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Category: Law & Justice

September 11, 2001: The Day the World Shifted

World Trade Center tribute in lights

This piece was originally published on September 11, 2011. It has been reposted to reflect on the tragic events and impacts of 9/11 and on our international strategy going forward.

Ten years ago, while driving to work, I watched in horror as smoke and flames billowed from the Pentagon from across the Potomac River. Later, huddled in a basement office, our small staff overcame its fear that this was "the beginning of the end" and got to work.

The message sent that day to our members began, "The world has shifted."  Like the first few moments after an earthquake, we didn't know how bad the damage was, but we knew the world would never be the same again. I wrote then:

"Right now, I am as fearful of the knee jerk reaction that our nation could embark upon, as I am by the damage that those forces behind these attacks can inflict.

We who work for a more peaceful and just world must be the voice that says more than 'strike back.'  We must talk about what we can do to stop this from happening again.... Military might is not enough to halt a determined foe that is willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believe in and use all means available to lash out.  The United States should seek to find those behind this attack and bring them to justice.  But at the same time it should evaluate what damage it has done by hamstringing the growth of a democratic system of international governance that will allow members of every society to feel that they are stakeholder, rather than downtrodden serfs, in our global village.

I ask all of you in the days ahead to be the courageous voice of sanity and reason and help turn this tragedy into the beginning of a healing rather than the beginning of the end."

Syria: Back to Square One for Good-Faith Negotiations

With the resignation of Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi as the UN-League of Arab States mediator in the Syrian conflict, I fear that we may be “back to square one” in terms of negotiations in good faith.

After the failure of Geneva II, where the Syrian government representatives and those of different armed opposition movements were unwilling to deliberate seriously—often refusing even to meet in the same room—the resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi was openly discussed by participants, including Brahimi himself.

Brahimi had to walk between the two rooms in the UN Palais des Nations − one where the government representatives sat and the other filled with some representatives of the armed opposition. (Fortunately, the rooms were on the same floor). However, despite Brahimi’s skills and experience as a negotiator and help from the UN Secretariat, Geneva II negotiations went nowhere.

Although an NGO representative does not have the standing of official mediators, I have been involved since the early days of the armed uprising in Syria in discussions with some members of opposition groups in Paris and Geneva. I have also worked at some length with the Syrian Ambassador to the UN to find ways to encourage negotiations in good faith.

My hope was to find issues that were negotiable and thus create a sort of agenda for face-to-face negotiations. I knew from the start that there were certain issues that were not negotiable. The departure of President Assad and the creation of a transition government on the Yemen model always seemed to me to be a “non-starter,” although the Geneva I negotiations, which were only between US and Russian diplomats, had pushed for such a transition.

Indian Elections: The Power of the Millennial Vote

 After winning a landslide victory, Narenda Modi is now officially the Prime Minister elect of India. The race was far from close: Modi won by the largest margin in 30 years for a prime ministerial candidate. Alongside Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is set to win far more than the 272 seats it needs to form a majority, a feat not accomplished since the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the subsequent change in public sentiment towards the Congress – the leaders of the current government and BJP’s bitter rival for decades.

India, much like the US, has a two-party system. The key to such an astonishing victory has many parallels to the US election of Barack Obama in 2008, in which the BJP was able to pull in a record number of Millennials (those 35 and under).

In fact, Millennials play a larger role in Indian politics than they do in US politics. Why? The answer, some analysts say, may be as simple as a faster-growing demographic, the effect of which is compounded by the rapid adoption of mobile technology throughout the country.

The city which perhaps best exemplifies this trend is Bangalore. Bangalore is India’s third-largest city and second-fastest growing, where an astonishing 63 percent of its population is under 25. The influence of such a young population has repercussions throughout the state. “We have no toilets in my home village, but everybody has a smartphone, and we all check every day for what’s happening in the [2014] campaign,” states 22-year-old Hanamanthray Biradar, who is from a city in the same state as Bangalore.

Putin's Political Moves

Over the past two weeks, the international community has seen the situation in Ukraine move from bad to worse as it devolves into violence and chaos. Russian-supported separatists are pitted against the European backed interim government in what seems to be rapidly escalating into a civil war that threatens to tear the country apart.

This violence easily overshadowed two crucial political moves Putin made that clearly signaled his intent to solidify Crimea as a Russian entity and reassert Russia's power over Ukraine. The first was his trip to Crimea on Friday, May 9th, which is Victory Day in Russia. Victory Day pays tribute to the Soviet defeat of the Nazis during WWII and is the single biggest holiday in Russia – the whole country celebrates and glorifies Russian power and strength. Putin purposefully chose to observe this holiday in Crimea to show that it is undoubtedly an integral part of Russia and that the referendum of March 16th was valid.

His second move was minting a new commemorative coin as part of a series naming himself “The Gatherer of Russian Lands.” This coin showed his face on the front and Crimea on the back, labeled as the Russian Federation’s Republic of Crimea. This coin will forever serve as a commemoration of the Russian adoption of the republic and as a symbol of their ownership of Crimea.

Ukraine: What Future for “Self Rule”?

In a previous blog post, I asked the question “Ukraine: A Federalist Future?”  At the time, there had been proposals to link a referendum on the structure of the Ukrainian state with the planned May 25 election for President and Parliament. Even May 25 would have been a short time to discuss the structures of the state in a country with sharp tensions and in which different factions were not speaking to each other.

Unfortunately (in my view), factions in Eastern Ukraine decided to hold a referendum on Sunday 11 May in a hastily organized way, with little if any public debate on the consequences of the referendum and strong pressure to vote “yes” on the only option presented. The central government, the European Union and the US have all indicated that they considered the referendum and its results invalid − in fact, illegal.

