IPS Blog

This Week in OtherWords: June 26, 2013

This week in OtherWords, Julian Bond calls on Congress to fix the mistakes the Supreme Court made in its ruling that gutted the Voting Rights Act. Given that our cartoonist Khalil Bendib had so masterfully illustrated the many ways that voting rights were under attack long before the majority’s Shelby County v. Holder ruling came out, we’re reprising two of his earlier cartoons on this topic. One accompanies Bond’s commentary and the other goes with a column I wrote with William A. Collins. We’ve also got a new editorial cartoon regarding genetically engineered crops.

As always, our commentaries and cartoons are available for use at no charge in newspapers and new media under a Creative Commons license. Editors may find information about that on our website or contact me with any questions at OtherWords[ AT ]ips-dc.org. If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, please do.

  1. The Modern Movement for Civil Rights / Julian Bond
    Congress must act to correct the Supreme Court’s many wrongs.
  2. Michigan’s Snappy Innovation / Nehemaiah Rolle
    The Farm Bill should expand a pilot program that’s alleviating hunger and helping farmers in Michigan and Ohio.
  3. Today’s Mad Men / Colleen Teubner
    The military justice system needs a 21st century wake-up call.
  4. Giving a Big Story the Cold Shoulder / Don Kraus
    TV news coverage of climate change is spotty and misleading.
  5. Where Would We Be Without Social Security? / Jo Comerford
    Congress must ensure that the promise of Social Security and Medicare remains fully funded.
  6. An Endangered Species Up in Arms / Don Kraus
    The number of students taking humanities courses is plummeting, and financing for liberal arts education is being tea-partied to death.
  7. Runaway CEO Pay Gets a Free Pass / Sam Pizzigati
    The House Financial Services Committee has just moved to repeal the only statutory provision now on the books that puts real heat on overpaid top executives.
  8. The 2013 Corporate Chutzpah Award / Jill Richardson
    The World Food Prize Foundation should look further afield.
  9. A New Housing Emergency / Jim Hightower
    Many of our wealthiest citizens are hurting.
  10. Fair Elections, RIP / Emily Schwartz Greco and William A. Collins
    The Supreme Court’s Shelby ruling aids a Republican plan to win more elections without winning support from more voters.
  11. Corporate Witchcraft / Khalil Bendib cartoonEmily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies OtherWords.org

    Corporate Witchcraft, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

    Corporate Witchcraft, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Germans Shocked That Obama Allowed NSA Free Rein

The former East Germany’s Stasi used similar justifications as the U.S. for total surveillance.

Stasi detention facility

Stasi detention facility

If recent revelations have led Americans to question how the United States defines freedom, Germans are questioning how the United States defines friendship. Turmoil surrounding PRISM’s overseas snooping has pushed the protection of privacy to the front of Germany’s agenda, imperiling German-U.S. relations. The American National Security Agency has been able to access data clouds in Europe for the last five years, which is news to most European citizens, although the European Parliament has known since 2011. In Germany, outrage is boiling as many begin to reassess the German-American relationship.

Since the end of World War II, Germany and the United States have enjoyed a relative closeness and codependency and are often described as a partnership, marriage, or friendship. But over the last decade, political rifts over the global economy, the war in Iraq, and America’s civil rights violations have caused this transatlantic love to fade. PRISM’s direct invasion of Europeans’ privacy provides further cleavage between the two Western superpowers.

German government officials, political parties, and news sources have been openly critical of the Obama administration, demanding information and justification. Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger linked the security issue to one of democracy’s fundamental predicaments, explaining that “the more a society monitors, controls and observes its citizens, the less free it is.” She called on Washington to be completely transparent about its motivations for such excessive surveillance in order to resolve the conflict.

During President Obama’s visit to Berlin on June 19, Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed the president for specifics on the NSA’s role in Europe. While Obama’s outline of the NSA’s restricted domain and assertions about its role in terrorism prevention in Germany seemed to reassure Merkel, he’ll have to do much more to win over the rest of the country.

