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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
When was last time in recent memory a top US official praised Cuba publicly? And since when has Cuba’s leadership offered to cooperate with Americans?
It’s rare for politicians from these two countries to stray from the narratives of suspicion and intransigence that have prevented productive collaboration for over half a century. Yet that’s just what has happened in the last few weeks, as Secretary of State John Kerry and US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power spoke favorably of Cuba’s medical intervention in West Africa, and Cuban President Raúl Castro and former president Fidel Castro signaled their willingness to cooperate with US efforts to stem the epidemic.
As it causes devastation in West Africa and strikes fear in the United States and around the world, Ebola has few upsides. But one of them may be the opportunity to change the nature of US-Cuban relations, for the public good.
Don’t Squander the Opportunity
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel once famously said. “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”
President Barack Obama should heed his former chief of staff’s advice and not squander the opportunity presented by the Ebola crisis. Political leadership in the White House and the Palace of Revolution could transform a fight against a common threat into joint cooperation that would not only promote the national interests of the two countries but also advance human rights—and the right to health is a human right—throughout the developing world.
Political conditions are ripe for such a turn. Americans strongly support aggressive actions against Ebola and would applaud a president who placed more value on medical cooperation and saving lives than on ideology and resentment.
In the sixth in a series of editorials spelling out the need for a change in US policy toward Cuba, The New York Times called on Obama to discontinue the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program—which makes it relatively simple for Cuban doctors providing medical services abroad to defect to the United States—because of its hostile nature and its negative impact on the populations receiving Cuban doctors’ support and attention in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
“It is incongruous for the United States to value the contributions of Cuban doctors who are sent by their government to assist in international crises like the 2010 Haiti earthquake while working to subvert that government by making defection so easy,” the editorial board wrote. The emphasis should be on fostering Cuba’s medical contributions, not stymieing them.
As Cuba’s international health efforts become more widely known, it’s become increasingly clear how unreasonable it is for Washington to assume that all Cuban presence in the developing world is damaging to US interests. A consistent opening for bilateral cooperation with Cuba by governmental health institutions, the private sector and foundations based in the United States can trigger positive synergies to update US policy toward Havana. It will also send a friendlier signal for economic reform and political liberalization in Cuba.
The Whole World Has Something to Gain
The potential for cooperation between Cuba and the United States goes far beyond preventing and defeating Ebola. New pandemics in the near future could endanger the national security, economy and public health of other countries—killing thousands, preventing travel and trade, and choking the current open liberal order by encouraging xenophobic hysteria. At this dramatic time, the White House needs to think with clarity and creativity.
As the leading nation in the Western Hemisphere, the United States should propose the creation of a comprehensive continental health cooperation and crisis response strategy at the next Summit of the Americas, which will be held in Panama City in April 2015. As numerous Latin American countries have already asserted, Cuba must be included at the summit.
Havana has developed extensive medical expertise at home and abroad, with more than 50,000 doctors and health personnel serving in sixty-six countries. Preventive measures, early detection, strict infection controls and natural disaster crisis response coordination are essential parts of the Cuban approach to nipping pandemics in the bud. The lack of some of these components in already-collapsed health systems explains the failures of governance that inflamed the impact of Ebola in West Africa.
As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama was one of the loudest critics of looking at Cuba through the glasses of the Cold War. As president, it isn’t enough for him to just retune the same embargo policy implemented by his predecessors. He must adjust the official US narrative about post-Fidel Cuba: It is not a threat to the United States but a country in transition to a mixed economy, and a positive force for global health.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
“Alive they were taken, and alive we want them back!”
That’s become the rallying cry for the forty-three student teachers abducted by municipal police and handed over to the Guerreros Unidos drug gang last September in Iguala, Mexico. None have been seen since.
It remained the rallying cry even after federal officials announced that the missing students had most likely been executed and burned to ashes.
Since then, Argentine forensic experts have concluded that burned remains found in Iguala do not belong to the missing young men—and so the forty-three remain undead. The findings speak to a growing skepticism about the Mexican government’s competence—not only to deliver justice, but also to carry on an investigation with any kind of legitimacy or credibility.
