IPS Blog

This Week in OtherWords: July 24, 2013

This week in OtherWords, Donald Kaul weighs in on Detroit’s bankruptcy, Jim Hightower explains how McDonald’s wound up drawing attention to its own McWages, and William A. Collins and I question the selective use of the term “terrorist.” There’s much more, even though Sam Pizzigati is taking some time off. Just click on the headlines below to read our commentaries.

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  1. Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation / Colleen Teubner
    We’re the most educated young adults in American history, yet many of us can’t find work.
  2. Actually, It Is About You / Peter Hart
    When the media covers immigration, it leaves immigrants out of the conversation.
  3. Building an Underclass of Workers / Jason Salzman
    Journalists should report on the consequences of immigration reform without citizenship.
  4. Swerving to the Right / Michael B. Keegan
    The Supreme Court systematically favors corporate interests over workers, consumers, and voters.
  5. When Personalized Becomes Predatory / Dana Floberg
    Advertisers set their strategies according to damaging stereotypes.
  6. Depending on the Kindness of Strangers / Donald Kaul
    The only sure result of Detroit’s bankruptcy is that armies of lawyers will make bales of money.
  7. Size Matters / Jill Richardson
    Even food manufacturers often don’t know if nanoparticles are in the food they sell and no one knows if they’re safe to eat.
  8. McFinancial Planning / Jim Hightower
    When McDonald’s attempted to help its underpaid workers stick to a budget, the fast food giant exposed how much the burger chain’s wages fall short of what’s needed to survive in America.
  9. Muslims Aren’t Cornering the Terrorism Market / Emily Schwartz Greco and William A. Collins
    What do you call the people responsible for the disasters in Texas and Bangladesh?
  10. Merger Equality at the Supreme Court / Khalil BendibEmily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. OtherWords.org

    Merger Equality at the Supreme Court, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

    Merger Equality at the Supreme Court, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Winning the Fight Against Coal Financing

Child in India Tries to Get Water from Flyash-Polluted RiverWhen President Obama made his climate speech at Georgetown University in which he urged an end to almost all public financing of coal, Jim Vallette, former research director of the Sustainable Energy & Economy Network at IPS, dropped me an e-mail and we reflected on how many years it had taken us to get to this point.

The first visit I made to a World Bank-financed coal mine in India in 1996 is still etched in my mind. Traveling for miles by train, bus and then taxi to get to the site, I saw first-hand what our “poverty alleviation” funds were doing. It was a moonscape, black, grey, with nauseating smoke billowing out of perpetual fires, deep underground. A child covered in flyash, was standing next to a black river, desperately trying to get a drink of clean water.

I later learned the wells had all run dry; the coal plant had used it all for its cooling towers. And the river was black with flyash, dumped by the World Bank-financed Talcher coal burner directly into the Nandira River. The only way this child could get a drink of water was to try to dig a hole in the sandy riverbed and hope that would filter out the pollutants.

I came back to Washington in 1996, and Jim and I got fired up to fight the public financing of coal, much of it being done in the name of poverty alleviation and sustainable development.

When we released a series of reports examining public financing of fossil fuels, starting with the World Bank, then on to the EBRD, then, in 1999 on OPIC and Ex-Im, we didn’t know when these banks we had set our sites on would finally be forced out of coal. But we knew it had to come.

That day came on June 25, when we finally heard the following words uttered by President Obama:

“Today, I’m calling for an end of public financing for new coal plants overseas unless they deploy carbon-capture technologies, or there’s no other viable way for the poorest countries to generate electricity. And I urge other countries to join this effort.”

Were these words to be believed? On July 16, the World Bank approved a new energy strategy which would effectively phase out the Bank’s institutional support for coal. The paper “affirms that the World Bank Group will ‘only in rare circumstances’ provide financial support for new greenfield coal power generation projects, such as ‘meeting basic energy needs in countries with no feasible alternatives.’”

Then, on July 18, we got the following news: The US Export-Import Bank had rejected a coal plant in Vietnam. It was the first rejection of a coal burner since Obama’s climate speech of several weeks ago.

This day came too late for that child and others in that community in India, who were forced to drink poisoned water. And I’m not pleased with the caveats Obama placed on his pledge. Nor am I pleased with the possibility that the World Bank, Ex-Im Bank and others may simply switch from coal to gas, especially if that gas is derived from “fracking,” which can be worse for our already unstable climate than coal.

But hopefully, this is the dawn of a new day, when public financing of coal mines and power plants around the world is no longer acceptable. It’s not enough, of course, but after 16 years of persistent pressure from IPS and other groups, our government seems to finally be listening.

This Week in OtherWords: July 17, 2013

This week in OtherWords, Marc Morial, Donald Kaul, and Terrance Heath weigh in on the acquittal of George Zimmerman — the man who killed Trayvon Martin — while Sam Pizzigati and Jill Richardson discuss why Americans live shorter lives than people in other rich countries.

Do you rely on our commentaries and cartoons to make sense of today’s mind-boggling news? Please make a donation on our website or mail a check payable to OtherWords to this address: Institute for Policy Studies; 1112 16th Street NW, Suite 600; Washington, DC 20036. Any amount you can spare will make a big difference.