One reason that many Germans aren’t taking the bait is that former East Germans, including Chancellor Merkel herself, liken the invasiveness of PRISM’s techniques to Stasi infiltration. The all-too-recent horror of the German Democratic Republic’s repression hovers in German minds, giving a particularly sinister gleam to the NSA’s operations. The Socialist Unity Party of Germany justified Stasi actions as efforts to preserve state security, a frighteningly similar goal, when taken at face-value, to that of our own security agency. European Parliament member Mark Ferber reported that he “thought this era had ended when the DDR fell.”

With no comparable national experience in the popular American imagination, it seems that the U.S. government is less constrained to value privacy in the same way. The disparity is even embedded in law—the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly provide protection of citizens’ privacy, whereas Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects Germans’ lives, homes, and correspondence from interference by public authorities. The threat that PRISM poses to Germany’s guarantee of privacy protection is frightening to Germans on a deep level that perhaps even the most concerned Americans can’t fully comprehend.

Although Merkel and Obama used the term “friendship” liberally throughout their joint press conference, the term may no longer describe a unity of ideals with regard to human rights. “Is [Obama] a friend?” asks Jakob Augstein at Spiegel Online, observing that “revelations about his government’s vast spying program call that assumption into doubt.”

It is obvious that the German people will not readily sacrifice the privacy that they fought to have, and the United States can either take a page from the German book or retain its current security agenda. But even if the latter becomes agreeable to the American people, NSA persistence overseas may discolor the German-American friendship with pigments of mistrust and reluctance.

Emma Lo is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Surveillance State Is Only New to Whites

baltimore-surveillance-nsa-edward snowdenThe past three weeks have been a bombardment of information regarding the US Surveillance State. I was tempted to say “a bombardment of revelations,” but that would have implied it was surprising, and to anyone paying attention for the past decade, that would have been disingenuous. It’s not surprising that the NSA has been collecting metadata on our communications, and it’s equally unsurprising that they’ve been lying about it. It’s not surprising that the FBI has been using drones to spy on US soil, that the US hacks Chinese computers and cell phones, or that the British had spied on foreign diplomats at the G-20. But it is groundbreaking that this information is now confirmed.

Disregarding my own cynicism (I know I should be shocked, shocked!), there is something deeply insidious about the outrage being expressed. Not just the hero-worship or vilification of Edward Snowden. Despite this author’s opinion that, sunlight being the best disinfectant, these leaks are good for the American people, Snowden and the leak process is not the story. The story is the confirmation of an unconstitutional surveillance state to which Americans never consented, never even got the opportunity to debate how many of our civil liberties we’re willing to forgo in the name of security. No, the insidiousness is in the outrage over the surveillance state itself. Now it’s a big deal, now that they’re spying on us. But where was the outrage over Stop And Frisk or any of New York’s other recent surveillance and anti-whistleblowing excesses? Oh, that just happened to Blacks, Hispanics, and Muslims. Where was the outrage when we were openly intercepting the e-mail and phone communication of all non-Americans regardless of probable cause? Oh, that just happened to foreigners, they’re not protected by our laws. These inherently xenophobic reactions, which of course are nothing new, highlight our problem: the surveillance state stops being ok when it goes from racist to all-encompassing.

The surveillance state is not a new problem; it’s a new problem for white people. The surveillance state has been a daily thorn in the lives of New York’s minorities for years, but it’s not just inconvenient. The surveillance state as a racist institution has been destroying the economy of majority-black cities and non-white neighborhoods for decades.

“I Believe In A Better Baltimore,” then-Mayor Martin O’Malley told the city in his 2002 re-election campaign, asking Baltimore to “risk action on faith” as he so eloquently put it. And the city bought his hopeful, inspiring rhetoric. but never asked for a plan, and so voted for the BELIEVE campaign, a multi-million-dollar press bonanza that put O’Malley’s administration in very comfortable approval numbers. By the time he left Baltimore for the Governor’s Mansion in Annapolis, however, the city’s murder and violent crime rates were back to their horrific mid-90’s levels, as were drug and STD rates, the campaign having changed nothing. Well, almost nothing.

