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Foreign Policy In Focus

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How to Get Serious About Ending the ISIS War


A June 21, 2014, protest against renewed US involvement in Iraq (AP/Sarah Walsh). 

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

The expanding US-led war on the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, has largely fallen off the radar of US social movements.

Many (but not all) who were active in anti-war organizing over the past decade have turned away from this conflict. The dearth of public debate is conspicuous, even as the US government sinks the country deeper into yet another open-ended and ill-defined military operation. The refrain “it will take years” has become such a common utterance by the Obama administration that it slips by barely noticed.

There are many reasons for the relative silence in the face of this latest military escalation. I would venture that one of them is the sheer complexity of the situation in Iraq and Syria—as well as the real humanitarian crisis posed by the rise of ISIS, the many-layered power struggles across the wider Middle East and the difficulty of building connections with grassroots movements in countries bearing the brunt of the violence.

But the answer to complexity is not to do nothing. In fact, great crimes and historic blunders—from Palestine to South Africa to Afghanistan—have been tacitly enabled by people who chose not to take action, perhaps because the situation seemed too complex to engage. When millions of lives are on the line, inaction is unacceptable.

The task is to figure out what to do.

The most important question to ask is this: Do we really think that the US military operation against ISIS will bring about a good outcome for the people of Iraq and Syria, or for US society? Is there any evidence from the more than thirteen years of the so-called “War on Terror” that US military intervention in the Middle East brings anything but death, displacement, destabilization and poverty to the people whose homes have been transformed into battlefields?

The answer to these questions must be a resounding “No.”

But there are also many things to say “Yes” to. A better path forward can only be forged by peoples’ movements in Iraq and Syria—movements that still exist, still matter and continue to organize for workers’ rights, gender justice, war reparations and people power, even amid the death and displacement that has swallowed up all the headlines.

Now is a critical time to seek to understand and build solidarity with Iraqi and Syrian civil societies. Heeding their call, we should strengthen awareness here at home of the tremendous political and ethical debt the United States owes all people harmed by the now-discredited war on Iraq and the crises it set in motion.

“U.S. Military Action Leads to Chaos”

“A rational observer of United States intervention in the swath of land that runs from Libya to Afghanistan would come to a simple conclusion: U.S. military action leads to chaos,” wrote scholar and activist Vijay Prashad a month after the bombings began.

More than thirteen years on, there is no evidence that the “War on Terror” has accomplished its stated, if amorphous, goal: to weed out terrorism (defined to exclude atrocities committed by the United States and allied countries, of course). According to the Global Terrorism Index released by the Institute for Economics and Peace, global terrorist incidents have climbed dramatically since the onset of the War on Terror. In 2000, there were 1,500 terrorist incidents. By 2013, this number had climbed to 10,000. People in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria suffer the most, the index notes.

The so-called “good war” in Afghanistan, which is now entering its fourteenth year and has not ended, illustrates this failed policy (President Obama’s recent claim that the combat mission is “over” notwithstanding).

In contradiction of the Obama administration’s “mission accomplished” spin, Afghanistan is suffering a spike in civilian deaths, displacement, poverty and starvation, with 2014 proving an especially deadly year for Afghan noncombatants. The Taliban, furthermore, appears to be growing in strength, as the United States forces Afghanistan into long-term political and military dependency with the Bilateral Security Agreement signed last September by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan is one of numerous civil society groups in Afghanistan that have no illusions about the US track record so far. “In the past thirteen years, the U.S. and its allies have wasted tens of billions of [dollars], and turned this country into the center of global surveillance and mafia gangs; and left it poor, corrupt, insecure, hungry, and crippled with tribal, linguistic, and sectarian divisions,” the organization declared in a statement released last October.

The current crisis in Iraq and Syria is another piece of this puzzle. It is now well-documented that the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 played a critical role in fueling Al Qaeda in Iraq, which would eventually become ISIS. Emerging as part of the insurgency against the United States—and now thriving off opposition to the sectarian Shiite government propped up by Washington—ISIS did not even exist before the United States invaded Iraq. Its ranks were initially filled with Sunnis who were spat out by the brutal, US-imposed de-Baathification process, and later by those disaffected by a decade of negligence and repression from Shiite authorities in Baghdad.

In neighboring Syria, the United States and Saudi Arabia backed anti-Assad fighters that were, as journalist Patrick Cockburn put it, “ideologically close to al-Qaeda” yet “relabeled as moderate.” It was in Syria that ISIS developed the power to push back into Iraq after being driven out in 2007.

Ordinary people across the region are paying a staggering price for these policies.

Last year was the deadliest for civilians in Iraq since the height of the US war in 2006 and 2007, according to Iraq Body Count. The watchdog found that 17,049 civilians were recorded killed in Iraq in 2014 alone—approximately double the number recorded killed in 2013, which in turn was roughly double the tally from 2012. And more than 76,000 people—over 3,500 of them children—died last year in Syria, according to figures from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, recently warned, “The Syria and Iraq mega-crises, the multiplication of new crises, and the old crises that seem never to die have created the worst displacement situation in the world since World War II,” with at least 13.6 million people displaced from both countries.

But instead of reckoning with these legacies, the US government has taken a giant leap backward—toward another open-ended, ill-defined military operation in Iraq and Syria.

President Obama vowed in his recent State of the Union address to double down in the fight against ISIS, declaring yet again, “This effort will take time.” His remarks came just days after the United States and Britain announced a renewed joint military effort, and the Pentagon deployed 1,000 troops to Middle Eastern states to train “moderate” Syrian fighters. That comes in addition to the 3,000 soldiers ordered to deploy to Iraq, with more likely to follow. Meanwhile, the rise of Islamophobia in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks is feeding war fervor abroad and at home.

And so the Obama administration—which falls into the political realist camp and has, at times, pressed for a moderate retrenchment of US war in the Middle East (in part to enable a disastrous pivot to Asia)—is now leading a military response to a crisis that the president himself has acknowledged cannot be solved by the US military. To do so, Obama has repeatedly sidestepped congressional debate by claiming authority from the post-9/11 war authorization against the perpetrators of those attacks—the same legislation he once denounced for “keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.” (He vowed in his State of the Union address to seek explicit authorization from Congress for the war on ISIS, but has claimed in the past not to need it.)

“As if Further Militarization Ever Brought Peace to Iraq”

As the US government makes unverified claims that American lives are under threat from ISIS, it is Muslims, Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis and Christians in the Middle East who are being killed, raped and displaced. “The occupation of the city of Mosul started a new chapter of women’s suffering in Iraq,” wrote the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq in a statement published last December. “Daesh [ISIS] reawakened the ancient tribal habits of claiming women as spoils of war.”

Meanwhile, Kurds are fighting and dying to beat back ISIS in both Iraq and Syria but are not even offered a seat at the international table. This was highlighted in the recent exclusion of Kurdish groups from an anti-ISIS conference in London of representatives from twenty-one nations.

At this conference, US Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that the coalition had “halted the momentum” of ISIS fighters, while other US officials insisted that half of the “top command” of ISIS had been killed. While global media outlets ran with this “news,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel publicly expressed serious doubt about such claims, describing the body count as “unverified.”

Furthermore, the ability of the US military—the most powerful in the world—to blow up and kill is not in question. But in a complex geopolitical arena, that’s simply not a valid measure of success. The histories of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars are tragic examples of the vast difference between killing a lot of people and winning a war.

Over five months in, US military operations in Iraq and Syria are neither alleviating the humanitarian crisis nor meeting any of the shifting goals of US officials (containing ISIS, destroying it, etc.). The perception that ISIS is primarily at war with the United States is, in fact, critical to its growth. The CIA estimated in September—just a month after US-led bombing began—that ISIS had tripled its ranks, from 10,000 to over 30,000. As Patrick Cockburn reported in early January, “The territories [ISIS] conquered in a series of lightning campaigns last summer remain almost entirely under its control, even though it has lost some towns to the Kurds and Shia militias in recent weeks.”

So while the expansion of ISIS’s frontiers may have slowed, the intervention has failed to prevent the group from consolidating its control in Iraq and Syria. “Extremism thrives during foreign interventions and military actions,” said Raed Jarrar of the American Friends Service Committee in an interview for this article. “Bombing different groups who live in the same areas as ISIS has helped unite ISIS with more moderate groups, more reasonable groups, who could have been persuaded to rejoin the political process. In Syria, bombing ISIS and other extremist groups, including Al Qaeda, has helped them unite, although they have been killing each other for the past two years.”

In addition to the crimes perpetrated by ISIS, US-backed and -armed Iraqi forces, sectarian Iraqi militias and “moderate rebels” in Syria are also committing brutal war crimes.

In July, for example, Human Rights Watch condemned the Iraqi government for repeatedly bombing densely populated residential neighborhoods, including numerous strikes on Fallujah’s main hospital with mortars and other munitions. And in October, Amnesty International warned that Iraqi Shiite militias, many of them funded and armed by the Iraqi government, are committing war crimes that include abductions, executions and disappearances of Sunni civilians. In Iraq, Cockburn writes, “The war has become a sectarian bloodbath. Where Iraqi army, Shia militia, or Kurdish peshmerga have driven ISIS fighters out of Sunni villages and towns from which civilians have not already fled, any remaining Sunni have been expelled, killed, or detained.”

In other words, US military intervention is not advancing the side with a clear moral high ground, but militarizing what Raed Jarrar calls a “bloody civil conflict with criminal forces on all sides.”

And now, of course, Iraqis must contend with the return of a far more powerful fighting force guilty of numerous atrocities and war crimes across the globe, including torture, massacres, use of chemical weapons and cluster bombing of civilians in Iraq: the US military.

In a recent statement, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq slammed the US-led military campaign for, in the midst of this humanitarian crisis, “providing further military arms and bombing only, as if further militarization ever brought peace to Iraq.” Neither the international coalition nor the Iraqi government, the statement continues, is concerned “with the enslavement of more than five thousand women who are being bought and sold in broad daylight in Mosul, Raqqa, and other ‘Islamic State’ cities.”

None of this is to overstate the coherence of the US strategy in Iraq and Syria, nor even to confirm the existence of one.

