Sunday, September 30, 2007

Jamaica: The more things change...

At almost exactly this time last year, wrapping up a several-week’s long trip to Jamaica, one of my favorite places, and I published an article with the Inter Press Service detailing the struggle of one father to get justice for a son that he claimed was murdered in an extrajudicial killing by Jamaican police.

The story of the struggle of Barrington Fox who, along with Yvonne Sobers, founded Families Against State Terrorism (FAST), a Jamaican organization that now lobbies for greater police oversight and accountability and judicial reform, seemed to speak for all of the those concerned about the level of killings by the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), among the highest per capita in the world.

Today, the Jamaica Gleaner is reporting that, far from having improved from 2005, which saw 168 fatal shootings by police in this Caribbean country of just under 3 million people, things have gotten even worse, with 196 people slain by police thus far thus year. That’s roughly about 22 people per month.

Having spent a decent amount of time in impoverished areas of Kingston where gunmen often loyal to one of Jamaica’s two main political parties, the People’s National Party (PNP) and Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), hold sway, and having seen first-hand the confluence between criminal and political activity, I realize that there is much truth in something that Mark Shields, a 30-year veteran of police forces in Britain who has served as deputy commissioner for crime in the JCF since 2005, told me last year.

"Policing in Jamaica is a highly dangerous enterprise," Shields said, as we sat in his office in Kingston. "The criminals here are armed with high velocity weapons, are not afraid to use them and the police have limited resources."

Nevertheless, something is obviously terribly wrong at the heart of Jamaican policing, when groups such as FAST and Jamaicans for Justice are able to cite statistics such as those that came out this week, and then also point to cases such as that of the former commander of the JCF's Crime Management Unit (CMU), Reneto Adams. Six police officers, including Adams, were acquitted in December 2005 of the murders of two women and two men in the rural village of Kraal in May 2003, despite what human rights advocates and even some police (in private conversations with me) characterized as “overwhelming” evidence that the victims were unarmed and that police had tampered with the crime scene.

It is high time that the government of Jamaica’s new Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, push for an independent, non-partisan investigative body to probe police misconduct, something that some policemen I spoke to on the island were also in favour as, as well as giving the JCF’s superintendent more leeway to act against officers that he believes to be guilty of wrongdoing.

Violence comes from a host of complex causes, but with those two simple moves, perhaps Jamaica could begin to reverse this sad trend and close the book an era of impunity that which the island’s populace has endured for far too long.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Two economic articles of note

The Inter Press Service published a pair of my articles this week looking at economic developments across North Africa in the automotive and electronics manufacturing sectors. Excerpts from the stories, as well as link to the full articles on the Inter Press Service website, are included below.



TRADE: North Africa a Launch Pad For Auto Markets

By Michael Deibert

Inter Press Service

PARIS, Sep 25 (IPS) - When French car company Renault SA and its Japanese partner, Nissan Motor Co., announced their intention to build a joint assembly plant in Tangier, Morocco at an estimated cost of 1 billion euros, it was a substantial enough investment to make auto industry analysts take notice.

The labour-rich swath of the five countries that make up North Africa, with their easy access to the Mediterranean Sea and the entirety of sub-Saharan African unfurling to their south, are becoming an increasingly important -- and strategic -- centre for auto production.

Read the full article here.


TRADE: 'Silicon Ribbon' Pops Up Across the Maghreb

By Michael Deibert

Inter Press Service

PARIS, Sep 29 (IPS) - Poised attractively near to the European market and with an abundance of skilled labour, North Africa may be poised to become an electronics manufacturing hub.

An assessment released this month by the California-based consulting firm Frost & Sullivan is based on a survey of companies operating in North Africa and trade organisations governing the areas in which they operate. It found that "strategic initiatives including ensuring the effective flow of goods and services, and the building of a reliable supplier base are having a positive impact on electronics manufacturing services (EMS) providers in the region."

It is a market, observers say, that began to grow organically but now is making rapid advances into the international realm, focused on the trio of North Africa's former French colonies, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, often referred to as the Maghreb countries.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Improved Regional Integration Still Key For Success


Improved Regional Integration Still Key For Success

By Michael Deibert

Inter Press Service

PARIS, Sep 25, 2007 (IPS) - While its economic landscape is brightening, Africa is still bedeviled by some of the same obstacles that has historically served to undermine economic development in the resource and labour-rich region. And many of those woes could be solved through development of further intraregional trade.

