Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Take that mask off!

Depriving Chile of its democracy and the Chileans of their dignity, Pinochet stigmatized Chilean politics and degenerated human rights to the lowest level possible. Detention, torture, disappearances are not attributed to some evil fantastic character; they are all part of his infamous record. Now, 33 years after the 1973 coup Pinohet gets to hear judge Solis verdict: home detention for the "Villa Grimaldi" [detention camp] atrocities. The mask is off.

Short only a few days from his 91st birthday, Pinochet's persona is still haunting the Chileans. But it is also haunting humanity. His presence is here to remind us not only of the Chilean tragedy but also of the long way to go for safeguarding the most basic of human rights.

Democracy has been reintroduced in Chile, the chapter on human rights violations is history - a history for us all to revisit and remember. Forgetting is only catastrophic, and there is too much catastrophy already. Remembering is crucial, confronting the past heals open wounds they say. Yet it is about time to take human rights to another level, and instead of trying to "make up", to run ahead of violations. Preemptiveness in this sense is a good thing.

Sadly, for every two steps forward, there is one backwards. And this is not to surprise us really: behind all the fancy rhetoric of "preponderence of human rights" lies a tragic reality: foreign policy agenda, national sovereignty discourse. Cost. Cost. Cost. Only the value of human life degrades, or so it seems.

When Halloween or Carnival ends, we take off the masks. Why not in politics too? Until when will diplomacy be a mask on our face and politics an eternal bal masqué? It is about time that we spoke simply. Basic words for basic concepts and a basic life. For everyone.


Articles on Pinochet:

in english

en español (desde Chile)

en français

Sunday, October 22, 2006

'Kandahar' forever?

Long time indeed had to pass until I had the opportunity to watch Makhmalbaf's excellent movie 'Kandahar'. A 2001 movie, 'Kandahar' tells the story of an Afghani-born Canada-resident journalist who decides to penetrate Taliban Afghanistan in order to hinder the suicide of her sister, a presumably victimized resident of Afghanistan. This simplified plot, deprived of sensationalism and intrigues, does succeed however at creating a powerful movie; Makhmalbaf choice to structure the movie around the travellings of the journalist allowed him to tie together a set of seemingly irrelevant stories, which nonetheless encapsulate daily life in Afghanistan prior to the US involvement in the region. His excellent choice of a limited cast supplemented with local population and his skillful use of the camera elevate the movie to another level.

Along with the journalist's linear travelling, what unifies the movie is the notion of pain and trauma. Suffering dominates the film, bridging any differences from any dividing lines that cut accross politics and society. Men and women are both victims of landmines; amputation does not look at one's gender or social status. Save the tiny elite, the film depicts a society caught between many plagues: landmines constituting a legacy of the war and widespread poverty signaling a nation in deep need of aid. This is not to say of course that women are not in the bottom of the echelon: the colorful burkas are what give color to anotherwise grey, desert, rough environment, with rare glimpses of the sky constituting the exception.

As the journalist travels, she records her observations and thoughts on a tape recorder, in a long monologue of hope to her sister: "I am glad that you don't know the truth, that in Afghanistan these 20 years one human being has died every five minutes from mines, from war, famine and drought. If you knew that you would have lost hopt every five minutes, you would have wanted to kill yourself." Coming to grips with reality was a challenge for the journalist; yet it is an even greater one for whichever member of the local, ignorant -to the state of the country- population, decides to embark on such a process of discovery.

But I wish to go no further on extolling a movie, for which I wish not to a write a critique. (If this were the purpose, I would have certainly pointed to some 'lesser virtues' of the movie). What is of interest to me is the relevance of the movie in today's world. For our fast-paced world, 5 years is quite some time. Plus, Afghanistan is no longer in the forefront of news; now Iraq dominates.The abundance of movies that have been produced between then and now in conjunction with the dramatic course of world affairs in the region, might have placed 'Kandahar' in an archive. I am hopping not in any 'upper shelf' yet. Because if this case, then we might as well have a 'ladder' aound: 'Kandahar' proves, today more than any time in the 'post-Taliban' era to be useful. Links to the bottom of the post point to the dramatic escalation of the situation in Afghanistan and the resurgence of Taliban, placing simultaneously a big question mark at the end of every essay that advocated the urgency of war or glorified US presence in the country, particulalry given the way affairs were conducted.

Duration, they say, is a testimony to the success of a film. May 'Kandahar' acquire the fame of 'Casablanca' in the annals of world cinema; may this be because of its cinematografic qualities and not as a consequence of continuous relevance to world affairs.



in english:
στα ελληνικά:
en français:

Monday, October 16, 2006

The walls of shame

Benign: this is a word to describe the title of my post when compared to that of the German newspaper Die Zeit, with regard to the measures that rich countries have undertaken to safeguard their borders from clandestine immigration. The original title of Die Zeit is followed by an English translation here: "Die Große Mauer des Kapitals. USA/Mexiko und anderswo: Wie die Armen der Welt brutal von den reichen Ländern ausgegrenzt werden." or "The big wall of Capitalism. USA/Mexico and elsewhere: How the poor of the world are brutally excluded from the rich countries."