Since the bombings began in August, the United States has waffled and balked, going from support for “moderate rebels” in Syria to the announcement that it would create its own proxy force. The United States initially hesitated to militarily back Kurdish forces holding out against ISIS in the Syrian town of Kobani, and many people bearing the brunt of ISIS’s repression on the ground seem to doubt that the United States is seriously trying to stem the group’s advance. The US government has trumpeted its broad military coalition, yet seemingly turns a blind eye as its allies go on directly and indirectly supporting ISIS.

In truth, the US and global publics are kept in the dark about what the US-led military coalition is doing, how long this war will last, where its boundaries lie and what “victory” means. Obama and Kerry have both indicated that the war on ISIS will take years, but Pentagon officials repeatedly refuse to reveal basic information, like what specific duties troops on the ground in Iraq are tasked with and who is dying under US bombs in Iraq and Syria. Just last December, a US coalition bomb struck an ISIS-operated jail in the town of al-Bab, Syria, killing at least fifty civilians detained inside, according to multiple witnesses. Yet while the Pentagon has demurred that civilians “may have died” during its operations, it has refused to actually acknowledge a single civilian death under its bombs.

Alternatives to US-Led War

Some people in the United States have thrown their support behind the military operations, or at least not opposed them, out of a genuine concern for the well-being of people in Iraq and Syria. However good these intentions, though, all evidence available suggests that military intervention won’t make anyone safer.

“The first level is stopping the US from causing more harm,” Jarrar told me. “That is really essential.” According to Jarrar, a US push to stop the bombing is solidaristic in itself. In fact, he said, we can’t talk about solidarity, reparations or redress for all the harm the United States has done in the now-discredited 2003 war “while we are bombing Iraq and Syria. It doesn’t make any sense to reach out to people, ask them to attend conferences for reconciliation, while we are bombing their neighborhood.”

However, stopping the United States from further harming Iraq and Syria requires far more than simply halting the bombing and troop deployment. Washington must demilitarize its failed war on terror, not only by pulling its forces from the Middle East but by putting out the fires it started with proxy battles and hypocritical foreign policies—including its alliances with governments that directly and indirectly support ISIS, from Saudi Arabia to Turkey.

In a recent article in Jacobin about the courageous struggle of the people of Kobani against ISIS, Errol Babacan and Murat Çakır argue that the United States, and the West more broadly, should start with Turkey. “Western governments must be pressured to force their NATO partner Turkey to end both its proxy war in Syria as well as its repression of political protest,” they write. “Western leftists could also work for goals such as the removal of foreign soldiers (as well as Patriot missiles) stationed in Turkey and demand sanctions against Turkey if it continues to support” the Islamic State.

Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, argues that US power to pressure allies to stop supporting ISIS extends beyond Turkey. “A real coalition is needed not for military strikes but for powerful diplomacy,” she writes. “That means pressuring US ally Saudi Arabia to stop arming and financing ISIS and other extremist fighters; pressuring US ally Turkey to stop allowing ISIS and other fighters to cross into Syria over the Turkish border; pressuring US allies Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others to stop financing and arming everyone and anyone in Syria who says they’re against Assad.”

Meanwhile, it’s critical for the US left to step up its opposition to further escalation of the military intervention, including the upcoming White House bid to win bipartisan authorization. It will also be important to fight back against congressional efforts to sabotage diplomatic talks between the United States and Iran, which could embolden hard-line forces in both countries and open the door to further escalation in Iraq, Syria and beyond.

Toward a Politics of Solidarity

A long-term alternative to war, ultimately, can only be built by popular movements in Iraq and Syria. While we in the United States are inundated with images of death and victimization, surviving grassroots efforts in both countries tell a different story. These countries are not mere geopolitical battlefields—they are hotbeds of human agency and resistance.

Iraq saw a blossoming of nonviolent, Sunni-led movements against repression and discrimination by the US-backed government of Iraq in 2013. But the Iraqi military brutally crushed their protest encampments. This included the Hawija massacre in April 2013, discussed by scholar Zaineb Saleh in an interview last summer, in which at least fifty protesters were killed and over 100 were wounded. In a climate of repression and escalating violence, civil society organizations from across Iraq held the country’s first social forum in September 2013, under the banner “Another Iraq is Possible with Peace, Human Rights, and Social Justice.”

Amid siege from ISIS, repression from the Iraqi government and bombing from the United States and its allies, popular movements survive on the ground in Iraq. Groups like the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq are organizing emergency aid for women and families fleeing ISIS—while at the same time demanding US withdrawal, an end to Iraqi government oppression and reparations for the US-led war.

The Federation of Workers Councils and Trade Unions in Iraq, meanwhile, continues to organize workers against Saddam Hussein–era anti-labor laws that were carried over into the new government and backed by the United States. Right now, the Federation, alongside OWFI, is mobilizing within the country’s state-owned industries, which are undergoing rapid privatization and imposing lay-offs, firings and forced retirement on hundreds of thousands of workers.

Falah Alwan, president of the Federation, explained in a recent statement that the gutting of the public sector is the result of austerity measures driven, in part, by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. “We are in daily confrontations with the government, by demonstrations, sit-ins, seminars, [and] agitating the other sectors to take part,” Alwan told me over e-mail. “At the same time, we are preparing for a wide conference next March, for all the companies across Iraq, that will need support from our comrades in the U.S. and worldwide.”

Both of these organizations are collaborating with US groups—including the War Resisters League, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Madre—under the banner of the Right to Heal Initiative to press for reparations for the harm from US policies in Iraq dating back to 1991. Along with damages from the last war and the sanctions regime that preceded it, their grievances include environmental poisoning in Iraq from the US military’s use of depleted uranium, white phosphorous, burn pits and more.

Likewise, “There are still people and groups in [Syria] who are working through nonviolent means,” said Mohja Kahf, a Damascus-born author and poet, in a recent interview. “And they matter. They are quietly working for the kind of Syria they want to see, whether the regime falls now or in years.” As Kahf argued in a 2013 article, it is critical for the US peace movement to connect with movements on the ground in Syria, not only when they are threatened by bombings, and not only when they are used to win arguments against US-led military intervention.

We in the US left must take a critical—if painful—look at the harm US policies have done to the Middle East, press for a long-term shift in course and seek to understand and build links with progressive forces in Iraq and Syria. The United States has a moral obligation to provide reparations to Iraq for its invasion and occupation. But these things must be demanded now, before Washington spends one more day waging a new armed conflict based on the same failed policies.

Grassroots movements did offer an alternative to endless war following the 2003 invasion, and that needs to happen again. This dark time is all the proof we need that the United States must get out of the Middle East once and for all, and the pressure to do so is only going to come from the grassroots.

Next Steps

Building international solidarity takes time, but you can get started today. Here are a few suggestions for productive next steps anyone can take.

Direct Support. Donate to relief efforts on the ground in Iraq and Syria that are orchestrated by grassroots organizations seeking to help their communities survive in the face of ISIS. The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq has been working to provide food and winter survival gear to people fleeing ISIS and maintains shelters in Baghdad and Karbala. Furthermore, they have created a “Women’s Peace Farm” outside of Karbala, which provides “a safe and peaceful community” for refugees, according to a recent OWFI statement. Direct donations to this work can be made at OWFI’s PayPal account.

Learn. Now is a critical time for US-based movements to educate ourselves about both the histories and current realities of struggle and resistance in Iraq and Syria, as well as Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and beyond. A forthcoming book by Ali Issa, field organizer for the War Resisters League, will be important reading for anyone interested in learning more about Iraqi social movements. Titled Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq, the book is based on interviews and reports highlighting environmental, feminist, labor and protest movement organizers in Iraq.

In the process of learning about civil societies in Iraq and Syria, it is important to avoid simplistic equations that reduce all opponents of Assad to agents of the US government, and likewise regarding opponents of ISIS. As Kahf emphasized in her interview, “It is racist to think that Syrians do not have agency to resist an oppressive regime unless a clever white man whispers in their ear.… Syrians can hold two critiques in their minds at the same time: a critique of US imperialism and a critique of their brutal regime.”

There is also a great deal to learn from US civil society, including the powerful movement for black liberation that continues to grow nationwide. From Oakland to Ferguson to New York, people are showing by example that justice and accountability for racism and police killings will not be handed from above, but rather must be forced from the grassroots. This moment is full of potential to build strong and intersectional movements with racial justice at their core—a principle that is vital for challenging US militarism.

Make this live. Talk to your families, friends and loved ones about the war on ISIS. Encourage conversations in your organizations, union halls and community centers. Raise questions like, “How does US policy in the Middle East relate to our struggles for social, racial and economic justice here at home?”

The Stop Urban Shield coalition—comprising groups including Critical Resistance, the Arab Organizing and Resource Center, the War Resisters League and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement—powerfully demonstrated the connection between domestic and international militarization when it kicked a global SWAT team, police force and mercenary expo out of Oakland last September.

Ultimately, solidarity with Iraqi and Syrian people will require more than a push to end the US bombings, but long-term pressure to end US policies of endless war and militarism, in the Middle East and beyond. Building consciousness across US movements is critical to this goal.

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Pressure the US government. Grassroots mobilization can play a vital role in preventing lawmakers from charging into war. This was recently demonstrated when people power—including overwhelming calls to congressional representatives and local protests—had a hand in stopping US strikes on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2013. Mass call-ins, as well as scattered street protests, also had a hand in preventing war hawks from passing new sanctions in the midst of talks with Iran last year. It will be important to closely track any Obama administration attempt to pass explicit authorization for the war on ISIS, as well as congressional efforts to sabotage diplomacy with Iran.

OWFI wrote in a December 11 post, “With the help of the freedom-lovers around the world, we continue to survive the ongoing attacks on our society, and we will strive to be the model of a humane and egalitarian future.”

We must strive alongside them.

Members of War Times/Tiempos de Guerras contributed to this report.

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How the Left Failed France’s Muslims

French Muslims pray in the streets of Marseille. (Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier)

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

From Germany to Belgium to France, European countries have been on a manhunt for terrorists in the wake of January’s shootings at the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo and a Parisian kosher supermarket. The pursuit has been especially intense in Belgium, where officials describe their targets as jihadist sleeper cells about to mount new terrorist attacks.

But while top forces have been mobilized against migrants who have supposedly left Europe to train with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), only to return and wreak havoc in Europe, there’s another explanation for recent attacks.

The real breeding ground for extremism stems from the treatment of immigrant groups within Europe. Racial, ethnic and religious discrimination have driven a generation of young migrants to radical movements as a solution to the absence of job prospects, poor education, deteriorated neighborhoods, lack of respect and repeated bouts in jail. Ironically, the crackdown on these communities in the aftermath of the attacks could potentially escalate the problem.

