Focal Points Blog

Mali: After the Intervention

Despite the recent UN Security Council resolution authorizing a military intervention in Mali, the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya regrettably remains the dominant story on U.S. policy in Africa. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al-Sharia – the jihadist coalition linked to the American deaths in Libya– are rapidly consolidating power and Libyan arms in northern Mali. Instead of fodder for retroactive condemnation, the attack in Libya should provide an important reminder to the U.S. and international community that UN-authorized military action alone is not sufficient. A coherent, well-orchestrated plan for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of rebel forces and extremists must also accompany any intervention in Mali.

Mali is a landlocked nation in the Sahel region of northern Africa, an area that stretches across the southern border of the Sahara Desert from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Mali is most famous for its music and Timbuktu, a centuries-old center of Islamic scholarship and crossroads on trading routes across this region. Today, Timbuktu risks becoming yet another haven for terrorist activity as militants seize control over the northern two-thirds of the country and implement a debilitating version of Shari’a law that calls for amputations, bans on music, and public stonings.

On December 20, the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the African-led International Support Mission in Mali, known as AFISMA, to take “all necessary measures” to restore peace and security. Such authority derives from Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which the Council also invoked to accelerate the end of the 2011 Libyan revolution through a NATO-led intervention. In Mali, necessary measures under Chapter VII include the pursuit of a political solution prior to intervention, the rebuilding of Mali’s security forces, support for the recapture of territory in the north, protection of civilians, and security stabilization activities.

Political, military, and humanitarian solutions are, no doubt, integral to the resolution of the escalating conflict. History demonstrates, however, that security stabilization activities are also essential for long-term stability. In Libya, despite a successful UN-backed intervention last year, security remains the primary challenge due to the proliferation of weapons and prevalence of armed militias. As part of its mandate, AFISMA must therefore establish a clear strategy for stabilization measures – such as disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of Mali’s divided factions – to secure a safe and successful return to democracy.

For instance, AFISMA, Malian troops, and international partners should implement development-driven incentives to encourage individuals to trade in weapons. Although certainly not a panacea for disarmament, such programs present a viable method for future progress and discourage a culture of violence. Incentives may include distribution of basic resources, including tools and food, in exchange for weapons, as Mozambique did with success following its civil war. They may also incorporate lessons learned from the 1990s disarmament program used in Mali itself, in which fighters could swap weapons for loans to start development projects. Yet, incentives that lack a focus on long-term stability – such as the distribution of IPads and televisions in Libya – may prove ineffective.

AFISMA and its allies can also develop a strategy to separate the extremists from the Tuareg rebels. The UN Security Council’s insistence on continuing the political process, in part through negotiations with groups committed to the cessation of ties with terrorists and the possible use of sanctions against those refusing to cut ties, is a step in the right direction. Such dialogue needs to complement a military intervention.

Additionally, AFISMA, Malian troops, and international partners must ensure that Tuareg rebels and those renouncing their terrorist ties reintegrate into society. Reintegration can include extensive job training, development projects that spur employment opportunities, and psychological counseling. Legal reform focused on improving protections for Tuareg and minority rights might also address some of the Tuareg’s grievances regarding marginalization. The UN Security Council resolution rightly suggested that transitional authorities in Mali should address the “long-standing concerns” of groups in the north.

Prevention is paramount. Failure to tackle the long-term security situation up front may encourage a resort to weapons as a means of conflict resolution. The international community must therefore implement stabilization measures alongside political solutions, military intervention, and humanitarian aid. Otherwise, violence may expand far beyond Mali’s crown jewel, the distant land of Timbuktu.

Annie Castellani is a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit law firm, the Public International Law & Policy Group, where she focuses on transitional justice, constitution drafting, and civil society development in Libya and other post-conflict nations. Her
views are independent.

Magnitsky Act and Dima Yakovlev Bill Revive Cold War

On Friday, Dec. 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill prohibiting future adoptions of Russian children by American citizens. At the New York Times, David Herszenhorn and Erik Eckholm explained that it

… was drafted in response to the Magnitsky Act, a law signed by President Obama this month that will bar Russian citizens accused of violating human rights from traveling to the United States and from owning real estate or other assets there. The Obama administration had opposed the Magnitsky legislation, fearing diplomatic retaliation, but members of Congress were eager to press Russia over human rights abuses and tied the bill to another measure granting Russia new status as a full trading partner.

Nor are Russian concerns devoid of legitimacy. In the Washington Post, Olga Khazan reports:

Several high-profile cases of abuse also haven’t helped. Russian policymakers named the bill after a high-profile Russian adoptee, Dima Yakovlev, a toddler who was adopted by a Virginia couple and died after being left in a hot car for nine hours. And after a 7-year-old Russian boy was returned alone to Moscow in 2010 by his Tennessean adoptive mother, the outrage was so great that a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson temporarily announced a suspension of all U.S. adoptions.

Putin, in turn (the Times again) said that instead he would sign

… a resolution also adopted Wednesday that calls for improvements in Russia’s child welfare system. “I intend to sign the law,” Mr. Putin said Thursday, “as well as a presidential decree changing the procedure of helping orphaned children, children left without parental care, and especially children who are in a disadvantageous situation due to their health problems.”

Whether or not he’ll follow up is another matter. Meanwhile, the Dima Yakovlev Bill could have been avoided if the United States hadn’t passed the Magnitsky Act, which amounted to poking a stick at the Russian bear. Russia also kicked the United States Agency for International Development out of the country.

The Russian government had made no secret of its unhappiness with some programs financed by the Agency … like Golos, the country’s only independent election-monitoring group, which helped expose fraud in disputed parliamentary voting last December.

Meanwhile, Russia’s termination of Nunn-Lugar may also be a result of U.S. insistence on deploying missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. It claims, however, that it has enough money of its own to continue to perform the services Nunn-Lugar had been funding. But, as with caring for underserved children, it remains to be seen if Russia will follow through.

Blame Russia, for, in both instances, cutting off its nose to spite its face. But, in fact, it had been seeking to save that face when confronted by the United States with the Magnitsky Act, perceived interference by the Agency for International Development, and missile defense.

How Will Obama’s Reconfigured National Security Team Approach the Middle East?

While President Obama has been battling the Republicans in Congress over the looming fiscal crisis, his new administration and national security team are taking shape with diverse consequences especially on US foreign policy in the Middle East. President Obama has nominated veteran Senator John Kerry to be his secretary of State to replace Hillary Clinton. It is also reported that Obama is considering former republican Senator Chuck Hagel to head either the department of defense or the CIA. Both men, if confirmed, will be important in shaping the president’s foreign policy and are aligned with his political vision for America and its role in the world especially its relation with the new emerging Arab World.

UN ambassador Susan Rice who had withdrawn her nomination for the Secretary of State position over the Bengazi controversy, and was Obama’s first choice for the job, will either keep her current job as the US ambassador at the UN, or as many Washington insiders point out will get the National Security Advisor post as a consolation prize.

Kerry, Hagel and Rice are known to be proponents of using Smart Power, which has been the hallmark of the first Obama administration, and that used a combination of hard and soft power by utilizing diplomacy, capacity and coalition building, political pressure, and the projection of military power to achieve US policy objectives.

Choosing Senator Kerry to head the State Department means that President Obama will not depart from the basic tenets of his foreign policy especially in the Middle East. Senator Kerry, with over 30 years of foreign policy experience at the Senate, is known to advocate negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and his views on this subject do not include using the US military war machine as an instrument of foreign policy. In addition, Kerry’s views on the Arab Israeli conflict are not far off from those of the president.

In fact Kerry’s stature in Washington will lend President Obama a much-needed political cushion to deal with his nemesis Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to jump start the so called “peace-process”.