Today, the streets of Baltimore are littered with the tattered remnants of the BELIEVE campaign: scratched stickers on newspaper stands and mailboxes, torn banners on the sides of buildings. In fact, aside from the politicians who pepper their speeches with the word, the only aspect of BELIEVE left intact are the blue light boxes that continue to degrade the economies and self-esteem of Baltimore’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. For those not familiar with the blue lights, their purpose is as purportedly noble to city safety as PRISM is to national security. Officially known as Portable Overt Digital Surveillance Systems (PODSS), the flashing camera system was intended to improve security by filming the actions on the corner. The always-on surveillance cameras track sound as well as image, and can identify a resident’s walking patterns and run a program to calculate the likelihood of their criminality. In minority neighborhoods from Baltimore to Chicago, Big Brother is always watching. The best description of their use and impact comes from John Duda at the Indypendent Reader:

… the streets monitored by these cameras have been marked as permanent emergencies, as territories distinct from the “normal” or “good” areas of the city. Rather than addressing these territories as communities of fellow citizens, the cameras address entire blocks as potential criminals, feeding into a logic in which extraordinary regimes of policing and incarceration appear justiï¬ed. The City of Baltimore has installed at least one camera which illustrates this point perfectly: a camera is equipped with a motion detector and a taped recording connected to a loudspeaker; when anyone walks past the apparatus, their picture is taken, and the recording informs them both that they are a criminal and that they have been photographed.

What a blue light on a lamppost means is that you’ve stumbled onto a problem corner. It has come to mean that, if you regrettably find yourself on such a corner after dark, you should lock your doors and not stop at stop signs or even stop lights if possible due to the imminent threat of carjacking or worse. But as gang rates spike with non-violent offenders caught by the POD cameras seeking protection in prison, what the blue lights really mean is that no business will ever enter these areas. While dealers move over one street to evade the camera, no significant investment or purchase will be made here and the legitimate economy of the neighborhood will continue to spiral downward. And as the blue lights destroy Baltimore’s neighborhoods and the potential of their residents, they pay fitting homage to the bluff that crushed a city’s hope, as underneath them are little black boxes labeled very visibly: “BELIEVE.”

It’s worth noting that in San Francisco, a nearly-majority white city (48%), outrage sparked by the implementation of POD systems brought legal changes to curb their impact on civil liberties. Similar challenges in Chicago (35% white) and Baltimore (31% white) have yielded no results and no media attention.

Non-white Americans have been under surveillance, subject to the violence of a police state, their constitutional rights trod upon, for decades. But now white people know that their e-mails are being read, their phone calls recorded by the government. Now the constitutional rights of people with “nothing to hide” are being infringed upon, now it’s a crisis. Welcome to your first glimpse of the America of forty percent of your countrymen.

Zachary Gallant is a Fulbright Fellow in Post-Conflict Redevelopment with an M.A. in International Politics from the University of London, and a recovering Baltimore City political operative. You can follow him on Twitter @ZacharyGallant.

“World War Z”: Israel’s Best Foot Forward?

World War Z“A Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt posits a right of return for Arabs and Jews?” asks blogger levi9909 at Jews sans frontieres. An anonymous poster at 1971 Productions blog provides some background on World War Z (with emphasis added and, where applicable, sic):

According to the novel [by Max Brooks, Metropolitan Books, 2006] a key occurance near the beginning of the zombie pandemic takes place in Israel. While every other nation dismisses the zombie threat as a ‘non-news’ item, Israel takes proactive steps with the closing of its borders to everyone except uninfected Jews and Palestinians.

The book details how the state takes steps to protect itself via the building of “The Wall”, turning the nation into a literal prison state. All Israeli, non-Israeli Jews, and Palestinians and descendants of pre-1948 Palestinians who lived abroad, are allowed to return to Israel to live behind this wall after being screened for the disease. Also in order to scale back on the amount of land it has to secure, the government unwillingly pull back from the West Bank and most other areas they had seized, before sealing themselves in.

… the Palestinians and The Jews ‘live happily ever after’ in peace and unity.

An anonymous commenter replied (again, sic):

I’m pretty certain that if zombies were attacking the Middle East, Israel will only let Jews inside its boarders and let the Arabs and the rest of the world die. They will NOT save the Palestinians. Max Brook’s tries to make the Jews the only civilzed nation on the planet, while all the Muslim nations act crazy and die.