Rather than focus its attention on outsized warnings about terrorists being trained abroad, European countries would do well to oppose the anti-immigrant movements at home and promote a left that can organize not only the traditional working class, but immigrants as well.

Fanning the Flames

The fear coursing through the public, and motivating public officials, is not surprising.

After all, the Western media have painted an image of thousands of home-grown jihadists returning to Europe to sow terror after they’ve received military training in Yemen, Iraq and Syria at the hands of Al Qaeda and ISIS. CNN, among the most sensationalistic of the media sources, has warned its global audience that “as many as 20 sleeper cells of between 120 and 180 people could be ready to strike in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.” And, as the narrative goes, European security agencies are barely able to follow up on them.

The sense of entering an exceptional period has been reinforced through high-profile media appearances by so-called security experts like US Senator John McCain, Interpol chief Jürgen Stock and former CIA chief Leon Panetta.

McCain has declared the threat to the West so great that only deploying American “boots on the ground” to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria will stem the terrorist tide in the West. Stock has urged hitting suspected terrorists “before they hit you.” And Panetta has said that the terrorist assault is now entering “a much more dangerous chapter” that will require more coordinated surveillance and action on the part of US and European security forces. He has warned that ISIS and Al Qaeda “are engaged in a much more aggressive effort to conduct violence not only in Europe, but I think it’s a matter of time before they direct it at the United States as well.”

The Real Threat

How much is reality and how much is fantasy when it comes to the so-called sleeper cells remains to be sorted out. What is a real threat is the treatment of migrant communities in Europe, which—to borrow Panetta’s words—is entering a new, more dangerous chapter.

In their official responses to the Paris events, Western European governments have mainly called for inclusiveness and assimilation for migrants and the Muslim community. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it in a speech preceding a Muslim solidarity rally, “Islam is part of Germany…. I am the Chancellor of all Germans. And that includes everyone who lives here permanently, whatever their background or origin.” Or as German President Joachim Gauck later said at the rally, “We are all Germany.”

But despite these words of inclusivity, migrants throughout the continent fear that the real solution entertained by increasing numbers of white Europeans is the one proposed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He declared bluntly: “We should not look at economic immigration as if it had any use, because it only brings trouble and threats to European people. Therefore, immigration must be stopped. That’s the Hungarian stance.” Ironically, Orban said this after attending the January 11 “Unity Rally” in Paris, where thousands of Muslim migrants participated, bearing the slogan Je suis Charlie.

Although these dynamics have touched many countries, France has become the epicenter of the continent’s struggle over migration. It’s home to more than 4 million Muslim immigrants, the largest such population of any country in Europe. And in France, anti-immigrant forces have a particularly vocal spokesperson in Marine Le Pen, president of the far-right National Front party.

In an op-ed piece published in the New York Times, Le Pen called not only for “restricting immigration” but also for “stripping jihadists of their French citizenship,” a proposal that many migrants took to apply to more than just active jihadists. What’s more, Le Pen’s National Front is on a roll, having won 26 percent of the vote, or 4.1 million votes, in the May 2014 elections to the European Parliament—a result French Prime Minister Manuel Valls described as “a shock, an earthquake.”

And Le Pen’s influence is likely to remain strong—recent polls predict she’ll be the frontrunner in round one of the 2017 presidential elections.

Missed Opportunities

The situation that led to the Charlie Hebdo attacks has been in the making for a long time, and addressing it earlier might have prevented some of the damage.

A decade ago, massive riots rocked the banlieues, the miserable suburbs of French cities. The 2005 riots lasted twenty successive nights and resulted in the burning of 9,000 vehicles and the destruction of eighty schools and many business establishments. They brought to the eyes of France and the world the desperation of migrant communities who inhabited the suburbs, and the tremendous resentment felt by their young people. As Mary Dejevsky of The Independent wrote, the riots offered a glimpse of the “France that is marooned between town and country, shut away behind ugly concrete walls, confined inside rotting tower blocks…the France that has failed.”

It was in these banlieues that the Charlie Hebdo gunmen—the Kouachi brothers Cherif and Said—were born, raised and worked.

Things could have gone differently. The riots could have been taken as an opportunity to truly integrate communities that had been defined as French but lacked the opportunities available to other French people. Yet for ten years, hardly any substantial reform took place to speed up the migrants’ assimilation and improve their living conditions.

One reason for the lack of reform was, paradoxically, rooted in the ideology of the French Revolution. As a French immigration specialist noted, “Our approach to integration, based on the concept that everyone is equal, is part of the problem. The idea that we are equal is fiction. Ethnic minorities are being told they do not exist.”

French official ideology is so intent on erasing particularities that the government does not allow statistics to be broken down by religion or ethnicity. As Guy Arnold explains in his book Migration: Changing the World, the result of these ideological blinders is a “resentful society of supposedly equal French citizens that has grown up in the heart of France’s capital under the blind eyes of successive governments that have simply not wanted to know.”

The treatment of immigrants has been further complicated by another legacy of the French Revolution—the core principle of laïcité, or secularism. The separation of church and state has always been strict in France. But in recent years, it has bordered on intolerance, with a devastating impact on relations between Muslims and the dominant society.

Invoking the idea of laïcité, a movement drawing support from left to right was in 2004 able to pass a law banning the hijab, a scarf that covers the head and chest, in public schools. This was followed in 2011 by another law, again with support across the ideological spectrum, that criminalized hiding one’s face in public. That law effectively banned two other traditional items of clothing worn by Muslim women: the niqab, a veil that covers the entire face except for the eyes, and the burqa, an outer garment that covers the body from head to toe.

Some analysts claim that it was not so much the ideology of laïcité that was at fault. Rather, they blame doctrinaire ideologues and self-interested politicians who allowed the issue to run out of control. Those same public figures could have appealed to common sense and tolerance, allowing these regular items of female Muslim dress to become parts of a diverse sartorial scene, as in Britain and the United States.

Failure of the French Model of Assimilation

A third reason for the absence of reform was the smug conviction among technocrats that the “French model of assimilation” was on the whole working, with the 2005 riots being merely a rough patch on the road.

In the “French model,” according to analyst Francois Dubet, “the process of migration was supposed to follow three distinct phases leading to the making of ‘excellent French people.’ First, a phase of economic integration into sectors of activities reserved for migrants and characterized by brutal exploitation. Second, a phase of political participation through trade unions and political parties. Third, a phase of cultural assimilation and fusion into the national French entity, with the culture of origin being, over time, maintained solely in the private sphere.”

What the technocrats didn’t face up to was that by the 1990s the mechanism sustaining the model had broken down. In the grip of neoliberal policies, the capitalist economic system had lost the ability to generate the semi-skilled and unskilled jobs for youth that had served as the means of integration into the working class for earlier generations of migrants. Youth unemployment in many of the banlieues reached 40 percent, nearly twice the national average. And with the absence of stable employment, migrant youth lacked the base from which they could be incorporated into trade unions, political parties and cultural institutions.

Impeded by ideological blindness to inequality, political mishandling of the Muslim dress issue and technocratic failure to realize that neoliberalism had disrupted the economic ladder to integration, authorities increasingly used repressive measures to deal with the “migrant problem.” They policed the banlieues even more tightly, with an emphasis on controlling young males—and, most notably, they escalated deportations.

When Nicolas Sarkozy took office as president of France in 2007, deportation became the preferred method of dealing with migrants. With his interior minister given free rein, a record 32,912 migrants were deported in 2011, a 17 percent rise from the year before. The minister, Claude Gueant, regularly engaged in explosive anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, linking Muslim immigrants to crime and drugs and asserting that Muslims praying in the street led to the “French no longer [feeling] at home.”

As the 2012 presidential elections drew near, Muslim- and immigrant-baiting became the means by which Sarkozy tried, unsuccessfully, to cut into Marine Le Pen’s right-wing base in order to stop Francois Hollande from being elected president.

Where Was the Left?

Notably absent as a decisive force shaping the politics of migration was the left.

That’s because, for the most part, the left had marginalized itself. The Socialists largely bought into the technocrats’ assimilation model, while the Communist Party oscillated between hostility to, and uneasy acceptance of, migrants. Failing to understand how capitalism was creating new strata of marginalized workers, the Communists largely stuck to representing, servicing and protecting their traditional industrial working-class base. Indeed, the Community Party initially displayed hostility to migrants—the party leadership voted to limit migration in 1980, and local governments dominated by the party opposed migrants’ entry into housing projects. Currently, although the party now supports the regularization of undocumented migrants, the Communists and the migrant community view each other with mutual suspicion.

This is not to say that the militant left made no efforts to organize migrants. Small Maoist groups dabbled in mobilizing them in the 1970s and ’ 80s. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist project, many progressive activists shied away from working with unorganized sectors of the working class, which they regarded as a failed agent of change.

Meanwhile, other former activists evolved into union bureaucrats. A number of militants became active in the largely middle-class-based anti-globalization movement, while some of the most promising progressive intellectuals, like the now celebrated Alain Badiou, moved from politics (he had founded the Marxist Leninist French Communist Union that had tried to organize migrants into class-conscious workers) to philosophy.

Over the past decade, one issue in particular eroded the already tenuous ties of the left to the Muslim migrant community. While all sectors could unite against racism and Islamophobia, a debilitating debate about the hijab split their ranks. Some viewed its use in public places as a violation of laïcité, while others defended the right of women to wear it.

As class politics ossified, ethnic, cultural, national and racial themes came to dominate public debate both inside and outside the banlieues. For the youth of the banlieues, the vacuum created by the absence of the left had critical consequences. As Dubet put it, “the traditional character of the left-wing activist supporting the population’s collective protest is disappearing behind the religious figure embodying the alternative route for a dignified and moral life in a city ‘outside the real world,’ in a community protected from a society perceived as being impure.”

Reading accounts of their trajectory, one cannot but entertain the possibility that under other circumstances, Cherif and Said Kouachi would probably have been ripe for recruitment into a progressive movement. But with no figure on the secular left to provide guidance to their feelings of injustice and their idealism, others filled the vacuum.

