Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Did Bush authorise torture?

In December last year, the ACLU released what seemd to be a smoking gun for the US policy of torture: an email suggesting that President Bush himself directly authorised the use of torture. The White House issued the usual non-denial denial, but now the issue has resurfaced. In an article on the history of waterboarding (and particularly its past use and unequivocal treatment as torture by US legal and military authorities), ABC news notes that

current and former CIA officers tell ABC News there is a presidential finding, signed in 2002, by President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and then Attorney General John Ashcroft approving the techniques, including water boarding.

(Emphasis added).

If true, this would constitute cast-iron evidence that the President of the United States had conspired to violate both US and international law - something far more serious than getting a blow-job in the Oval Office. I guess we'll just have to hope that somebody leaks it...

The Axis of Impunity

One of the positive steps in international law in recent years has been the establishment of the International Criminal Court, a permanant standing court to try cases of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, since its inception, the court has been virulently opposed by the United States, which fears that its soldiers (and more importantly, its political leaders) might be held accountable for any atrocities they commit or order to be committed (such as, say, the razing of Fallujah, the use of indiscriminate weapons in civilian areas, or a policy of torture approved at the highest levels). The chief mechanism used by the US to undermine the court has been a series of "Article 98 agreements" - bilateral agreements exploiting a loophole in the ICC's statute to exempt American citizens from the court's jurisdiction. The US has used strong-arm tactics to extract these agreements from weaker nations, including the passage of the American Servicemembers' Protection Act (AKA the "Invasion of the Hague Act"), which requires the US government to cut off military aid to countries which refuse to sign such an agreement. So far, payments have been withheld from 35 countries (mostly in Eastern Europe and South America) in an effort to get them to toe the American line.

So, who has signed these agreements? Below is a map of 96 of the reported hundred countries who have signed an impunity agreement with the US. The primary source is a list [DOC] compiled by Citizens for Global Solutions:


This is the axis of impunity. And its remarkable how well it tracks both poverty (meaning exposure to American economic threats) and shitty human rights records. What's also remarkable is that the US has been signing reciprocal agreements with the shittiest of the shitty, in effect promising to protect their rulers from international justice. One of those agreements is with Rwanda; if it and the ICC had been in place when the Rwandan genocide occurred, the US would today be providing a safe haven for genocidaires.

One other point in passing: Citizens for Global Solutions' list includes notes on which countries have firmly rejected any such agreement. And there's a striking absence from that section: New Zealand. I had expected my own government, with its stated commitment to human rights and international law, to behave far better than that...

Fox to investigate henhouse

Condoleezza Rice has reportedly assured the German Foreign Minister that the US will look into reports that they have been operating secret prisons in Europe. We can all rest easy then: I'm sure the investigation will be thorough and aimed at uncovering the truth, rather than hiding it...

Out of names V

Epsilon! They made it to Epsilon! This storm is fairly weak, and isn't likely to do much, but the fact that they got 26 named storms in a single season is simply unprecedented.

Fortunately there won't be any more; the offical 2005 Atlantic hurricane season is scheduled to end today.

The EU threatens punishment

The news that the United States was operating secret prisons in Europe (most likely in Romania or Poland) has caused a growing scandal within the European Union. The EU takes a very serious line on human rights, requiring all members and potential members to adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights as well as the UN Convention Against Torture, which outlaw not only torture (including the preferred American methods of waterboarding, strapado and "environmental manipulation"), but also illegal detention and extraordinary rendition. The EU has begun an investigation, and now it has made clear exactly what is at stake: participation in the EU itself:

The European Union's top justice official has warned that any EU state found to have hosted a secret CIA jail could have its voting rights suspended.

Franco Frattini said the consequences would be "extremely serious" if reports of such prisons turned out to be true.


"I would be obliged to propose to the Council [of EU Ministers] serious consequences, including the suspension of voting rights in the council," he said.

He said a suspension of voting rights would be justified if any country is found to have breached the bloc's founding principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

While suspension would be an unprecedented move and require the unanimous approval of all non-accused members, given the widespread loathing American torture has generated within Europe, it is hardly an empty threat. When even the British are demanding answers, you know that things are serious. But the real target here isn't so much existing EU members as aspiring ones. It is a lot easier to block accession to the EU than suspend an existing member, and Romania (currently scheduled to join in 2007) may very easily find itself out in the cold if it is found to have allowed the CIA to violate human rights on its territory...

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Canada goes to the polls

Another American election to watch: Canada's liberal government has lost a confidence vote following a split with its coalition partner, and so they'll be going to the polls sometime in January.

I don't know very much about Canadian politics - but this will be a good excuse to learn.

Talking down democracy

I've been paying some attention over the last few days to the media kerfuffle surrounding Don McKinnon's reported comments at CHOGM. Given that McKinnon claims to be a victim of sloppy journalism, I thought it would be useful to go straight to the source: the text of his address. According to this, he said:

Democracy and development, as we know, are two sides of the same coin. One of the questions people are beginning to ask, though, is whether building a democracy is really the road to prosperity. Does democracy put food on our tables, clothe our children, put roofs over our heads and give us a future?

There is no single answer, no single roadmap, no single 'one size fits all'. What is important is that a democracy must meet the aspirations of all the people so that they can participate and exert an influence. It is on that foundation that one can best build a sustainable economic platform.

On one level, this is obvious, banal stuff. Democracy doesn't put food on the table - that's not what it is for. And there's certainly no single model of democracy (despite what the Americans say); the thriving democracies of India, Canada and New Zealand show that there are a multitude of different implementations. But McKinnon was going beyond that, and actually talking down democracy and lending support to the Commonwealth's less democratic members - and that is not what the Commonwealth stands for. The 1991 Harare Declaration is very explicit on this, stating:

we believe in the liberty of the individual under the law, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender, race, colour, creed or political belief, and in the individual's inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which he or she lives

This requires a lot more than merely being able to "exert an influence", and by seeming to limit democracy to that level, McKinnon was betraying the ideals he is supposed to be defending.

What about the wider question? McKinnon's comments have spawned a pair of editorials in the Herald defending democracy (and in Mike Moore's case, arguing that it delivers better results than authoritarian regimes). Against this, there's also a post from Aaron Bhatnagar defending (some forms of) authoritarianism as the path to democracy. Aaron points out that democracy requires a hell of a lot more than elections, and that what's really important is the cultural infrastructure beneath it (the rule of law, freedom of press and assembly, and last but not least, respect for democratic outcomes). In successful democracies, this cultural infrastructure has generally developed under less than democratic governance - our own path to democracy (most of which took place in the UK) took us through absolute monarchy, censorship, and widespread political repression as well as civil war, dictatorship, revolution and a severely limited franchise (which we universalised in New Zealand long before they did in the UK). And often, the problem in so many countries where democracy is struggling is the lack of this cultural infrastructure. They have the legal forms of democracy, but the participants don't believe in it, and so we see things like we are seeing in Kenya or Uganda or Ethiopia right now.

Where Aaron goes wrong is going from this to supporting authoritarians. And he does this by shifting from the "narrow" view of democracy in the Harare declaration to a "wide" view which is simply the old right-wing canard about prosperity being a necessary condition for democracy (a case strongly refuted in the editorials linked above). He cites the examples of Brazil and South Korea - authoritarian regimes which produced stunning economic growth and eventually yielded to democracy - as supporting

[the] wise point that economic stability and subsequent prosperity plays a major role in ensuring the promotion of democratic governance.