It has become ever clearer that the state is in fact deeply implicated in the violence it claims to oppose. The student teachers were originally attacked by municipal police—allegedly at the orders of Iguala’s mayor and his wife, who were at a function with a local general when the attack took place. Although the exact details of who ordered the attack are not yet clear, the handing over of the student teachers to a violent drug gang betrays a thorough merger of the police force, local officials and organized crime.
This growing realization has ignited rage all over Mexico, with social media campaigns flaring up alongside massive street protests. Peaceful marches happen almost daily in Mexico City, while elsewhere there are starker signs of unrest. Some demonstrators even set fire to government buildings in the Guerrero state capital.
Meanwhile, the government has carried on an increasingly clumsy investigation, first purporting to have found the students in nearby mass graves—as The Nation reports, plenty of mass graves have turned up, but none have yet been proven to contain the missing teachers—and then claiming to have extracted confessions from the alleged killers.
In a November press conference, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam showcased detailed video testimonies from three alleged hit men who claimed to have burned the forty-three at a nearby garbage dump. Parents of the missing went to inspect the alleged site and found evidence lacking. Many doubted that a fire of such magnitude—the supposed killers claimed that they had spent fourteen hours burning the bodies—could have happened, due to the rain of that night.
When Argentine forensic specialists disproved Karam’s narrative, the federal government pledged to “redouble efforts” to find the students. Now President Enrique Peña Nieto is hinting at a conspiracy against his government. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Mexican officials want to put this issue to rest as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, the mounting number of mass graves that investigators are turning up serves as a reminder that this kind of violence has been going on for years. Police round up, detain, beat, arrest and shoot at student activists routinely, as when state police shot and killed two Ayotzinapa students during a protest action on the highway in 2011. As with over 90 percent of such crimes in Mexico, no one has been punished. These kinds of killings and disappearances have a long and sordid history as a practice of state violence in Mexico—and particularly in Guerrero—since the so-called Dirty War of the 1970s.
The many discrepancies in Karam’s press conference are feeding into a growing popular refusal to trust the government’s ability to investigate the disappearances independently.
In response to a reporter’s question about whether the parents of the missing believed him, Karam quipped that the parents are people who “make decisions together.” The question was not so much about whether the parents, as individuals, believed or disbelieved Karam’s evidence—although they have since visited the alleged crime scene and reaffirmed their skepticism.
Instead, ordinary Mexicans are increasingly employing their collective intelligence in making sense of the events and refusing to accept the state’s evidence on the grounds that the state itself is compromised. And just as importantly, they’re condemning the government’s silence about its own complicity in the probable execution of their sons.
In their increasing rejection of the Mexican narco-state’s legitimacy, the parents of the missing forty-three are signaling their membership in what anthropologist Guillermo Bonfíl Batalla famously termed México Profundo—that is, the grassroots culture of indigenous Mesoamerican communities and the urban poor, which stands in stark contrast to the “Imaginary Mexico” of the elites. Recalling the Zapatista movement, the rumblings from below in the wake of the mass abduction in Guerrero are merging with older modes of indigenous resistance to give new life to Mexico’s deep tradition of popular struggle.
Bolstered by social media, this new life is expressing itself in a number of colorful ways. Defying the government’s theater of death, artists from all over the world are creating a “Mosaic of Life” by illustrating the faces and names of the disappeared. Mexican Twitter users have embraced the hashtag #YaMeCansé—“I am tired”—to appropriate Karam’s complaint of exhaustion after an hour of responding to questions as an expression of their own rage and resilience.
Gradually, a movement calling itself “43 x 43”—representing the exponential impact of the forty-three disappeared—is rising up to greet the undead, along with the more than 100,000 others killed or disappeared since the start of this drug war in 2006 under former President Felipe Calderón. This refusal of the dead to remain dead made for a particularly poignant Dia de Muertos celebration earlier this month.