In Cherif’s case, it was Farid Benyettou, a devout Muslim of Algerian descent, who tirelessly held discussion groups with impressionable young men, encouraged them to join the jihad and set up, according to one investigative report, “a pipeline for young French Muslims” to travel to join Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda network in Iraq.

The rest, as they say, is history.

An Inevitable Ascendancy?

The real threat in France, and in Europe more broadly, is not the fantasy of a thousand jihadist sleeper cells poised to wreak havoc on society. The real threat is the repression of migrant communities by national security states. These have come with the backing of a significant segment of the majority population that has been mobilized by right-wing forces.

These forces are becoming increasingly sophisticated in popularizing their reactionary project. In her recent op-ed in the New York Times, Marine Le Pen invokes the name of the liberal icon Albert Camus and deploys republican discourse: “We, the French, are viscerally attached to our laïcité, our sovereignty, our independence, our values. The world knows that when France is attacked it is liberty that is dealt a blow…. The name of our country, France, still rings out like a call to freedom.”

Some commentators have interpreted this new style as a move “into the mainstream.” They are mistaken. It is extremist intent masked in secular republican discourse. What is unmistakable, though, is the confidence with which Le Pen now speaks to the West. It is the confidence of one who feels she is in the antechamber of power.

Is the ascendancy of Le Pen and similar far-right leaders inevitable?

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In France, as in Europe as a whole, the relationship between the dominant society and the migrant community is a story of missed opportunities, timid initiatives and failures in leadership. It is also a story of abdication. A central actor—the organized left—that had played a role in the integration and amelioration of the conditions of earlier oppressed and exploited communities deserted the scene, leaving the field to racists and religious fundamentalists.

A secular left that could bridge the growing gulf between communities by asserting—beyond real differences of religion, culture and ethnicity—the overriding common interest of people as workers that are exploited and divided by an aggressive neoliberal capitalism, and rally them around a transformative emancipatory project, is still Europe’s best antidote to the brewing maelstrom. Whether the European left is up to the challenge, however, is another story.

Read Next: Walden Bello on the fatal encounter between a transgender woman and the US Marine Corps

Putting Boko Haram in Context

Nigerian soldiers

Nigerian soldiers stand guard in Kano after an attack by Boko Haram. (Reuters)

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

The ongoing humanitarian and human rights crisis in northeastern Nigeria has deteriorated with the recent cross-border military clashes between Boko Haram and the military forces of Cameroon and Chad, as well as with Boko Haram’s attacks on the northeastern Nigerian cities of Monguno and Maiduguri.

Initial reports from the strategically important city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State visited by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan only the day before, claimed that Boko Haram had routed the Nigerian forces deployed to defend the city. However, updated reports indicated that the Nigerian military was able to prevent the fall of Maiduguri, at least temporarily.

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Nigeria as the crisis was unfolding and pledged that the United States would support efforts to meet the threat to the internal security of Nigeria and surrounding nations. The presidents of Chad, Niger and Cameroon, along with the Nigerian administration, have declared that they will carry out military actions to crush the Boko Haram insurgency.

The chairperson of the African Union, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, stated that the situation in Nigeria would be a priority item at an upcoming AU meeting. Nigerian authorities, however, have rejected the need for AU or United Nations intervention. For them, West African regional authorities can address the issue through collective military actions.

My position, however, is that a purely military response will only exacerbate an insurgency whose roots lie in the complex socio-historical conditions and internal contradictions of northeast Nigeria. Those conditions include massive poverty, feudal social and economic relationships that are deeply entangled with ethnic and religious affiliations, and an elite intra-class politics in which control of the Nigerian state apparatus is the ultimate prize.

The advocates of a purely military response ignore or are unaware of the fact that before Boko Haram went underground to wage its military campaign against the Nigerian state, it represented a mass movement that had a significant popular base. And while the war may have eroded that popular base and Boko Haram’s connections to the elite of northern Nigeria, to ignore the socioeconomic conditions and religious and ideological factors that still provide the foundation for Boko Haram’s recruitment and popular support is to fall prey to the simplistic caricatures projected in the Western media and mimicked by the African press.

There is no doubt that Boko Haram has committed egregious crimes against humanity. But so has the Nigerian government. In every major city and town that is being contested militarily, from Baga to Maiduguri, it has been documented that the Nigerian authorities committed massive human rights violations including torture, extrajudicial killings, house burnings, kidnapping and rape. The targets of those violations were members and suspected members and supporters of Boko Haram and their families.

Abstract moralism will confuse the complex confluence of social and historical forces that shaped and are shaping the realities of Nigerian society and contextualize the rise of Boko Haram. Embracing the simplistic explanation that Boko Haram represents an alien force of wide-eyed fanatics who use terror tactics to conquer and rule over territory and people may be attractive to the intellectually lazy, but it by no means explains the reality of the situation, even if that characterization reflects some elements of truth.

There are no innocents in this conflict except the people who are losing their lives, having their towns and cities destroyed and children disappeared. Powerful forces in both the United States and Nigeria are benefiting from the chaos and death in that country. The US Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) strategic objective of establishing closer military relations with nations in Africa in which the United States has vital interests is certainly being satisfied as a result of the insurgency. And because of the security issue, the northern-based All Progressive Congress has a good opportunity to dislodge the Democratic Party of President Goodluck Jonathan in the upcoming Nigerian elections.

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But no matter who wins the election or whatever military force is raised and thrown against Boko Haram in the future, it is likely that the insurgency will continue. That’s because the fuel for the insurgency will continue to be provided by elites in Nigeria and the United States—just as in other parts of the world where armed groups resist (and exploit) the politics of indifference, Western-style counterinsurgency violence, poverty, official corruption and the hypocrisy of the Western civilizational model.


Read Next: Creeping interventionism in Nigeria 

From Detroit to Dublin, a Fight for the Right to Water

Protesters in Dublin

Protesters in Dubin (Brian Fitzpatrick/Foreign Policy in Focus) 

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

It’s lunchtime at a quiet bar and restaurant by Dublin’s River Liffey, and a man in his 30s walks in holding a copy of his résumé. He wants to leave it for management to look over.

“Sorry, waste of time,” the server says bluntly, raising her hand two feet off the counter. “I’ve résumés up to here behind the bar.”

The whole exchange takes maybe ten seconds, but the surrounding silence makes it an awkward one. As the man shuffles out, the expressions of the few patrons are full of sympathy, but not surprise. They soon turn back to their food.

Just a few years after the death of Ireland’s famous “Celtic Tiger” economy, Dublin is a different place. For the majority, it’s a lot harder to catch a break.

On this quiet December Tuesday, talk is dominated by the following day’s water charges protest, and how a €3 per week payment will bring tens of thousands onto the streets. In the free-wheeling days of a decade ago, many would have laughed at the idea. This, however, is a changed country.

In 2008, as Irish banks faced collapse, a calamitous blanket bank guarantee was agreed, which in turn had necessitated a €67-billion EU-IMF bailout by 2010. Years of pain followed, as taxpayer money was used to prop up speculators who had fueled a giant property-based bubble.

Since the implosion, Ireland has endured round after round of maddening austerity, but to the surprise of many, this inner anger hasn’t translated into rage in the streets, as it has elsewhere in Europe.

The official line is that this patience and understanding is now being rewarded. The country has since exited the bailout, and there are signs that a corner has been turned. Unemployment is at 11.3 percent, down from a high of 14.7 percent in 2012. It may even drop to around 9.7 percent this year. After surviving a series of regressive budgets, the country is back on its feet.

Yet now, after years of simply “getting on with it,” it looks as if a new plan to charge Irish residents some €160 per year for water could finally be the drop that spills the cup.

Almost from nowhere, people are digging in as the Fine Gael/Labour Party coalition government attempts to impose new water treatment and consumption charges on the public. Rallies are ongoing against the new semi-state body Irish Water, set up to satisfy EU-IMF demands.

As numbers grow, the protestors have an unlikely ally in their corner: the Detroit Water Brigade.

As Detroit has sunk into its own economic hell, this volunteer group has provided bottled water and rainwater barrels to embattled communities facing water shut-offs stemming from unpaid bills. Local activism has already squeezed certain concessions from authorities. In the long term, they’re pushing for an income-based ceiling on water charges for their city.

After bringing international attention to Detroit, the collective arrived in Dublin recently at the invitation of Right2Water, a gathering of Irish community groups, opposition politicians, and union leaders who oppose Ireland’s water plan. Not restricted to the capital, they toured the country to pass on lessons learned in Michigan.


The suburb of Crumlin is as “Dublin” as it gets. The night before the demo, the visitors are given a roaring welcome at a local sports hall, where a crowd hangs on their every word. The Americans offer solidarity, but they’re also taking an active role in preparations for the following day.

Detroit’s Makita Taylor, a mother of six, outlines her own experiences with water shut-offs, insisting the Irish must not take their government at its word when it says the same will not happen here.

“You have absolutely no reason to think it can’t happen to you,” she tells her audience.

“The government is banking on ignorance, so educate yourselves as you have been doing. Really encourage each other to care.”

In Detroit, water is publicly administered. However, as the city emerged from bankruptcy, striking deals with Water and Sewerage Department bondholders and chasing delinquent debts to quickly raise revenue became major priorities. An estimated one in five Detroit residents lives on $800 or less a month, but the average monthly water bill is now over $70, with the council recently approving an 8.7-percent hike. With many families unable to make those payments, water access has been cut off for thousands.

After a recent visit to the city, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported a crisis stemming from the surge in disconnections, with 27,000 water shut-offs in 2014 alone.

“We were deeply disturbed to observe the indignity people have faced and continue to live with in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and in a city that was a symbol of America’s prosperity,” the UN report read.

“We were also distressed to learn from the low-income African-American residents of the impossible choices they are being compelled to make—to either pay their rent or their medical bill, or to pay their water bill.”

Back in Ireland, Minister for Health Leo Varadkar made headlines when he said it “really bothers” him that people are protesting about what for many may amount to a €3 per week charge. There are “much bigger problems in Irish society,” he said, yet there is no bigger problem facing his government than water.

After protests in November 2014, the government made concessions, which included a climb-down on water metering. Single adult households are now slated to pay a basic €60, with every other household paying €160 (after €100 rebates are factored in). With metering set to apply above a certain quota, the original base figure had been estimated at €240. The flat rates will now remain in place until the end of 2018.

But the protestors are calling for the abolition of Irish Water altogether, not concessions. If they give a financial inch now, they say, a mile will be taken later. The government has promised Irish Water won’t be privatized, but the public smells a rat.

