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Keeping Hearts and Borders Open

President Obama briefed on November 2015 Paris terror attacks

In the wake of the terrorist attacks that shook Paris last Friday, many have turned to analyze the alleged organizers of the event. One of the attackers from the Bataclan concert hall, Omar Ismail Mostefai, was born and raised in a Parisian suburb. Reports suggest that at least two other terrorists involved in the attack were French citizens.

In the days and weeks to come, there will undoubtedly be further assessments about radicalization and homegrown terrorism in the Western world. However, one suggested strategy for combatting terrorism has been disregarded vehemently by President Obama.

In response to some calls for a ban on Syrian refugees entering the United States, President Obama stated:

The people who are fleeing Syria are the most harmed by terrorism; they are the most vulnerable as a consequence of civil war and strife…We do not close our hearts to these victims of such violence and somehow start equating the issue of refugees with the issue of terrorism.

Paris Attacks: Symbols and Choices

The Islamic State (ISIS, or Daesh in Arabic) either is using a good public relations firm or has its own agents to choose telling symbols and timing for its actions. Within a short time period, the terrorist teams have destroyed a Russian plane with tourists returning from Egypt, badly damaged a Hezbollah center in Lebanon, and attacked symbolic sites in Paris on a Friday the 13th.

Three symbolic sites in Paris were chosen by a well-coordinated team of some 12 active agents and an unknown number of “helpers.” Eight of the ISIS men had explosive belts and were prepared to die to make their motives clear.

The first attack was at the Stade de France, the main sports stadium on the edge of Paris. French President Francois Hollande and his guests joined some 80,000 spectators to watch a football (soccer) match between the national French and German teams. A half hour after the match started, three ISIS agents blew themselves up just outside the stadium. They killed themselves and one person who was passing by.

Had they wanted to kill more people, they could have used their explosives an hour earlier when the street was full of spectators lined up to enter the stadium. But the symbolic strength of the action is that no one noticed the explosions and the football match went on normally. The French President had security agents with him who were informed of events, and he left at half-time. The symbol, however, is clear and goes back to the decline of the Roman Empire. As the Empire declines and will soon be replaced, the Emperors provide the people with bread and circuses to keep them happy. Thus, while the war is on, the French emperor watches a football match.

The Pregnancy Debate in Sierra Leone

Girl students at St. Joseph’s Secondary School in Freetown, Sierra Leone / Susan Markham (USAID)

While the debate about parental leave rages on within the US, Amnesty International released an upsetting report last week that revealed blatant discrimination against pregnant girls in Sierra Leone. The report states: “Visibly pregnant girls in Sierra Leone are banned from attending mainstream school and taking exams. This prohibition was declared as official government policy by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology in April 2015, just before schools re-opened following the Ebola crisis.”

The ban is one more obstacle in the way of educating girls in developing countries. Amnesty notes that:

The ban on pregnant girls attending mainstream schools is being enforced, in some cases, through humiliating and degrading treatment of girls.... For example, girls have, publically, had their breasts and stomachs felt by adults on school premises to see if they are pregnant. Some girls have been compelled, by their schools, to take urine tests. Girls described acute embarrassment and fear at being subjected to this treatment when they tried to attend school or sit exams. Fear of being 'tested' for pregnancy and or turned away from school has meant some girls who are pregnant, stay away.

Moving Toward a World Parliamentary Assembly

Shirley Davis of Citizens for Global Solutions' Maine Chapter campaigns for World Parliament

The United Nations is an organization of states, not of persons—even though that’s what the UN Charter promises. The UN is far from democratic. Yet it makes decisions that greatly affect citizens of the 193 member nations. Our representatives at the UN are sent there by the ruling party in each country. They do not represent all of the people. Many believe that there should be more opportunity for the world’s people to have a say in the decisions being made.

One method that has been proposed as a step in the direction of more democratic global governance is a World Parliamentary Assembly (WPA) or UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA). Former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali is among the supporters of this idea. Creating a UNPA will be difficult, of course. Many problems would need to be overcome, but the barriers are not insurmountable.

According to Joseph Schwartzberg’s Transforming the United Nations System: Designs for a Workable World, this development could occur through three stages of evolution:

  1. A WPA with only advisory power and representatives appointed or elected by their respective governments;
  2. A popularly elected body with gradually increasing legislative competence (exercised in conjunction with the General Assembly);
  3. Well into the future, a maximally democratic system in which national borders are often ignored and the number of constituents per representative is relatively similar everywhere.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Foreign Affairs.

Yemen: Where Humanity Is Flouted

Ban Ki-moon and Peter Maurer (UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré)

At the United Nations headquarters in Geneva On October 31, 2015, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Peter Maurer presented an unprecedented joint warning.

It is very rare that the ICRC makes public criticisms of governments, in part because of the fear that a criticized government would cut off relations and end the ICRC efforts to help the wounded, prisoners of war, and others covered by the Red Cross mandate. The public and high-profile statement alongside Ban Ki-moon is an indication of widespread fears that the recent attacks against hospitals in Afghanistan and Yemen could weaken and perhaps destroy the laws of war, now called humanitarian law

Standing next to Ban Ki-moon, Peter Maurer said,

If States, other actors in conflict, and the international community as a whole do not act responsibly now, there will be millions more victims. Acting responsibly means redoubling efforts to achieve political solutions and, pending such achievements, ensuring that humanitarian principles and law are respected. Hospitals are being attacked, patients, doctors, nurses and humanitarian workers killed. When humanitarian law and principles are disregarded, when humanitarian needs are trumped by political agendas, when access to the wounded and sick is denied, and when security concerns lead to a suspension of operations, people are abandoned, the notion of protection loses its meaning, and humanity is flouted.

