bush from placing un-confirmable nominees into office when the Senate broke for recess, Senator Harry Reid devised a strategy to hold “pro forma” sessions every three days. This consisted of a senator coming to the floor when everyone else was out of town, gaveling the Senate into session, and then right back out. As a technical matter, the Senate was always in session, and the president could not make recess appointments.

Republicans later adopted this strategy, but Obama—bolstered by a lower-court ruling that those pro forma sessions were not legitimate—decided in late 2011 to issue three recess appointments to the NLRB to keep it functioning in late 2011 in the midst of some pro-forma sessions. This is what is at issue in Thursday’s case, NLRB v. Canning.

The administration urged the justices to look at the practical matter here: the Senate was not really in session in any true sense, and the pro-forma sessions every three days were an obvious ploy by Republicans to prevent recess appointments.

The justices disagreed:

In our view, however, the pro forma sessions count as sessions, not as periods of recess. We hold that, for purposes of the Recess Appointments Clause, the Senate is in session when it says it is, provided that, under its own rules, it retains the capacity to transact Senate business. The Senate met that standard here.[…]

The Solicitor General asks us to engage in a more realistic appraisal of what the Senate actually did. He argues that, during the relevant pro forma sessions, business was not in fact conducted; messages from the President could not be received in any meaningful way because they could not be placed before the Senate; the Senate Chamber was, according to C-SPAN coverage, almost empty; and in practice attendance was not required.

We do not believe, however, that engaging in the kind of factual appraisal that the Solicitor General suggests is either legally or practically appropriate. From a legal perspective, this approach would run contrary to prece­dent instructing us to “respect…coequal and independent departments” by, for example, taking the Senate’s report of its official action at its word. From a practical perspective, judges cannot easily determine such matters as who is, and who is not, in fact present on the floor during a particular Senate session. Judicial efforts to engage in these kinds of inquiries would risk undue judicial interference with the functioning of the Legislative Branch.

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In effect, this ends all recess appointments by the president, except in a rare scenario outlined by the Court in which the House and Senate disagree about the congressional calendar.

What does all this mean? In the short term, not much: Obama withdrew those now-illegal appointments, and the Senate confirmed three others to the NLRB earlier last year. Democrats then undertook rules reform this year that eliminated the filibuster on non-judicial appointments. That removed any real need for Obama to make recess appointments.

But, should things go poorly for Democrats in November, the Senate will become Republican. If history is a guide, they will block any further Obama appointments almost as a matter of reflex. And now recess appointments will be out of the question.

The long-term implications for organized labor here are also dire, as Ian Millhiser at the Center for American Progress has been relentlessly pointing out. The three seats in question here have terms that expire in 2018.

So: imagine a scenario in which Republicans hold the Senate in 2018, and refuse to confirm a Democratic president’s nominees to the NLRB, even if they are entirely noncontroversial. There will now be no recourse, and the NLRB will go dark.


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Supreme Court Strikes Down Law That Keeps Anti-Choice Protesters 35 Feet Away From Abortion Clinics

Abortion clinic buffer zone

A sign delineates the buffer zone outside of a Planned Parenthood in Burlington, Vermont. (afagen/Flickr)

This morning, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a 2007 Massachusetts law that established and protected clinic buffer zones—a mandated thirty-five-foot distance intended to keep anti-choice protesters and self-proclaimed “sidewalk counselors” away from people seeking health services.

These zones have been credited with creating a safe, clear path for those who, for a variety of reasons, enter clinics that provide abortions. As one first-person account explained:

These protesters don’t get the fact that most people are walking in for birth control and pap tests. How would they feel if I stood outside their doctors’ office, assumed I knew the reason for their visit, and screamed at them in front of crowds of people?

Of course, those celebrating today’s ruling argue that they wouldn’t need to scream if those pesky buffer zones weren’t in place. They could instead approach patients with ease and offer their judgments, literature and whatever else they’re carrying. The Court ruled today that anti-choice advocates should be allowed to do just that, given that speech can’t be regulated on public sidewalks. The problem is that what some characterize as simply offering a different perspective and options, others see as clearly aggressive and violent, as made clear by the #NotCounseling hashtag now gaining steam on Twitter.