The government says water is leaking away at dizzying rates, and charges are needed to overhaul an antiquated system which has seen hundreds fall ill with cryptosporidium poisoning. They insist Irish Water’s rates are among the lowest in Europe. Those against, however, say they have long paid for their water as part of general taxation, and that people are now being forced to pay twice.


Compounding matters, the government assured people that Irish Water would be “a very cost-effective and lean operation,” but it has been anything but. Consultant fees have reached €85 million. The Irish Times recently pointed out that Irish Water spends some €81,000 a week on legal fees, enriching three Dublin law firms to the tune of €5 million since August 2013.

Questions have also been raised over the granting of lucrative contracts to install water meters nationwide, with the cost of the devices reaching €540 million, despite the fact that they now won’t be fully utilized for years.

Slowly, unrest has grown. Residents have confronted water workers, in some places blocking meter installations. So-called “meter fairies” have been removing meters from outside homes, and residents have appeared in court.

Since 2008, Irish people say it’s been all take and no give. Incomes have fallen dramatically, but taxes have ballooned, with various levies dreamed up to cover the bailout. The oft-repeated line is that Ireland enjoyed the good times, and therefore had to take its punishment, but cracks have slowly appeared in this argument.

“People were told they all partied,” says David Gibney of Right2Water. “And a lot of people believed that. But as time has gone on, you get the Anglo Tapes and all the rest of it coming out, and people say: ‘Hold on a second—that wasn’t me partying. [A small number of] people partied, and we have to pick up the bill.’”

The Anglo Tapes Gibney refers to are tape recordings that emerged in 2013, centered on the collapse of Anglo Irish Bank, which began in 2008. In one phone call, two Anglo executives discuss a request for rescue funds from state coffers. Asked where he came up with an initial figure of €7 billion, one banker says to another that he “picked it out of my arse,” with the pair heard laughing about how the debt would never be paid back. Anglo famously went on to cost Irish taxpayers €30 billion.

The tapes caused uproar when released, but they did nothing for anyone’s bank balance, and the financial pain caused by such malpractice has continued.

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Finance Minister Michael Noonan recently admitted that the Universal Social Charge, for example—which takes in €4.5 billion per year and was sold to taxpayers as a temporary measure—is now not likely to be abolished.

Rents and housing prices are again soaring—residential properties jumped 16.3 percent in the year to October 2014—but services have been shredded. The health system is in crisis. Although the collapse occurred under the previous government, the current coalition has broken a raft of election promises, not least on government “advisor” salaries. The perception is that insiders and cronies benefit at the expense of everyone else.


As the march kicks off, police report that a crowd of 30,000 has gathered, but organizers put the figure closer to 100,000. The truth is somewhere in between. Some protestors are arrested after a sit-in at O’Connell Bridge. A policeman is injured after an object is thrown, but things remain relatively peaceful.

At the main rally behind government buildings, which goes on all afternoon, independent left-wing MP Clare Daly takes to the stage and says those present are “living in a moment that changed Ireland.”

“Irish Water is already dead,” she says. “We are here to bury it.”

All walks of life are present, but some are more present than others. The Sinn Féin party has banners everywhere, and its figurehead, Gerry Adams, gets the rock-star treatment from a large section of the crowd when he appears. Some, though, bemoan the “hijacking” of the event by politicians who have next year’s general election in mind, if indeed a vote doesn’t come sooner.

Irish Water is not yet dead, and Ireland hasn’t really changed, despite Daly’s enthusiasm. Yet something is clearly stirring. Unconcerned by local squabbles, DeMeeko Williams of the Detroit Water Brigade is fired up when asked for his thoughts.

“Do not let them take this water,” he says. “Or else you will end up just like us. A lot of the things that have happened in Detroit will come to Ireland.

“When we were out in Crumlin and we saw the water meters being installed, [we said] ‘Why are you letting them put them in? Shut them down!’ And they stood with us. That was awesome. You are standing up for your children and for Ireland.”

Back on stage, local stars Damien Dempsey and Glen Hansard belt out Brendan Behan’s famous song “The Auld Triangle.” Chatting afterwards, Oscar-winning singer Hansard gets to the point.

“Yes we voted in the government,” he says. “But there’s a growing sense of: ‘who are we voting in, and who are they supporting?’ Because it seems like they’re not supporting the people. We don’t mind paying our taxes, nobody does. It’s just…don’t take the piss.”

Reflecting after the dust settles, Right2Water’s Gibney feels the Detroit group’s visit was a massive boost, and says the trans-Atlantic cooperation will continue. An Irish visit to Michigan is being discussed.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say we have nothing in common with the people of Detroit,” he says.

“But the people who’ve spoken to them can see it’s exactly the same situation, it’s just that they’re twenty years ahead of us. They kept referring to themselves as the Ghost of Christmas Future from Scrooge, which made sense to a lot of people.”

“You have 1.7 million people in Ireland with less than €100 at the end of the month,” he goes on, using figures from the Irish League of Credit Unions. “And they’re told: ‘It’s only €3 a week’. [That’s] a lot to somebody who has no money, when their rent has just gone up 10.5 percent. You can only shake a can of Coke a certain amount before it explodes.”

One new poll has both government parties at their lowest ratings in a decade, with Fine Gael at 21 percent and its partner the Labour Party running at just 6 percent. An Irish Sunday Independent survey found that “less than two in five householders” have said they will eventually pay the revised fees. The protests, meanwhile, will go on.

“I think they’re on the run,” Gibney concludes. “Most of the time politicians can talk their way around things, but nobody is pulling the wool over people’s eyes on this issue.”

Read Next: Brian Fitzpatrick on violence in Colombia.

Haiti’s Political Earthquake

Hatian police in Petionville

Hatian police in Petionville (Reuters/Lee Celano) 

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

Five years after the now-infamous Haitian earthquake, the small country faces another crisis.

As Haitians mourn the earthquake that robbed them of their loved ones and livelihoods, they’ll also be treated to yet another meltdown of their government. With President Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly and members of the opposition proving unable to organize parliamentary elections, the political gridlock that has been plaguing Haiti for over three years has turned into a full-fledged crisis as the country’s legislature has dissolved—leaving a de facto dictator in charge.

In the weeks leading up to the dissolution of what had been left of the Haitian government, pundits argued and radio talk-show hosts held lively debates about the crisis. As days kept passing, a concrete resolution wasn’t even on the horizon. Tensions in Port-au-Prince were running high.

No Elections, No Peace

Glittering up above a backdrop of shantytowns and poorly constructed shacks is Petionville, the wealthy suburb of Port-au-Prince. On Bourdon Street, informal merchants sell art to the upper class and brand-new hotels appear to spring up weekly along the quiet suburban streets. Petionville is home to the tiny Haitian elite, and up here Martelly is beloved.

Despite his political shortcomings, posters donning his face and his nickname—Tet Kale, which is a term of endearment conferred to bald men—are still plastered throughout the neighborhood. Men and women sit in front of pro-Martelly murals. It’s no secret: Petionville is solid Martelly territory.

But down below in Port-au-Prince, anti-government protests have been going on for months. Martelly’s failure to organize parliamentary elections has fueled demonstrations calling for his resignation. The impasse was caused by disagreements over the creation of an election council that would be tasked with implementing an electoral law and overseeing the voting. The election in question should have been held in 2011 and filled twenty seats in the Senate, all ninety-nine seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 140 municipal positions.

Even Haitians who tepidly support Martelly still criticize his failure to organize the elections. Jean Maret Josef, an educator in Carrefour, a crowded suburb of Port-au-Prince, makes it clear that he’s not an expert on politics. On a scale of 1 to 10, he offered Martelly a score of 6. “He could have done a lot better. I can’t give him more because he was supposed to hold elections!”

Per the Constitution, the terms of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies expired on January 12—the fifth anniversary of the earthquake—effectively allowing the US-backed Martelly to rule by decree for the remainder of his term.

The opposition, however, is not going down without a fight. Highly coordinated protests are rocking downtown Port-au-Prince. E-mails from the State Department to US citizens in Haiti warn that protests “can arise and escalate quickly, and even turn violent.” They advise Americans who find themselves in the midst of a protest to leave the area immediately.

Demonstrators have burned tires and police officers have fired tear gas. But the most egregious act came on December 12, when a UN peacekeeper opened fire on protesters in Port-au-Prince, exacerbating the already fraught relationship between the stabilization mission and the public.

Failed Attempts to Avoid a Crisis

Several feeble attempts have been made to avert the political crisis, but most have left Haitians and observers dismayed at best. Martelly convened a presidential commission to forge a path forward. The commission recommended that Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe resign, along with a few other officials.

The final report also asked that Martelly show restraint during his reign as a de facto dictator. Including that caveat was a sure sign that no one believes the crisis is going to be averted.

Lamothe’s forced resignation in December left more questions unanswered. How would his resignation lead to elections? When protesters are calling for the whole regime to step down, how could the departure of just the prime minister appease the opposition and lead to an agreement? Unsurprisingly, the protests continued. No consensus on elections was achieved.

On December 29, another political accord was reached. This time Martelly met with opposition leaders and reached an agreement that would have allowed the terms of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies to be extended past January 12. However, the agreement came with one major caveat: an electoral law had to be approved. After years of gridlock, it was hard to imagine that in less than two weeks any such thing would happen.

The final attempt came late on January 11, just hours before the clock struck midnight. Martelly and some opposition leaders agreed to hold elections before the end of 2015 and to create a nine-member panel for the election council, which will not include any members of government. It’s hard to see how this accord differs from any of the others. And according to Al Jazeera, not every member of the opposition accepted the latest accord.

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Despite these last-ditch efforts to save Haiti from spiraling into yet another disaster, the government officially dissolved on January 12, and Michel Martelly is now ruling by decree, much to the opposition’s dismay.

The UN Security Council is set to arrive in Haiti on January 23. Its main goal will be to press for elections, even though no one has managed to cobble together an election law acceptable to both sides for several years now. Since the earthquake, Haiti has dealt with a forceful return of international meddling, a cholera outbreak caused by the UN and now—on the earthquake’s fifth anniversary—instead of recovery and reconstruction, Haiti gets yet another disaster.

Read Next: Nathalie Baptiste on the Baby Doc legacy in Haiti.