But before one gets too hard on the Germans may I note the fact that the author of the article is not a German but the prominent American sociologist Mike Davis who teaches at University of California at Irvine. His thesis here is that Capitalism is the worst kind of frontier that could possibly segregate people, personified widely by such "superpower" actors as the United States, the European Union and Australia.

People have erected walls to separate themselves from dangerous enemies beginning with the Roman Empire Davis tells; the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was hailed as the end of segregation and the beginning of 'movement', of globalization. However, the 1989 prophesy turned to be only in part true: the world, at least its western hemisphere, did embrace globalization, NAFTA, euro but it did not embrace people. For once again, the world's wealthiest fall short of facing the consequences of their acts in the eyes.

Regardless of the moral dimension of not keeping one's promises, the hostility with which immigrants have been repelled has had tangible and quite dramatic consequences with thousands dying in the American and Australian deserts or drowning in the European seas. Extremely needy or brave (depending on your perspective) individuals will not stop against any Patriot Act or Schengen Clause: there is no going-back option in the route they have chosen, in a route that leads directly to Hell with an infinitesimal probability of escape, which would mean crossing successfully km/miles of desert or swimming days and nights and illegally 'making it' in the hostile territory. Luis Alberto Urrea in The Devil's Highway (New York and Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2004) tells the story of a group of men that tried to cross the Arizona desert. Recommended only if you have hard stomachs, I have not been able to finish it myself.

How to respond? How to deal with illegal immigration? A wide array of opinions is to be found here. In the spectrum of suggestions one can find from the most extreme prospositions, such as the ones far-right European and Americans xenophobics propose to liberal all-inclusive leftist visions. Regardless of where one stands ideologically, the solution to the problem must be a sustainable one, one that respects people equally, the inhabitants of a country that claims not to afford additional immigration and the people that seek a better future. Idealistic as it may sound, and I admit it is, this way of thinking can only propel us forward, particularly in the light of the massive failures of the already adopted strategies. Unless of course we do not care about the people that die painful deaths every day, in which case I guess we are fine.

The decision to erect walls, as the United States has been doing over the past years, will only deteriorate the problem of illegal immigration; in adition to the existing threats (barb wires, patrols, shootings etc) that attack the bodies of people, the walls attack the soul of Mexicanos. The huge walls of shame, as I believe they should be called, slap people in the face by stripping them off of their dignity. There is nothing worse than the feeling of inferiority, than the powerlessness that is deliberately being injected into the daring few and their families. Wole Soyinka, the shrewd, widely admired author and advocate of peace writes about the quest of dignity in his book Climate of Fear (New York: Random House, 2005) and notes "wise is indeed the victor who knows that, in order to shield his own rear from the elements, he must not denude his opponents (93). Not for fear of retaliation but to justify the humanity we claim to possess, if I may add.


Full article: http://www.zeit.de/2006/42/Mauern?page=all#

Note: Unfortunately, I have not been able to find the english version.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Follow me down...!

Aesthetically there is nothing much in this photo. With the exception of this 'guitar-type' instrument in the middle of the photo, one can safely say that there is nothing particular or interesting in the picture... or maybe not?

Allow me to take you momentarily on a short trip to the capital of Belgium and the 'heart of Europe', yet away from the clichés, no European Union no Atomium here: welcome to Brussels! It is Sunday morning, roughly 9 AM and we are sometime in early June: don't be surprised, it is central Europe here, coats are useful all year long.

We are walking along the Madeleine/Magdalena street, a few meters/feet past the Church that gives its name to this central, car-free, street of Brussels. Everything in Brussels is written in french and flemish, although much to the dismay of the wealthier and more populous flemish community and despite the independant status of the city, on parle français à Bruxelles. This is the first, perhaps the most fundamental, division or coexistence (depending on your perspective) that you will find in Brussels. But it is far from being the only one.