International humanitarian law prohibits deliberate attacks on civilians not taking a direct part in hostilities and attacks that do not distinguish between civilians and combatants. The essential core of humanitarian law is the prohibition on attacking hospitals, medical personnel and the wounded unable to continue fighting.

Kashmir: The Oldest Unresolved Conflict in the World

This week, the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee meeting dealing with social, humanitarian and cultural questions was held. Here, Pakistan and India sparred over a decades-old issue: the Kashmir conflict.

The Kashmir conflict is a territorial dispute which started in 1947 after the British Indian Empire was divided into the sovereign states of Pakistan and India. Both countries then claimed the state known as Jammu and Kashmir. Two wars and various attempts at UN intervention later, the region is still being disputed, with both nations controlling sections of the territory today.  

The United Nations' role in Kashmir has dwindled over the last few decades. In the first few months after the creation of Pakistan and India, the UN Security Council passed resolutions calling for the people of Kashmir to exercise their right to self-determination through internationally supervised elections. To this day, these resolutions have still not been implemented.

At the Third Committee meeting, Pakistan repeated its call to implement the Security Council resolutions with its Ambassador to the UN Maleeha Lodhi stating that “fulfillment of the long-held promise of self-determination to the Kashmiri people is urgent as well as indispensable to establishing peace and stability in South Asia.”

A Radical Win-Win Solution for Syria

The perspectives of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S President Barack Obama on Syria are so different that you have to wonder if they are living on the same planet.

Putin’s public rationale for intervening in Syria and backing President Bashar al-Assad boils down to a case against failed states. “After the invasion [of] Iraq, the authorities were destroyed, Saddam was hanged, and then the ISIL came there,” Putin told interviewer Charlie Rose. “And what happened in Libya? Full disintegration, no state at all….We don’t like the same thing to be repeated in Syria.” In other words, when Western democracies take down despotic, human-rights-abusing strongmen, the result is chaos and terrorism.

From Obama’s perspective,

When a dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people, that is not just a matter of one nation’s internal affairs—it breeds human suffering on an order of magnitude that affects us all….Let’s remember how this started. Assad reacted to peaceful protests by escalating repression and killing that, in turn, created the environment for the current strife.

Both leaders call for a diplomatic solution, with Putin supporting Assad and Obama calling for a managed transition away from Assad. Both leaders are using air assets to bomb “terrorists,” although Obama is going after the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Putin is targeting anti-Assad rebels. Both are supplying their proxies with training, arms, and supplies—as are Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Global Cost of Gender-Based Violence

By Leon israel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

When you think of gender-based violence, you may think of women abused in a refugee camp or conflict zone; you may think of a wife mistreated by her husband. However, gender-based violence seeps into all aspects of society, including the labor force—and it carries a high cost.

The McKinsey Global Institute recently published a report that found achieving equality in the workplace could result in a $12 trillion to $28 trillion increase to the global annual GDP by 2025. A large part of this inequality stems from the consequences of gender-based violence, such as lost labor force participants who are too intimidated or traumatized by violence to return to work.

Despite these high costs, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has yet to ratify a convention on gender-based violence in the workplace. Prior to the ILO’s Governing Board meeting in 2014, US Democrats called on the ILO to put gender-based violence on their agenda, stating that “an ILO Convention would help address the injustices for women in the garment industry and other industries and would be an important step to improve women’s working conditions worldwide.” Despite this push from government officials and unions, the ILO failed to address a convention in 2014 and 2015.

The Right to Change

Last week, the Mexican west coast was hit by “the biggest storm ever recorded in the western hemisphere,” Hurricane Patricia. While Mexico’s response to the disaster has been praised and resulted in less damage than expected, the takeaway for many scientists has been that “in a warmer world…weather extremes will be happening regularly, causing havoc for vulnerable communities.”

This is a thought that is not always talked about when discussing climate change: that while this is an environmental and economic issue, it is also one of equity. Of justice. Of human rights. The effects of climate change, as well as the policies we put in place to curb these effects, have very real implications for the rights of individuals, particularly in poorer, more “vulnerable communities.” 

Hate in Burma Slows but Does Not Stop Democratization

I have written that Burma is still suffering from ethnic and religiously motivated violence, even as it seeks to strengthen its democratic institutions. Democratization has allowed people to express views they did not have the legal rights to under the military regime, especially in advocating for political changes.

Sadly, at the same time, this type of freedom has also allowed hateful elements to boil up to the surface,  including ethnic-religious bigotry which the military regime suppressed to maintain a degree of stability.

Many authoritarian regimes both past and present have discouraged or prohibited discussions about ethnic/racial tension and diversity as if it will make such problems disappear. All this does is smolder the coals for years, even generations, and when liberalization does occur, allows the flames of hate to rage out of control.