Friday, August 31, 2007

Sin, sex and the GOP double standard

Senator David Vitter, R-La., and Senator Larry Craig, R-Id., have been proponents of so-called “family values” and both have been caught up in sexual scandals this summer. Yet the reaction by conservatives in general and the national Republican leadership in particular could not be more different.

Senate Republican leaders have quickly demanded an investigation of Senator Craig’s restroom antics. They have forced Craig to give up his committee seats and turned their backs on him. Last month, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., admitted he had solicited sex from female prostitutes. Vitter kept his committee seats, and his colleagues reportedly applauded him when he entered a GOP meeting after his disclosure.

This is Glen Greenwald's take on the contrast of conservatives’ reaction to news about Senator David Vitter’s patronage of female prostitutes versus news about Senator Larry Craig’s solicitation of male partners:
Whatever else one wants to say about the "family values" wing of the right-wing movement, the absolute last thing that it is is a principled, apolitical movement. And -- as the starkly different treatment for Craig and Vitter conclusively demonstrates -- these vaunted "moral principles," for which we are all supposed to show such profound respect, are invoked only when there is no political cost to invoking them, and worse, typically only when there is political benefit in doing so.

The only kind of "morality" that this movement knows or embraces is politically exploitative, cost-free morality. That is why the national Republican Party rails endlessly against homosexuality and is virtually mute about divorce and adultery: because anti-gay moralism costs virtually all of its supporters nothing (since that is a moral prohibition that does not constrain them), while heterosexual moral deviations -- from divorce to adultery to sex outside of marriage -- are rampant among the Values Voters faithful and thus removed from the realm of condemnation. Hence we have scads of people sitting around opposing same-sex marriage because of their professed belief in "Traditional Marriage" while their "third husbands" and multiple step-children and live-in girlfriends sit next to them on the couch.

They're all willing to cheer on the "rules of traditional marriage" which do not impose on them in any way (marriage must have a man and a woman -- no problem there). But no "Family Values" politician could possibly survive politically by seeking to enshrine with the force of law all of the other equally important prongs of "Traditional Marriage" (all of that dreary, outdated "until death do us part" business which would deny the "right" for Values Voters to dump their wives and move on to the "next wife" when the mood strikes, or remain shacked up with their various girlfriends and the like).
You can read his entire piece here.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The “choice v. biology determination of sexuality” debate and its impact on civil rights

Elizabeth Wood on the “biology vs. choice” debate regarding sexuality:
Intellectually, or scientifically, what factors shape a person’s sexuality is an interesting question. But in terms of the law it ought to be irrelevent. Discrimination against people based on the kinds of sex they have, or the genders of their partners ought to be illegal. Period. End of sentence.

It feels like another instance of where those in favor of sexual and reproductive freedom have ceded the framing of the debate to those who would like to lock sexuality down. Only this time the word “choice” has been adopted by the other side.

Conservatives focus a lot on their claim that sexual orientation is not an orientation at all but is rather a “chosen lifestyle” because they are fond of punishing people for what they see as “bad” or “immoral” choices. By that logic, they feel justified denying marriage to same sex couples because they should have ‘chosen’ differently.

That’s ridiculous. Even if sexuality is to some degree chosen — and I would argue that all kinds of sexual expression is chosen, and much is shaped by culture, even though some is likely influenced by biology — I should still be allowed to marry who I want, as long as that person is legally able to consent to the marriage. I should not be discriminated against at work or in housing matters or health care because of the partners I choose.

Why should sexual choices (between people capable of consent) be seen as somehow different from other choices we are freely able to make? Sexuality is complex and there are lots of desires that we choose to act on and explore and others we choose never to explore….


We should not allow a “biology v. choice” framing of the rights debate to continue. If we do, we will likely find ourselves backed into a very unpleasant corner. We will be forced to argue that we are helpless over our sexuality, and then will be faced with the very frightening prospect of arguing in favor of a medical definition of sexual orientation — which can then be used against us when people decide to start looking for “cures.” For make no mistake about it: if they think they can “cure” us by counseling us into making different choices, they will be no less likely to try to “cure” us of a sexual orientation that they can frame as a disease. If there is a “gay gene” we should be very wary of what happens if it’s found. It will then be possible for genetic testing to “discover” the sexual orientation of a child and gene therapy may be used to “fix” that child. We’ve been there before in less technologically sophisticated ways. Sexual orientation was only declassified as a disease in the 1970s!

Choice v. Biology is no way to have a debate about rights. When we fought for civil rights we didn’t ask what causes race (though we certainly have debated what defines race). We shouldn’t be arguing about what causes sexual orientation. Its an interesting scientific question, and probably has a very complex answer that combines biological and social factors, and I’d be very curious to know more about it. But it has no place in the politics of anti-discrimination policy.

Ultimately sexuality is a blend of biological, cultural, and individual factors. Rights, on the other hand, are determined through the political process, and sexual freedom and civil rights should not depend on whether we are born with a sexual orientation or choose how to express our sexual selves. Sexual freedom and civil rights should be granted to all. Period.

Kenneth Foster to be executed for a murder he did not commit

Kenneth Foster will die Thursday night, failing a last-minute reprieve, for a murder he did not commit. Under Texas law, the “law of parties” concept holds that an accomplice is as guilty of murder as the murderer despite the facts of this case indicating Mr. Foster was 80-to-90 feet away from the crime and had no idea his companion was going to shoot the victim. (Details of the incident, trial and Foster’s life can be found here.)

This is Sunday’s editorial from the Dallas Morning News:
Kenneth Foster was a robber. He was a drug user. He was a teenager making very bad decisions.

He is not an innocent man.

