Saturday, December 31, 2005

A low bar?

VUW's pro-Chancellor is complaining that the bar is set too low for university entrance:

Ian McKinnon said the bar was set too low. Students needed only three C passes in the old Bursary exams or 42 NCEA credits to get University Entrance, but even those with higher grades sometimes struggled to get a degree.

The first point is that this has nothing to do with NCEA - though I'm sure some National Party press flack will already be whipping up a press release claiming that it is. The NCEA standard is equivalent to the old Bursary standard (and in fact, given the wll-reported difficulties met by students who didn't have the right combination of credits, it is slightly tougher). The second point is that the bar has actually been raised recently - not that long ago it was only four D passes. The difference between then and now is that people who barely achieve UE (even under the current standard) are going to university where previously they wouldn't have bothered. This is a waste of resources, but in a world where tertiary education is the key to opportunity (in that without one, you will be working in McDonalds for the rest of your life), I'm not sure that we can really deny people the chance to pursue it. Yes, 42 NCEA credits is not high enough to guarantee success - but neither is it low enough to guarantee failure. Provided people are given the chance to succeed or fail on their own merits, I don't have a problem with their taking a crack at it. After all, they're paying for it, and the cost of failure is not insignificant...

UK torture memos spread

The story of Craig Murray's leaking of documents showing that the UK was complicit in torture in Uzbekistan is spreading around the world. Not only has it been mentioned on hundreds of blogs, it has also appeared in the Independent, Al Jazeera, Scoop (of course), The Times, UPI, Slate and CNews. For those who are interested, there's a tracker here

The Register puts the finger on exactly what the problem is for the British government:

There is little obvious in the documents that one would not be able to read at Human Rights Watch, or at the blog Murray started up after he ceased to be an FCO employee; the point, and the difficulty for the FCO, is that they establish who said what, to whom, when. Claims by the FCO and the Government in general that it does not procure evidence via torture and that it is unaware that torture is taking place can most kindly be viewed as superlatively disingenuous when seen against the background of Murray's letters. In order to sustain the 'see no evil' policy in the face of these, Jack Straw must presumably also now claim to have been entirely unaware of what one of his own ambassadors was telling him, repeatedly and at some considerable length.

Unfortunately, that level of denial hasn't posed any problem for the Blair government in the past...

More brazen than Nixon

The Bush Administration establishes an illegal domestic wiretapping program. The Justice Department investigates. But rather than investigating the Administration's egregious violation of US law (which could see everyone who ran or "authorised" such a wiretap without a warrant jailed for five years), they're instead investigating who told.

Clearly Nixon's problem was that he just wasn't brazen enough...

New Year Honours List

The New Year's Honours List has been released, and (in keeping with Labour tradition) has the usual assortment of musicians, sportspeople, artists and academics, and refreshingly few businesspeople. But there is one unusual name on the list; Dail Michael John Jones, of the North Shore, gets a QSO for public services. If the name seems familiar, it's because he's a former NZ First MP - and one of their more bigoted ones at that. So, what was his "public service"? Opposing the Civil Union Act and any move for equality (a position he has consistently taken since first elected to parliament in 1975)? Helping the government push through the Foreshore and Seabed Act? Or simply returning to politics as a living reminder of how awful the 70's were and how glad we should be to have (mostly) left them behind?

And OTOH, normally political payback is somewhat larger than a mere QSO. Still, I am curious...

Dr Who geekery

While browsing around after watching The Christmas Invasion I disovered some rather interesting websites. For a start, there's the one for UNIT set up for Aliens of London. But there are also sites for GeoComTex (Henry Van Statten's company from Dalek), the British Rocket Group (which features in The Christmas Invasion), and Mickey's Who Is Doctor Who? conspiracy site. Plus (of course) the Big Bad Wolf.

Anybody know of any others I should check out?

Friday, December 30, 2005

The UK was complicit in torture in Uzbekistan

Craig Murray is the UK's former ambassador to Uzbekistan, who was removed from his post after complaining too loudly about human rights abuses and torture in a country that was, at the time, considered a vital ally in the "war on terror". He's since written a book about those abuses, and the UK and US's complicity in and toleration of them; unfortunately the British government is trying to use their draconian Official Secrets Act to prevent the revelation of embarrassing information, demanding that he

remove all references to two especially damning British government documents, indicating that our government was knowingly receiving information extracted by the Uzbeks through torture, and return every copy that he has in his possession.