This form of resistance recalls what happened last May in the autonomous Zapatista municipality of El Caracol de la Realidad in the state of Chiapas, where a teacher known as Galeano was murdered by paramilitary forces. At the pre-dawn ceremony held there in Galeano’s honor on May 25, putative Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos announced that he, Marcos, would cease to exist. After Marcos disappeared into the night, the assembled then heard a disembodied voice address them: “Good dawn, compañeras and compañeros. My name is Galeano, Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano. Does anybody else respond to this name?”
In response, hundreds of voices affirmed, “Yes, we are all Galeano!” And so Galeano came back to life collectively, in all of those assembled.
And now forty-three disappeared student teachers have multiplied into thousands demanding justice from the state and greater autonomy for local communities, which are already building alternative healthcare, education, justice and governmental systems. A general strike is scheduled for the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution on November 20.
In Mexico’s unraveling, there is an opportunity for the rest of the world to witness—and support—the emergence of more direct and collective forms of democracy. As the now “deceased” Marcos said, “They wanted to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.”
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Last August, Ons and Ahlam Delhoumi were in a car on their way back from a party to the provincial Tunisian town of Kasserine. Suddenly, men in dark clothes and masks stepped out onto the road from reeds that lined both sides of the street.
The two women may have thought that the shadowy figures were drug traffickers or jihadists that operate along the nearby Algerian border. The men who stepped into the street, however, were police. Taking the Delhoumis for criminals or extremists, they fired on the car.
Ahlam died immediately from a bullet to the head. Ons died after she arrived at a hospital with no doctors or nurses.
Kasserine is not unlike Sidi Bouzid, another interior town. In late 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself there after suffering humiliation at the hands of the police, who had confiscated the scales and fruit he had bought on credit and consequently robbed him of his livelihood. Protests over his death spread to the capital and sent President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fleeing, triggering a wave of revolutions among the downtrodden all over the region.
Today Tunisia is the only place where post–Arab Spring democracy seems doable. Its elections in October were a far cry from the show vote that installed Egyptian military leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president last summer.
At the most recent polls, Tunisian voters awarded a plurality of seats to Nidaa Tounes, or “the Call of Tunisia”—a party that gathered secular forces under one umbrella—but didn’t give it a clear majority. Now Nidaa Tounes will have to form a majority government.
It’s a promising transition, but one that could fall apart.
Kasserine’s policemen were jumpy for good reason. Jihadists have regularly killed police and soldiers here. Firefights happen almost every other day and drones fly overhead, searching the scrub and prickly pear in what looks like the Colorado foothills for jihadis moving across the mountains. The Delhoumis are only two of the many innocent victims of this battle.
The interior of Tunisia is poor, and the state is weaker there than in the coastal cities. These conditions make the area a perfect recruiting ground for Tunisians who want to become jihadists either at home or abroad. Some 3,000 Tunisians are fighting in Syria, and the Interior Ministry says that it has prevented 8,000 more from traveling there.
In the leadup to the election, secularists tried to tie Ennahda—the moderate Islamist party that had previously run the government—to Salafi jihadists. At the polls, voters for Nidaa Tounes—a coalition of former regime figures, leftists and former leftists that gathered together to challenge Ennahda—repeated these charges.
“From the beginning these people were let out of prison and Ennahda said that these organizations, that are now deemed terrorists, were normal,” says Ahmed, a 24-year-old student. “From the beginning they knew they were suspicious but they did nothing.”
Violent Salafis have made themselves into an uncompromising bloc, while the peaceful ones have accused Ennahda of apostasy and are boycotting elections.
“Nidaa Tounes looks at us and the extremists and says that we are two sides of the same coin,” says Faycal Naceur, who is in charge of Ennahda’s media office. “But we are the biggest victims of this phenomenon. Most of the confrontation [between Salafists and the government] took place under our administration.”
Naceur spoke inside an overflowing office building that Ennahda occupies in downtown Tunis. Voters waiting to ask for favors from officials before the election sit in a makeshift waiting room. Like many other offices here, it is made up of temporary walls to accommodate an organization that has outgrown its lease.
The Troika government, so named because it combined Ennahda with two other liberal parties, allowed some Salafi parties to register. But Ennahda’s conciliatory attitude toward secularists drove the Salafists away, and the Troika government was replaced by an interim government that will remain until after the elections.