An indication of a new approach of the US policy in region was evident when Mr. Obama sent Secretary Clinton to the Middle East during the latest Gaza war last November in order to stop the Israeli planned ground invasion in its tracks.

During the war in Gaza, President Obama, feeling much more confident after his reelection for a second term, made sure to deliver a humiliating defeat to Netanyahu by forcing him to stop his planned ground invasion of Gaza.

To do that, President Obama along with his senior advisors first made public statements and pronouncements supporting Israel’s position and its right to defend itself against Hamas and its missiles. No word was mentioned during this brief war about the plight of Palestinians or about the brutal Israeli bombardment of Gaza that took the lives of scores of innocent Palestinian civilians.

In this approach Obama first fortified his domestic standing as being unequivocally pro-Israel and better silenced his would-be critics, including Netanyahu himself, than had he charted a more balanced course that spoke of both sides of the conflict instead of Israel alone. With his domestic front is safe and secured, President Obama sent Secretary Clinton to forcefully prevent Netanyahu from acting on his threats to invade Gaza which would have inflamed the Arab World, especially the new Egypt against the US.

This quiet and clever strategy seemed to have worked better for Obama than his former approach of appearing to be publicly pressuring Israel to give up its illegal settlement-building in the Palestinian territories and pressuring it to engage in meaningful peace talks with the Palestinians.

Although it is unclear whether president Obama will push for a Palestinian-Israeli direct or indirect talks in 2013 or later given the weakness of the Palestinian side and the instability in the two most important Arab states, Egypt and Syria.

In the meantime, the reported choice of former Nebraska republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who is known to criticize Israeli policies in the region and also criticized its lobby in Washington, to be his Secretary of Defense will likely solidify the president’s positions on Iran, and Palestine-Israel by choosing his security team with strong Washington experience and not afraid to speak their minds. That said, however, Mr. Obama is facing his first test on the Middle East as the right-wing pro-Israeli groups are mounting a vicious campaign the thwart the nomination of Mr. Hagel on the grounds of his past remarks regarding Israel, Hamas, and Iran. In 2006 Hagel described in a newspaper interview a “Jewish Lobby” that is “intimating a lot of people.”

The final piece in Obama’s national security team is ambassador Susan Rice who is very close to the president and is expected to be rewarded with the National Security Advisor post. Rice put her own political future on the line by defending the president on the Bengazi terrorist attack while the Obama reelection campaign was entering its dangerous close-race zone. Rice is known to be a proponent of using smart power that will utilize the use of the entire components of US national power — diplomacy, military, scientific and cultural — to achieve the US strategic objectives around the world.

Ali Younes is a writer and analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: [email protected] and on Twitter at @clearali.

Is Israel Proof That an Armed Society Can Work?

At the Tablet on December 17, Lial Lebovitz attempts to explain (in a piece titled) Why Israel Has No Newtowns. First, he notes that, in the United States

… astute thinkers tried to look past their indignation and heartbreak in search of sensible policy alternatives. Not surprisingly, they often ended up looking to Israel. … A popular statistic spread like wildfire on Facebook and Twitter: Only 58 Israelis were killed by guns last year, compared with 10,728 Americans. … Assault rifles are banned, registration is necessary, and a whole system of checks and requirements is in place to keep weapons out of the wrong hands.

But, Lebovitz points out that, while assault rifles are banned in Israel, it’s surprisingly easy to obtain a handgun. (In particular, note what I’ve italicized.)

Security guards, obviously, are permitted their guns, but so are men and women who work in the diamond industry, or who handle valuable goods or large sums of cash. Anyone who lives or works in an “entitled residency”—code for a high-risk area, meaning the settlements—is permitted a weapon, no questions asked. Retired army officers can easily obtain a license, as can anyone who has inherited a gun from a friend or a relative. [Bad pun alert. -- RW] The upshot: Anyone can come up with an excuse to legally own a gun.

“How, then,” Lebovitz asks, “to explain Israel’s relatively low rate of gun-related deaths?” His argument now becomes familiar. He quotes Lior Nedivi, who he describes as an “an independent firearms examiner in Jerusalem and the co-author of a comprehensive report comparing Israel’s gun laws and culture to that of the United States.”

“An armed society,” Nedivi wrote, quoting the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, “is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.

Lebovitz adds:

When everyone has a gun, guns are no longer seen as talismans by weak, frightened, and unstable men seeking a sense of self-validation, but as killing machines that are to be handled with the utmost caution and care.

He fails to explain, though, exactly why said “weak, frightened, and unstable men” no longer turn to guns for “a sense of self-validation.” What follows is equally familiar.

… ever more stringent gun control is bad policy: As is the case with drugs, as was the case with liquor during Prohibition, the strict banning of anything does little but push the market underground into the hands of criminals and thugs. Rather than spend fortunes and ruin lives in a futile attempt to eradicate every last trigger in America, we would do well to follow Israel’s example and educate gun owners about their rights and responsibilities, so as to foster a culture of sensible and mindful gun ownership.

It’s the old deterrence argument. When applied to nuclear weapons, those of us in the disarmament community know that deterrence is, at best, a short-term solution. In fact, it’s the epitome of a fragile peace. But, I’m forced to admit that the implications for an armed civil society are not nearly as dire, since one mistake won’t result in the destruction of large portions of the world, as with nuclear weapons. Neither is civil war in the United States, Israel, or Switzerland (another heavily armed society) likely. Thus, it’s left to those of us in favor of steeper gun regulation to present arguments and data refuting the belief that gun possession is an effective form of deterrence.

In the interim, though, it’s difficult to disagree with what Jill Lepore wrote in her outstanding April 2012 New Yorker article on the history of gun control in the United States.

When carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense is understood not as a failure of civil society, to be mourned, but as an act of citizenship, to be vaunted, there is little civilian life left.

Bulgaria’s Educated Among Those Most Likely to Discriminate Against Roma

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

Much has changed in Eastern Europe over 22 years. But one group that has seen relatively little improvement in its fortunes over this period has been the Roma. Unemployment levels among Roma remain high. Access to decent education, health care, and other social services is limited. Representation in politics and business is minimal. And discrimination remains pervasive.

In interviews and casual conversations in the four southeastern European countries I visited this fall, I heard the same stereotypes about Roma repeated over and over again. And many of the people who trafficked in these stereotypes were highly educated, the people who are expected “to know better.”

Maria Metodieva was, until recently, in charge of Roma issues at the Open Society Institute in Sofia, Bulgaria. She confirmed for me this most depressing fact. “We’ve done research on the type of people who are more likely to be discriminatory,” she said. “The most educated people, in terms of higher education, discriminate the most. This is ridiculous. Once you have a good education, it means that you’ve been studying in a mixed environment, and you know much more about diversity and cultural pluralism.”

But alas, there isn’t as much cultural pluralism in Bulgaria as one might hope. The effort to desegregate schools and ensure that Roma and non-Roma mix in the classrooms has encountered pushback. Economically, Roma continue to be marginalized, often living in crowded conditions in poor neighborhoods in cities like Plovdiv. Some successful Roma, borrowing a page from African-American history, “pass” as non-Roma if they can get away with it, which does little to upend common stereotypes. And even very successful Roma who openly proclaim their heritage, like TV anchorwoman Violeta Draganova, have experienced the same, maddening discrimination that their less famous brothers and sisters face.

Here’s another depressing fact. The OSI program has been quite successful in placing Roma interns in businesses in Bulgaria. But that success has been almost entirely in multinational businesses, Maria Metodieva reports, not with Bulgarian businesses. Roma don’t just face a glass ceiling – they face glass walls.