So, he's gone around them. The Blairwatch blog has coordinated a massive leak of the documents to the internet, publishing them themselves and urging other blogs to do the same. As they said in their email, it's not the Al-Jazera memo, but these documents need publishing.

The first document [PDF] is a series of telegrams sent by Murray to the Foreign Office, detailing the Uzbek regime's use of torture and protesting the British government's decision to ignore it and continue using (and treating as reliable) information from the Uzbek security services.

1. We receive intelligence obtained under torture from the Uzbek intelligence services, via the US. We should stop. It is bad information anyway. Tortured dupes are forced to sign up to confessions showing what the Uzbek government wants the US and UK to believe, that they and we are fighting the same war against terror.

2. I gather a recent London interdepartmental meeting considered the question and decided to continue to receive the material. This is morally, legally and practically wrong. It exposes as hypocritical our post Abu Ghraib pronouncements and fatally undermines our moral standing. It obviates my efforts to get the Uzbek government to stop torture they are fully aware our intelligence community laps up the results.

3. We should cease all co-operation with the Uzbek Security Services they are beyond the pale. We indeed need to establish an SIS presence here, but not as in a friendly state.

And as an example:

15. At the Khuderbegainov trial I met an old man from Andizhan. Two of his children had been tortured in front of him until he signed a confession on the family's links with Bin Laden. Tears were streaming down his face. I have no doubt they had as much connection with Bin Laden as I do. This is the standard of the Uzbek intelligence services.

The second document [JPG] is a scan of a short memo from Michael Wood, the Foreign Office's chief legal advisor, giving the UK government's position on information derived from torture: that it's OK, provided it doesn't make it into court. This makes a lovely contrast with Tony Blair's public position that the UK does not condone torture and "would not be involved in any process" which resulted in its use. It also shows exactly why the British government is attempting to censor these documents: to prevent the embarrassment of being publicly shown to have been lying to the British public (again).

There are HTML versions of both documents here (thanks to Kos).

If you are outside the UK, I urge you to republish these documents, and help show the UK government that this sort of censorship simply does not work.

Expectations of privacy

Back in November, the government released Treasury's Briefing to the Incoming Minister, which recommended restarting the Revolution and returning to the rabid market-Darwinist policies of the 80's and 90's. I was a little curious as to who exactly had written this "ideological burp" - so I asked, submitting an OIA request for the identities of the authors, and their position in Treasury, as well as historical data on previous briefings. I got my answer back the other day, and I'm not pleased. Instead of the information I had saught, I essentially received a list of former Secretaries of the Treasury - information on the authors having been withheld under s9(2)(a) of the Act in order to

protect the privacy of natural persons, including deceased people

This is arguably valid for some of the information sought, particularly for the historical data (where I was asking not only for the author's positions at the time, but whether they were still employed by Treasury, and if so, what they were doing now; OTOH, I've had such requests answered before, most notably from Corrections). But their names? When they authored and signed off on an official government document? What the Minister of Finance seems to be claiming is that public servants have an expectation of privacy in performance of their public functions - which is simply nonsensical, and more reminiscent of the bad old days when we had an official secrets act rather than the present era of supposedly open government.

Not that any of that matters, because the Minister also claims that

Treasury does not, as a matter of course, maintain detailed records of who contributed to different parts of these briefings...

Again, this is arguably true for past briefings, but for the most recent one? Couldn't they just ask? But instead, their approach seems to be "we're not telling, and we don't know anyway". So much for "open government"...

The ACLU tells it like it is

The ACLU is telling it like it is on Bush's illegal domestic wiretapping program. Last Thursday, they ran the following ad in the New York Times.


Today, they followed it up with this one:


(Click on the images for larger versions)

They're right: this is not about partisanship or pushing a political agenda - it is about the rule of law, and whether the President and the government are above the law or subject to it. And in a democracy, where there are checks and balances and where the government is politically accountable to the people, there can only be one answer to that question.

If you are American, you can send a letter to your Congressperson and Senator here.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Signs of change in Turkey

Turkey's Foreign Minister has suggested that its law banning insulting the state or military (effectively, lese majeste), currently being used to prosecute more than sixty writers and possibly a Dutch MEP, may be repealed.

Here's hoping.

Such laws have no place on the books of a country which aspires to be called a democracy. And they have no place on the books of a country which aspires to join the EU. It is an underlying principle of democracy that the people must be free to criticise the government in the most robust manner possible. The Turkish law simply doesn't allow this, and that is why it has to go.

