IPS Blog

The Forgotten Oscar: “Argo” for Best Propaganda

Argo is more tone-deaf to the Middle East than Zero Dark Thirty.

Cross-posted from The New Context.

Argo, a suspenseful tale portraying America’s favorite bad guys, Iranians, as angry gun-toting religio-fascists, just won the Best Picture Academy Award for 2012. Ben Affleck’s directing is better than his acting, but this was not a character driven movie—it was made because it was based on true events. During the Iranian student takeover of the US Embassy in 1979, six embassy workers escape to the Canadian ambassador’s home and eventually make it onto a commercial plane with the help of the CIA and the Canadian government. The remarkable story is pumped full of cinematic and narrative steroids to create a marketable movie.

This is not a critique of Argo per se—as everyone seems to agree, it was well-made. This is a swipe at the lack of vision from its left-leaning, politically active celebrity actor-director (Affleck, who also produced along with George Clooney, could have gotten a more relevant and risky movie made) and the Academy’s rewarding of Americana, disguised in the beginning but glorified by the end. It is also an admission that studying international relations and the sins of the United States can cause one to see unchecked pro-US propaganda everywhere. But at a time when our government continues to train its citizens to see Iran as nothing more than a hostile enemy, do we need a film like Argo further demonizing its people—while championing the CIA!? Not to downplay the hostage crisis at the embassy, but no one suffered as dramatically and totally as the Iranian people following the Ayatollah’s revolution. (After all the hostages were freed, Washington then backed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as he began a devastating eight-year war with his neighbor.)

Django Unchained gave some historical context (read: horrors of slavery) to Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty,which also has a conflicted CIA agent as protagonist, provides a similar contrast to Argo. Both are inspired by documented acts of US foreign policy and hyperfocused on the specific results of high-level government decisions, providing a rare insight into top-secret procedures. The similarities diverge as Argo slowly extracts the storybook silver lining, complete with its white male hero, out of an epic US-led catastrophe. The 1953 Mossadegh coup and the American coddling of the corrupt, authoritarian Shah were touched upon in an odd historical film reel at the start but promptly dismissed. The film ignores the overall hostage-crisis context and offers the Orientalist concept of the most easily palatable villain, the Other. Zero’s complexity underscores Argo’s safe, historical cherry-picking.

While it is true that many parts of Iran were unstable and marked by violence during and immediately after the revolution, almost no effort is made to provide sympathetic Iranian characters. They are all fanatics and Iran is a giant prison of armed guards and angry mobs—a necessary cinematic conceit to create claustrophobia and tension. The movie only works if the audience is afraid of Iranians—even women in their all-black chadors have guns—and that is a problem.

Where Zero eschews the W. Bush–era Manichean West vs. Middle East template and instead highlighted the moral vagaries on both sides of any extended interstate conflict (cold and hot), Argo celebrates a shaggy bureau bum version of James Bond and the universal appeal of Hollywood, which comes to the rescue. Though Zero has the natural pro-Western biases of any movie made for Western audiences, the hubbub over the efficacies of torture proves that the film is not only relevant, it is an unapologetic assertion that America’s warrior class do not hold the moral high ground. Argo has been touted as illustrating that clever nonviolent solutions can work in terrible situations—a message that would have been much clearer if the story were set against the military’s disastrous helicopter rescue attempt (given a brief mention). But to its credit as a movie, the script is tight and doesn’t allow for subplots. Yet in the last ten minutes, that compactness unravels into a triumphal score introducing a sentimental denouement—and backslapping at Langley that mocks the long-list of atrocities committed by the CIA in the region from the 1950s on. The Agency comes out smelling sickly sweet.

Of course movies are primarily entertainment and do not require high-brow takeaways or disturbing, relevatory truths. But awarding the Best Picture Oscar to a movie that serves to justify the US’s belligerent stance toward Iran, only the most simplified and misunderstood of Washington’s many Frankenstein’s monsters, can certainly be seen as propaganda (as well as self-idolization by the same old Hollywood voters that chose The Artist for 2011 Best Picture).

Argo serves to reinforce stereotypes of Iranians as nothing more or less than America’s most reliable foes. It is Miracle—the Olympic feel-good film that vilified the Soviet Union to lift our spirits during those dark times before Ronald Reagan saved America (Rocky IV offered a less one-sided perspective)—without ice skates or character development, but with the same happily ever after.

Michael Quiñones is the editor of The New Context, an online journal of international affairs at the New School.

Human Rights in Serbia

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

People commit crimes, and they get away with it. These are usually powerful people, like Iliya Pavlov, the head of Multigroup and Bulgaria’s wealthiest individual until a sniper took him out in 2003. If successful people break the law without paying any penalty, lots of people want to get in on the act.

Milan Antonijevic

Milan Antonijevic

In the Belgrade office of the Lawyers’ Committee on Human Rights (YUCOM), I found a pamphlet from an organization called Impunity Watch. The Netherlands-based organization has run programs on impunity with local partners in Guatemala, Sri Lanka, and Burundi. And it has partnered with YUCOM and other organizations in Serbia to address the culture of impunity that has made it difficult to establish the rule of law in the post-Milosevic era. In that brief period after the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the liberal standard bearer who briefly served as Serbian prime minister, the Serbian government cracked down on organized crime. But it was a short-lived commitment.

I talked with Milan Antonijevic, the director of YUCOM about the continuing human rights problems in Serbia, including the issue of impunity. “For example, let’s talk about a trial that is lasting for six years and they have all the evidence,” he told me. “I’m not talking about war crime trials. I’m talking about the burning of a mosque in Belgrade. You have police cameras on the ground; you have all the evidence. But the judiciary is the weakest link in the whole chain of protection, and that’s where the impunity is coming from.”

He continued, “On the other side, you don’t have the political will. I don’t know why we’re still speaking about political will to punish those who committed war crimes or other crimes, but unfortunately this is still happening in Serbia. We didn’t have the climate for arresting Mladic for 10 years, or Karadzic. And it’s something that’s really blocking all the trials, it’s blocking all the evidence collection, it’s blocking the prosecutor’s office. And it’s something that is unfortunately on the political side.”

Antonijevic agrees that civil society organizations have managed to achieve some successes in improving the human rights situation in Serbia. But major problems continue for Roma, sexual minorities, and others. There is still a strong link between political power and organized crime. And judges are still responding to political pressures.

With Belgrade eager to meet the benchmarks established by the European Union, Serbia will soon have to address these human rights problems more seriously. But the pressure is not only coming from Brussels. Watchdog organizations are applying pressure much closer to home. Civil society organizations like YUCOM and its partners are fighting on behalf of the powerless and the disenfranchised. The status of these social groups will ultimately determine the strength of Serbian democracy and whether, substantively rather than formally, it has fully joined Europe or not.