But Mr. Foster is not a killer.

Still, the State of Texas plans to put him to death Thursday.

Ours is the only state in the country to apply the "law of parties" to capital cases, allowing accomplices to pay the ultimate penalty for a murder committed by another. Mr. Foster was driving his grandfather's rental car when one of his partners in crime killed Michael LaHood.

That night in 1996, Mr. Foster and three of his buddies appeared to be looking for trouble. They robbed a few folks, chugged some beers and smoked marijuana. But, as all four have testified, murder was never part of the plan. Mr. Foster and two others sat in the car nearly 90 feet away when the fatal shot was fired.

They had followed an attractive woman into an unfamiliar neighborhood, where they encountered her boyfriend, Mr. LaHood. The other passengers have testified that they had no designs on robbing – let alone shooting – him. And the admitted triggerman said that his friends did not know what he was doing when he approached the victim.

But using the law of parties, prosecutors argued that Mr. Foster, who was 19 at the time, either intended to kill or "should have anticipated" a murder. For this lack of foresight, he has been sentenced to death.

The death penalty, proponents argue, is the appropriate punishment for the worst of the worst criminals. They express confidence that death row inmates are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

But the case against Mr. Foster falls far short on both counts.

A 19-year-old robber/getaway driver cannot be classified as one of Texas' most dangerous, murderous criminals. On this point, even prosecutors agree: Mr. Foster did not kill anyone.

By applying the law of parties to this capital case, prosecutors are asking jurors to speculate on whether he should have anticipated the murder. Conjecture isn't nearly good enough when a defendant's life is on the line.

And relying on a mind-reading jury leaves plenty of room for reasonable doubt.

Several other states have imposed or are considering a moratorium on executions, relying instead on life without parole as a tough alternative. Even though Texas juries now have the option of life without parole, our state continues to broadly impose capital punishment.

The unfair application of the death penalty and the possibility that an innocent man could be executed compelled this newspaper to voice opposition to capital punishment. This case only reinforces our belief that state-sanctioned death is often arbitrary.

While Mr. Foster's execution date approaches, the two passengers from his car sit in prison with life sentences. His only hope for a reprieve lies with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and the governor.

This case raises serious questions about whether state leaders are comfortable with this degree of ambiguity in death cases. We aren't.

Mr. Foster is a criminal. But he should not be put to death for a murder committed by someone else.
If Mr. Foster dies, his will be the third execution in Texas in three days.

UPDATE: Earlier today (Thursday, August 30th) Gov. Rick Perry commuted death row inmate Kenneth Foster’s sentence to life, following a 6-1 recommendation by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. At least there is a little bit of decency left in Texas.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Internet free speech suppression in China via cartoon cops

The Chinese government will start a new program to control the flow of information available to and generated by the Chinese public. Beginning this Saturday, a cartoon policeman and policewoman will appear on Chinese computer screens every thirty minutes.

Not only can users click the cartoon characters to report improper use of the electronic media but their appearance is also a reminder to all users that they are being watched. "It is our duty to wipe out information that does public harm and disrupts social order," the bureau's deputy chief of Internet surveillance, Zhao Hongzhi, was quoted as saying. Obviously, the desired effect will be suppression of free speech through self-censorship. According to the BBC, the Chinese government has tens of thousands of real security officers monitoring the web and it regularly jails activists who have posted online messages criticizing the government.

This from Der Spiegel:
Big Brother will soon be making regular appearances on the screens of Internet users in China, but the velvet fist will take the unexpected form of a cute pair of manga cartoon cops.

A computer-generated image released by the Beijing Public Security Ministry showing the cartoon figures of "virtual police".

It's almost like C.H.I.P.S. meets George Orwell's 1984 meets Murakami. The Chinese government has decided to use a pair of cartoon cops to patrol computer screens of Internet users to make sure they are abiding by strict censorship rules, and the duo will encourage others to help them by ratting out potential violators.

The man and woman cartoon crime-fighting duo will patrol the screens of Chinese Web surfers, sometimes on foot, sometimes on motorcycle, sometimes in a patrol car and sometimes -- in true Chinese style -- on bicycles.

Public officials are using the unusual policing method to remind Web surfers that their activities are under constant observation and that no deviations from explicit Chinese Internet-use restrictions will be tolerated. Particular sites of interest for this cute little cartoon dynamic duo will be pornography sites, online gaming sites and sites of political interest.

The Manga crime-fighters will start working their beat on Sept. 1 on the 13 most important Chinese Internet portals, including Soku and Sina. The government in Beijing claims that their patrol area will be expanded to include all Web sites registered in China by year's end.

Manga is the Japanese word for comic book or cartoons. Manga and its animated version, known as "anime," originate in Japan, China and other countries in Southeast Asia. They hold an important place as entertainment in a number of countries and have gained worldwide popularity over the last few decades.

Thanks to Web 2.0, crime fighting and helping make a computer citizen's arrest has never been easier. Nor has creating an Orwelian state. If something on a Web site people visit or something they see another Web surfer doing strikes them as legally unkosher, a simple click of the mouse on one of the comic figures takes them straight to the police Internet site, where they can file a report on any lapses.

It would seem that the traditionally draconian Beijing Public Security Ministry has decided to put on a friendly face when it comes to enforcing the cold rules of the road for Internet usage in China. "We will solicit even more images for our virtual police and update our tips on Internet security in order to further enhance the image of our Internet police and better adapt to the surfing habits of Internet users," an official said.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Same sex unions may be as traditional as “traditional” marriage

A study to appear in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Modern History concludes that same sex civil unions existed in medieval Europe. Opponents of same sex marriage or civil unions have argued that such arrangements ran counter to “traditional” marriage of men and women heading nuclear family households. However, the study indicates there may be multiple traditions to draw upon.