Naceur outlines Ennahda’s messaging, which this time around is focused on temporal rather than spiritual issues. Yet as Ennahda is somewhat of an umbrella party for the religious, it still contains a very pious element. More extreme preachers are off the ballot but still on the campaign trail. One, Habib al-Loz, addressed a crowd of tens of thousands of people the week before the polls opened.
“Ennahda hasn’t left its principles,” says Mahfoudh Ban Deraa, an imam in Kasserine. “They will apply Sharia gradually, and this is the preferred way, even according to the Caliph Omar.”
Despite the conception of political Islamist movements as more down to earth, there’s a disconnect between the Ennahda leadership that went into temporary exile during Ben Ali’s secularist rule and those that stayed at home with the base.
“Abroad the leadership learned the ability to listen. Some of those that were in Tunis are a bit suspicious of others,” says Hajer Azaeiz, an Ennahda member. Azaeiz was prohibited from wearing the hijab during Ben Ali’s reign, but later wore it as she helped write the country’s new Constitution.
Naceur had the same take. Arrested in his second year of college, he was imprisoned for ten years and tortured for most of them. As he recounted the details of indignities, the young woman sharing his office looks up for a moment, then continues to flick at her smartphone. When he got out, Naceur refused offers by the security forces for permission to re-enroll in the school of psychology in exchange for informing on Ennahda. He eventually returned, where his former roommate now taught one of his classes.
Other members of the top leadership, like former interior minister and later prime minister Ali Laarayedh, were also imprisoned for years. In a role reversal that could only have happened in a revolution, he became the interior minister in Tunisia’s post-revolutionary government. But when Laarayedh attempted to reform the police, a video was leaked of him allegedly having sex with another male prisoner. For any politician that would be scandalous. For an Islamist, it was especially so, and serious security-sector reform was tabled.
The episode demonstrated the staying power of the police and the old regime. Impunity—like that enjoyed by the killers of the Delhoumis—remains rampant.
Baji Caid Sebsy, an insider octogenarian ousted from the government in the 1970s for advocating freer political competition, leads the Nidaa Tounes movement. He also headed the transition government immediately after Ben Ali’s ouster. The recent reappearance of other old-regime figures has been the source of sporadic controversy among youth in the movement.
This informal partnership between civil society activists and more old-line secularists pushed Ennahda’s Troika government to hand over power to a technocratic interim government last January. Tunisia’s ability to maintain a capable and civil opposition ensured that Ennahda didn’t take too much power, says Hamadi Radissi, a professor of political science at the University of Tunis and a member of Nidaa Tounes.
“Thanks to the balance brought by Nidaa Tounes, Islamists have come to the conclusion that we have to live together,” he says. “And they understood that they have no capacity to Islamize this country thanks to us.”
The divisions inside Nidaa Tounes are more pronounced than Ennahda’s. The party has achieved unity mostly because of its opposition to Islamists, and figures like Radissi don’t plan on staying much longer.
“Believe me, I won’t let them do whatever they want,” he says. “I will leave if they go in a bad direction. And in any case, I’m leaving. I said I would leave when Nidaa Tounes defeats the Islamists.”
On the table are Tunisian sweets that Radissi brought back from Kaiouran, south of Tunis. He speaks with considerable emphasis, sometimes vocalizing his thoughts in French when he is at a loss for the English. When asked what happens when figures like him leave the movement to former regime figures, his answer is less definitive.
“I have no idea,” he says. “This is a personal matter. Pfft! There are some that left before me because some of them said that we are not made for politics.”
Tunisia’s Future Development
Whatever the composition of Tunisia’s new government, which may not be formed until after presidential elections on November 23, it will have to make hard decisions on the economy, which all parties agree is the biggest threat to the revolution’s success.
“In the revolution, people asked for dignity, jobs and freedom,” says Habib Bouazi, a police officer in Kasserine. “We have freedom now—was it ever conceivable in Ben Ali’s time that a police officer like me would sit with a foreign journalist? What we don’t have is infrastructure and jobs, and they have gotten worse since the revolution.”
