04 May 2016

Spain: A non-governmental organisation?

Al Jazeera English

During a visit to Barcelona in December just after Spain’s general elections, I walked past a signboard outside a restaurant displaying the following quip in Spanish: "If the Spaniards were dinosaurs, we'd have voted for the meteorite."
The implication, of course, was that by regularly voting for destructive political formations Spaniards were facilitating their own doom.
The metaphorical meteorite in this case was the incumbent right-wing Popular Party (PP), which has in recent years presided over punitive austerity measures and rampant corruption. Spain's industry minister recently resigned after the Panama Papers revealed problematic offshore investments.
Unemployment in Spain is currently more than 20 percent, and youth unemployment is even higher. The effects of the economic crisis have also been acutely felt by the victims of mass home evictions; in 2012, the Associated Press reported that 500 such operations were being carried out per day across the country. The eviction epidemic was widely linked to a spike in suicides. READ MORE AT AL JAZEERA ENGLISH.

28 April 2016

Occupation vacations: Settlement tourism in Israel

Middle East Eye

For years, the Tel Aviv-based Shurat HaDin - also known as the Israel Law Centre - has organised tours to Israel while continuing its day-to-day activities of “fighting terrorism and safeguarding Jewish rights worldwide”.
Billed as the “Ultimate Mission to Israel,” the weeklong excursion packages offer five-star accommodation, luxury bus transportation, and a cell phone for each participant. The cost: a mere $3,150 (not including airfare), plus an obligatory donation of between $600 and $5,000 per person.
The itinerary, which promises a “dynamic and intensive… exploration of Israel’s struggle for survival and security in the Middle East,” includes the following items: “briefings by Mossad officials and commanders of the Shin Bet”; “a trial of Hamas terrorists in an IDF military court”; “tours of the Lebanese & Syrian front-line military positions and the Gaza border checkpoints”; a “meeting [with] Israel’s Arab agents who infiltrate the terrorist groups and provide real-time intelligence”; and a tour of “the controversial Security Fence and IDF military bases.”
Of course, such an ultimate mission as this may not cater to the needs of every traveller. For those tourists who might prefer a focus on wine, artisanal cheese and extremist West Bank settlers, there are also plenty of vacation options.
A recent Washington Post article titled “Tourism is the new front in Israeli settlers’ battle for legitimacy” describes how settlements are deploying “zealous hospitality” as a means of fighting back against international criticism of their illegal status. A proliferation of boutique wineries and bed and breakfasts has accompanied the growth of settlement tourism; the article explains: “In this campaign, wine tastings are a new weapon against a two-state solution. Holiday chalets are new facts on the ground.”
Unfortunately, Palestinians are lacking in similar opportunities to forge their own very profitable facts on the ground - as there’s not really a market these days for holidays in which, for example, your kids are massacred by Israeli missile while playing football on the beach. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

27 April 2016

Gardening in Africa with The New York Times' Thomas Friedman

TeleSUR English

Africa is not a frequent destination of New York Times foreign affairs columnist and corporate globalization fiend Thomas Friedman, despite his unlimited travel budget and what amounts to a free pass to write whatever he wants whether it makes sense or not.
When he does manage to get over to Africa, of course, he produces some important insights.
Back in 2009, for example, he descended upon Botswana to report that neither his BlackBerry, wireless laptop, or satellite phone functioned in the Okavango Delta. One hundred twenty-one words of that particular column were devoted to a description of a leopard eating an antelope in a tree.
This month, a return trip to the continent has thus far produced two articles, predictably titled “Out of Africa” and “Out of Africa, Part II.”
The first one is datelined Agadez, Niger, which Friedman describes as the “main launching pad for migrants out of West Africa.” According to our tour guide’s calculations, “between 9,000 and 10,000 men” are launched in the direction of Libya each month.
The second dispatch is from the remote village of Ndiamaguene, Senegal, which we’re told constitutes “the headwaters of the immigration flood now flowing from Africa to Europe via Libya.” Citing a near-total absence of young and middle-aged men in the town, Friedman explains that “they’ve all hit the road” in search of economic relief because Ndiamaguene’s “climate-hammered farmlands can no longer sustain them.”
He continues:
“This trend is repeating itself all across West Africa, which is why every month thousands of men try to migrate to Europe by boat, bus, foot or plane. Meanwhile, refugees fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are doing the same. Together, these two flows pose a huge challenge for the future of Europe.”
Never mind that the Iraqi and Afghan “flows” happen to be fleeing wars overzealously championed by none other than Friedman himself. Perhaps Europe can bill him for damages.
Meanwhile, Friedman concludes his foray into the West African plight with this prescription: “Gardens or walls? It’s really not a choice. We have to help [the Africans] fix their gardens because no walls will keep them home.”
Leaving aside the fact that the word “gardens” appears nowhere else in his two-part series and that it’s thus a bit unclear as to how we arrived at this particular choice, let’s take the metaphor and run with it—for just long enough to point out that the garden solution is fundamentally irreconcilable with the economic system Friedman and his ilk have devoted their lives to promoting. READ MORE AT TeleSUR ENGLISH.