But this is simply ignoring history. Both the military regimes Aaron cites so approvingly were established against existing democratic backdrops; they didn't "promote" democracy so much as return to it - having suppressed dissent, undermined the rule of law, and tortured, beaten, murdered and massacred democrats in the meantime. Aaron's "wide" view then looks increasingly like an attitude of prosperity for some at the expense of freedom for all, his "wise point" like nothing so much as the prewar admiration of British and European conservatives for the "economic miracle" of fascism, and his support for the "right" kind of authoritarians, who produce a liberalised economy and provide "security" (for who?) like the modern version of "making the trains run on time".

Misery run to waste

Tze Ming has a piece on Nguyen Tuong Van, the Australian sentenced to death in Singapore for drug trafficking. Quite apart from being flat-out wrong, Nguyen's execution seems singularly pointless. As long as there is addiction, as long as there is fear, as long as there is poverty, there will be people scared enough or desperate enough to work as drug mules, no matter what the risk. Killing them doesn't make a blind bit of difference, and it certainly doesn't act as a deterrent. Their masters will simply shrug their shoulders, lament the loss of the cargo, and find someone equally scared or desperate for the next load. Killing Nguyen Tuong Van then is simply a pointless cruelty, misery run to waste. But I guess it allows the Singaporean government to look tough, even while it bankrolls and launders money for the very people sending mules like Nguyen to their deaths.

Nguyen Tuong Van will be executed on Friday. It is now almost certainly too late to save him, but if you'd like to make a last minute impotent protest, Amnesty International Australia is running a reach out campaign. Or, you could contact the Singapore High Commission:

17 Kabul Street
Phone: (04) 470-0850
Fax: (04) 479-4066

If anybody wants to organise any actual protest action outside the High Commission, let me know and I'll publicise it.

Seditious thoughts are everywhere

Resistantsoy was over in Melbourne recently, and snapped this picture while they were there:


Clearly, seditious thoughts are everywhere.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Kiwi carnival

G-man has unilaterally decided to host another Kiwi Carnival over the weekend. The idea is to cross-pollinate the kiwi part of the blogosphere a little, by pointing to some of people's favourite posts over the last however long. So, if you've got a post you're proud of, and would like other people to see, email the URL, post title and a short description to

Global warming: who will suffer

Who will suffer most from global warming? The Independent last week had a story (mirror) summarising a pair of articles in the latest issue of Nature. The first, a WHO paper on the "impact of regional climate change on human health", looks at the effects of climate change on mortality. It calculates the expected increase in death rates from both infectious and non-infectious sources. The results are summarised in the map below:


What's stark from this is the sheer inequality in how the effects of climate change (as measured in human deaths) will be distributed. The rich world, who emit most of the greenhouse gases, and who are best able to deal with the consequences, will get off lightly. Instead, the burden will fall almost entirely on the poor. We will pollute, and they will die - from floods, heatstroke, malaria, diarrhoea, malnutrition and crop failure. The injustice is simply staggering.

The second article, on "potential impacts of a warming climate on water availability in snow-dominated regions" looked at climate change's effects on the global water supply. Their results are summarised in this map:


This shows

Accumulated annual snowfall divided by annual runoff over the global land regions... The red lines indicate the regions where streamflow is snowmelt-dominated, and where there is not adequate reservoir storage capacity to buffer shifts in the seasonal hydrograph. The black lines indicate additional areas where water availability is predominantly influenced by snowmelt generated upstream (but runoff generated within these areas is not snowmelt-dominated).

(Ignore the inset, it's not relevant).

In English, this is telling us where it snows, and where people get their water from snow. Existing climate models predict an increase in the water cycle generally - hotter temperatures equals more evaporation, equals more precipitation - so these areas will get more snow in winter to melt and provide them with water. However, increased temperatures also mean that that snow will melt earlier in the year, producing a longer dry season and likely shortages. In other words, global warming will give us a drier world. Unlike the first map, though, most of the consequences will be felt in the rich, industrialised, polluting north. I guess there's some justice after all...

Paying for the rainforest

The world is meeting in Montreal to discuss climate change and an eventual successor to the Kyoto Protocol. Despite the news that CO2 levels are at their highest for 650,000 years, that the rate of sea-level rise has doubled in the last 150 years, that Greenland's glaciers are melting, increasing the danger of a catastrophic tipping point, nobody expects much from the talks. US intransigence has sabotaged them before they have even begun - perhaps fatally.

Still, there is one interesting sign so far: a proposal by the Rainforest Coalition of developing countries that the rich world pay them to preserve their rainforests as carbon sinks. My first reaction to this was that while I liked the proposal for all sorts of reasons, looked at from a carbon accounting point of view, it was bullshit - the forests were already there, the carbon already locked away in trees. Allowing the rich world to gain credit for it would be giving them a free lunch for doing nothing (of course, many made the same argument about including land-use changes and forest sinks in the first place). However, as Joseph Stiglitz points out, it plugs a hole in the Protocol: countries could be paid for planting new forests, but not for not cutting them down. Given the large contribution of land-use changes to global carbon emissions over the last decade - approximately 25% of the total, or about the same amount as America's contribution - there's no question that reducing deforestation would be a real reduction in emissions and help towards limiting global warming.

Including restraining from deforestation would require a substantial rejig of the Protocol's rules. But that's exactly what's under discussion for the Second Commitment Period anyway. An easy mechanism would be to calculate the average rate of deforestation in the past decade, and assign it to poorer nations as tradable carbon credits. Every tree they chop down would get taken out of this, and so it would provide a solid incentive for preservation. Provided it is matched by an increase in the reduction expected from first world nations, then there won't be a free lunch, and nations will still have to make real reductions or changes overall.

Worse than under Saddam

That's the bleak assessment of former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, on the state of human rights in Iraq. Speaking in an interview with the Observer, Allawi said

'People are doing the same as [in] Saddam's time and worse,' Ayad Allawi told The Observer. 'It is an appropriate comparison. People are remembering the days of Saddam. These were the precise reasons that we fought Saddam and now we are seeing the same things.'


'We are hearing about secret police, secret bunkers where people are being interrogated,' he added. 'A lot of Iraqis are being tortured or killed in the course of interrogations. We are even witnessing Sharia courts based on Islamic law that are trying people and executing them.'

He said that immediate action was needed to dismantle militias that continue to operate with impunity. If nothing is done, 'the disease infecting [the Ministry of the Interior] will become contagious and spread to all ministries and structures of Iraq's government', he said.

Now, Allawi is running for election, and he doesn't exactly have clean hands over torture and killing: in 2004 he was accused of personally executing suspected insurgents in a Baghdad police station. But when you read reports like this and thisand this, it's hard to deny that he has a point. A war purportedly waged to end torture and murder (among other things) seems to have simply shifted the boot to the other foot, and allowed the Shi'ites to run some death squads and torture centres of their own, rather than being the victims. Was that really worth killing all those people for?

Change in Tonga?

It was a small story in Saturday's Dominion-Post, but a significant one: Tonga's elderly king is expected to sack his Prime Minister and replace him with a commoner. We can but hope. This would signal a sea-change in the kingdom away from noble rule and towards democracy - something that Tongans have waited far too long for. I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens over the next month or so...

New Fisk

No wonder al-Jazeera was a target

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Repealing raupatu?

According to the Sunday Star-Times, the Maori Party will introduce a Private Member's Bill to repeal the Foreshore and Seabed Act - and they believe they have the numbers to do it. Unfortunately I'm not so sure; while United Future voted against the bill last year, they did so over a fairly minor terminological difference - whether the foreshore would be considered "public domain" or simply crown owned. Other than that, they seemed generally supportive of the Act's aims, and I don't really see them as voting for repeal. More interesting is the prospect of one of Labour's Maori MPs crossing the floor; they had an exceedingly tough time when the act was passed, and a repeal bill will hold their feet to the fire once again. But OTOH, Labour's Maori MPs have all had their consciences tested by this legislation once already and come out (however reluctantly) in support of it, and I don't think the situation has changed enough to force any of them to reconsider.

