Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Aleppo, Syria: A Complete Meltdown of Humanity

War is hell; everybody knows that. A ruling power of a government intent on depriving civilians of life during a civil-war battle in a major city can go beyond the typical battle casualties to cause what the U.N. has called a “complete meltdown of humanity.”[1] One question on the minds of civilians in rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo in Syria in December, 2016 was whether even eventual charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity were enough. From this standpoint, the world was shirking a basic human responsibility in not intervening to stop the intentional killing of civilians. Had the facts on the ground made going after war criminals after the fact a meager excuse for not having acted in real time? Does the world, in other words, have a duty to step in when a government has turned on its own people—not counting soldiers and their suppliers, or does internal affairs encompass even such governmental conduct?

“The crushing of Aleppo, the immeasurably terrifying toll on its people, the bloodshed, the wanton slaughter of men, women and children, the destruction—and we are nowhere near the end of this cruel conflict,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said as the rebels agreed to withdraw from the city on December 13, 2016.[2] Civilians, having been trapped in the rebel-held areas of the city, faced summary-execution; at least 82 had recently been intentionally killed simply for having lived in an area controlled by the rebels. “The reports we had are of people being shot in the street trying to flee and shot in their homes,” U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville said at the time.[3] Additionally, precision-bombing targeted hospitals in the rebel-held areas—leaving no doubt, according to U.S. Senator John McCain, of Assad’s intent.[4]

Meanwhile, at the U.N., the focus of a Security Council meeting was on possible war crimes and crimes against humanity to be levied against the Syrian government. Hamstrung by a well-anticipated veto from Russia, an ally of Assad’s Syrian government, the U.N. was impotent to act on the duty of the international community to act. According to the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, the “duty to prevent and halt genocide and mass atrocities lies first and foremost with the State, but the international community has a rule that cannot be blocked by the invocation of sovereignty. Sovereignty no longer exclusively protects States from foreign interference; [sovereignty] is a charge of responsibility where States are accountable for the welfare of their people.”[5] National sovereignty is not absolute, and the international community, institutionalized as the United Nations, has a responsibility to intervene not merely to see that war criminals are prosecuted, but also and more importantly to stop the atrocities in real time. Just as national sovereignty cannot protect the offending State, so too should sovereignty in a country’s veto in the U.N. be valid in obstructing this duty. The U.N.’s own procedure was thus out of step with the responsibility. Hence, the duty fell to the countries of the world not allied with Syria, yet political considerations of self-interest, and perhaps even the faulty assumption that any international action must or should be under U.N. auspices were formidable obstacles. The promotion of the duty falling on mankind to protect its most vulnerable from their own government was left to Syrian civilians in Aleppo using cell-phone videos to chastise the governments of the world for standing by.

It was within the competence of an international “coalition of the willing”—one not subject to a veto at the U.N.—to go in and target the protection of civilians, leaving the rebel and government troops to fight. Obviously, such a clear demarcation is impractical during a major battle, but the force exerted on the ground and air by an overwhelming coalition could have been enough to group and protect the remaining civilians in demarcated areas. No help would be given to the rebel fighters; the mission would have been carefully targeted to meet the call of responsibility by those in need who were not party to the conflict. Relative to such a response, calls for eventual war crimes and even crimes against humanity to be prosecuted—assuming the culprits could be removed from Syria and tried—could seem like a lame rationale for inaction in real time.

Such a change in perspective, such that human-rights jurisprudence is ironically viewed as weakness, would represent an advance for the species. We have demonstrated a capability for such amazing technological development since the late nineteenth century that the lack of progress in the domain of international relations, even only in protecting people from their own government, is perplexing. Put another way, the innocent Syrians in Aleppo sorely needed a revised answer, practically speaking, to absolute national-sovereignty, whose default-status has strangely been allowed to go unchallenged as if it were a natural law. The right to the unqualified version of the doctrine by governments can be challenged, if done prudently with regard to intent and ensuing action.
Lest it be feared that arriving at a newly revised answer in a practical manner could unleash a torrent of war, the modifications could be modest. In other words, governments such as that of Syria could get the message on the ground that limits do exist in terms of what a government can legitimately do to its own people. The key, I submit, is to limit the intervention to this point. Hence, the military strategy of the international protectors—humanity coming in to protect vestiges of humanity—would rightly and prudently have been limited to protecting civilians rather than taking sides in the conflict. Any contact with the military of either side would be limited to the protection of civilians, as if drumming home the point that the very legitimacy of the intervention is limited, just as is the legitimacy of any government. Contrarywise, taking on a “bad” government would turn the intervention itself into a partisan in the conflict; more retaliation could be expected than were a coalition limited in its coverage to protecting civilians—even if just providing safe passage. Whereas such a response is a step in the direction of changing a seemingly intractable default in international relations, going after war-criminals years after a war takes absolute sovereignty as a given and punishes people for having acted badly in it.  

