Thursday, June 26, 2008

Pax et Lux

Thank you.
Thank you.

Picture credit: my dear friend Ms. Norah Ibrahim.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

In relation to the Relay

At the writing of this piece discussions regarding the fate of the olympic torch relay are in full swing one question seems to dominate: given the recent demonstrations in several cities, notably in Paris and London, will the international relay (that envisages "to unite humanity" in preparation for the Summer Olympic Games) be suspended or not? Moreover, will such relays be held in the future?

Regardless of one's position vis-à-vis the Games and their relevance for our contemporary societies, it goes without a say that such a decision ought not to go unnoticed - what we see here is a series of "clashes" that entangle the politics and policy-making of wide range of stakeholders spanning as they do over politics, society and even sports! Tibet is, of course, central here, as is, the question of China's politics which in turn spills over to the politics of other countries towards China via (or not) the Games! One other conflict that emerges is precisely "how we are doing politics today": we have the "summits" and we have the streets. We have Monsieur Sarkozy demanding that certain "conditions" be met in order for him to attend the Opening Ceremony of the Games, we have major European countries pursuing "round-table diplomacy", we have the Tibetan diaspora communities mobilizing all over the world, we have citizens of different countries calling, amongst others, for pluralism and tolerance. And of course we have the torch which carries the Olympic flame, and not surprisingly, sets many things on fire along the way...

It matters therefore to monitor the events. Not so much for the torch- although many might find canceling the relay hard to swallow- but for the implications and actions that come along, that is, the bigger picture "behind" the torch. Whatever the outcome, whether it involves action or inaction it will be of relevance, for, the mere recognition and the pondering over the torch issue at the level of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) inevitably draws attention to questions that have long been lingering and perhaps occasionally brought to the surface but never really tackled in depth. And the latter is the responsibly of the international community.

In my view, and regardless of what the IOC will decide, there are many ways that the international community could "go about" [in dealing with the important issues] but also a danger of "not doing anything about" the issues that are at stake here by, say, opting out, covering up or perhaps by resorting to some flowery speeches or promises for "the years to come". And that would be an opportunity missed and a grave mistake at the same time. For, ultimately, what lies behind the torch, behind Tibet, behind "street and office" politics are profound questions about democracy and the meaning of this thousand-year-old term in the context of our contemporary societies. And such questions do require answers.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Confronting the past, shaping the future

This past week violence has considerably escalated in two African states - both Kenya and Chad are immersed in hostilities that have massive consequences for the populations, as thousands are reduced to nothing short of a state of hopelessness and despair. Well over a month after the contestable results of the December 27th election and with several hundred Kenyans dead and thousands more displaced, Kenya is still a torn state; the Kikuyo faction of President Mwai Kibaki and the Luo - to which opposition leader Raila Odinga belongs - are both vying for power. At the same time, it is a sad development that Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, an expert mediator, will not participate in negotiation talks; the decision of the Kenyan government to exclude Ms. Ramaphosa is indeed a blow to the peace efforts of former Secretary General, Kofi Annan, whose recommendation of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee might relieve people of much anguish and suffering.

The situation in Chad is quite worrisome as groups of rebels wage a fierce war against President Idriss Déby - a member of the Zaghawa group, which is a minority in the country; Déby's 18-year rule has been particularly problematic after allegations of electoral fraud (on more than one occasions) and particularly after the Constitutional reforms that augmented the President's powers. As French and Westerns evacuate the country, rebels have managed to enter N'Djamena, the capital city of Chad, on February 2nd. With a quarter of a million refugees from Sudan occupying the southeast parts of the country and a native population gravely affected by the battles, the peace-enforcement troops that France and several other European states are expediting in the region will certainly prove crucial.

Conflicts in Kenya, Chad and elsewhere in Africa are distressing for the suffering they inflict on people, the destruction they cause on the infrastructure of rural and urban spaces and the nature as well as the state of instability they impose, with order and peace returning on average months if not years after ceasefire. At the same time they awaken us all to two sad realities, of the sort that tend to be neglected:

- Just because states in Africa are sovereign, and no longer under colonial rule, this should not mean that they have done away with colonialism altogether; colonialism is present through the legacy it has bequeathed to the countries and the people. A mere look at the map of Africa betrays the sad reality of artificially created countries and explains why ethnic tensions are frequent and so difficult to manage.

- Just because democracy is a desired form of government for many people, this means not that democracy is also preferred by all and much less that it is easy to implement. With volumes of political science dedicated to democratic transition and the difficulties that come along, it is not a surprise that many states fail and as a result swing between authoritarianism and democracy, or, alternatively maintain "pseudo"democracies or, on some occasions, electoral democracies.