The real worry though is National. While they support a repeal, we should not forget that they opposed the legislation because they thought it was too generous to Maori, not because they support equality under the law or open access to the courts. The modern-day descendents of Justice Prendergast would repeal the Act to replace it with one which not only expropriated the foreshore and seabed and denied Maori access to the courts (as the current legislation does), but also denied any prospect of customary usage rights as well. In other words, they don't so much want to repeal the raupatu as replace it with more raupatu.

The upshot of this is that when push comes to shove, National may vote against a return to the pre-F&S Act status quo, for the same reason they opposed the act in the first place: because Maori may get more than nothing, which is all National thinks they deserve.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Tag! You're it!

The Japanese Hayabusa probe has successfully touched down on asteroid Itokawa. It's supposed to be collecting a sample of asteroid dust to bring back and study - but simply managing to land on an asteroid is an impressive achievement.


This morning's Herald has a story about Otahuhu residents being upset with an Auckland apartment salesman's claim that cheap inner city apartments will bring "low-lives" into the inner city:

"They'll be on the dole," he said. "They'll be people who should live in Otahuhu and never be allowed out of Otahuhu."

Nice to see Brazilian attitudes to the poor growing up among Auckland's elite. Meanwhile, the Herald also has a report of an explosion at a P-lab in one of Auckland's most exclusive streets, which included this lovely bit:

One [resident] asked the Herald to report that the explosion happened at the cheap end of the street.

I guess he was worried people would think they were "low lives"...

Dunne on foreign aid

It's not just the Greens who are in favour of New Zealand boosting its foreign aid. While Helen Clark is talking about action against global poverty at CHOGM, back home Peter Dunne is suggesting that we should put our money where our mouth is:

New Zealand's foreign aid in the last financial year was 0.27 per cent of GDP. Mr Dunne wants it increased to 0.5 per cent, moving towards the international goal of 0.7 per cent.

And he'll be seeking a cross-party agreement in order to get there. Hopefully this means we'll see some progress towards it in the next budget.

Dunne may be fairly conservative on social issues (though not as conservative as the rest of his party), but he's generally a liberal internationalist on foreign policy - and would be a far better foreign minister than Winston Peters (mainly because he is at least reliable).

(Hat tip: Frogblog)

An unexpected example

Reading through reports on energy efficiency and climate change, one of the most common suggestions is that Ministers and MPs should set an example, by using fuel efficient hybrid vehicles for official transport. And the advice seems to be sinking in in the most unexpected places: check out Rodney Hide's new wheels...

Friday, November 25, 2005

America's European Gulag

According to Jerome at European Tribune, the frontpage on tomorrow afternoon's edition of Le Monde will be about America's "little Guantanamo" - in Kosovo:

According to our informations, the US military camp "Camp Bondsteel", in Kosovo, hosted a prison similar to that in Guantanamo. 6,000 US soldiers live on that base, which occupies 300 hectares near Ferisaj, a town south of Pristina, the "capital" of the UN-administered province.

If you have a copy of Google Earth, Camp Bondsteel's ICBM-address is 42o21'39" N by 21o14'36" E. Thoughtfully, half the camp is in high-resolution, so you can count the HMMWVs outside the barracks. There's also a nice aerial photo here.

I wonder which part is the prison? And which bit they do the waterboarding in? Update: European Tribune (link above) has more. The story is based on a report from Alvaro Gil Robles, the commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe, who visited the camp in September 2002:

"From one of the towers, the camp looked like a smaller version of Guantanamo. Small wood houses were surrounded by high barbed wire. I saw between 15 and 20 prisoners, locked in these houses, all dressed in orange coveralls like in Guantanamo. Most were seating, some were locked in isolated cells. Some were bearded, some were reading the Koran. There was room between the cells for guard rounds. A female US soldier working in the prison told me that she had just come here after having served in Guantanamo."

"I was shocked by what I saw"

He was invited to the camp by a French general, who was unhappy with what was going on there.

There's more on the story here and here.

"The Liberal Party"

According to the Maxim Institute, ACT will be bloc-voting in support of the Marriage (Gender Clarification) Amendment Bill. And they call themselves "the liberal party"...

Now, ACT are classical liberals, interested in formal rather than substantive freedom - but there is a clear reason (quite apart from any beliefs on the nature of marriage) for liberals of any stripe to vote against the bill: namely, that it licenses discrimination on the basis of marriage. While many classical liberals view limits on private discrimination as a restriction on freedom, and so would support some of the effects of s7 of the bill, there are still two very good reasons for them to oppose it: firstly, that the bill would license discrimination by the state - a no-no even to those who find widespread private discrimination acceptable; and secondly, that it does so in a completely one-sided manner, allowing discrimination in favour of marriage but not against it. The proponents of private discrimination at least favour a legal level playing field, and this bill doesn't provide one. The only "liberals" who would be in favour of it are bigots-in-liberal-clothing like Stephen Franks.

If you're concerned about ACT's betrayal of liberal values, I suggest you email Rodney Hide and Heather Roy immediately.

(Hat Tip: I See Red).

Election year

No, not here - in Latin America. According to the BBC, Latin America faces 12 presidential elections between now and the end of 2006 - including in seven of the region's eight largest countries (the exception apparantly being Argentina). And what people are watching out for is whether the trend of left-wing governments, such as those led by Venezuela's Hugh Chavez or Brazil's Lula, will continue.

The first election, in Honduras this weekend, won't deliver any great change; they seem to have a cosy little oligarchy, and the two major parties pursue very similar policies of supporting the elite and packing the bureaucracy with their cronies. More interesting will be the two elections following, in Chile and Bolivia. I'll be watching those eagerly to see if the left can cement its gains...

Treason it ain't

In his column in the Dominion-Post this morning (offline), political commentator Chris Trotter calls for heads to roll in Treasury over their ideological burp. But he goes further than that: the column is titled "Treason in the Treasury", and according to Trotter

Briefing papers to the incoming Government constitute a full-scale assault on Labour's economic programme. A prima facie case therefore exists for charging the Treasury with initiating and/or colluding in a campaign to destabilise the democratically elected Government of New Zealand

But while this is indeed a clear case of public servants overstepping the mark and engaging in outright political agitation (contrary to the Public Service Code of Conduct and constitutional convention), treason it ain't. As pointed out earlier in the week (when Winston made similar allegations against the media for daring to criticise him), treason as defined in s73 of the Crimes Act 1961, requires waging, inciting, assisting or conspiring to invade or overthrow the government of New Zealand with armed force. Unless Treasury has been buying guns and recruiting mercenaries for a coup to overthrow the elected government and replace it with one that will impose their desired programme, they're not treasonous. They're not even seditious, except in the Diceyean sense that any opposition to the government could be regarded as such.

Treasury deserves criticism for overstepping the mark, and I would expect its chief executive to be given a verbal reminder to ensure that his department remember its place in the constitutional order. But hysterical allegations of "treason" are both false, and help obscure what Treasury is really doing: attempting once again to usurp the role of elected politicians. Trotter has some interesting things to say about their tactics here, but unfortunately, they just get lost in the noise.

We can always dream...

U.S. Congress Must Impeach the Vice President for Torture.

But no, a blow-job from an intern is a "high crime", while reviving and sanctioning medieval torture techniques like waterboarding and strapado isn't.

25/11: White Ribbon Day

Today, November 25th, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, or "white ribbon day". The date was chosen in rememberance of the Mirabal sisters, three Dominican women murdered on the orders of the dictatator Rafael Trujillo for opposing his regime.