Kasserine lags far behind the coastal regions in development, and a World Bank report recently took Tunisia to task for the structure of its economy. The Bank described the economy as predatory, benefiting a select few at the expense of most Tunisians.
Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes’s economic visions do not differ substantially, with both emphasizing the free market. Ennahda in particular has gone out of its way to insist that it won’t rock the boat on the economy, and party officials focus mostly on increased investment rather than structural change.
Across Tunisia, there’s a longing for a government that will stay around long enough to address the country’s social and political ailments, including those that arose from the revolution.
Saleh Delhoumi has been told that the investigation into the deaths of his daughter and niece won’t be investigated until after the elections. “I just want the elections to end so they can see these results and those who were responsible can be held accountable,” he says. “We need to move on.”
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
One hundred and sixty-eight years ago this past July, two British warships—HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—sailed north into Baffin Bay, bound on a mission to navigate the fabled Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. It would be the last that the nineteenth-century world would see of Sir John Franklin and his 128 crew members.
But the Arctic that swallowed the 1845 Franklin expedition is disappearing, its vast ice sheets thinning, its frozen straits thawing. And once again, ships are headed north, not on voyages of discovery—the northern passages across Canada and Russia are well known today—but to stake a claim in the globe’s last great race for resources and trade routes.
How that contest plays out has much to do with the flawed legacies of World War II, which may go a long way toward determining whether the Arctic will become a theater of cooperation or—in the words of former NATO commander and US Admiral James G. Stavridis—an “icy slope toward a zone of competition, or worse, a zone of conflict.”
Opening the Northern Passage
There is a great deal at stake.
The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds 13 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 30 percent of its natural gas. There are also significant coal and iron ore deposits. As the ice retreats, new fishing zones are opening up, and—most importantly—so are shipping routes that trim thousands of miles off voyages, saving enormous amounts of time and money. Expanding trade will stimulate shipbuilding, the opening of new ports and economic growth, especially in East Asia.
Traffic in the Northern Sea Route across Russia—formerly known as the Northeast Passage—is still modest but on the uptick. The easiest of the northern routes to traverse, the passage has seen an increase in shipping, from four vessels in 2010 to seventy-one in 2013. And for the first time in history, a liquid natural gas tanker—the Ob River—made the trip in 2012. On a run from Hammerfest, Norway to Tobata, Japan, the ship took only nine days to traverse the passage, cutting almost half the distance off the normal route through the Suez Canal.
Which is not to say that the Northern Sea Route is a stroll in the garden. The Arctic may be retreating, but it is still a dangerous and stormy place, not far removed from the conditions that killed Franklin and his men. A lack of detailed maps is an ongoing problem, and most ships require the help of expensive icebreakers. But for the first time, specially reinforced tankers are making the run on their own.
Tensions at the Top
Tensions in the region arise from two sources: squabbles among the border states (Norway, Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden) over who owns what, and efforts by non-polar countries (China, India, the European Union and Japan) that want access. The conflicts range from serious to somewhat silly. In the latter category was the 2007 planting of a small Russian flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole by private explorer Artur Chilingarov, a stunt that even the Moscow government dismissed as theatrics.
But the Russians do lay claim to a vast section of the North Pole based on their interpretation of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, which allows a country to claim ownership if an area is part of its continental shelf. Moscow argues that the huge Lomonosov Ridge, which divides the Arctic Ocean into two basins and runs under the Pole, originates in Russia. Canada and Denmark also claim the ridge as well.
Canada organized an expedition this past summer to find out what really happened to Franklin and his two ships. The search was a success—one of the ships was found in Victoria Straits—but the goal was political, not archaeological: Ottawa is using the find to lay claim to the Northwest Passage.
Copenhagen and Ottawa are meanwhile at loggerheads over Hans Island, located between Ellesmere Island and Danish-controlled Greenland. The occupation of the tiny rock by the Canadian military has generated a “Free Hans Island” campaign in Denmark.
The US government has been trying to stake out terrain as well, though it’s constrained by the fact that Washington has not signed the Law of the Seas Convention. The United States has locked horns with Canada over the Beaufort Sea, and the Pentagon released its first “Arctic Strategy” study last year. The United States maintains 27,000 military personnel in the region, not including regular patrols by nuclear submarines.