The Interview

When you think back to what has changed here in Serbia since 1989, on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 being least disappointed, how do you feel about the changes?

If I had to quantify it, I would say it’s in the middle. You can pass at the university with a 7, so that’s where Serbia is at the moment. If you compare it with 1989, the year of Milosevic’s rise, Serbia has really changed.

I deal with human rights. If you compare today with what was happening in Kosovo at that time, with the dismantling of Yugoslavia, with all the human rights violations that occurred, Serbia is now completely changed. Serbia changed itself. The people running Serbia also changed it a little bit. So, all parts of society really gave Serbia a push forward. We no longer have Milosevic. Some parts of his political party are now saying they want nothing to do with atrocities, nothing to do with the war crimes that happened, and nothing to do with Milosevic himself – that’s a positive sign.

We still have problems. Here in YUCOM, the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, we are dealing with torture cases. There are incidents here and there in police stations, in prisons. But this was occurring on a daily basis in 1989. Before, ethnic Albanians were in jail for political reasons, and that’s now impossible. I really can’t imagine that Serbia will ever again fall into the kind of human rights that occurred 20 years ago.

Along the same scale, how do you feel about your own life since 1989?

To be honest, I was at that time much more patriotic. I changed at the beginning of the 1990s. As a kid, we were all influenced by this nationalistic wave. At the beginning of the war, when I was a kid, only 15 years old, I drew a map of Serbia just to see where all the Serbs lived and where the borders of Serbia should be: a map of greater Serbia. We were kids, and we were under media pressure constantly to see Serbia as a separate entity. Nobody thought that when you draw a border, there are people on one side and people on the other. This is something I really can’t imagine anyone doing today. So it’s something that personally really changed for me. I’m not ashamed of those things: I was young. But it was really overwhelming for all the kids in my high school and at the beginning of university.

We were able to travel. That was one of the assets of Yugoslavia. Until the beginning of the sanctions, everything was really open. So, all kids could get some kind of exchange experience with their fellows around the world. It was common for us to travel to Austria, to Italy, to France, or further abroad. It was something that all my friends did until the age of 18. Now it’s a little bit different, and I really don’t envy kids who have never been to any other European countries because of the lack of money or the lack of visas. A whole generation became more closed, more patriotic in a negative sense. They didn’t understand the real value of being open to surrounding countries, open to all ideas. So this is something that has changed.

At that time, people were absorbing this Serbian nationalist rhetoric that the media were serving up to us. And if you were more politically active, then you would be even more on this side. My parents in the first elections voted for the candidates of the democratic forces, not for Milosevic. But most people were under the influence of this Serbianism, this belief that Serbia can be a country that stands on its own, that we are modern enough, that we can really close ourselves off.

But now, fewer people are willing to talk that way — even in the Serbian Progressive Party, the new party that emerged out of Seselj’s Radical Party. I spoke with some representatives who are now members of the parliament. A few months ago, they said to me before the elections, “There are more and more of us who are normal in our political party.” They were very sincere. Their rhetoric and their ideas don’t reflect common European values, and they know it. But they said that there are more and more people in the party that are open to the ideas of multiculturalism, of an open society, of anything that really links Serbia with its surroundings.

I’d love to hear someone from the Progressive Party say something like that. But I don’t know if they would say the same thing to me that they said to you.

It was, I think, a split second kind of thing, a moment of sincerity that I don’t expect to return. But I like to retell this story because it was a moment when somebody felt secure enough to reveal how he really feels about his political party, and the past of the party. Those are members of the parliament. As for the rest of the party…

For example, we were doing research on gender balance in the parliament, and we spoke with two recently elected MPs from the Progressive Party. But they needed consent of the party to speak with us about gender issues, which are really not a political issue in Serbia. We were not speaking about Kosovo. We were not speaking about gross human rights violations. We were speaking about gender issues with two female MPs. But they had to ask for permission for a month to speak with us. So, the party is still a bit more hierarchical, and I’m not sure that anyone can speak openly.

But where along the spectrum would you say you feel personally about how your life has changed since 1989?

Personally, there is a positive change. But at that time I was able to travel as I can now. My parents brought us everywhere and we were open to everything. During this period we could go to museums around the world, and I could really see things that I wanted to see. So, that didn’t change.

But on the level of ideas, many things improved. When you’re 14 or 15 years old and you’re under attack by the media, you don’t have the strength to question things. That changed, especially after 1989. It didn’t take long for me to really start questioning things. You look at the map you were drawing and you see that some people were really left out, that crimes took place. I’m really personally attached to this human rights work. I became interested during university and started working on these issues. I went from someone with a lawyer’s background to someone interested in protecting human rights. But I don’t know how to quantify that change. My life was at that time pretty good. We were living in pretty secure surroundings. The background of my family was pretty high. So, the quality of life has been the same, measured by context and the possibility to explore and inquire.

Well, it sounds to me, if I had to give you a number, I would say probably an 8. In some sense you’re satisfied in that your opportunities are more or less the same, because you can travel now as you traveled then. But in some sense your intellectual freedom is greater. So I would give you an 8.

Yes, thank you. You’re a professional!

And the final quantitative question: as you look into the near future for Serbia, and again it’s from 1 to 10, how optimistic are you about this situation? 1 being least optimistic and 10 being most optimistic.

Again, I think that there have been steps forward, so it is again around 7. This optimism is, I think, pretty high compared to the current situation and the economic crisis. Serbia will soon have benchmarks to meet and things that we really have to do as a society. I’m speaking about the EU negotiation process. The start of the negotiations will really give us concrete steps where we should improve and in which areas. As you know, the EU process applies to all realms of life. It will really provide opportunities. Serbia missed these opportunities, and this really has to change. And there are young people who will be leading in some of these areas. Maybe I’m a bit too optimistic, but if NGOs and civil society can change the country a little bit, then we can change things even more. I don’t see us going backwards, even though some figures appearing in our political life are bringing back some bad memories. But if they are sincere in what they are saying, then I’m pretty optimistic.

Was there a moment, either when you were in university or starting law, when you had a kind of revelation experience about the importance of human rights?

Yes, pretty soon, because I had friends who were not Serbs, and I heard their stories. I can’t say there was a revelation moment. But you have people around you, and you have your parents who are traveling to all the ex-Yugoslav countries, and you have friends all around Yugoslavia. And then you see that you will be cut off from some of your friends who are Croats, or Slovenians, or Macedonians. At that time we didn’t speak of Albanians. My father was in Kosovo working as an economist. And he spoke about his experience pretty positively because he was really welcomed in Albanian homes and what they said they would do in economic transactions they did. So when you realize that those borders will really make you distant from people you love, or where you have personal stories….