This from Yahoo News:
Civil unions between male couples existed around 600 years ago in medieval Europe, a historian now says.

Historical evidence, including legal documents and gravesites, can be interpreted as supporting the prevalence of homosexual relationships hundreds of years ago, said Allan Tulchin of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.

If accurate, the results indicate socially sanctioned same-sex unions are nothing new, nor were they taboo in the past.

“Western family structures have been much more varied than many people today seem to realize," Tulchin writes in the September issue of the Journal of Modern History. "And Western legal systems have in the past made provisions for a variety of household structures.”

For example, he found legal contracts from late medieval France that referred to the term "affrèrement," roughly translated as brotherment. Similar contracts existed elsewhere in Mediterranean Europe, Tulchin said.

In the contract, the "brothers" pledged to live together sharing "un pain, un vin, et une bourse," (that's French for one bread, one wine and one purse). The "one purse" referred to the idea that all of the couple's goods became joint property. Like marriage contracts, the "brotherments" had to be sworn before a notary and witnesses, Tulchin explained.

The same type of legal contract of the time also could provide the foundation for a variety of non-nuclear households, including arrangements in which two or more biological brothers inherited the family home from their parents and would continue to live together, Tulchin said.

But non-relatives also used the contracts. In cases that involved single, unrelated men, Tulchin argues, these contracts provide “considerable evidence that the affrèrés were using affrèrements to formalize same-sex loving relationships."

The ins-and-outs of the medieval relationships are tricky at best to figure out.

"I suspect that some of these relationships were sexual, while others may not have been," Tulchin said. "It is impossible to prove either way and probably also somewhat irrelevant to understanding their way of thinking. They loved each other, and the community accepted that.”

Monday, August 27, 2007

Women tortured as witches and AIDS victims buried alive as fear grips Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern half of the island New Guinea in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Most of the area is mountainous. The country hosts hundreds of indigenous ethnic groups who speak over 800 different languages. The majority of the population lives in traditional societies and practice subsistence level agriculture. The country gained its independence from Australia in 1975.

The New Guinea nation is facing an AIDS catastrophe with HIV diagnoses having risen by 30 percent since 1997. The epidemic accounts for 90 percent of the HIV infections in the Oceania region.

The spread of the disease has sparked violence against women accused of witchcraft and being responsible for causing HIV/AIDS. The accusations have resulted in torture and murder. There were an estimated 500 such attacks last year.

This from The National:
The way a woman walks can be a death sentence in Papua New Guinea, where the ancient world of witchcraft has collided brutally with the modern plague of AIDS.

Women accused of being witches have been tortured and murdered by mobs holding them responsible for the apparently inexplicable deaths of young people stricken by the epidemic, officials and researchers say.

How the women are singled out for such a fate can be as cruel as their treatment, said Joe Kanekane of PNG's Law and Justice Sector Secretariat.

"People believe a witch would behave in a certain way, would walk in a certain way. That's all the basis that they have and there's realistically no tangible substance to it," he told AFP.


"Sorcery, witchcraft and other supernatural forces are widely blamed for causing HIV/AIDS," the Centre for Independent Studies in Australia said in a recent analysis."Accusations of sorcery have resulted in torture and murder. The mysterious' deaths of relatively young people, thought to be deaths from HIV/AIDS, are being blamed on women practicing witchcraft.

"There are reports of women being tortured for days in efforts to extract confessions," wrote research fellow Miranda Tobias.

"Women have been beaten, stabbed, cut with knives, sexually assaulted and burnt with hot irons. One woman had her uterus ripped out with a steel hook.

"It is estimated that there have been 500 such attacks in the past year," the independent think tank said.

In one recent example in the port city of Lae, two alleged witches blamed for a young man's death were tortured and then set on fire by an "animalistic and inhuman" mob, said regional police chief Giossi Labi.
The fates of innocent women accused of witchcraft are not the only ones suffering from the fear gripping the countryside. There are reports of AIDS victims being buried alive. This from the BBC:
Some people with HIV/Aids in Papua New Guinea are being buried alive by their relatives, a health worker says.

Margaret Marabe said families were taking the extreme action because they could no longer look after sufferers or feared catching the disease themselves.

Ms Marabe said she saw the "live burials" with her own eyes during a five-month trip to PNG's remote Southern Highlands.

PNG is in the grip of an HIV/Aids epidemic - the worst in the region.

An estimated 2% of the six million population are believed to be infected, and HIV diagnoses rise by around 30% each year.

International health agencies have warned action must be taken to prevent hundreds of thousands of people becoming infected.

Margaret Marabe, a known local activist in PNG, carried out an awareness campaign in the Tari area of the Southern Highlands earlier this year.

"I saw three people with my own eyes. When they got very sick and people could not look after them, they buried them," she told reporters.

She described how one person called out "mama, mama" as the soil was being shovelled over their head.

Villagers told her that such action was common, she said.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Friday Fun: Television - It's ready for you

This is a short infomercial (circa 1952) promoting television. It stars Dave Garroway, one of the originals from the Today Show.

Does the president have different interests than the country he purports to lead?

Josh Marshall on Iraq, the United States and the Bush legacy:
… We are bigger than Iraq.

By that I do not mean we, as America, are bigger or better than Iraq as a country. I mean that that sum of our national existence is not bound up in what happens there. The country will go on. Whatever happens, we'll recover from it. And whatever might happen, there are things that matter much more to this country's future -- like whether we have a functioning military any more, whether our economy is wrecked, whether this country tears itself apart over this catastrophe. But we'll go on and look back at this and judge what happened.