[1] Reuters, “Battle For Aleppo Ends as Rebels Agree to Ceasefire,” The World Post, December 13, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] “Morning Edition,” NPR, December 13, 2016.
[5] U.N. Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (accessed December 14, 2016) http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/responsibility.shtml

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Wallonia Threatens to Veto the E.U.-Canada Trade Treaty: Complicating State Sovereignty in the E.U.

"The European Union and Canada signed a far-reaching trade agreement on [October 30, 2016] that commits them to opening their markets to greater competition, after overcoming a last-minute political obstacle that reflected the growing skepticism toward globalization in much of the developed world."[1] The obstacle may indeed have reflected increasing resistance at the time to globalization, but this veil can be pulled back to reveal the underlying political obstacle--that of states' rights in the E.U., taken to a crippling extreme.

1. James Kanter, "Canada and E.U. Sign Trade Deal, Bucking Resistance to Globalization," The New York Times, October 30, 2016.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

CO2 Record-Level in Atmosphere: Implications for Human Population

In 2015, average global CO2 levels for the year surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time, the WMO revealed in its 2016 annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin. At the time, any scientists regarded that ratio of carbon dioxide to other gases in the atmosphere as a “climate change touchstone.”[1] Curiously, however, 400 ppm was not considered a tipping point. It was still possible to reverse the progression of the ratio—yet no one seems to ask how long that would take. In this regard, the ratio’s accelerating rate is particularly telling. Practically speaking, 400 ppm may in fact be a tipping point.

CO2 concentrations in 2015 “were about 144 percent higher than pre-industrial levels. Other emissions measured in the report, methane and nitrous oxide, were up 256 percent and 121 percent from pre-industrial levels, respectively. Among those, however, CO2 contributes the most to warming and [was] responsible for about 81 percent of the increase in radiative forcing from 2005 to 2015.”[2] Ralph Keeling, who runs the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s carbon dioxide monitoring program, pointed to the irreversibility of the ratio of CO2 in the atmosphere. “[I]t already seems safe to conclude that we won’t be seeing a monthly value below 400 ppm this year ― or ever again for the indefinite future.”[3] Practically speaking, 400 ppm may be a tipping point in that the likelihood of getting below it again in the foreseeable future is nil.
Lest it be thought that the Paris treaty could turn things around, that the vows are voluntary and without repercussions for failing to adhere to the promised cuts. Moreover, “even if all Paris pledges are fully implemented, predicted emissions in 2030 will still place the world on track for a temperature rise of 2.9 to 3.4 degrees this century,” according to UNEP in 2016.[4] CO2 emissions would have to be cut an additional 25 percent by 2030 to avoid the worst effects of climate change.[5] I assume even that would not be enough to get CO2 levels down below 400.

Sadly, we weren’t even going in the right direction at the time of the U.N. Environment Program’s report. In other words, the CO2 ratio’s rate was accelerating. “The increase of CO2 from 2014 to 2015 was larger than that observed from 2013 to 2014 and that averaged over the past 10 years,” the report noted.[6] Predictably—though not in terms of the acceleration—studies at NASA and the University of California at Irvine showed in 2016 that Smith and Pope Glaciers in Antarctica were “growing thinner” and “retreating at the fastest rate ever observed.”[7] Since 1996, “Smith Glacier’s grounding line retreated at an annual rate of 1.24 miles per year and Pope’s at an annual rate of 0.31 mile per year,” according to NASA.[8] Smith Glacier “lost between 984 and 1,607 feet of ice thickness between 2002 and 2009.”[9] That this pace “is nearly six times faster than a previous estimate” is in line with the accelerating ratio of Carbon parts per million in the atmosphere. I contend that the estimates of the impact of the ratio were low because the ratio’s accelerating rate of increase had not been detected. By implication, estimates of how much carbon-emissions should be reduced by have also been too low.
In fact, even the focus on reducing carbon-emissions may be insufficient. The accelerating rate of the ratio as well as the likelihood that we won’t see anything less than 400 ppm may indicate that we have not yet gotten to the underlying causes. According to the WMO’s report, the bulk of the increase in the ratio was due to unbridled human activities ranging from “growing population, intensified agricultural practices, increase in land use and deforestation, industrialization and associated energy use from fossil sources.”[10] Even among these causes, that of growing population is most fundamental. The human being necessarily takes energy from the environment and expends waste, including pollution. Simply put, our species has been too successful genetically; we have multiplied. Yet the climatic data suggests that we have over-multiplied.

