Human rights abuses

Reducing poverty or a new breed of eugenics? Sterilization in Rwanda.

A recent announcement calling for vasectomies (sterilization) of 700,000 males over the next two years by Rwandan authorities has many fearing a new eugenic depopulation attempt in Rwanda. The target group is said by critics to be men who cannot pay bills for their children’s upkeep as an effort to somehow reduce poverty, though the government sees it as necessary to keep the population in line with the growth of the economy. The vasectomy operation takes about 15 minutes and can be carried out in a clinic under local anesthetic.

One has to wonder why Rwanda would deem such drastic measures to reduce its population as necessary. Rwanda is certainly not the most population dense country in the world, and currently sits around the 30th most dense country in the world with approximately 380 persons per square kilometer (2009). That’s less dense than the Netherlands, Lebanon, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Taiwan, Bahrain, Palestine, Bangladesh, Singapore and Macau, among numerous other countries. Macau has nearly 18,534 persons per square kilometer, nearly 50 times that of Rwanda. Singapore has approximately 7,148 persons per square kilometer, nearly 20 times that of Rwanda and is one of the richest countries in Asia because of its export driven economy. Rwanda has a GDP of some $5 billion, while Singapore sits at around $182 billion. Both countries are said to have limited natural resources, but differ significantly in the makeup of their workforce, with Rwanda primarily engaged in agriculture and Singapore primarily engaged in services and industry.

Forced sterilization against a civilian population constitutes a crime against humanity according to Article 7 -1 (g) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and thus the possibility of this occurring is rather alarming. The vasectomies are said to be voluntary, but a look into the history of the country’s previous so-called voluntary policies is a cause for concern.  The imidugudu land reform policy had people abandon their traditional homestead to live in settlement centres– —  and was originally touted as voluntarily, but later resulted in resettlement through coercion and force.  This also would certainly not be the first time Rwanda has attempted eugenic laws or has been subjected to eugenic practices.

The eugenics movement in Europe and the US during the colonial years led western scientists to study the differences between Tutsi and Hutu ethnicities within Rwanda, measuring their skull size, skin colour, etc. and promoting the belief that Tutsis had Caucasian ancestry and were thus “superior” to the Hutus. These practices had a devastating and lasting effect on the population for generations to come, including helping to create structural conditions that would fuel the 1994 genocide. In 2007, the country enacted a law to legally limit family size to no more than three children, similar to China’s one child policy (though President Kagame is said to himself have four children). More recently, in 2009, Human Rights Watch reported that the Rwandan parliament was considering a draft law that would forcibly sterilize people who are mentally disabled, a move contrary to human rights practices, though the Rwandan government again denied that the law would be forcible. According to statistics, the fertility rate in the country is still currently closer to 5 children born per woman (2010), though it has decreased significantly from the 80s when the rate was closer to 8.5 children born per woman.

The Population Research Institute (PRI) cites major concerns with this plan and puts the numbers into perspective. The UN Population Division estimates the entire male population of Rwanda to be only around 5 million, with 70% under the age of 20 or over the age of 50 (making them ineligible as candidates for sterilization). That leaves half of the eligible-aged men in the country to be sterilized. That’s a BIG chunk of the population. The PRI also have concern that army and police may be first to receive vasectomies, and may regard the “voluntary” request as an order when it is directed at them from superiors.

Two USAID-funded special interest groups, Intrahealth and Family Health International, are backing the campaign. This is quite controversial as American law makes it illegal for tax monies to fund forced abortion or sterilizations and experts cite that campaigns that involve quotas, such as this one, have always been considered coercive. This risks the possibility that American tax payers could fund and thus be complicit in a crime against humanity. A Rwandan NGO Urunana has also been heavily promoting reproductive health programs, such as the sterilization projects, through local radio dramas aimed at making the population more receptive to the idea. The BBC reported that the men they interviewed on the streets were cautious about sterilization, but a worker at Urunana suggested that given the option and the “right advice”, men might be willing to consider the procedure.

Given the troubled history of Rwanda, one has to think that a sterilization policy, regardless of whether it is voluntary or coerced is not the best idea. The genocide left many vulnerable populations, who have a great concern of being culled out of existence; and many now fear that this is just the latest RPF program used to try and reduce the number of specific ethnic groups of Rwandans. Some Hutus fear the Tutsis want to wipe out the Hutu majority, as they are blamed to be the cause of overpopulation. Given the history of the region, this is not an entirely irrational fear.

Most attempts at population control have had problematic results, as the Chinese one child policy can clearly attest. Moreover, though many economist believe that the reduction of the population is a key to economic growth, a growing number are now left doubting that a correlation between population reduction and economic growth actually exists and instead blame poverty and famine as being caused by bad government and bad economic policies (see Walter E. Williams or Thomas Sowell). Perhaps if Rwanda is so concerned about economic growth, it should focus more on moving away from an economy based in subsistence farming to work on corruption, poor governance, education and investment, instead of ensuring that half the breeding males are incapable of repopulating.

Welcome to Cote D’Ivoire.

I arrived in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire, land of cacao and coffee, almost a week ago now. It’s not my first time in West Africa. I had last been to Cote D’Ivoire in 2004, and during that time experienced the violence between pro-government militias and the French peacekeeping troops. At that time, military roadblocks were common along all roadways and made travel throughout the country incredibly difficult.  Power and water outages were so frequent that we kept water bottles next to the sinks for collection for when the water was available if we wanted to later wash and spent much of the time in the dark.

Times have changed, but the country is still not entirely free from the grips of war. Roadblocks, from what I can tell so far, are much more infrequent, and run mostly by the police (to catch speeding and unlicensed drivers) now instead of the military. The power has only gone out one evening for a few hours during a scheduled outage (the government’s attempt to save electricity) –and the water, thankfully, has so far been steady. Almost all stores still employ Security guards in bright yellow shirts and have thick fences, bars and gates that lock after entry or exit. The scheduled 2005 governmental elections have been delayed and rescheduled numerous times and have still yet to occur. Voter identification processes and security concerns continue to plague the elections process. A process of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of some of the rebel groups began in December of 2007, but was upset in June of 2008 after former rebels were delayed in receiving payments for their alternative “micro-projects”. Many took to the streets in protest, attacking civilians, seizing vehicles, setting up barricades and looting shops. While this violence has now settled, the continuing delays in elections and DDR processes leave a fragile peace.

Of course, resources play their part in Cote D’Ivoire’s conflict, as they do in any conflict. I watch everyday as trucks heavily loaded with timber (mostly mahogany, but also teak, frake, framire, pine, samba, cedar, gmelina, niangon, and bete) make their way along the highway to the coastal port in Abidjan, destined for Italy, Spain, Germany, France, the Netherlands, the UK, India, Ireland, Senegal and Morocco, among other places. I see one pass the highway in front of my apartment every couple of minutes or so during the day. I often wonder whether these are legally or illegally traded, where the profits from these logging activities go and whether or not they are supporting violence along the way.

Conflict resources encompass far more than just minerals and metals that receive the bulk of media attention. Logging supports violent activities all over the globe, as do resources such as cocoa and coffee. Child slavery and child labour is a major problem of the cocoa trade in Cote D’Ivoire. An estimated 130,000 (some say as high as 200,000) children work in cocoa production in the country (6% under the age of 10, 40% between the ages 10 and 14 and 54% between the ages of 15 and 17), often handling pesticides without protective equipment, using machetes and transporting excessively heavy loads. Approximately 12,000 of these children are thought to be trafficked and essentially enslaved. A voluntary certification process was created to help alleviate this problem, but lost its funding and was discontinued in 2006. As Cote D’Ivoire supplies almost 50% of the world’s supply of cocoa, this means that slavery has quite possibly touched much of the chocolate that sits in our North American stores.

I am hoping that during my time here in West Africa, I will get the chance to look into these trades in more depth, and interview some of the affected populations. For now, I sit in Abidjan, watching the trucks roll by, while I enjoy a bit of a vacation over the next few weeks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intensifying Attacks on Human Rights Defenders, Organizations and Institutions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blood-free tin.