Latin America’s Lesson for the US: Prosecute the Torturers

Protest against torture

(AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

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

The Senate Select Intelligence Committee report on torture has revived debate worldwide about the US use of torture in the aftermath of 9/11. ­

Some have applauded the report—including organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the Center for Constitutional Rights, which have pushed for a full accounting of the use of methods prohibited by US and international law, as well as accountability for those who made such methods official state policy. They also note significant shortcomings—including the Senate’s failure to release the full report, a four-year delay in the release of the summary and the redaction of key information, including details that would help establish a clear chain of command.

Those who supported the torture policy—including some of those who put it in motion, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney—have decried the report, accusing its authors of bias and reasserting their claims that torture helped keep the United States safe from further terrorist attacks (a claim never proven). But they do not deny that torture was used.

As an academic and longtime human rights activist, I welcome the release of the Senate report. Hard-nosed fact-finding and truth-seeking is important in the aftermath of atrocity. A report of this nature can help set the record straight about what happened and determine, based on careful review of the evidence, whether such atrocities were the doing of a few “bad apples” or of systematic state policy. This is important even though it was known long before release of the report that the US use of torture was indeed official state policy during the Bush years.

A report like this can also generate national debate about controversial “interrogation” methods, help citizens evaluate and re-evaluate their views of such methods and determine whether these assessments should be followed by other actions—including, potentially, criminal prosecutions.

Many of my fellow US citizens vehemently repudiate the use of torture, at home or abroad. I have worked over the years with hundreds of academics, practitioners and activists in the United States who have dedicated their lives to ending torture and other human rights abuses in Latin America and around the world.

Yet others believe the official discourse repeated ad nauseam during the Bush years that torture—referred to euphemistically as “enhanced interrogation techniques”—was both necessary and effective in obtaining key information to prevent future attacks.

As I write this, I’m listening to an NPR reporter interview a former CIA official during the Bush years who is repeating such claims. When the reporter presses him for concrete examples, he only cites opinions of government officials, demurring that perhaps such information could have been obtained using other methods, but, if so, would have taken more time.

Such disingenuous statements should fool no one at this point, yet I know that many continue to hold this belief. It’s my hope that they will read this report and be shocked by its revelations: that the United States of America, which purports to be a beacon of freedom and liberty, a defender and advocate of human rights, sanctioned the use of torture—and that this is not only a juridical aberration, but a moral one as well. It is my hope that it will lead them to rethink their views, and repudiate torture and its use forever, here and around the globe.

Which leads me to my second point about the Senate report. Its revelations are important on their own, but they also underline the fact that the US government engaged in patently illegal behavior, both by the standard of its own law and by the standard of international law. The UN Convention against Torture, which the United States signed and ratified—and as such is bound by its provisions—establishes not only the illegality of torture, but also the obligation of states to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for committing torture. The United States stands in blatant violation of its international obligations by failing to move forward on a credible path of criminal prosecutions of those most responsible for the torture program. As such, it undermines its standing in the international arena—and obliterates its credibility as a defender and advocate of human rights around the world.

My own research focuses on Latin America, a continent that, when I first began working there, was beset by brutal military dictatorships and civil wars. Many of the countries emerging from the dark night of authoritarianism and civil conflict turned to a relatively new practice: the creation of official commissions of inquiry, dubbed “truth commissions,” that set out to investigate fully the abuses of the past, acknowledge the horrors endured by victims and make recommendations to provide repair to victims and ensure that such abuses never occur again. The catchphrase Nunca mas! (“Never again!”) became the rallying cry of a generation emerging from the dungeons of dictatorship and one of the cornerstones of the modern human rights movement.

Several Latin American countries—including Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru—created official truth commissions to investigate the abuses of past dictatorships.

In the early experience of truth commissions, only Argentina sought to link truth-seeking with criminal prosecutions of those most responsible for the design and implementation of a systematic policy of forced disappearances. Several former generals were indeed prosecuted and convicted as the intellectual authors of these crimes, but military unrest led the new democratic government to impose amnesty laws to limit further prosecutions. Later a blanket amnesty was imposed, ending prosecutions completely, and those few who had been prosecuted were set free, installing institutionalized impunity.

Elsewhere, fragile transitions in which the army remained powerful and seemingly threatened the new democracies led leaders to avoid prosecutions altogether, focusing primarily on truth-seeking and, in some cases, reparations for victims. In Chile, for example, President Patricio Aylwin, heeding the warning of outgoing dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet that “not a hair on the heads of my men will be touched,” demurred in favor of a policy of “justice insofar as possible.” That meant that torturers continued to enjoy their freedom, while victims were robbed of their right to justice for the wrongs committed against them—including torture, forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and sexual violence.

But today, years later, many Latin American countries have moved past this situation of impunity for human rights abuses. Amnesty laws have been overturned or ignored, and criminal trials have moved forward in several countries, including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Peru and Guatemala. This has not been a linear or uncontested process—indeed, in many instances there have been setbacks, as in the quick overturning of the genocide verdict against former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Rí­os Montt last year—but the fact remains that Latin America is leading the way in demonstrating that it is possible to investigate and prosecute some of the worst abuses committed during prior governments.

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Some of the most heinous dictators of the region have been tried and convicted—Argentina’s Jorge Rafael Videla, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori and Uruguay’s Juan María Bordaberry, to name a few—and democracy in those countries is the stronger for it. On December 10, the Brazilian National Truth Commission—fifty years after the military carried out a coup d’état and established one of the longest-standing dictatorships in modern Latin American history, and twenty-nine years after the transition to democracy in 1985—released its own report, outlining the abuses committed during its dictatorship and calling for prosecutions of the surviving military officers responsible for these horrendous abuses.

I refuse to believe that it is not possible for the United States to do the same. We are a wealthy, powerful nation with a robust democratic tradition. If we do not prosecute those responsible for torture, we run the risk not only of such heinous practices being used again, but of destroying the very democracy we claim to hold so dear.

Torture is an affront to human dignity. It cannot be justified, ever. And when it is done in our name, it is our responsibility to act: to stand up, say never again and insist that those responsible be held accountable.

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Chilean Activists Change the Rules of the Game

Camila Vallejo

Camila Vallejo (Aneas De Troya/CC BY 2.0)

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

In 2011, students in Chile made headlines when they launched a nationwide strike lasting almost eight months.

The trigger was high tuition costs that drove students and their families into debt. There were coordinated marches in all major cities. At some universities, students took over buildings. The marches took on almost a carnival atmosphere, with students engaging in “kiss-ins” and pillow fights.

Before long, the marches became multifaceted. Opponents of the massive HidroAysén dam project in Patagonia joined in. Students and trade unions joined forces when workers staged strikes and marched in Santiago and other major cities.

Tasha Fairfield, an assistant professor for the London School of Economics’ Department of International Development, said the strikes were pivotal. “The student movement played a critical role in creating political space,” Fairfield said. It “dramatically changed the political context in Chile and helped to place the issues of Chile’s extreme inequalities centrally on the national agenda.”

Although most of the demonstrations were peaceful, some demonstrators wanted more direct confrontation with the police. Masked protesters armed with stones clashed with police forces equipped with riot gear, tear gas and armored vehicles with water cannons. The harshness of the government crackdown drew international criticism.

More than two-thirds of the population supported the student movement and its demands for education reform. The students consistently rejected the government’s attempts to appease the protesters as grossly insufficient. Their goal was free university tuition. President Sebastián Piñera, the first conservative president since the 1988 plebiscite that ended Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, saw his ratings plummet to the lowest of any leader in the post-authoritarian era. Ordinary Chileans had made clear that they wanted to see changes in their society.

This set the stage for Michelle Bachelet to run for election in 2013. She was previously president from 2006 to 2010, but Chile’s laws prevented her from running for a second consecutive term.

This time around, her platform was much more radical. Bachelet pledged to reform the tax system and, with the increased revenue, reform the education system. She won the election and immediately took the first step. She raised the corporate tax rate and closed significant loopholes.

The 2013 Elections

Bachelet was backed by the Nueva Mayoria (New Majority), a center-left coalition made up of her own Socialist Party, the Christian Democratic Party and the Party for Democracy, among others. After falling just short of an absolute majority in the first round of elections, Bachelet won handily in the runoff, taking home over 62 percent of the vote.

The elections remade the legislature. Isabel Allende (from the Socialist Party), daughter of Salvador Allende, became the first woman president of the Senate. Several student leaders, including Camila Vallejo (of the Communist Party) and Gabriel Boric (an Independent), launched political careers by winning their bids to join the Chamber of Deputies. The left was swept into power by a wave of public support and gained strong majorities in both houses of the National Congress.

Bachelet had been given a clear mandate. The government put together a package that would raise corporate income taxes from 20 percent to at least 25 percent and close tax loopholes for companies and wealthy business owners. The changes promised to bring in an estimated $8.3 billion each year. The government pledged to put half of these funds toward providing free education for all Chileans by the year 2020 and to roll back the for-profit schools that emerged during Pinochet’s dictatorship. The remainder would be used to improve the healthcare system and other social programs.

The bill easily passed through the Chamber of Deputies. When it moved over to the Senate it ultimately secured a 33-1 victory, although some changes were made to placate some of the more moderate and conservative doubters of the reform.

“The government negotiated various compromises on the bill in the Senate in order to secure votes from the Christian Democrats,” Fairfield said.

On September 28, Bachelet signed the bill into law.

Debate over Tax Reform

In a key tactical move, the corporate tax hikes touched only the largest firms. An estimated 95.5 percent of businesses will not face higher taxes. This expanded the measure’s base of support and somewhat insulated the reformers against the charge that the bill was anti-business.

Beyond raising the corporate tax rate, the reform targets the profits of large businesses and their owners in other ways. The law eliminates the FUT (Taxable Profit Fund), a provision that allowed businesses to set profits aside without paying taxes on them— funds that at last count held $270 billion.

The reform also addresses the owners of these businesses. In years past, wealthy business owners enjoyed incentives to avoid withdrawing all of their income from the company’s profits so that they would pay the more favorable corporate tax rate of 17-20 percent compared to nearly 40 percent, the highest personal income tax bracket. However, the owners would then find ways for the profits to make their way back into their own pockets, either legally or illegally. The tax reform therefore opened up a new range of taxable income, money previously out of the government’s reach.