In a trailer scene reminiscent of Colson Whitehead’s poignant Zone One (Anchor, 2011), zombies overrun an enormous wall. I had read Brooks’s dazzling novel, but forgot the details, and was wondering where the wall World War Z’s zombies were scaling was located. Upon watching the movie with my son and learning that it was outside Jerusalem, one couldn’t help but draw a comparison with Israel’s West Bank and two Gaza Strip barriers. Nor the obvious analogy of, as some Israelis see it, hordes of Arabs in the form of Palestinians overrunning their country. Meanwhile, evocations of Christians invading during the Crusades made it especially unsettling to see Jerusalem thus ravaged.

I then watched closely to see if those admitted into the walled compound that Jerusalem had become included Arabs. The fast-moving action and dialogue slipped by me and I was unable to pick out Arabs or hear references to their admittance. In any event, it seemed to have underplayed, as opposed to Brooks’s novel, in which the crisis seems to bring out the best in Israelis.

In his novel, however, either to advance the narrative, reflect his political concerns, or both, Brooks took the opportunity to eliminate two “existential” threats to Israel.

From the 1971 post:

… a threatened yet ironically safe Tehran takes a less than proactive step to quell the sudden influx of Pakistani refugees crossing Baluchistan into Iran. With India all but destroyed by the zombie virus, many Pakistanis who cannot fly out of the country see Iran as the next best alternative. Launching a misjudged nuclear strike against Karachi, Pakistan responds to Iran in a likewise manner, ensuring the annihilation of both countries in the process.

Finally, some brief observations about whether the film works. The case can be made that it’s the zombie film to end all zombie films. Whether all those in the interim since George Romero’s 1978 horror classic Night of the Living Dead – which cashed in on a trifecta of powerful drama, genuine shock, and a social conscience – were even necessary is a moot point. World War Z features the revved-up variety of zombies, which amps up the action, but forfeits the suspense inherent in zombies’ traditional slow gait.

Nevertheless, World War Z is an exciting and moving. Furthermore, the much criticized ending might seem tacked on, in part because it’s scaled down from a cast of skatey-eight million. In a Vanity Fair piece about the problem-plagued making of the film, director Marc Foster said of the final scenes: “The maximum amount of actors or human beings on that set were 20.” Some movies start small and end big; others start big and end small, an arguably more satisfying strategy.

Russia and China Fail to Meet Minimum Standards in Human Trafficking

They had been on the State Department’s watch list, but were further downgraded in this years’s Trafficking in Persons report.

Secretary of State Kerry at the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report event.

Secretary of State Kerry at the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report event.

As a country that will celebrate February 2, 2014 like a national holiday, the United States has cause for some self-evaluation. Super Bowl XLVIII is expected to be responsible for the trafficking of 10,000 prostitutes into New Jersey to meet the influx of fans looking to pay for sex. Yet despite this dark underbelly to one of America’s favorite and most celebrated pastimes, the United States awarded itself a sterling Tier 1 grade in its 2013 Trafficking in Persons report, which was released on June 19.

Less fortunate were China and Russia, both of which were downgraded this year to Tier 3 after a respective nine and eight years on the Tier 2 “watch list.” A Tier 3 designation means a country does not comply with any of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards and is not making any efforts to do so, whereas a Tier 2 county has made significant efforts to comply with those standards. A Tier 3 ranking also comes with sanctions, which could include withdrawing non-humanitarian and non-trade aid and halting U.S. participation in any cultural and educational exchange programs, though President Obama has the power to waive these sanctions.

Prior to its release, there had been some discussion as to whether Washington’s political and economic agenda would sway the findings of the report. These speculations are grounded in the government’s decision two years ago to save India — “the demographic epicenter of human trafficking” — from a Tier 3 ranking, which, according to former director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Mark Lagon, likely had more to do with politics than anti-trafficking efforts. This year, Secretary of State John Kerry demonstrated a commitment to fighting modern day slavery by standing behind fact and no longer delaying the decision to downgrade several major powers to their deserved ranking.

This is not to say that the Trafficking in Persons Report has been without criticism. Representatives from both Russia and China have been extremely outspoken against their country’s demotions. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman for China disregarded the State Department’s findings, countering that China “has achieved remarkable progress in fighting domestic and transnational trafficking.” She went on to attribute the Tier 3 ranking to Washington’s arbitrary and biased view of China.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry also dismissed the report, characterizing its findings as the result of “unacceptable methodology.” It continued on to mock the idea of following the dictates of another country in combating organized crime and trafficking in Russia. The report, however, describes Russia as lacking “any concrete system for the identification or care of trafficking victims.”