Europe is currently more than halfway through the Decade of Roma Inclusion. There have been conferences and studies and documentaries and political lobbying. And millions of Euros have been allocated to closing the gap between Roma and the rest of Europe. There have been some notable achievements, particularly in terms of the greater visibility of Roma issues. But it’s easy to get discouraged when you come face to face with persistent discrimination. On the other hand, the modern civil rights movement in the United States was at it for more than two decades before achieving the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the election of an African-American president more than four decades later still doesn’t mean that racism has been flushed out of the American system.

But many Roma, as they struggle against injustice and attempt to build a truly multiethnic democracy, keep their eyes on the prize. Maria Metodieva talked with me about OSI’s programs on Roma and what has worked and hasn’t worked in terms of policy approaches. She now works at the Trust for Social Achievement, which focuses on education, jobs, and capacity-building for marginalized communities in Bulgaria.

The Interview

How would you evaluate the change in the situation for Roma between 1989 and today, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 least disappointed?

3, which is quite close to 1. Unfortunately after the changes, the living conditions for Roma deteriorated. And Roma became more marginalized compared to the period of the socialist regime.

How do you feel about your own personal situation over the same period and along the same spectrum?

Considering the fact that I was very young in 1989, I would say 6.

Looking into the near future, 1-2 years, how do you feel about the prospects for Bulgarian society, with 1 being most pessimistic, 10 most optimistic?

Considering the political context and the economic situation, I would give a 3 again, because I think that one or two years is too short a time for any significant change in regard to economic or political stability.

Please tell me a little bit about the Roma-related programs here at the Bulgarian office of Open Society.

I’m managing a bunch of projects that range from small-scale to really large-scale. They are mainly on issues related to the Decade of Roma Inclusion, the initiative led by George Soros and the World Bank. The priorities we work on are health, employment, and housing. We also do some work on education, mostly through the provision of scholarships to Roma studying medicine. Most of our projects are research. We try to assist in the adequate formulation of evidence-based policies by the government at a national, regional and local level.

We have some interesting action projects. One of them is a project we call Bridging Roma and Private Business in Bulgaria. We place qualified and highly motivated Roma in internships in multinational and national companies in Bulgaria. The hidden objective of this program is to place the interns in permanent employment. This appears to be the most successful Roma initiative.

We have some other projects that are large-scale and related to research. We try to identify the position of Roma in the labor market. We try to follow trends in terms of social distance toward Roma in mainstream society.

You said the placement of interns in multinational companies was successful. Can you give some examples?

We have a girl named Desi. She’s a lawyer by vocation. She applied to the program. We placed her at TNT, a logistics company. She was placed as an intern to the general manager of the company here in Bulgaria. This was three years ago. After the three months, she was offered a year-long contract. Then she was retrained to take another position in lower management in the company. Now she is still working for TNT. I believe that her life changed. Actually she’s one of the best practices, if we can use that phrase, because she managed to change the stereotypes and the attitudes of her colleagues. She was Roma in an environment that is completely Bulgarian, without any other ethnic minority representatives. Now she feels very comfortable within the company.

We had another example of Bozhidar, who was interested in alternative energy resources. We placed him in an electricity supply company here in Bulgaria, EVN, a Bulgarian-Austrian company. He worked there for a year and a half. Nowadays he is paid partly by EVN to do a master’s degree in the United States. I think these are the two of the most successful that we’ve had in this program. In general, we have a really good success rate for interns that were placed and are still working.

But your evaluation of the situation for Roma was 3, which suggests that there remain significant challenges. Can you tell me about the most significant challenges that your programs face?

Negative attitudes and discrimination. Affirmative action, something that’s quite popular in the United States, this is not something that would happen or be acceptable in Bulgaria. It wouldn’t work. The bridging project actually is a kind of affirmative action program, but it works only with multinational companies, not with the Bulgaria companies. This is another sign that something is really wrong. So, the first challenge is the hostile environment.

We have also witnessed the rise of far-right-oriented political parties, which have had huge support from Bulgarian citizens, and that’s why they have managed to enter the Bulgarian parliament. So, this is another thing that has been a great challenge to our programs.

Otherwise, I’d say that it’s mostly human resources that is lacking on behalf of the Roma community: people who are willing to work and be dedicated to the cause of improving the life of Roma in Bulgaria. This lack of human resources is connected to the lack of education, the lack of access to quality education.

Some people have told me that there’s been some improvement over the last five or six years in terms of attitudes about Roma, in part because of the success of some Roma in Bulgarian society. Others have told me that there has been movement backward. I talked to someone about a program with Bulgarian journalists. The only thing they were able to able to achieve was the change in the descriptive word, from Gypsy to Roma, but the actual attitude of people didn’t change. What do you think, has there been some improvement or movement backward?

I’ll give you an example. You see me now. If I go to New York, do you think that anyone would turn to me and call me a Gypsy?

No.

I have a son. He’s four years old. Two weeks ago, we were traveling with my husband to visit his parents in the village. On the way back, we stopped at a gas station. The gas station has a playground. So my son, said, “Mommy, can I go and play a bit at the playground.” And I said, “Of course, you can.” There were a few kids, ages 6 to 9. When my son approached, they said, “Go away, you dirty Gypsy.” This is the situation now in this country.

I interviewed the Roma journalist Violeta Draganova and she told me a very similar story involving a swimming pool. She also said she likes to go to Brussels, because people there think she’s Spanish and she doesn’t have to deal with negative stereotypes. At an individual level, the discrimination continues. Do you see any indications of improvement at the larger, societal level?

Unfortunately, no. Because there are some preconditions that have to be taken into consideration. Some factors impede the acceptance of Roma as equal citizens of Bulgaria. First of all, the government, even though it recognizes there is a problem with Roma, doesn’t speak aloud about it. They think that if they speak publicly they won’t win the next elections. The other problem is the media. Even though it uses politically correct terminology, the media still publishes articles with content that is abusive. The media is the main channel that transmits the messages of negative attitudes about Roma in Bulgaria.

Right now, we have this interesting reality TV format called Big Brother. We have a young Roma singer, an artist who’s invited to take part in that program. She’s been very active on mainstream issues, as active as any other participant. But at the same time there are these comments on the online forums and by the other participants on the show that she’s Roma and therefore she’s stupid. Or that she’s not good enough to be on this Big Brother reality show. This is the common opinion of the average Bulgarian.

In addition to that, we’ve done research on the type of people who are more likely to be discriminatory. The most educated people, in terms of higher education, discriminate the most. This is ridiculous. Once you have a good education, it means that you’ve been studying in a mixed environment and you know much more about diversity and cultural pluralism. The illiterate, not having even primary education, are not supposed to know much about these things. This is an interesting phenomenon that has to be researched to identify the reasons.

There is a similar reality show in Serbia in which celebrities live with ordinary families. And they had a show in which a famous person lived with a Roma family. The negative reactions were similar to those in Bulgaria. On the other hand, however, there was a whole set of positive reactions, like “I never saw how Roma lived before” and “It was interesting to see a Serb that we know interacting in a positive way with Roma.” Are such positive responses possible here in Bulgaria?

Yes, but on a very personal level. The mass attitudes are influenced by stereotypes. But if you follow individual cases, then you see the possibility for change in this type of attitude.

I’ll give you another example. A colleague of ours recently left our office. She went to work for a multinational company. When we interviewed her for the position here, she was clearly informed that it was a Roma-related program. And she was honestly interested in the program. Then suddenly during the implementation of the program, she became so frustrated with the beneficiaries of the project. In a way she revealed her stereotypes of the Roma, that Roma are not good.

So, on the one hand, there’s a real interest on behalf of different representatives of society to learn more and to hear more about the Roma community. On the other hand, many people are raised with the notion that Roma are bad, are illiterate. At some point these people try to prove these stereotype for themselves.

The Movements for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) was supposed to deal with not just the rights and freedoms of the ethnic Turkish community, but of all ethnic communes. Do you think that MRF has represented Roma issues over the last 20 years? We’ve also seen the development of some Roma parties, like EuroRoma. Can any of those parties serve the same kind of function that MRF has served for the ethnic Turkish population?