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  1. Black Man 101 / Terrance Heath
    Why must we now teach our sons to defer to all potential bigots who come their way?
  2. A Verdict that Condemns the State of Civil Rights in America / Marc Morial
    I want to assure Trayvon’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, as well as millions of their supporters, that this isn’t over.
  3. Rays of Hope in Egypt / Ahmad Shokr
    The army and the restive millions had different grievances when Morsi was ousted on June 30.
  4. Putting Government Waste on Auto-Pilot / Ryan Alexander
    House Republicans snipped SNAP out of the Farm Bill and rubber-stamped farm subsidies in a stealth operation.
  5. There Ought to Be a Better Law / Donald Kaul
    The Trayvon Martin verdict shows that with “Stand Your Ground” laws, it’s your word against theirs and they’re dead.
  6. What’s Driving America’s Flagging Vital Signs? / Sam Pizzigati
    Inequality is behind the nation’s dismal life expectancy rates.
  7. Eat Well, Walk More, Live Longer / Jill Richardson
    Americans die younger than citizens of most other rich countries.
  8. Exceptionally Mediocre on a Global Scale / Jim Hightower
    America became great through deliberate and determined public investments in the common good, not hocus-pocus exceptionalism.
  9. The Roaring Twenties Are Back / William A. Collins
    The U.S. economy is reverting to the bad old days.
  10. Zimmerman’s Smoking Gun / Khalil Bendib cartoon

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

Zimmermans Smoking Gun, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Zimmermans Smoking Gun, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

A New and Improved Foreign Policy In Focus

The new Foreign Policy in Focus site

The new Foreign Policy in Focus site

This past week, as many of you have probably noticed, FPIF rolled out a brand-new redesigned website. We’re still in the process of transitioning a few things, but it’s my great pleasure to show you what we’ve done so far.

Foremost of all, we’ve modernized our front page to put FPIF content front and center. We’ve got a stylish new slideshow display to feature more timely articles, but we’ve also left more space to keep newer commentaries up front so they don’t disappear after a few days. And while preserving front-page space for our regular columnists, we’ve also carved out a new section for blog posts, which represent about half of FPIF’s output. The goal is to make sure you don’t miss a thing.

Just as importantly, we’ve streamlined our archiving of older pieces, making it easier to browse commentaries and blog posts by subject, region, tags, and author. And if you don’t see what you’re looking for right away, we have a brand new Google-based site search that outperforms our previous search function by a long shot.

I’m also excited to announce that FPIF is now fully compatible with mobile devices, which means our content should be readable and accessible no matter what your screen size.

Our new site design also comes with built-in features designed to enhance social media sharing and search engine results for FPIF articles, which I hope will bring our progressive perspective on global issues to more people than ever.

FPIF has always been at the forefront of foreign policy analysis in the 21st century, connecting writers and activists working to make the United States a more responsible global partner. I’m happy to say we finally have a website that looks the part.

The Search for Snowden and Obscene Assaults on Sovereignty

This piece originally posted in Black Star News.

Bolivian President Evo MoralesApparently the phrase “blood is thicker than water” also compares to the Imperial ties that bind NATO, where the history of European colonial collusion runs thicker than internationalist ethics and treaties.

The recent brushing aside of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations by France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and US that endangered the life of Bolivian president Evo Morales, should be an epiphany or at least a reminder to the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America. It demonstrates that only a radical and transcontinental transformation can abolish the vestiges of European colonialism and white supremacy.

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations is the international treaty that forms the legal basis for diplomatic immunity. But on July 2nd the fore mentioned NATO countries most likely led by the US breached the Convention by colluding to disallow a Bolivian presidential flight into their respective airspace.

This was allegedly based on unfounded suspicion that the flight was transporting US National Security Agency whistleblower, Edward Snowden. President Morales and accompanying Bolivian officials were returning to Bolivia after attending a Forum of Gas Exporting Countries in Russia. Low on fuel due to rerouting caused by denial of passage through the airspace of the European culprit countries, the Bolivian presidential flight had to make an emergency landing in Vienna, Austria.

This is another one of countless and arrogantly racist double standards that the US and its NATO allies have demonstrated since the dawn of colonialism and neo-colonialism. The Convention on Diplomatic Relations is supposed to be the framework governing relations between independent countries. It specifies the privileges of a diplomatic mission that enable diplomats to perform their functions without fear of coercion or harassment by hosts countries, including free and safe passage via land, sea or air.

Read the full article in Black Star News.

Anti-American Budget Cuts

Families across the country recently celebrated the Fourth of July like they always do: with annual beach trips, barbecues, baseball games, and fireworks. But one of my favorite local traditions was canceled, courtesy of Congress.

Every year on the Fourth, without fail, my family and I would take a trip to Sagamore Hill. Affectionately nicknamed the “Summer White House,” Sagamore Hill was President Teddy Roosevelt’s home on Long Island. Today, it’s a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service.

Josh Rothman/Flickr

Josh Rothman/Flickr

For me, Sagamore Hill was a magical place that came to life on the Fourth of July. Rough Riders rode their horses. TR look-a-likes strolled across the grounds. Nature trails demanded to be explored. And the great mansion begged visitors to see its curious antiquities.

Not this year. Due to the sequester, this national treasure was forced to reduce its annual budget by $76,000. Independence Day was canceled in 2013.

You know things are bad when the Summer White House can’t afford to stay open on the Fourth of July.

But Sagamore Hill’s event wasn’t the only one canceled. All across the country, communities went without their July Fourth fireworks, traditions, and festivals. Bands were silent. Skies were empty.

Yes, the sequester has had worse effects: School budgets, environmental initiatives, and health services across the nation have been cut. People are losing their jobs. Some children have lost their Head Start slots. Some seniors aren’t getting the meals-on-wheels they used to.

But the cancelation of smaller programs also demands outrage. They may be taken for granted, but they’re the kind of services that build communities.

Colleen Teubner is a student at the George Washington University and an OtherWords intern at the Institute for Policy Studies. OtherWords.org

This Week in OtherWords: July 10, 2013

This week in OtherWords, we’re highlighting the debate over the Obama administration’s nuclear weapons policy, with op-eds by Peter Weiss and James C. Lewis and a cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, please do.