Russia and China, in addition to other Tier 3 countries, have 90 days before non-trade and non-humanitarian related sanctions come into place to prove their commitment to combat trafficking and protect victims.

Also worth noting is that Thailand, a U.S. treaty ally, and Malaysia were notified that without any significant changes, they would be downgraded next year to Tier 3 as well. Several countries, such as Iraq and the Congo, were promoted from the watch list to Tier 2 as recognition for significant strides made this past year.

Lizzie Rajasingh is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Hydrofluorocarbons: Finally, Something the U.S. and China Can Agree On

Obama, JinpingPresident Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping didn’t reach much consensus on cyber hacking or other divisive issues during their recent two-day summit in Rancho Mirage, California. But they made huge strides forward on a decidedly wonkier front by agreeing to reduce the production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

Commonly used in refrigerators and air-conditioning units, HFCs are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide and are therefore known as “super greenhouse gases.” They were introduced to the market as refrigerants after the landmark Montreal Protocol of 1987, in which nearly 200 countries agreed to phase out the production of ozone-depleting compounds. Although ozone-friendly, HFCs could account for as much as 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Their production has soared in developing countries like China and India, as demand for refrigerators and air conditioning explodes among the middle class.

In 2009, the United States, Canada, and Mexico submitted a joint proposal calling on other parties to the Montreal Protocol to phase out HFCs and replace them with new, safer compounds. According to the Center for American Progress, this amendment to the protocol would eliminate the equivalent of 90 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2050 and avert a half-degree (Celsius) rise in global temperature by the end of the century. Over 110 other countries support the proposal, but strong objections from China, India, and Brazil—who argue that the phase-out would slow development and saddle them with high costs—have prevented the proposal from taking effect.

Therefore, China’s about-face on HFCs at the Sunnylands summit, as leading environmental advocates have pointed out, is a really big deal. In an astonishing gesture of superpower cooperation, Obama and Xi signed a pledge stating that their countries would “work together and with other countries through multilateral approaches,” including the Montreal Protocol, “to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs.”

There’s now renewed hope that the world could see a substantial reduction in HFCs in the near(ish) future. However, it’s uncertain whether China will support the proposed amendment to the Montreal Protocol or pursue other multilateral approaches, which might take a lot longer. China’s powerful chemical companies, which are heavily invested in the production of HFCs, will probably do everything they can to delay the phase-down until they determine that investing in new refrigerants is more lucrative.

Nevertheless, the joint pledge signed by the United States and China has given a much-needed jumpstart to the global movement to reduce HFCs. It’s also a promising indication that the “most important bilateral relationship in the world” will give rise to further joint efforts to tackle climate change. It’s about time that the world’s two largest polluters take more initiative in cleaning up their own mess.

Cindy Hwang is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Finally — Pride of Place for Drug Policy at the OAS General Assembly Meeting

Cross-posted from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Originally posted by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).

OAS drug reformThis year’s annual General Assembly meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), which brings together the hemisphere’s foreign ministers, marked a milestone in the Latin American drug policy debate. For the first time, the drug policy issue was the primary theme of a hemispheric meeting and, in a closed-door meeting of the foreign ministers, a process was laid out for continuing the discussion, culminating in a Special Session of the General Assembly to be held in 2014. The significance of this meeting should not be underestimated. Drug policy has long been a taboo topic in official Latin American circles, given the traditional U.S. dominance in defining drug policies in the region. As one official noted, “Even two years ago I would not have imagined that we would be having this discussion today.” The General Assembly meeting in Antigua, Guatemala, from June 4 to 6 illustrated that there is growing recognition across the region that present drug control policies are failing and that some countries in particular have paid a very high social, economic and political cost for implementing those policies, hence the need to consider alternative approaches. However, the Antigua meeting also showed a lack of consensus on the way forward.