As a kid, every summer I spent in Croatia, in the city of Rovinj in Istria. This is where you mix with all nations from ex-Yugoslavia, where you mix with people who are coming from European countries, from all around the world, because it’s really a lovely city. When I was drawing that map when I was 14, I didn’t put any of this on that map. But then you are drawing a map that cuts Croatia in half, which means that your friends in Zagreb, they will be in another country. Unfortunately this realization didn’t happen in the heads of our politicians. They didn’t realize that they would lose the possibility to cooperate.

I remember the beginning of sanctions, the Yugoslav sanctions against Slovenia and Croatia, and the rhetoric about not buying Slovenian or Croatian products. By that time I was no longer under that type of influence.

Tell me a little bit about the situation for minorities today in Serbia. Apparently there is still some discrimination going on at schools, in the workplace. So what are some of the most worrisome situations?

We did research a half-year ago with high school kids who will soon be going to universities. According to the data, 85% of them witnessed discrimination against other national minorities, sexual minorities, or others. This really raises alarms that something is really wrong in this part of society and the state has to react. Because of the lack of reaction, I’m not that optimistic about the possibility of really changing the situation.

We were doing research in Vojvodina and also in southern Serbia, where you have different minorities and where Serbia would have to do a lot to overcome the discrimination there. In a multiethnic society, policy has to be done the correct way and nobody is dealing with that. We tried to influence the ministry of education to go deeper into these questions and to set up some kind of process. I know that punishing people who discriminate is not the only way, but the state really has to come up with some kind of procedure to start the process, to be active.

Were there any particular stories that came out of this research that exemplify this kind of discrimination?

Nearly all the high school kids talked about this distance toward ethnic minorities living in Serbia, such as Albanians. A large percentage of them didn’t really see the possibility of cooperating with Albanians: to talk with them, to sit together on a bench, something like that. So this is what struck us most. Only a small number of cases of discrimination are reported.

Is there a process in place in the educational system to deal with discrimination? Can you deal with the problem within the educational system without having to go, for instance, to a lawyer or an NGO?

There is a process. There’s an educational inspector and an educational adviser: they’re the first line of defense when discrimination occurs. But we did trainings with them, and unfortunately they do not understand all the terms or the need to react on every occasion. It’s a nuance for them, but it means a lot for the people who are discriminated against. And there are a lot of other issues in their portfolio. They aren’t dealing only with discrimination. They are dealing with all the problems within the schooling system. They see discrimination as something that either is not occurring or that has to be tolerated because we are a society in transition and it’s not a priority during an economic crisis.

In terms of negotiating with the EU, where do you think the greatest difficulty will be to meet the EU standards on minority questions?

Discrimination will be a major issue. The Bulgarian minority is asking for a different set of rights, and nobody is reacting to that yet. For example, doing research on some of the courts in southern Serbia close to Bulgaria, we spoke about using the Bulgarian national language in court. The head of the court told us, “But nobody is using the Bulgarian language in the court. Why should we give this service?” So, they don’t see the need, even though it’s written in the law. They obey it in a certain sense. They put up signs in the court in the language of the national minority, but they don’t understand why it is needed. They don’t see the need to have translators, to have all the different mechanisms to support the identity of a national minority, so something is wrong within the system.

A lot of things have to be changed. At the level of the laws, some things have changed and there is progress, but at the level implementation, that’s what we are all pushing for. Implementation is really lacking. From that point of view, Serbia will first have to prove that all the mechanisms are in place for the protection of the rights of national minorities: on the ground and not just on paper.

Also, the Constitution should be once again checked to see whether some of the solutions can be improved and not only related to minorities. And to remind you, this is the Constitution from 2006 and yet today, only six years from its enactment, we are thinking about all the gaps in it,.

Let me ask specifically about Roma, because that often is the most challenging situation in countries in this region. Has there been any improvement? When I was here before, the discrimination against Roma was pretty severe, but that was a while ago. Has there been any improvement on the economic side, such as access to healthcare or access to housing, or on the political-legal side?

The only improvement happening now is the possibility to be registered. In Serbia, we had a large number of Roma that were out of the system. Without an ID, they have no possibility to access healthcare and other services. Where Roma do get health care, the level of quality is not as high as others are receiving. So, there is still a high level of discrimination in the healthcare system.

In the educational system, measures have been taken to make it more inclusive, to make sure that Roma are going to regular schools. We had a situation two years ago where Roma were mostly going to special schools for people with disabilities. This was being done systematically. They gave these tests to young kids who didn’t know the Serbian language, and when they failed the tests, they ended up in special schools. The law was changed. In practice, though, the Roma kids are enrolled in regular schools—because this is what the ministry of education measures—but then at some point they’re either transferred or not given substantive knowledge in order to go further in their education. There is a big dropout rate for Roma. And it’s hard to collect the data on transfers from regular schools to special schools because the ministry is not interested in doing that. They’re only interested in the numbers of Roma enrolled in first grade. There are supportive measures, such as the placement of personal assistants in the schools specially to deal with Roma. But there’s not enough money in the Serbian budget to meet the need.

Housing rights are at a really poor level. Evictions are happening. There are a large number of NGOs really trying to support people who are being evicted from different parts of Serbia—especially in Belgrade where these big highway and bridge projects are causing a large number of evictions. There is some improvement on this, but the quality of the settlements offered to Roma is very poor if they’re in Belgrade. There are also Roma who don’t have IDs registered in Belgrade. So if they are registered, for example, in Nis and they are evicted from a home in Belgrade, they will be transferred to Nis directly. Nobody is thinking about freedom of movement. Nobody is thinking about the acceptance of Roma families in other parts of Serbia. For example, after the evictions from the Belville section of Belgrade, where I think 700 families were evicted, the majority of them sent to other parts of Serbia. There was no normal housing offered to them in some of the cities. They were just transferred to cities without any further support.

In Belgrade, the last eviction was a little bit more organized. The Roma were given these so-called container settlements. The conditions there are really terrible. The containers don’t have normal heating or anything like that. It’s really not something for decent lives. The city said it wasn’t permanent, that they would offer social housing to the Roma. But the percentage of Roma receiving such housing is very low, below 1%. So, this program is not meant to solve the issue of Roma and housing.

And at the same time, the housing issue is challenging in general in Serbia because there’s been such a huge number of internally displaced and refugees and they also have been living in containers.