I think that this particular political movement has not been openly serving this function for the Roma community, but still this issue is on their agenda, and they use it for their own profit. We’ve had local mayors and actual Roma representatives involved in local municipalities and authorities around the country from this particular party. Basically, there is a dialogue between Roma community leaders and the MRF.

On the second question, Roma political parties, there have been many attempts. The politically correct answer is that due to the diversity of the Roma communities in Bulgaria, it is difficult to find and identify a compromise that unites them politically. Bulgaria is a unique example, not found anywhere in Europe or in Central-Europe Europe, where Roma cannot work together. Roma leaders can’t do anything together. And it’s not because they’re diverse. It’s because their agenda is completely different. There are also large levels of corruption among the Roma leaders. But this is not the politically correct answer.

Ataka has become a more powerful political force. Do you think that this is just temporary, the result of the economic conditions in Bulgaria? Or are you more pessimistic?

The influence of Ataka and the passion it has generated are vanishing. It’s not the kind of factor today that it was four years ago. I don’t think they have any chances for the next parliamentary elections. There are private interests behind Ataka. If anyone dares to disclose information about the founding resources, it would be very interesting.

Why do you think that Ataka’s popularity has declined?

Because the current government GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) is no longer interested in Ataka as a partner. This might change for the next elections. Obviously, Ataka has lost a part of its audience because of the internal challenges facing the party in terms of governing, corruption, and everything else. This is part of the reason why I believe that Ataka is losing support.

If GERB tries to make a coalition for the next election, it won’t be with Ataka. But it may form a coalition with that other crazy man, Yane Yanev, from RZS (Order, Law and Justice). It’s another small formation. But the government uses Yanev to shut the mouth of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) with corruption scandals. I have to be honest. We are witnessing a very interesting and challenging political life after the changes in 1989. Not that I’m not familiar with what happened before that. I’ve read historical books. It seemed quite boring during the time of Todor Zhivkov.

The Chinese have a curse: may you live in interesting times.

Obviously, we are cursed!

The ruling party is not, you mentioned, interested in working in coalition with Ataka. Do you think that GERB has absorbed some of Ataka’s message and made its right-wing populism into a more politically acceptable form in Bulgaria?

I can’t say that. At the same time, we have a high-ranking official, the vice prime minister responsible for the Decade of Roma Inclusion who is also the minister of interior. At a public forum, he dares to say that the major target group of his ministry are Roma. They are the most marginalized and criminalized people in the country, and he’s obliged to undertake appropriate measures to reduce the rate of Roma perpetrating crimes. So, it’s part of the government’s rhetoric. But I don’t think that they’re as oriented toward the kind of discrimination that Ataka was proclaiming during the elections.

The EU has put some funds into Roma issues. Have they made a difference?

It’s too soon to tell. We became a member of the EU just recently, in 2007. Five years is not sufficient time for achieving any success. In addition to that, there is a lack of capacity and human resources in the government to absorb funds related to Roma. Increasing the capacity of the government to implement this kind of policy would be the best-case scenario.

At the same time, there is a lack of decision about whether the government will implement targeted policies for Roma or whether they will implement mainstream policies funded by the EU. This hesitancy and lack of understanding has led to a total confusion around spending money. They spend without a clear vision about the final product or the beneficiaries.

Are there programs in the region directed at Roma, or with Roma or by Roma, that you can point to and say, this is a great program, this is something that can serve as an important model?

I think that what works best is a mainstream policy that has an impact on socially vulnerable or challenged people. I’ve seen an example of social housing in Spain that has worked well both for Roma and for socially vulnerable groups. For me, this project would work anywhere because it is a mainstream program and it won’t lose support from Roma or mainstream society.

I’ll give you another example. We had a Roma-targeted policy funded by EU funds in Burgas here in Bulgaria. The municipality applied for the funds and the project was approved. The main goal of the project was the construction of social housing for Roma. But suddenly, the local community in Burgas opposed this construction and forced the mayor to withdraw from the project. So, basically, Roma-related projects won’t work in Bulgaria.

When I worked with the American Friends Service Committee, I worked on an exchange that brought American civil rights leaders to this region to meet with Roma. During these meetings, three different approaches came out: a civil rights approach by Roma that was more confrontational, a community development approach, and a top-down approach with EU and government funding. Which approach do you think is best?

There has to be a mixture of all these approaches. Therefore, we are trying to convince the government that an integrated approach is needed to solve the problems of Roma. There has to be a dual process. On the one side there are Roma. On the other side, there are ethnic Bulgarians and other ethnic minorities. At some point, these two groups have to meet somewhere. The problem is that neither of the groups is moving. We are at some kind of a dead end. And we have to find another way to make these groups move forward toward each other.

Unfortunately to make groups move, we have not only to secure funding, public support, and adequate government with an adequate message. We also have to talk to people on the community level, people who live together with Roma and Bulgarians as well as Roma who live only among Roma. Everyone feels comfortable in their own situation, and they don’t want to change it.

2012 in 16 Stories

fpif-best-of-2012Every year around this time, pundits and prognosticators set about the task of divining what the last year meant. What did we learn about the world? And what grand narrative can condense a year’s worth of news into a single story we can all share in?

It’s an unenviable task. From incomplete revolutions in the Middle East to a worsening climate crisis all over, 2012 seemed ill-suited to grand narratives from the outset. The work continues, if more urgently than before.

But when it comes to granular narratives, those little stories that thread through the lives of every person on this planet, any FPIF reader will know that the year 2012 has been as bountiful as any. From drugs to drones, budgets to bases, and Syria to Sandy, FPIF continues to cover the human impacts of policy at home and abroad, always affording a special place to scholars and activists committed to changing it for the better.

In that spirit, I’ve collected 16 of our biggest stories from 2012—those global vignettes that readers like you read, shared, and talked about the most. Brought to you by a diverse cast of talented contributors, these tales cover a host of issues in nearly every region of the world. I hope you’ll enjoy revisiting them while you do your own musing about the past year.

And, if you like what you read here, I hope you’ll support FPIF with an end-of-the-year donation today. As an independent, non-profit progressive outlet, FPIF survives by your support alone.

Best wishes for a safe and happy new year. With your help, we’ll be there with you.

FPIF: Best of 2012

ben-affleck-argo-review“Argo” and Hollywood’s Muslim Problem
Fouad Pervez
While well-intentioned, Ben Affleck’s Argo failed to promote a more nuanced view of U.S.-Iranian relations, falling into the common Hollywood trap of making Muslims into a monolithic Green Menace.

drones-double-tappingAttacks on First Responders Transform Criminality of Drone Strikes to Sadism
Russ Wellen
The term “double-tapping,” or the practice of firing on the first responders to a drone strike, fails to capture the sociopathic nature of the tactic.

why-chavez-wonWhy Chavez Won Again
Danny Glover
Actor and activist Danny Glover was in Venezuela for its October elections, where he met with members of the marginalized groups who were key to President Hugo Chavez’s reelection victory.

hawaii-head-of-tentacled-beastHawaii: Head of the Tentacled Beast
Jon Letman
The sooner Hawaii recognizes that it would be better off with a drastically reduced dependency on the military, the sooner it can begin to move toward a healthier, safer, and more secure future.

six-global-issues-debatesSix Global Issues the Foreign Policy Debates (Didn’t) Touch
Sarah Anderson, Phyllis Bennis, Peter Certo, Miriam Pemberton, Sanho Tree, and Daphne Wysham
IPS scholars kept a host of neglected foreign policy issues in the conversation throughout a presidential campaign that ignored them.