The ITRI Tin Supply Chain Initiative (iTSCi) is making an effort to try and eradicate conflict metals from the tin industry. The extraction of raw materials in many parts of the world funds extreme acts of violence; war crimes, crimes against humanity, mass murder, rape, torture, enslavement, the recruitment of child soldiers, mass abuse and displacement of people.  The complexity of manufacturing modern products means that each item has most likely traveled around the globe making many stops along the way.  This makes it harder for companies to know exactly what happened at each stop and the effect their product has had on human beings along the way.

ITRI is a non-profit organization that represents tin miners and smelters, created to promote a positive image of the tin industry and ensure its best interests are represented. The ITSCi was designed to investigate the performance of the tin industry and ensure a higher standard of care that would trace the tin from the mine to the smelter, much like the Kimberly Process does for diamonds.

July 2009 saw the implementation of ITSCi Phase 1, a comprehensive due diligence plan for tin extracted in the DR Congo. Phase 2 which just began to begin to track and provide more precise sourcing locations for tin mined in eastern DRC. Pilot mines sites in North and South Kivu have been chosen to integrate into the trading scheme, with expectations of expansion after the first six months across 4 provinces of the DRC (North and South Kivu, Maniema, and Katanga). It’s a start, but nearly not enough to ensure the eradication of conflict tin in the marketplace.

This pilot supply chain project is being eyed by both the Tantalum and Niobuim Information Center (TIC) who eventually intend to include coltan in the study. Hopefully other extractive industries will soon follow and begin take their own initiatives to stop funding violence. The vagueness within the corporate policies and laws and lack of investigation and enforcement capabilities to regulate the laws, leave the extractive industries seemingly decades away from evoking true change in practices. Long-term secure funding and precise laws is necessary to ensure this project goes from pilot to change in real practice. Currently several major corporations are contributing the $600K necessary to run the ITSCi pilot. Considering the profit made from products using tin in the past year, this $600K is merely a drop in the bucket. More money is immediately needed from these companies to hire enough investigators, regulators and enforcers to stop funding violence.

You can help stop the violence. Speak out. The next time you buy a product, think about where it has come from. Write, phone, email and ask the company if they have a truly ethical purchasing policy that includes safeguards against incorporating conflict resources into their product line. Ask your government to enact laws that would enforce its companies to maintain higher human rights standards, even when operating overseas. The market creates the demand, so let’s demand that they provide us with a truly ethical choice.

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The DR Congo, MONUC and Joseph Kabila.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some hope for the future.

In Canada:

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

In the US:

Conflict Minerals Trade Act of 2009

Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009

In the EU:

Global Witness pushes for legislation

Some of the corporations:

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

Supply chains unite to start iTSCi mineral traceability project in DRC

Global e-Sustainability Initiative

Misconceptions surrounding the Afghan detainee issue in Canada.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch the Richard Colvin testimony here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From November 18, 2009:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further from November 18, 2009:

Why should we care about Afghan detainees being tortured?:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From November 25, 2009:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canadians unite. It’s time for accountable and transparent governing respectful of human rights.

I don’t usually delve too deeply into Canadian politics and legislation, but I’m starting to think that big change is in order in our system. It’s not a matter of removing Harper from office. Many aspects of our government are shameful but it lies not only with the one party. Separating into polarizing options is doing no one any good. We don’t need separation in politics, we need to come together to say that things must change. The whole system needs an overhaul for it is inequitable and flawed. It is undemocratic and that needs to change. We have an appointed representative of the British Monarchy overseeing and signing all our laws with enormous privileges. We have leaders who think they can all hijack politics to forward their own agenda. We have representatives who think they can hide their actions and be unresponsive to our inquiries even though they are there supposedly representing us. I’m sad to say that most of my letters to government go without response. Sometimes I do receive a stock form letter in return thanking me for my inquiry. I  try to always ask questions and to be respectful (it can be really difficult!), but in all my years of sending, I’ve received less than a handful of actual responses, and none that ever answered my inquiries.

Our government cannot continually ignore us if we do not let them. They are responsible to us and must hear our voices, even if they disagree with what is being said. They are supposed to answer to us, they are supposed to represent our interests– and how can they do that if they aren’t even listening to what we need and want. We are wasting money left, right and centre on personal power projects and padded bureaucracy. We are allowing corporations to take the reigns and whisper in the ears of our politicians with fantastic lures. This is not democracy people. My voice is not being heard, and I am not alone in this. I have yet to meet someone who I can say is truly confident in the government and not highly uncritical of at least parts of the political system. We do have to compromise and come up with a solution that works the best for everyone and we are not always going to like every aspect of it, but it should at the very least, be fair and open. We need to work together and open dialogue instead of shutting doors and walking away. There is a better system, but we will never know unless we make it happen ourselves.

The government reps talk of accountability and transparency– but I see none. I see sneaky manoeuvrings and a lot of cries of outrage from those who cry to cover up their own transgressions.

Now I’m nowhere close to being an expert in Canadian politics, but I know the system we have is undemocratic and unfair in many ways. No, I’m not a member of the Liberal Party. I’m not a Conservative. I’m not NDP or in the Green Party or Bloc Quebecois. I don’t subscribe to partisan politics mostly because I don’t like what any of them really have to say and find very few I’d ever fully put my name and confidence behind. I also believe that standing too firm on anything can quickly progress to fanaticism or hypocritical behaviour and I’m no fan of that either. I dread election time with petty attacking ads that skirt the candidate’s own goals, record or previous accountability. Didn’t their mothers ever teach them, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all? To me, this attacking just shows they have probably have no moral ground to be running themselves and no real goals that they are going achieve other than their own personal agenda.

I want politicians to tell me what they are going to do for me, other Canadians and those abroad; how they are going to do it, with what money and then I want them to actually stick to it. Is that too much to ask for? What are they going to do to better my life and your life and everyone else’s lives? What are they going to do to represent my values that I care about in government? How are they going to better our international relations and increase all our well-being? How are they going better our human rights record and democracy?

I also want them to be held accountable for what they say.

If they make a promise– they had better follow through (or have an excellent, justifiable excuse for why it can no longer possibly happen!). If they don’t, then they deserve to be removed from office– immediately. Simple as that. Maybe massive turnover for a few sessions of those who faulted would set those who felt arrogant and power-hungry in place.

What I’m curious about is this, with all the wonders of technology that are now in existence– the massive connectivity of people that allows us to voice our opinions instantaneously with millions of people around the world in real time– do we really need these people to make all our decisions for us in the first place? Should they not be making more of an effort to reach out to us and discover what we want and need as Canadians? Is there not the possibility of real time discussions on issues initiated by the government to the people and polling that could be done continuously online in an open manner to have a better sense of real democracy ensuring the politicians must hear our voices? Could our politicians not actually engage with us about real issues and poll us on our feelings using different types of real-time systems? How much time do they spend each and every year actually working and listening to us and how much time do they spend scrambling trying to secure their own future positions? Why can we not use our own voices to make them listen to us. Use them to rally together and speak out against injustice? Find ways to connect and pressure governments to listen to our voice?

The voice of the people? Hardly. Sometimes I feel like our voices are lost. Or maybe there are only so few speaking.

I write letters and speak out, but do the powers that be actually listen? Do they actually track the number of responses and take notice? Does it get handed to them on a slip of paper by an aide and is then filed under “G” for “garbage”? Do they engage in conversation with those who they represent, or do they hide behind canned responses crafted and forwarded by aides?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently asked the Governor General to prorogue Parliament. This means they are shutting down Parliament until March, dumping loads of Bills that are mid-progress and still in discussion and all committees that have been formed this session to discuss issues. Bills and committees that they have possibly spent months debating and working on and hammering out details that would make them more agreeable. They will now have to start over and all the Bills be re-introduced and discussed anew and they get paid for two months away from Parliament. This stands in our system as a legal political move so that if all business has been dealt with for the year, Parliament can rest early. It has happened an apparent 105 previous times as we are constantly told. It is now being used as a dodge so that the current government can give themselves time away from their shameful Afghan torture scandal and refresh the House with a crony Senate appointed so that they more likely to agree with the PM’s views and vote accordingly.

This government is not the first to do such. In fact, Stephen Harper himself shamed Chretien for using it years ago, saying “The government will prorogue the House so that it will not be held accountable for its shameful record”. The same is true now. Hide from torture Mr. Harper. Hide from possible international war crimes and take the time to hide the evidence and gain back public opinion with your lies. Stack your House full of cronies who will follow you down the rabbit hole dismantling our democratic rights. The people will not stand for it.