Crucially, the rate of increase in the global population has been increasing. It took 123 years for the total to go from 1 to 2 billion, then only 33 years to reach 3 billion in 1960.[11] The population reached 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1999, and 7 billion in 2011.[12] How could there not be an astounding impact on the planet’s climate? As a maximizing variable, human population may be out of control, with the ecosystems bearing the brunt. An analysis in 2014 claims there is a 70% chance that the human population “will rise continuously” from 7 billion in 2014 to 11 billion in 2011.[13] This poses “grave challenges for food supplies, healthcare and social cohesion”—not to mention climate change.[14] The head of the research team stressed that population should return to the top of the international agenda.
Unfortunately, population decrease is typically viewed as a problem in many countries, while those with the largest populations—China and India—have not set population decline as a policy goal. To be sure, decreasing population too fast presents social problems, such as not having enough wage-earners to support retired people. Even so, the accelerating feature of the CO2 ratio and its effects on the climate—most notably, on glaciers and oceans more generally—suggests that serious attempts to reduce reproduction-rates globally—and especially where the rates are highest—are warranted. In addition to international agreements to decrease CO2 emissions, declining population targets should also be negotiated. Both individually and as a group, governments can no longer afford to skirt the underlying cause of the problem, which looks increasingly likely to result in the extinction of our species.

Genetically speaking, our species has been very successful in terms of multiplying our DNA in many, many individual members, yet this very success may be short-lived; it may be breeding extinction, which is failure in genetic terms. Put another way, our short-term thinking that reigns on Wall Street may apply even genetically. It may be up to the people serving in governments around the world to make hard choices in order to extend our species’ perspective enough that we can self-regulate our species back to a reasonable number rather than continue to spiral out of control and be at the mercy of nature’s constraints rather than those of our own choosing. Considering the population growth during the twentieth century alone, we can no longer afford as a species to skip over the underlying cause of climate change, for the acceleration is not limited to the ratio of CO2 and glacier-melt. Add in the lifespan-extending advances in medical science, and it becomes clear just how severe we need to be as a species in limiting our reproduction.

[1] Lydia O’Connor, “The Planet Just Crossed Another Major Carbon Milestone,” The Huffington Post, October 25, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid, italics added.
[4] Nick Visser and Dominique Mosbergen, “UN: Paris Deal Won’t Be ‘Enough’ To Stave Off Worst Effects Of Climate Change,” The Huffington Post, November 3, 2016.
[5] Ibid.
[6] O’Connor, “The Planet.”
[7] David Freeman, “Glaciers’ Rapic Retreat Should Be ‘Alarm Bell to Everyone’s Ears,’” The Huffington Post, October 26, 2016.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] O’Connor, “The Planet.”
[11]The World at Six Billion: Introduction,” United Nations (1999).
[12] Jasmin Coleman, “World’s ‘Seventh Billionth Baby’ Is Born,” The Guardian, October 31, 2011.
[13] Damian Carrington, “World Population to Hit 11bn in 2100—with 70% Chance of Continuous Rise,” The Guardian, September 18, 2014.
[14] Ibid.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Saudi Arabia Beheads a Member of the Royal Family: Justice for All, Atrociously

On October 18, 2016, Saudi Arabia executed a member of the royal family for committing murder during a brawl. Prince Turki bin Saud bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabeer was put to death most likely by beheading in a public square—as this was the usual method at the time. As horrific as such an execution is, the point that law applies to everyone is laudable—especially “on point” for countries in which the rich can “get away with murder” by hiring the best (and most expensive) lawyers.  The atrocious means of execution coupled with the dictum that the law really does apply to everyone renders this case particularly difficult to analyze from an ethical perspective.

“The greatest thing is that the citizen sees the law applied to everyone, and that there are not big people and other small people,” Abdul-Rahman al-Lahim, a prominent Saudi lawyer wrote.[1] In other words, the verdict and sentence sent the message that no one is above the law. To be sure, thousands of people are in the Saudi royal family enjoying perks not available to the rest of Saudi Arabia’s 20 million people; yet that the member executed was from a prestigious arm of the family sufficiently makes the point that no one is above the law.