In New Zealand, the focus is on domestic violence. According to the Human Rights Commission, the New Zealand police received more than 45,000 emergency calls for domestic violence last year - an average of over a hundred a night. According to Women's Refuge, over 6,000 women and children flee their homes each year due to violence. And they have reason to; on average, one woman is killed by her current or former partner every five weeks. This is not something we should be tolerating.

(BTW, if you'd like to help Women's Refuge, there's an online donation form here).

In New Zealand, the situation is relatively good. Women here have legal rights and legal protections against violence (both in the form of protection orders and prosecution after the fact). Women in other countries are not so lucky. Just to pull a few things off the newswires:

  • In India, a woman is burned alive, beaten to death or driven to commit suicide every six hours. The country has only just introduced a domestic abuse bill.
  • In Ethiopia, 71% of women report having been subjected to physical or sexual violence at some stage in their life, according to a WHO report on violence against women.
  • In Afghanistan, lawlessness, traditional tribal culture and a toxic strain of Islam combine to create an environment where women can be abused and murdered with impunity. Women are still stoned for some offences, just as they were under the Taliban. And according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, "Girls as young as six years old are being sold in the name of marriage."
  • In Pakistan, honour killings are rife, rapists enjoy effective impunity (and in fact their victims can be prosecuted for adultery), and gang-rape is used by tribal councils as a judicial punishment - as seen in the case of Mukhtaran Bibi.
  • In other parts of the Muslim world, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran, women are subject to Sharia law, and enjoy few (if any) legal protections.

It's a depressing litany, which shows just ho much work there is to be done. As for what we can do, the easiest tactic is getting our government to apply pressure to other governments to improve their record in this area. The Prime Minister of Turkey will be visiting New Zealand in a little over two weeks, and their women's rights record leaves a lot to be desired. Maybe we should start there?

Out of names IV

Meet Tropical Storm Delta. Fortunately, it doesn't look like its going to hit anywhere. But 25 named storms in a season? It's simply unprecedented...

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Getting away with murder

Mark Swanner is a murderer. In 2003, the CIA interrogator tortured an Iraqi prisoner to death in Abu Ghraib prison. And yet he continues to walk free, because the US government refuses to prosecute him.

The full details are in an in-depth article from the New Yorker. The prisoner's name was Manadel al-Jamadi. You may recognise him in this photograph:


(He's easier to recognise if you imagine a grinning sadist giving a thumbs-up over his corpse).

Al-Jamadi was captured by Navy SEALs on November 4th, 2003, and after a "roughing up" (in which six of his ribs were broken), taken to Abu Ghraib and handed over to the CIA. Guards under the direction of Mark Swanner handcuffed his arms behind his back to a window five feet above the ground - a technique known as "Palestinian hanging" (a variant of strapado which causes intense pain, possible dislocation of the shoulders, and eventual death by asphyxiation, in much the same way as crucifixion). 45 minutes later, he was dead. The guards called to assist when he stopped responding found him hanging with all his weight on his hands and wrists; one noted that he

“had never seen anyone’s arms positioned like that, and he was surprised they didn’t just pop out of their sockets.”

When the body was lowered to the floor, “blood came gushing out of his nose and mouth, as if a faucet had been turned on”. Attempts were made to surreptitiously dispose of the corpse, and some evidence (including the bloodied hood that had covered al-Jamadi's face) was destroyed - but the body was eventually autopsied, and the death labelled a homicide. The pathologist performing the autopsy was not told of the circumstances of al-Jamadi's death, and judged that he had died of “compromised respiration” and “blunt force injuries”. But experts approached by the New Yorker are clear; while al-Jamadi's beating was a contributing factor, the cause of death was asphyxiation caused by the way in which he had been hung. The man had been tortured to death.

An investigation was eventually begun, and an internal CIA inquiry judged that there was "possible criminality" involved - torturing someone to death, even outside US borders, violates numerous US laws. The case was forwarded to the justice department, but despite a clear case to answer and witnesses willing to testify, no charges have been laid - and given the current administration's attitude to torture, none are likely to be. A prosecution would raise too many questions, and put too many officials on the spot about exactly how much they had approved, for the Administration to risk it. And so there is no justice for Manadel al-Jamadi, and Mark Swanner gets to get away with murder.

He'd just better not leave the country, that's all.

Cullen on MMP

Michael Cullen on the primary functions of government. This isn't a Lockean treatise on what exactly government is and isn't allowed to do, but rather on the way the New Zealand constitution (in the pseudo-Aristotelian sense) develops, and particularly the recent developments under MMP. One of the key aims of electoral reform was to weaken the executive and eliminate the "executive dictatorship" (in which a clique dominates Cabinet, which in term dominates caucus, which provides a majority in the House to enact whatever program that clique decides upon). This has been largely successful. Cullen notes that MMP has shifted us from a Westminster system to a "Wash-minster" one, in which the executive governs and proposes rather than governs and imposes. And that IMHO has been a good move, providing both more accountability of the executive to the legislature as well as better checks and balances against the sort of mandateless revolutionary madness we saw in the 80's and 90's.

Cullen also comments on Cabinet Collective Responsibility, noting that the 1999 "agree to disagree" clause with the Alliance attracted similar dire predictions from the proponents of total subordination, but ended up being completely unproblematic (the problems were caused by the Alliance imploding, not by any disagreements with the government). He expects the current looser arrangements to work out as well. He goes on:

It is worth making the point that the effective exercise of executive functions is as much a matter of the skills of the individuals involved as it is the robustness of the laws and conventions within which those functions are carried out. In other words, after several MMP governments, MPs are now learning what behaviours work and what ones are counter productive.

As in the oft quoted Prisoners' Dilemma, what emerges over time is that co-operation is on average a better strategy for the individuals concerned. One could argue that the developing shape of the executive under MMP reflects a growing maturity of the political culture.

Of course, some parties have grown up faster than others. Both the Greens and United Future have been notable for displaying an understanding of the new MMP culture and cooperating where they can, while criticising where they cannot. Unfortunately, National, dominated as it is by pre-MMP dinosaurs, still doesn't seem to have got the message. But with their large new intake and the expected change of leadership, maybe we'll see that change sometime in the next Parliamentary term.

"An absolutely disgusting display"

I read about this while reading through yesterday's Question Time last night, and Tau Henare is right: it is "an absolutely disgusting display". Particularly from a Minister in a government which prides itself on trying to build a tolerant, multicultural society. David Cunliffe ought to be ashamed of himself - as should Michael Cullen for trying to excuse it rather than stating clearly that it is completely unacceptable. Mocking your political opponents is part of the game, but this sort of low-level racism shouldn't be.

Three years, 198 days

On May 8th, 2002, Jose Padilla, a US citizen born in New York, was arrested while disembarking from a plane at Chicago airport. He was detained for a month on a material witness warrant, during which the then-Attorney General, John Ashcroft, trumpted his arrest as foiling a mjor terror attack and accused him of plotting to detonate a "dirty bomb" in a major US city. But rather than being charged for this, he was designated an "enemy combatant", transferred to a Navy brig, and denied access to his lawyer. And that's where he stayed, for three years and 198 days - until yesterday, when he was finally charged - though not with any plot to build or detonate a radiological device. Instead, Padilla has been charged with providing material support for terrorists and conspiring to wage "violent jihad" by kidnapping, murdering and maiming people overseas. Rather than being driven by any principle, the charges seem to have been laid in order to preempt Padilla's upcoming Supreme Court appeal, which would have been heard soon and would likely have declared his detention illegal.

Think about this process for a minute. In the UK, they're arguing about 14 vs 28 vs 90 days detention without charge. In the US, the "land of the free", the de facto standard now seems to be three years, 198 days - or longer, if the President thinks he can get away with it. So much for Habeas Corpus...