Or will they? Do they even care anymore? Is there even a responsible alternative to choose? It seems many politicians lie and do very little work, and the ones who do are lost in independence and discounted for going against the party-line. What’s worse is that we so often sit back while political atrocities occur. We let the MLAs work only 81 days since November of 2008 (must be nice!) and don’t seem to even notice or care. We ignore Bills and committees that are discussing our human rights and our futures and driving our Canadian values behind the voice of profit and corporate greed. We so often stay silent.

Why do we feel so apathetic? Why do we not speak up?

I think I know why. Because we are lost in it. There is so much going on around us and so many lies being told, we don’t know who to trust. We don’t understand how the system even works because it is so lost in legislative process that we can’t begin to comprehend or concentrate on it unless we are daily involved and we just don’t have the time or energy to care. We have no idea what’s really going on behind closed doors, what propaganda is being spouted, what back deals are happening, where endless budgets are really going, and whose friends stand to make great profits. There is little way to truly find out even if we wanted to. We have no idea even the political jargon behind the legislation when it sits in front of us in its pure form and have trouble understanding the point of some of the House debates we watch on tv. And so many newspaper articles barely touch on the full details of what’s happening preferring short slamming pieces that do not begin to really discuss the issues behind what’s going on or affected by legislation, and every channel spouts the same three lines instead of logically looking into arguments and doing real journalism. So instead of potentially looking foolish, or being called into a political argument we are afraid of losing, we stay silent. We sit back and not voice what we are really thinking and nothing changes. It’s not enough to vote. It’s not enough to write letters.

We need to not be afraid of our government. Our government needs to be afraid of us. If we do not understand what’s going on, we have the right ask our representatives about it and we deserve reasonable and clear answers that explains the details. We deserve the details of what’s going on with our money and our political power. We deserve the details of breaches of international law. We outnumber the politicians and our will and well-being should count. We need to act with non-participation if necessary and show them again that we have a voice that must be heard. Imagine if civil workers and unions all striked at outrages of democracy. Refused to work. They would need to listen or their economy would collapse. We have the capability of this power, and so often we forget, or can’t rally together enough to make that power felt. We let the status quo reign and stay silent while we lose more and more control over our own lives.

Why don’t we all take a prorogue from our own work until our government goes back to work. Shut down the system and tell them “no”. Be responsible and transparent.

Instead we attack each other with personal degradation and insults along party lines.

We need to engage in conversation and come together for all our futures. We are not that different, you and I. The more we talk, the more we can see this.

“You disagree, ok, well what part do you disagree with and why?”  If we logically break down the arguments and reveal real objections we can come to a compromise. We need to discuss alternatives. THERE ARE ALWAYS ALTERNATIVES! We need to compromise and discuss and come to reasonable solutions like adults.

Come on people! End rant. 🙂

Speak your voice:

House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario  K1A 0A6

The Prime Minister –

The Foreign Affairs Minister-

The Leader of the Opposition-

Other party leaders in Parliament-;

Find your Member of Parliament here.

And find your MPP here.

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Actions are taking place all over Canada. Check out for details of rallies happening in your city or start your own!

Connections to violence

So anyone who reads this blog probably knows by now that I write a lot about conflict resources. I have been scanning the mining news and other humanitarian sites for many years now, and the more I read and follow, the angrier I become.

I am angry because the abuses are so vast and I am disgusted because we as Canadians are so intricately involved in violence around the world and seem to not know about it, or worse, not care. We focus instead on providing relief from the problems we are helping to cause.

I have finally begun to share some of these news stories regarding conflict resources around the world on twitter (@miningconflict). I hope you will all follow it and send me links to new stories if you find them. This topic is one I choose to focus on, because it is the one place where we as Canadians are involved and I feel can make an actual difference without having to directly interfere in other governments or people’s affairs.

I have issues with “development“. I see it as a form of neo-colonialism. I also have issues with many humanitarian causes that can be unsustainable in the long run, vertical and even victimizing. For me, the best way to be a humanitarian is to change myself. I don’t need to go and help in some orphanage or school, or give money to some charity and often feel conflicted with both. I feel I can do far more with my choices than any money or service could ever “fix”.

By choosing to take a stand against supporting more violence and speaking out against it I feel I can be far more effective. I feel that stopping the problem needs to come to first. The saddest thing to me is that most people in Canada have no idea how much violence the Canadian government or Canadian companies have caused and are still causing worldwide, because I know they wouldn’t knowingly support these abuses. There’s little we feel we can do. There’s really no one-stop conflict-free shop (though that would be wonderful!). The government follows its lobbyists more than its constituents– and our letters seem useless.

Make no mistake about it. Our Canadian mining interests are helping to fuel violence around the world. Our stores are filled with products that have blood on them. Why do we allow this to continue? What can we do to change it? It NEEDS to be changed. And we need to do that from our end.  We need to say, we will not use products that have caused violence and we will tell the company of our choice. We need to say, we will not import products that have caused abuse or violence. We need to say, it will be illegal for our companies (and government) to cause abuse or violence in our country or abroad– and we will make sure that the legalities will actually be enforced.

We do have control over some things here in Canada. We have control over what we purchase. Over who we vote into office. Over what we voice our opinions on. These  far, far away countries are not more violent than Canada by accident. There is no magic separating “us” from “them” that makes Canada less violent. We are not somehow more advanced, or “developed”. They are not more prone to violence because of some inherent violence within them or some longstanding ethnic conflicts that we just somehow avoided here. We are connected to much of their violence. We are part of it with the choices we make each and every day here in Canada. This violence is structured. And it’s all about profit and power. Colonialism never really left us– only new masters are now in charge. Resources are still the main game.

The sooner we realize this, the better off we all will be. As long as incentives to violence remain, the longer the violence will remain. As long as we continue to “develop” countries into one progression of consumption where capitalism reigns, the longer the violence will remain. The longer we interfere and try to “fix” instead of seeing the problem amongst ourselves to “fix”, the longer the violence will remain. The only thing we need to “fix” is ourselves. We in North America need to fix our material obsessions. We need to stop being only consumers of things. Our consumption is ensuring others live in poverty and destruction while we live in luxury. We (our government) need to stop giving endless loans to warlord-like dictators who ensure it will be subsequent generations who will pay for their power. We need to to have accountability for our actions. We need to stop stealing resources away from the earth at alarming rates and funneling the profit to those who bring violence. We need to change our structures so they are fair and equitable to all. So that all have equal voice and say in affairs that concern them. This is not a “third”-world problem alone. It is a world problem. We all are the problem. And we all need to be the solution. We all need to sacrifice and change and make peace within our own lives.

What can you do about global violence? First- Stop consuming so much stuff! Contact the companies you purchase from and ask them to stop buying raw materials or manufactured goods that have fueled violence. Write to the government. Speak out about it. Tell everyone you know! And pass this message on!

Some Canadians are trying to find legal solutions. Bill C-300 is an important step in this direction. Please read up about it and speak out about it!

If you want to write to the government (and I’m hoping you will!), here are some people to try writing to:

John McKay, MP. Liberal Party of Canada,– responsible for bringing Bill C-300 to Parliament.

Kevin Sorenson, Chair, Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development,
Angela Crandall, Clerk, Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development,

or Write to:

House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario  K1A 0A6

The Prime Minister –

The Foreign Affairs Minister-

The Leader of the Opposition-

Other party leaders in Parliament-;

Find your Member of Parliament here.

And find your MPP here.

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The Least-Worst Option: Statebuilding in Afghanistan via Transforming the Narcotics Industry

By Graham Engel

“But war’s a game, which, were their subjects wise, Kings would not play at.” – William Cowper, The Task, V, The Winter Morning Walk, line 187.

While Canadian troops have been present in Afghanistan since at least 2001, present conditions suggest Canada will not be there much longer. Our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is calling for an exit strategy1 while still assuring the US that we will support them in their latest troop-surge, which gives the impression that Canada’s decision to stay in Afghanistan is not one made in Ottawa. This is reemphasized by John Foster, who reminds us that “as part of the International Security Assistance Forces and the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, Canada has supported US interests in Afghanistan (2)” and will likely do so until told otherwise. The amalgamation of forces are in Afghanistan to address the failed state that it is, and hope to institute a stable and productive apparatus so that Western forces can leave, and the habitual relations between nations can resume; in Afghanistan’s case, habitual relations refer to transport in trade goods and a stable foothold for NATO allies in that region of the world. Building the state of Afghanistan is plagued with enough obstacles to make our stay there ambiguously protracted, and a stay of questionable worth. Yet, this paper will argue not only for prolonged Canadian presence in Afghanistan, but will argue that transforming the drug economy should be their central preoccupation, as it may be the linchpin to a sustaining Afghan state.