Late last year, a number of abortion rights advocates signed onto an amicus brief that makes the case why a decision such as what was handed down today would be a serious blow to women. Here’s a round up of some advocates’ responses today:

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America: “This decision shows a troubling level of disregard for American women, who should be able to make carefully considered, private medical decisions without running a gauntlet of harassing and threatening protesters. We are taking a close look at this ruling, as well as patient protection laws around the country, to ensure that women can continue to make their own health care decisions without fear of harassment or intimidation.”

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Jessica González-Rojas, Executive Director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health: “For too long, demonstrators outside women’s health clinics have harassed, threatened, and violated the privacy of women seeking needed services. As someone who has been assaulted by anti-choice protesters when entering a clinic for reproductive health care in the early ’90s, I know personally how critical buffer zones are for the safety and security of patients…. Buffer zone laws, like the one in Massachusetts, create a safe space, which allows reproductive healthcare facilities to meet the needs of patients, including contraception, cervical cancer screenings and abortion care. These facilities are often the only places where low-income women can access these critical services.”

Shivana Jorawar, Reproductive Justice Program Director, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum: “We know there are a multitude of barriers to women’s access to health, and protesters harassing—bullying—women is a one of them. This decision worries me for my own community, as Asian-American women already face great cultural stigma and shame around abortion and have some of the highest rates of mental health issues and suicide—we don’t need to be yelled at on the way to the clinic.”

States and cities across the country, including San Francisco and New Hampshire, have recently passed laws instituting buffer zones, while others have waited to move forward based on the outcome of the Supreme Court case.


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Will the Tea Party Actually Ditch the GOP?

Republican National Convention

The Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, on Monday, August 27, 2012 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

There’s talk, all of a sudden (and not-so all of a sudden) about whether or not the Tea Party can or will break with the Republicans and set up its own, third party. Fearful of another Mitt Romney—or, heaven forfend, Jeb Bush or Chris Christie—and sullen and angry over the well-funded establishment GOP’s ability to outfox their Senate primary candidates so far in 2014, the Tea Party is (or, rather, tea parties are) being touted as having the ability to set up a national third party that represents an anti-establishment, anti-Washington agenda. Don’t believe it for a second.

There’s one strain of thought, expressed last night on MSNBC and last year by David Frum, that the departure of the Tea Party faction from the GOP would be a “blessing” for the Republicans. In Frum’s view, expressed via CNN, the exit of the Tea Partiers would free the Republicans to appeal to centrist and moderate voters (and presumably Hispanics):

Right now, tea party extremism contaminates the whole Republican brand. It’s a very interesting question whether a tea party bolt from the GOP might not just liberate the party to slide back to the political center—and liberate Republicans from identification with the Sarah Palins and the Ted Cruzes who have done so much harm to their hopes over the past three election cycles. … Maybe the right answer to the threat, “Shut down the government or we quit” is: “So sad you feel that way. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Yesterday, on Fox News, a sputtering, nearly incoherent Sarah Palin, reacting to the defeat of the Tea Party’s extremist standard-bearer in Mississippi—and let’s face it, if the Tea Party can’t win in ultra-reactionary, Bible-thumping Mississippi, it doesn’t have much of a future—said:

Well if Republicans are going to act like Democrats, then what’s the use in getting all gung-ho about getting more Republicans in there? We need people who understand the beauty of…. the value of…allowing free market to thrive. Otherwise our country is going to be continued to be over-regulated, driving industry away, driving jobs away. We’re going to be a bankrupt, fundamentally transformed country unless those who know what they’re doing, and aren’t going along just to get along with those in power, it being today the Democrats. That does no good. So yeah if Republicans aren’t going to stand strong on the planks in our platform then it does no good to get all enthused about them anymore.

But even Rush Limbaugh thinks it’s a dumb idea to create a third party or to abandon the GOP:

I have never advocated for a third party, and I’m not advocating for one now. It’s never been the objective, and it’s just not the way to go. They don’t win. It’s an understandable knee-jerk reaction.

Of course, Rush is right, and Sarah’s off-base, though Democrats and liberals can be forgiven for crossing their fingers and hoping that the civil war in the GOP collapses the party into splinters. For Republicans, their problem is that the activist base of the GOP virtually coincides with the Tea Party, and if that faction leaves, the Republicans will be left with a handful of well-behaved evangelicals and some flag-waving, local Chamber of Commerce types.