  1. Obama Sharpens His Nuclear Posture / Peter Weiss
    A new Pentagon document indicates that contingent plans for the use of nuclear weapons are being made, with the self-evidently impossible task of minimizing collateral damage.
  2. It Can’t Happen Here / Tiffany Williams
    Au pairs may get an experience they didn’t bargain for when they head for a stint in the United States.
  3. One Step at a Time / Chris Schillig
    The middle ground the Boy Scouts found on gay rights is one that rankles as much as it pleases.
  4. Smaller Arsenals Beat Bigger Ones / James C. Lewis
    Obama is trying to enhance U.S. national security by reducing the threat of nuclear weapons.
  5. Taking Embarrassing to a New Level / Donald Kaul
    Every administration hits rough waters.
  6. Predistribute the Wealth / Sam Pizzigati
    The market has stopped working for working people.
  7. A Deadly Power Surge / Jill Richardson
    Fracking might be profitable, but whether it’s good for anything else is doubtful.
  8. North Carolina Rips More Holes in Its Safety Net / Jim Hightower
    If ignorance is bliss, Governor McCrory must be ecstatic.
  9. Syrian Dead End / Emily Schwartz Greco and William A. Collins
    How can the United States afford to keep proving that it’s bad at bringing peace to conflict-ridden Middle Eastern countries?
  10. Washington Goes AWOL / 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

    Washington Goes AWOL, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

    Washington Goes AWOL, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Speaking Openly in Serbia

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

Dragoslav Popovic, a lawyer who works on HIV and AIDS issues.

Dragoslav Popovic, a lawyer who works on HIV and AIDS issues.

The incidence of HIV/AIDS in Serbia is comparatively low: 0.1 percent of the population compared to 0.6 percent in the United States, 1 percent in Russia, and 25 percent in Swaziland. Nevertheless, those who live with the disease report that they are stigmatized, ostracized, and have difficulties gaining access to treatment. Some are fired from their jobs; others are kicked out of their families.

Dragoslav Popovic is a lawyer who has worked for quite a few years on HIV/AIDS issues. He reports that the situation has marginally improved for people with the disease.

“The public perception was worse than it is nowadays,” he told me in an interview in Belgrade last October. “Stigmatization and discrimination were common. From the point of view of treatment, it was even worse, because they had to pay for their treatments and nowadays it’s free. Not many people were in a position to afford that, so it was added stress for them. Even nowadays, when I’m doing consulting with them, they don’t even know their rights as a patient, such as the right to confidentiality. If you don’t confront the doctors and the medical staff, they’ll just continue to do what they’re doing. You have to stand up and tell them, ‘You’re not allowed to do that. That’s confidential information.’ So it’s better nowadays in terms of people speaking more openly, which is as important as making them stronger.”

Speaking openly has been a consistent theme in Dragoslav Popovic’s life, from his self-assertiveness in grade school to his political activism during his university days in the movement to oust Slobodan Milosevic. Speaking openly has also meant taking somewhat unorthodox positions, at least compared to other democracy activists. He has taken a dim view of the Hague Tribunal, and he views Kosovo as Serbian territory. But he has also taken strong stands against Serbian chauvinism and homophobia.

During our conversation, we talked about the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the role of the Church in Serbia, and his attempts to change the minds of two of his friends, one a Serbian nationalist and the other a diehard follower of Milosevic’s party.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were when you heard the news of the Berlin Wall falling?

I was in my flat in my hometown with my family. I was really curious what it actually meant politically. Even though I was quite young, I was already interested in such things. Then my mother took the liberty to explain to me what it meant.

How did you respond to your mother’s explanation?

Actually, I didn’t understand everything that she wanted to say, because she was explaining it to me as if I was more of an adult than I was at the time. I simply believed that it was a good thing that happened. Those kinds of divisions are never good. That was my basic opinion.

When did you begin to think of yourself as “political” in some sense? Was there a particular moment in your life?

I’ve always been that type of person. Even in primary school I was always fighting for my rights.

Can you give me an example?

There was a teacher who accused me and my twin brother of doing something that we didn’t do. It was just convenient for her to pick us. We were very different from the group: twins with a specific color of hair…

Identical twins?

Fraternal twins, but still we’re very similar to each other. We weren’t exactly calm — we did stupid things every once in a while. But this time it wasn’t us. The teacher said in another class that we stole something.

When I heard this on the break, I asked the guy who told me, “Will you be a witness to what she said?”

He said, “Yes.”

So, in class, I stood up and said to the teacher, “Please, why did you say this, this, this, and that?”

She said, “I never said that.”

I said, “Actually I have a witness. You didn’t just say it in front of one student, you said it in front of something like 36 students. So it’s stupid to claim otherwise.”

She said, “Bring in your witness.”

I asked the guy to come in. She asked him, “When did I say this, this, and that?”

He said, “An hour ago.”

He got slapped, so that was really not a pleasant experience. But still I was always standing up for things like that.

How old were you when you did that?

I was 14, or maybe 15.

Did you come to Belgrade for university?

Yes.

You were involved in political activism?

Yes, of course, as much as I could! It was during Milošević’s time, and we really wanted to stop that guy from torturing us. We were out on the streets. And there was a political opposition leading the people as well.

One time we were about to cross the Brankov Bridge to protest at a government institution. But there was a police cordon, and it was a massive crackdown on the people. I ran home. I didn’t want to be beaten up by the police. It was that kind of experience. Also at the university we had some strikes over financial stuff when they decided to charge for a lot of the scholarships. So we protested against those decisions and demanded specifications of the economic costs of everything. Once we even kept the minister of education inside the building as a hostage.

Was he an unwilling hostage?

Of course, yes. He didn’t want to raise too much of a fuss. Still we had to release him afterwards. That was one of my strongest memories from that time. That was in 1998.

There was so much hope around the student strikes at that time.