You may not see them in this picture, but delegates from the European Union member states are indeed a vibrant component of Brussels. And so are the immigrants from Turkey, the Middle East and elsewhere. It so happens that the couple presented in the photo is a Belgian (based on the age). It could have very well been veiled girls or Italian administrators working for the Commission. The two musicians themselves may be Russians for the matter; the traditional balalaika certainly hails from somewhere around or past the Moscow region…

And if you think that just because we are in Brussels that everyone is rich or possesses a summer house in Oostend overlooking the Atlantic, you are, sadly, wrong. Many people barely make the ends in this otherwise rich city, the façade of which may at times conceal reality to the oblivious tourist, who dazzled by the Royal Residence or the beautiful gardens and the lavish haute-couture stores may fail to put things into perspective…

But we are sidetracking here and I apologize. Let us focus back in the photo. For one thing, you can tell this photo is taken in Brussels, or at least safely bet your money, because the store on the far right of the photo bears the inscription ‘Gaufre de Bruxelles’, gaufre being the traditional dessert of Belgium (Waffle in English, βάφλα στα ελληνικά, gofre en español). Still, the Restaurant next door boasts a nice neon-type inscription and a good selection of fine Greek wines; fortunately, 'Domaine Hatzimihali' the wines from Nemea region (‘Vins Nemea’) of the Peloponnese are not exclusively reserved to Greeks of Greece. Alternatively, if you are Greek, you make take pride in the fact that exports are still alive and contributing to the GDP. (Let us not look at the ‘how much’ question though.)

Just so as we do not forget that we live in a globalized world, or in the event that a non-speaker of English or French gets hold of the photo, there is a familiar sign to reassure him and us all, something that makes us realize that the photo in question is from a place that bears a resemblance to our very own hometown: there is ‘KODAK’! Would a modern picture of a modern capital be ‘complete’ without it?

Interestingly so, and because life makes circles, technology and the electronic evolution may dictate the death of ‘KODAK’ and other such stores and in a few years. If ‘KODAK’ is no longer there maybe a ‘Mc Donalds’ will be. Hopefully something that fits Brussels, something that has a touch of culture, something that will not stand out but will make an effort, at least, to blend in well. A task that is not necessarily easy, even in a multicultural place like Brussels.

Our photo-trip has ended. The picture may not appear interesting at first sight, but as Chinese say, it is nonetheless equivalent to a 1,000 words or maybe a handful less.

Thank you for being here. You may unfasten your belts now!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Care about CARE!

The news that a significant percentage of food aid in Africa is wasted every year is very disturbing I believe (see link at the end). Given that aid can help tremendously people and countries -if administered efficiently- makes the above-described situation even more appalling, for it is not only food that is wasted, but human lives as well. And we do not seem to care about neither enough.

According to CARE International UK three are the factors for the food waste:
a) money is given late;
b) money is given for short period;
c) money is spent on wrong things.

Clearly, there is something wrong in the coordination efforts and whatever this is, it must be tackled in order to smoothen the relief process and assist effectively the communities in Africa and elsewhere in the world. While it is easy for all of us not directly involved in the relief process to point our finger to the mistakes, we cannot remain oblivious to the hearing of such news.

We cannot remain ignorant of the fact that 840 million people are malnourished (source: CARE) or of the fact that 44% of people in Sub-saharan Africa live with under $1 per day at least until 2002 (source: UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2006). And still, such percentages rarely make the news. While the contain the necessary dose of drama, they are neither fresh nor original nor vibrant for the media.

Do we see a metastasis of such 'attitude of indifference' among every day people too? This is too dangerous a question to answer on the spot. Can the UN and NGO efforts along with the perceptions statistics make a compelling case against the thesis of indifference? Or are we to fear that an amalgam of powerlessness and disinterest has already permeated our societies, making us all aloof observers at best, if not cynic arrogants?



"Report: Africans starve because billions in aid is wasted": http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/africa/10/03/africa.aid.ap/index.html#

CARE International: http://www.care.org/campaigns/world-hunger/facts.asp

UN Millennium Development Goals 2006 Report: http://unstats.un.org/unsd/mdg/Resources/Static/Products/Progress2006/

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Our "Security" Council

In what is commonly referred to as the "Bible" of Human Rights Law "International Human Rights Law" by H. Steiner and P. Alston, I found the following evaluation of the Security Council that comes from the Human Rights Watch 2000 annual report:

"[As the Council] functions today, with the five permanent members free to exercise their vetoes for the most parochial reasons, [it] cannot be counted on to authorize intervention even in dire circumstances. China and Russia seem preoccupied by perceived analogies to Tibet and Chechnya. The United States is sometimes paralyzed by an isolationist Congress and a risk-averse Pentagon. Britain and France have let commercial or cultural ties stand in the way."

And this refers not to just any institution but to the Security Council instead, the most potent of all, the institution that is all about "security" as it's name denotes.. or maybe not? The Security Council is the international body that can make a difference, that should/would impose sanctions, that should/would safeguard (human) rights, that should/would render justice... Given that we have collectively and deliberately entrusted our fate with this Council, we might as well reserve the right to describe it as we wish: Go ahead and choose the grammatical tense/mode that you prefer, "should" or "would". What is the verdict?

Reference: The Human Rights Watch World Report 2000 quoted in Steiner H. and Alston P. International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals. 2nd edition. Oxford: OUP p.652

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