Senator Thad Cochran’s defeat of a right-wing kook, Chris McDaniel, in Mississippi’s primary is only that latest in a series of bitter defeats for the Tea Partiers, who’ve now placed their bets on unlikely wins in Tennessee and Kansas. And it’s only heightened the anger and resentment inside the GOP over the establishment’s blitzkrieg against the Tea Party, to the point that in Mississippi some radical-right activists are talking about the unlikely prospect of running McDaniel as a write-in candidate:

Wayne Allyn Root, a libertarian commentator and onetime third-party candidate for vice president who is aligned with the Tea Party, wrote on Twitter that if Mr. McDaniel campaigned as a write-in candidate, “I’ll be in Mississippi campaigning by my friend’s side. Take Cochran down in general election.”

McDaniel, who delivered a fiery, “non-concession” speech after the vote, may encourage such foolishness, which might help elect a Democratic senator from Mississippi for the first time in decades. “There are millions of people who feel like strangers in their own party. And there is something strange, something unusual, about a Republican primary that is decided by liberal Democrats,” he said, angrily. “So much for principle!… This is not the party of Reagan! But we’re not done fighting.”

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Over at U.S. News and World Report, there’s this:

Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation echoed the former Alaska governor, saying that the tactics used by the establishment candidate proves that the “Republican In Name Only”—or RINO—wing of the party is “willing to do anything to hold on to power,” he wrote in a blog post declaring “war” against the establishment wing of the GOP. “The RINO establishment thinks they can use all kinds of underhanded tricks to win. They also think that conservatives will simply accept the results and fall in line,” he wrote. “The Republican Establishment thinks they have fought back an insurrection from conservatives and now we will meekly fall in line in November and support a RINO who needs Democrats to win? Never.”


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Putin’s Ukraine Policy Backfires


Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at the town of Krymsk, January 11, 2013. (Reuters/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Pool)

At the end of the Coen brothers’ classic 1996 film, Fargo, the intrepid law enforcement officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) famously addresses the less-than-competent bad guy after she’s arrested him:

And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.

One might say the same thing about the less-than-competent bad guy who is president of Russia, Vladimir Putin: And for what? What, exactly, has Putin accomplished by stoking fires in Ukraine, illegally annexing Crimea, mobilizing Russian forces on Ukraine’s border, backing thuggish separatists who’ve created ersatz “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine, bringing economic sanctions down on Russia, and destroying whatever good will Russia had built up by hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics? Well. I just don’t understand it.

There’s reason to be optimistic, of course, that the fighting in Ukraine will wind down, that an accord will be reached, and that the surprise talks between Kiev and at least some of the rebels will succeed.

But the entire crisis might have been avoided if Russia hadn’t gotten its britches in an uproar just because Ukraine—run, by the way, back in 2013 by a corrupt but mostly pro-Russian wheeler-dealer—wanted to sign an association agreement with the European Union. For most Ukrainians, linking up with the EU was a no-brainer—after all, what Ukrainian in his right mind, if that mind weren’t clouded by pro-Russian political or religious ideology, would prefer to tie Ukraine’s economy to the crumbling Russian one and its powerful economic alliance with, well, Kazakhstan? Now, after all the hubbub, the new president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko—far less pro-Russian than his predecessor, though still a wheeler-dealer and probably corrupt—says that he’ll sign an association agreement with the EU on June 27.

Of course, none of that means that the Ukraine crisis is over, just yet. For reasons that remain unclear, in terms of what he can accomplish, Putin is still apparently keeping the flame of rebellion in eastern Ukraine flickering, even secretly supplying the rebels there with a limited number of tanks and heavy weapons. The Kremlin is still making a fuss about the idea of Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, and Russia can create trouble in breakaway mini-republics in all three countries. Still, it seems obvious that every move that Putin has made has backfired, blown up in his face, and made things worse for him—except, perhaps, at home, where Putin has rallied ultranationalists, ex-CPSU types and the religious right to his side. But by creating a crisis over Ukraine, Putin has thrown a handful of monkey wrenches into relations between Russia and both Europe and the United States, allowed Washington to pressure the Europeans to increase military spending, strengthened advocates of NATO on both sides of the Atlantic, given hawks new leverage in the United States against President Obama’s more cautious foreign policy, and more. Way to go, Vlad!

As The Washington Post, in reporting the new efforts between the EU and the three eastern European nations, noted:

Russia’s moves have spurred neighbors to reorient westward even more quickly than they were contemplating. The deal-signing date for Moldova and Georgia was pushed up to June. Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, said he wanted to sign at the same time. Other countries with close ties to Russia also have become more cautious about binding themselves to their neighbor. Belarus and Kazakhstan signed a treaty in May establishing the Eurasian Union, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s signature attempt to build a Russian-led counterweight to the European Union, but it contains fewer provisions for political integration than he had initially sought.