"The relatively small weight of intraregional trade in Africa, despite the existence of several (and frequently overlapping) regional trade agreements, is due largely to their structure of production and the composition of their exports," according to a report released earlier this month by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

UNCTAD puts the blame on the continent's continued reliance on exports of primary commodities while importing costly manufactured products from overseas, a trade pattern that significantly limits intraregional trade.

Though the continent's growth is seen at 6 percent in 2007, according to the report, and that per capita GDP in Africa has increased by more than 15 percent in the past five years along similar lines as West Asia and Latin America, analysts still see substantial hurdles for the region to overcome in order to meet the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Read the full article here.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Two Years After Riots, Little Has Changed


Two Years After Riots, Little Has Changed

By Michael Deibert

Inter Press Service

CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, Sep 24 (IPS) - The community in this Paris suburb is waiting keenly for transformation promised by France's new government.

Clichy-sous-Bois gained an unwelcome iconic significance two years ago following the deaths of Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna, two youths from immigrant families who were electrocuted while trying to hide from the police.

The deaths, a particularly grim chapter in a long history of simmering tension between local youths and the police, set off rioting and civil unrest around France. Almost 9,000 cars were burnt, and dozens of buildings were set on fire. Close to 130 police and firefighter staff were injured, and nearly 2,900 people were arrested.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, then minister of interior, promised to rid the banlieues, as the impoverished suburbs that ring many French cities are known, of racaille (rabble), and clean them out with a kärcher (a high-pressure hose). Residents now ask if he will be equally vehement about addressing the chronic unemployment and prejudice that they say were at the root of the upheaval.

Read the full article here.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Why Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be allowed to speak at Columbia University

The execution by stoning of Jafar Kiani violates Iran’s obligations under international human rights treaties that it has ratified. Iran is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states in Article 6 that “in countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes.” According to Article 7 of the covenant, “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its cruel and inhumane nature. We find that stoning is a particularly cruel form of capital punishment. Human rights principles and protections are founded upon respect for the inherent dignity of all human beings and the inviolability of the human person.

The government's opponents, real or imaginary—be they secular liberals, trade unionists, campaigners for women's rights, immodestly dressed youths, disgruntled ethnic minorities, even dissenting clergymen—have recently been subjected to a string of arrests, harassment and threats.

The country’s police chief boasted that 150,000 people — a number far larger than usual — were detained in the annual spring sweep against any clothing considered not Islamic. More than 30 women’s rights advocates were arrested in one day in March, according to Human Rights Watch, five of whom have since been sentenced to prison terms of up to four years. They were charged with endangering national security for organizing an Internet campaign to collect more than a million signatures supporting the removal of all laws that discriminate against women.

One woman, Nazanin, 28, was stopped last month in Vanak Square, she thought she had dressed more modestly than usual, she said. But she was told that her coat was tight and showed the shape of her body…She received a warning about her large sunglasses, her coat, her eyeliner and her socks, which the police officers said should be longer. She was allowed to go after she signed a letter, which included her name and address, saying she would not appear in public like that again. The police have said the letters will be used against violators in court if they defy the rules a second time.

From all authoritative reports I have read, it seems that the regime of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad veers between farce and tragedy. The farce of wasting the recourses of a country in the midst of an economic crisis on keeping track of how tight a woman's clothes fit, and tragedy in the brutal denial of equality to women under the law and the stifling of free speech dissenting from the ideological line of the ossified theocracy that ultimately governs the country. This is to say nothing what appears to be Teheran’s active collusion in helping to create the bloodbath that is modern-day Iraq . Being a firm supporter of the separation of church and state, of free speech, of the equality of women, and of the right to self-determination of the Iraqi people free from either American or Persian overlords, reading the accounts of the kind of government Ahmadinejad and his supporters preside over fills me with disgust.

Much controversy has swirled around the invitation to speak that Ahmadinejad received from Columbia University on Monday preceding his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. Does a man who oversees such depredations, who has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel and who questions whether or not the Holocaust ever happened really belong lecturing at one of the premier universities in the United States?

