Focal Points Blog

Latin American Leaders Bring Drug Policy Debate to the UN

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina

At the annual UN General Assembly meeting held in New York, presidents from around the world have the chance to state their views on the key international issues of the day. Not surprisingly, the crisis in Syria, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Millennium Development Goals took center stage this year. Yet a careful viewing of the speeches of the Latin American presidents illustrates the growing voice of Latin American leaders calling for meaningful reform of drug control policies. Across the region, a dynamic debate – focused on the failure of present drug control policies to achieve their desired objectives and the need for more effective and humane alternatives – is underway, most recently evident in an innovative report on drug policy released by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Declaration of Antigua from the June 2013 OAS General Assembly meeting calling for an Extraordinary Session focused on drug policy to be held in 2014. Last week at the UN, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico united in bringing this regional debate to the General Assembly meeting, calling for consideration of alternative approaches to the drug issue, and for the efforts underway within the OAS to be used as tools for debate within the UN in the lead up to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs to be held in New York in 2016.
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Syria and What Exactly the Constitution Says About the Use of Force

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

President Obama has been criticized from both the left and right for his handling of the ongoing civil war in Syria. One of the most curious critiques, however, has to do with his decision to seek Congressional approval for a military strike against regime targets in Syria. Even several of his senior advisors were reportedly surprised by his decision and were opposed to seeking Congressional approval.

Since then many other prominent foreign policy practitioners have publicly endorsed this critique denouncing President Obama’s appeal to Congress. Former Defense Secretary Panetta just last week said he too would have advised against doing so observing that “this Congress has a hard time agreeing as to what the time of day is.”  Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations who served in senior foreign policy positions in previous administrations, characterized seeking Congressional approval “as inept as asking Putin to save him from having to send in the cruises [missiles].”  Several others have expressed concern that doing so will establish a historical precedent that will restrict future presidents in their ability to undertake military action overseas.
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Bashir Embarrassment Avoided. Now What?

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Cross-posted from the United to End Genocide blog.

A colossal embarrassment was avoided when Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, apparently changed his mind about coming to the United States to address the United Nations.

But what is to be done to avoid future similar situations that call into question the commitments of the United States and UN to human rights, genocide prevention, and international justice and accountability?

First, the UN General Assembly and/or the UN Secretary General could act to waive the U.S. obligation to facilitate Bashir’s travel to UN Headquarters. As argued by law professor John Cerone on Opinio Juris “The General Assembly could authorize the Secretary General to waive the US obligation by a majority vote of those member States present and voting.” Given the 122 countries that are party to the ICC Statute and the number of delegations likely to have walked out on Bashir, this does not seem such an unachievable number.
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U.S. Needs to be R2P’d

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Writing for the Guardian, and re-posted at AlterNet, Henry Porter makes the case that the scale of gun violence in America renders it, in effect, a civil war. Figures, especially if they’re staggering, can render us none. But the way Porter has framed the number of gun fatalities in the United States can’t help but shock and move. He writes:

… it’s worth trying to guess the death toll of all the wars in American history since the War of Independence began in 1775, and follow that by estimating the number killed by firearms in the US since the day that Robert F. Kennedy was shot in 1968 by a .22 Iver-Johnson handgun, wielded by Sirhan Sirhan.

See what Porter is doing? He’s about to compare 238 years to 45 years.
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Nairobi Mall Attack Harkens Back to Electoral Violence Five Years Ago

Nairobi's Kibera slum. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, the New York Times reported:

Kenya is now entering an official three-day period of mourning to mark one of the most unsettling episodes in its recent history. The authorities here, in a country widely perceived as an oasis of peace and prosperity in a troubled region, are struggling to answer how 10 to 15 Islamist extremists could lay siege to a shopping mall, killing more than 60 civilians with military-grade weaponry, then hold off Kenyan security forces for days.

“Oasis of peace and prosperity?” File under “How quickly they forget.” Yes, Kenya is a democracy, and, as far as international optics go, it’s become famous for its Olympic runners. But it’s one of the most corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2012.
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The Former Yugoslavia: “We Were So Close to Preventing Genocide”

Marko Hren/John Feffer

Marko Hren/John Feffer

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

In 1990, when I was in Romania, inter-ethnic conflicts broke out in Transylvania. Although the cause of the conflict in March 1990 in Targu Mures is disputed, the most likely story concerns a bilingual sign — in Hungarian as well as in Romanian – that a pharmacist put up on a shop in the city. There was a protest. Various wild rumors spread. Tensions escalated, and a full-scale riot broke out. Several people died, and hundreds were injured.

Today, there are bilingual signs all over Targu Mures. Relations between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians are quite peaceable. Sure, there are plenty of things to complain about in Romania today. But the country certainly did not go the way of Yugoslavia.
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Reducing the Nairobi Attacks to a Hashtag

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

For the New York Times, Nicholas Kulish reported yesterday that a representative of al Shabaab tweeted:

Kenyan forces who’ve just attempted a roof landing must know that they are jeopardizing the lives of all the hostages at #Westgate

It’s beyond offensive to see an act of terrorism act that has killed dozens reduced to a hashtag by the group that committed it. It’s as if they’re branding it as militaries do with operations (Barbarossa, Desert Storm). Equally upsetting is the clarity of the Tweet’s composition, as well as the familiarity with Twitter and other social media that it and other extremist groups have demonstrated in recent years. It stands as sad testimony to how interwoven Islamist extremism has become with the fabric of society.

After the Weekend in Nairobi and Peshawar, Hard to Believe World Is a Safer Place

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Over the weekend, as you no doubt know, the Somalian Islamist militant group al Shabaab attacked a mall in Nairobi, Kenya. They killed, at last count, between 58 and 69. At the moment, Kenyan security troops are blowing their way in through the roof in and it will probably soon be over — at what additional cost to civilian lives remains to be seen.

Earlier today we posted about a recent theory that violence been on the decrease since World War II and that the world is becoming a safer place. Most prominent among those who hold that position is Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature (Viking, 2011), wrote that the world is considerably less violent than ever before.
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Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels” Ignores Demons That Lie Dormant

Robert Jay Lifton. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Robert Jay Lifton. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In this month’s Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (behind a paywall), esteemed atrocity authority Robert Jay Lifton addresses the “emerging school of thought” that “contends that the world is becoming increasingly safe.” For example he singles out Steven Pinker, who, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature (Viking, 2011), maintains that the world is considerably less violent than ever before.

Professor Lifton writes:

The peaceable-world claim is deeply misleading in its failure to confront a revolution in the technology of killing and the increasing capacity for detached slaughter or numbed technological violence.
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Amir Hekmati: Moral Courage to Burn

Hekmati,Amir

Some background from CNN:

 [Amir] Hekmati joined the Marines in 2001 out of high school. He finished his service four years later as a decorated combat veteran with tours in Iraq.

Afterward, he translated Arabic as a contractor and helped train troops in cultural sensitivity.

Hekmati’s family said he had gone to Iran to visit his grandmother but was arrested in August 2011, accused by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry of working as a CIA agent.
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