It was exactly as you say. It began as student strikes, but behind that it was politically motivated. We didn’t want to accept those huge changes in the autonomy of the university, and we were very closely supported by the opposition politicians, and vice versa.

I remember one of my really dear professors, who has since passed away. She was leading the student protest and it was really a huge thing to stand behind her. We were fighting against a government that just didn’t respect the will of the people. On the one side we were calling for the rule of law. On the other side, they were treating us like terrorists. And we were like, “Come on, you cannot say that NGOs are terrorist organizations!”

When you were involved in those protests, were you drawing on the experiences of other student protests in other countries?

Not so much in other countries. We were trying to link up with other cities in Serbia. There was some coordination between our strike group in Belgrade and the strike groups in Kragujevac and Nis. We were coordinating, giving them advice. And I also helped found a student organization called Tsentr.

What were the best and worst moments from those student activism times?

The best moment happened in 2000 with the resignation of Slobodan Milošević, finally after 10 tortuous years. That was the bravest I’ve felt. I remember talking to a foreign ambassador and I said something like, “This is the breath of Serbian freedom!” I was so ecstatic. It was a really unsafe situation because Milosevic was trying to decide whether to send in the military or not. We had to stand up and fight for the election results because in the beginning Milosevic refused to admit that he’d lost. We didn’t want to go underground. We knew the results from the beginning. So when he finally acknowledged the election results, it was one of those “phew” moments, and we thought, “Now we can breathe.”

And the low point?

The low point was that period of inflation when people didn’t have enough money to survive. I remember that my mother received a salary that had a specific value when you got up in the morning but by nighttime was completely devalued.

So you were a student during the bombing as well?

Yes.

That must have been very challenging.

For me, and I was studying law at the time, the explanation for the bombing that was presented to the outside world was unreasonable. I was hoping that the Kosovo issue would not get internationalized, that it would be resolved between Belgrade and Pristina. But that didn’t happen. I didn’t feel like abandoning Belgrade. I figured that NATO would identify targets elsewhere in Serbia and destroy them, but that it would be safe in downtown Belgrade. But my parents wanted to leave, because they assumed reasonably that Belgrade would be the main target. Eventually I did so too, because they asked me to. I didn’t want to. But to be honest, I wasn’t thinking that this was the right decision.

At the time I was reading a lot of documents about the Rambouillet Agreement, which Milosevic rejected and which NATO used to justify the bombing. I couldn’t get much of an independent opinion of what was happening, I had a professor who insisted that the decision to bomb Serbia was completely illegal. It was a horrible thing even apart from the bombs, the casualties, and the material damage. And being under bombardment for 78 days is not pleasant. That was my first experience of war, because I never experienced the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina or elsewhere. I found it really interesting how people were connecting with one another. The regime called NATO the “outside aggressor” and said that we had to unite. And we did unite. That was a ray of light during an otherwise very bad time.

And how did it affect the students?

There wasn’t really much student activity at that time. The professors said, “Safety is more important, so go home and we will see what will come of this.” So we weren’t so involved or in touch actively as it was before the bombing.

Did you notice people changing their political positions as a result of the bombing?

Some people would say, a year before, that Milosevic was a “bad politician.” And during the bombing, they’d say, “he is defending the national interest.” So, yes, in a way the bombing helped him become a more powerful politician, even though he wasn’t so popular among his own people.

And what about the impact of the sanctions?

I felt it directly because my mother decided at that time to go to Greece to work there to get some money, because working in Serbia wasn’t profitable. And it was really hard for me and my two brothers who stayed behind. I had bad grades at school, and financially it was not nice at all. We were close to the Bulgarian border, so there was illegally traded stuff between Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia at that time. So even though you couldn’t get anything in the market regularly, you could get this illegal stuff. But still there were people that simply could not survive.

What work did your mother do in Greece?

She was painting souvenirs because she’s a really good painter. That’s how she managed to earn some money to send back home.

I was going to ask you when you decided you wanted to be a lawyer, but that first story you told me about challenging the teacher sounded like it was your first law case.

Yes, I guess that it was. I was defending not only my interest, but my brother’s interest as well. I was representing him too.

Was there a point later on when you made a formal decision?

I had to make a choice between two things. I was interested in philology, because I’ve always loved languages. Then I thought that as I get older, I could improve my English or other foreign languages to a certain degree and be satisfied. But I also liked law as well, and that required study. I could raise the level of my English without a degree, but in law it’s quite the opposite. You have to have the degree to deal with law. Also my father was working in the field of law, in administration, so that also might have influenced my decision to choose law. Of course I also loved law and was always the type of person who always stands up and says, “I’m sorry, but this is not how it’s supposed to be done!”

In Bulgaria, for instance, there was a clear difference between how one practiced law before 1989 and after 1989. What about here? Was there a big change in the way law was practiced before the fall of Milošević and after the fall of Milošević?

Yes, actually there have been a lot of changes, even though I’m not satisfied with the amount of change. We’re still saying the same thing we did when we were the opposition political party: “We have a great laws on paper, but the implementation is problematic.” Another problem are the laws that are passed basically bring corruption inside the system. Nowadays, politicians who are accused of this or that will say, “Yes, but we were doing everything legally.” And then you ask them who voted on all those laws. And they’ll say, “It wasn’t me. It was that other party.”

I was living for three-and-half years with a flat mate. She was a socialist by orientation. I once believed that most of the less intelligent people in Serbia belonged to Milošević’s party. I don’t want to insult anybody, but that was my personal opinion. But then my political point of view came up against hers. She was really well-educated and also a pretty intelligent person. I tried to understand where she was coming from, but I was wondering, “Can’t she simply see what’s going on in this country?” I mean, a situation is objectively legal or illegal, fair or unfair. So, I was trying to understand her position. And I saw that her financial position was much better under the previous system. Her family members were involved in local administration with the Socialist Party, so she was brought up in that tradition. And I found out that her personal motive was really financial. During that socialist period, even though she wasn’t at all richer than she is now, she was somehow breathing easier.