In short, if they want him, yes. The strength of pluralistic democracy when compared with throwback theocracy is that it can rationally and openly confront even the most distasteful views and practices and knock them down through the strength or argument and debate. If one has nothing to hide, one has nothing to fear from an open debate. As I wrote almost exactly one year ago on this blog, when the address of another individual whose views I disdain - Minuteman Project head Jim Gilchrist, who assembled hundreds of volunteers, some armed, to patrol the Arizona-Mexico border for illegal immigrants - was scuttled at Columbia, either campuses are places of free inquiry, where the airing of the views of the minority are given equal protection as the views of the majority, or they are not.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s and Mr. Gilchrist’s views, as repellent as they might be, are simply no match for an informed, vigorous and intelligent debate, and I certainly hope that Mr. Ahmadinejad is subject to robust questioning and challenging during a question-and-answer session following his address by the student body and faculty at Columbia. A large protest rally against the policies of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government, so long as it does not interrupt the address itself, would also seem to be highly desirable.

Mr. Ahmadinejad should be allowed to speak, but should be left in no doubt about how the students and faculty of Columbia University and, indeed, the citizens of New York City, view him and the practices of his government.

Monday, September 17, 2007

What to do in Iraq

A recent Op-Ed in the Economist, a magazine that I respect even though it occasionally seems to err on the side of having contributors who can tell good gin from bad gin as opposed to those who have genuinely in-depth knowledge of the countries they are reporting on, made an argument for the continued presence of United States and other forces in Iraq.

Titled “Why they should stay,” the editorial posited the following:

If America removes its forces while Iraq remains in its present condition, the Iraqi future is indeed likely to be disastrous. For that reason above any other, and despite misgivings about the possibility of even modest success any time soon, our own view is that America (and Britain) ought to stay in Iraq until conditions improve.

It is a horrendously thorny issue, with those on both sides of the issue, the neocons safe in Washington and much of the anti-war movement, safe behind their computer screens, arrogantly sure that they know the ONLY right path by which to succeed, while the Iraqi people themselves are aught up in a terrible whirlwind of violence, as typified by the recent murder of Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha and the recent attack on Shiite villages north of Baghdad, both of which were apparently carried out by Al Qaeda-linked elements. Add to this the killing of nine people by private U.S. security contractors in Baghdad itself and you have only the tip of the iceberg of the suffering the Iraqis have had to endure over the last four years.

Regarding the Economist piece, a British acquaintance here in Paris wrote that “It's too late to avoid earthshaking regional consequences and the US or the UK are the last people to be able to head them off. The damage has been done, but like any imperial leadership, the US (which hasn't learned from the earlier antics of the UK, USSR, France) can't lose face and admit this.”

An American friend of mine, a fluent Arabic speaker who has spent a fair bit of time in Iraq, responded to the argument for a continued American and British presence in Iraq (in part) with the following:

I'm definitely scared of what will happen when we pull out, but as the article observes, it's already been happening. I think pulling out sooner rather than later would be a good idea, not because it would be a good thing, but I think things will get worse if we stay and the best thing to do at the moment would be to admit in a very dramatic fashion our total ignobility in this enterprise and to acknowledge that all of the chaos, sectarian violence, criminal mayhem, and civilian suffering and death is our fault and particularly the fault of this administration. Then hopefully either the situation in Iraq would improve or if, more plausibly, it deteriorated rapidly, Iran and Syria would have a newfound freedom to contain the situation which would probably have a better chance of restoring law and order . People here are obviously distrustful of both Iran and Syria, particularly Iran, but I'd trust Iran insofar as it has a much more direct and urgent need for a stable Iraq than we do.

For it’s part, in the Guardian, one columnist, Timothy Garton Ash, writes on the invasion of Iraq that “the likely consequences of Iraq range from the bad to the catastrophic. Looking back over a quarter-century of writing about international affairs, I can not recall a more comprehensive and avoidable man-made disaster.”

Another columnist from the same paper, Simon Jenkins, compared the Congressional grilling of America's senior commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, to Britain’s own often seemingly mute junior-partner status in the Iraq adventure.

“Britain should be so lucky,” Jenkins wrote. “A top general grilled on the Iraq war by skeptical representatives of the people. An ambassador summoned to explain his policy before the cameras. Three detailed reports challenging the official line submitted to Congress. A nation in a ferment of debate. Americans may have blundered into the Iraq morass, but they will retreat from it with political guns blazing.”

For my part, my thoughts on the matter (formed, like those of most people, from afar, without having ever set foot in Iraq) are roughly the following.

