Friday, December 29, 2006

Things I wish would happen in 2007...but won't (Pt. 1)

Sex workers get respect
Sure, maybe it's in the papers, but frankly that happens once a year or so. When will Canada stop being so schizophrenic about what could be a victimless "crime" (not to mention increasing the safety and accountability of workers and their patrons), and accept that the oldest profession is also likely to be the longest-lived profession. Prostitution is not going away. Maybe it shouldn't.

Somalia stops being a synonym for ninth ring of Hell
The fanatic-but-effective Islamic courts are out and the legal-but-useless transitional government is back in: at least as of this morning. Well...that's um...good? The Guardian gives three possible outcomes, and only one is positive. It's entirely possible that, on top of the pre-existing clan warfare, Somalia will become a staging ground for external Arab/Muslim and Christian nations to pursue their conflicts. Then it will get conflated into a religious war, like so many wars are (Balkans, anyone?).

...On the upside, if Africa becomes the new "clash of civilizations"* battleground, perhaps people will start paying attention to Africa?

People will star paying attention to Africa
'Nuff said.

*Personally I think the whole "clash of civlizations" thing is sheer bunk...but its invoked so often that it's become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Israeli Supreme Court Said It First...

So back here I reference the "ticking time bomb" scenario versus the "defense of necessity" model, vis-a-vis torture. Well, as it turns out, the Israeli Supreme Court said it first, aaaaalllll the way back in 1999, in it's incredibly important judgement on the legality of torture, which, grace au the court itself, you can read here.

Particularly on point:
35. Indeed, we are prepared to accept that, in the appropriate circumstances, GSS investigators may avail themselves of the “necessity defense” if criminally indicted. This, however, is not the issue before this Court. We are not dealing with the criminal liability of a GSS investigator who employed physical interrogation methods under circumstances of “necessity.” Nor are we addressing the issue of the admissibility or probative value of evidence obtained as a result of a GSS investigator’s application of physical means against a suspect. We are dealing with a different question. The question before us is whether it is possible, ex ante, to establish permanent directives setting out the physical interrogation means that may be used under conditions of “necessity.” Moreover, we must decide whether the “necessity defense” can constitute a basis for the authority of a GSS investigator to investigate, in the performance of his duty. According to the state, it is possible to imply from the “necessity defense”—available post factum to an investigator indicted of a criminal offence—the ex ante legal authorization to allow the investigator to use physical interrogation methods. Is this position correct?

36. In the Court’s opinion, the authority to establish directives respecting the use of physical means during the course of a GSS interrogation cannot be implied from the “necessity defense.” The “necessity defense” does not constitute a source of authority, which would allow GSS investigators to make use physical means during the course of interrogations. The reasoning underlying our position is anchored in the nature of the “necessity defense.” The defense deals with cases involving an individual reacting to a given set of facts. It is an improvised reaction to an unpredictable event. Thus, the very nature of the defense does not allow it to serve as the source of authorization. ...

37. ...Granting GSS investigators the authority to apply physical force during the interrogation of suspects suspected of involvement in hostile terrorist activities, thereby harming the suspect's dignity and liberty, raises basic questions of law and society, of ethics and policy, and of the rule of law and security. ...
-- President A. Barak (for the court, more or less)

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Thank you, Stephen Harper?

So I meant to post about this yesterday, but had a total brain fart...

Anyway, the Globe has a piece on the closure of the same-sex marriage debate.

To which I say: What debate? We have a Constitution, it's protected by the Constitution, and amending the Constitution would practically require Jesus of Nazareth and Pierre Trudeau to descend from heaven (or where-ever) into the House of Commons and demand it.

The only disingenuous thing, really, is that the first sentence is:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has declared the contentious issue of same-sex marriage to be permanently closed.
And some papers are actually using that as they headline. As though the man woke up Thursday morning and said to himself: You know? I think I've been wrong about same-sex couples...they deserve the same rights as everyone else. No, no, no. They tried to re-open the debate (see above, re: what debate?) and the House told them to drop it. They lost.