Not so for the president. For him, this is it. He's not bigger than this. His entire legacy as president is bound up in Iraq. Which is another way of saying that his legacy is pretty clearly an irrecoverable shambles. That is why, as the folly of the enterprise becomes more clear, he must continually puff it up into more and more melodramatic and world-historical dimensions. A century long ideological struggle and the like. For the president a one in a thousand shot at some better outcome is well worth it, no matter what the cost. Because at least that's a one in a thousand shot at not ending his presidency with the crushing verdict history now has in store. It's also worth just letting things keep on going as they are forever because, like Micawber, something better might turn up. Going double or nothing by expanding the war into Iran might be worth it too for the same reason. For him, how can it get worse?

And when you boil all this down what it comes down to is that the president now has very different interests than the country he purports to lead.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Iraq, Vietnam and the isolation of the President

George Packer on the Iraq/Vietnam analogy:
The shift in war policy at the end of the Johnson Presidency turned out to be too little too late, and Americans would fight in Vietnam for five more years. But what’s striking about the moment when L.B.J. finally began to break is the nature of the forces that had led him to it: not just Clifford’s establishment friends and the bipartisan gray eminences of American foreign policy but also newspaper editors in the provinces and the power centers, party bosses like Mayor Richard Daley, of Chicago, moderate Republicans, and, above all, Johnson’s former colleagues in the Senate—his mentor Richard Russell, of Georgia; the majority leader, Mike Mansfield, of Montana; and even Eugene McCarthy, of Minnesota, who, though he was running an insurgent antiwar campaign against Johnson, maintained a back channel to his old friend in the White House. These were not just individuals but institutions that represented a broad center, able to appeal to politicians of both parties and, in a moment of crisis, speak to a truly national interest. “There were structures through which people could influence L.B.J.,” Michael Janeway, the author of “The Fall of the House of Roosevelt,” whose father was a close Johnson adviser during L.B.J.'s Senate years, told me. “In our time, nothing like that exists.”

In the middle of a crisis even more dangerous than Vietnam, President George W. Bush sits isolated in the White House, surrounded by a dwindling band of advisers, and continues to talk about winning in Iraq. His supporters in Congress and the media seize every short-term success, in Washington or Iraq, to flog their opponents as defeatists and lay the groundwork for a stab-in-the-back narrative. His critics in Congress and the media clamor for him to admit defeat and begin an immediate withdrawal. Over the course of 2007, the two sides haven’t begun to negotiate the possibility of a compromise; instead, they are driving each other to increasingly bitter resistance. The national tragedy in Iraq is taking place against a political culture personified by the departed Karl Rove: tactically brilliant, strategically blind, polarized into highly partisan bases and orthodoxies endlessly repeated through the mass media. You don't often hear it mentioned, but this might be one of the most important differences between Vietnam and Iraq.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Iraq is on the verge of disintegration according to German report

A report issued by the German Institute for International Security Affairs has concluded that Iraq is a failed state and will remain unstable for the foreseeable future. The centralized government is not working and cannot work under the current situation. The country’s only hope is to establish a federal system but given the political interests of the various groups in Iraq as well as Iraq’s neighbors that will be very difficult achieve. The failure to achieve political compromise decentralizing governance will likely lead to full-scale civil war and military intervention by neighboring countries.

This German assessment echoes equally pessimistic appraisals by the British Chatham House in May and the American International Crisis Group in June.

This from Der Spiegel:
It's no secret that Iraq is a politically, ethnically and religiously fractured country. But a new study released in Berlin on Wednesday argues that federalism remains the country's last, best hope. Otherwise, it may fall apart completely.

"Already today, the main priority is to prevent Iraq from breaking apart completely." That is the sober conclusion of a new study released Wednesday in Berlin on the situation in Iraq. Called "Iraq Between Federalism and Collapse," the study argues that there is little hope of a centralized power in Iraq and that the country's future depends on walking the fine line between decentralizing power and civil war.

The report, written by terror and Middle East expert Guido Steinberg under the auspices of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, says that a far-reaching decentralization is the country's only hope. And if it fails, the result could be devastating, including the possibility of full-scale civil war complete with foreign intervention.

That Iraq is threatening to break apart is, of course, nothing new. The Kurds in northern Iraq have established an autonomous Kurdish region. In the south of the country, the Shiites are interested in doing the same. Meanwhile, in the center of Iraq, violence remains part of everyday life as Shiite and Sunni extremist groups continue campaigns of car and suicide bombings.

Fractures, in other words, are not difficult to find. And the fractures are made all the worse by the fact that the groups involved rarely have the best interests of Iraq foremost in mind. In northern Iraq, the study points out, the two leading Kurdish political parties are demanding that the city and province Kirkuk be joined with the Kurdish dominated region -- a demand, Steinberg writes, that is likely to increase violence in the until now largely quiet north.

Indeed, the massive attack in the Kurdish area near the Syrian border on Tuesday seemed like proof that sectarian violence is rapidly spreading north. Four truck bombs exploded in villages killing at least 200 people. The bombs were likely detonated by Sunni groups angered by a Kurdish-speaking sect called the Yazidis. In April, a Yazidi woman was stoned to death for dating a Sunni Arab.

Elsewhere, the Sunnis are wary of attempts by the numerically superior Shiites to consolidate political power in the south and center of Iraq. And a large group of Shiites, Steinberg points out, are likewise against an autonomous Shiite region, meaning that there is a threat of an escalating intra-Shiite conflict as well.

The sectarian wrangling means, the study says, that the best solution -- that of a federalism free of ethnic and religious divisions -- has largely been rendered impossible. But even a federalism resting on the ethnic divisions that have been established seems challenging given the opposition from within the Shiite and Sunni factions to such a solution.