19 April 2016

From a Jersey tax haven to Tunisia's island of discontent

Middle East Eye

KERKENNAH, Tunisia - On the Tunisian island of Kerkennah, 90 minutes by ferry from the city of Sfax, all appears calm for the moment - save, perhaps, for the disproportionate presence of gun-toting soldiers cruising around in military vehicles.
Ask island residents about the events of recent weeks, however, and you’ll be offered horror stories of tear gas wantonly launched at protesters by Tunisian security forces who were reportedly shipped over in large quantities from the mainland to deal with the unrest.
The immediate cause of the protests, which commenced in early April, was widespread disillusionment with Petrofac, a self-defined “oilfield service company, supporting clients across the oil and gas asset lifecycle”. Registered in the English Channel island of Jersey (renowned for its tax haven status), Petrofac inserted itself into the Tunisian scene in 2007 and conducts operations at the Chergui gas field concession on Kerkennah in cooperation with Tunisia’s national oil company.
According to islanders I spoke with, Petrofac’s contributions to human and other lifecycles in the area have been less than stellar. A number of the protesters were unemployed university graduates displeased with what they view as the company’s insufficient provision of jobs and resources for the local community. Other common complaints - denied, obviously, by Petrofac - include an increase in pollution and attendant negative side effects on marine life, upon which Kerkennah has traditionally depended for sustenance.
Of course, anti-Petrofac agitation is merely symptomatic of much deeper problems, and protests quickly escalated. Tied up in public discontent are Tunisia-wide allegations of a lack of transparency regarding state revenues from corporate operations, which many suspect are being unjustly funneled away from host communities that are already suffering from economic malaise. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

18 April 2016

MY POLICE STATE VACATION

Current Affairs
In the customs line at Tashkent International Airport, a digital screen positioned above the X-ray machine informs visitors to Uzbekistan of items that are prohibited in the interest of peace and security. Narcotics are first, followed by materials encouraging religious extremism, fundamentalism, or separatism. When I recently visited the Central Asian nation, memorably referred to by pizza magnate and former Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain as “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,” I was carrying none of the above.
I was, however, slightly concerned that my profession itself might not be on the list of state-approved activities—as suggested, perhaps, by the fact that said state plays host to the world’s two longest imprisoned journalists.
Fortunately, not being Uzbek myself meant I’d be spared the rehabilitative services the government reserves for its in-house opposition. Even among torture-states, Uzbekistan has achieved some impressive levels of brutality. Treatments have ranged from having suspected dissidents boiled to death to freezing them in icy cells to simple “asphyxiation with a gas mask,” as the U.S. State Department noted in 2001, shortly before it appointed Uzbekistan one of its key BFFs in the War on Terror.
But I wasn’t in Uzbekistan for journalistic purposes; I would not be investigating its various unbecoming practices, such as the forced labor in its cotton fields or its forced sterilization of women. Nor, curious as I may have been, did I intend to look into the story of permanent president Islam Karimov’s daughter Gulnara, a Harvard University alumna whose career as a diplomat-cum-pop diva-cum-fashion designer-cum-racketeer has for the moment ended in house arrest.
Instead, my itinerary centered around viewing pretty monuments and drinking cheap vodka, and I didn’t want this disrupted by any official misreading of my intentions. For that reason I had exercised borderline paranoia when applying for my letter of invitation (LOI) from the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs back in August—a document that would supposedly facilitate my acquisition of an Uzbek visa. Required to provide a letter from my employer as part of the LOI application process, I tasked my mother with fabricating a temporary identity for me as a client services and marketing liaison in the innocuous business of rental property management in Spain. (Having failed to adequately rehearse this exotic new title, I subsequently went with the deer-in-headlights option whenever any Uzbek asked what my job was.) READ MORE AT CURRENT AFFAIRS.

