27 October, 2007

Biofuel Madness

I am not the first person to think that farming crops not for food but to provide fuel for car driving First World cockfarmers is the path of madness. Jean Ziegler, UN rapporteur on the right to food, goes further, judging it a crime against humanity. The rush to biofuel production is pushing up the price of basic foodstuffs, creating the possibility for a worldwide humanitarian disaster. According to the BBC, even the IMF is warning against the use fo grain as car fuel.

More: Biofuels 'crime against humanity'

14 October, 2007

BOOKS ABOUT THE MIDDLE EAST: "A History of the Middle East" by Peter Mansfield

NEW SERIES. People are often confused about the Middle East. To help them, I am going to recommend three books that people should read if they want to get a better handle on the region. I will also mention a couple more books that people might find interesting if they want to explore the area in more detail.

I should mention one thing – the term "Middle East" is these days somewhat contested. Following the publication of Edward Said's book "Orientalism", there has been much more self-criticism in the West of how other parts of the world are written about. Some consider that referring to a region as the Middle East defines it by its relationship to the West as an Other, objectifying the region and its people; as against that, one could of course say that the term "the West" defines Europe and North America by their relationship to people further to the east. A variety of circumlocutions are sometimes used to try and replace the Middle East term. These include "The Arab World", "West Asia", the horrible acronym "MENA", and so on. They are all, in their own way, rubbish, so for want of anything better, I am going to stick with referring to the region as the Middle East, as does my first book.

My first book is in fact "A History of the Middle East" by Peter Mansfield. Mansfield, now deceased, was an interesting fellow. He started his career in the British Foreign Office, but resigned in protest over Suez*, thereafter making his living as a journalist and writer. His book is, as the title suggests, a history of the region, from the dawn of time to the present day. Mansfield's triumph is to have written a relatively short book that is very easy to read and that feels always like it is telling you just enough so that you know the key aspect of what it is covering without being buried in extraneous detail.

The edition I have of this book was written in 1991. Since his death in 1996, the book has been revised again by some other bloke, though it has not been brought into the post-Saddam Hussein era yet. Nevertheless, if you want an overview of the Middle East, this is the book for you.

I also recommend "The Arabs", another book by Mansfield. This provides a history of the specifically Arab World, and then profiles each individual Arab country.

*if you don't know what I mean here by Suez then you should read this book

13 October, 2007

Oh, those South Ossetians!

Lifting a story from Popbitch, the BBC reports that the government of Georgia have recruited disco stars Boney M to the struggle against South Ossetian separatism: Boney M play on Georgia frontline

What is happening is this: Boney M are going to play a concert in Tamarasheni, a small village in South Ossetia that has remained loyal to Georgia. The village is in walking distance of Tskhinvali, the rebel capital. The hope is that many South Ossetians will come to the free concert, get down to the sounds of Boney M (whose hits include "Rasputin", "Daddy Cool", "Ma Baker", and "By The Rivers of Babylon"). They will then start to realise that life will be "better and more fun if they returned to government control". An unnamed Georgian official is quoted as saying that "peaceful life resumes when people sing songs".

Boney M have some experience of dealing with the problems of conflict. Their 1977 hit "Belfast", was a plea for peace in that troubled city. The band's own experience illusrates the dangers of separatism, as there are now two mutually hostile Boney M touring bands. It is not known which one is playing the concert in Georgia.

As an aside, the BBC correspondent in Georgia is one Matthew Collin, co-author or sole author of interesting books such as "Altered State" (about Ecstasy culture and dance music) and "Serbia Calling" (about Radio B-92 and the Serbian counter culture under Milosevic).

EDIT: that BBC article has been updated. The concert has taken place and was attended by many people. The Boney M that played was fronted by Marica Barrett, one of the original members of the band. There are at least two other bands with original members touring as Boney M.

Aghanistan Realpolitik

A piece by Philip Jakeman on openDemocracy suggests that there is a real prospect of Taliban leader Mohammed Omar joining the government of Hamid Karzai: Afghanistan: necessity and impossibility

Many would of course consider this a less than ideal outcome, as the Taliban are infamous for the human rights abuses they perpetrated as rulers of Afghanistan. Jakeman points out, however, that many members of Karzai's current government are themselves notorious gangsters and human rights abusers. The Taliban retain a considerable following, and brining them into the government might lead to the country's pacification. The USA is reportedly considering the idea, notwithstanding the $10,000,000 bounty it has on the head of Mohammed Omar.