Proof by response

The White House has responded to yesterday's claims that Bush wanted to bomb Al-Jazeera TV by calling the allegations "outlandish and inconceivable" - implying that they are false. But if they're false, why is the British Attorney-General threatening newspapers with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act (for "coming into posession of secret information") if they publish more on the story? And why are two men being prosecuted under that Act for leaking it?

"Advancing Marriage"

Via DPF, a report from CNN about a New York schoolteacher who was fired for getting pregnant while unmarried. But apart from being a reminder of how backward they are over there (though I'm not sure whether "Victorian" or "medieval" is the appropriate perjorative), it's also a warning of what could happen here if United Future's Marriage (Gender Clarification) Amendment Bill passes. As I've already pointed out, the bill includes an amendment to the Bill of Rights Act stating that

Measures taken in good faith for the purpose of assisting or advancing marriage do not constitute discrimination.

While in this case the discrimination is religious - a Catholic school attempting to impose its moral values on its teachers in a matter which is bluntly none of their fucking business - an argument can also be made (in "good faith" of course) that such a dismissal was intended to "advance marriage" by sending a clear message of its value to the sinful unmarried.

Currently the law clearly prohibits such bullshit. But it won't if the bill passes. And that is a very strong reason why it must be opposed.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Does Gerry Brownlee think we're goldfish?

In the lead-up to the election campaign, National trumpted a "next Tuesday" Treaty of Waitangi policy: all claims would have to be filed by the end of 2006, and all filed grievances settled by 2010. This was simply insane; as Dr Claudia Orange (among others) has pointed out, there simply aren't the historians available to complete the necessary investigations in that time - meaning that a) justice would suffer; and b) there would be no full accounting of the wrongs done, and therefore no proper healing process or true settlement of grievances. But National either isn't in the reality-based community on this, or doesn't think that either justice or a true settlement of grievances matters, and so that's the policy they pushed.

It's somewhat surprising then to see Gerry Brownlee, the architect of the "next Tuesday" policy, responding to the government's far more realistic 2020 target with a claim that it will take 35 years to complete the process. Does he think that we're all goldfish, and that no-one would remember? Or has Oceania always been at war with East Asia?

Besides showing utter contempt for the electorate, this also shows how utterly dishonest National's policy is in this area. If Brownlee thinks it will take 35 years to settle all claims properly, why was he saying he could wrap it all up in 5? Conversely, if he thinks it will only take 5 years, why isn't he saying so now? Or has he simply been making shit up all along (a tactic with a certain history in the National party) to get elected or make the government look bad?

"A prima facie case"

The police have finally released the results of their investigation into Social Development Minister David Benson-Pope, concluding that while there is a prima facie case for prosecution, no charges will be laid:

"These alleged events happened more than 22 years ago and the victims were not motivated to lay complaints with Police for many years. If the person at the centre of the inquiry did not have a high current public profile it is unlikely that the matter would have surfaced in the way it has in 2005.

"Given all the circumstances of the inquiry, Mr Benson-Pope is being treated no differently from any other person who might have similar matters raised about them. The case simply does not warrant use of the criminal law," said Superintendent Fraser.

Benson-Pope is naturally pleased, but he shouldn't be; this is a long way from exoneration, and the allegations will continue to cloud his future. While it is not at all unusual for the police not to lay charges over minor incidents, this seems a little more serious (being both an abuse of power and possibly part of a systematic pattern of behaviour) - and people will always be able to attribute the police's refusal to politics rather than general practice (note that there's no implication that a prosecution would fail; they simply can't be bothered). Likewise, absent a clear verdict of "not guilty" in open court, they will be able to continue to call Benson-Pope a child-beating sadist.

Last week I said that if the report came back that the allegations were likely true, but that the passage of time meant that a prosecution was unlikely to succeed, Benson-Pope should resign. I stand by that. Former sadists have no place in our Parliament.

Bush lied

One of the core arguments made by the Bush Administration to justify the invasion of Iraq was the supposed links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. In February 2003, President Bush was claiming that

Saddam Hussein has longstanding, direct and continuing ties to terrorist networks. Senior members of Iraqi intelligence and al Qaeda have met at least eight times since the early 1990s. Iraq has sent bomb-making and document forgery experts to work with al Qaeda. Iraq has also provided al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training.

and that

We also know that Iraq is harboring a terrorist network headed by a senior al Qaeda terrorist planner. This network runs a poison and explosive training camp in northeast Iraq, and many of its leaders are known to be in Baghdad.

Even after the war, these claims continued. When the September 11th commission reported that there were no such links last year, Bush said

"The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda: because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda," Bush said after a Cabinet meeting. As evidence, he cited Iraqi intelligence officers' meeting with bin Laden in Sudan. "There's numerous contacts between the two," Bush said.

In recent days these claims have been undermined by evidence that the Bush Administration knew that their major source - Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a high-level member of Al Qaeda - "was intentionally misleading [his] debriefers" (though "torturers" would be a better term, given that he had been rendered to Egypt). But now there is an absolute smoking gun: the President's Daily Intelligence Briefing of September 21st, 2001:

Ten days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush was told in a highly classified briefing that the U.S. intelligence community had no evidence linking the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein to the attacks and that there was scant credible evidence that Iraq had any significant collaborative ties with Al Qaeda, according to government records and current and former officials with firsthand knowledge of the matter.


One of the more intriguing things that Bush was told during the briefing was that the few credible reports of contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda involved attempts by Saddam Hussein to monitor the terrorist group. Saddam viewed Al Qaeda as well as other theocratic radical Islamist organizations as a potential threat to his secular regime. At one point, analysts believed, Saddam considered infiltrating the ranks of Al Qaeda with Iraqi nationals or even Iraqi intelligence operatives to learn more about its inner workings, according to records and sources.

So, the whole time Bush was claiming in public that Saddam was in bed with Osama, he knew damn well that what he was saying was false. He lied - and at least 2000 American soldiers and 30,000 Iraqi civilians are dead as a result.

Ministerial Accountability

According to The Press, Winston Peters will be refusing to answer questions about his relationship to the government, with a spokesperson saying that

the minister would not tolerate a repeat of the questioning he received at Apec

This is simply absurd. Ministers are formally accountable to Parliament, but they are also accountable in a wider sense to the New Zealand public - who do actually have an interest in weather their Foreign Minister is doing his job, or misrepresenting his own party's policies (on, say, defence and immigration, both of which he may be called upon to discuss) as those of the government. Or running his own foreign policy irrespective of what Cabinet wishes - which is what he seemed to be doing when he reportedly promised more troops for Afghanistan.

By refusing to answer questions about his contradicting the government, Winston is trying to evade that accountability. And that is something we should not tolerate.

New Fisk

War for Civilization (ZNet interview).

A world first

Tomorrow will see a world first: the first strike by workers at a Starbucks. Workers at the K'Road / Mercury Lane Starbucks will walk off for an hour and hand out free fair trade coffee to passersby in an attempt to gain higher wages and an end to youth rates.

Like most American fast-food chains, Starbucks violently opposes any attempt by their workers to organise for a better deal. In the US, they simply fire people for joining a union. Fortunately, we have actual labour laws here preventing such gross abuses of power, as well as a requirement for "good faith" bargaining. Starbucks will simply have to put up with unionised workers, and bargain with them just like anybody else.

Information warfare

What's George Bush's solution to hostile media coverage? Bomb it, of course!

PRESIDENT Bush planned to bomb Arab TV station al-Jazeera in friendly Qatar, a "Top Secret" No 10 memo reveals.

But he was talked out of it at a White House summit by Tony Blair, who said it would provoke a worldwide backlash.

A source said: "There's no doubt what Bush wanted, and no doubt Blair didn't want him to do it." Al-Jazeera is accused by the US of fuelling the Iraqi insurgency.