tpp-quiet-coup-investor-classThe TPP: A Quiet Coup for the Investor Class
Hilary Matfess
The Obama administration’s trade negotiators have been quietly assembling a massive trans-Pacific trade agreement as reactionary as anything Mitt Romney’s team would have proposed.

unscientific-drug-control-regimeOur Unscientific Drug Control Regime
Felipe Umana
When it comes to determining which drugs are more harmful than others, the international drug control regime has historically favored religious and ideological prejudices over scientific data.

reinforcing-washingtons-asia-pacific-hegemonyReinforcing Washington’s Asia-Pacific Hegemony
Joseph Gerson
The Obama administration’s “Pacific Pivot,” a massive diplomatic and military mobilization against China, is sure to escalate tensions in a crucial global region.

california-assembly-stifle-debate-israelCalifornia State Assembly Stifles Debate on Israel
Stephen Zunes

A resolution passed this year in California casts such a wide net over “anti-Semitism” that it could curb the free speech rights of student groups in the state who criticize Israeli policies.

sectarian-jihad-syria-made-usaSectarian Jihad in Syria: Made in the USA?
Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed
By the summer of 2012, Syria was not so much in the throes of civil war as it was a theater for much broader geopolitical conflictsa phenomenon the U.S. played no small role in facilitating.

art-arab-awakeningArt and the Arab Awakening
Nama Khalil
Often overlooked by international coverage, the Arab world’s artists have helped foster a more vibrant civil society in the wake of the Arab Spring, pointing the way to more durable democratic institutions.

deporting-adult-adopteesDeporting Adult Adoptees
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, Caitlin Kee, and Kristin R. Pak
Because of a quirk in U.S. immigration law, many adult adoptees in the United States have been kicked out of the country they were legally brought to as children.

spanish-austerity-savageSpanish Austerity Savage to the Point of Sadism
Conn Hallinan
The bailout package negotiated by Spain’s government earlier this year was yet another witches’ brew of cutbacks, layoffs, and austerity measures.

noam-chomskys-occupyNoam Chomsky’s “Occupy”
John Feffer
Veteran writer and activist Noam Chomsky was not one to watch the unfolding Occupy movement from the sidelines, evidenced by this collection of the dissident’s exchanges with the movement.

why-kony-2012-failsWhy Kony 2012 Failed
Matthew Kavanagh
The Invisible Children campaign’s now notorious viral video about Joseph Kony provided a Twitter-like view of Uganda, political history, and U.S. foreign policy.

carbon-blood-money-hondurasCarbon Blood Money in Honduras
Rosie Wong
Violence playing out between peasants and landowners in Honduras shows the dark underbelly of the international carbon credit trade, which has created new financial incentives for violent grabs.

Peter Certo is the Acting Editor of Foreign Policy in Focus.

Conn Hallinan’s 2012 “Are You Serious?” Awards

Each year Conn Hallinan’s blog Dispatches From the Edge awards news stories and newsmakers that fall under the category of “Are you serious?” Here are 2012′s winners.

Cluster bombs

Cluster bombs

Dr. Strangelove Award to Lord John Gilbert, former UK defense minister in Tony Blair’s government, for a “solution” to stopping terrorist infiltration from Pakistan to Afghanistan: Nuke ’em. Baron Gilbert proposes using Enhanced Radiation Reduced Blasts—informally known as “neutron bombs”—to seal off the border. According to Gilbert, “If we told them [terrorists] that some ERRB warheads were going to be dropped there and that it would be a very unpleasant place to go, they would not go there.”

The border between the two countries is a little over 1,600 miles of some of the most daunting terrain on the planet. And since the British arbitrarily imposed it on Afghanistan in 1896, most of the people who live adjacent to it, including the Kabul government, don’t recognize it.

Baron Gilbert went on to gild the lily: “I am absolutely delighted that nuclear weapons were invented when they were and I am delighted that, with our help, it was the Americans who invented them.” The residents of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were decidedly less enthusiastic.

Runner up in this category is the Sandia National Laboratories and Northrop Grumman for researching the use of nuclear powered drones that would allow un-piloted aircraft to stay aloft for months at a time. Nuclear-powered drones, like the Reaper and the Predator, would not only be able to fly longer and further, the aircrafts could carry a greater number of weapons.

This comes at a time when the Obama administration has approved the use of drones in the U.S. by states and private companies. “It’s a pretty terrifying prospect,” Chris Coles of Drone Wars UK told The Guardian. “Drones are much less safe than other aircraft and tend to crash a lot.” Iran recently claimed to have brought down a U.S. Scan Eagle drone and to have fired on a Predator. Last year Iran successfully captured a CIA-operated Sentinel drone.

Pandora’s Box Award goes to the U.S. and Israel for unleashing cyberwar on the world by attacking Iran’s nuclear industry. The Stuxnet virus—designed by both countries—successfully damaged Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, and the newly discovered Flame virus has apparently been siphoning data from Iranian computers for years.

But the “malware” got out of Iran—what do these people not understand about the word “virus”?—and, in the case of Stuxnet, infected 50,000 computers around the world. Two other related malware are called Mini-Flame and Gauss.

Iran retaliated this past summer, unleashing a virus called “Shamoon” to crash 30,000 computers in Saudi Arabia’s oil industry. Saudi Arabia provides 10 percent of the world’s oil needs.

A Russian anti-virus specialist recently told computer expert Misha Glenny that cyber weapons “are a very bad idea,” and his message was: “Stop doing this before it is too late.”

The Golden Lemon Award has three winners this year, the F-35 “Lightning” fighter, the F-22 “Raptor” fighter, and the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The F-35 and F-22 are repeat winners from last year’s awards (it is not easy to cost a lot of money and not work, year after year, so special kudos to the aircraft’s manufacturers Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman).

At $395.7 billion, the F-35 is now the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history, and the costs are still rising. It has constant problems with its engine, “unexplained” hot spots on the fuselage, and software that doesn’t function properly. Because the cost of the plane has risen 70 percent since 2001, some of our allies are beginning to back away from previous commitments to purchase the aircraft. Canadians had some sticker shock when it turned out that the price tag for buying and operating the F-35 would be $45.8 billion. Steep price rises (and mechanical problems) have forced Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Australia to re-think buying the plane as well. If that happens, the price of the F-35 will rise even higher, since Lockheed Martin was counting on U.S. allies to buy at least 700 F-35s as a way to lower per-unit costs. The U.S. is scheduled to purchase 2,457 F-35s at $107 million apiece (not counting weapons). The plane coast $35,200 per hour to fly.

The F-22—at $143 million a pop—has a major problem: the pilots can’t breathe. When you’re traveling 1,500 MPH at 50,000 plus feet, that’s a problem, as Capt. Jeff Haney found out in November 2010 over the Alaskan tundra. The Air Force had to wait until the spring thaw to recover his body. Since then scores of pilots have reported suffering from hypoxia and two of them recently refused to fly the aircraft. The breathing problems did not stop U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta from deploying two-dozen F-22s to Japan, although the planes are restricted to lower altitudes and have to stay no more than an hour and a half from land. That will require the pilots to fly to Alaska, and then hop across the Pacific via the Aleutian Islands to get to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa.

The cost of operating an F-22 is $128,389 a flying hour. In comparison, the average income for a minimum wage worker in the U.S. is $15,080 a year, the medium yearly wage is $26,364, and average yearly household income is $46,326. Dispatches suggests paddling the planes to Japan and raising the minimum wage.

The LCS is a very fancy, shallow water warship with lots of bells and whistles (at $700 million apiece it ought to have a few of those) with one little problem: “It is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment,” according to one Pentagon weapon’s tester. Since combat is generally “hostile” that does restrict what the ship can do. And given that cracks and leaks in the hulls are showing up, it might not be prudent to put them in the water. So while it may not work as a traditional ship—floating, that is—according to the LCS’s major booster in the Congress, U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala) “It’s going to scare hell out of folks.”