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Putin, who’s blinked and blinked again during the crisis, is sending mixed signals, and it’s unclear if and how he’ll react to the EU signings. On one hand, he’s been speaking regularly with Poroshenko—yesterday, together with the leaders of Germany and France—and he’s endorsed the idea of a cease-fire and peace talks between Kiev and the rebels. And in a symbolic act—though not a practical one—Putin has asked Russia’s parliament to withdraw its authorization for Russia to invade Ukraine. On the other hand, however, the Russians have apparently moved military units back to the Ukrainian border, after having withdrawn most of them earlier, and according to US officials Russia is allowing some heavy weapons, including tanks, to move across the border into the rebels’ hands. Worse, the rebels seem to have gotten their hands on some sophisticated antiaircraft weapons, which they’ve used to deadly effect.

So what is Putin trying to accomplish, given everything that the Ukraine crisis has cost him? Despite some fears that Russia wanted to swallow Ukraine whole, à la Crimea—never a likely outcome—it seems obvious that Putin is in part trapped by and in part fueling the almost romantic and religious ties between Russia and Ukraine. Is it to create a mini-state inside Ukraine that will weaken Kiev and give Russia leverage over the country? Is it something else? Time will tell.


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Seeking Justice—or At Least the Truth—for ‘Comfort Women’

Comfort women memorial South Korea

Women carry portraits commemorating Koreans who were made sex slaves by the Japanese during World War II. Seoul. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters) 

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

On June 9, outside of Seoul, 91-year-old Bae Chun-hui took her last gasp of air at the House of Sharing, a communal home established for former “comfort women” in South Korea to live out their remaining years in peace.

Bae was kidnapped at the age of 19 and taken to Manchuria, where she was forced into sexual slavery until the end of the Second World War.

Not only did Bae die without achieving justice. In her final days, she also witnessed Japan’s shameful efforts to wash its hands of war crimes that its military committed against an estimated 200,000 women and girls from throughout Asia during the Pacific wars of the 1930s and ’40s.

Bae was among the Korean women who spoke out after the former comfort woman Kim Hak-sun broke her silence in 1991 and publicly recounted her abduction and sexual torture by Japanese soldiers. In her testimony, Kim painfully recalled: “A commissioned officer took me to the next room which was partitioned off by a cloth. Even though I did not want to go he dragged me into the room. I resisted but he tore off all of my clothes and in the end he took my virginity. That night, the officer raped me twice.”

Kim lifted the floodgates for other Korean women to come forward. Burmese, Chinese, Japanese, Filipina, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and Pacific Islander women verified that their experiences were not isolated, but were the outcome of a systematic, well-organized government program to establish “comfort stations” for Japanese soldiers throughout Asia and the Pacific.

The Japanese government has vigorously resisted calls to repent for its actions. But a growing global movement is ensuring that if Japan won’t hold itself to account for its grievous crimes against these women, then history will.

Coming Forward

In 1991, three Korean comfort women filed a lawsuit in Tokyo demanding an official apology from the Japanese government, to which Japan responded that there was no proof verifying their stories. These women, many of whom had lived their entire lives in shame and in isolation from their families, had risked everything to challenge the state’s official narrative.

They were finally vindicated when Japanese historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi scoured the Japanese Defense Ministry’s library and uncovered documents bearing the personal seals of Imperial Army officers that outlined the military’s direct management of the so-called comfort stations.

The groundswell of testimonies and official historical evidence forced the Japanese government to respond. In 1993, following an official review, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono acknowledged his government’s role in organizing military brothels and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery—an admission that became known as the Kono Statement. “Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities,” he said. Women and girls “were recruited against their own will” and “lived in misery at comfort stations under a coercive atmosphere.”

The statement hinted at a pending formal apology and reparations for the former comfort women who had risked so much to come forward. “We shall face squarely the historical facts as described above instead of evading them,” it promised, “and take them to heart as lessons of history.”

In 1995, however, the Japanese government endorsed the Asian Women’s Fund, a private effort that collected money from ordinary citizens to compensate comfort women. Many of the women refused the money, which did not come from the government and was not accompanied by any formal apology.