But the number of those camps for refugees and IDPs is now smaller. I’d have to look at the data again, but even in 2011-2012, the number is one third what it was. Every year they are closing. Social housing is provided, and it’s heading toward a solution. There are some regional donor initiatives to resolve finally the housing problems for all the people who lost their homes in ex-Yugoslavia. This program could really close the whole chapter. Hopefully the issue of the property of Serbian refugees from Croatia will also be solved.

They’ve been promising that money for a really long time.

Yes, I know. But as far as I know, the EU is willing to invest a little bit in the region. But the number of refugees and IDPs is smaller and smaller. The number in urgent need is now in the thousands in Serbia, not the hundreds of thousands as in the 1990s.

What about cases of violence against Roma, have those continued?

Yes. We have before the courts some cases concerning police torture of Roma. There’s a case in one police station where a Roma was beaten, and the reporting system completely failed. Even the structures on the municipal level that were supposed to be on the side of the victim were completely opposite. The people dealing with Roma on the municipal level wanted to persuade the victim not to report the abuse. Hopefully better contact with the police will solve some of the problems, but we will see.

And are there advocacy organizations formed by Roma, with Roma emerging as their own advocates, both in the informal sense, as in an NGO, but also in the formal sense, such as Roma lawyers and professionals?

It is emerging, but unfortunately it’s still slow. It’s the task of civil society to support smaller NGOs who would like to deal with Roma rights and are coming from Roma background. There are some active NGOs but on a really small scale. They are in Kragujevac and elsewhere around Serbia. But the strong advocates on Roma issues are not unfortunately there. For example, we had a Roma lawyer who wanted to volunteer, to dedicate some time to human rights. We tried to boost his energy to start this work and to form some kind of legal clinic for Roma rights. But it didn’t end well.

Let me ask about Vojvodina, the question of decentralization. Help me understand the issue, because I know that on the one hand accession to the EU requires acceding to certain EU rules of decentralization. The EU promotes the giving of greater authority to municipalities and regional structures. So that’s coming from the EU. Then Vojvodina itself has asked for greater authority. It wants to have its office represented in Brussels for instance. My understanding is that the EU itself has seen Vojvodina as more developed in some sense and therefore can access EU funds more quickly than other parts of Serbia. So is that something that your organization has worked on?

Where we are active now is the question of the Constitution, which I already mentioned. We see presently, after the decision of the constitutional court, that the Constitution is blocking the authorities of Vojvodina rather than opening up chances for regional structures to have some influence. It’s a bit ambitious to open the debate on the Constitution, but it is something that’s needed as soon as possible. So we opened this debate. And it’s not just a question of Vojvodina. The Constitution is blocking the progress of Serbia in other ways too

So, for instance, the Constitution would have to be changed simply for EU accession to take place.

Yes, there must be a provision allowing Serbia to enter a structure such as the EU. At the moment we don’t have such a normal procedure or an article allowing Serbia to join the EU. So, some things in this area have to be changed. Also the supremacy of international law is not defined well. Many scholars are giving a lot of examples why this constitution is far from perfect and preventing Serbian progress.

How willing is the parliament and the ruling party to reform the constitution?

The parliament is still new, elected in 2012, so we really have to open the debate again. We’ve gotten negative responses from all the political parties, even in the previous period. But it is not impossible. There must be strong advocacy for changing the constitution. And if the politicians now ruling Serbia really want to deal with the issues that they’re talking about, they will have to change the constitution.

Will a change in the constitution require a referendum?

Yes.

By what percentage? A majority?

Majority. Our constitution is a really strong one. It’s meant to last a long time, so it’s very hard to change. It would require a vast campaign on a national level – first by all the politicians in the parliament and then by referendum. Even changes to the sections on human rights need to be put to referendum. From our point, as human rights advocates, it’s really amazing that improving the standard of human rights needs a referendum.

Do you have any concerns that if there is the discussion of changing the constitution, there might be some parties or political formations that want to change it in a different direction?

I do not see it as a concern. At the moment only a few percent of Serbian parliament are speaking about lowering the level of human rights or lowering the level of democracy. So it’s not something that can change overnight without major turbulence on the political scene.

I noticed that Impunity Watch had a program here in Serbia as it did in Guatemala. What do you think are the major questions that have to be resolved before Impunity International no longer needs a program here in Serbia?

For example, let’s talk about a trial that is lasting for six years and they have all the evidence. I’m not talking about war crime trials. I’m talking about the burning of a mosque in Belgrade. You have police cameras on the ground; you have all the evidence. But the judiciary is the weakest link in the whole chain of protection, and that’s where the impunity is coming from.

On the other side, you don’t have the political will. I don’t know why we’re still speaking about political will to punish those who committed war crimes or other crimes, but unfortunately this is still happening in Serbia. We didn’t have the climate for arresting Mladic for 10 years, or Karadzic. And it’s something that’s really blocking all the trials, it’s blocking all the evidence collection, it’s blocking the prosecutor’s office. And it’s something that is unfortunately on the political side.

And this is because you still have a judicial system that’s a carryover from the previous period? You have judges that are old-fashioned in their political thinking? Are judges the problem?

The problem starts with the prosecution. A judge cannot accomplish something without decent work from the prosecutor’s office. You can’t get a sentence without all the necessary elements. So, the reason lies on both sides. It’s not just the old-fashioned judges. But judges are unfortunately listening to the politicians more than they should. It’s not just direct pressure but it’s also sensing what the political moment is. It’s very hard to prove. But if no trial emerges during a long period of time, and for several years a case that should be a priority goes nowhere, then what else can you think? It’s some kind of auto-censorship by the judges.

Judges are appointed?

Yes, by the Serbian parliament. The High Judicial Council, as an independent body, recommends a group of candidates, and parliament chooses and appoints them.

Is there a problem with political influence through this process?

Yes, but it’s really hard to prove. Judges should be elected to full appointments. But there is still a probation period for newly appointed judges. That’s where the judges can be influenced because they fear what might happen during this probation period. There is still no solid ground for the evaluation of their work, and the criteria for their reelection is completely unclear.

Tell me about the mosque case. The mosque here in Belgrade was burned six years ago, and you said all the evidence was collected. The culprits were…?

We were monitoring this trial for a while. There was a police officer stating that the entire burning of the mosque was filmed by police camera. But then he says that he doesn’t remember anything, because so many years have passed, everything has become blurry. He says maybe something happened, maybe not, he is not certain. So, the police are not giving substantive evidence for the trial. Many circumstances have blocked the process, and that’s why the trials have produced so little.

We also have the trial for burning the American embassy, which ended just few days ago. The sentence was one year of jail for just stealing a few things from the embassy. Even if the punishment had been more severe, I don’t think that it would change anything, because it’s only a few people from a larger number who were responsible. Those who really gave the orders, they were not caught and not brought to trial. We have simply found a victim to sacrifice and lifted the responsibility from higher authorities.