There is some concern that the tax reform will drag down the already faltering Chilean economy. Opposition groups claim the new rules will hurt future investments, and this seems to resonate with the public—Bachelet’s approval rating has dipped below 50 percent.

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However, Justice Minister José Antonio Gómez insists that on the contrary, with more than 50 percent of the $8.3 billion going toward implementing free, quality education, it will in turn result in increased productivity. Even if productivity fails to rise immediately, the political support of thousands of households with college students who see their tuition bills cut in half or more is likely to create a broad constituency to keep core elements of the tax and spending package in place.

It is unlikely that any significant changes will be made affecting the new law before the next presidential election in 2018 because senators are elected for eight-year terms and deputies serve four years (half the Senate and the entire Chamber of Deputies are selected every presidential election). This allows time for the law to be fully integrated into the system without being derailed by detractors focusing on immediate concerns.

Although many of the protests of 2011—the year of Occupy Wall Street—have faded, Chilean students and workers managed to win many of their demands. This experience offers important lessons for popular movements struggling for similar goals around the world. By focusing on tangible demands, making broad partnerships and linking to the larger platform of economic inequality, Chilean protesters changed the rules of the game.


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The Life and Times of Michael B

Protesters confront a police officer Tuesday, November 25, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

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

Economic inequality is a hot topic in America these days. It is the subject of hefty bestsellers, presidential addresses and even Hollywood movies. The issue has even appeared on the radar screen of foreign policy pundits.

In the November 28 Washington Post, former assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell writes about how “income inequality undermines U.S. power.” Campbell writes about how the growing divide between rich and poor undercuts US “soft power” and saps US ability to compete economically with a thriving Asia.

It’s unusual for former State Department officials like Campbell to delve into ostensibly domestic issues. Perhaps income inequality has become so unavoidably grotesque that it has begun to worry even the foreign policy elite. Perhaps Campbell’s essay is a trial balloon for his mentor, Hillary Clinton, as she tests which issues might play well in the 2016 presidential campaign.

What makes the essay particularly interesting, however, is what Campbell doesn’t address. He doesn’t discuss how US policies accentuate global inequalities. Nor does he appreciate how the wealth gap at home is reinforced by US foreign policies on resource extraction, for instance, or global trade.

But the most glaring absence from Campbell’s essay is the word “race.” Reading his piece, you might come away with the impression that inequality is not a black-and-white issue.

But it is.

Apartheid America

Consider these two astounding facts: “The United States incarcerates a higher proportion of blacks than apartheid South Africa did. In America, the black-white wealth gap today is greater than it was in South Africa in 1970 at the peak of apartheid.”

This quote comes from Nicholas Kristof, who has been publishing a series in The New York Times under the title “When Whites Just Don’t Get It.” In an earlier column in the series, Kristof points out that whites in South Africa owned fifteen times more than blacks in the 1970s, while the current ratio for the United States is 18 to 1.

In the context of the past fifty years, the statistics look even starker. According to a set of charts The Washington Post published last year on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the gap between whites and blacks has either remained the same or has gotten worse over the past half-century. The gap in household income, the ratio of unemployment, and the number of children going to segregated schools have all remained roughly the same. The disparity in incarceration rates has gotten worse.

American scholars have used the term “apartheid” to refer to specific historical periods (such as the era of Jim Crow), the residential segregation that existed for decades, the educational segregation that persists and a criminal justice system that is so often criminal in its lack of justice. But can we apply the label of apartheid to all of American society?

South Africa got rid of apartheid. Although it remains more sharply divided economically than virtually any other major country, the end of apartheid did spur the growth of the black middle class, which expanded from 300,000 people to 3 million, with blacks rising from 11 percent to 41 percent of the overall middle class in twenty years.

But in the United States, very little has changed in five decades. The higher echelons of the African-American community have done reasonably well, but not the middle class or the working poor. Since 1970, the percentage of African-Americans in the middle class has actually declined. And the depression that hit the country after 2007 wiped out whatever gains this middle class might have achieved.

The media is full of pictures of Obama and Oprah, of Condoleezza and Susan Rice, of Serena Williams and Will Smith. Their omnipresence suggests that America is far from an apartheid society. And yet, for all their power and prominence, they are the outliers.

The Tragedy of Ferguson

In 1983, J.M. Coetzee published The Life and Times of Michael K, a novel about an unemployed gardener adrift in a war-torn South Africa. Michael K, whose race is never explicitly identified, is harassed by police, press-ganged into manual labor, accused of being a guerrilla. Riots and looting take place across the landscape of a country sharply divided between rich and poor. This is the future of apartheid, Coetzee suggested: a war of all against all. Six years later, apartheid fell, and the worst-case scenario was averted.

Now let’s take a look at The Life and Times of Michael B, the American sequel to Coetzee’s novel. The settings are disturbingly similar. Ferguson, Missouri, looks even more like apartheid South Africa than the average American city. Ferguson is more than 60 percent African-American, but only three of the fifty-three cops are black. The mayor is white, as is the chief of police. Nearly one-third of the African-American population lives below the poverty line. And in 2013, 93 percent of the arrests involved blacks. Injustice and inequality have generated protests, riots and police crackdowns.

The protagonist of this American sequel, Michael B, was an African-American teenager who struggled to grow up in these challenging circumstances. He graduated from high school on schedule, an achievement in and of itself in a town where only 78 percent of the students managed to get their degrees. He had no criminal record. He liked to play video games, smoke a little dope, hang out with friends. He listened to rap music and had just started to record some of his own songs. He planned to go to a technical college.

He was, in other words, a typical teenager.

On August 9, 2014, his death at the hands of a white policeman became an American tragedy, the circumstances of which have been much debated, dissected and disputed. As with any tragedy that resonates in the larger world, the story of Michael Brown brings all the hopes and fears of a community to the foreground.

In Ferguson, the gross inequalities are an everyday matter. The rich lifestyles of successful rappers contrast with the reality of poorly paid jobs for those lucky enough to get them. The image of President Obama commanding the military, the Special Forces and the National Guard is almost a grotesque reversal of the average African-American experience in Ferguson facing the arbitrary—and downright racist—application of force by local whites. And the corporate self-helpism of Oprah, with its I-can-overcome-all-odds optimism, offers a dreamscape so at odds with the everyday indignities of negotiating the local power structure and the social welfare bureaucracy.

Physician: Heal Thyself

There’s certainly a foreign policy story here, just as income inequality in general has many global dimensions.

The story of the shooting death of an unarmed African-American man, the ensuing protests, the behavior of the police toward protesters, the acquittal of the police officer responsible for the killing: all of this provided foreign journalists and commentators rich fodder for stories about American hypocrisy. The US government talks a great game about democracy, conflict resolution, nation building and the like. But if we can’t effectively solve a problem that wasn’t even officially acknowledged until fifty years ago—and we can’t show much in the way of improvement except for a narrow slice of the African-American middle class—then why on earth should any other country bother to listen to “experts” from the State Department and their bromides?

Until it puts its own house in order, the United States should adopt a more modest foreign policy. Perhaps the glare of the spotlight will force such a change. Accusations of hypocrisy can sometimes have that effect. The quintessential TV dad, Bill Cosby, stepped down from the board of Temple University because of a slew of rape allegations. Larry Craig, the anti-gay Republican senator from Idaho, left office after being accused of soliciting sex from an undercover policeman. James Watson, who shared a Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA, retreated into the shadows after making a blatantly racist—and unscientific—judgment about Africans.

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Of course, Cosby has also denied the charges and continued his recent comedy tour, Craig is a lobbyist, and an unapologetic Watson is back in the news for auctioning off his Nobel. Hubris is often embarrassment-proof. And since US foreign policy is nothing if not arrogant, don’t hold your breath that the State Department will suddenly redirect its “democracy promotion” efforts to building a more perfect union at home.

Call the system of racial inequality in the United States what you will: the “two nations” of black and white, the new Jim Crow or just plain ugly. But if the term “apartheid” shames the establishment into acting—and prompts pundits like Kurt Campbell to utter the word “race” when discussing inequality—then by all means let’s use the unflattering comparison. It’s a fitting way of bearing witness to the life and times of Michael B and everyone else who has suffered under this abhorrent system.

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Rich Countries Pony Up (Some) for Climate Justice

Drought in China

(Reuters/China Daily)

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

It’s one of the oldest tricks in politics: talk down expectations to the point that you can meet them.

And it played out again in Berlin as twenty-one countries—including the United States—pledged nearly $9.5 billion to the Green Climate Fund, a UN body tasked with helping developing countries cope with climate change and transition to clean-energy systems.

The total—which will cover a four-year period before new pledges are made—included $3 billion from the United States, $1.5 billion from Japan and around $1 billion each from the United Kingdom, France and Germany.

That’s a big step in the right direction. But put into context, $9.5 billion quickly sounds less impressive.

Floods, droughts, sea-level rises, heat waves and other forms of extreme weather are likely to cost developing countries hundreds of billions of dollars every year. And it will take hundreds of billions more to ensure that they industrialize more cleanly than their counterparts did in North America, Europe, Japan and Australia.

Developed countries should foot a large part of that bill, since they bear the greatest responsibility for causing climate change.

The Politics of Responsibility

Determining who pays for what is an integral part of achieving an international climate deal. And so far, pledges from rich countries have tracked far behind previous requests and recommendations.

Back in 2009, developed countries signed the Copenhagen Accord, which committed them to move $100 billion per year by 2020 to developing countries. A year later, the UN climate conference in Cancún called for the Green Climate Fund to be set up to channel a “significant share” of the money developing countries need to adapt to climate change.

Earlier this year, the G77—which is actually a grouping of 133 developing countries—called for $15 billion to be put into the Green Climate Fund. UN climate chief Christiana Figueres set the bar lower, at $10 billion. The failure to reach even that figure is likely to put strain on negotiations for a new multilateral climate agreement that is expected to be reached in December 2015.

But it’s not just the headline figure that’s important. Plenty of devils are likely to be lurking in the details.

Delivering on the US pledge requires budgetary approval from a hostile Congress, although a payment schedule stretching over much of the next decade could make that more politically feasible than it initially sounds.

More concerning are the conditions attached to the US pledge, which include a threat that some of the money could be redirected to other funds—likely those run by the World Bank—if “the pace of progress” at the Green Climate Fund is inadequate. Given that the United States is advocating rules on how the fund makes decisions that would tip the balance of power in favor of contributor countries, the threat is far from innocuous.