President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation had suggested on the eve of the referendum that it be postponed or cancelled. However, after the referendum, the Russian government indicated that the referendum showed the “will of the people” and that Russia would abide by the results.

Thus, we can ask: what was the subject of the referendum? What are its immediate implications? What role should outside institutions play--Russia, the European Union (EU), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the US?

The Battle to Convince the GOP to Address Climate Change

The midterm elections and the 2016 presidential election are going to have profound effects on how America responds to the threat of climate change. GOP candidates in many senate races deny climate change is happening or that humans have any impact on the issue.

Likley GOP presidential contenders like Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rick Santorum (R-PA) believe climate change is a hoax created by progressives. Other GOP leaders deny the certainty of the scientific community on climate change or are strongly opposed to restricting the fossil fuel industry.

I don’t think it’s outlandish to predict that if Republicans control both the House and Senate, little to no new government policies will be adopted to reduce man’s effect on global warming.

Many have predicted that Republicans will make significant gains in the number of seats they hold in Congress this year. For that reason, it is important that supporters of addressing climate change find Republicans that are willing to join their cause, or at least acknowledge their valid concerns. Some Republicans that have already shown a willingness to address climate change include Gov. Schwarzenegger (R-CA), former Gov. Huntsman (R-UT), Senator Snow (R-ME), Senator Collins (R-ME), Rep. Smith (R-NJ), and Gov. Pawlenty (R-MN). Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), a very likely candidate for President in 2016, has also stated he defers his judgment on the matter to the experts. Though beyond that, Christie has avoided the topic.

The Revocation of Nationality: Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

Most of us take our citizenship for granted, thinking the world belongs to people of one nation or another, but imagine being stripped of it completely.

In a world run by nation-states, there is no universal form of citizenship or birth registration. There are only those recognized by national governments that can and do revoke it for various political motives. The estimated number to date by the UNHCR of stateless persons, families and communities who have no nation to legally call home is 10 million.

The most recent of these tragedies occurred in September, when the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic passed a ruling which de-nationalized an estimated 210,000 Haitian citizens by denying them citizenship and the right to an official ID. This simple act by courts, which has deeply affected the lives of nearly 7 percent of the country’s population either directly or indirectly, receives an overwhelming 83 percent of support from Dominicans.

Having your citizenship taken away can deal a powerful blow to your wellbeing. As one rights activist featured in an Aljazeera piece states, “It’s not that I feel Dominican. I am Dominican. I was born here in the Dominican Republic, and all my documents are from here… I have never been in another country.”

Climate Change: Let’s Speak the Opposition’s Language

Climate change is one of the most divisive issues in Congress today. Nearly any vote related to climate change, energy policy, or conservation is split along party lines, which is well documented by Global Solutions' 2014 Congressional Report Card. Mitch McConnell’s floor statement on May 6th is representative of this partisanship. He belittles the entire issue by stating the President will “talk about the weather at the White House” and "lecture everybody...about low-flow toilets.”

This is the kind of talk that needs to stop. Senator McConnell is not an un-educated man. He cannot seriously equate climate change to everyday weather. He does this purposefully as a political move that panders to the extreme right: the Tea Party.

McConnell also boils down the proposed policy changes to a single punitive tax on energy. However, it’s not that simple, and he knows it. In recent years many Representatives and Senators have proposed laws that would help combat climate change without new taxes. Ending big oil tax breaks, funding renewable energy, and yes, taxing carbon pollution would all have significant impacts on reducing the speed of increasing global temperatures, but these are not the only options.

Stop the War on International Law

The Senate’s failure to adopt a single global agreement dealing with human rights, arms control, or the environment since 1997 has damaged the United States’ security, economy, and global leadership.

“The children were all asleep in bed and I was just going off to sleep…when I heard people outside saying chemical bombs were being dropped around us,” said Samer, a Syrian refugee. His children survived the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus in 2013.

Thankfully, by mid-April of this year, 93% of the Syrian chemical weapon stockpiles have been removed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the watchdog arm of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The United States and other parties to this treaty had worked through the UN Security Council and pressured Syria to accede to the Convention.  They are now pushing for the remaining chemicals to be destroyed. 

But despite the successful use of international law to take these horrendous weapons out of play in the Syrian civil war, another kind of war is being fought within the United States.  The frontlines of the War on International Law stretch from the Senate floor to the living rooms of home-schoolers. 

A coordinated and well-funded opposition is doing everything it can to stop the US from ratifying any multilateral treaties. And, to the detriment of our nation and the world, they’re winning.  The Senate’s failure to adopt a single global agreement dealing with human rights, arms control, or the environment since 1997--when it agreed to the Chemical Weapons Convention--has damaged the United States’ security, economy, and global leadership. 

Will Assad Dodge Justice Again?

By, CC BY 4.0,

Happy belated Day of Remembrance for all Victims of Chemical Warfare

This sad memoriam is observed annually on April 29th to "honor past victims and liberate future generations from the threat of chemical weapons," as noted by UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon. Regretfully, there are individuals alive today who may fall under its call for remembrance next year.

President Bashar al-Assad recently attacked his countries’ citizens with chlorine and ammonia gas. The effects were deadly. Victims’ lungs were burning and contact with the gases caused burning, irritated eyes and skin. It’s maddening to think that any leader could kill their countries’ citizens using crude barrel bombs and chemical gasses. It’s more enraging to think this is happening in an era of unprecedented international law.

Let’s not forget that Bashar has already used Sarin gas against the Syrian population back in 2013. Those attacks prompted President Obama to threaten Bashar with airstrikes citing the Responsibility to Protect. Yet Russia came to the rescue of its ally and forged a deal that kept Assad in power, dismantled Syria’s chemical weapons, and made Syria ascend to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).