Just prior to his assassination, Djindic launched a very big anti-corruption campaign. After his assassination, that campaign continued and there was some political will behind this anti-corruption effort because of his assassination. How do you feel about that process today? Was that generally successful, in terms of breaking the power of organized crime? Have they recovered their power to a certain extent?

Those links between government and organized crime are still strong. Only a small number of cases end with a verdict. This is also one of the areas where we can speak about impunity. We’re monitoring some of the trials before the court and trying to distinguish between the indictments of major political figures and just petty corruption. We have indictments and verdicts in media, and people are judged by the general public as guilty. But it’s not proven in court. And nobody is really paying attention to this process and how it really damages the whole fight against corruption.

It’s good to have a shift in political power because it can really bring some of these things to light. I don’t like political revanchism, but if it provokes a real fight against corruption then it’s unstoppable. You can’t say it’s limited to only one political party, but it must go through all the political spheres and deal with corruption at all levels.

I’m interested in the rise of the right wing populism, and I’m curious how you evaluate the situation here in Serbia.

Where this right wing is really strong is against minorities, especially against LGBT minority. Their support is not vast, but it still is enough to spread violence on the streets of Serbia. If they really can collect a few thousand people to be violent on the streets of the Gay Pride Parade or any other incident, then this needs to be addressed with special care.

They’re now in the Vojvodina parliament. They’re sitting in municipality assemblies around Serbia, such as Arandjelovac, Mladenovac, and so on. They’re now emerging in regular political life. It’s hard to link them with crimes. They can be linked to the church in certain cases. For example, there were some organizations using church premises in Novi Sad without paying. So, some parts of society are supporting these groups. In the 1990s, the state was always using, and misusing, these groups to spread violence. So, again, we can see that the system did not change in all respects. And this is something that is very worrisome.

Let me ask about LGBT issues, because I just saw that the Gay Pride parade has been canceled.

In 2011, the government was speaking about having the data on the groups that were planning violence during the Pride march. If you, as a state with all the powers you have, say that there are groups that are planning atrocities and violence in the street, then you have to act. You can’t just sit there with no process, no prosecutor’s office working on these issues. The only proof for us that there is such violence is the arrest of the people who planned it. Whether they committed the violence or not, it’s enough reason to start the process. If they’ve collected weapons or they have bigger plans, it’s something that the state must address. The state can use this as an excuse to cancel the event, year after year. But to demonstrate that it has the will to deal with these issues, the state has to put pressure on the groups that are planning violence and really make arrests.

Do you think that the LGBT community will go ahead with the parade anyway?

Pride Week will happen. As far as I know the whole week is not canceled: the conferences, the events all around Belgrade.

Do you see in terms of society more generally a greater acceptance of LGBT issues, even if the parade itself is canceled?

There is, I think, a certain level of softening on this topic, so the overall pressure is having an effect on society. But you will always have a small percentage of people who want to be violent on various issues, including LGBT issues. It’s not something that can be stopped completely – in any country – but the question is how organized the violence is and whether it receives support from the state. That’s what distinguishes a country developing in the right way and a country developing in the wrong way.

Belgrade, September 24, 2012

Behind the Kitchen Door: A Must-Read for Anyone Who Eats at Restaurants

Cross-posted from the Yes! Magazine blog.

You are celebrating your birthday at your favorite restaurant and you’ve just ordered a tasty, locally grown organic meal. You savor the food, while feeling good that you are contributing to a better world. What could be better?

Well, for starters: the conditions of the people serving and busing your table.

Behind the Kitchen Door, by Saru Jayaraman

Behind the Kitchen Door, by Saru Jayaraman

Most don’t make a living wage. Indeed, most of your servers work for the same minimum wage they’ve gotten for 22 years: $2.13 an hour. That’s right: no increase for a generation. Therefore, most workers have no choice but to work if they’re sick because nine out of ten don’t receive paid sick leave. Yes, if you are reading this now because you’re sick at home, you may well have caught your disease from a sick restaurant employee who had no choice but to work.

There is a new chilling-yet-ultimately-hopeful book that tells the story of the millions who toil to serve us in restaurants: Behind the Kitchen Door. It is hopeful because its dynamo author, Saru Jayaraman, and dozens of courageous restaurant workers created a group that is fighting for their rights: the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC).

Read the rest of this book review on Yes! Magazine’s website.

This Week in OtherWords: February 27, 2013

This week in OtherWords, Jo Comerford likens the imminent across-the-board budget cuts to a truck careening toward a brick wall and Jill Richardson explains what’s wrong with an ingredient found in most liquid soaps that Americans use.

Below you’ll find links to our latest work. If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, please do.

  1. A Global Spotlight on Voter Suppression / Ron Carver
    Heinous schemes to limit the right to vote keep appearing in state legislatures.
  2. We’ve Got to Get Out of That Place / Usha Sahay and John Isaacs
    Rather than prolonging the quagmire in Afghanistan, Obama should take this opportunity to finally to honor his commitment to bring our troops home.
  3. Why Use a Bludgeon When a Calculator Will Do? / Jo Comerford
    Some lawmakers have an almost-mythical resistance to raising revenue at a moment when affluent individuals and big corporations have the lowest tax burden in more than half a century.
  4. Give the Post Office a Break / Donald Kaul
    If the Postal Service were run like Congress, postal workers would only show up on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays — except when they were on vacation, which would be a lot.
  5. A Triumph of Sewage and Stench / Sam Pizzigati
    It takes more than a nice cruise ship buffet to make a billionaire.
  6. We’re All Guinea Pigs / Jill Richardson
    I don’t want to expose the most precious people in my life to an endocrine disruptor.
  7. The Organized Sports Racket / Jim Hightower
    Big sports teams toss unwise investments to taxpayers and let them fumble.
  8. What Post-Racial America? / Emily Schwartz Greco and William A. Collins
    It will take more than President Barack Obama’s tenure to vanquish American prejudice and racial injustice.
  9. Declaring Victory in Afghanistan / Khalil Bendib cartoon
Declaring Victory in Afghanistan, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Declaring Victory in Afghanistan, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Latest Smoking Gun on Iran’s Nuclear Program Just Another Misfire

At the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Yousaf Butt lays waste to the magnetic-ring-sign-of-Iran-nuclear-expansion theory.