The laws mean nothing

Back in August, I blogged about the case of fifteen men who continued to be detained in Guantanamo, even after the US military had concluded they were innocent. Two of them, Abu Bakker Qassim and Adel Abdu Hakim, went to court seeking a writ of Habeas Corpus ordering their release. Just before Christmas, the judge in the case handed down an astounding decision: the men's continued detention was clearly unlawful, but he could not actually do anything about it; the court had "no relief to offer".

Just to repeat that, the US government can unlawfully detain people for four years, and the courts can't even order their release.

Clearly, in the US, the laws mean nothing. The President can now detain whoever he wants, for as long as he wants, for whatever he wants, and even though it may be "unlawful", nothing can be done for fear of infringing the royal executive prerogotive. So much for "a nation of laws, not men".

(Hat tip: Obsidian Wings)

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The price of illegal wiretapping

It looks as if there will be a price to be paid for the Bush Administration's illegal domestic wiretapping: criminal convictions - or rather, the prevention of them. According to the New York Times, defence attorneys in several high-profile terrorism cases are planning to challenge evidence on the basis that it was ultimately derived from illegal wiretaps. This could result in evidence being excluded as "fruit from a poisoned tree", cases being thrown out, and possibly even convictions being overturned. In other words, thanks to President Bush's egregious violation of US law and the constitution, suspected terrorists could walk free.

Thankyou letters can be sent to:

President George W Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Near Misses I: Alfred Hall Skelton

(An even-more occasional series on speech the government considered seditious, but which did not result in prosecution)

Statement on the Black Saturday massacre by Alfred Hall Skelton in the Auckland Star, 20th January, 1930:

The most wicked thing of all, which the police have not attempted to explain, was when they turned the machine gun onto Apia village square, which was crowded with women and children and onlookers who had run out on hearing the disturbance. Two boys, two young men, and seven others were all wounded. There was no occasion to fire on those people.

(Emphasis added).

Hall Skelton had been in Samoa at the time, and had conducted his own investigation into the massacre. Samoan witnesses denied the police's claim that the police station was under any sort of attack, and the bullet wounds Hall Skelton personally observed on the injured suggested that the police had pointed their machine gun rather lower than they claimed. His questioning of the official government line outraged the Prime Minister, Joseph Ward, who sought a legal opinion on whether he had overstepped the mark between "permissible censure and sedition". The Crown Solicitor concluded that while the comments were seditious, it was unlikely that a jury would convict.

(Source: Mau: Samoa's Struggle Against New Zealand Oppression by Michael Field, A H & A W Reed, 1984).

Update: re-titled.

Remembering Black Saturday

As some of you may have noticed, I've been reading about New Zealand's occupation of Samoa recently, primarily as research into the sedition case of O F Nelson. But Nelson's prosecution and exile is just one part of the story of gross negligence, poor administration, abuse of civil liberties and outright racism which characterised New Zealand's administration of Samoa. Today, December 28th, is the anniversary of the worst incident of that period: the Black Saturday massacre, in which the New Zealand run Samoa Constabulary machine-gunned a procession of unarmed demonstrators, killing eight people and wounding more than fifty. The official New Zealand version of the incident is reflected in the DNZB entry for Arthur Downes, one of the police involved:

The unresolved conflict between the administration and the Mau came to a head on 28 December 1929, 'Black Saturday', when the authorities sought to arrest a wanted man conspicuously marching in a Mau procession along the main beach road in Apia. The small arresting party was fiercely resisted, and a fracas developed. Downes was in charge of an 18-man support party armed with revolvers. Watching from a nearby vantage-point he quickly summoned their help. These reinforcements were insufficient to restore order and, fearful for their lives, the beleaguered policemen resorted to using their weapons, firing shots into the crowd which may have killed five people and wounded several others.

Under a hail of stones, the police retreated to the police station in the adjoining Ifi Ifi Street, near which one of their number was cornered and killed by the following mob. As the Samoans approached the police station along Ifi Ifi Street, machine-gun fire was directed over their heads from the station's north balcony by the senior policeman present, Sergeant R. H. Waterson, causing them to fall back. While Waterson was on another balcony deterring Samoans approaching from the east, Downes and two companions, who were manning the north balcony with rifles, panicked and opened fire on the crowd itself. They would say later that the Mau had been threatening to re-enter Ifi Ifi Street from the beach road.