Revisionist History

Fast forward to 2014.

Not only has Japan failed to compensate the surviving comfort women, but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has led a nationalist campaign to adamantly deny Japan’s shameful criminal past, has revised history textbooks that previously contained information about Japan’s military sex slaves and is also threatening to revise the Kono Statement.

The issue is playing out on the international stage. The South Korean government is demanding that Japan formally apologize, as it promised in 1993, and directly give reparations to Korean survivors. But the Japanese government claims that reparations for colonial and wartime atrocities were resolved in a treaty signed between Japan and South Korea in 1965, complaining that Seoul “moves the goalposts” for domestic reasons.

In March 2014, a key aide to Abe suggested that the Abe administration would water down the Kono Statement “if new findings emerge.” The Abe government alleges that the Kono Statement was issued under pressure from South Korea and that more research was needed on the testimonies of sixteen South Korean comfort women interviewed in the Japanese study that helped produce the statement. A revised statement would almost certainly dilute Japan’s culpability or challenge the veracity of the comfort women, most of whom have since passed away.

Abe is in denial of the growing, indisputable evidence documenting Japan’s direct management of the brothels. Since 1993, Professor Yoshimi and other historians have compiled 529 documents—30 percent of them from the Japanese Defense Ministry—containing proof that the Japanese military and government trafficked girls and women from Asia into sexual slavery.

According to Japanese historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a large body of information has been gathered by the Japanese government, UN inquiries, researchers and NGOs, and is substantiated by testimonies from comfort women, brokers, military records and postwar memoirs by Japanese soldiers. “This information,” Suzuki concludes, “unequivocally documents the existence of a vast network of ‘comfort stations’ throughout the empire and including the front lines of battle.”

Monuments to the Truth

In 1992, on the eve of the Kono Statement, there were 237 living South Korean comfort women registered with the government. Today there are just fifty-four survivors, with an average age of 88.

As the number of survivors dwindles, activists have taken to installing more permanent memorials to preserve their history. Since 1992, at noon on every Wednesday, irrespective of rain or snow, Korean comfort women and their supporters have stood across the street from the Japanese embassy in Seoul, calling upon the Japanese government for justice and reparations.

On December 14, 2011, to commemorate the 1,000th protest, they installed Pyeonghwa-bi, or the Peace Monument—a golden bronze statue of a barefoot teenaged girl sitting in a chair with her hands gently resting on her lap. On her left shoulder rests a small bird symbolizing the innocence of the young girls and women forced into sexual slavery.

The following year, in July 2012, the Korean-American community organized to have a comfort woman statue installed in the Central Park of Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles. Despite tremendous opposition from the Japanese-American community and the Japanese consulate, the Glendale City Council voted in favor of erecting the memorial in tribute to the comfort women. “Despite the pressure that we had not to install this monument,” said Glendale City Councilwoman Laura Friedman, “I know that the city is doing the right thing. We stand on the side of history, we stand with the truth and we stand with the Korean population.”

And just last month, in a suburb outside Washington, DC, a comfort woman memorial was erected behind government buildings adjacent to a 9/11 memorial in Fairfax, Virginia.

“The comfort women issue is one of the earlier examples of mass performed human trafficking organized by a military and government,” says Jung-shil Lee, an art history professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design and vice president of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women. “We wanted to honor their endurance and bravery—especially under a Confucianist society—because many women wanted to kill themselves from the shame.”

The memorial, a granite stone, includes language from US House Resolution 121, a nonbinding statement organized by Representative Mike Honda (D-CA) urging Japan to apologize for forcing women into sexual slavery. “For the women still alive, and for the countless who have passed, official recognition and acknowledgment is the only way to bring proper closure to this terrible chapter of World War II history,” Honda said in a statement. As comfort women die one by one, Lee adds, the story will be forgotten. “The purpose of the memorial is to remember” and to provide “a starting point for public awareness for future generations.”

In response to vocal protests from Japanese groups, Japanese government officials and Japanese residents in Fairfax, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairwoman Sharon Bulova countered that the memorial made a symbolic stand against human trafficking happening in Fairfax. And in a letter to the editor of The Washington Post, Siyoung Choi wrote from Seoul: “Korean Americans are the largest minority group in Fairfax County (where I lived from 2002 to 2005). They may have had a particular interest in erecting the memorial. However, it is for every peace-loving soul who cherishes the intrinsic values of humanity. Such is the case with the Holocaust memorials and museum that are scattered widely throughout the United States.”