15 April 2016

When statues mean more than people

Al Jazeera English

Recently on my Facebook news feed, a post materialised from an American research scientist at New York University whose CV includes work on a "joint peace-building project" between that institution and the University of Duhok in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
The post featured two photographs of ancient ruins in Duhok that had been on the receiving end of graffiti in the form of Kurdish flags, which the research scientist had used to equate the graffiti artists with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) - known, among other things, for itsdestruction of antiquities and archaeological sites.
"Dear Kurdish nationalists that did this," he wrote, "you're no better than [ISIL] and you're spineless cowards who, if you had an ounce of courage, would be on the frontlines and not vandalising priceless history."
Never mind that it's not up to Western visitors to dictate to long-exploited populations how precisely to manifest personal or collective aspirations, or that comparing flag painters to decapitation-happy jihadists is a bit extreme.
It bears adding that this particular fellow is himself a veteran of the United States military in Iraq and Afghanistan, two locations where the US has engaged in its fair share of vandalism - not to mention widespread slaughter. Apparently, human beings just aren't that "priceless". READ MORE AT AL JAZEERA ENGLISH.

06 April 2016

Ethiopia’s Oromo Protest ‘Development,’ Displacement and Death

TeleSUR English

“This government is at least better than previous ones,” remarked a 74-year-old Eritrean man to me last month in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, his longtime residence. Clad in a tattered grey suit and speaking to me in Italian, the man was peddling a book of useful Amharic phrases he had compiled for the foreign visitor, proceeds of which would go toward the purchase of a second-hand comforter for his bed.

As it turned out, his assessment of the relative superiority of the current Ethiopian administration was for good reason: two of his children had been killed by a previous ruling outfit, the Derg military junta that took power in 1974 and began eliminating suspected opponents in droves.

Although that particularly bloody epoch came to an end in 1991, many a resident of Ethiopia might nowadays still have cause to complain about homicidal activity by the state. In the Oromia region surrounding Addis Ababa, for example, there are claims that more than 200 people have been killed by Ethiopian security forces since November 2015, when protests broke out in response to the government’s so-called “Master Plan” to expand the boundaries of the capital by a factor of 20.

As a Newsweek article explains, the Oromo inhabitants of the region viewed the plan as “an attempted land grab that could result in the forced eviction of Oromo farmers and the loss of valuable arable land in a country regularly plagued by drought.”

This was no doubt a valid concern given the government’s established tradition of wantonly displacing Ethiopians in the interest of “development”—that handy euphemism for removing human obstacles to the whims of international and domestic investment capital.

Comprising some 35 percent of the population, the Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group and have regularly decried discrimination by the ruling coalition party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which is dominated by ethnic Tigrayan interests. Politically motivated detention, incarceration, and other abuses have long characterized the landscape in Oromia, and the current protests have seen children as youngas eight arrested.

Apparently, torture has also been a difficult habit for security forces to break.

And while the government has opted to shelve the Master Plan for now, protests in Oromia have continued. When I recently visited the town of Woliso, one of many protest sites in the region, residents pointed out that cancelling the plan wouldn’t bring back the dead people. READ MORE AT TeleSUR ENGLISH.