Face it, fiscal-cons, Harper and a good number of the neo-cons are now and will always be soc-cons, but I will credit him with an admirable respect for reality when he admitted defeat and said they were dropping the question. And since I don't really think he can attack access to abortion, I feel the weight mantle of militant opposition lift from my shoulders...I am now free to nit-pick the government's social spending and applaud their pro-military stance and attempts to secure human rights for Canadians imprisoned abroad.

This did make me laugh:

"I am afraid that the Conservative Party feels that they can take social
conservatives for granted in this country," said Joseph Ben Ami, executive director of the Institute for Canadian Values.

"Mr. Harper and the Conservatives are going to have to explain, I think, what people in our constituency are going to perceive as a certain lack of leadership surrounding this question in the last few days."

Social conservatives are not likely to turn to the Liberals, said Mr. Ben Ami, but they can stay home on voting day.

Haha...oooh, scary. What if the fundies stay at home?! Why we might even get...a Liberal government!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Irony is my favourite -y

Oh Dan Savage, I so totally heart you...

For those of you who don't follow the personal lives of American politician's families, V-P Dick Cheney's daughter Mary is pregnant...and a lesbian! Both at the same time! [/Elvira Kurt]

Which of course causes all sorts of problems, 'cause Republicans, generally speaking, enjoy neither lesbians nor unwed mothers. As per usual, Dan Savage has a perfectly sharp, topical response to the issue.

*fangirls Savage*

Monday, December 04, 2006

News Roundup

Chile's Pinochet Fighting for His Life (Washington Post)

Not that I enjoy watching a decrepit old man suffer (even if it is karma for the murder of thousands and torture of God-only-knows-how-many) but I'm a little creeped out by the hordes of admirers waving banners in support of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Chile deems it impolitic to try him for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that strikes me as cowardly but reasonable. At least they have him under house arrest. However, the fact that a significant number of Chileans still believe he "saved them from communism" is freakin' weird. I hope its Stockholm Syndrome, I really do.

Lebanese army increases forces in tense Beirut (Reuters UK)

To whoever suggested that invading Lebanon would increase Middle East stability or security, all I can say is: I told you so, idiots. Does no one remember the 80s? Did no one see Delta Force or Navy Seals?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Is this a bad peace or is it still a bad war?

"One is left with the horrible feeling now that war settles nothing; that to win a war is as disastrous as to lose one."
Agatha Christie, English mystery author (1890 - 1976) in Autobiography (1977)

When the US invaded Iraq, I said: "This is never going to work. You can't force Western-style democracy on a people with no historical connection to that ideology. Am I the only one who remembers Wiemar Germany?"*

But I think even those who disagreed with the Coalition's unilateral invasion were hopeful that perhaps the end could justify the means--that the invasion was unjustified, but perhaps it could be turned into something positive.

But now we have this...

"Shiites took their revenge in horrific fashion for Thursday's killing in
Baghdad's crowded Sadr City neighbourhood, dousing six Sunni Arabs with kerosene and burning them alive as they left Friday prayers. Uniformed Iraqi soldiers stood by and did nothing, according to reports from Baghdad.

In a country where thousands of bodies have been found decapitated or tortured with electric drills, burning victims alive added a macabre new twist to the fighting."

"Yesterday's spate of revenge took at least 30 lives in mosque attacks in the Hurriyah district of Baghdad, Iraqi police said, as Mahdi Army militia rampaged through the area, burning at least four mosques and several homes.

They appeared to be reprisals for Thursday's assaults in which Sunni militants used a series of car bombs and mortar attacks to slaughter at least 215 and wound 257 in the single worst sectarian attack since the war began with the U.S. invasion almost four years ago."

"The United Nations reported more than 3,700 Iraqis were killed last month..."

Excellent work, people. Nice to know we're spreading democracy, and doing such a bang-up job of it too.

*Obviously a lot of other people said this too. It's sort of self-evident, after all.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Ticking time bombs: theory versus application

Last night in class a colleague was giving a presentation on the deportation to torture under the Immigration and Refugee Act in Canada. Simply put, despite the Charter, the Convention Against Torture, and the opinions of the Supreme Court (namely Suresh), the practice of officials in Canada put individuals at unacceptable risk of being deported to countries where they will face torture.