The attack would have led to a massacre of innocents on the territory of a key ally, enraged the Middle East and almost certainly have sparked bloody retaliation.

Not to mention destroyed one of the few genuinely free media outlets in the Middle East and a vital force for democratic progress in the region. But it's been clear for some time that the US has no commitment to a free press unless it slavishly follows their line; just look at what they did in Iraq, where one of the CPA's first moves was to establish press censorship (something about as far from American values as torture).

The man is crazy. Absolutely batshit fucking crazy. Caligula crazy. Hitler chewing the carpet crazy. And he leads the world's most powerful nation, and controls an arsenal of nukes.

We just better hope he doesn't take a dislike to the coverage he's getting in the New York Times...

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Not going back

The SAS returned from Afghanistan early this morning, and according to Defence Minister Phil Goff, they are unlikely to be going back. This is good news. While I'm generally supportive of the mission of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan (mainly because they generally haven't been shooting at anyone), I'm a lot more uneasy about the SAS. Firstly, because they're in combat - and secondly, because of their close cooperation with US forces. The real fear here is that this cooperation involves turning over prisoners to the Americans - meaning complicity in their subsequent abuse and torture in Guantanamo or a CIA "black" prison. Unfortunately, the New Zealand government flatly refuses to answer any questions about the activities of the SAS in Afghanistan, citing "operational security" - and under those circumstances, where there can be no public oversight, it is better to avoid any risk of being tainted by such cooperation.

White Phosphorus is a chemical weapon

In my posting about the US's use of white phosphorus in Fallujah, I sidestepped the debate about whether WP was or wasn't a chemical weapon, noting that given the way it melted people's skin off, such debate was spectacularly beside the point. I take that back: white phosphorus is a chemical weapon. Why? Because the Pentagon thinks so - at least if Saddam Hussein uses it. The smoking gun is a declassified 1995 Pentagon intelligence report entitled "Possible use of phosphorus chemical":



What's good for the goose is good for the gander. If white phosphorus is a chemical weapon when Saddam uses it, it is when the US uses it too. And if Iraqis are to be charged for the use of such weapons, then the American commanders at Fallujah should be right there in the dock beside them.

Iraqis want a US withdrawal

Since Saturday, Iraqi leaders have been meeting in Cairo as part of an Arab League-sponsored reconciliation conference aimed at eventually producing peace in Iraq. While the meeting has at times been turbulent, agreement has finally been reached on a common statement showing the points of agreement between the Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish communities. A key part of that statement is that the occupation is a cause of violence and conflict and that therefore there should be a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. The Iraqis aren't advocating immediate withdrawal - they want more time to train their own troops - but there is no question that they want the Americans gone. Meanwhile, President Bush is saying that setting a future deadline for a pullout would be "a recipe for disaster" and that US troops will "stay in the fight until we have achieved the victory [they] have fought and bled for". Perhaps he should be paying attention to the rest of the statement: in addition to calling for a timetable for withdrawal, the Iraqi representatives also agreed that resistance - though not the murder of civilians - "is a legitimate right for all people". Or, through the caveat, that it's OK for insurgents to kill US troops. When even America's allies think that, you'd think that it was time to leave, neh?

A hanging

If you read David Slack's piss-take this morning on the hanging of a Herald journalist for treason, I suggest reading the original: "A Hanging", by George Orwell. It's autobiographical, and recounts one of his experiences when serving in the Indian Imperial Police in the twenties.


Smoker tries to open plane door for mid-flight cigarette.

Codifying the constitution

Lewis Holden has drafted a Constitution (Executive Powers) Bill aimed at amending the Constitution Act 1986 to codify the powers of the head of state to appoint and dismiss governments. A clause-by-clause commentary is here.

The core of the bill is in sections 5B - 5F, which lay out the ground rules for the appointment and dismissal of the Prime Minister, the appointment of other Ministers, the dismissal of the government and the dissoolution of Parliament. Most of this codifies existing convention - the head of state must appoint a Prime Minister who commands the support of the House (though such support need not be explicit, so we can still have a government appointed on the promise of being able to win a confidence vote); Ministers may only be appointed on advice; and the PM must be dismissed if they lose the confidence of the House. The government can only be dismissed for contravening the Constitution Act or failing to obey a court order, and then only after an examination of the evidence by the Supreme Court. This is a safeguard to prevent an Australian-style Dismissal, and only one of numerous checks and balances to prevent constitutional shenanigans.

Section 5C (Dismissal of the Prime Minister) is the most interesting. While a Prime Minister who has lost the confidence of the House must resign or be dismissed, in most cases the bill allows for breathing space to allow a defeated Prime Minister a chance to put together an alternative coalition for confidence and supply (the sole exception being where the vote passes by an absolute majority and names a replacement Prime Minister). This is necessary due to the expected greater fludity of confidence under MMP (especially with Winston holding the balance of power) and the lack of convention in this area; while IIRC governments rose and fell quite frequently before the establishment of party politics in the 1890's, AFAIK there is no convention to guide the Governor-General on what to do if this happens under MMP. Should they call elections immediately, or wait to see if an alternative coalition can emerge? Having some ground rules in legislation provides clear guidance to all parties, while preventing an abuse of power by the head of state. The only problem IMHO is that the time window allowed is two short (I would consider two weeks to be appropriate), and that it is not explicit about the Prime Minister's caretaker role in such a situation (though given that the idea of a caretaker government exists only by convention, it would be difficult).

Section 5F also makes it clear that parliament can only be dissolved three years after the last election or if the government has lost a vote of confidence and no alternative Prime Minister has been named. Which would rule out a snap election designed to exploit high polling unless the government contrived to vote itself out of office (which would be a very public manipulation of the system).

The bill is deliberately envisioned as part of a wider republican program (which includes Keith Locke’s Head of State (Referenda) Bill), but this isn't actually necessary. Codifying the powers of the head of state in this way is useful regardless of whether we are a republic or not, and the bill should therefore be rewritten to fit in with the legislation as it stands. Though part of such a rewrite should be a global search and replace of "Governor-General" with "Head of State" and the insertion of a clause giving the title of the Head of State as "Governor-General" so it can more easily be twinked out later.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Hope on the marriage bill

Tony Milne has done the numbers on the Marriage (Gender Clarification) Amendment Bill, and is confident that it will be defeated by a large margin:

I'm pretty certain there will be 49 Labour, 6 Green, 1 Progressive, 2 Act votes against = 58.

I'm also pretty sure there will be at least 1 Maori Party vote against (but possibly more) = 59.

And presuming National has a conscience vote on the issue (which I think they will) there should be a minimum of 7, but as many as 18 votes against.

There could also be 1 NZ First and the other 3 Maori Party MPs.

So my take would be a minimum of 65 vote against, or as many as 80 vote against.

This is good news, but it all hinges vitally on National having a free rather than a whipped vote. Katherine Rich and Simon Power are reportedly fighting hard for this, but it may depend on whether Don Brash is still drinking Murry McCully's kool-aid and wanting to pursue a strategy of cultural warfare against the "non-mainstream". Which means it is now vital to lobby those National MPs; the likely suspects are in the list here, and the full list is here.

Again, if we want a liberal and tolerant New Zealand, we need to speak up for it. So please pick a National MP and email them today.

Update: Updated quote with correct numbers.

No escape for Bush

In case you hadn't seen this yet: President Bush tried to escape from a hostile press conference in China, only to be thwarted by a locked door.

If it had ben Winston Peters, no doubt he'd be accusing the photographer and media pack of "treason"...