And what was her attitude toward Milošević himself?

That was hard to get out of her without having a huge discussion. It was basically a fight. I couldn’t stand her arguments. I used to joke with her that she was a political dilettante.

I said, “Remember that you couldn’t breathe when you met the policeman on the street? He could basically do whatever he wants to you!” That was the first thing I felt with the change of the regime: relief and happiness. I tried to remind her of this feeling, and also inflation. And I said, “How do you explain these things?”

She said, “I can’t. But still, it was better.”

So I said, “You have no valid documentation for why it was better. So, it wasn’t better!”

It was a sentiment, not an argument.

Exactly. That’s why I said, “You’re a political dilettante!” Even nowadays we’re making these jokes, even though we’re no longer together in the same flat. I told her recently, “You shouldn’t be worried. The Socialists are now ruling, and the premier comes from your own party, so you should be happy!” But she’s been complaining about inflation and the high prices. So I said, “You should be quiet. You voted, I didn’t.” Unfortunately, I skipped the last elections because I was abroad, so I couldn’t vote.

Seriously, we’re really good friends. I consider it a major achievement that we’re friends despite our political differences. I love her even though she’s politically incorrect.

The big legal drama after Milošević resigned was whether he was going to go to The Hague or not go to The Hague.

I’m glad you mentioned that, because I have a slightly weird opinion on that.

I especially want to hear your weird opinion!

I basically felt that we should have a national trial on everything that he did. And then when we are done, and when he finishes the prison sentence, he can go wherever he wants. So, that was my personal opinion. Also, I didn’t have a very high opinion of the Hague Tribunal. As a lawyer, I’d say that it doesn’t function correctly. No court should be allowed to change its own rules.

I’m not sure I understand what you mean about changing the rules.

The Hague can change the rules about its own legal process. That’s not the way it should be done. An independent body should write the rules about the process, not the court itself. Also, I felt that there should be a public debate about the law on extradition. At the time we didn’t have any such law. There was only a rule that said that no foreign country should judge our citizens. Then we implemented the Hague Tribunal ruling directly on our system and decided to give Milošević away. I personally think that it was done in a rush, more to win some international points than to ensure that everything was done correctly from a legal point of view.

And I wasn’t happy when he was there because the cells in the Scheveningen prison are more like a hotel room. And Milošević made so many people suffer here! I’m not a vengeful person. But if you do something wrong, you should have to do your sentence.

You said your opinion was a little weird. Is that because a lot of your friends had a different opinion?

Yes, they thought that he was supposed to go immediately to The Hague. I’d divide my friends into two groups. There were people, mostly law students, who thought more or less like I do. And then there were those who said, “He needs to go to The Hague. He’s done so many bad things, and he needs to suffer.” And that’s it: no discussion on how this was supposed to be done.

Legally we’re an independent country. So we can say, “Under those terms, we’re not entering into that relationship.” The new government basically rushed the decision.

I don’t know if you remember, but when the federation parliament was voting for the Hague Tribunal law, one of the former ministers committed suicide. So basically, we knew that the moment the law is enforced, those politicians would be the first to be sent away.

Well, the government faced a deadline, and there was a certain amount of money riding on the decision.

Yes, okay, I can understand the reasons. And I wasn’t involved in the decision. But still, I think that it could have been done better than it was.

Do you think that the decision has had a long-term impact on the legal system here?

Of course.

Can you give me an example?

Since then, we’ve been cooperating more or less regularly with the Hague Tribunal. Ratko Mladic or Radovan Karadzic: Were they national heroes or war criminals? I personally don’t know. I wasn’t there. But even if this quasi-court at The Hague is saying that you did something wrong and you say that you didn’t, then go over there and say, “I didn’t!” Don’t make the whole country stumble because of the two of you. And even worse, two young men in the military gave up their lives hiding the fugitives. And there were government institutions involved in hiding them.

When you graduated, what was the first thing you did with your law experience?

I started to cooperate with an NGO that worked with people who live with HIV. I’m still more or less active with the organization on some of these projects. My twin brother lives abroad. So, at that time, I was also thinking about leaving Serbia.

A lot of people were going abroad at that time.

That’s one of the measurements of the success of a new government, whether it’s center, right or left: encouraging people to come back from abroad and bringing their intellectual potential back with them. Still it’s the same pattern. People are graduating and walking away from Serbia. Nowadays you can earn maybe 400 Euro a month here. Your flat in Belgrade will cost you half of that. So, what kind of decent life is left with 200 Euro a month? That’s why I was thinking, and still am thinking, of going abroad, maybe to Austria.

Here I want to be involved in activism, and I don’t even charge for a lot of the things that I’m doing. Still, nobody lives on air alone.

Do you think you’ll work as a lawyer in Austria?

It’s pretty hard to be in law in another country. I’d rather work in the NGO sector, on human rights.

When you got involved in HIV issues, what was the situation for folks with HIV here in Belgrade, at the level of public perception but also at the level of care?

The public perception was worse than it is nowadays. Stigmatization and discrimination were common. From the point of view of treatment, it was even worse, because they had to pay for their treatments and nowadays it’s free. Not many people were in a position to afford that, so it was added stress for them. Even nowadays, when I’m doing consulting with them, they don’t even know their rights as a patient, such as the right to confidentiality. If you don’t confront the doctors and the medical staff, they’ll just continue to do what they’re doing. You have to stand up and tell them, “You’re not allowed to do that. That’s confidential information.” So it’s better nowadays in terms of people speaking more openly, which is as important as making them stronger.