It must be stated that this is not the norm by any means, but is rather a combination of statutory loopholes, disastrous obiter dicta, imperfect access to justice and other minutiae.

At any rate, the discussion moved to the ethics (or lack thereof) of torture, and the question was put to the class: Do you believe that torture is absolutely unacceptable, no matter what the circumstances? Everyone I saw raised their hand, and I'll admit, I was very close to doing so, but figured I'll abstain. Then the corollary: Do you believe that it is possible, under exceptional circumstances, for torture to be justified? Again, I nearly didn't raise my hand, but I suppose my ornery side won out because I did, and as I did, so did my professor.

I'll admit, I was relieved. It seems odd, but I think there is pressure on people my age and in my field to maintain particular ideological stances, and if you are (as I generally am) a pro-liberty lefty social justice advocate, you are not allowed to suggest that torture might be theoretically permissible.

But then, I hold an awful lot of "contradictory" opinions on a theoretical level. For instance:

Is torture ever ethically/morally permissible?

THEORETICALLY: Yes, under the so-called ticking-time-bomb scenario, propagated in the 1990s and much abused by apologists for the American post-9/11 rendition/detention/interrogation regime, of which Alan Dershowitz is perhaps the most well-known. The theoretical scenario requires that the "torturer" have 100% certainty (or perhaps, simply, beyond a reasonable doubt) that the person they are torturing has the information needed to prevent a disaster, and that there is no other way to get this information. However...

IN APPLICATION: can never be 100% certain about a person's guilt before the fact--even if they confess, if could be a false confession. Combine that with overwhelming evidence that torture is just not terribly effective, and you have a situation where the probability of a prospective "permissible" torture situation actually meeting the criteria is so infinitesimal that, legally, it should be considered nil. To me, the dilution of this argument to the idea that any chance torture might yield helpful information = total justification is ridiculous.

Besides all of this, there is the simple fact that we already have a legal instrument in place which could exculpate any person charged with torture who actually faced the ticking-time-bomb scenario. The defense of necessity is a well-recognized "out" for those who are forced by circumstances to commit criminal acts to prevent greater harms. By maintaining the criminality of torture, as with murder, we simultaneously condemn it, while recognizing that in extreme and rare circumstances it is justifiable, but that this justification will have to be made in open court.

Alan Dershowitz and others have said that torture is inevitable, and therefore it would be better to legalise and regulate it, thereby increasing transparency. I maintain that the prosecution/necessity model fulfills much of the same purpose without creating an official approval of torture (and I am certainly not the first to say so).

As I understand it, this is also Michael Ignatieff's standpoint, which is why I am irritated by those who claim he is pro-torture. In fact, in his much-debated op-ed on the issue, he stated, inter alia, that:

[regarding Dershowitz's proposal]
This legalisation of torture seeks to prevent it from becoming a first resort of interrogators in terrorist and criminal cases as well. The proposal seeks to bring the rule of law into the interrogation room and keep it there. All this is well-intentioned, but as an exercise in the lesser evil it seems likely to lead to the greater.

Legalisation of physical force in interrogation will hasten the process by which it becomes routine. The problem with torture is not just that it gets out of control, not just that it becomes lawless. It inflicts irremediable harm on both the torturer and the prisoner. It violates basic commitments to human dignity, and this is the core value that a war on terror, waged by a democratic state, should not sacrifice, even under threat of imminent attack.

And also:

Torture exposes agents of a democratic state to the ultimate moral hazard. The most plausible case for an absolute ban on physical torture relates precisely to this issue of moral hazard. No one should have to decide when torture is or is not justified, and no one should be ordered to carry it out. An absolute prohibition is legitimate because in practice it relieves public servants from the burden of making intolerable choices.