11 October, 2007

Yet more Genocide

If you can't get enough of the mass killing, there is an interesting article by Ben Kiernan on the subject on openDemocracy: Blood and soil: the global history of genocide

Armenia, 1915

I think it is in Robert Fisk's Pity The Nation: Lebanon at War that an odd feature of the Armenian genocide is mentioned. Ottoman Turkey was at the time an ally of the German Empire, and there were a large number of German troops stationed in the Turkish Empire to assist their allies. Fisk wonders if any junior officers lent a helping hand to the elimination of the Armenians from Eastern Anatolia, coming home with some top tips they could apply in Europe just under 30 years later.

One German officer who was in Turkey at the time was Armin T. Wegner. Rather than assist in the extermination of the Armenians, he did his utmost to prevent further massacres and worked tirelessly to publicise the horrors that Enver Pasha's government was perpetrating. As well as collecting and disseminating documents on the massacres, Wegner took numerous photos of Armenian deportees and of the corpses of the genocide's victims; if you have seen any black and white pictures of corpses or desperate Armenians in the media over the last few days, they were almost certainly taken by him.

Wegner lived until the late 1970s, though he did spend some time in concentration camps during the Third Reich period. He was apparently the only German writer to publicly denounce anti-Jewish measures introduced by the Nazis in 1933.

You can see some of Wegner's pictures here: Armenian Deportees: 1915-1916

Massacres and Genocide

The Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States House of Representatives has voted to recognise the 1915 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide. The Turkish government (and, in all likelihood, Turkish people generally) are very annoyed. There are suggestions that this might have terrible repercussions regarding US efforts to pacify Iraq.

People who deny the extermination of Jewish people by the Nazis in the Second World War typically say that there was no targetted programme of mass killing and that the numbers who died are grossly exaggerated and no higher than might be expected in a continent at war. Armenian genocide denial is somewhat similar. In fairness to the Turks, my understanding is that they do not deny that very large numbers of Armenians were killed by agents of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, or that many of these victims may well have been non-combatants. I don't know if they accept the widely accepted estimate of 1,500,000 victims, but I think they agree that the numbers were very large. The Turks also talk, however, about Turkish and people of other ethnicities (e.g. Kurds) killed by Armenian rebels and so on, though I doubt they seriously claim that massacares of Turks and Kurds by Armenians were in the same order of magnitude as killings of Armenians by Kurds and Turks.

My understanding of the Turkish position is that they take exception to the word genocide, with its connotations of systematic and deliberate extermination. They point out that many Armenians in areas of the Ottoman Empire other than Eastern Anatolia (e.g. Istanbul itself) were not exterminated en masse (though they were subject to considerable persecution), suggesting that the regime was not hell-bent on the total elimination of Armenians. Analysis of the history of the first world war does, however, make plain that the Turkish leadership under Enver Pasha were determined to expel all Armenians from Eastern Anatolia, and were not too bothered if very few of the expellees failed to arrive at their expulsion destination if not actively determined to exterminate them all. I don't know if there is documentary evidence to prove a centrally directed campaign of mass murder, but the balance of probability certainly supports the idea that such was the regime's goal.

My own feeling is that genocide has become an overly emotive word, something like terrorism in that it is thrown at whoever you don't like this week. I don't think, however, that the Turkish government is doing itself any favours on this issue; their endless carping on definitions makes them look like a shifty plea bargainers. That said, pressurising Turkey on this point does not obviously seem to serve any purpose other than to strengthen the country's reactionary nutjobs, whose current project is to invade Iraqi Kurdistan.

The BBC has an interesting article on the history of Turkish attitudes to the Armenian mass killings: Turkey's Armenian dilemma

some of what I have written here is rehashed from a comment here. This has been crossposted to The Dublin School of International Relations.

10 October, 2007

The War on Rhode Island

openDemocracy has also been running a number of article about deliberative democracy, partly in the context of more advanced opinion polling and partly as a way of actually making political decisions. Deliberative democracy is where you grab some people at random. With normal opinion polling you would just ask them a load of questions, often effectively generating instant opinions, but what you do with the deliberative approach is you make them read up on a load of issues and debate them among themselves and then you make them decide an outcome. I suppose the jury system is a bit like this. This kind of random choosing of people to make decisions was used in ancient Athens; as a classicist I am therefore all for it.