Winston has the wrong crime

So, now that I've stopped laughing at Winston's senior moment, I should also point out that he's accusing the Herald of the wrong crime. While criticising the performance of the ruler was historically the chief reason for prosecutions for lese majeste, we don't have that sort of law on the books in New Zealand (anymore). And treason, as defined in s73 of the Crimes Act 1961, requires waging, inciting, assisting or conspiring to invade or overthrow the government of New Zealand with armed force. The crime Winston should be accusing the Herlad of is not treason, but sedition. Which is yet another reminder of why we need to get rid of that archaic law...

Winston the dictator

According to Winston Peters, criticising his performance as a minister is treason.

I guess we just have to be glad that he isn't Minister of Police - or State Security.

Jimmy Carter on the Bush Administration

This is not the country that I once knew

And he's right. While America has never entirely lived up to its ideals, it has generally pursued a progressive path which has strengthened freedom and human rights, and so deserves to be celebrated as a "beacon of freedom". But when the leader of that "beacon of freedom" establishes gulags, his Vice President tries to overturn a ban on torture, and jokes about the old Soviet Union suddenly seem strangely appropriate, you have to worry. America is as far from its founding values as it has ever been - and moving in entirely the wrong direction.

Hopefully this will change when Bush leaves office. OTOH, the American people endorsed Bush's policies at the last election in full knowledge of what they meant. They voted for Guantanamo, they voted for rendition, and they voted for Abu Ghraib. The sickness is deep, and it will take many years to work itself out.

No execution in Tonga

Some time ago, I blogged about a murder case in Tonga which raised the spectre of Tonga's first execution since 1981. Having checked back, I'm pleased to see that the judge in the case has decided that the death penalty would be inappropriate:

Chief Justice Webster said that the Supreme Court’s view was, "for persons convicted of murder, life imprisonment is the rule and death sentence an exception. A real and abiding concern for the dignity of human life postulates resistance to taking life through law’s instrumentality. That ought not to be done save in the rarest of rare case when the alternative option is unquestionably foreclosed."

So, while the death penalty still remains on the books in Tonga, it looks like their de facto ban will remain in place.

What the US does to prisoners


This is a woodcut from Joost De Damhoudere's Praxis Rerum Criminalium, a guide to criminal law as it stood in the 16th century. The woodcut illustrates "the water cure", a method of interrogation. The victim is tied down, their face covered with a cloth, and water is poured into their mouth. It produces a sensation of drowning and asphyxiation, and so encourages the victim to talk. Hence the scribe, ready to take down the confession.

According to numerous sources within the CIA, this is exactly what the US does to "high-value" detainees:

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess.

"The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law," said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

The technique is one of six "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by the CIA when questioning "high-value" detainees. For the historically-minded, it was also used by the Spanish Inquisition under Torquemada - though unlike the Americans he at least admitted that what he was doing was torture (for the good of people's souls, of course). According to the New York Times, the CIA's Inspector-General is still in denial - though he does admit that the technique "[appears] to constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under the [Geneva] convention"...

The article is unclear about exactly who authorised the use of this technique (though given the CIA's reporting lines, it was either the Director at the time, George Tenet, or his boss, George W. Bush). But it is clear that every use of waterboarding (and other "enhanced" techniques) must be individually authorised by top-level officials:

According to the sources, when an interrogator wishes to use a particular technique on a prisoner, the policy at the CIA is that each step of the interrogation process must be signed off at the highest level — by the deputy director for operations for the CIA. A cable must be sent and a reply received each time a progressively harsher technique is used. The described oversight appears tough but critics say it could be tougher. In reality, sources said, there are few known instances when an approval has not been granted.

Just like the Nazis, they have to document everything. Which is good, because it is cast-iron evidence for later prosecution. There is absolutely no question - despite the CIA Inspector-General's claims - that waterboarding violates the US's federal anti-torture statute, which includes "the threat of imminent death" in its definition of "torture". Under that statute, anyone who conspires to commit torture - by, say, authorising it - is liable to a penalty of life imprisonment. And I can't think of any better evidence for a conspiracy charge than someone's signature on a document which says (in essence) "torture this man".

This is something American excusers of torture need to understand: the US government's torture of detainees doesn't just violate international law - it violates US domestic law as well. And the sooner those responsible are prosecuted and put behind bars for it, the better.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The birth of international justice

Sixty years ago today, international justice was born, with the beginning of the first war crimes trial at Nuremberg. Twenty-four Nazi leaders were tried on various charges, from waging a war of aggression to crimes against humanity. Nineteen were found guilty, three were acquitted, one was declared medically unfit to stand trial and one committed suicide before the trial's end. Twelve of the guilty were sentenced to death. The trial gave us the Nuremberg Principles defining war crimes in international law, and the precedent that "only following orders" is no defence.

Since then, we've established war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Cambodia, as well as a permanant International Criminal Court to try future crimes. And one day, hopefully, the criminals responsible for waging a war of aggression on Iraq which has killed (to date) at lest 30,000 innocent civilians will be dragged before it and punished.

Treasury and tax cuts

Terence of Long Ago and Not True Anyway has an excellent post on why Treasury’s got it wrong on tax cuts querying their claimed "[rich] body of international studies" in support of their policies. It's well worth reading - but while I'm on the topic, there's actually a bigger problem with their advice, in that it fundamentally oversteps the boundaries of Treasury's role as public servants. Tax rates, the overall size of government, the ownership of state assets and whether we should keep our international commitments are not technical questions of policy implementation - they are questions about policy direction. They should thus be decided by elected politicians, not unelected technocrats. Treasury has a role of course in pointing out the costs and benefits of the chosen course, but if they want to decide that course, they should be standing for Parliament and winning a mandate for their policies, not trying to impose them by stealth from the safety of the public service, where their mandate is never tested (or rather, tested by other people on their behalf).

What people like Don Brash and John Key are saying is that they think the country should be run by Treasury. In which case you really have to wonder what they think Parliament and elections are for...

Dodgy dealings

Today's Sunday Star-Times has a story on dodgy dealings involving Wairarapa MP and former diplomat John Hayes. In 2002, a Japanese woman invested $600,000 in Hayes' luxury retirement home development, apparantly on the understanding (given to her by "senior ministry officials" - Hayes' colleagues) that it would help her get residency. A residency permit of course did not eventuate (MFAT doesn't have any power at all in that area), and she has since been forced to leave New Zealand. Hayes' former colleagues are now under investigation by MFAT, but Hayes is not, as he is no longer an employee.

This is not quite in the same league as Taito Philip Field, but it is still incredibly dodgy. If the allegations are correct, Hayes was not corruptly selling his services, but rather exploiting his position for personal gain (on the perception that he could sell his services). And this is inappropriate for any public servant. Our public service must not only not be corrupt, it must be seen not to be corrupt, and this requires that public servants exercise discretion in their business dealings as much as they do in the expression of political views. At the least, Hayes has failed to do that, which speaks of incredibly poor judgement on his part.

Out of names III

Meet Tropical Storm Gamma, currently causing trouble in Belize. If it doesn't dissapate, it will likely strengthen as it crosses the Caribbean, and will hit the Florida Keys next week.

Whackamole II

The Herald Premium Content LJ has been shut down, and so it's back on blogger. (Hat Tip: Three Point Turn)

New Fisk

The betrayed mothers of America

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Freedom in the Middle East

The Economist Intelligence Unit has released an index of freedom in the Middle East, ranking countries on elections, transparency, corruption, freedom of assembly, and the rule of law. Israel rightly heads the list as the freeest and most democratic country in the Middle East (at least if you're Israeli), and Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia are at the bottom. But what's most striking about the list is this: every country on it uses torture. Every single one. While its good to see the Middle East democratising (and there has been real progress in Lebanon, and some in Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq), it won't be properly free until they stop chaining people to walls and sticking cattle prods on their genitals.