Ideally, Canada would need not stay in Afghanistan. The Bonn agreements have established a globally-recognized government, the people have voted their representatives into power, and the task of rebuilding has begun. In the words of Captain Nichola Goddard, whom died on our behalf in Afghanistan, these governments are a reflection of the desires of the people.

    “The Afghan people have chosen who will lead them. Their new government is striving to make Afghanistan a better place. I had never truly appreciated the awesome power of a democratic government before. We are here to assist the legitimate and democratically elected government (Outside the Wire, 57).”

Yet, despite Western attestations that the Afghan people have self-selected leadership, real Afghani’s describe the situation in other words. Malalai Joya is an outspoken female politician from Afghanistan, a feat rare enough in itself, but also compounded by her outspoken critique of those who hold power in her country. According to Joya, “…80% of the members of the Afghan parliament are warlords, drug lords, and criminals. The drug lords are ministers, governors, commanders, MPs, and ambassadors; [President] Karzai continues to put these criminals in high official posts and the Afghan people are hostages in their hands (230).” Not only are corruption (Kreutzmann 2007; Berdal 2009), entrenched criminality (Cornell 2007), and political violence (Aras and Toktas 2008) the foundation of the state of Afghanistan, but the international community is complicit in it, accepting its current composition as long as this government is serving Western interests. These individuals are power-holders in the country, those whom fought with the ISAF to defeat the Taliban, and are not really products of a functioning democratic system, but rewards for assistance.

A shuffling of powers such as this is not new in Afghanistan. Indeed, as a country which has been exploited as part of the ‘Great Game’ since it was first recognized, contemporary global history has seen Britain, the US, Russia/USSR, and Pakistan all in some way seek influence on the state. Furthermore, para-state actors in the form of al-Qaeda and now the deposed-Taliban seek to exert their influence on the governance structure of this former Durrani2 state. Operating from the North West Frontier Provinces (NWFP) of Pakistan, a region which is violently opposed to external governance structures (and have been historically unmanageable; Omranj 2009; Spencer 2009), extremists are destabilizing not only Afghanistan, but Pakistan as well. This spawns fears of a Talibanized Pakistan (Spencer 2009), as that states incumbent government has neglected to persecute them in their NWFP’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), leaving the possibility open that they may be able to spread all the way to Islamabad.

The issue of a failing Pakistan, a tenuous Afghanistan, and the criminality and corruption which plagues them become compounded by narcotics production and sale. The difficulty of this situation is how entrenched the narco-economy has become, which is likely a direct result of decades of war and degrading infrastructure. Where “more than 70% of the people live below the poverty line” (Aras and Toktas, 7), those who are able to cultivate opium in Afghanistan do. The industry is estimated to be worth US 2.7$ B., and is roughly 52% of the Afghan GDP (Kreutzmann 2009), involving an estimated 3.3 million Afghani’s directly (Berdal 2009). Farmers profit from producing a cash crop which nets $90/kg, substantially better than many of the other alternatives provided3, though it should be said that it is at least suspected that many farmers are forced into opium production. Kreutzmann says “the farmers are often compelled to cultivate poppy and receive only a nominal share of the profits” (6), yet according to Maloney, tribal leaders become involved in negotiations for the wider area, needing to “take a cut of the action to permit the cultivation to be done” (9), as it is a profitable enterprise not to be turned down lightly by any community. While this may represent a “possibility of rising from their abject poverty” (Van Ham, and Kamminga, 2), this seductive enterprise comes with the associated risks of an illicit economy, that being corruption, conflict, and entrenched interests who would seek to maintain this social order.

Domestically in Afghanistan, ties to the Drug Trade extend as far up as the President’s brother, and can realistically be found in many of the state institutions. Berdal states that poppy-growing districts are exposed to endemic corruption, with police posts being “awarded through bidding process[es], with prices reaching as high as $100,000 for a six-month appointment to a position with a monthly salary of $60 (6)”. This is because turning a blind eye to the growth, processing, and transport of opium is highly lucrative due to the bribery that befalls one at that station. Not only is regional governance compromised, but international governance too. The processing and transport phases of opium production, where the real profits are to be made, are not based in Afghanistan, but are “…variably and inextricably linked at multiple levels to the political and economic processes and people that constitute the nation-state of Pakistan – and have been for some decades (Maloney 11).” In the uncontrolled and volatile NWFP’s, the drug processing occurs, and from there are shipped to many regional, and international, clients. These networks “have been players in that scene for decades – far longer than Al Qaeda and the Taliban have existed as organizations (ibid.)”, with these inter-linkages extending as high as the Pakistani Army’s National Logistics Cell (ibid.). Beyond lining pockets and providing incomes for those who need it, illicit trades are notorious for providing armaments to para-state organizations (Aras and Toktas; Kreutzmann). Thus we see in Afghanistan “a power struggle… in which regional warlords challenge the central authority, in which rebels, guerrilla fighters and/or Mujaheddin finance their wars against the center with capital returns from poppy cultivation (Kreutzmann 5).”

Kreutzmann says that “the drug-economy…enables regional leaders to execute semi-independent rule and to establish quasi-autonomous territories under their jurisdiction and economic control (7)”, which is exacerbated by regional interests in this social structure. Drug-moneys undermine faith in the government, corrupt legal authority, enable sub-state social structuring, and yet are absolutely necessary for many Afghani’s to live upon. Further, a historical legacy of turmoil leads to a tribal predisposition to resolving conflicts via violence and usurpation, targeting enemies and praising allies, of acting as their own law instead of following a central governments (Cornell 2007; Omrani 2009). Making it more difficult still are international sanctions against involvement in drug economies, which will force the hand of any internationally recognized government, ultimately driving producers to groups such as the Taliban (Van Ham, Kamminga, 5). Western domestic policy also causes a narrow range of actions to be taken, as permissiveness (of cultivation so as not to alienate rural Afghani’s), transformation, or anything that is not explicitly eradication is met with incredulity and political sanction at home. Dissolving this knot is the key element to Afghan stability.

The only means of eliminating the lucrative narcotics market would be full-out legalization, yet this is not likely to happen, leaving the next best solution to lie in transforming the Afghan opium crop into a legitimate medical morphine industry. While it is nowhere near as lucrative as the illicit trade, growers will find themselves offered a chance to earn a good livelihood and to embrace a peace-economy. Afghanistan possesses the appropriate expertise and infrastructure to begin licensed poppy-growing for morphine and codeine, creating “a humanitarian brand of Afghan morphine and codeine…marketed in developing countries that have a serious shortage of those medicines.” (Van Ham, and Kamminga 6). Christopher Hitchens agrees with this idea, by saying that “the revenue that now goes to drug lords and terrorists could be applied straight to Afghanistan’s reconstruction, while weakening those who benefit from an artificially created monopoly (Foreign Policy, “Legalize It”, May/June 2007).”

Not only would opium be transformed, but the marijuana industry could transfigure into a hemp food and textiles economy. Afghanistan is a prime source of the worlds hashish supply (as seen in Cpl. Pagnacco’s Afghan photos), an industry not as lucrative as opium, but surely profitable. If the conditions are right to grow cannabis for smoking, then the conditions are certainly capable of growing hemp for sustenance. Hemp’s high-nutritive value (Kylstra 2009; Callaway 2004) can be used to ensure a higher quality of life for those whom are brought into the fold of the centralized Afghani state, as marijuana growers would become the food supply for the burgeoning state. When processed, the fibrous material could be used to provide a subsidized source of fabric for all state uniforms – making those uniforms creates labor which could be done by any one in need of a job.