How would you compare the situation here in Belgrade to other places, like Croatia?

To be honest, I don’t have much of a view on what’s happening in Croatia. But I was doing some comparative analysis of legal systems and went on a study visit to Poland. They had so many more drugs available for treatments than Serbia. In Serbia they simply don’t exist. I was doing a lot of work with serodiscordant couples, where one person is HIV positive and the other is HIV negative. These days here, they will never get information about first exposure and prophylaxis. I can understand it’s expensive for the state, and that’s probably the only reason why they’re quiet about that, but it’s stupid. Eventually they will have to cover their health care from the state budget. So, no matter how expensive it is now, it will be much more expensive later.

Have HIV positive activists come out of the movement who see themselves not as victims but as actors?

Yes, of course, there are people like that. And they also contribute a lot, because that makes the group visible. It also makes people see that they are not so dangerous. When they see that it’s possible to coexist, it’s more likely that people will accept them and give them their rights.

What about sex education courses in school?

I’m not sure because I haven’t been following the issue. But on this issue the situation here is better than in Poland, for example. For example, in Poland they are not allowed to distribute condoms without covering them, because of the influence of the Catholic Church. I was so shocked by this. What hypocrisy! What’s the difference if you give them out wrapped or not? They’re the same inside.

The Church is so powerful in Poland. What about the Church here?

Once in a while the Church would say something, but it generally wasn’t so discouraging. For our projects, we generally didn’t have any direct problems with ecclesiastical people around our projects. I wouldn’t say they’re particularly powerful in this regard.

Last year, I was at a church service on Sunday. It was the same day there was supposed to be the Gay Pride parade. It just so happened that on that day, the ultra-right groups were coming to church to get a blessing for beating up the marchers. I didn’t hear any blessing. In fact, I heard quite opposite from the priest who was doing the service. But they still expected the Church to bless their act.

What did the priest say?

He said that they were against the march, but they didn’t want to cause any sort of trouble. And he said that the marchers are people too and should be treated equally. And beating them up was not going to solve any problems. So it was quite a reasonable speech.

On the day of the march, I was wearing a pullover with a cap, which is what they usually wear when they’re beating up people or breaking windows. They usually cover up their faces so as not to be caught on camera. But that’s how I was dressed, casually like that. I was back in my apartment, listening to the news on the radio. And the news said that the police cordon was only 200 meters from the entrance of my building. I wanted to go out to buy something, but I was hesitating about going out. I wear earrings, so maybe they’re going to think I’m gay and beat me up. But if I wear the cap, maybe they’re going to think that I’m from the opposite side, and the police will bring me into the station. I decided to go without food for another hour.

In any case, the government decided that time to cancel the event as a safety matter. And then the constitutional court declared such a cancellation to be illegal.

Can you bring a suit against the government on the basis of the constitutional court ruling? I guess it’s the internal ministry that makes this decision.

It’s the prime minister and the minister of police. You can go to Strasbourg to bring legal suit against your country. But still it takes quite a long time to get results. But if someone’s ribs were broken, he wouldn’t mind getting some compensation. But he would rather feel free to go outside with his boyfriend walking hand in hand — more than anything in the world probably. And that’s something you can’t do here these days.

I was standing in the crosswalk the other day. There was a woman next to me. According to her outfit you wouldn’t say she was a peasant or someone with lower education.

And she said to me, “What is happening with this parade of shame?”

I said to her, “Actually, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I only know about the Pride Parade.”

And she said, “Ugh, those English men and gays” or something like that.

That’s the theory: that everything like that comes from outside. Because Serbs are not corrupt.

Do you feel that extreme nationalism has increased here in Serbia over the last few years?

Yes. The values from the 1990s are coming back again. You should talk to someone younger. You could ask them, for example, what kind of music they are listening to. Exactly the same type of kitsch music from the 1990s is back in vogue. Inflation is very high, and so is unemployment. In this kind of environment all sorts of crazy values can flourish.

As for Kosovo, well, I never would want a passport to go to Kosovo, because personally I think it’s Serbian territory. An Albanian guy from Macedonia confronted me about the Kosovo issue. He didn’t have any real arguments. But I said to him, “I don’t mind, take it if you feel like having it. Just don’t destroy whatever is Serbian that is left there. Don’t kill the Serbian people, don’t ruin the churches, and don’t ask me for a passport to go there. Please, I just want to be free to travel there.” And he said to me: ” Dragoslav, are there many people in Serbia that think like you?” I said, “Probably not so many.”

I have a dear friend who is younger than I am, only 21, and he really doesn’t like Croatian people at all. He himself is from Montenegrin background.

I said to him, “You’re somebody with Montenegrin background. How can you have the luxury to hate a whole nation? On what basis?”

“You don’t know what they did to us!”

I said, “Okay, okay, let’s not discuss it. I’m taking you to the seaside, but under one condition: We have to go to Croatia.”

He was shouting in protest!

I said, “Okay, in the first place, do you have a passport?”

He said he didn’t.

I said, “So, I see you haven’t been anywhere abroad.”

He said, “No.”

I said, “Without even stepping outside of Serbia, you’ve decided to hate an entire nation. Why?”

It’s his upbringing. These ideas are implanted in him. Nowadays I’m trying to convert him, but it’s hard. First I have to arrange for his passport. And he’s a really cool person. That’s a shock to me. I had this prejudice that this type of opinion goes with a lack of education or a low IQ. But I’m not giving up on him. I’ll try to get him the passport and bring him to Dubrovnik. There’s still a chance.

When the current president says, “Let’s slow down our approach to the EU,” how popular do you think that sentiment is?

Just look at trade. Serbia has a certain percentage of trade with Russia, a certain percentage of trade with China, but most of it is with the countries of the European Union. So it’s natural to go inside that group of countries.