Particularly the ones who serve on it.

The LCS was originally designed to fight Iranian attack boats, but the feeling now is that it would lose in such encounters. But all is not lost. According to Joseph Rella, president of Austal USA, the company in Alabama that builds the LCS, “If I was a pirate in a little boat, I’d be scared to death.” Dispatches suggests that rubber “wolf man” masks would accomplish the same thing for considerably less money.

The Golden Sow’s Ear Award to U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY) for successfully lobbying the Pentagon to buy an oil drip pan for the Army’s Black Hawk helicopter for $17,000 a throw. The manufacturer, Phoenix Products, is a major contributor to Rogers’ campaigns. A similar product made by VX Aerospace costs $2,500 apiece. But Phoenix does have a strong streak of patriotism: The oil drip pans are discounted from the $19,000 retail price.

The Misplaced Priorities Award to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party for shelling out $28 million to celebrate the bicentennial of the War of 1812—including $6.3 million in television ads—while cutting $5.2 billion from the national budget and eliminating 19,200 federal jobs. The cuts have fallen particularly hard on national parks and historic sites.

Canada was not Canada in 1812, and the war was between the U.S. and the British Empire. Canada did not become a country until 1867.

The Queen of Hearts Award also goes to Harper and his Conservatives for “streamlining” the process of approving new oil and gas pipelines and limiting public comment. “Limiting” includes threats to revoke the charitable status of environmental groups that protest the pipelines and unleashing Canada’s homeland security department, Public Safety Canada (PSC), on opponents. The PSC considers environmentalists potential terrorists and lumps them in the same category as racist organizations. Dispatches suggests that Harper and Co. study the works of Lewis Carroll on how to sentence first, try later. Saves time and money.

The Chernobyl Award to the Japanese construction company BuildUp, hired by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to clean up the Fukushima nuclear plant that melted down in the aftermath of last year’s tsunami. A government report found that TEPCO did not issue radiation detectors to most of its workers even though it had hundreds of dosimeters on hand. BuildUp admitted that it had workers put lead plates over the detectors to avoid violating safety threshholds.

Teruso Sagara of BuildUp said the company only had their employees’ best interests in mind and thought that “we could bring peace of mind to the workers if we could somehow delay their dosimeters’ alarms going off.”

The report also cited the government for refusing to use computer projections on fallout from the crippled plant. In one case, two communities were directed into the middle of the radioactive plume.

The Chicken Little Award to the British government and the International Olympic Committee for approaching the 2012 London Olympics in much the same way the allies did the beaches at Normandy in 1944. The government deployed 13,500 ground troops, 20,000 private guards, plus the Royal Navy’s largest warship, along with armed helicopters, armored personnel carriers and Starstreak and Rapier anti-aircraft missiles.

According to Linden Empson, Dispatches’s intrepid reporter on the scene, the announcement that surface-to-air missiles were going to installed on six housing projects in the city were “delivered via a pizza company.” She suggested that was both “terrifying and hysterically funny.” One resident of Fred Wigg Tower told the New York Times that the leaflets “looked like one of those things where you get free pizza though the post, but this was like free missiles.”

The local residents were not amused and sued to stop the deployment. “Is the government seriously suggesting the answer to potential airborne threat is to detonate it over the city?” a former Royal Artillery officer wrote in a letter to The Guardian. The court eventually ruled against the residents.

The cost of all this security is close to $900 million at a time when the Conservative-Liberal government is slashing social welfare programs, education, and health care.

The Selective Reporting Award to the Los Angeles Times for reporting that the Assad regime was using cluster bombs, which “have been banned by most nations.” The newspaper pointed out that more than 100 countries had signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, but that Syria did not.

Quite true. What went unmentioned was that neither did the U.S., Russia, China, Pakistan, India, and Israel. According to the Cluster Munitions Coalition, the weapons “caused more civilian casualties in Iraq in 2003 and Kosovo in 1999 than any other weapon system.” The U.S. also used clusters in Afghanistan. American cluster weapons still take a steady toll of people in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. All of those cluster weapons were made in the USA.

The most egregious use of clusters in the last decade was by Israel, which spread four million submunitions in Lebanon during its 2006 invasion of that country. According to the UN, one million of those “duds” remain unexploded.

But the U.S. also uses the weapon on many occasions. In 2009, President Obama ordered a cluster strike in Yemen that ended up killing 44 people, including 14 women and 21 children. And the White House, according to The Independent, “is taking the leading role “to torpedo the global ban on clusters.” The administration argues that clusters manufactured after 1980 have less than a 1 percent failure rate, but anti-cluster activists say that is not the case. The widely used BLU-97, for instance, has a failure rate of 30 percent.

According to Handicap International, 98 percent of the casualties inflicted by clusters are civilians, 27 percent of those children.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

In Mexico, No Matter Which Party Holds the Reins, the People Lose

Part 2 of an interview with Drug War Mexico co-author Peter Watt. Also read Part 1.

DrugWarMexicoI recently spoke with Peter Watt, Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Sheffield, and co-author of a new study examining Mexico’s disastrous fight against narcotrafficking, Drug War Mexico. We discussed the origins and development of the Mexican drug trade, the intersections between neoliberal economic policies and the American-sponsored “war on drugs,” the prospects of continued democratization in Mexico, and what the new presidency of Enrique Pena Nieto might possibly hold for the country moving forward.

You and Roberto Zepeda spend time looking at the effects of the end of PRI hegemony. Some thought the 2000 elections would turn a hopeful new page in Mexican history. You argue it ushered in something quite different. Can you talk about what happened during this change of the guard, and why?

There were great hopes pinned on the supposed transition to democracy in 2000. It’s unsurprising that people were fed up with the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] dinosaur which had been in power for seventy-one years. But electoral pluralism and a change of political party don’t automatically mean that fundamental social problems disappear. What meaning can democracy really have in a country which is governed for and by the rich? The poor and the middle classes lose out every time, no matter who holds the reins. Unless there’s a radical restructuring of how society is run, by whom and for whom it is run, we can’t expect elections to have any profound impact. And unless there is a cohesive and organised popular opposition movement then elites are unlikely to change things much. They need to be pressured to do so, and eventually they need to be replaced by much more democratic forces which address inequality and poverty. But there was never any indication that the PAN [National Action Party] would do anything of the sort, aside from the vacuous rhetoric of the public relations exercises during election campaigns via the mass media.

One key change probably begins before the PRI loses the elections in 2000. As their support is waning, the PAN begins to hold political power in a number of states in the 1980s and 90s. And in those states where the PAN are in charge they no longer have a monopoly over the drugs trade. Increasingly, drug trafficking organizations are able to negotiate things on their own terms. The weakened central authority of the PRI, the increasing social instability and vulnerability of the population brought on by greater poverty and social hardship, is a golden opportunity for organized crime.

And remember that these organizations are very heavily armed and professionally trained. The group, Los Zetas, for example, is formed by deserters from the Mexican army, some of whom, ironically, are ex-anti-drug squad elites, many trained in the United States. All that investment by the Mexican and US governments into training elite squads—courtesy of the taxpayer—is now to the advantage of what has become one of the most dangerous criminal organizations on the planet.

By the 2000s, as Anabel Hernández argues in her book, Los señores del narco, high-level criminals are no longer employed by or subordinate to the PRI, the politicians, the police and the army. Quite the contrary, they are now in a position in which they view the political and law enforcement authorities as their own employees.

The last six years have witnessed a dramatic surge in violence and securitization of the state. We’ve seen a hideous spike in the number of dead, but you see other troubling consequences as well. Can you unpack these, and discuss their implications for both Mexico and the United States?