The Russians and Canadians have ramped up their military presence in the region as well, and Norway has carried out yearly military exercises—“Arctic Cold Response”—involving up to 16,000 troops, many of them NATO units.
Outside Looking In
But you don’t have to be next to the ice to want to be a player. China may be a thousand miles from the nearest ice floe, but as the second-largest economy in the world, it has no intention of being left out in the cold. This past summer the Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon made the Northern Sea Route run, and Beijing has elbowed its way into being a permanent observer on the Arctic Council. Formed in 1996, the council consists of the border states plus the indigenous people who populate the vast frozen area. Japan and South Korea are also observers.
And herein lies the problem.
Tensions are currently high in East and South Asia because of issues deliberately left unresolved by the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco that ended World War II. As Canadian researcher Kimie Hara recently discovered, the United States designed the treaty to have a certain amount of “manageable instability” built into it by leaving certain territorial issues unresolved. The tensions that those issues generate make it easier for the United States to maintain a robust military presence in the region. Thus, China and Japan are involved in a dangerous dispute over some uninhabited islands in the East China Sea—called the Diaoyus by China and the Senkakus by Japan—because the 1952 treaty did not designate which country had sovereignty. If it comes to a military confrontation, the United States is bound by treaty to support Japan.
Similar tensions exist between South Korea and Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, between Japan and Russia over the Northern Territories/Southern Kurile islands, and between China, Vietnam and Taiwan over the Spratly and Paracel islands. Brunei and Malaysia also have claims that overlap with China’s. Any ships traversing the East and South China seas on the way north will find themselves in the middle of several nasty territorial disputes.
In theory, the economic potential of the Arctic routes should pressure the various parties to reach an amicable resolution of their differences, but things are complicated these days.
Russia has indicated it would like to resolve the Northern Territories/Kuriles issue, and initial talks appeared to be making progress. But then in July, Tokyo joined Western sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea, and negotiations have gone into the freezer.
Moscow just signed off on a $400 billion oil and gas deal with Beijing and is looking to increase trade with China as a way to ease the impact of Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis. At least for the present, China and Russia are allies and trade partners, and both would like to see a diminished role for the United States in Asia. That wish, of course, runs counter to Washington’s growing military footprint in the region—the so-called “Asia pivot.”
The tensions have even generated some good old-fashioned paranoia. When a Chinese tycoon tried to buy land in northern Norway, one local newspaper claimed it was a plot, calling the entrepreneur “a straw man for the Chinese Communist Party.”
Breaking the Ice
The Arctic may be cold, but the politics surrounding it are pretty hot.
At the same time, the international tools to resolve such disputes currently exist. The first step is a commitment to put international law—such as the Law of the Seas Convention—over national interests.
The Chinese have a good case for sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyus, and Japan has solid grounds for reclaiming most of the Southern Kuriles. Korea would likely prevail in the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute, and China would have to back off some of its extravagant claims in the South China Sea.
For all the potential for conflict, there is a solid basis for cooperation in the Arctic. Russia and Norway have divided up the Barents Sea, and Russia, Norway, the United States and the United Kingdom are cooperating on nuclear waste problems in the Kola Peninsula and Arkhangelsk. There are common environmental issues. The Arctic is a delicate place, easy to damage, slow to heal.
As Aqqaluk Lynge, chair of the indigenous Inuit Circumpolar Council, says, “We do not want a return to the Cold War.”
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
As Barack Obama makes an unprecedented second visit by a US president to Burma, the bad news just keeps rolling in. But he can still make the trip a success. Backsliding reforms, attacks on civilians and evidence of war crimes are among the troubling reports that came out just ahead of Obama’s visit. Harvard Law researchers have presented evidence of war crimes by high-level military officials in Kachin State. Human rights watchdog Fortify Rights released reports detailing attacks on civilians in Kachin State and the complicity of Burmese officials in trafficking Rohingya Muslims. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom states that the Burmese government is “unable or unwilling” to address attacks on Muslims and Christians. And Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi publicly decried the “stalling” of reforms, saying that the United States has at times been too optimistic about the reform process.