Following the path of transformation offers minimal change for the average Afghani, an opportunity to join a legal enterprise, and the opportunity for local stake-holders to integrate into the central state. Those who are profiting the most from the shadow-economy could be incorporated as a part of this apparatus, as plantation managers or members of the ministry of Medical Morphine or Textiles (becoming no more corrupt than Western politicians); those whom are using it to fund insurgencies would refuse this peace-building option, thus extricating themselves from the legitimacy they experienced as protector of their locales livelihood. Then the state, with its enforcement apparatus, has reason to push them out. Johnathan Goodhand calls this ‘the border effect’, where “through a process of either co-opting or crushing rural outlaws in frontier regions, states…strengthened their capacities (3)” by becoming a force capable of instituting rule of law. These ‘brigands’ would still attempt to coerce communities into funding them through opium cultivation, but “the solution to the dilemma of security and stability lies in the fact that the majority of people in Afghanistan do not want the Taliban regime to return (Aras, and Toktas 10).” If the Afghani people want an established, legal state, then they will stand up to adversity for one. This, coupled with the transit revenue that will be generated by the Turkmenistan pipeline (US$160m./year – Foster 2008), may see the Afghan state in a position to grow and improve the lot of its people.

Critiques say that such a proposal would never work, as no control mechanism exists to ensure only licit poppy/cannabis production is occurring (Berdal), to which it should be said that Afghanistan is a state which is rebuilding and subsequently lacks many mechanisms – just because it fails to have an appropriate domestic monitoring apparatus is no reason to turn down a transformative opportunity that may win many Afghani’s over to the side of the central government. A more dangerous critique will be those disenfranchised regional operant’s whom have been profiting from lawless Afghanistan ‘forever’. Concerted resistance from outside Afghanistan’s borders could see the beginning of interstate conflict with Pakistan, or with peoples of the FATA’s of Pakistan’s NWFP. Another legitimate concern is whether this is approvable by Muslim law, yet Van Ham and Kamminga say “the cultivation of opium [is allowed] when it does not harm but rather benefits society” (10), and in a case such as this, it does.

Transforming drug economies in order to preserve livelihoods while creating new national industries which are enforceable through a legitimate state-coercive apparatus is an exercise in political imagination. The underlying theme of contemplating the Afghanistan state is that, since 1839, the West has been projecting their norms and value-structures onto an area which has resisted them from their inception. While strategies can be suggested, it is like asking “how can we make this work?” when instead we should be asking “what has been work in Afghanistan?” Every interventionist strategy since the British Colonial era has been self-serving and has created blowback which has haunted the West to this day, and Canada’s current involvement is no exception. While this paper has suggested a means by which a state could be built, it has been suggested with the understanding that the strategies being discussed in the popular media involve a troop-surge, an aspiration that Afghanistan will work on its own, and then a retreat by Western forces. Canada should not even be there, as it is not our place to tell the world what to do, but since we are there, the least-worst option would be to build something that could be legitimately sustainable. To do otherwise would be akin to playing a game one intended to lose.

Works Cited

    Aras, Bulent, and Toktas, Sule. “Afghanistan’s Security: Political Process, State-Building and Narcotics”. Middle East Policy, Vol. 15, No. 2, Summer 2008.
    Berdal, Mats. ‘Chapter Three: The Opium Trade.’ Building Peace after War. Routledge Publishing. London, UK. 2009.
    Callaway, J.C. “Hempseed as a Nutritional Resource: An Overview”. Euphytica. Vol. 140, 65-72. 2004. Kluwer Academic Publishers. The Netherlands.
    Cornell, Svante E.’Narcotics and Armed Conflict: Interaction and Implications’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 30: 3, 207 — 227. 2007. Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.
    Foreign Policy. “The Poppy Trade”. Foreign Policy, no 168. 2008.
    Foster, John. “A Pipeline Through a Troubled Land: Afghanistan, Canada, and the New Great Energy Game”. Foreign Policy Series, Canadian Centre For Policy Alternatives. Vol. 3, No. 1. June 19, 2008.
    Goodhand, Jonathan ‘Corrupting or Consolidating the Peace? The Drugs Economy and Post-conflict Peacebuilding in Afghanistan’, International Peacekeeping, International Peacekeeping, Vol.15, No.3, June 2008
    Hitchens, Christopher. “Legalize It.” Foreign Policy. No. 160, May June 2007.
    Ismi, A. “An Interview with Afghan MP Malalai Joya” from Afghanistan and Canada (eds. L. Kowaluk and S. Staples). Black Rose Books, 2009.
    Kreutzmann, Hermann “Afghanistan and the Opium World Market: Poppy Production and Trade”. Iranian Studies, 40 : 5, 605-621. December 2007.
    Kylstra, Carolyn. “6 stealth Health Foods”. Men’s Health. Vol. 24, no. 6. Ag. 2009.
    Maloney, Sean M.’On a pale horse? Conceptualizing narcotics production in southern Afghanistan and its relationship to the Narcoterror Nexus’, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 20: 1, 203 — 214. March 2009.
    Omrani, Bijan (2009) ‘THE DURAND LINE: HISTORY AND PROBLEMS OF THE AFGHAN/PAKISTAN BORDER’, Asian Affairs, 40: 2, 177 — 195 July 2009.
    Patterson, J & K. Warren, “Selections from Outside the Wire: The War in Afghanistan in the Words of its Participants” from Outside the Wire: The War in Afghanistan in the Words of its Participants. (Eds. J. Patterson, and K. Warren), Vintage Books, 2007.
    Spencer, Metta. “Afpak 101”  Peace Magazine. Apr-Jun 2009. Vol 25, Iss. 2. Published by the Canadian Disarmament Information Service. Toronto, Ont.
    Van Ham, Peter, and Kamminga, Jorrit. “Poppies for Peace: Reforming Afghanistan’s Opium Industry”. The Washington Quarterly Volume 30, Issue 1. Winter 2006-07.
    Zakaria, Fareed. ‘Interview with Stephen Harper’. “Fareed Zakaria GPS”, March 1 2009. CNN.

20 Years After the Fall

On November 9, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was celebrated around the world.  Many world leaders including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were present at Brandenburg Gate, the former site of the “Iron Curtain” that separated West Germany from East Germany.

Supported by Communist Soviet Union, East Germany began building the Berlin Wall without warning, in August of 1961 to stop the hoards of East Germans who were fleeing to West Berlin.  What began as a makeshift barbed wire fence soon became a 156 kilometre long concrete wall that surrounded West Berlin and was guarded heavily against attempted escapes from East Germans.  In its twenty-eight year existence, more than 130 people are said to have been killed at the “Iron Curtain”.

On November 9, 1989, after weeks of civil unrest amongst Eastern Germans, it was announced on late night news (in a moment of confusion by a spokesperson of the government) that effective immediately, the Eastern German border was open to everyone.  Residents quickly lined up at the Brandenburg Gate, and the overwhelmed guards simply let them through without using lethal force.  East met West on the other side of the Berlin Wall, and citizens from both sides of the concrete barrier began to celebrate their freedom.

While the celebration that took place this year to commemorate this great event in history was a spectacle with all the bells and whistles, including giant coloured dominoes set up in queue along a 1.5 kilometre stretch where the Berlin Wall used to stand, it did little to take away from the reality that those living in Eastern Germany still suffer poverty and unemployment at much higher levels than their Western counterparts, and that basic freedoms and rights still escape millions of citizens of the world.

We should take the time to look at an event like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the great impact that the citizens of Eastern Germany had on putting into motion a stream of events that led to the reunification of Germany.  What a great example of how individuals can rise together to make a difference, and how easily governing bodies can turn these moments of freedom and celebration into legacies of poverty.  Perhaps the money that went into the lavish celebration of the 20th anniversary could have been better spent in rebuilding the Eastern states that are still struggling two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall?  Just one girl’s thought…

by Heather Wilhelm

Money and corporate Rule

Let’s look for a moment at the value of humanity against the value of corporations.

One human, a living breathing organism, is entitled to certain rights under our legal system, usually pertaining to their right to live a happy and healthy existence free from the imposition or coercion of other human beings. Yet corporations routinely infringe upon these rights and are still permitted, if not encouraged to operate.

One corporation, a manufactured entity that creates products or services in exchange for money, is entitled to more rights than a living breathing organism. They are entitled to rights that allow them to infringe upon the rights of a human being in the name of profit or development. That insanity. It makes no sense to value a manufactured entity, a corporation, more than a human life. So why do we do it? Why do we allow them to lobby the government so that they can continue to commit crimes?

How did we get here and why is it that profit comes before human rights?