And that's not to mention the opposition of other countries in the region. "The discussion within Iraq is influenced to a large degree by the interests of neighboring countries," the report states. "Due to their potential to become involved, the Iraq federalists have to take their positions into account. And Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Syria all reject the ethnic-religious federalism model out of hand." Military intervention from Iraq's neighbors to protect their interests, particularly from Turkey in the north, is a very real possibility, the report warns.

The US has been pressuring parties on all sides of the discussions to come up with a compromise agreement and to solve a number of divisive issues, including the explosive discussion over sharing oil revenues among regions and groups. But the current Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is struggling to make any headway at all, with 11 cabinet ministers recently having quit in protest.

All of which makes the immediate future in Iraq look bleak, Steinberg writes. The alternative to a successful federalism solution, he indicates, is chaos, more violence and a Shiite dictatorship. "Iraq is a failed state," the report concludes, "and will remain unstable for the foreseeable future."

Nahoul the bee

Nahoul the bee is the star of a popular children's television program in Gaza. (The program and the television station on which it runs is affiliated with Hamas.) In this particular episode he goes to the zoo and swings cats by their tails and throws rocks at caged lions to demonstrate...uh, it is wrong to be cruel to animals.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

199th body found on Arizona-Mexico border as immigrants are forced to cross Sonoran Desert

The 199th body of 2007 has been found in the Sonoran Desert of the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona. According to Coalición de Derechos Humanos, this year’s body count will exceed the 205 total for 2006. There is no sight in end for the death toll of migrants as they are forced to cross the desert looking for work following the collapse of immigration reform in the United States congress.

Marc Cooper has this to say:
The failure to enact sensible, pragmatic immigration reform, just like the war in Iraq, also racks it up its ongoing death toll. And once again, thanks to the Clinton-Bush border policy of funneling migrants through the most brutal terrain we're on our way once again to setting a new record for those who died while trying to cross the Sonoran desert.

The 199th body of this season was just recovered on the Arizona-Sonora border. 205 deaths were recorded in that sector last year -- a number that will now surely be surpassed.Of course you will remember, or maybe you won't, that the administration's surge of border patrol agents, national guard and virtual and physical fences were supposed to reduce the number of crossings, apprehensions and, yes, deaths.

A big part of the problem with attempts at closing the border is that it makes the problem worse. It forces immigrants from the south to attempt ever more dangerous entry into the United States over unfriendly terrain and it forces those who are here to never leave out of fear they will never be able to return. “Migration is a natural phenomenon that is part and parcel of the human experience. Creating strategies that result in unnatural death is something completely of our government’s making,” says Anna O’Leary of Derechos Humanos. A common sense immigration policy requires regulation but needs to be easy enough for people to come here to work and return home without fear not being able to return. When policy makers make it hard to comply with the law we end up with the unsatisfactory situtation we have today.

As if the failure at reform were not bad enough, the administration is now imposing new immigration enforcement policies that only exacerbate the situation. As the Washington Post puts it, “With fruit rotting in fields, unmilked cows suffering in barns and shuttered farmhouses, growers are painting a bleak picture of their industry under new federal immigration policie.” As too few Americans seem to appreciate, the very immigrants crossing the southern border they are so fearful about are the very people making American lifestyles affordable.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

How should a woman be punished for an illegal abortion?

How should a woman be punished for an illegal abortion? That's a fair question that apparently few, if any, anti-abortion activists have considered according to this video. If abortion is murder then should the woman be punished for murder with jail time? Or, is it possible, abortion really isn't murder after all?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The oppression of Baluchistan by Pakistan

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the creation of Pakistan and India. Pakistan has received a lot of attention in this country given its proximity to the war in Afghanistan and as a ally in the conflict against Al-Qaeda and its Afghan ally, the Taliban.

However, not everyone in Pakistan is celebrating the founding of the nation. Baluchistan is the southwestern portion of Pakistan and Baluch people populate significant portions of Iran and Afghanistan. This happens to be the same area in Pakistan where members of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have taken refuge.

Baluchistan enjoyed a brief independence prior to being annexed by Pakistan. Many of the Baluch people feel oppressed by the Pakistani government and seek independence.

This is by Peter Tatchell, reprinted at Harry’s Place today:
Pakistan is escalating its war against the people of Baluchistan. In recent years, thousands have been jailed, tortured or killed. Military operations have included the use of chemical weapons. Nearly 100,000 Baluch people have been made refugees in their own land. Pakistan ignores their plight; refusing to allow the UN and international aid agencies to assist these displaced persons.

Simultaneously, the Islamabad imperialists are stripping Baluchistan of its vast natural resources of gas, oil, coal, copper and gold, which include an estimated 19 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves and six trillion barrels of oil reserves on-shore and off-shore. Despite this fabulous wealth, the people of Baluchistan live in abject poverty. Much of the population is malnourished and illiterate, living in squalid housing with no electricity or clean drinking water.

To subjugate and pacify Baluchistan, Islamabad is working on a sinister plan to colonise the region with ethnic Punjabis (the largest and dominant ethnic group in Pakistan). The aim is to make the Baluch people a minority in their own homeland, as happened to the Native Americans in the US and the Aboriginals in Australia. This has already been achieved in major cities like Quetta, where colonist settlers, mostly Punjabis, now predominate.

Cultural imperialism is another weapon in Pakistan’s bid to subjugate Baluchistan. Isalamabad believes it has a sacred duty to ‘civilise’ the ‘uncivilised’ Baluch; to transform them into ‘good Pakistani Muslims'. It has imposed an alien language, Urdu, on the Baluchi-speaking people. Urdu is now the compulsory language of instruction in educational institutions.