This past week severe human rights violations have also occurred in Sri Lanka. Civilians have died as a result of attacks by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on the occasion of the 60th year anniversary of the independence of the country from the British. The Tamil Tigers, it must be noted, question the legitimacy of the Sri Lankan government and have been waging a secessionist war for the past 30 years. Another Asian country, Indonesia, has come to the fore this week as former dictator Suharto passed away on January 28th. Responsible for much of the progress of the Indonesian economy during his 31-year rule, Suharto had a notorious human rights record, with blatant suppression of political dissent and media censorship. Suharto was never brought to a court of law, and this should not go unnoticed.

Yet this past week has brought also some positive developments in the field of human rights. Two important instruments of regional law came a step closer to becoming a reality: the Council of Europe Convention on Action against the Trafficking of Human Beings entered into force on February 1st, following the ratification of the Convention by four more countries (France, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Norway and Malta) this past January. The second instrument, the Arab Charter on Human Rights entered into force on January 24th, following the ratification of the seventh Arab state. Despite some controversial provisions regarding Zionism, the rights of children and non-citizens, the Charter provides a basis upon which human rights can be negotiated and further developed in the years to come.

Regional instruments are valuable as complements to existing law, often times acting as an "in-between" layer with international and domestic law on the two sides. In our contemporary times where conflicts and human rights violations span the entire globe, the international community has yet to guarantee a universal respect of human rights. In light of this deficiency, the regional instruments may in fact present us with a valuable tool to safeguard human rights in the various parts of world and with an opportunity to strengthen the legitimacy of human rights broadly speaking.



on Kenya: Call for Kenyan Truth Commission
on Chad: Journal TV5 MONDE (in French; yet, worth watching for the images of N'Djamena)
on Indonesia and Human Rights in Asia: Asia's Need for Justice, Truth and Reconciliation

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Somalia, today -

The scourge of war has been ravaging the population of Somalia for more than a year now causing a major humanitarian crisis that words alone cannot describe. Some 600,000 people, or, half the population of Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia, have opted to flee Inferno for the rural regions, in search of food or hope. Not that there is much of either food or hope in the impoverished villages, but anyway - let's assume there is.

Failed negotiations in late 2006 between the Transitional Government and the Islamist Movement led to a large-scale warfare when neighboring Ethiopia and the USA intervened on behalf of the Transitional Government, that is, against the combined forces of the Islamists and the Eritreans. Today, the Transitional Government is back in the capital but retaliation acts from the Islamists turn Mogadishu into a battlefield almost daily.

Famine is, for a second time in less than 20 years, a gloomy prospect for Somalia as political precariousness, lack of security and hostile checkpoints around the capital make the distribution of whatever UN and other food reaches the country disturbingly uncertain. Gross suffering and excessive deaths appear to be occurring as wounded women and children are frequently prevented from accessing UNICEF medical stations. If confirmed, the soon-to-happen expulsion of journalists from the area of Somaliland will seal the "death decree" for Somalia as it will sever the region from the world for good.

Reporting from the Shabelle River region for the Washington Post, Stephanie McCrummen is a voice in the field - and she communicates not only the plight of Somalis but also the quintessence of virtue in her article "A wealth of kindness among Somalia's poorest": entitled to only a loaf of bread and a few tomatoes per family, locals welcome their displaced compatriots knowing very well so that this means putting their very own survival at risk. Amidst so much misery, Somalis teach lessons for life - they truly do.



For updates: UN News on Somalia

Stephanie McCrummen's article: "A wealth of kindness among Somalia's poorest: Clan Ties Open Doors for Refugees From Capital"

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

America on the edge, Part C: Spelling it [out]!

When I started writing "America on the edge" my focus was gun violence in the United States; nonetheless, profound social questions can seldom be confined, spanning as they do across different sectors of society. Today's post -the third and final one in the series- deals with failing schools in America: a reality that is diametrically opposed to the picture of schools painted in the previous post and arguably a source of concern for Americans, even when it comes to gun violence.

With the same ease one can find in the United States model public schools boasting exemplary facilities -absent from many private schools- and innovative curricula, one can also find failing schools with students unable to read or do basic math despite years of schooling. And such schools are not difficult to spot, located as they are in major metropolitan cities like New York and Los Angeles. The controversial "No Child Left Behind Act" is in many ways problematic [despite some good intentions] and more importantly inefficient according to a recent article published in the New York Times; Diana Schemo argues that shutting down schools -a requirement for those schools judged as failing- presents educators with few solutions as on how to deal with the major of problem of generations of children growing without receiving basic literacy skills.