In a perfect world a corporation would not be allowed to infringe upon the rights of any human being to make their product. They should, in theory, run completely legally without interfering with any rights– or they would lose their right to exist.

Sadly, on our earth as it stands, a human’s value is often only seen as the value of their earning potential and their overall economic belongings– their homes, their cars and their toys. Not their lifestyle and choices, or morality, or work ethic, or any other positive and human quality, but a purely economic one.

Does money rule your life? What would you do for money? Would you steal from another human being? Would you hold them at gunpoint, kill or abuse them? Would you rape them and their families? What if it was for millions of dollars? How about for billions? Would that be enough?

Does money really have the ability to buy everything? Is there always a price?

Money is certainly a motivating factor in many people’s lives. It is next to impossible to live in this society without any money (although some do!). Vagrancy is often not tolerated or even punished, and one cannot always easily grow their own food if they do not own land, which requires money. Freeganism alienates you from society.

Money permeates our lifestyle and helps keep us locked into a cycle of economic violence. We become disconnected from everything else. We become a cog in a very very big wheel. We purchase products made by distant hands unaware of their effect and in doing so, say it’s ok to violate human rights.

After all, how could I “live” without a cellphone, right?

Well, maybe that’s not our intention– but there is reality behind that. To ignore a corrupt system and continue to participate in it speaks volumes.

It says, we don’t care or we don’t know what to do to change it or that we are not willing to sacrifice things ourselves to make the changes.

It can be overwhelming and you can feel like there is no choice. There is.

But you have to care enough to make the changes and sacrifices personally. You have to look into what you are buying, and say, NO. I will not buy this if I don’t know and trust the source and then write to the companies that make the products and demand alternatives. Re-use what you already have, or consider buying it used… you might even get a deal on it.

Are money and material things really worth more to you than someone’s life?

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The lack of human rights in refugee camps

Lately certain readings have got me thinking again about the idea of refugee camps and the access the residents of such camps have to fundamental human rights. These camps are most often overseen by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), who have registered over 50 million displaced persons or refugees worldwide. Nearly 90% of these registered persons are living within designated refugee camps.

Refugee camps are precarious places, set up in a state of emergency with the intention of being temporary,  leaving the residents constantly unsure of their future. The goal of the refugee camp is to provide displaced persons with temporary shelter, food, and protection until they can safely return to their homes. In practice, many refugee camps are places of immense insecurity where malnutrition and disease runs rampant that remain lasting over many years. Some refugees have lived in their respective camps now for over 60 years, and have raised children and grandchildren within them, who also retain the refugee status. Their rights are limited, and they remain unsure of their future.

Refugees in camps are often seen by the outside world as essentially non-persons in non-places, whose location is not even worthy of recognition on a local map. They have often fled in a hurried situation, without all their legal papers or documents, making travel or relocation almost impossible. This lack of documentation also makes appeals for asylum in places like Canada nearly unattainable. These camps are often located on the outskirts of towns, away from borders and other communities. Some camps have gates, security personnel and barbed wire fences to restrict the movement of refugees outside of the camp and to provide a sense of security for those living inside.  Many of those who have fled their country of origin are essentially illegals in their new countries of residence, and thus unable to work, freely move, or have any political voice. Instead they must idly wait as an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and uselessness take over.

Considering these camps are often set up by the United Nations, the body responsible for creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it is startling that the basic human rights of these people are not being met in these supposed “humanitarian” situations. Going through the rights guaranteed by the UDHR, many refugees do not have:

– the right to recognition before the law

– the right to life, liberty and security of person

– the right to equal dignity

– the right to not to be held in arbitrary detention

– the right to freedom of movement and residence

– the right to leave any country and return to their own country

– the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution

– the right to nationality

– the right to own property

– the right to take part in government

– the right to work, to free choice of employment

– the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their families

… and this list of  rights denied to many refugees does sometimes go on.

Why is this so? And what can be done to change this? How can the UN overcome the hypocrisy of one the one hand, claiming to help these populations, while at the same time, ensuring that their rights are denied, sometimes for decades?

The way the camps are so often spontaneously set up makes the problem of access to rights one that is difficult to overcome, but I think it is necessary for the international community to begin to give this matter serious weight. National borders and immigration laws also become an issue as these populations are denied access to work and have little possibility of any legal economic activity. Some NGOs have come into camps to help provide crafting opportunities or small loans for small business start-up so as to give the residents a sense of purpose, but it is not enough. The vast majority remain completely dependent on handouts, without any other possibility, since they have no access to money or the networks necessary to support themselves.

These refugees ARE capable and we need to start seeing them in this light instead of merely as victims. They need to have access to the rights they sorely deserve so that they can give their own lives purpose. They need access to education. Access to employment. Access to land. Access to government. They need to be seen as persons with dignity who are fully capable of living their own lives. They have had misfortune in their lives, but that does not negate their abilities. Forcing them into camps that can last decades, where they are denied of basic fundamental rights does little to promote anything other than the idea of victimhood.

Since these camps are internationally bureaucratized, it is a global concern. These camps must be restructured to provide their residents with rights. Without access to these rights, their future becomes nearly hopeless. With these rights, their future becomes truly possible. I think for the most part the intentions of these camps are good, but to be able to truly provide  “humanitarian” assistance, they must be restructured. Otherwise, we merely are creating a larger problem in the long run.

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A Look at the My Lai Massacre

Written by Heather Wilhelm

Being a Global Studies and History major has allowed me an interesting perspective on the history of war.  One war that I have studied quite a bit was the Vietnam War and more specifically the My Lai massacre that occurred in March of 1968.  I had heard a few years ago that Oliver Stone was planning to bring the horrors of this historical event to the big screen in another one of his epic political films, but recently learned that the production of “Pinkville” (what the My Lai massacre is more commonly referred to) had been halted.  Now whether or not there is any political posturing behind this production delay, I felt that I would bring the story of My Lai to you in writing and allow you to understand not only what happened on that fateful March 16, but also how the American government and their treatment of soldiers led to this horrific event.

The My Lai massacre was one of the greatest war tragedies of all time.  Hundreds of lives were lost in that small village in March of 1968, and along with them, the souls of countless soldiers went missing that day.  While the American public struggled to figure out why and how this could happen, the soldiers who were involved were asking themselves the same question.  It was a question that would never be answered.  There were many theories as to how such a catastrophic event could occur under American leadership.  Racism was a reoccurring speculation, as many of the soldiers had been trained since day one to hate the Vietnamese.  “The many hours the men spent during combat training listening to their instructors referring to the Vietnamese as ‘gooks’ and ‘slants’.[1] Another explanation explored was the language barrier.  The army felt that because their soldiers and the Vietnamese could not communicate, there had been a misunderstanding at My Lai.[2] This theory was quickly quashed by the testimony of the soldiers who had been present that day in the village.  Drugs and alcohol were another possible “reason” for the massacre.  The troops had been drinking the night before the massacre[3], but again the testimony of Charlie Company proved that theory wrong.  It is still hard to say exactly what caused all those soldiers to react the way they did in Vietnam that day, and throughout the rest of the war, but it is safe to say that there are some factors that contributed more than others.  Through conscription and a lack of training of soldiers, as well as jungle warfare involving an invisible enemy, and the need for revenge by the soldiers fighting the war, the My Lai massacre was able to occur, and it became a direct reflection of the Vietnam War in general.

The Vietnam War was America’s longest and most unresolved military conflict.[4] As a result, hundreds of thousands of young American men were forced to join the army through conscription, and were provided very little training as soldiers with regard to the Law of Land Warfare and the Geneva Conventions.[5] While American involvement in the Vietnam War was getting deeper and deeper, the government began to rush to find men to fight the war overseas.  They used conscription as a means to accomplish this feat, and were consequently left with thousands of men who were well below military standards.  “…what came to be called McNamara’s 100,000, the Project 100,000 men well below the Army average in terms of aptitude and intelligence and deemed unlikely to met peacetime entry qualifications.”[6] The standards for acceptable soldiers in Vietnam were so low, that it was not unimaginable that the My Lai massacre could happen.  Many of these men did not have the capacity to differentiate between right and wrong, and were therefore unable to protest what was ordered at My Lai.  Another problem with conscription was that many young men were forced into fighting the war.  “‘I was scared.  I didn’t want to go, but I had to,’ remembers Bergthold.  ‘Because if I didn’t I’d probably get court-martialed.’”[7] Unwilling young men across America were drafted into the army, and they could not protest without being put in jail.  When given these two bleak options, most men chose to fight the war, although they never truly accepted that they had to.  They felt trapped and in most cases, did not care about the war at all.[8] They wanted to go home, and this meant providing the government with high body counts.  “In a war that did not offer territory as a reward, body count became the index of success and failure in the whole war.  Officers who did not achieve satisfactory body counts were replaced; units who performed well were rewarded with leave.  The body count was the key statistic after each firefight and the pressure to produce high figures was enormous.”[9] These soldiers knew that if high body counts were provided they could go home, and they soon stopped caring about who they were killing.  The Vietnam War had an astronomical amount of civilian casualties and this was due, in large part to soldiers who did not care about or understand the war they were fighting.