For torture, when committed by a state, expresses the state's ultimate view that human beings are expendable. This view is antithetical to the spirit of any constitutional society whose raison d'etre is the control of violence and coercion in the name of human dignity and freedom.*

I also urge anyone interested in the issue of national security versus human rights to read his book The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. Also anything by Kent Roach on the subject of post-9/11 jurisprudence. Please don't take this as a blanket approval of all of Ignatieff's work, as my mind is far from entirely made up about him...on this, however, we are in complete agreement.

* The Finacial Times, May 14, 2005, and availible online.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Heart of Darkness?

I spent Sunday morning being angry about this article in The Walrus (oh favouritest of magazines). And here are some related factoids from Scientific American.

This is one of those articles which picks up on a suspicion I have always had (Africa is, some how, still getting screwed) and which I know is backed up by the work of others (see Ikechi Mgbeoji) and elucidates all the facts I need to turn from irritation to white-hot anti-imperialist rage.

The only major deficit to Caplan's article is that he offers me no pathway to helping the situation, nowhere for me to direct my energy or channel my disgust. I'm left all alone with my existential crisis.

Dammit. Now I have to graduate.


Just a quick thought before I go do the worlds largest load of dishes...

Whoever decided that The Postal Service should cover "Against All Odds" was a freakin' genius...

That is all.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Foreign policy makes strange bedfellows

So I'm reading this article from the Washington Post...

I'll admit, I haven't been keeping up with the Middle East crisis lately. I was aware of the strike and that it had a significant civilian death toll, but really, is that even news anymore? Shouldn't the headlins just read "Israeli and Palestinian leaders kill civilians, each other" every time, so we know nothing new is going on?

But at any rate, obviously the US were going to veto a condemnation in the Security Council. What I found hilarious/appalling was the voting record of the General Assembly Resolution.

First of all:

The assembly voted 156-7 with six abstentions to approve a resolution put forward by Arab states that also urged the Jewish state to immediately withdraw its troops from Gaza.

Okay fine, that seems reasonsable. What's right is not always popular and what's popular is not always right and all that jazz. But still, I wonder who the naysayers and abstainers were, because that will obviously make a difference to my analysis of the vote...

Voting "no" were the United States, Israel, Australia, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau. Abstaining were Canada, Ivory Coast, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Come again?

Tuvalu, Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands only recently gained independace from the US, and are from what I can tell are basically unofficial protectorates of the US and/or Australia. Nauru is where Australia sends refugees in order to deny them their rights under UN treaty obligations. Ivory Coast (or Cote d'Ivoire as it is, you know, actually named) has been internally unstable for years, Papua New Guinea was until 1975 an Australian colony, Tonga may be undergoing a violent revolution, and Vanuatu is another micro-state bound to Australia.

Which is not to say that these countries shouldn't have a vote, but clearly half of them are dependant on the US/Australia, so the autonomy of their foreign policy is in doubt. On the flip side, we have...let's see...ALL of Europe, ALL of Central/South America, and the vast vast vast majority of Asia and Africa saying: "All right, Israel. Not cricket." I think just maybe Canada backed the wrong side in this one...

Or as Marx said: "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member."

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Mortality and Morbidity Report

Why? Because I can't focus worth a damn. I mean, that's generally the truth...but I always go to bed on Friday thinking: Okay, tomorrow I will be a writing and researching fiend and generally instead I sleep in a lot and wake up with a killer headache and futz about.

I did manage to watch an episode of House MD, and while the bright yellow Spanish subtitles were a little distracting, it was a fascinating/heartwrenching episode. Episode 3x03, "Informed Consent"...House & the team treat a hugely respected medical researcher (who has a history of using less-than-totally-ethical methods) who wants help to die. All the usualy House machinations and so on, but that debate, which continued through the episode, was really well done. I found myself 110% on side with House, of course. His take was that he would help, when and only when he knew the person's condition was untreatable and fatal. Thus, a patient refusing tests got no help from him, but one refusing pointless treatment would.

This strikes pretty close to the bone right now, as a dear-one of a dear-one is in the twilight, and so we've discussed the issue in general--that difficult but real line between not wanting someone to suffer needlessly, and wanting them to die. As I said to her (in one of those epiphanies-out-loud that I didn't realize until I said it) "It's not about wanting the person to die, because they are already. All you can choose is how." I think if people got that, the death-with-dignity debate would dry up and dissappear.