The cultural conquest of Baluchistan also involves the Islamification of the traditionally more secular Baluch nation. A large number of religious schools have been funded by the Pakistani state, with a view to imposing Pakistan’s harsher, more narrow-minded interpretation of Islam.

The Pakistani contempt for the Baluch people is evident in the way they have used Baluchistan - not the Punjab - as their nuclear testing ground, staging five atomic tests at Chagai in 1998. Since then, there have been an unusually high number of deaths of livestock and nomads. Locally-grown food now tastes strange, water supplies have become contaminated and there has been a significant increase in skin diseases, mental disorders and physical deformities in new-born infants.

Pakistan is an oppressed nation turned oppressor nation. A former colony of the British Empire, it now adopts similar imperial tactics to persecute and exploit the Baluch people – and the people of other provinces such as Sindh and North West Frontier. To maintain its iron grip on Baluchistan, the Pakistani military is building three new garrisons at Kohlu, Dera Bugti and Gwader. This expanded military presence is evidence that the Baluch people are putting up serious resistance to Islamabad’s colonial

Pakistani repression is nothing new. After a century as a British protectorate, Baluchistan declared its independence in 1947. It was a short-lived freedom. Within a year, Pakistan invaded and annexed the new nation.

When the British granted independence to India and Pakistan on 14 August 1947 Baluchistan secured its independence as a separate entity from Pakistan, as it was never a part of the British Indian Empire. Both houses of the Baluchistan Parliament rejected the idea of joining Pakistan. But under threat of being arrested by Pakistan Army, as some of his ancestors had been arrested during the British colonial era, Baluchistan’s ruler, Mir Ahmedyar Khan, signed an Instrument of Accession on 27 March 1948 with Pakistan's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah. This controversial accession, which Khan was not mandated by the Baluch people to sign, promised semi-autonomy to Baluchistan. Alas, genuine self-government never happened.

Despite six decades of Pakistani military occupation, the Baluch people have never given up their quest for independence. A recent Baluch grand jirga, or assembly, decided to approach the International Court of Justice at The Hague to force Pakistan to honour its autonomy commitments under the 1948 Instruments of Accession. Their legal case is strong but realpolitik may deny the Baluch the justice they deserve.

The West’s attitude towards Baluchistan’s quest for the resumption of its brief 1947-48 sovereignty has been less than honourable. Because Britain and the United States want Pakistan as an ally in the so-called “war on terror,” they have armed Pakistan and acquiesced with its suppression of the Baluch.

This is short-sighted political manoeuvring. Pakistan’s war against Baluchistan is strengthening the position of the Taliban, who have exploited the unstable, strife-ridden situation to establish bases and influence in the region. From these bases, the Taliban terrorise the more liberal and secular Baluch people and seek to enforce the Talibanisation of Baluchistan. The Pakistani government tolerates the Taliban, on the grounds that its presence acts as a second force to crush the Baluch people and weaken their struggle for independence.

The Taliban bases in Baluchistan are also hide-outs from which they mount military operations to overthrow the imperfect but democratically elected government of Afghanistan. This campaign to usurp power in Kabul and reimpose a fundamentalist regime seems to be taking place with the tacit collusion of key figures in the Pakistani government, military and intelligence services. The Pakistanis are talking no serious action to stop the Taliban using Baluchistan as a base for its war against Afghan democracy and human rights.
You can learn more at Balochvoice and Balochwarna web sites.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Human rights violations in Somalia

All sides in the current war in Somalia are committing war crimes by indiscriminate bombing of densely populated areas and the execution of captured combatants as well as civilians according to Human Rights Watch. According to the report, “Shell Shocked: Civilians Under Siege in Mogadishu,” the fighting in the Somali capital in March and April resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians and the displacement of over 400,000 people. “The warring parties have all shown criminal disregard for the well-being of the civilian population of Mogadishu,” said Ken Roth, executive director for Human Rights Watch. “The UN Security Council’s indifference to this crisis has only added to the tragedy.”

Ethiopia, with the backing of the United States, invaded Somalia late last year. Most Americans were not aware our government was giving full support to Ethiopia until reports came out regarding the involvement of U.S. military personnel in an attack against an Al Qaeda operative that resulted in the deaths of a number of civilians.

This from the BBC:
All sides have committed war crimes in Somalia's conflict this year, according to lobby group Human Rights Watch.

It says the worst abuses have been by Ethiopian soldiers, who are supporting the government against insurgents.

Ethiopians have often indiscriminately attacked civilian areas and looted hospitals, its report says.

While insurgents have fired mortars into residential areas and executed civilians, since Islamists were driven from power in Mogadishu last December.

Both Ethiopia and the Somali government have denied the claims, reports Reuters news agency. More than 1,000 people were killed this year in the heaviest fighting since 1991, as Ethiopian and government troops tried to drive the insurgents out of Mogadishu.

"The insurgency placed civilians at grave risk by deploying among them," said Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth.

"But that is no justification for Ethiopia's calculated shelling and rocketing of whole neighborhoods."

"Commanders who knowingly or recklessly order indiscriminate attacks are responsible for war crimes," the report said.

But these charges were denied by Ethiopia.

"As usual, Human Rights Watch is engaged in its now well-known fabrication, and in misinforming the world in unsubstantiated fairy-tales," Bereket Simon, special adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, told Reuters.

Somali government troops played a "secondary" role, backing up the Ethiopians but failed to help civilians, said the report - Shell-Shocked: Civilians Under Siege in Mogadishu.

Somali government spokesman Abdi Haji Gobdon told Reuters the government's only goal was "to restore sanity" not "massacre its own people".