The invasion of Iraq was a terribly misguided affair from the beginning, undertaken with a willful deception of the public, an ignoring of expert advice, an almost magic-realist view of the likely consequences of U.S. military action and no desire or ability on the part of the Bush administration to face up to the cauldron of violent forces that toppling Saddam Hussein let lose on the country until it was too late.

That said, now that the U.S. and U.K. helped set into motion a multifront civil war, I think it would be immoral to say "Whoops, sorry we destroyed your country" and then depart to leave the Iraqis at the mercies of the Iranians, the Syrians, the Turks and Al Qaeda.

Unless one subscribes to a theory that news organizations across the board a conspiring to slant the news in favour of the now-thoroughly discredited Bush administration, articles written by journalists on the ground, in Iraq suggest that, however unpalatable the U.S. and U.K. presence in Iraq is (and for me, it definitely is), the alternative at present is far worse.

I don't know if any of the armchair commentators such as myself really have the answer for this mess, though some opinion writers certainly seem to think they do. I certainly don't have the answer, aside from hanging on a little while longer with Congress pushing the Bush administration to try and put Iraq back together again. I just more or less have always adhered to the "you broke it, you bought it" school of foreign affairs and, as such, feel that it would be wrong the throw the Iraqis to the wolves any more than they have shamefully been already. Hopefully, some day, the Bush administration. will be hauled into the dock to answer for all of this, but as disorganized and spineless as the Democrats often show themselves to be, I doubt it.

For further reading on the subject, I suggest two books: The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq by New Yorker staff writer George Packer and Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War by a Lebanese-American (and Arabic-speaking) Washington Post correspondent Anthony Shadid,

The first, written by someone who was a moderately pro-invasion left-winger, examines how, in the wake of September 11th and given Saddam Hussein's record - the invasions of Iran and Kuwait, the al-Anfal Campaign against the Kurds, the tens of thousands of Shiites murdered in the wake of the first Gulf War, the everyday brutality and monstrousness of the regime and behaviour of the two maniac sons he intended to bequeath it to - some rather decent folks such as Kanan Makiya and Ayad Rahim were able to justify supporting the invasion on humanitarian grounds (an ironic turn of phrase) and how that support was used by some of the most cynical, corrupt and least visionary political operators Washington has ever seen in mustering an agenda for the ultimately disastrous enterprise. I don't know if I have ever read a more scathing critique of the administration or its policy, its ignoring of its own Middle East experts and military planners or the fantasy of the neocons thinking they would remake the Middle East in their own image.

The second book paints a devastating picture of the effects that the war and its aftermath had on the lives of ordinary Iraqis, of whom Shadid appears to have interviewed hundreds. It is really reportage in the finest tradition and it gives a despairing picture of the human cost of the endeavour.

In the meantime, if anyone has any suggestions or thoughts on the subject, please do comment away.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Sarkozy Hedges Free Market With Government Control

FRANCE: Sarkozy Hedges Free Market With Government Control

By Michael Deibert

Inter Press Service

PARIS, Sep 15 (IPS) - Following nearly two years of squabbling, this month France's national gas utility, Gaz de France, finally agreed to team up with the Franco-Belgian utility Suez, to create an energy behemoth with some 72 billion euros in revenue.

An impressive union, indeed, but some Eurozone observers find the insight the merger gives into the economic policies of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to be the deal's most interesting storyline.

Read the full article

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Travels through the north country

Though this blog is often devoted to far weightier matters than the trajectory of my weekend entertainments (I hope), this past Saturday my friend Claire and I took off from Paris and discovered that driving through Normandy in the lush and still-warm early autumn must be one of the more understated yet sublime pleasures of time spent in France.

Heading north from the French capital and getting lost in one or two somnolent country towns along the way, we eventually arrived in the department of Calvados and decamped at Bayeux, an almost-as-sleepy historic city of winding cobblestone streets, an impressive cathedral and a reputation as a repository of one of the loveliest pieces of political propaganda ever created. The 200 foot-long Tapisserie de Bayeux, perhaps the city’s main attraction, depicts, in 58 exquisitely colored and detailed panels, the political intrigue that preceded the Norman invasion of England in 1066 and the triumph of William the Conqueror (also known, somewhat less generously, as William the Bastard) over the forces of England’s King Harold II at the Battle Of Hastings.

We browsed the tapestry for a time with the other assorted gawking tourists before traveling to the Norman coast and entirely different sort of historical record.