But the big issue is corruption. I would gladly vote for a policy that throws into jail anybody who takes even a penny: from today’s political establishment, from the Democratic Party, anybody. If you stole the money from the people, then you should take responsibility and do your sentence.

I don’t want to pre-judge the current government. It’s still young. I don’t have a huge expectation, but let’s see what happens.

What was your reaction when Djindjic was assassinated?

I was shocked that someone so pragmatic, so willing to make painful and unpopular decisions, could so easily become a victim of his political views. Just a few bullets, and he was gone. In one video, Djindjic says, “If Serbia stops…” And that’s what it was like. Serbia stopped. I’m really angry that they didn’t bring out in court the political background to that murder. Okay, we know who pulled the trigger. But which top politicians knew about it? If Vojislav Seselj, who’s currently at The Hague, knew about it beforehand, who else knew?

I don’t want to sound like a whiner, but I was really shocked when I heard the results of the last elections.

You really thought the Democratic Party was going to win.

Of course! I was convinced.

Well, what is it going to take to change Serbia?

That’s a good question. What we really need is a new generation of politicians: clean, capable, uncorrupted. We need a clear distinction between positions, right, left, and center. Nowadays in Serbia anybody can be with anybody: black-white-red coalitions, anything is possible.

We need clean politicians with strong personalities. Because Serbians need a leader. That’s the nationalist strain in us. Ever since Serbian history has existed, it’s been like that.

Belgrade, October 7, 2012

Burma President’s Dangerous Refusal to Condemn Buddhists for Violence Against Rakhine Muslims

Buddhist monk-rakhine MuslimsFor the past year, Myanmar’s Rakhine State has been overwhelmed by rampant sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims. Besides fighting each other, the two communities are also battling global media outlets and the Burmese government for control over the world’s perception of the violence that is permeating their own lives.

Time magazine’s July 1 issue has been one of the most controversial attempts at framing the violence. The cover condemns Buddhist monk U Wirathu, leader of the Buddhist nationalist 969 Movement, as the “face of Buddhist terror.” In reaction, Myanmar President Thein Sein promptly banned the issue for allegedly misrepresenting Myanmar’s Buddhists and the situation in Rakhine. A closer examination of the Rakhine state violence reveals that the issue is much more complex than both Time and the nation’s president make it out to be.

The recent clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims began in June 2012 with the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya attackers, which initiated a violent backlash from members of the Buddhist community. Since then, around 250 people in the Rakhine region have been killed and several thousand, mostly Muslims, have been forced to flee their homes. Everyone agrees that the conflict is horrific—President Sein issued a state of emergency in the region back in March. But what remains contested is who should be held responsible for the violence. Who is really attacking whom?

Many, including Time, are pointing straight at U Wirathu, whose anti-Islamic 969 campaign has hit city streets with posters, CDs, and graffiti to advertise its disturbing platform. Wirathu dreams of a religiously segregated Myanmar and has drafted a law that restricts inter-faith marriage. Only 5 percent of the Burmese population identifies as Muslim, and yet the 969 campaign views this narrow demographic as a burden and threat to Burmese Buddhists. Wirathu’s following of Buddhist monks is growing, and his sermons seem to be inspiring hate and violence, despite the campaign’s claim to have non-violent intentions.

Other groups in Myanmar, like this purportedly Muslim Facebook group, insist it is not the Buddhists who are causing violence. However, the emerging correlation between the campaign’s increasing size and influence and an increase in anti-Muslim riots is difficult to deny. One Muslim resident expressed his fears, saying “the more we see the ‘969’ signs, the more we feel unsafe.” From the other side, Wirathu expresses concerns for his own safety. In an interview with the Irrawaddy, he claimed that Muslims “want me to be arrested, or killed. That’s why they put me on the [Time] cover, I think. … Extremists are trying to turn Burma into an Islamic country.”

In the midst of this blame game, President Thein Sein refuses to publicly choose sides. When questioned by ABC News, Sein denied that the violence in Rakhine is at all ethnic, racial, or religious, claiming that the portrayal of the violence as such only polarizes the communities further. He has also defended the campaign, calling U Wirathu “noble,” which exposes the government’s bias and excuses the hate-speech that, if not directly inspiring violence, undoubtedly encourages the further bifurcation of communities.

So far Sein’s tactic of forcibly denying the ethno-religious charge has not made situation easier to resolve. Order has not been restored to the region and hopes of reconciliation between groups recede as the violence increases. If Sein continues to support a campaign that preaches hate, he will effectively obliterate the nation’s chances of restoring peace and creating unity among its diverse peoples. We can only hope that the growing urgency of the situation will force the Burmese government to drop the act and start promoting tolerance and integration now, both for the sake of those suffering in the Rakhine state, and for the nation’s future as a transitioning democracy.

Emma Lo is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Poison Gas and Arabian Tales

“It is not unlike Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark. It’s not just that we can’t prove a sarin attack, it is that we are not seeing what we would expect to see from a sarin attack.”
– Jean-Pascal Zanders, former senior research fellow at the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies

Allegations of sarin use by the Syrian government are bedeviled by chain-of-custody issues.

Allegations of sarin use by the Syrian government are bedeviled by chain-of-custody issues.

Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, cracked the case of the “Silver Blaze” by concluding that a murder and theft had to be an inside job because the watchdog never barked. It would be a good idea to keep this in mind when it comes to determining whether the Syrian government used poison gas against its opponents. And since the Obama administration is citing “proof” that the chemical warfare agent sarin was used by the Syrian government as the basis for escalating its intervention in the two-year old civil war, this is hardly an academic exercise.

Like Holmes, start with the facts.