On February 13 Joby Warrick reported for the Washington Post that “Iran recently sought to acquire tens of thousands of highly specialized magnets used in centrifuge machines, according to experts and diplomats, a sign that the country may be planning a major expansion of its nuclear program that could shorten the path to an atomic weapons capability.” More:

Purchase orders obtained by nuclear researchers show an attempt by Iranian agents to buy 100,000 of the ring-shaped magnets — which are banned from export to Iran under U.N. resolutions — from China about a year ago, those familiar with the effort said. It is unclear whether the attempt succeeded.

Or as the ISIS report Institute for Science and International Security that Warrick sited concluded:

This large potential order by Iran in late 2011 for 100,000 ring magnets ready for use in IR-1 centrifuges implies an Iranian intention to greatly expand its number of these centrifuges.

Not so fast. Yousaf Butt of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies explains.

The magnets in question have many uses besides centrifuges and are not only, as Warrick describes them, “highly specialized magnets used in centrifuge machines.” … Why ISIS does not offer alternate and more plausible applications of these unspecialized magnets is a puzzle. … For instance, one vendor outlines some of the various possible uses in speakers, direct current brushless motors, and magnetic resonance imaging equipment.

Even more damning to the report…

As others have already noted, it seems to make little sense to order ceramic magnets that are, as ISIS describes, “almost exactly” the right dimensions. If one is intending to purchase 100,000 ceramic ring magnets for critical high-speed centrifuge applications, why not order them exactly the right size? Ceramics are almost impossible to machine due to their brittle nature and are generally ordered to the precise specifications desired.

Also fairly embarrassing…

The alleged inquiry states, “Dear Sir We are a great factory in south of Iran and for our new project we need 100.000 pcs Ferrite Barium strontium ring magnet . … we would like buy from you [sic] company. We should be glad if you supply this magnet for us.” Presumably, an attempt to source 100,000 parts related to Iran’s controversial and often secretive nuclear program would not be conducted quite so openly. [It's] also at odds with procurement best-practices, for several reasons. First, such a large order would likely drive up the market price and perhaps even signal to the supplier to choke off the supply, in hopes of obtaining a better price later.

I’ve saved the worst for last.

The apparent manufacturer or supplier of the magnets in question, Ferrito Plastronics, is evidently a “tiny firm in a dark alley in Chennai’s electronic spare parts hub on Meeran Sahib Street.” According to the Times of India, “the Chennai firm does supply magnets. But these, avers company proprietor Bala Subramanian, are the ones used in loudspeakers, coils, and medical equipment. Besides these, there are decorative magnets for fridges.”

In other words, if you haven’t figured it out yet…

Such a firm would seem unlikely to be the optimal source for 100,000 high-quality centrifuge ring magnets.

We’ll give Professor Butt the final word.

… reporters and editors should raise the bar for the evidence underpinning stories of alleged Iranian nuclear weapons-related work.

The Sunset of the “Celtic Tiger” Led to the Dawn of the “Horsewich”

HorsemeatAs the Great Horsemeat Crisis continues to spread—“gallops” is the verb favored by the European press—across the continent, and countries pile on to blame Romania (France, Holland, Cyprus, etc.), what is becoming increasingly clear is that old-fashioned corporate greed, aided and abetted by politicians eager to gut “costly” regulations and industrial inspection regimes, is behind the scandal.

In a sense it is fitting that the whole imbroglio began in Ireland, where inspectors in Ulster first indentified that hamburgers should have more properly been labeled “horsewiches.” The Emerald Isle has more horses than any country in Europe, and, according to the Financial Times, in 2007 Ireland produced 12,633 thoroughbred foals and has some 110,000 “sport” horses.

The year 2007 was just before the Irish real estate bubble imploded, bankrupting the nation and impoverishing millions. And the year the “Celtic Tiger” died was very bad news for horses. Thousands of the creatures were simply turned loose by their financially strapped owners, and the number of horses sent to slaughterhouses jumped from 2,000 in 2008 to 25,000 in 2012.

The Irish-horse connection goes back to when Celtic-speaking people first burst out of Central Europe during the second century B.C. Celtic cavalry and chariots—the Celts introduced the latter to Europe—were pretty formidable, as the Romans discovered on a number of occasions.

Horses have always been a high-status item in Ireland, and during the colonial period the English figured out a devilishly clever way to take advantage of that. According to the Irish Penal Laws of 1692, no Catholic—the vast majority of native Irish were Roman Catholics—could own a horse worth more than five pounds. So the English would go into the countryside, select a thoroughbred, and force the breeder to sell them his horse for a pittance. Sometimes the “buyers” would then turn right around and re-sell the animal to its former owner for hundreds of pounds.

When the Irish first discovered horsemeat in the food chain, they claimed innocence and blamed the Poles. It turns out, however, that a small slaughterhouse in Tipperary was shipping horsemeat labeled as beef to the Czech Republic. The British blamed the Romanians, and Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper, The Sun, took the opportunity to indulge in his favorite sport: ethnic bashing. A “grim Romanian slaughterhouse built with EU (European Union) cash” was the culprit, blared the largest (and sleaziest) tabloid in England.

The Romanians did indeed use EU cash to build a plant, but the slaughterhouse produced records showing that they had correctly identified the meat as horse. Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta complained that Romania was routinely made the EU’s scapegoat.

Then the Swedes got into the act and blamed France, and it does appear it was the French company Spanghero that slipped “old Dobbin” into the food chain. Spanghero denied the charge and, in its defense, trotted out yet another animal: a weeping crocodile. “My first thought is for the employees,” said a choked up Laurent Spanghero at a press conference. “My second thought goes to our kids and grandkids that carry our name. We have always taught them the values of courage and loyalty and today we have been plunged into dishonor.”

Except, according to French Consumer Affairs Minister Benoit Hamon, Spanghero could hardly have failed to notice that the meat it was importing from Romania was much cheaper than what the company normally paid for beef. A kilo of horsemeat costs .66 cents, a kilo of beef, $3.95. According to Hamon, Spanghero made $733,800 substituting horsemeat for beef.

Then things got really murky.

The Netherlands said the Cyprus-based meat vendor Draap that sold the meat to Spanghold was responsible, and the company’s track record would suggest the Dutch had a point. In 2012 Draap was convicted of selling South American horsemeat labeled as German and Dutch beef.

But it turns out Draap—based in Cyprus but run by a trust in the British Virgin Islands—is owned by the company Guardstand, that in turn owns part of the arms dealing company, Ilex Ventures. According to prosecutors in New York, convicted international arms dealer Viktor Bout owns Ilex Ventures. Guardstand’s sole shareholder, reports Jamie Doward of The Observer, is Trident Trust, which sets up companies in tax-free nations. Guardstand helped set up Ilex.

Sorting this out will be nigh on impossible, because tax havens like Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands are not about to give up their secrets, and the powerful corporations that shelter their ill-gotten gains there know how to keep inspectors at bay.