The UN says some 400,000 people have fled the violence in Mogadishu in the past four months. HRW says the international community has ignored the suffering in Somalia.

"The UN Security council's indifference to this crisis has only added to the tragedy," said Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth.

Mr Roth urged the Security Council to make strong provisions to protect civilians when it discusses proposals to turn the 1,500 strong African Union force into a UN peacekeeping mission.

Since the end of the April offensive, insurgents have continued to stage deadly attacks on an almost daily basis.

Over the weekend, two prominent journalists were killed.

Some 1,600 Ugandan peacekeepers are in Somalia but they have failed to end the violence. A reconciliation conference is under way in Mogadishu but Islamists and the city's clan elders have refused to attend unless the Ethiopians leave the country.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Two women murdered to “honor” family in Turkey

This is another sad example of the barbaric practice of “honor killings.” This report is via MEMRI:
A woman (47) deserted her husband in Kars, in eastern Turkey, and moved in with her divorced daughter (27), mother of three. They were located by the husband/father and his son who came yesterday to the women's home in Kocaeli, where the 19 year old son brutally killed his mother and his sister by beating them on the head with a bat, with his three young nephews watching.

Upon his arrest the 19 year old said that he had killed the women to clean the honor of his family.

Recently, the new women MPs from all political parties in Turkish parliament had announced that they would cooperate in the fight against honor killings and to elevate the status of women in Turkey.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Friday Fun: Forgetfulness by Billy Collins

To my younger readers I regret to inform you this is something you have to look forward to in middle age.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Today is the international day of action in solidarity with Iran's embattled trade union movement

August 9th has been set as the day of international protests to show support for the independent labor movement in Iran and demand freedom for labor leader Mansour Osanloo and other labor leaders.

Osanloo is the leader of the Union of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company in Tehran. He has been arrested three times in the past two years and most recently was abducted by Iranian security in early July. He is being held in Iran’s notorious Evin prison without charge or legal representation. The crime he has committed is to have campaigned for better conditions and wages for bus workers.

Earlier today Iranian security services surrounded Osanloo’s house and detained five members of the bus union who were planning to demonstrate later today.

The show of solidarity today will also support Mahmoud Salehi, co-founder of the Saqez Bakery Workers' Association and the Coordinating Committee to Form Workers' Organisations. He has also been jailed for asserting the right to undertake the legal trade union activities.

Peter Tatchell has this assessment in today’s Guardian:
The Iranian government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a neo-liberal, free market, pro-privatisation, anti-trade union regime. It is the mirror image of George Bush's neo-con USA - only many times worse. Independent unions are banned, workers have few legal rights or protections, and union activists are regularly beaten, arrested, jailed and tortured. Today, Thursday August 9, is the international day of action in solidarity with Iran's embattled trade union movement. Protests will take place in more than 30 countries across the world, including outside the Iranian embassy in London. This day of global action is organised by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), with the backing of many individual unions and of Amnesty International.

President Ahmadinejad won the 2005 election on a promise of defending the poor. He hasn't delivered. Iran's unemployment rate is now 15%, compared to only 11% in 2006. Of young people aged between 15 and 19 years old, a third of those who want a job don't have one, and around 20,000 homeless youths sleep rough on the streets of the major cities. In 2005, lawmaker Mohammad Abbasspour calculated that "90% of the population are living under the poverty line and only 10% of the people have access to social services provided by the government". In the last two years, poverty and deprivation have got worse, despite the country's fabulous oil wealth.

The repression of trade unions is par for the course in Iran. The theocratic dictatorship is proudly pro-business and pro-privatisation. It regards free trade unions as un-Islamic. Under the 1990 labour law, independent trade unions are banned in favour of state-controlled Islamic labour councils - a corporate unionism not dissimilar to the labour laws of Hitler and Mussolini.

… the far-reaching extent of state control over officially-sanctioned worker's organisations and representatives is evident under section 130 of chapter six of the 1990 law. It states that "in order to propagate and disseminate Islamic culture and to defend the achievements of the Islamic Revolution," workers in industrial, agricultural, service and craft establishments may establish Islamic associations whose duties, powers and functions shall be drawn up by the ministry of the interior, the ministry of labour and social affairs and the Islamic propagation organisation, and approved by the council of ministries. In other words, no autonomy and no independence.

As if this was not bad enough, plans have been drafted to amend the 1990 labour law to make it even easier for employers to dismiss workers, including on the grounds that there is a decline in the company's productivity and that the firm needs to restructure or technologically upgrade. This would tip the balance of power in the labour market further in favour of capital; leaving employees weaker and more vulnerable than ever before.

President Ahmadinejad may pose as the great anti-American crusader, but his economic and union policies are not a million miles from the far right of the US Republican Party and the neo-liberal diktats of international financial institutions. Very Islamic, not!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Basra example does not bode well for “surge” in Iraq

The current U.S. surge strategy was based somewhat on what the British had done with Operation Sinbad in southern Iraq. Operation Sinbad was the military campaign led by the British focusing on Basra, the nation’s second largest city. The operation began on September 27, 2006 and concluded February 18, 2007. The goal was to stabilize Basra so local officials could use the time to rebuild. The operation was a success – temporarily. Within months the situation had returned to its previous state according to a report by the International Crisis Group.

According to today’s Washington Post, the situation in Basra is deteriorating even more:
After Saddam Hussein was overthrown in April 2003, British forces took control of the region, and the cosmopolitan port city of Basra thrived with trade, arts and universities. As recently as February, Vice President Cheney hailed Basra as a part of Iraq "where things are going pretty well."