I find it totally bizarre, the extent to which my society values technical signs of life and scoffs at quality issues. Obviously we're slowly turning away from that, but things like the Terry Schiavo debacle remind me how very many people still see the issue as black and white. What really disturbed me about that was the argument that Ms. Schiavo should be kept alive because there was an off-chance that a kernal of sentience still hid within her ruined body. To me, that was another argument for letting her go. I can think of few scenarios more nightmarish than being trapped inside a totally nonresponsive body for decades. I've told my family that regardless of brainwaves or whatever, if I can't communicate, and especially if I can't be communicated to, to let me go. Isn't communication the essence of humanity?

The only caveat would be if keeping me "alive" would increase the chances of successful organ transplant. That'd be acceptable, obviously. I'm O-neg too, so I assume my organs would be snapped uo like hot cakes. The only thing I'm currently not registered to donate is my eyes, and that's just because my Mom freaked on me at the Health Card place when I was filling out the form, and I was a minor at the time. Next Health Card, the eyes go on the list. I'll admit it did wig me too originially, but it didn't take long to become accustomed to the reality that I wouldn't need them, and they could give someone their sight back. Given my screwed up hearing, and the constancy of physical pain I've experienced, I could survive without feeling or hearing, but sight? No way. I really think I'd lose my mind.

Which leads me to the second morbid discussion I've had in the last few weeks: embalming. Thanks, but no. I'm not too keen on cremation (irrational, I know) although I'd rather be cremated and buried than become an object d'creepy-art on someone's mantel. Under a tree would be nice (though most commercial cemetaries don't do that because if the tree dies, families get upset...also? I feel like the roots sometimes pull urns up). Or buried vertically, like they do in some cemetaries where the land is scarce. Or as I've said, not embalmed and buried in a bio-degradable casket so I can actually, you know, return to the earth instead of poisoning it. My impression is that this is the position of Halakic authorities too. I can only assume the North American obsession with embalming and coiffing the dead has something to do, a) with the idea that the dead will rise from their graves on Judgement Day, and thet it'd be nice if they looked respectable, and b) the general Western horror of death.

Mummification and excarnation sort of freak me out, though I'll admit to a personal attraction/repulsion to Towers of Silence ever since I read Such a Long Journey. I can't decide if I find it the most or least pure and sacred funerary rite. My general attraction to Zoroastrian cosmology does not help with the ambivalence.

Wikipedia's 2 cents on natural burial, excarnation, and a link to the Canadian Natural Burial organization.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

You learn something horrendous every day...

Okay, so we all know that Canada and the US have a lot of cross-border extradition action going on, right?

And we know that the Charter forbids the death penalty, even though a lot of US states and other nations still have it on the books?

So we're discussing the idea of perfect crimes in Public Int'l Law today, i.e. that because diplomatic immunity forbids a host state from entering the premises of a diplomatic mission without permission, there's been a few cases were crimes have been committed in embassies and the local police can't do a thing about it.

And then we moved on to the fact that section 6 of the Canadian Criminal Code makes Canadian Criminal Law territorial in jurisdiction (i.e., only covers crimes committed on Canadian soil), unless explicitly exceptional--and then there are certain crimes like war crimes and the sexual exploitation of minors that Canada will prosecute regardless (see s. 7).

Ever since the Burns & Rafay case (United States v. Burns) it has been considered illegal in Canada to extradite a person to a dealth-penalty jurisdiction (or, one supposes, any sort of cruel-and-unusual-punishment jurisdiction).

Why is all this important? Well, because it leaves a big freaking hole in Canadian law, as follows: If you commit a "normal" crime in a death-penalty jurisdiction (even being a serial killer), and that jurisdiction refuses to waive the death penalty (as some US states have in the past), Canada cannot extradite you. They also cannot hold you without prosecuting you.* Conclusion? You go free.