In addition to Glendale and Fairfax, New Jersey also is home to a plaque honoring the comfort women survivors.

Bringing Women Together

In recent weeks, activism on behalf of comfort women has ramped up.

From May 31 to June 3, survivors and their families and supporters gathered in Tokyo from Korea, the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Timor-Leste, Indonesia and the Netherlands for the 12th Asian Solidarity Conference on the Issue of Military Sexual Slavery. Its resolution concluded: “The Japanese Government now has the duty to respond immediately to the voices calling for justice for the aging survivors, as well as voices from the international community calling for Japan to take legal responsibility through an apology and compensation for the victims.”

This month in Geneva, 87-year-old former comfort woman Gil Won-Ok—affectionately known as “Grandma Gil”—delivered 1.3 million signatures urging the Secretariat of the UN Human Rights Council to act on behalf of the hundreds of surviving comfort women throughout the Asia-Pacific. And on June 13, Beijing announced that UNESCO’s World Memory program had accepted China’s documentation of comfort women and the 1937 Nanjing Massacre.

The comfort women issue has played a significant role in bringing women together across the Asia-Pacific to ensure justice for the survivors and to challenge the further militarization of their countries and region. “Through the action for justice for the ‘comfort women’ survivors, the women in victimized countries and women in Japan have worked together,” Mina Watanabe of the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace (WAM) in Tokyo wrote in an e-mail. “At the same time, if we can make the Japanese government accountable for the grave human rights violations of women in the past, it would become a big precedent to make any government accountable for past sexual crimes in conflict, even after half a century.”

In Within Every Woman, a forthcoming film by Canadian filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung, the lives of three comfort women from South Korea, the Philippines and China are woven together. In the trailer, Hsiung travels with Grandma Gil to Tokyo to deliver 680,000 petitions gathered worldwide to the Japanese Parliament. As Grandma Gil and another Korean comfort woman in a wheelchair approach the government building, Japanese men—old and young—curse and shout at the elderly women, “Go home Korean whore! Don’t you feel ashamed! Get out old bitch! You’re just prostitutes!”

Hsiung also had the rare chance to document the meeting of North and South Korean women this spring in Shenyang, China, to discuss how they could strengthen efforts to work together for comfort women justice. It was particularly emotional for Grandma Gil, who could hardly summon enough strength to deliver her testimony, because she was born and raised in North Korea but was unable to go home after the war due to the country’s division.

US Pressure

With geopolitical tensions on the rise throughout East Asia, many activists now hope that the US government will pressure its allies to make peace over their historical grievances. “Politically the United States is now playing a bigger role between Japan and South Korean relations,” says Hsiung. “It takes a US president to intervene for Japan to possibly respond to South Korean demands regarding the ‘comfort woman’ issue.”

On his trip to Asia in April, President Obama said in Seoul: “I think that any of us who look back on the history of what happened to the comfort women here in South Korea, for example, have to recognize that this was a terrible, egregious violation of human rights. Those women were violated in ways that, even in the midst of war, was shocking. And they deserve to be heard; they deserve to be respected; and there should be an accurate and clear account of what happened.”

In a recent letter to President Obama, US Senators Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Mark Begich (D-AK) urge him to help resolve the issue. They affirmed the president’s statement that the comfort women deserved “to be heard and respected” and that this issue was critical to improving trilateral relations with Japan and South Korea.

“The survivors’ longstanding efforts have kept the issue alive and put the issue in the international concern,” WAM’s Watanabe writes, but “the role of the U.S. is very important.” Watanabe credited US pressure with Shinzo Abe’s preservation—thus far, at least—of the Kono Statement, but said she hoped that Washington would do more. Since the Japanese government does not listen to the governments of South Korea or China, Watanabe says, “it was regrettable that the US did not push the government to make a formal apology when Obama visited Japan.” She said that seventeen foreign embassy staff participated in the 12th Asian Solidarity Conference, including two ambassadors from Africa, but that neither US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy nor any of the US embassy staff accepted invitations to attend.

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Despite Abe’s shameful efforts to deny Japan’s criminal past, he will not be able to shut down a global movement that is uniting to secure justice for comfort women. Steadily and persistently, surviving comfort women are telling their story to millions of people around the world before they die. Their allies are documenting this tragic history through film, by erecting memorials in cities around the world and having their records preserved by UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program, placing their testimonies alongside the Magna Carta and the diary of Anne Frank.