Unfortunately, the country which could best push for change in this area - the United States - is not exactly setting a good example, and is even co-opting these nations' torturers to serve its own ends. Which shows exactly how much they support freedom in the Middle East.

New Fisk

National Radio interview on The Great War For Civilization [MP3].

Shrinking Coalition Watch

South Korea is getting out of Iraq. Citing "the stable security condition" there, the South Korean Defence Minister has announced plans to withdraw around a thousand of the 3600 troops stationed in Irbil. Interestingly, they made the announcement without informing the US government - and just a day after a summit meeting between the US and South Korean Presidents. I guess they decided that Bush just didn't need to know...


Senator Russ Feingold is planning to filibuster the extension of the USA PATRIOT Act - by reading from the Bill of Rights. It's simply beautiful when this sort of thing happens.

(For those who don't know, the USA PATRIOT Act is a piece of American anti-terrorism legislation which has become a byword for the trampling of civil liberties).

Friday, November 18, 2005

And while we're at it

Fatih Tas is a Turkish publisher who specialises in publishing books critical of the Turkish government. Recently, he published a translation of John Tirman's Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America's Arms Trade. The book included a map which labelled part of Turkey as "the traditional Kurdish region", alleged that the Turkish military engaged in human rights abuses in their suppression of the Kurds in the 80's and 90's, and (in passing) criticised the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Tas is now on trial in Turkey, charged with insulting the Turkish state and its founder. If convicted, he could be jailed for six years.

This is a perfect parallel to the case of David Irving. It matters not that one is accused for telling truths and the other for telling lies; the problem is that in each case the government is trying to enforce (it's preferred version of) truth through the use of criminal law. And that is something it simply should not be doing. As John Stuart Mill pointed out,

the particular evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

To which I'll add that if the truth can stand for itself, it does not need the protection of the law; if it can't, it does not deserve it.

Both the Austrian and Turkish governments are violating freedom of speech with their actions. If they don't like what Irving and Tas are saying, they should fight speech with more speech - not by throwing people in jail.

Potsherds were not invented for the likes of him

That was the comment of one comic poet on the Ostracism of Hyperbolos at Athens in around 417 BCE. He was considered "beneath" the punishment. The same applies to David Irving, currently being held in Austria on charges of Holocaust denial. Irving is a jerk, a fraud, and an anti-semite, but he shouldn't be in jail for it. Quite apart from the strong freedom of speech arguments (which I covered here, when he was planning a trip to New Zealand), the threat of imprisonment dignifies him. It gives his views far more credence than they deserve. Potsherds weren't invented for the likes of Hyperbolos, and prisons weren't invented for the likes of Irving. He should be allowed to make a fool of himself in public (and incidently provide a platform for people to prove it) as much as he wants.

Something to watch out for

Browsing the Department of Corrections' Briefing for the Incoming Minister, I came across this section:

One of the issues raised during the passage of [the Prisoners' and Victims' Claims Act] was the adequacy of prisoner complaints mechanisms, and the Ministry of Justice was directed to undertake a review. The report, which was published in April 2005, considered the effectiveness of the internal prison-based complaints mechanism, the Inspectorate and the Office of the Ombudsmen in dealing with complaints by prisoners.

The Department is to report to the Ministers of Corrections and Justice by 30 November 2005 on:

  • the effect of changes made to the complaints system by the Corrections Act 2004 and the Corrections Regulations 2005
  • further steps to improve the effectiveness of the internal complaints procedures
  • the Department’s responsiveness to the Ombudsmen.

Not mentioned in the briefing is the fact that that report utterly panned Corrections' existing complaints processes, and particularly its slow response to rulings by the Ombudsmen. It will be interesting to see what steps Corrections is taking to resolve these problems, and I'll be requesting the report under the OIA the moment it comes out.


Iraq's Interior Minister is trying to spin his way out of the weekend's discovery that prisoners were being starved and tortured in an Interior Ministry dungeon by claiming that the reports were exaggerated and making excuses for the treatment. His chief excuse? That the prisoners were foreign fighters, "the most criminal terrorists". His implication is that therefore they deserved to be mistreated - starved, beaten, flayed alive - but the key point of those who object to torture is that no-one deserves to be treated like that. Not even people who try to excuse it.

The changing role of MSD

The release of Treasury's briefing to the incoming government has provoked a flurry of stories as journalists have hit the web to seek out briefings by other government departments. The most intreresting of these is probably the Ministry of Social Development's. The media has focused on a few sections of the MSD's briefing [PDF] - a rise in "sin taxes" to discourage alcohol and tobacco use, and a possible reintroduction of work-testing for the DPB - but at the same time they've missed the interesting story: how the focus of MSD has changed from paying benefits to looking at "social development" in its widest sense. Look at the deparment's priority issues: improving education, increasing opportunities, promoting healthy eating and discouraging drinking and smoking, preventing family violence. None of these are really what we'd consider to be the core business of the old Departments of Social Welfare or Work and Income - but they are key to MSD's new goal of improving social outcomes for all New Zealanders. And their preferred way of doing it is by "social investment" (e.g. in education, so that people can get jobs) rather than "social protection" (paying people the dole). They've clearly been reading the good bits of Giddens...

Basically, Labour's creation of MSD as a "super-ministry" has allowed them to take a wider focus on social policy, just as Treasury does on economic policy. And it has introduced real contestability of policy advice. In the past, Treasury has consistently outgunned other ministries because they could afford more policy analysts (cutting their competititon's budgets also helped a bit here). Thankfully, this is no longer the case.

Benson-Pope decision due next week

The police will finally release the results of their investigation into historical allegations of assault by Cabinet Minister David Benson-Pope next week. Good. And if the evidence supports those allegations, I expect him to be charged and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The behaviour alleged was not legal even in the 80's, and there is no excuse for such sadism in the classroom. And if the report comes back that the allegations are true, but that the passage of time and the fading of memory has made a prosecution unlikely to succeed, I expect Benson-Pope to resign; former sadists have no place in Parliament either.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Fighting the marriage bill

United Future's Marriage (Gender Clarification) Amendment Bill will come before Parliament in a couple of weeks for its first vote. If it passes, the bill will do two things. The first would be to define marriage in exclusively heterosexual terms. While this mirrors the existing law (from Quilter v Attorney-General), enacting it at this stage would send the same message that the failure of the Homosexual Law Reform or Civil Union Acts would have done: that we are a nasty, bigoted, intolerant country, where gays will never truly be considered part of mainstream society. The second thing the bill would do would be to amend the Bill of Rights Act to allow discrimination in favour of marriage. This would gut existing anti-discrimination measures in the Human Rights Act, and effectively license both state and private discrimination against the unmarried. We've had those provisions since the Human Rights Commission Act 1977, and they've helped transform our society into a brighter, more tolerant place. But now United Future and the fundamentalist Christian lobby want to turn back the clock...

Almost every Labour MP is expected to vote against this bill, as the Greens and Jim Anderton. This leaves the bill's fate in the hands of ACT, the Maori Party, and National's liberal faction. Based on stated positions and past voting information, this gives us the following targets for lobbying:

Known liberals:

Critical unknowns:

In addition, there are two National Party MPs who indicated in their NZVotes profiles that they opposed this legislation: Maurice Williamson and Chris Finlayson. They need to be reminded of it.

There is also a reasonable group who, while likely to support the definition of marriage, may not support weakening anti-discrimination laws. These include:

All but the first two voted for the Human Rights Act back in 1993. Reminding them of that could be useful leverage.

If we want an open, tolerant New Zealand, we need to speak up for it. You can start by contacting one of the people above about the bill. Or, you could sign the pledge and contact five...

(Address information from the Parliamentary Services list here).