Overly packed schools with failing students present America with a formidable challenge that spans well beyond the inability of students to perform on the infamous standardized tests; such schools are taking the cohesion of the social fabric to the limits. Social ills are often recruited by proponents of gun ownership as evidence to justify increasing gun violence in what is admittedly an attempt to deflect attention from the abundance of guns that circulate almost freely in society. And while it is true that poverty in conjunction with dysfunctional schools account for much of social instability it would be an unfair stretch to argue that social conditions account for the exacerbation of the gun violence we see all over; in fact, let us be reminded of the fact that many of the deadly incidents occurred in socially stable settings.

Rather than trying to draw the line between the two camps, what is a more enlightening path for the understanding of this major issue is to underline the salient feature of American society to host extreme manifestations of any given behavior. Hence for example the best of best schools and the failing schools coexisting within miles. Or, conversely, fierce proponents in either side of the gun ownership question at times refusing to sit on the same round table, let alone to engage in a meaningful discussion.

A trait of American democracy and a product of the convoluted formation of the nation, tolerance is surely a source of strength in America; yet on occasion it may also be nothing short of a colossal vulnerability.

if registered with the New York Times:
Failing Schools Strain to meet U.S. Standard

Sunday, October 28, 2007

America on the edge, Part B: Voices. Echoes?

(continued from previous post) ... like the fact that 8 year-olds openly talk about shooting.

If this statement is shocking to you (as it was to me), I am sorry to report that it actually gets worse. "Shooting" was not a random thing a young boy brought up and I happened to hear. Nor it was, of course, the subject matter of a discussion in which the little one happened to be present. It was not even a discussion about the "evils" of society. The young boy provided this response when he was asked to name a negative quality that he did not want his best friend to possess.

And now picture this: the incident happened in the local elementary school where the little one is a student. His friends and classmates were naturally present - in fact many of them were sitting just next to him as they were all participating in an activity, which was asking them to name, precisely, "the good qualities they wanted their best friends to possess" and "the bad qualities they did not wish their friends to possess".

Along with such common and anticipated answers like "I want my friend to be kind", "I want my friend to be polite", "I don't want my friend to be jealous of me" - I hear this young boy talking about shooting. And naturally I lose my voice...

I have no knowledge of or training in psychology and yet it seems bewilderingly scary to me that a young boy gave such an answer, to such a question, in a school and in the aftermath of the deadly shooting incidents that have claimed the lives of so many students and others in the United States. Again, I will refrain from taking this point further; but I must admit that I take nothing to be a more serious warning of the urgent need to delve into the issue of "shooting" as well as to dig the ground around it than the response of that 8 year old. Not next month, not next week. Today.

On a more positive now, I must mention that the children were participating in an after-school program the purpose of which is to foster peace in schools. By playing games young children learn peaceful ways to manage their anger and to resolve conflict. This excellent initiative is is the fruit of a non-governmental organization based in Boston, MA called "Peace Games".

The website of "Peace Games"

Sunday, October 21, 2007

America on the edge, Part A: Facing a dead-end?

An open wound that has proved difficult to heal in America is the plight of widespread private weapon ownership - specifically high crime rates resulting from guns put into use against targeted individuals or the wide public. In fact it appears that the wound has become gravely affected; two of the most deathly incidents involving indiscriminate public shootings have occurred within the past twelve months, the first in Pennsylvania, the second in Virginia. And while the Amish killings and the Virginia Tech massacre respectively haunt our individual and collective memories, a Cleveland teenager came very close to lengthening the list of gruesome incidents: on Wednesday, October 10, he opened fire at his former high school wounding four before killling himself.

That no band-aid exists to stop the excessive bleeding and that no pill can cure the wound from inside-out is of course alarming; it is also a testimony to the fact that the ill is much more serious and complex than it is often made appear. Last week's edition of the British "Observer" features staggering statistics about deaths from shootings as well as a comprehensive analysis of the root causes of gun violence in the United States -including political, sociological, historic, legal arguments- only to conclude that weapons are intertwined with American culture and hence almost impossible to combat.

The political response to the shootings of last year centers around a Bill passed by the US House of Representatives which stipulated among others that there must be rigorous background check of prospective gun holders to reduce the probability of weapons reaching people not fit to use them. Still, the Bill is at an early stage and must go through the Senate before it reaches the President.