With or without an apology, comfort women are having their truth recorded around the world. “All of us are over 80 and 90 years old,” says Grandma Gil. “After we’re all dead and gone, the Japanese think it’s all going to end, but it won’t.”


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Supreme Court Kills the Old Robocop Dream

Police wearing gas mask

(Creative Commons, Tony Webster)

Today’s Supreme Court ruling against warrantless cellphone searches by the police is a welcome, if overdue, application of the Constitution’s privacy protections to the digital age. “The ruling was particularly striking,” The Nation’s Zoë Carpenter writes, “for the extent to which the Court went in affirming the idea that technological change demands a reconsideration of privacy protections.”

Quite justifiably, much of the debate about rampant government surveillance in recent years has centered on massive, global abuses by the National Security Agency and other major federal intelligence organizations. But as today’s ruling reminds us, surveillance must also be thought of as something that is done by local police organizations for purposes that have nothing to do with stopping terrorism. In both cases, digital surveillance has for far too long operated in a gray area of the law, allowing governments of all levels to invade privacy to an extent never before possible. Today’s ruling may mark the beginning of the end of that unsustainable incertitude.

In the February 3, 1997, issue, Christian Parenti—now a Nation contributing editor—published an article in our pages titled “Robocop’s Dream,” about the explosion of the use of surveillance by local law enforcement agencies, as well as, more generally, the militarization of the police. Parenti highlighted worrying trends which have only become more pronounced and more threatening over the years.

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“Heavy hardware requires heavy action,” Parenti wrote, “and that easily leads police forces to think and act like occupying armies, treating entire populations as suspect. The new hardware craze could easily lead to increased use of excessive force and invasions of privacy.”

Today, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed. It might as well have quoted Parenti’s conclusion: “The policing appropriate for a democratic society takes place on the ground, not in the over-priced, high-tech skies of Robocop fantasy.”

“Robocop’s Dream” is republished in The Nation’s latest archives e-book collection: Surveillance Nation: Critical Reflections on Privacy and Its Threats, available as both an e-book and as a print paperback. Parenti’s article represents one of the many examples of times The Nation “identified threats to privacy and liberty long before they were acknowledged by the broader public and media,” as David Cole writes in his introduction to the volume.”

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.


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Despite SCOTUS Ban, 15 States Still Have Not Passed Laws Ending Mandatory Life Without Parole for Juveniles

Juvenile facility

A juvenile offender mops the floor during his work program at Circleville Youth Center in Ohio. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

Exactly two years after the US Supreme Court ruled against mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, the majority of states affected by the ruling have not passed laws banning the practice, according to a report by the Sentencing Project.

The Supreme Court ruled five-to-four in Miller v. Arizona that mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for minors violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In her majority opinion, Justice Kagan cited research that found that “only a relatively small proportion of adolescents who experiment in risky or illegal activities develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior that persist into adulthood.”

Only thirteen of twenty-eight states that had locked up minors for life without a chance for release have passed laws to comply with the Court’s decision. Several of the states that amended their sentencing laws, however, set lengthy requirements that some juvenile advocates are still calling inhumane. For example, both Texas and Nebraska set new minimum sentences of forty years, practically guaranteeing that some juvenile offenders will spend the majority of their lives behind bars.

“It appears that many states are disregarding the spirit of the Court’s ruling. Of the states that have passed legislative responses to Miller, many replaced their laws with sentences that are as nearly as narrow-minded,” said Ashley Nellis, a senior analyst at the Sentencing Project, in a statement.

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The Miller decision did not determine whether the estimated 2,000 prisoners already serving mandatory LWOP sentences would be eligible for re-sentencing. Ten of the twenty-eight affected states have addressed this issue, passing laws or issuing court decisions that apply Miller retroactively.

The Sentencing Project's report notes that states do not necessarily have to pass new legislation to comply with Miller, but 

States’ practices of sending children to die in prison puts the United States at odds with international standards. In fact, ours is the only nation in the world that sends minors to die in prison, and is one of few that refuses to sign the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which bans the practice.

(CORRECTION, 6/26/2014): An earlier version of this post suggested that states must pass legislation to comply with Miller. In fact, some states have ended mandatory life without parole for juveniles through litigation. The headline and first paragraph of this post have been updated for clarification.


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