This lack of regard for noncombatants in Vietnam was a direct result of the lack of training that was provided to soldiers before deployment.[10] While rushing to deploy young soldiers, the armed forces relaxed their training methods with regard to the rules of engagement.  This meant that most soldiers received less than one hour of training on the proper treatment of noncombatants in foreign countries.  “On paper, all soldiers received at least one hour’s instruction on the Law of Land Warfare and the Geneva Conventions.  In practice, it made little, if any, impression on men who were spending hundreds of hours being trained to follow orders and learning how to kill.”[11] So few hours were spent teaching these men how to deal with the Vietnamese civilians that there is no wonder they showed them no regard in My Lai.  They were not taught to communicate with them, or to understand their culture, and as a result they saw them as less than human.[12] The soldiers did not have any remorse for killing noncombatants in My Lai, and throughout Vietnam because they were not taught how to treat them as human beings.  “Rules of engagement were designed to limit the risk of civilian casualties.  In theory, they were issued to every serviceman; in practice, they might as well have been written on water.”[13] Rules of engagement was a term that was rarely heard amongst these soldiers.  Such a miniscule amount of time was spent teaching these men how to behave in a war, that they invented their own rules.  In doing so, they forgot to see humans, and instead saw animals when dealing with the Vietnamese.  In My Lai, they did not see innocent civilians, they saw human scum, something to kill, something to desecrate[14].  This was the case all over Vietnam, where blameless peasants were being killed every day due, in part, to a growing frustration within the army companies.  This frustration stemmed from the massive number of American soldiers the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army were killing[15].  They were fighting a war that the United States was unaccustomed to, and therefore soldiers were losing their friends and fellow fighters on a daily basis.

Jungle warfare was a foreign method of war for the Americans, and they were losing many soldiers as a result[16].  After years of fighting against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, they were still unable to identify friendly civilians from enemy soldiers.  “In a conventional war, it is clear who are civilians and who are soldiers, but guerillas wear no uniforms or insignia to differentiate themselves from noncombatants.”[17] These silent forces were killing soldiers each day, and there was no way to stop it from happening.  They simply could not tell who was good and who was bad.  “‘How can you distinguish the enemy?  How can you distinguish between the good and the bad?  All of them looked the same.  And that’s why the war was so different.  You know it wasn’t like the Germans over here or the Japanese over there.  They all looked alike, North and the South.  So how can you tell?’”[18] This statement sums up the soldiers’ attitudes towards the Vietnamese.  Their confusion was at an all time high, as they tirelessly plowed through the rice paddies searching for enemies.  They saw old men in fields and young children playing in the villages, and everyone was a threat to their safety.[19] The more unhinged they became, the more dangerous they became.  Being unable to see their enemy led them to fire their weapons haphazardly, to attack without provocation, and to injure the innocent.[20] These seemingly normal young men were becoming killers and this was never more apparent then when they entered My Lai village.

Meanwhile, as the American soldiers grew increasingly frustrated, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army grew only in power.  “The Viet Cong meanwhile grew in numbers and confidence and learned how to deal with the tactical innovations of the American advisors.  In spite of millions of dollars of US military aid, and the presence of thousands of military advisors, the Viet Cong had grown steadily stronger.”[21] The increase in power and number of the Viet Cong only added to the desperation of the American soldiers.  They grew to hate the Vietnamese more vehemently then ever and displayed this hatred through the destruction of their villages, and the rape of their women.  “‘the VC/NVA apparently lose only one sixth as many weapons as people, suggesting that possibly many of the killed are unarmed porters or by-standers.’”[22] Never was this more apparent than in My Lai village, where hundreds of unarmed women, children and elderly men were murdered.[23] Being unable to distinguish between the enemy and noncombatants led the soldiers to see everyone as a threat, so therefore, everyone in My Lai village had to die.

As the assault on My Lai grew closer there was another change in the American soldiers.  More than just not being able to differentiate between the Viet Cong and the civilians, the soldiers sought revenge against all Vietnamese to avenge the deaths of their fellow soldiers.  “There then took shape a terrible psychological sequence in which there were real deaths in one’s unit, as there had been in C Company before My Lai.  There were two central deaths – one of a much-beloved sergeant who was a kind of father-figure.  There was a fierce sense of anger and grief in the men…”[24] Here lays one of the central reasons for the My Lai massacre.  The soldiers felt such guilt and shame for the deaths of their fellow officers and friends that they began to seek revenge against anyone they could.[25] The Vietnamese were all to blame for the tragedies that befell their troops, and as such, they would all pay.  In My Lai, the soldiers entered a village of noncombatants, but all they saw were enemies, because they had long ago forgotten that there was any good in Vietnam.  These enemies who were killing off their friends one by one with booby traps in the woods, and snipers in the trees had all become a single enemy:  the Vietnamese[26].  Everyone was to blame, so everyone must pay for the deaths within their troops.

Revenge was a key factor throughout the entire Vietnam War; it was not exclusive to the My Lai massacre.  The rape of numerous women in villages throughout Vietnam quickly became a silent problem for the American military.[27] Michael Berhardt was a soldier in C Company and he noticed that the soldiers in his troop had adopted a new code of conduct that permitted the brutal rape of civilians.  When he was questioned about whether rape was a prevalent problem by investigators he stated, “I thought it was, sir.  It was predictable.  In other words, if I saw a woman, I’d say, ‘Well, it won’t be too long.’  That’s how widespread it was.”[28] The soldiers had taken on a new attitude about war.  Instead of protecting the weak and powerless they were exploiting them on a daily basis.  Lieutenant William L. Calley recalled witnessing one of his soldiers raping a civilian and telling him “to get his pants back up and get over to where he was supposed to be.”[29] Instead of reprimanding his subordinate for committing a crime of war, the Lieutenant casually tells him to stop and does not instill any type of punishment.  The soldiers in Vietnam were not being punished for their crimes, and as a result started to believe that their behavior was acceptable.  These blasé attitudes towards civilians were another contributing factor in the massacre.  When the soldiers stopped behaving like civilized humans, the people who paid the ultimate price were the women, children, and elders of My Lai village.

There are few people who would argue that the My Lai massacre was a tragedy of unbelievable proportions, although there are not too many people who know that this tragedy occurred.  There was a large effort made by the American government to minimize what actually happened that day and eventually the ‘massacre’ became an ‘incident’ that was quickly swept under the carpet and forgotten about.[30] The government’s attitude towards the massacre was similar to most of the soldiers of ‘C’ Company who thought they were simply following orders that day.  The lives that were taken that day were not human to them; they were something lower, something inhuman.  This mind frame allowed the soldiers to murder hundreds of souls without a second thought.  Again, this occurred for several reasons.  Racism, language barriers, and drugs and alcohol could all have played a role in the mindset of some of the soldiers, although there are several reasons that play a stronger role.  Conscription and a lack of training of soldiers left the American troops weaker then they had ever been.[31] The young soldiers did not have the mentality or the courage to stand up and refuse to take part in My Lai because they were scared and inexperienced.  The guerilla war that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army were fighting was something that the American military was not accustomed to.  This resulted in numerous American casualties, which produced vengeful soldiers on a mission to avenge the deaths of their friends and fellow soldiers.[32] That being said, through conscription and a lack of training of soldiers, as well as jungle warfare involving an invisible enemy, and the need for revenge by the soldiers fighting the war, the My Lai massacre was able to occur, and it became a direct reflection of the Vietnam War in general.  Thankfully, since that fateful day in March of 1968 many of the soldiers who fought in My Lai have had the opportunity to reflect on the wrongs that they committed against the human race.  Unfortunately, there are others still who do not understand the consequences of the murders they were a part of, because they were never punished for them.  Hopefully, some lessons were learnt from these past mistakes, and the world will never have to witness another My Lai massacre.