France will provide a significant proportion of its share as loans rather than grants, while the small print of the UK contribution is likely to reveal that part of its money comes as a “capital contribution,” which can only be paid out as loans.

Those restrictions could limit the scope of activities that the fund can finance, since much of the vital support and infrastructure needed to support community resilience in the face of climate change is too unprofitable to support loan repayments.

Future of the Fund

Looming over these issues is the larger, unresolved question of what the fund will actually finance. Some donor countries—including the United States—are pushing for a fund that would support transnational corporations and their supply chains, helping them turn profits from investments in developing countries.

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Despite its green mandate, the Green Climate Fund may also support an array of “dirty energy” projects—including power generation from fossil fuels, nuclear power and destructive mega-dam projects. That’s the subject of an ongoing dispute on the fund’s twenty-four-member board and a persistent complaint from a range of civil society organizations.

That battle is not yet lost.

Despite its shortcomings, the Green Climate Fund has great potential to support a global transition to renewable energy, sustainable public transport systems and energy efficiency. And with its goal of spending 50 percent of its funds on “adaptation” activities, it could also serve as a vital lifeline for communities already facing the impacts of climate change.

An important milestone was passed with the billions pledged to the Green Climate Fund. But achieving a cleaner, more resilient world will take billions more—along with a commitment to invest the money in projects that mitigate climate change rather than cause it.

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What ‘Free Trade’ Has Done to Central America

Workers in Costa Rica

Garment workers in Costa Rica. (Reuters/Juan Carlos Ulate)

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

With Republicans winning big in the midterm elections, the debate over so-called “free trade” agreements could again take center stage in Washington.

President Barack Obama has been angling for “fast track” authority that would enable him to push the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP—a massive trade agreement between the United States and a host of Pacific Rim countries—through Congress with limited debate and no opportunity for amendments.

From the outset, the politicians who support the agreement have overplayed its benefits and underplayed its costs. They seldom note, for example, that the pact would allow corporations to sue governments whose regulations threaten their profits in cases brought before secretive and unaccountable foreign tribunals.

So let’s look closely at the real impact that trade agreements have on people and the environment.

A prime example is the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, or DR-CAFTA. Brokered by the George W. Bush administration and a handful of hemispheric allies, the pact has had a devastating effect on poverty, dislocation and environmental contamination in the region.

And perhaps even worse, it’s diminished the ability of Central American countries to protect their citizens from corporate abuse.

A Premonition

In 2004 and 2005, hundreds of thousands of protesters filled Central America’s streets.

They warned of the unemployment, poverty, hunger, pollution, diminished national sovereignty and other problems that could result if DR-CAFTA were approved. But despite popular pressure, the agreement was ratified in seven countries—including Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and the United States.

Ten years after the approval of DR-CAFTA, we are seeing many of the effects they cautioned about.

Overall economic indicators in the region have been poor, with some governments unable to provide basic services to their population. Farmers have been displaced when they can’t compete with grain imported from the United States. Amid significant levels of unemployment, labor abuses continue. Workers in export-assembly plants often suffer poor working conditions and low wages. And natural-resource extraction has proceeded with few protections for the environment.

Contrary to the promises of US officials—who claimed the agreement would improve Central American economies and thereby reduce undocumented immigration—large numbers of Central Americans have migrated to the United States, as dramatized most recently by the influx of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras crossing the US-Mexican border last summer. Although most are fleeing violence in their countries, there are important economic roots to the migration—many of which are related to DR-CAFTA.

One of the most pernicious features of the agreement is a provision called the Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism. This allows private corporations to sue governments over alleged violations of a long list of so-called “investor protections.”

The most controversial cases have involved public interest laws and regulations that corporations claim reduce the value of their investments. That means corporations can sue those countries for profits they say they would have made had those regulations not been put into effect.

Such lawsuits can be financially devastating to poor countries that already struggle to provide basic services to their people, much less engage in costly court battles with multinational firms. They can also prevent governments from making democratically accountable decisions in the first place, pushing them to prioritize the interests of transnational corporations over the needs of their citizens.

The Mining Industry Strikes Gold

These perverse incentives have led to environmental deregulation and increased protections for companies, which have contributed to a boom in the toxic mining industry—with gold at the forefront. A stunning 14 percent of Central American territory is now authorized for mining. According to the Center of Research on Trade and Investment, a Salvadoran NGO, that number approaches 30 percent in Honduras and Nicaragua—and rises to a whopping 35 percent in Honduras.

In contrast to their Central American neighbors, El Salvador and Costa Rica have imposed regulations to defend their environments from destructive mining practices. Community pressure to protect the scarce watersheds of El Salvador—which are deeply vulnerable to toxic mining runoff—has so far prevented companies from successfully extracting minerals like gold on a large scale, and the Salvadoran government has put a moratorium on mining. In Costa Rica, after a long campaign of awareness and national mobilization, the legislature voted unanimously in 2010 to prohibit open-pit mining and ban the use of cyanide and mercury in mining activities.

Yet both countries are being punished for heeding their citizens’ demands. Several US and Canadian companies have been using DR-CAFTA’s investor-state provisions to sue these governments directly. Such disputes are arbitrated by secret tribunals like the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, which is hosted by the World Bank and is not accountable to any democratic body.

In 2009, the US-based Commerce Group sued El Salvador for closing a highly polluting mine. The case was dismissed in 2011 for lack of jurisdiction, but El Salvador still had to pay several million dollars in fees for its defense. In a case still in process, the gold-mining conglomerate Pacific Rim has also sued El Salvador under DR-CAFTA for its anti-mining regulations. To get around the fact that the Canadian company wasn’t from a signatory country to DR-CAFTA, it moved its subsidiary from the Cayman Islands to Reno, Nevada, in a bid to use the agreement’s provisions. Although that trick failed, the suit has moved forward under an outdated investment law of El Salvador.

Elsewhere, Infinito Gold has used DR-CAFTA to sue Costa Rica for nearly $100 million over disputes related to gold mining. And the US-based Corona Materials has filed a notice of intent to sue the Dominican Republic, also claiming violations of DR-CAFTA. These costly legal cases can have devastating effects on the national economies of these small countries.

Of course, investor-state disputes under DR-CAFTA are not only related to mining. For example, TECO Guatemala Holdings, a US corporation, alleged in 2009 that Guatemala had wrongfully interfered with its indirect subsidiary’s investment in an electricity distribution company. Specifically, TECO charged that the government had not protected its right to a “minimum standard of treatment”— an exceptionally vague standard that is open to wide interpretation by the international tribunals that rule on such cases—concerning the setting of rates by government regulators. In other words, TECO wanted to charge higher electricity rates to Guatemalan users than those the state deemed fair. Guatemala had to pay $21.1 million in compensatory damages and $7.5 million in legal fees, above and beyond what it spent on its own defense.

The US-based Railroad Development Corporation also sued Guatemala, leading to the country paying out an additional $11.3 million, as well as covering both its own legal fees and the company’s. Elsewhere, Spence International Investments and other companies sued Costa Rica for its decision to expropriate land for a public ecological park.

A Chilling Effect

What’s at stake here is not only the cost of lawsuits or the impact of environmental destruction, but also the ability of a country to make sovereign decisions and advance the public good.

Investment rules that allow companies to circumvent national judicial systems and challenge responsible public policies can create an effect that’s been dubbed “regulatory chill.” This means that countries that might otherwise have curtailed corporate activity won’t—because they’re afraid of being sued.

Guatemala is a prime case. It’s had to pay companies tens of millions of dollars in investor-state lawsuits, especially in the utility and transportation industries. But it hasn’t yet been sued by a mining company. That’s because the Guatemalan government hasn’t limited the companies’ operations or tampered with their profit-making.

Take the Marlin Mine in western Guatemala, for example. In 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights advised the Guatemalan government to close the mine on account of its social and environmental impacts on the surrounding region and its indigenous population. Nonetheless, after briefly agreeing to suspend operations, the Guatemalan government reopened the mine a short time later.

In internal documents obtained by activists, the Guatemalan government cited potential investment arbitration as a reason to avoid suspending the mine, writing that closing the project could provoke the mine’s owners “to activate the World Bank’s [investment court] or to invocate the clauses of the free trade agreement to have access to international arbitration and subsequent claim of damages to the state.” As this example demonstrates, just knowing that a company could sue can prevent a country from standing up for human rights and environmental protection.

More recently in Guatemala, the communities around San Jose del Golfo—about 45,000 people—have engaged in two years of peaceful resistance to prevent the US-based Kappes, Cassiday, and Associates from constructing a new mine. Protesters estimate that 95 percent of families in the region depend on agriculture, an industry that would be virtually destroyed if the water were to be further contaminated. But the company threatened to sue Guatemala if the mine was not opened. “They can’t afford this lawsuit,” a company representative said. “We had a big law group out of [Washington] DC fire off a letter to the mines minister, copied to the president, explaining what we were doing.”

On May 23, the people of San Jose del Golfo were violently evicted from their lands by military force, pitting the government in league with the company against its own people—potentially all to avoid a costly lawsuit.

A Prelude to the TPP

Warnings about the crises that “free trade” would bring to Central Americans were, unfortunately, correct. Central America is facing a humanitarian crisis that has incited millions to migrate as refugees from violence and poverty, thousands of them children. One push factor is the environmental degradation provoked by ruthless mining corporations that are displacing people from their rural livelihoods.

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And it’s not just DR-CAFTA. The many investor-state cases brought under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and in countries all over the world, have exposed the perniciousness of investor protection rules shoehorned into so-called “free trade” pacts. Many governments are realizing that these agreements have tied their hands when it comes to protecting their own environments and citizens.

We must use these egregious investor-state cases to highlight extreme corporate power in the region. We must work to help Central Americans regain livelihoods lost to ruthless extractive projects like mining. And we must change trade and investment agreements to stop these excessive lawsuits that devastate communities, the environment and democracy itself.

Like DR-CAFTA, the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership includes investor-state provisions that are likely to hurt poor communities and undermine environmental protections. Instead of being “fast tracked” through Congress, future trade agreements like the TPP—and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership being negotiated between the European Union and the United States—must be subject to a full debate with public input.

And such agreements must not, at any cost, include investor-state mechanisms. Because trading away democracy to transnational corporations is not such a “free trade” after all.

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