Hypocrisy has been in abundance during the Great Horsemeat Crisis.

Owen Paterson, the British environmental secretary who oversees food safety and is a member of the Conservative Party, thundered in Parliament about an “international conspiracy.” However, the current Conservative-Liberal government has instituted cutbacks on inspections by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), and turned enforcement over to some 330 local authorities.

“It is a shame that testing by the FSA has been reduced,” Dr. Chris Smart told the Guardian. “I am sure there will be other crises that come along in the next few years.” And given that UK food prices have risen nearly 26 percent that will surely be the case. Inspectors have already uncovered adulterated olive oil and paprika made from roof tiles.

At the heart of this are the continent-wide austerity programs that have driven up the ranks of the poor, requiring low-income families to rely on cheap meat or go without. “Why was horsemeat present in beef burgers?” asks Elizabeth Dowler, a professor of food and social policy at Warwick University. “Because the price has to be kept as low as possible.” Horsemeat is one-fifth the price of beef, so the temptation is to either adulterate beef with horse, or sell it as cheap beef. “This has the most impact on those with low income and large numbers of children,” says Dowler. “People in this situation have no money to buy better quality burgers, or to go to a butcher and make their own mincemeat. Instead they depend on special 3-for-2 offers. The problem is linked to poverty.”

Horsemeat for some, beer and skittles for the likes of Spanghero.

But the real culprits in this crisis are the banks in Britain, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain that ignited the economic crisis by artificially pumping up real estate bubbles. Up there in the docket with the bankers should be the politicians who shoved through development schemes, waived environmental regulations, and turned a blind eye to speculation. And when everything crashed, the taxpayers—the vast majority of whom never got in on the boom years—got stuck with the bill.

Poor Ireland. The EU-enforced austerity scheme has raised the unemployment level to above 15 percent—30 percent for young people—and saddled homeowners with onerous tax and fee hikes. Wages have been cut, health care fees raised more, and welfare butchered. In spite of these “reforms,” the economy grew an anemic 0.9 percent in 2012, and is scheduled to rise to 1.5 percent in 2013, down from the 2.2 the government originally predicted.

And the Irish economy is actually much worse than the figures indicate, because much of the wealth Ireland currently creates goes into the coffers of huge multinationals attracted to the island’s 12.5 percent corporate tax rate, the lowest in Europe. As the Economist points out, “The Irish people have fared much worse than the Irish economy.”

And the pain for the average Irish working person is due to get worse. The 2013 budget will cut spending $4.6 billion, increase taxes, and add yet more austerity in 2014 and 2015. All of this woe has drawn widespread praise from the EU and the International Monetary Fund, which suggests that if a bank praises you, it is time to reach for a barricade.

This is not just a European problem, because the trend toward cutting back on regulations and inspections is worldwide. For instance, under pressure from the agricultural lobby, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has backed off trying to reduce the amount of antibiotics used on livestock. According to a recent report by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, 80 percent of all the antibiotics manufactured in the U.S. are used on animals. The result is that antibiotic-resistant salmonella is spreading rapidly in chicken and turkey populations, and turning up in hospitals, clinics and gymnasiums.

Horsemeat is going to be the least of our problems.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

Happy Birthday, Dear Income Tax

flickr/jpconstantineau

flickr/jpconstantineau

Cross-posted from The American Prospect’s website.

In February 1913, exactly a century ago, the Sixteenth Amendment gave Congress a constitutional green light to levy a federal tax on income. Later that same year, lawmakers made good on that opportunity. An income tax has been part of the federal tax code ever since.

So what can we learn, as progressives, from this first century of income taxation?

Lesson One

Steeply graduated income tax rates can help societies do big things.

A half-century ago, America’s federal income tax rates rose steadily—and quite steeply—by income level, with 24 tax brackets in all. On income roughly between $32,000 and $64,000, in today’s dollars, couples in the 1950s faced a 22 percent tax rate. On income that today would equal between $500,000 and $600,000, affluent Americans faced a tax rate of 65 percent. The highest 1950s tax rate, 91 percent, fell on annual income that would today exceed $3.2 million.

Today, our federal tax rates rise much less steeply. The current top rate? The “fiscal-cliff battle” earlier this winter raised the top federal rate on individual income over $400,000 from 35 to 39.6 percent, less than half the 91 percent top rate in effect through the Eisenhower years.

Those high tax rates in the middle of the 20th century made a huge difference. The revenue these tax rates generated funded new government programs like the justly celebrated G.I. Bill. Within a single generation, the United States went from a nation two-thirds poor to a nation two-thirds middle class. Americans saw the difference that government can make—and felt that difference personally.

Most Americans today, by contrast, don’t expect much from their government. And for good reason. Most of us around today haven’t seen our government undertake any major new initiative improving the quality of the lives we lead. In this low-expectations political environment, conservative lawmakers demand endlessly lower income taxes for everybody, at every opportunity, and mainstream liberals dare not even hint at raising taxes on “middle class” incomes under $250,000.

But back in our steeply graduated tax-rate past, politicians did dare talk about higher taxes, and middle class Americans didn’t much mind paying those taxes—for two reasons. They saw big results from the tax dollars they paid. They also knew that America’s wealthiest were sacrificing at tax time, too.

We don’t do big things in America anymore. But we could, if we made paying taxes politically palatable again. Steeply graduated income tax rates helped work that magic a half-century ago. They could work that magic again.

Read the rest of this article on The American Prospect’s website.

Egyptian Government Deals With Sexual Attacks on Female Protesters by Blaming the Victims

The prevalence of sexual terrorism in Cairo—emerging prominently in international media late last month—continues to cast a shadow over protestors and activists marching on Tahrir Square and other popular protest sites. It has become a polarizing issue of its own amid continuing protests against the government.

Russ Wellen earlier this month implicated Egypt’s large percentage of jobless, frustrated youth as contributing significantly to the problem, observing that “these crimes can be classified as fallout from not only the Egyptian government’s repressive policies, but its failure to improve the economy.” And indeed, groups of these oppressed, resentful men often linger in the square. One such nameless youth bluntly told Aleem Maqbool of the BBC when asked about the increase of sexual assaults in the square, “We are depressed, we can’t find jobs and money, what do you expect?”

The answer varies widely depending on whom you ask.

Take Ahmad Mahmoud Abdullah, a radical Salafist sheikh known as “Abu Islam,” who was arrested for “defamation of religion” for his controversial remarks regarding the presence of women in Tahrir Square. According to him, it is halal (permissible) to rape female protestors and that these women “have no shame, no fear and not even feminism [sic].”