The declaration agreed to at the end of the meeting, “For a Comprehensive Policy Against the World Drug Problem in the Americas,” calls for countries to initiate a multi-layered process of consultation in a variety of national and regional forums, taking into account the recently-released OAS drug policy studies and the outcomes of this General Assembly meeting and concludes by entrusting the Permanent Council to call for a Special Session to be held no later than 2014. From the declaration’s first draft, the United States, among other countries, opposed the Special Session. U.S. officials, while apparently agreeing to the Special Session in the closed-door meeting of foreign ministers, sought until the bitter end to water down the language (allowing for the Permanent Council to decide whether or not to convene a Special Session, among other caveats), ultimately allowing for the declaration to go forward with a footnote laying out U.S. concerns. (As in the case of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, the OAS operates by consensus.) The process laid out in Antigua ensures that drug policy will remain at the top of the hemispheric agenda and provides greater opportunity for Latin American countries to influence the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs to be held in 2016.

The Guatemalan government—and in particular Foreign Minister Fernando Carrera—played a crucial role in ensuring the outcome of the Antigua meeting. However, it is important to note that the next two major hemispheric meetings will be in places with governments less inclined to put drug policy alternatives on the agenda: The next meeting of the General Assembly will take place in Paraguay in 2014 and the next Summit of the Americas will be in Panama in 2015; both countries have remained firm U.S. allies on drug policy issues.

Another positive outcome of the General Assembly meeting was growing recognition of the importance of the May 2013 OAS report on “The Drug Problem in the Americas” and the complementary scenarios study. In contrast to the tepid if not outright hostile reaction to the reports in the bi-annual CICAD meeting last May, in Antigua numerous government delegations highlighted that these reports provide an important tool for the regional drug policy debate. The OAS report lays out various alternative drug policies that could be considered by member states, including decriminalization of consumption and legal, regulated markets for cannabis. Of particular significance, it calls for giving countries greater flexibility in implementing drug policy and the need for drug law reforms at both the national and international levels. In other words, the OAS report points to the possibility of reform of the international drug control conventions—an issue some countries would like to see on the agenda of the 2016 UNGASS.

However, in Antigua few governments endorsed any of the alternative policies suggested by the OAS report and how many countries will actually promote the national-level debates mandated in Antigua remains to be seen. It was clear from the individual country speeches on the topic that the “reformist” countries are far out-numbered by those which appear wedded to present policy. And support for or against an alternative approach does not break down on ideological lines. The hardest-line speech supporting a “war on drugs” approach came from Venezuela. Nicaragua, Panama, and El Salvador, among other countries, also spoke out in favor of the status quo. Neither Brazil nor Argentina articulated a reform agenda. Colombia’s foreign minister gave a very diplomatic statement that supported the OAS reports but for the most part focused on Colombia’s “achievements” in coca eradication and cocaine interdiction and what the country is doing to export its security-oriented model to the rest of the region. The Mexican government supported the Special Session, but continued to play its cards very close to its chest.

In terms of countries advocating reform, in the opening ceremony Guatemalan President Pérez Molina gave an impassioned speech on the need for drug policy reform. Ecuador’s foreign minister also criticized the U.S. “war on drugs.” And as was to be expected, the Uruguayan government gave the most articulate speech advocating a public health and human rights-based approach to drug control. It also pointed to the need to discuss the international conventions so as to improve effectiveness and ensure respect for individual and collective rights. In another welcome development, gender issues were highlighted by several delegates and Secretary General José Miguel Insulza and one of the two roundtable discussions organized by the OAS was on “Women and Drugs in the Americas: A diagnosis in the making.”

Given these continued divisions between countries, what can be expected from the drug policy debate in Latin America? While press headlines prior to and during the Antigua meeting speculated about legalization, if one thing is clear it is that any regional consensus in favor of moving toward legal, regulated markets for all drugs is a long way off. More realistically, three possible advances are most likely to emerge from this debate. First, more emphasis on treating drug dependency as a public health issue and growing support for decriminalization of carrying small amounts of drug for personal consumption. Already, numerous countries in the region do not criminalize possession for personal consumption (though the United States remains a major exception) and it is not mandated by the drug control conventions. Second, more emphasis on reducing violence rather than the scale of the drug market, a point highlighted in the OAS report. And third, growing regional tolerance that allows for more flexibility at the local and national level to experiment with policies that are appropriate for individual countries, states and cities. Ultimately, reaching consensus on drug convention reform will be a long and difficult process. In the meantime, reforms will come from below—from the local and national experimentation with alternative drug control policies—and should help guide the regional and international drug policy debate. Allowing such experimentation to flourish is a necessary step forward in developing and implementing more humane and effective drug control policies.