But "it's hard now to paint Basra as a success story," said a senior U.S. official in Baghdad with long experience in the south. Instead, it has become a different model, one that U.S. officials with experience in the region are concerned will be replicated throughout the Iraqi Shiite homeland from Baghdad to the Persian Gulf. A recent series of war games commissioned by the Pentagon also warned of civil war among Shiites after a reduction in U.S. forces.

For the past four years, the administration's narrative of the Iraq war has centered on al-Qaeda, Iran and the sectarian violence they have promoted. But in the homogenous south -- where there are virtually no U.S. troops or al-Qaeda fighters, few Sunnis, and by most accounts limited influence by Iran -- Shiite militias fight one another as well as British troops. A British strategy launched last fall to reclaim Basra neighborhoods from violent actors -- similar to the current U.S. strategy in Baghdad -- brought no lasting success.
As Juan Cole puts it, “What most American observers do not realize is that as Basra goes, so goes Iraq.”

According to Max Weber, “… a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” By that definition, the state of Iraq does not exist. As it stands now ordinary citizens are forced to seek protection from various militias because their government cannot protect them.

The point here is that any military success by outside forces will only be temporary. Whatever resolution there is to the conflict in Iraq is political. The Maliki government is paralyzed as the country sufferes. The leadership of the various factions need to come together in agreement on the distribution of power. If that is not possible then consideration should be given to partition of the country as the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia did during the past two decades. Partition presents very real problems also but right now there are no perfect solutions. The violence can only end with political stability and political stability cannot begin until there is political interaction and agreement between a majority of the leadership of Iraq's various factions.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Iraq: Inside the surge

There frequently is an air of unreality in the rhetoric about the war in Iraq so it is useful from time to time to be reminded of what life can be like for soldiers and civilians in a war zone.

Sean Smith, award winning photographer for the Guardian, spent two months embedded with U.S. troops in Baghdad and Anbar province. He has produced a short documentary of that experience. You can view Part 1 here and Part 2 here. These are worth watching. These two clips are very sobering.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Jena Six update: “White tree” is now firewood

As reported here before, last fall a black student asked Jena High School officials if black students could sit under a tree on the high school grounds where white students traditionally congregated in this small Louisiana town. He was told they could. The next day three nooses were hanging from the tree as a warning. From that point a whole series of racial incidents have spun out of control with the brunt of the conflict falling mostly on the Jena’s black students and their families.

Blogger News Network has this summary of events:

In Jena, Louisiana, a black student challenged the de facto segregation of his high school by asking permission to sit under the “white tree.” School officials told him to sit where he liked. The next day three nooses hung from the tree, which triggered an impromptu protest by the black students of Jena High. LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters, flanked by the police, informed the black students at an assembly later that day that he could end their lives “with the stroke of a pen.” Racial tensions grew, the school’s academic wing was burned, and Robert Bailey, a black student, was attacked by a group of whites at a party. One person was charged with a misdemeanor for that beating. The next day Bailey and two friends were threatened with a shotgun at a convenience store by a white man who had been present at the beating. They wrestled the gun away from him and ran to report the incident to the police, who charged them with robbery of the shotgun. Finally at school two days later, a group of white students, including the noose hangers, taunted Bailey and other students, calling them “niggers.” A white student was beaten by a group of black students, taken to the hospital and released within three hours. He attended a school function that night. Six black students were charged with second degree attempted murder for the fight. The first to be tried was Mychal Bell, whose public defender put on no case, called no witnesses, and permitted a friend of the DA, the mother of a prosecution witness, and a good friend of the victim’s mother, to be empaneled on the six person jury. Bell was quickly found guilty.

(NPR’s All Things Considered has a good story here than ran on Monday.)

Since Bell’s conviction, a new team of lawyers has taken over this case and is seeking an appeal. His sentencing date was changed from July 31 to September 20. This teenager faces up to 22 years in prison. The five remaining members of the Jena Six have bail amounts ranging from $70,000 to $138,000. Thus far, only some of the six have managed to post bail since being arrested this past December.

Hundreds of protesters demonstrated in Jena on Tuesday to protest the conviction and the uneven distribution of justice between blacks and whites in this small southern town and 43,000 signatures, emails and letters calling for equal justice for the group known as the Jena Six were presented to the district attorney in LaSalle Parish, Louisiana.

And recently the shade tree that set off this whole series of events was chopped down. There seems to be no small amount of wishful thinking in Jena that removal of the tree will remove the racial tensions that have plagued the community. According to Shreveport Times:
"A clean slate," LaSalle Parish School Board member Billy Fowler said of why the tree was cut down in the past few weeks. "There's nothing positive about that old tree. It's all negative. And I'm serving on the new School Board, and we're wanting to start fresh on some things."

Schools Superintendent Roy Breithaupt authorized the tree to be cut down, Fowler said. Breithaupt on Monday refused to comment about the tree while discussing plans for rebuilding the school after an arson fire destroyed one the school's buildings.

Fowler said the tree eventually would have been cut down for construction purposes, but that he also is hopeful its removal will help heal old wounds.

"School's about to start," he said. "We don't want the blacks coming back up there looking at the tree knowing what happened, or the whites. We just want to start fresh."

The school's main academic building was destroyed in November in a fire ruled to be arson. No connection has been made between the fire, the nooses or other issues that have plagued Jena High students in the past year. No suspects have been named in connection with the fire.

…the disappearance of the tree — the same tree Caseptla Bailey has said conjures images of the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings of the past — won't change anything, she said. Bailey is the mother of Robert Bailey Jr., one of the six black teens — coined the Jena Six" — who were charged in connection with a December attack on a white student at the school.

"Cutting down that beautiful tree won't solve the problem at hand," she said. "It still happened."