Of course I do not claim to have the solution to this complex problem. On the other hand, I feel extremely uncomfortable with the "hands-off" approach or the quiescence of many who refuse to even bring up the question. I am also very skeptical of the thesis that gun possession serves their owners as a means of self-defense. Is this the way to go about solving violence? Is arming people making America more safe? I highly doubt it. Not only that, but I believe that the argument is in its core flawed: suppose momentarily the proposition was correct - what about all the people that cannot afford a weapon? Would they not have the right to feel safe in their country?

It is true that weapons alone cannot be held responsible for the form of urban violence one sees today. But they do trigger some very nasty situations - and this should concern people. It should not take another tragedy in some other state to take serious action. When we speak of safety in America, it should not involve terrorism discourse only. Threats need not result from the outside, they can very much originate inside America.

Sadly, the answers seem no longer/not anymore [pending your perspective] satisfactory. Worse still, there are a number of other things that should concern like... (to be continued...)


Guns take pride of place in US family values

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Back to basics

Water, water, everywhere
nor any drop to drink.

S.T. Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

In S.T. Coleridge's famous poem a Mariner and his crew undergo a series of hardships, the most important being that they have no access to drinking water; this is no doubt a great irony considering that they are surrounded by water as they are cruising the ocean. In modern Bangladesh today, at least 20% of the population is in the very same position, lacking access to safe water. Equally ironically, if not more, Bangladesh suffers from deluges which claim the lives of hundreds every year and indirectly affect tens of thousands.

Vivid as the imagery may be in Coleridge's masterpiece, one will ultimately be reminded of the fact that the poem is a work of literature, not an account of real life. Sadly, this does not apply to the Bangladeshi who die in scores because there is "no drop to drink".

Tragedy in real life, it seems, strikes so hard that transcends human imagination. For, it is not the lack of access to our mundane "tap water" -which is so often mismanaged and wasted in our western countries- or to any decent-quality water the only calamity that plagues the Bangladeshi; it is the fact that many are exposed to water that is contaminated; water polluted with arsenic, a lethal chemical element that is perilous for humans.

And, there is more. Arsenic pollution is not a phenomenon of few weeks or months. This "drama" is on stage for the past 25 years.

"Mégacontamination", which roughly translates into "super contamination", is the word that Quebec daily "La Presse" uses in its first page this past Sunday, October 7th, to launch a survey of the catastrophe that plagues Bangladesh and the neighboring Indian province of Bengal. Without resorting to embellishments of any sort, the paper's correspondent in Rajarampur, Emilie Côté reports the facts: 35 million people are directly affected; 40,000 thousand cases of arsenic contamination have been reported to date. The journalist also states that the government knew for four years (1993-1997) about the presence of arsenic, but would not disclose it to the people. As information became available, she notes, uncertainty and insecurity prevailed: how were people supposed to know which source of water was contaminated and which not?

And this is just one way of looking into the problem. The repercussions here are multifold: environmental; economic, as the Bangladeshi rely heavily on agriculture; social, for the social stigma, the disruption of family patterns...

For what constitutes a major disaster in our modern times, the World Health Organization has published extensively on the matter, releasing numerous studies on the detrimental effects of arsenic. Promisingly, water testing spreads, and presumably the contamination rate decreases. Yet, the problem persists, and shall continue to ravage the Bangladeshis since it is known that arsenic kills "slowly"...

In "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" the calamity inflicted upon the sailors is a punishment for their hubris; rather than condemning the Mariner who killed the Albatross (the good omen/shield) for no reason, the sailors render his act righteous. What is the share of responsibility for the Bangladeshi? What could possibly justify the magnitude of such an (ongoing) tragedy? Given that arsenic pollution seems to result naturally, one could point to fate as being responsible. Such an answer however is simplistic and fails to convince. While it is true that the process of pollution could not have been fully thwarted, it is certain that its consequences would have been mitigated - had there been not for the four year "silence" period of the government or the low levels of public awareness or the lack of vital equipment for arsenic detection that were long absent or...



The article in "La Presse": Mégacontamination à l'arsenic au Bangladesh

World Health Organization reports Arsenic in drinking water

Thursday, October 04, 2007

African tales

Despite the light that postcolonial writings have been shedding on Africa in the past few decades, the truth remains that by and large the continent lives, still, in shadow; Africa makes only "rare appearances" in the public scene since the latter continues to be dominated by Western, and to a lesser extent Asian and other, "actors". Hence our entrenched ignorance about the lands, the people, the culture; suffice here to point to the international media for instance - Africa appears almost like a tautology for disaster and grief: Darfur - Rwanda - Apartheid.