If only the culture of victim blaming these female protestors ended with one delusional man—but it seems it is only considered “defamation of religion” to victim blame if you are not a part of the government.

The Shura Council Human Rights Committee—part of Egypt’s upper house of Parliament—in a press conference went so far as to claim that these rampant sexual assaults are, essentially, not the Interior Ministry’s problem. Rana Muhammad Taha of The Daily News Egypt provides a disturbing round-up of these statements from the committee:

“Women should not mingle with men during protests,” said Reda Al-Hefnawy, Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) member. “How can the Ministry of Interior be tasked with protecting a lady who stands among a group of men?”

“A woman who joins protests among thugs and street inhabitants should protect herself before asking the Ministry of Interior to offer her protection,” said Adel Afifi, a prominent board member of the Salafi Party Al-Asala.

“The woman bears the offence when she chooses to protest in places filled with thugs,” said Salafi Al-Nour Party member Salah Abdel Salam.

At the same session, a female Muslim Brotherhood MP suggested that these women “think twice” before demonstrating “so as not to become prey to sexual offenders and armed thugs who commit rape.”

The Muslim Brotherhood—the ruling Islamist party in Parliament—has also been implicated in orchestrating these sexual assaults particularly against Tahrir Square, a “symbol” of the revolution—and indeed, their response thus far has not laid such accusations to rest. During the human rights committee session, Brotherhood MPs were using the sexual attacks as justification to push anti-protest legislation. As Vivian Salama of The Daily Beast reports, the absurdity of the government’s response is not lost on women’s organizations in Egypt:

“What does our government do? Instead of implementing laws that make sexual assault a crime, they are making the publicity of these attacks a crime,” said Nancy Omar … spokeswoman of Egyptian Women; Red Line, a group of volunteers from various political factions united to defend the rights of women. “And then they question our motives for going to these protests—how silly!”

In the void left by the government’s utter lack of action, such non-profit organizations and volunteer groups have instead stepped up to the plate to protect, assist, and defend victims of these attacks. Some police common protest areas, moving quickly to save women who could get caught in “circles of hell,” groups of men who violently swarm victims in horrifically organized tiers. Others help shepherd women to hospitals and help pay the costs, or offer free self-defense courses as a preventative measure.

It is tragic that the impetus to enforce basic human rights has fallen on the shoulders of civilians. One can only hope that these volunteers and activists can mitigate this ongoing trend of violence against women during Egypt’s upheaval—especially since in the face of government apathy and a culture of rampant victim blaming, they are the only buffer left to safeguard women’s political voices.

Leslie Garvey is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Samer Issawi’s Hunger Strike Shines a Spotlight on Israel’s Inhumanity

Administrative detention: the practice of arresting and holding persons without trial and without informing them of what crimes they are suspected of. Since the end of the British mandate of Palestine, Israel has exercised this policy on thousands of Palestinians. Israel’s refusal to relinquish it could prove deadly to hunger striker, Samer Issawi.

In October 2011 Issawi was released from Israeli prison as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel, but just nine months later was rearrested. Receiving no information on the basis for his re-incarceration, including the crimes he was supposedly being detained for, Issawi launched a hunger strike shortly thereafter.

The world is finally taking notice now that Issawi’s strike that has persisted over 200 days. A hearing last Thursday in an Israeli court to appeal Issawi’s sentence had similar results to past appeals. He was once again denied his right to trial leading to clashes in which IDF soldiers fired tear gas canisters at protestors outside Ofer prison in the West Bank.

These events come as President Obama plans to visit the region within in the coming month, with stops planned in both Ramallah and Tel Aviv. Senior Palestinian official, Saeb Erekat, has appealed to the courts, “I urge Israel to release these people. The last thing we want is for things to get out of hand before President Obama visits.”

Another unnamed PLO official said that U.S. ambassador Dan Shapiro had assured him of the release of 550 Palestinian prisoners prior to Obama’s visit. But the release of Palestinian prisoners should not be contingent upon a visit from the sitting US president, and hunger strikers like Samer Issawi should not be dependent on international pressure to receive a fair trial.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Sequestration: Our Military is Due for Downsizing

Sequestration wouldn't gut military

This strange animal called sequestration is certainly wreaking havoc with our customary ideological boundaries.

If you’re an advocate, Iike I am, for revamped federal priorities that shift resources from a bloated Pentagon budget toward neglected domestic priorities, your take on this animal can’t be simple. You say cutting everything indiscriminately is a bad way to run a government (this view is nearly universal). You oppose the cuts in the domestic budget that will leave us with fewer food safety inspectors, medical researchers, Head Start teachers, and airport baggage screeners on the job. But you can reel off long lists of ways to cut waste in the Pentagon budget to the levels prescribed by sequestration, and show that these cuts will leave us completely safe.

But you also know that the whole conversation is focused on the wrong topic. It’s past time to shift this conversation away from austerity and toward investment to create jobs, as clear majorities of voters said in November was what they wanted.

Now let’s look at the Washington Post’s blogger who says he writes “from a liberal perspective,” Greg Sargent. On Wednesday he went at the Republican position on sequestration, wielding a new report from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. The report found that the single most important cause of increased income inequality in recent years is the favored tax treatment given to capital gains and stock dividends — i.e. what the rich have used to get richer.

The Democrats, as Sargent points out, want to change this, taxing the rich and using the proceeds to replace the sequester cuts. The Republicans want to stick with sequestration and keep this favored treatment for the rich.

But all of this puts the Republicans, says Sargent, in the position of “openly conceding that the sequester will gut the military.” It’s a concession that Sargent appears to be taking at face value. Or at least not calling into question.

Gut the military? That’s what the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been saying any chance they get. Sequestration would “invite aggression,” says lingering Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. It will “put the nation at greater risk of coercion,” says the Joint Chiefs Chair, Martin Dempsey. When asked at a recent congressional hearing which nation might coerce us, though, he couldn’t say.

In fact, sequestration will not “gut” our military. Our military budget has nearly doubled since 2001. Sequestration would take it back to the level it was in 2007 — when we were still fighting two wars. Adjusted for inflation, it would leave that budget higher than its Cold War average — when we had an adversary that was spending roughly what we were on its military. Now, as Michael Cohen notes in The Guardian, the closest thing to a peer adversary we have is China, and we are spending more on research and development of new weapons than the Chinese are spending on their entire military. We spend more on our military, in fact, than the next 14 countries put together.

After the longest period of war in our history, we are due for a defense downsizing. Sequestration would create a shallower downsizing than any of the previous postwar periods since World War II. We can do this, and we should. We need the money for other things.

As sequestration threatens to confuse us all, let’s be sure to stay clear on that, at least.

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