The somber and seemingly endless Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial stretches over 172.5 acres on a flat bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, which saw the bloodiest combat during the June 6, 1944 D Day invasion of France by American, British, Canadian and other forces in the opening salvo of what would become the Battle of Normandy, which would eventually liberate France from Nazi occupation. The cemetery contains the graves of 9,387 U.S. military dead, many of who lost their lives in the D Day assault, as well as a memorial to 1,557 soldiers who went missing, and a stroll through the expanse of crosses and occasional Stars of David, powerfully brings home the human toll of war. Strolling over Omaha Beach itself, facing some still-extant German machine gun turrets, gives only the faintest hint of the terror that must have awaited the soldiers once they landed on the beach on the summer morning so many decades ago.

We wrapped up our trip with a visit to a distillery, set behind tall gates and producing alcoholic cider and the region’s distinctive Calvados brandy, oak barrels of which sat marinating inside dusty storehouses. Then, to the strains of M.I.A., we were back on the N13, heading home.

Monday, September 03, 2007

FRANCE: New Employment Law Sets Stage for Showdown

FRANCE: New Employment Law Sets Stage for Showdown

By Michael Deibert

Inter Press Service

PARIS, Sep 3, 2007 (IPS) - On a rainy day in an eastern Paris suburb, members of the Confédération générale du travail (CGT), one of France's two largest labour unions, told the assembled press corps at their union hall that the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to "disarm" French workers with a new law aimed at curbing transportation strikes.

Following Sarkozy's strenuous lobbying for the measure, the National Assembly passed a law last month, known in French as the loi sur le service minimum, seeking to ensure a minimum level of service during public transit strikes.

The law, the realisation of a long-held promise by the political right, requires notification by unions of a strike action 48 hours before any walkout, obligates transit providers to notify which trains and buses will be affected, and obliges them to reimburse passengers for any deviation from the announced schedule.

The law produced predictable uproar among employee syndicates.

Read the full article here.

Down to 'The Wire': Thoughts on the end of the only television show worth watching

I watched my first episode of The Wire, the HBO series chronicling the machinations of various law enforcement, drug dealing and political types in the city of Baltimore, while sitting in my modest apartment in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, in 2002.

Chronicling, as I was at the time, the political opportunism, casual brutality, narco-dollar fueled political careers and other characteristics that informed Haiti’s political landscape, something about the The Wire’s depiction of imperfect cops, ruthless and savvy drug lords and the young lives they exploit, and other assorted social elements from the margins to the center of power in one of America’s most violent cities rang very true with me.

More than being a simple cop show, the series, largely the creation of former Baltimore Sun crime reporter and author David Simon and former Baltimore cop Ed Burns, addressed a larger tableau of inner-city life that for much of America must have been a revelation to see, tackling subjects far beyond Baltimore’s criminal underworld to examine themes such as the struggles of longshoreman in the city’s decaying harbor (as exemplified by the tragic saga of the Sobotka family) to the U.S. educational system to larger issues of urban poverty and governance.

Simon’s powerful writing was complimented by one of the most talented casts ever assembled for the small screen, and they gave their all to the rich material he provided them with. Michael Kenneth Williams created an unforgettable character in the openly-gay stick-up man Omar Little, at once as unique as anything put on television and as recognizable as someone you might bump into walking to the corner bodega. The talented British actor Idris Elba’s nuanced portrayal of the drug kingpin Russell "Stringer" Bell, fellow Brit Dominic West’s embodiment of Detective James McNulty, Andre Royo’s heroin-addicted Bubbles and a host of other recurring characters that populated the show over the years are all equally notable and praiseworthy.

Though I almost never had access to cable after returning from Haiti in 2003 (and spent much of the interval between then and now outside the U.S.), the first two seasons of The Wire that I was able to see stayed with me as an example of the medium of television being used with a genuine artistic intent as opposed to merely serve as vacuous entertainment.

This month, The Wire filmed its final episode, with writers, cast and crew deciding, probably wisely, to make a dignified exit while the series was still relevant and at the top of its game. It leaves behind five years worth of images and commentary on American inner-city life the depth of which will not be repeated in the medium anytime soon. Much to it’s credit, The Wire showed the myriad of joys and sorrows in that milieu with an unflinching eye whose lack of sentimentality made it all the more emotionally-charged.

As Bubbles said at one point on the show: “Thin line between heaven and here.”