Coletta A. Youngers is an Associate with the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) and a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

The Empire’s New Clothes: “Humanitarian Intervention” Stripped Bare

Cross-posted from the Black Agenda Report.

Assad-Syria-humanitarian intervention-president obamaSome critics from the left and the right characterized my recent article “Syria and the Sham of Humanitarian Intervention” as an unnecessarily harsh indictment of a policy that provides a necessary tool for the international community to protect human rights and save innocent lives.

But the recent decision by the Obama Administration to “up the ante” in Syria with more direct military involvement only confirmed my original thesis that humanitarian intervention has nothing to do with humanitarian concern, and instead is a propaganda tool that affords “the U.S. State the perfect ideological cover and internal rationalization to continue as the global ‘gendarme’ of the capitalist order.”

Look at the stage-managed drama leading up to the announcement on U.S. policy toward Syria that took place last week in Washington. In a surreal replay of the process leading to the illegal war on Iraq, it became clear that while everyone had been waiting to learn the results of meetings among high level officials of the Obama administration, who, we were told would be debating the next phase of U.S. policy on Syria, we learned instead that the decision to increase its open involvement with the civil war it fomented in Syria had been made weeks earlier. So the meetings last week were just political theater providing the Administration the stage to announce its’ “findings” on the use of chemical weapons by the government in Syria. As an official said the chemical weapons findings offered “fresh justification to act.”

Revising the “weapons of mass destruction” deception, the government “confirmed” that Syrian forces used chemical weapons that caused the deaths of over a hundred people out of the over 90,000 estimated to have died in the conflict. With no evidence or independent confirmation, the Administration announced that it is now compelled to involve itself more directly in the conflict to save the Syrian people from their murderous government.

However, in a telling and hopefully positive sign of the times, significant segments of the U.S. public are not falling for this ploy, at least not for now. And perhaps because of the recent revelations of governmental attacks on the press, some U.S. media outlets are not serving as aggressively as mouthpieces for the government in the obsequious manner they did in the run-up to and subsequent attack on Iraq.

This might also explain why some mainstream media outlets in the U.S. are finally allowing some minimal information and analysis of the conflict in Syria to be presented to the U.S. public from a more critical perspective. This includes information that has been regularly covered throughout the world but barely receives a mention in the U.S. press, like, for example, the fact that the Syrian government still receives majority support, including from significant numbers of Sunni Muslims, who are terrified of the religious fanatics who have poured into their country to “liberate” them. Instead of the continuing framing of the ballooning numbers of people killed in the conflict as the result of genocidal government actions, some outlets have actually presented evidence indicating that Syrian soldiers and pro-government militias make up 43.2% of the deaths.

Another small but significant example of the slight change in the slant of information is a recent opinion piece that was allowed to run in the New York Times that was highly critical of Administration policy in Syria. In that piece, it was argued that President Obama, lacking a grand strategy for Syria and the Middle East, has become a victim of rhetorical entrapment “from calling on foreign leaders to leave (with no plan to forcibly remove them) to publicly drawing red lines on the use of chemical weapons, and then being obliged to fulfill the threat.”

However, as important as it is to have a more critical perspective in a major publication, it would be wrong to believe that the Administration lacks a specific strategy for Syria with concrete objectives. The implication that the Administration does not have an agenda in Syria and that misguided but benevolent rhetoric has trapped it into making the decisions it is making is a familiar claim of innocence that liberals often evoke.

More than rhetorical entrapment, the Obama Administration has consciously and consistently maneuvered from the very beginning of the Syrian crisis to reconfigure the reality on the ground to the advantage of its strategic objective. That objective is to alter the balance of forces in the region against Iran by either subordinating or destroying the Syrian state.

When the opportunity presented itself, it was this strategic objective, informed by the U.S. National Security strategy position for the Middle East region, that was embraced and executed with devastating effect by the Obama Administration in the form of the manufactured civil war in Syria. What the New York Times opinion piece confused and conflated is “absence of a strategy” with tactical decisions based on shifting conditions, like the decision to openly supply the “rebels.”