05 April 2016

ON TRIAL: The Special Tribunal for Lebanon

The Washington Spectator

On Valentine’s Day 2005, a suicide bomb blast close to Beirut’s seaside promenade killed billionaire former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, along with 21 others.
The crime was catapulted to the front lines of international jurisprudence, thanks to the diligent work of Lebanese political partisans and like-minded forces in the global community—who shared a less-than-thinly-veiled goal of sticking it to Syria and/or Syria’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah. The result: a Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which operates in The Hague with United Nations backing. On trial are five Hezbollah members accused of orchestrating the bombing.
The selective nature of justice in this case is rather obvious given that Lebanon’s veritable glut of political assassinations over past decades has not produced any similar effort, even on the domestic level. As Lebanese criminal justice expert Dr. Omar Nashabe notes in a paper published by the American University of Beirut, assassinations and “numerous other serious crimes committed in Lebanon since 1975 have either gone unresolved, unpunished, or were white-washed by amnesty laws and international silence.”
And while apologists for the STL cast it as a precedent-setting move in the fight against impunity, the fact that the court has hosted testimony by Lebanese sectarian warlords-cum-politicians—themselves with the blood of Lebanon’s civil war still on their hands—would seem to nip that claim in the bud.
Nor have the tens of thousands of victims of regular Israeli rampages across the country been deemed special enough for a tribunal aimed at holding their murderers accountable. Never mind that the court, which advertises itself as “the first tribunal of its kind to deal with terrorism as a distinct crime,” defines terrorism in part as something “liable to create a public danger.”
In wantonly bombing Lebanese apartment buildings, family vehicles, and the like, Israel would seem to have terror down to an art.
Israel, it bears mentioning, has been categorically exempt from suspicion in the Hariri killing, despite its history of interference in Lebanese politics and the fact that it benefited mightily from the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon—one outcome of the assassination.
Beyond its focus on “terrorism,” the STL is unique in other ways, as well. For one thing, it’s a trial in absentia, since none of the defendants has been delivered to the court. As former defense counsel member Philippe Larochelle recently explained to me, the best-case scenario for the prosecutors in the end is that “you get a conviction for five ghosts.” READ MORE AT THE WASHINGTON SPECTATOR.

03 April 2016

Israel: No promised land for Ethiopian Jews

Middle East Eye

GONDAR, Ethiopia—Recently in the northwestern Ethiopian city of Bahir Dar, I had the pleasure of encountering an Israeli tourist who was displeased by the superior fees charged to foreign visitors for entrance to the country’s museums, churches, and other sites. Ethiopian citizens pay much less.
Never mind that the per capita annual income in Ethiopia - $550 according to the World Bank’s last calculation - is less than the price of the average round-trip ticket from Tel Aviv to Addis Ababa.
According to the Israeli, the disparity in entrance fees was tantamount to “racism” - a curious choice of vocabulary, no doubt, for a white person hailing from a state that has racism rather down to an art, and even more curious in the context of Ethiopia in particular.
The Ethiopian community in Israel at present numbers about 135,000 people. The arrival of Ethiopian Jews to the Jewish state began in the 1970s, when, as a BBC article notes, “the Israeli secret service Mossad organised their immigration through refugee camps in Sudan,” where they were fleeing war, famine, and persecution. In the 1980s and '90s, the Israeli military staged two major covert airlift operations, dubbed “Operation Moses” and “Operation Solomon” respectively. After that, migration continued in slightly less dramatic form.
While the influx of Ethiopian Jews may have assisted numerically in establishing Israel as the official homeland for Jews worldwide, thereby counteracting rightful Palestinian claims to the area, the resulting skin-colour scheme has proved unwelcome to many sectors of the Israeli population.
For Ethiopians in Israel, racism and discrimination have been the name of the game. Obstacles to a reasonably gratifying existence have included curtailed educational and employment opportunities, with many children forced into what has in recent years often amounted to a segregated school system. A March 2016 article in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that, “among [Israeli] children finishing 12th grade in 2013 and taking exams, only 26 percent of students of Ethiopian origin achieved matriculation results enabling acceptance to university, compared with 52 percent of the general population”.
Fifty-two, it turns out, is a bit of a recurring number. In 2013, the same paper reported that “nearly 52 percent of Ethiopian-immigrant families [in Israel] are below the poverty line”. As would be expected, unemployment rates for Ethiopian Jews are higher and wages are lower.
Meanwhile, practices aimed at the societal exclusion of dark-skinned Jews have reportedly ranged from decisions by certain landlords not to rent properties to Ethiopian-Israeli families to a recurring denial of marriage licenses to Ethiopian-Israelis in the central Israeli city of Petah Tikva. READ MORE AT MIDDLE EAST EYE.

29 March 2016

Hillary Clinton's faux feminism

Al Jazeera English

Last year, while researching an essay for an upcoming collection titled False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, edited by Liza Featherstone, I discovered that Clinton had deleted a rather incriminating section from the paperback edition of her autobiography.
In the original version, she detailed the lengths to which she went as secretary of state under Barack Obama to ensure the success of the 2009 coup d'etat in Honduras against slightly left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya.
After the coup, Clinton explained, she and select regional counterparts "strategised on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot and give the Honduran people a chance to choose their own future".
Never mind that the Honduran people had already chosen Zelaya for the immediate future. In the United States' view, apparently, opting for anything less than totally right-wing in Latin America is also a "false choice". READ MORE AT AL JAZEERA ENGLISH.