Hellooo...doesn't this seem like something our laws should address? Anyone? House of Commons? *crickets chirping*

*Unless you're a suspected terrorist and/or Muslim, but that's another story...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Dear Santa

All I want for Christmas is a unified Palestinian government that Israel will negotiate with.

Abbas upbeat on Palestinian unity (BBC)

(This supercedes my Amazon list, which is mostly TV shows on DVD. Of course, if I'm getting more than one gift...)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

I swear, I'm not laughing at the Iranian Revolution...

...but rather at this cheesy but painfully hilarious site.

To veil or not to veil?

I've seen a lot more women on campus and on the TTC wearing not just a hijab (at right), but a niqab (at bottom) as well lately. Originally I must admit, it struck me as quite odd. I mean, hijabs are so common in T.O., and I don't understand how it could be seen as oppressive. If I were visiting a conservative Muslim country, or even married a conservative Muslim, or what have you, I would probably take one on voluntarily as a sign of respect. How is it any different from an Amish bonnet, a kippah, a turban, etc etc?

But a niqab, similarly to a burqa, covers the face. Especially in the West, that's like a prototypical symbol of dehumanization. Scratching out someone's face in a picture is a symbolically powerful act, and injuries to the face are evidence of a personally-motivated murder, and so on. For that reason, I can understand why veils are so much more disquieting to Westerners. I myself have had moments of *...the hell?* upon seeing a woman veiled.

But here's something else I've noticed. Women wearing the niqab are categorically not wearing a burqa. The veil does not seem particularly physically uncomfprtable, and is often worn with suitable modest but individually styled clothing. A woman in a black hijab/niqab on the bus this morning was wearing a beautiful light purple robe or dress (I couldn't tell under her coat, but it was open at the front) embroidered with little white flowers. Another woman on campus was wearing a beautiful brown underskirt. And these women walked tall, looked up, and for heavens' sake, were at university. I would be hard-pressed to make an argument that either of these women were "oppressed" or in any way "suffering" for the religious or cultural garb they were wearing, which for all I know, they chose themselves. Certainly, their individuality was externally apparent, perhaps more so than the parade of cookie-cutter Prada-sweatsuit knockoff-Louie-Vuitton-bag-carrying young women of other religions or cultures who swarm campus.

What would be a concern, I suppose, was if the rules were so fluid as to be adapted to quash whatever sign of individuality might be allowable beyond the black-letter law.

Friday, October 27, 2006

I'm begining the slow and onerous process of transferring my old blog posts (at least, those of note or use...or that amuse me) over to my shiny new blog.

I should have no objection to go over the same life from its beginning to the end: requesting only the advantage authors have, of correcting in a second edition the faults of the first. (Benjamin Franklin)

They will be tagged accordingly.

Actor Fox sparks debate, support for stem cells (REUTERS)
Seriously? People have nothing better to do with their time than hassle Michael J. Fox about "faking" his Parkinsons? How anyone can fault him for supporting candidates who support research which could save his life, and thousands of other lives, is totally beyond my understanding. And even if he did take or not take his meds to slightly increase his visible far as I'm concerned, that's no different that showering and putting makeup on for a job interview. He still has the symptoms, they're still debillitating, and I don't see why Rush Limbaugh and other right-of-sane pundits should be spared the effects.

Israeli bedside manner helps Ethiopian AIDS doctors (REUTERS)
Dear Israel:
More of this, less of the other, please? That would be awesome, thanks.
No, seriously. We never hear news like this in Toronto, and I know it exists, but never hearing it makes it harder to temper the occaisional erruption of anti-occupation rage. We never hear about their humanitarian works, or peace campaigns, or similar, and it makes the pro-/anti-Zionist debate in Canada so misinformed, black-and-white, and ugly.

Taliban accuse NATO of genocide (REUTERS)
While I'm not a fan of the massive collateral damage accrued by Western forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's a far freaking cry from "genocide." When even citizens of the occupying forces speak of colonialism, imperialism, and hegemony, not to mention breaches of Geneva and UN conventions, why wouldn't the Taliban (who, let's all remember, are not the peace-loving populist voice of Afghanistan) use the same discourse to discredit their enemy?