This lesson is a valuable one for the United States, as financiers got away with fraudulently mislabeling the risk of sub-prime mortgage-based bonds before the financial crisis of 2008. Yet, interestingly, the Saudis could look to the United States for a lesson on how to execute people humanely. I submit that this combination of lessons demonstrates that a country can be very ethical in one sense yet abysmal in another. This point in turn impedes claims that some countries are more humane, or advanced ethically, than others. Within a culture, insistence on justice in one sense can coexist with toleration for injustice in another sense. Put another way, the human mind seems able to compartmentalize justice, without realizing the cognitive dissidence involved.

1. Ben Hubbard, “Saudi Prince Is Executed for Murder,” The New York Times, October 19, 2016.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

E.U. Free-Trade After Brexit: Applying Domestic Requirements to International Trade

With Britain set to secede from the European Union, one major question was whether British businesses would continue to get unfettered access to the E.U.’s domestic market. I submit that subjecting free-trade negotiations to stipulations that are oriented to states rather than trading partners is unfair to Britain. Given the extraordinary influence of E.U. state officials at the federal level, this is a case in which the political influence of British business would be constructive rather than subversive of the public domain to private interests.

The full essay is at "Essays on the E.U. Political Economy," available at Amazon.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

E.U. Defense Post-Britain: Beyond Multinational Military Cooperation

Just months after the British voted to secede from the Union, the E.U.’s Counsel of Ministers discussed “proposals for increased military cooperation” amid concerns from the British state government as well as those of some eastern States that “such collaboration could undermine” NATO.[1] The proposals being discussed were “part of a push by European officials and diplomats to strengthen European ties” after Britain’s vote to secede.[2] I submit that both the expression, “military cooperation,” and Britain’s involvement in the discussion are ill-fitting and inappropriate, respectively.

The complete essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.

[1] Julian E. Barnes, “EU Pushes for Deeper Defense Cooperation,” The Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2016.
[2] Ibid.

Monday, September 26, 2016

As the World Turns: A Troublesome Widening Gap Between Progressives and Traditionalists

In his last speech to the U.N.’s General Assembly in September, 2016, U.S. President Barak Obama pointed to a world more prosperous yet with political and security crises.[1] He called this combination a paradox arising from globalization—the converging of political, economic, and social systems around the world made possible by advances in technology. I contend that globalization is not the primary cause of the massive changes going on in some societies but not others (and in parts of a given society), hence Obama’s diagnosis and prescription fall short. In short, parts of some societies, and some societies as a whole were going through massive, deep changes that were reinforcing the tendency of traditional forces to resist and stay put. It is the widening of the gap, both within some societies and between them that is the real cause of the strife.
“A quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, the world is by many measures less violent and more prosperous than ever before, and yet our societies are filled with uncertainty and unease and strife,” Obama said.[2] “As people lose trust in institutions, governing becomes more difficult and tensions between nations become more quick to surface.”[3] He cited the Middle East in particular, where “basic order has broken down.”[4] More generally, the rise of terrorism had become a significant de-stabilizing force. The world’s powers share in the blame, for the approaches to globalization had ignored the inequities they had generated. Accordingly, Obama’s prescription includes “creating a fairer global economy, enhancing democratic governance, rejecting fundamentalism and racism, and increasing international cooperation.”[5] None of these feats would come easily.
In terms of a fairer global economy, power would have to be used to level the playing field whose slant has benefited the more powerful interests. So the problem is how to avoid the problem of how less powerful actors can take on the more powerful actors, including governments and corporations. In terms of enhancing democratic governance, the problem immediately encountered would be how to take on domestic corruption. For instance, Putin’s United Russia party was at the time accused of massive electoral fraud—so much so that the party would be able to unilaterally amend the Russian constitution. It would surely not be an easy task for the global powers to constrain Putin’s party within Russia.
Regarding getting rid of religious fundamentalism, it has tremendous staying power in the short- and medium-terms because it represents a reaction against the spread of progressive values made possible in part by the forces of globalization. Yet even without this process, the inroads of progressivism, such as “progress” in gay marriage, abortion, and pot legalization, lengthens the distance between societal segments that view “progress” as real progress and traditionalist segments that have stayed in place. With the greater distance—at least through the medium term, comes more strife because basic assumptions are no longer shared. By analogy, the more the forces behind a tectonic plate build up pressure against another plate that is staying still, the greater the force possible in an earthquake.
Therefore, I submit that Obama’s agenda for the world can be viewed as relatively superficial, as it is tied exclusively to globalization, which I submit is just one of the causes for the tremendous changes in parts of societies and parts of the world. Corruption and traditionalism are two things that have a way of staying put, even as other forces deemed in the forefront by many people (or in some societies) move further and further away. Even debating whether pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, and whether to legalize pot represent progress becomes problematic.
In short, during the time of globalization from the last quarter of the twentieth century, those forces and others, which are tied to the logic of a progressive movement in motion, the world’s societies are becoming less and less similar. The question is perhaps whether traditionalism will end up giving some ground, with the societies coming closer together. I believe the answer is: very gradually, and then only after some substantial time. Parts of societies, and even parts of the world, were on the move at the time of Obama’s last address, and this dynamic is not just caused by globalization.