According to French, British, Israeli and U.S. intelligence services, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad used sarin on at least 10 different occasions, resulting in the deaths of some 100 to 150 people. The “proof” for this is based on tissue and blood samples—British intelligence claims contaminated soil as well—from victims of the attacks. The samples were gathered in Syria, taken to Turkey, and turned over to the intelligence services and the United Nations.

The French newspaper Le Monde also reports that one of its reporters suffered blurred vision and nausea during one of these attacks, and the paper has published photos of purported victims being treated. There is, as well, a video of insurgent fighters donning gas masks. Besides the photos and video images, no evidence has been released to the press.

What about the beast itself?

The chemical was invented in Germany in 1938 as a pesticide. It is a nerve agent—as opposed to a “blistering agent” like mustard gas—and kills by blocking the body’s ability to control the chemical that allows muscles to turn themselves off. As the Office of Emergency Management puts it, “Without an ‘off switch,’ the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated. They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function.”

You suffocate.

Sarin is a colorless and odorless liquid, and it is “volatile”—that is, it quickly turns into a gas. Even in small concentrations, it is very deadly and can kill within minutes. It is absorbed through the skin or lungs and can contaminate clothing for up to 30 minutes. The British created a far deadlier and less volatile variant of sarin called V. It was an errant VX cloud from the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground that killed some 6,000 sheep in Utah’s Skull Valley in 1968.

Many countries have chemical weapons, but some, including the U.S. and Russia, are in the process of destroying them under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Sarin is considered a “weapon of mass destruction” under UN Resolution 687, although that label is a bit of a misnomer. It is certainly bad stuff. In 1988 Saddam Hussein used sarin to kill several thousand Kurds in the city of Halabja, and sarin and mustard gas were used during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). It is estimated that gas inflicted about 5 percent of Iran’s casualties in that war.

But poison gas is generally considered more of a nuisance than a weapon capable of creating large numbers of dead and wounded. It only accounted for one percent of the casualties in World War I, and doesn’t compare with a real weapon of mass destruction. The two nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed some 250,000 people and injured hundreds of thousands more. And by today’s standard of nuclear weapons, those bombs were tiny.

While chemical weapons are scary, they are no more indiscriminate in what they kill than 1,000-lb bombs and cluster weapons, indeed much of the arsenals of modern armies. Small arms, for instance, inflict 90 percent of civilian casualties.

In any case, President Obama made the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war his “red line,” a barrier he claims has now been breached.

Has it?

Philip Coyle, a senior scientist at Washington’s Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has his doubts, telling the McClatchy newspapers that from what he has observed of the evidence, it doesn’t look as if sarin was used.

Jean-Pascal Zanders, former head of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project at the Stockholm international Peace Research Institute questions some of the reports in Le Monde. For instance, the newspaper reports that victims traveled a long distance for medical care, which he suggests is unlikely if sarin was used. He also points out there are no reports of medical workers dying from exposure to victims, even though sarin clings to clothing for up to a half hour. He also questions a Le Monde report that one victim was given 15 shots of the antidote atropine, a dose that would surely have been fatal.

“In a world where even the secret execution of Saddam Hussein was taped by someone, it doesn’t make sense that we don’t see videos, that we don’t see photos showing bodies of the dead, the reddened faces and the bluish extremities of the afflicted,” he says.

While the French claim they have an “unbroken chain of custody” from the attack to the lab, even experts who believe the intelligence reports disagree. Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association says that while his “guess” is that the poison gas was used, there is a lack of “continuous chain of custody for the physiological samples from those exposed to sarin.”

One “Western diplomat” told the Washington Post, “The chain-of-custody issue is a real issue,” in part because the “red line” speech was an incentive to “prove” chemical weapons had been used. As Rolf Ekeus, a Swedish scientist who headed the UN’s weapons inspections in Iraq, said, “If you are the opposition…you have an interest in giving the impression that some chemical weapons have been used.”

According to a report in the New York Times, samples gathered in Aleppo were carried by a civilian courier from that city to the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, “a journey that took longer than expected. At one point,” reports the Times, “the courier forgot the blood vials, which were not refrigerated, in his car. Ten days after the attack, the vials arrived at the Turkish field office for the Syrian American Medical Society.”

In short, the samples were hardly secured during the week and a half it took them to get to Turkey, and they were delivered into the hands of insurgency supporters.

Carla del Ponte, former war crimes prosecutor and currently a member of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, says it was the rebels, not Syria, who are the guilty party.

Damascus refuses to allow the UN to test for chemical weapons inside of Syria, which certainly raises suspicions. On the other hand the UN has not exactly been a neutral bystander in the civil war. UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon has demanded “unfettered access”—an unlikely event in the middle of a war—and while sharply condemning Iran and Russia for supplying arms to Assad, has muted such criticism of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the main arms suppliers for the rebels.

There is a certain common sense factor in all this as well. Would the Assad government really “cross the red line” in order to kill 150 people?

When U.S. Special Forces invaded Syria in 2008 to attack what they claimed was a “terrorist gathering”—it turned out to be carpenters and farmers—the Syrians protested, but did nothing. At the time, Syria’s Foreign Minister told Der Speigel that Damascus had no wish to “escalate the situation” with the U.S. “We are not Georgia” he added, an illusion to Georgia’s disastrous decision to pick a fight with Russia in the 2008 Russian-Georgian war.

Nor has Syria responded to three bombing raids by Israel, knowing that challenging the powerful Israeli air force would be suicidal.

Western intelligence services want us to believe that Damascus deliberately courted direct U.S. intervention for something totally marginal to the war. Maybe the Assad regime has lost its senses. Maybe some local commanders took the initiative to do something criminal and dumb. Maybe the whole thing is a set-up.

Shouldn’t we wait until the dog barks?

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.

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