This is both wrong and unjust for a continent that is home to over a quarter of the world's countries. But it is also highly misleading, since Africa is far from being drained - that is, despite our consistent efforts to deprive it of all its resources, whether human, animal or natural.

But I wish to go no further with general comments; instead it is a personal experience I wish to share - the feelings of guilt and frustration I experienced earlier this evening in the well-stocked neighboring bookstore. Scrutinizing what was a temporary display of African literature, I was chagrined as I realized that I possess only a handful of books and I have read just a few more; I felt deeply ashamed as I was reading the synopses of all the great books that were lying in front of my eyes and some I had not heard of.

A big splash of extra cold ocean water woke me up to a reality that extends beyond Soyinka's literary and non-fiction writings, Achebe's poetry and Appiah's lucid descriptions of Asante life in Ghana. There I had it all; in front of my eyes there was such a wonderful display of books that spanned from Algeria and Djebar's "Children of the New World" to Kenya and Thiongo's 1964 account of Mau Mau atrocities ("Weep not Child") to Zimbabwe and Dangarembga's "Nervous Conditions". South African accounts of Apartheid and "Truth and Reconciliation" proceedings were not absent either; nor were, of course, horrific accounts of atrocities in Darfur, enough to fill quite a few books and volumes - and, note, the real-life drama of the people has yet to end...

I did not want to leave; at least not until I had sucked in summaries, pages and characters, not until I had jotted down titles and authors. Was I less frustrated? Yes - I must admit. Was I more optimistic? No - much as I did appreciate the book display it did not take me much to realize that beautifully stacked albeit lonely books cannot do much. Plus, most of them have no flashy or glossy clovers... To believe otherwise, seems to me quixotic at best, foolish at worst.. I claim to be neither. But I would love to be proven wrong. I seriously do.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Perusing the Greek press, I hit upon some really disturbing news: Dozens of birds (mainly flamingos and avocets) were discovered dead on and around the shores of lake Koroneia in northern Greece.

There are hardly any words to describe my frustration; I become angry as I read that this is not the first time that birds actually "die" (or, shall I say "were left to die"?) in the region - only three years ago, in 2004, another group of birds "disappeared". I become appalled as I realize that much of the responsibility lies with people, authorities and the such who appear to have neglected the much needed infrastructure development in the region; said infrastructure would contribute to the preservation of the lake ecosystem which appears to be heavily polluted. Not only that, but regular water-testing for the purposes of controlling the quality of waters has yet to take effect making early detection of bacteria virtually impossible. Still, scientists had been warning of such a disaster since February 2007 when they discovered a deadly bacterium in the waters of the lake, but to no avail.

And, there is more to go. The population of said bacterium increased exponentially, I read, in part because the water levels have been steadily dropping. Why would that be, I wonder. Well, this is because temperature in the area has been increasing over the last years and rainfall has become a rare commodity. Not surprisingly, the concentration of bacteria in water has also increased. And here comes some unanticipated news: the fish that swim in the water become infected by the bacteria...

Stupid, stupid flamingos and avocets then eat the fish that swim in the lake and because of that, they die.

Surely the birds are to be blamed for since people "tried, but could not prevent the crisis" to quote a Greek official, in what was an "anticipated disaster" according to scientists.

I do not know if there is any need for me to go further but I shall stop only because what I read really transcends reason and reasoning and borders schizophrenia: I read that part of the infrastructure work has been completed but not put into use... yet. I read the warnings of scientists that hunting must stop to prevent the spreading of the bacterium of further in the food chain. Is there an official issuing? Yes? No? Maybe? Certainly nowhere near I could see...

I wholeheartedly hope that I am at least partly wrong and things are far better in real life. Yet I have no good reason to believe that my hopes are anything but wishful thinking - the environment has been severely and systematically abused and destruction continues unabated it seems. Still no government has cared enough to make environment a priority; that Greece has no ministry to deal exclusively with issues of the Environment, but instead the bogus "Ministry for the Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works" is nauseating, no doubt about that.

Worse still it is horrifying - if incidents such as this in the Koroneia lake or the disastrous wildfires that ravaged Greek forests and killed dozens of people this summer do not constitute sufficient grounds for the creation of a Ministry of Environment, then what does? What catastrophe should we pray for [sic] for people's minds to change? How heavy of a toll must we pay for what arguably falls under common sense?


Τοξικός θάνατος στη λίμνη των βακτηρίων
Μαζικός θάνατος πουλιών στη Λίμνη Κορώνεια

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