1. Carol E. Lee, “Obama Urges Course Shift for World in Conflict,” The Wall Street Journal,” September 21, 2016.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Adolf Eichmann: Justice or Retribution by the Victims?

In February, 2016, 94-year-old Reinhold Hanning, a former guard at Auschwitz, went on trial in Detmold, Germany for being an accessory to the murder of at least 170,000 people. Back in 1961, Adolf Eichmann had been tried in Jerusalem for crimes against the Jewish people. I submit that the situs for the Hanning trial is proper ethically and legally, which is to say that Eichmann too should have been tried in Germany rather than in Israel.

Reinhold Hanning, center, on trial for 170,000 counts of accessory to murder in Germany. Proving that he himself facilitated the murders may be more difficult than one might assume; hence the importance of a fair hearing by neutral judges. Associated Press.

In his version of the social contract, John Locke argues that one advantage of leaving the state of nature in favor of forming a state is impartial justice can be enjoyed over victims exacting retribution for crimes against them directly. Put another way, a victim being the prosecutor and judge in a matter in which the crime is against the victim constitutes a conflict of interest. Any of us, as a victim, would naturally tend to be overly severe, even if we delude ourselves as to our objectivity.

I submit that in kidnapping Eichmann and forcing him to go on trial in Jerusalem, the Israeli government and its three appointed judges acted not only illegally in terms of international law at the time, but also unethically in exacting retribution as victims (i.e., being of the Jewish people). In terms of international law at the time, the state of Israel did not exist during the 1933-1945 Nazi period, so that country had no legal basis in prosecuting war crimes. The kidnapping was thus illegal--hardly different than a bunch of victims kidnapping someone thought to have violated them or their group and bringing the new victim back to a location where they could do what they wished.

Legally, either Germany or one of the victors of World War II could legitimately have tried Eichmann. By 1961, Germany would likely have preference because the crimes took place there and the war had been over for over a decade.

In terms of the conflict of interest, the president of the court in the Eichmann trial responded to the defense lawyer's point that the victims could not possibly be neutral by stating that because no one could possibly be neutral in the face of such a horrific crime--and the holocaust was indeed that--he might as well be the one to try to be objective. This faulty logic dismisses the very real possibility that someone else with less emotional attachment in the case could achieve something closer to neutrality. It was not as if everyone in the world were as emotionally biased as the victims and people in general who identify themselves as Jewish. A good means of sniffing out a conflict of interest is when the person charged with being in one makes a rather stunningly faulty rationale for the conflict not being material or even relevant. Even the person claiming, "I won't be subject to the conflict of interest" is suspect, as it is not outside the lines of exploiting the conflict.

Even the Supreme Court of Israel showed symptoms of being ensnared in the conflict of interest. To the defense's claim that a 1950 Israeli law should not be applied retroactively to cover conduct which occurred even before the state of Israel itself and in another country no less, the Court answered that if the crime is heinous enough, laws can be applied retroactively (and to conduct in another country). So ex post facto is apparently valid if the judge feels the crime is a really bad one. That a supreme court would engage in such an atrocious lack of fairness in its "legal reasoning" is itself a sign that the conflict of interest was indeed being exploited by the victims and their group.

The world itself, especially the victors of WWII, was culpable as well, in that the global powers ignored the conflict of interest or at least did not intervene in the interest of civilized justice. As war crimes were included in the indictment, the Allies could legitimately have stepped in to prevent the exacted retribution. Impartial justice, such as hopefully Hanning was getting in Germany in 2016, is one way the world's powers can be distinguished from the justice perpetrated by the Nazis. Perhaps it is in the nature of things that the victim becomes like the victimizer without realizing it. Hence, Locke was on solid ground in claiming as a benefit of civil society that retribution is taken away from victims.