Well, the PAN gained the presidency in 2000 under Vicente Fox, promising a shift in Mexican politics. If nothing else, the PAN victory was an unambiguous and final rejection of the PRI. But the hopes that the PAN would provide substantial and structural change soon faded. Only six years later, the left-leaning Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (often referred to as AMLO) Party of the Democratic Revolution looked like it may very well win the elections. And this despite a vicious propaganda campaign channelled through the mainstream media demonizing him as a danger for Mexico, comparing him to a new Chávez, Mussolini or Hitler, depending on one’s preference.

The possibility of a left turn in Mexican politics was a terrifying prospect for Mexico’s traditional elite, married as it is to the Washington Consensus. The prospect of the reformist AMLO in power was considered too much of a threat to the status quo, which, despite being pretty disastrous for most of the population, nonetheless rewards the rich and powerful handsomely. So it seems the PRI and the PAN made a pact to make sure the AMLO would be denied power, regardless of the vote. In what appeared to be a fraudulent election (something with a long and notorious history in Mexico), the PAN won again, under the leadership of Felipe Calderón. This sparked the largest protests Mexico had ever seen—everyone knew that the political establishment was protecting itself and that its commitment to democratic principles was a total charade.

So it was perhaps a way of distracting popular attention from electoral fraud that Calderón, only after ten days in office, increased the number of troops to 50,000. That’s more than Tony Blair sent to invade and occupy Iraq. No wonder some parts of Mexico now resemble a war zone. The government makes one outrageous claim after another, saying organized crime is taking over, that the war on drugs will make Mexico secure and safe for your children, that there’s an outbreak in addiction rates, that they’re going to reduce homicides, and so on. There are few things as potent as fear to keep people in line.

But if you look at the statistics, it’s the war on drugs itself that has exacerbated all these things. Organized crime has become more powerful since 2006. The flow of narcotics north continues largely unabated. The addiction to narcotics in Mexico has always been tiny compared to the United States or Western Europe. But it’s actually increased since Calderón started this war. And the homicide rate was actually decreasing before he took power. As soon as this military strategy takes hold, suddenly there’s a massive upsurge in violence. And it gets more and more violent every year. The government released figures in August 2012 which indicated that about 100,000 people had been killed between 2007 and 2011. 2011 was the most violent yet, with around 27,000 homicides. That’s three every hour or one every twenty minutes. If this were taking place in some enemy of the Anglo-American empire, like Iran or Cuba, politicians, intellectuals and pundits would be pushing for another military intervention, citing the West’s responsibility to protect, to promote human rights and democracy, etc. But Mexico is a key regional ally of Washington and a major trading partner, so instead the Obama administration actively supports what the government’s doing through massive amounts of military spending under the rubric of The Mérida Initiative.

The magazine Milenio just completed a major investigation into mass graves in Mexico. Their conservative figure for the number of people disappeared into mass graves in Mexico is some 24,000. Note that they say this is “conservative” because some municipalities and states were either unable to or would not provide information. That’s a staggering figure, comparable to some of the worst atrocities of our times. It’s devoid of the ideology that characterised civil wars in the 20th Century. It’s all about profits, and who’s in control of territory and markets. So the Mexican government’s strategy, supported with military wherewithal by Obama, has massive responsibility in this. Human rights abuses in Mexico have risen dramatically in the last six years. Of the thousands of abuses reportedly committed by the military, which is ostensibly protecting civil society from organized crime, there have been about eight prosecutions in the last six years. So the military are clearly a major problem. And then we have the fact that groups like the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel, being impeccable capitalists, are forever seeking out new markets, seeing investment opportunities in all manner of human suffering. So organised crime in Mexico is not just about heroin, cocaine, cannabis and meth. Some 41 percent of laundered profits originate in drug trafficking. But 33 percent originates in human smuggling and human trafficking. That comprises kidnapping migrants and forcing them to work as sicarios, or assassins, or forcing them to work as drug runners, holding them in “safe” houses for ransom and killing them when their families can’t pay up. It’s forcing young girls and women into prostitution and reaping the profits and laundering them through major banks. It’s smuggling Mexican and Central American migrants into the United States for an exorbitant fee, often abandoning them in the desert or killing them outright. And there’s been an expansion of all types of criminal activity like extortion, piracy, organ trafficking, illegal pornography and child pornography.

There’s another aspect to this which I think is fundamental. In every war, crisis and conflict, we should look to who is benefiting from the status quo because it’s very possible that they bear responsibility. In this case, the Mexican political and economic elites are doing extremely well. In fact, they have never had it so good. Big business, both domestic and multinational, has never had so much freedom to operate in Mexico. There are far fewer union and labour rights—a process which is set to accelerate under the new administration of the Enrique Peña Nieto. And deregulation and the privileging of investor rights have given corporations a freer hand to fire workers, to impose more stringent working conditions and offer lower pay. And of course, those in high positions in the business sector in both Mexico and the United States are entangled with both governments. Another group to benefit is the banking sector, as mentioned earlier, which launders the profits—millions of dollars—every week. Their interests are also those of the business and political elites. A third group to benefit from the current crisis and chaos is organized crime, which has seen its influence grow massively. And those groups also have ties to big business, the banks and the political system. That’s not a new dynamic but it has become much more influential in the past decade.

So you have a system which favors the super-rich, the politicians and organized crime, all of whom have a shared interest in the continuation of the status quo. Over half the population lives below the poverty line and they don’t see many prospects of improvement. There’s a limit to how much propaganda via the TV, radio, soap operas and advertising can convince people that they’re not being screwed. So as public disillusionment and cynicism with the political and corporate sectors increases, a way to maintain such an unfair and unequal system is through the constant threat of violence, keeping people afraid and using the state security forces to repress and intimidate dissenters and oppositionary social movements. Now that the Cold War ideology of anti-communism has evaporated, the war on the narcos has a secondary purpose, which serves as a pretext for militarizing areas of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas which have strong traditions of social resistance. Speak to people in some areas of rural Guerrero about their experience of the quasi-permanent military presence there and you soon learn that much of the government’s strategy has nothing to do with narcotics but with social control.

One of the effects of globalization has been to make Mexico ever more dependent on the US economy. By now around eighty per cent of Mexican exports are destined for the United States. Maintaining “stability” in Mexico, making sure that it is a “safe” climate for investors, keeping wages down, dismantling the unions, are all factors that mean that the US government has no interest in seeing a dramatic shift in how things stand.

Finally, Mexico has a new president. Can you offer any thoughts on what we might expect from the EPN sexenio [term of office]?

Enrique Peña Nieto wouldn’t be where he is now if he weren’t backed by Mexican elites, the US government and business. They’re the ones who buy and win the elections. As I mentioned a moment ago, the most powerful forces both in the Mexico and the United States don’t want to see radical change. They want a continuation of the status quo. If that means that most people live in poverty and that some areas are blighted by violence, so be it. That’s an external concern, so as long as it doesn’t affect the bottom line.

Peña Nieto’s political campaign was an advertising campaign, which repeated hollow slogans like, “you’re going to earn more money.” And the campaign was bolstered significantly by mainstream media organizations like Televisa. As documents published by The Guardian demonstrated, the Peña Nieto campaign had effectively been paying for airtime and positive coverage on Televisa.

And then there were the numerous allegations of electoral fraud which followed the elections. For example, the PRI offered food vouchers to the poor, which they could claim once they had voted for Peña Nieto. The lines of poor people lining up to exchange vouchers for food, many of whom were refused, following the election was a fitting illustration of the PRI’s utter cynicism and contempt for the electoral process, something which has a long history in Mexico.