President Obama can hardly be caught by surprise by this wave of evidence of backsliding on reforms. In the two years since his first historic visit, some 140,000 Rohingya Muslims have remained displaced in apartheid-like conditions, with the government making clear and deliberate decisions to make their living conditions worse. Earlier this year the government expelled Doctors Without Borders, the main source of health care for hundreds of thousands. More than 100,000 people are estimated to have fled the deplorable conditions in western Burma by boat since 2012, including 14,500 Rohingya in just the past three weeks.
Who Are the Rohingya?
An estimated 1.3 million Rohingya live in Burma—mostly in the western Rakhine State near the border with Bangladesh, from which the first Rohingya came to Burma centuries ago.
As Muslims in a majority Buddhist country, they have faced decades of marginalization. The Burmese government considers the Rohingya illegal “Bengali” immigrants despite the fact that most were born in Burma and that many can trace roots there that go back for generations. A controversial 1982 Citizenship Law stripped them of citizenship, making the Rohingya one of the largest stateless peoples in the world. Because past military governments have focused on promoting a singular Buddhist and Burmese identity, the Rohingya have become not only marginalized, but also isolated and demonized.
Now the government of Burma is taking this one step further. Rohingya were blocked from this year’s census, and weeks ago the government released a proposed “Rakhine State Action Plan” that would deny their very existence. Burma’s president, Thein Sein, has made this point clear, saying “There are no Rohingya among the races” in Burma.
Indeed, the government has been actively pressuring foreign officials not to use the word “Rohingya,” a point highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights as she reminded the government and UN General Assembly that self-identification is a basic right under international human rights law.
Reforms Remarkable but Fragile
The failure of the United States to speak out more forcefully or to take more concrete actions against these deteriorating conditions can be understood in the broader context of the remarkable reforms in Burma over the past few years. The military junta that had ruled for decades has given way to an ostensibly civilian-led democratic system of governance with greater press freedoms, outreach to ethnic minority groups and the release of more than 1,000 political prisoners—including Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now in Parliament. The United States hopes to encourage further notable reforms.
But even these much-lauded reforms have proven fragile and reversible. The Constitution still bans Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president and guarantees the military 25 percent of seats in Parliament. Efforts to reach a national ceasefire with ethnic minority groups have been delayed by new Burmese military offensives and continued reports of attacks on civilians, widespread rape, torture and other severe human rights abuses. Political prisoners continue to be arrested. And attacks on the press are on the increase, as highlighted by the recent death of a prominent journalist in military detention.
In fact, of the eleven commitments for reform that President Thein Sein made to President Obama on his first trip to Burma—which were reiterated during Sein’s first visit to the White House six months later—only one, the signing of the Additional Protocol allowing inspections by the UN’s nuclear agency, has been completely fulfilled
What Obama Can Do
President Obama can still make his trip to Burma a success. He should start by just saying the name “Rohingya.” He used “Rohingya” in a call with President Sein on October 31. But in a trip by Secretary of State John Kerry in August, there was no public use of the forbidden word. Use of the word Rohingya should not even be a question.
Just as important, while in Burma, Obama should address immediate humanitarian needs by demanding unfettered humanitarian access to all parts of Burma. To address the longer-term root causes of the persecution of the Rohingya, Obama should also demand reform of the 1982 Citizenship Law that labels them illegal “Bengali” migrants. Finally, Obama should insist that President Sein live up to perhaps the easiest of his remaining ten commitments by allowing the opening of a UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Obama should also be clear that further backsliding on reforms will lead to revoking rewards, including the possible reinstatement of the sanctions that have been lifted so quickly over the past two years. The recent addition of Aung Thaung, a prominent Burmese lawmaker, to the targeted sanctions list for undermining reforms and perpetuating violence was a start. Several more names should be added to that list, based on emerging evidence of abuses.
The wave of bad news coming out of Burma may make it impossible for President Obama to claim Burma as the foreign policy success he would like. But clear messaging and concrete actions can do a great deal to stem the tide of deteriorating conditions.
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