[1] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[2] Gershen, M. (1971). Destroy or die: the true story of mylai. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House.

[3] Olson, J., & Roberts, R. (1998). My lai: a brief history with documents. Boston: Bedford Books.

[4] Gershen, M. (1971). Destroy or die: the true story of mylai. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House.

[5] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[6] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[7] Gershen, M. (1971). Destroy or die: the true story of mylai. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House.

[8] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[9] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[10] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[11] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[12] Anderson, D. (1998). Facing my lai: moving beyond the massacre. Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas.

[13] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[14] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[15] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[16] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[17] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[18] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[19] Anderson, D. (1998). Facing my lai: moving beyond the massacre. Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas

[20] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[21] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[22] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[23] Olson, J., & Roberts, R. (1998). My lai: a brief history with documents. Boston: Bedford Books.

[24] Anderson, D. (1998). Facing my lai: moving beyond the massacre. Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas.

[25] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[26] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

[27] Olson, J., & Roberts, R. (1998). My lai: a brief history with documents. Boston: Bedford Books

[28] Olson, J., & Roberts, R. (1998). My lai: a brief history with documents. Boston: Bedford Books.

[29] Olson, J., & Roberts, R. (1998). My lai: a brief history with documents. Boston: Bedford Books.

[31] Olson, J., & Roberts, R. (1998). My lai: a brief history with documents. Boston: Bedford Books.

[32] Bilton, M., & Sim, K. (1992). Four hours in my lai. New York: Penguin Group.

Individualistic Climate Change

We all hear about the terrible effects of climate change and environmental abuses on our earth. These are abuses against our human rights and are something that majorly affects peace worldwide. We are all urged to change our individual actions to reduce our carbon footprints and told how this is the best way to stop negative climate change.

Sometimes I wonder.

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take these measures– I am a hardcore advocate of sustainability who writes about these types of issues frequently and urges people to think of generations to come and our individual footprint on this earth. What I am saying is that I don’t think this is the entire picture of what’s going on in our environment. Why is everything always thrust upon the individual who really has very little say (or none) in what happens worldwide? Where is governmental restraint? Corporate restraint? What other factors are contributing to climate change?

Sometimes I wonder what effect the over 2,000 nuclear bomb tests done globally since the 1940s have had on our environment and how this, in and of itself, has contributed to global climate change and environmental harm.

Let’s entertain that idea for a second.

A nuclear bomb has enormous destructive capability. More modern nukes can have the explosive power of more than 50,000 kilotons (that’s thousands of tons) of TNT. Tests have been done in the atmosphere, underground, in the water and even in outerspace, spewing out tremendous heat, energy and radiation into the air, ground and water; along with creating shock waves carrying immense pressure that is able to take  down buildings. Hmmm. And we are expected to believe that this has had no lingering effect on the climate, weather patterns, or our health? Well, not entirely, but its definitely not in the forefront of our environmental ideology.

A nuclear explosion underwater has the capability to create a tsunami. A nuclear explosion underground has the ability to create an earthquake. A nuclear explosion in the atmosphere rains radiation down to the earth and has enough explosive power to take down large buildings in a massive radius. What long term effects does this radioactive legacy have on our environment and our climate? What cancers and other maladies has it caused in humans and animals? What weather patterns changed on account of these explosions?

They say that simply increasing ocean temperatures by a few degrees can drastically change the weather. So we are expected to believe that numerous underwater ocean tests of nuclear devices that give off extreme amounts of heat and radioactive power have not effected ocean temperature or toxicity at all?

Now, I’m not a scientist. I’m not a nuclear specialist. I’m not a climatologist. But I do think that the entire truth of the situation is being downplayed. How can these explosions NOT have a lingering, long-term negative effect on our health, our climate and our world? How can they expect us to believe that individual actions are responsible for all our climate problems? I think that this shift to the individual helps to dissuade the blame and ensures that states can take the least amount of responsibility and action. If the problem is individual– then the best way to solve it is through individual actions– right?

Treaties have been established by international bodies to try and stop nuclear weapons testing. The Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 banned nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater and in space (most recently violated by the US), still allowing for underground testing, and was originally signed by the USSR, the UK, and the US. And the testing continued.

Then in 1968, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty set to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. 189 states became party to the treaty, with five signing states (US, Russia, UK, China and France) already in possession of nukes and unwilling to fully give up their power. Four states have never signed and have also been in possession of nuclear armaments: India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan. And the testing still continued.

In 1996, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty was adopted by the UN General Assembly to ban all nuclear explosions in all environments, yet has not fully entered into force. Tests are still happening. Our environment is still being polluted with radioactivity. And yet, where is the discussion on their effects on climate change and the environment? Why is this not talked about in the mainstream?

And where is the legislation necessary to protect our rights? Why is the individual responsible when it is governments who are letting it happen? When there are no laws to protect the citizenry from major toxicity and environmental harm we all face the consequences. Democracy is supposed to be by the people, for the people. In reality it is by a few individuals, for a few individuals (and corporations) and the well-being of the general population is not what is being protected.  Why are there such lax laws governing corporate or governmental environmental abuses? Why are major treaties not being respected?

I say it’s time for states to take responsibility and stop thrusting it all on the backs of the individuals. I say it’s time for the international community to take responsibility. I say its time we started looking into ALL the reasons behind our climate problems and stop blaming the individual for everything. It is not individual changes in and of itself that is going to make a real difference for our future, it is through collective action that difference will be made. If our states are not acting in our collective interests, whose interests are they acting for? Who is looking out for our collective interests and the interests of future generations? We need to speak our voice against atrocities and make change or our voice will be taken away from us.

Nuclear weapons have one purpose- destruction and death. I say its time for those countries in possession of such destruction to become accountable to the rest of the world for their actions. I say its time these countries faced the truth of their actions. I say its time that international bodies and states started actually representing collective interests instead of focusing on their own power and greed. Individual state power is not in our collective interest. If these governments truly represent the people, they should start acting like it and start thinking of all of our futures. It is time the true reason for government– to protect our rights and help keep us safe from abuse– becomes reality.

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The United Nations Human Development Report 2009: A Very Brief Look

Written by Heather Wilhelm

On Monday, the United Nations (UN) released their Human Development Report (HDR) for 2009, ranking 182 countries into their respective places based on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Human Development Index (HDI) of these countries.  GDP is defined as the total market value of all final goods and services produced in a country in a given year, equal to total consumer, investment and government spending, plus the value of exports, minus the value of imports.  In layman’s terms, it measures a country’s economic performance on a yearly basis.  Since its inception in 1990, the HDR has reached beyond simply looking at a country’s GDP and has created the HDI which measures three dimensions of human development:  life expectancy, literacy and gross enrolment in education, and having a decent standard of living.  While it is easy to argue that these measurements are not an effective way to gauge the success or failure of a country in a numbered ranking system (what of gender, social services, child welfare), for the purpose of this article, let’s just look at the gross difference between those living at the top (Norway, Australia, Iceland and Canada ranked 1 through 4) and the bottom (Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Niger in spots 180-182).

While it should be noted that this Report was created using 2007 statistics before the current economic crisis, it is still very apparent that there are stark disparities between those countries at the top of the list, and those at the bottom.  For instance, the average life expectancy in Niger is 50 years, which is a full 30 years less than the life expectancy in 4th place Canada.  For every dollar earned in Niger, eighty-five (85) dollars is earned in 1st place Norway.  It is believed that more than half the population in the lowest ranking 24 countries are illiterate.  These kinds of statistics put on paper what most students of global studies already know – we do not live in a world of equality and justice.  These yearly reports simply reiterate that while the privileged can expect to enjoy a long life with education and excellent standards of living the poor seem to be destined to remain in a position of poverty, illiteracy and shortened life expectancies.  I’ve provided a very brief background on the UNHDR for you, and I encourage you to click the link that follows and read a bit more on your own…the results will hopefully shock you back into reality – I know it always does for me.

Click here to view the full Human Development Report 2009.