What of Peña Nieto himself? I think what Carlos Fuentes said just a few months before his death summed it up. Fuentes said that if Peña Nieto came to power, the consequences would be unimaginably disastrous because the man is so downright ignorant and incompetent, which seems to me like a very reasonable description. When he was asked by a journalist at a book festival about three books that had influenced his life, Peña Nieto was unable to come up with any that he had actually read. As he faltered over the question, he claimed to have read some passages from the Bible which he thought were really good. He was able to mention one book, La silla del águila, but attributed it to Enrique Krauze, not the actual author, Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes was one of the most influential and respected Mexican and international public intellectuals in the last one hundred years, and Peña Nieto can’t even get the book that he wrote right.

And then there’s his record while he was governor of the State of Mexico, which is much less amusing. When the state government attempts to expropriate land in San Salvador Atenco in order to build a second airport to serve Mexico City, Peña Nieto sends in federal police forces to beat up and imprison protesters. The attack is vicious and brutal. The leaders get locked up in maximum security prisons, one of them receiving a sentence for 150 years. Amnesty International documents numerous human rights violations, including complaints of sexual violence committed by the federal police, beatings and torture. Two people are killed by police.

So when Peña Nieto visits the Ibero-American University during the 2012 campaign, he’s confident that he will receive a warm welcome by the students there. After all, this is a private, fee-paying university. But the exact opposite happens. When he tries to give a speech, the students start yelling “murderer” at him, referring to Atenco, and he’s unable to finish. He eventually has to leave and the campaign team are so worried that something might happen to him that he hides in the restrooms until they find a safe passage for him to exit the university. He later claimed that students protesting against him were paid for the opposition and that they weren’t really students, a falsehood later repeated by Televisa. So the students make a film, which they post on YouTube, in which they show their university credentials. 131 students take part. The movement I Am 132, begins as people start saying that they’re all student number 132. In other words, there are millions of Mexicans who oppose the return of the PRI. The video goes viral on the internet and a vibrant new student movement forms.

So although the Peña Nieto has just announced a strategy to beat organized crime, which he claims will demilitarize parts of Mexico, my feeling is that the new government simply wants to present itself in contrast to what has preceded. There is a possibility that the PRI try to re-establish the control and monopoly of the drug trade, the Pax Mafiosa, that it had during the twentieth century.

But I doubt much will change substantially unless the government is forced to do so by civil society movements. Were there a sustained coalition of opposition movements challenging rule by and for the rich, then maybe things could start to change. But we should not look to Peña Nieto and the corrupt PRI for answers—they’re the problem and we should get away from thinking that they can provide solutions to a status quo which so rewards and benefits them.

Unless there are serious efforts to reduce inequality and combat corruption— neither of which demands a military strategy—there’s little room for optimism in my view. If bankers don’t start going to jail, there’s no inclination for them to act differently. HSBC have just been fined $1.9 billion for laundering money on behalf of organized crime in Mexico, but that fine only affects shareholders, not the individuals who are washing hot money. And it’s not just HSBC—other banks have been accused of money laundering. As Antonio Maria Costa, the former executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has said, in the context of the global financial crisis, it’s drug money that’s helping prop up the banks by giving them liquid assets. Unless governments address this central issue, the war on drugs is but a charade. Drug cartels are ultra-capitalist organizations whose prime concern is the accumulation of profit. In order to tackle organized crime, the governments in Mexico, the United States and the United Kingdom should radically alter the context in which they operate and dismantle the systems, run by the banks, which allow organized crime to accrue massive profits.

In the United States and Great Britain, the crisis in Mexico is represented in the media as a contemporary version of the “white man’s burden”. This is their problem, something they need to sort out, but with our help, of course. But think about where the largest markets and demands are for narcotics. Western Europe and the United States. The same for sex trafficking. And finally, think about where those banks that launder the cash are centred. It’s Manhattan, Miami and the City of London. Stephen Green, the former CEO and chairman of HSBC, left the company to join the cabinet of Prime Minister David Cameron and became Trade Minister. During his tenure at HSBC, he received about £25 million in bonuses and shares. At the same time, Mexicans, Americans and Britons are being told to tighten their belts in the context of severe austerity cuts to public services. Green also acts as adviser to British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne on banking of all things. That sounds very much like our problem too.

Is Rape in India Having Its Newtown Moment?

“Seven days of demonstrations peaked Sunday, as thousands of people joined women’s and students’ groups,” the New York Times reported, after “a 23-year-old medical student who boarded what she thought was a public bus on Dec. 16 was brutally raped. [The victim] suffered severe intestinal injuries after being attacked with an iron rod during the assault and was battling for her life, doctors said last week.”

The police responded with heavy-handed riot tactics and arrests, which have become de rigueur in not only India, but much of the Western world. From the Times:

Kulsoom Rashid, 27, rubbed her eyes and said she had been tear-gassed. … “Hundreds of rapists are running scot-free, and the entire Delhi police is standing here to stop people like me?” … After several recent, highly publicized rape cases, India has been struggling to come to grips with the scale of the vastly underreported problem. Even when rapes are reported, suspects are rarely found and arrested.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, was quoted thusly:

“The consistent thing we have been seeing for the last couple of years is that people have come to believe that the state has become an instrument largely for the benefit and protection of a few — and mostly politicians. … That momentum is producing an open contempt of the state.”

The brutality of that incident may have brought weak enforcement of laws against rape in India to a tipping point. Just as Newtown may have done for gun violence in the United States. Not only do states that fail to protect their women and children deserve contempt, but their very legitimacy is called into question.

Magnitsky Act Backlash

On Friday, December 21, the Russian State Duma passed the anti-Magnitsky Act that if signed by President Vladimir Putin will take effect January 1, 2013. The anti-Magnitsky bill forbids dual US-Russian citizens from participating in foreign NGOs and will ban US adoption of Russian orphans, in addition to banning specific US citizens from entering Russia. Russian officials wish to create the Dima Yakovlev List in retaliation to the Magnitsky list to punish US officials implicated in human rights violations against Russians, including adopted children. The list is named after a Russian boy adopted by a US family who died after his family left him in a locked car.

The Russian bill was proposed in opposition to the US Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act passed December 6 to replace the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal. The Magnitsky Act imposes asset freezes and visa bans on Russian officials suspected to be responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, who accused the Russian IRS of tax fraud and later died in jail. However, the opposition fears that the Act will go beyond punishing only those officials implicated in Magnitsky’s death.

Critics of the Act say the list should not be open to additional names. Furthermore, they think the criteria for adding names to the list are too ambiguous and should require a more stringent legal process prior to addition. Moscow’s Levada Center says only 14 percent of Russians opposed the law while 39 percent supported it and 48 percent were undecided. Andrei Sidorov, Assistant Dean of the World Politics Faculty of the Moscow State University, calls the law patronizing and criticizes it for targeting economic relations with human rights rhetoric. Sidorov says, “The Magnitsky law reflects the interests of a lobby that seeks to prevent its competitor from coming onto the U.S. market.” Stephen Cohen, an NYU professor and expert on Russia, also warns that US corporations and Russian oligarchs will use the law to liquidate property and stifle the economic power that their Russian rivals have in the United States.

Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center‘s Pro et Contra journal suggests that although Russians dislike US interference “they hate their own officials more” and therefore welcome the accountability provided by the Magnitsky Act. Dmitry Lovetsky of AP illustrates a demonstrator holding a poster saying “Add Putin to the Magnitsky List” at a St. Petersburg rally last weekend.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking at the International Parliamentary Forum this December, stressed that the Magnitsky Act was not passed diplomatically and will promote conflict in US-Russian relations. Oleg Ivanov of the Global Times fears that the current Magnitsky situation will incite negative repercussions for cooperation on terrorism, arms control, and non-proliferation, and will strengthen Russian-Chinese alliance on issues of sovereignty and non-interference. In order to address the concerns of critics of the Magnitsky Act and strengthen US-Russian relations, the US should offer specific criteria for adding names to the Magnitsky List and guarantee due process prior to the addition of names.

Julia A. Heath is an independent foreign policy analyst and educator.

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