However, I only really bring the subject up to mention an vignette contained in an article by James Fishkin. He talks about how Rhode Island was the only one of the original members of the United States of America to have a referendum on the constitution. The electorate voted against, incensing the federalists who argued that a referendum (unlike an elected consitutional convention) could not produce a truly deliberated result. The governments of Connecticut and Massachusetts were so incensed that they threatened to invade , leading to Rhode Island convening a convention that opted to join the Union after all.

I wonder would it be possible to invade the United Kingdom, to oblige them to accept the EU Consitution and the Euro?

Palestine: Armed Struggle v. Mass Resistance

The fundamental problem with openDemocracy is that reading long articles about anything on a screen is a complete pain, regardless of how interesting they are. Nevertheless, they publish much that is worth reading, for all that I would rather read it in a print periodical. One interesting piece is an article by Maria Stephan on proposals within Palestinian society to move the national struggle from the vanguardist mode of lethal violence to one of mass struggle based around collective action and the use of non-lethal force. She points out the obvious - that these methods yielded real dividends during Intifada 1, while the elitist violence of the al-Aqsa Intifada have gained dick-all. She does, however, underestimate the problems associated with a transition to non-violent mass struggle. One factor seriously discrediting this new idea is its advocates, who seem mainly to be those associated with President Mahmud Abbas and the illegal government of Salam Fayyad; their credibility as advocates of the Palestinian cause is rather limited, given the fond opinions that the USA and Israel seem to have of them. The other problem is that non-violent mass struggle is very difficult, requiring a level of organisational ability that might not be possessed by a Palestinian society wracked by years of Israeli repression. The occupiers' willingness to use lethal force against stone throwers and demonstrators played a major part in pushing the al-Aqsa Intifada away from mass action to elitist violence, and any attempt to move in that direction could easily provoke a similar response.

09 October, 2007

Europe's Shame

Am I reading this right? It seems like the US Supreme Court has basically ruled that the CIA can kidnap and torture whoever it likes, and then escape legal sanctions by claiming that the prosecution of the criminals who perpetrated these acts would compromise state security.

The article concerns Mr Khaled al-Masri, who was kidnapped by the CIA from Germany and transported to a torture camp in Afghanistan. Apparently the German government has dropped an extradition request against his kidnappers. I have already mentioned the Italian government's decision not to pursue the extradtion of a gang who kidnapped one Mr Abu Omar from their country.

There is this idea in the world that European countries somehow stand in opposition to the human rights violations of the United States. In reality, Europe (or European governments) do not care, and are happy to let US gangs kidnap and torture whoever they like. No one seems to really care about this, given the way the whole extraordinary rendition story lives only in the inside pages of the newspapers.

01 October, 2007

Conference on Russia

If you live in Ireland, have ninety quid to throw away, and are interested in Russia then you could do worse than go the Royal Irish Academy's Committee for International Affairs conference on the 23rd November. The full title of the conference is Russia's Global Perspective: Defining a New Relationship with Europe and America, and if you follow the link you can see the impressive list of speakers they have. Well, the ones I have heard of are very impressive, so I assume the others are too.

From President to Prime Minister

The BBC reports that when he steps down as president, Vladimir Putin is going to run for the Russian parliament and that he aspires to become the country's prime minister. The BBC reports this as a shocking new development, though I had read this suggested in the academic literature on Russian semi-presidentialism. People have been wondering for some time whether Putin was really going to step down as president, given his obvious enjoyment of being the top dog in Russian politics. The switch to prime minister allows him to remain at the centre of politics without having to change the constitution to allow him to run for another term; and prime ministers are not bound by inconvenient term limits.

At the moment, the constitution makes the Russian prime minister clearly subservient to the president, and the BBC quotes one Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Moscow Center as saying that the consitution will need to be changed to allow Putin to remain the country's leader. This may or may not be the case. One thing you often see with semi-presidential systems is that the primacy of the premiership and presidency is decided not by the constitutional prerogatives of the offices, but by who occupies them. In Russia's case, Putin as prime minister will remain the man around whom politics has rotated for the last seven years. It is still not clear who Putin favours as his successor, but it should not be impossible for him to find a pliant yes-man to run for the job.