The U.S. saw a strategic opportunity to execute its plan for regime change in Syria using the fictions of the so-called Arab Spring, the “successful” Western war on Libya, and the ideological fig leaf of humanitarian intervention.

Unfortunately, anti-war, anti-imperialist and people-centered human rights activists have not developed effective strategies to counter the push for war. So today we confront a situation in which the Obama Administration has not only blown the dust off of what should be a completely discredited playbook from Iraq on how to manipulate the public into supporting war, it has also added the new play of humanitarian intervention to confuse opposition. Instead of the imminent threat argument, used to make the absurd charge that Saddam Hussein might turn over WMDs to Al-Qaeda, with Syria the need for intervention is strictly “altruistic.”

That is why the immediate priority for anti-war, anti-imperialist, human rights activists in the U.S., for countering the government’s effort to normalize war is to strip away the moral pretext of humanitarian intervention and expose its ugly, imperialist reality. No other group has the power and the responsibility other than us to do this. We must boldly point out that while strutting around the globe clothed in the fiction of humanitarian concern, imperialism is actually naked, and the sight is offensive.

Ajamu Baraka was the founding Director of the US Human Rights Network. Baraka is currently an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is editing a new book on human rights in the U.S. entitled “The Struggle for a People-Centered Human Rights: Voices from the Field.” He can be reached at Ajamubaraka.com.

Taxing Work Too Much: Los Angeles Times Op-Ed by Sam Pizzigati and Bob Lord

In an op-ed the Los Angeles Times published today, IPS associate fellow Sam Pizzigati and Phoenix tax lawyer Bob Lord pinpoint what’s truly unsustainable about the nation’s tax system. Taxes on labor are rising while taxes on wealth are declining and an increasing share of wealth isn’t subject to any taxes at all.

Pizzigati edits Too Much, the Institute for Policy Studies’ weekly publication on excess and inequality and writes a weekly column for OtherWords, the Institute’s national editorial service. Lord is an OtherWords contributor.

Los Angeles Times masthead

This Week in OtherWords: June 19, 2013

This week in OtherWords, Sam Pizzigati points out that the contracts our government doles out to private companies to snoop on us are making some corporate executives very rich. As always, our commentaries and cartoons are available for use at no charge in newspapers and new media under a Creative Commons license. Editors may find information about that on our website or contact me with any questions at OtherWords[ AT ]ips-dc.org. If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, please do.

  1. A New Education Debate / Isaiah J. Poole
    It’s time to focus on what the children who attend public schools really need to succeed.
  2. Failing a Test of the Emergency Broadcast System / Stephanie Worden
    Our emergency communications system needs an upgrade.
  3. Our Star-Spangled Banner Waves for All of Us / Raul A. Reyes
    The racist attacks on a young Mexican-American prodigy who sang the National Anthem didn’t occur in a vacuum.
  4. Fantasy Budgeting Won’t Make Us Safer / Ryan Alexander
    Lawmakers should make targeted and smart Pentagon budget cuts.
  5. A Deceptive Win on Plan B for Women / Kathleen Robin Joyce
    Our reproductive rights are still in danger.
  6. Uncle Sam’s Vast Dragnet / Donald Kaul
    We have a right to be left alone unless the government can give us a very good reason to the contrary.
  7. Snooping Makes an Easy Road to Riches / Sam Pizzigati
    Corporate execs at firms like Booz Allen have a vested self-interest in pumping up demand for their snooping services.
  8. Eat Real / Jill Richardson
    Too many diets are about hype, not health.
  9. Metadata Mining Is Mega Awful / Jim Hightower
    There’s no shortage of complaints about the nation’s massive surveillance dragnet now that We the People know about it.
  10. Locking Up Our Future / Emily Schwartz Greco and William A. Collins
    The logical fix would require putting more money and effort into securing jobs, transitional housing, and drug treatment for ex-offenders.
  11. The Naked Dragnet Emperor / Khalil Bendib cartoon
The Naked Dragnet Emperor, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

The Naked Dragnet Emperor, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies OtherWords.org

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