The coroner's investigation into the deaths - the only formal inquiry conducted by the New Zealand government - later found that the rifle fire had been "unnecessary". Despite this, none of the police were ever prosecuted.

Among the dead was the Mau leader, Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, who was shot as he stood in the intersection calling for peace. His final words, as he lay dying in hospital, were

My blood has been spilt for Samoa
I am proud to give it
Do not dream of avenging it, as it was spilt in maintaining peace.
If I die, peace must be maintained at any price

The Mau stayed true to its pacifist values, and refrained from taking the Administrator's head in revenge.

In 2002, the New Zealand government finally apologised for the massacre (and for the colonial occupation in general), but it is still not one of New Zealand's better moments.

When the rubber-stamp stops stamping...

Why did the Bush Administration decide to ignore US law and engage in widespread wiretapping of US citizens? Today, another piece of the puzzle slots into place: the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which grants warrants for surveillance of foreign agents within the United States, had stopped being such a rubber stamp. In its first 22 years of operation, it had approved 13,102 applications, and modified only 2. But since 2001,

the judges have modified 179 of the 5,645 requests for court-ordered surveillance by the Bush administration. A total of 173 of those court-ordered "substantive modifications" took place in 2003 and 2004 -- the most recent years for which public records are available.

The judges also rejected or deferred at least six requests for warrants during those two years -- the first outright rejection[s] in the court's history.

Basically, Bush didn't get exactly what he wanted from the law, so he chose to ignore it. But given the deference to national security by the court and demonstrated low standards required for such warrants - no rejections in 22 years; all the government has to do is show probable cause that the target is a foreign agent or terrorist who may be violating US law - you really have to wonder how outrageous and egregious those rejected and modified applications were.

(Hat tip: Daily Kos).

National's "nanny state"

In what seems to be a flashback to Jenny Shipley's Code of Social and Family Responsibility [PDF], National's Simon Power has said that he wants to introduce Blair-style control orders in New Zealand, allowing schools and police to set curfews on "unruly" children and punish parents for failure to control them, all without the bother of having to go to court or needing actual evidence. It's ironic that National, whose supporters regularly decry the idea of a "nanny state" when talking of taxation and social welfare, want to establish one in its most coercive sense in the area of social policy. But this is worse than ironic - it's a bad idea. In the UK, the system of "Anti-Social Behaviour Orders" (ASBOs) has been widely abused, being used to exile people from or confine them to their homes - effectively a criminal punishment - on the basis of gossip, heresay, and sheer unpopularity. They have also been used to enforce social conformity and punish people for "offences" such as sarcasm and wandering round the house in your underwear (whatever happened to "an Englishwoman's house is her castle"?) - not to mention begging and prostitution. Worse, they have increasingly been used against the mentally ill, targetting those who, through no fault of their own, simply cannot "fit in". And they do all this while ignoring the presumption of innocence and the basic standards of criminal justice, through the fiction of being a civil proceeding - despite having a statutory penalty of five year's jail for any breach.

Red Pepper calls ASBOs "institutionalised spite". I'd go beyond that and call them an affront to the British justice system, not to mention the basic standards of decency. This is not a policy we should be emulating, and it is shameful that the National party is even considering it.


In November, I blogged about the case of Fatih Tas, a Turkish publisher currently facing trial on charges of insulting the Turkish state and its founder for publishing a translation of a book which included claims that the Turkish military had been involved in widespread human rights abuses during its suppression of the Kurds in the 80's and 90's. Tas is only one of around sixty Turkish authors and publishers currently facing such charges. The most famous of them is novelist Orhan Pamuk, who is being prosecuted for an interview with a Swiss magazine in which he said

Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it.

The trial has attracted significant international attention, with a delagation of MEPs travelling to Istanbul to act as observers. Now one of them, Dutch Green-Left MP Joost Lagendijk, is himself under investigation for the same "crime", for saying that the Turkish military wanted clashes with Kurdish seperatists to continue because they boosted the military's importance. In their "indictement", the group of nationalist lawyers who have laid the complaint asked

Where does he [Lagendijk] find the audacity to consider himself above and immune from Turkish laws and to insult the Turkish army and the Turkish judiciary?

Perhaps he believes that, as an aspiring member of the EU, Turkey should act like a free country where criticism of the state is allowed, rather than a tinpot dictatorship?

Accountability in Iraq, but not America

Back in November, US troops searching for a missing child discovered a secret prison run by Iraq's Interior Ministry - along with 170 detainees, some of whom showed signs of torture. The discovery led former Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to conclude that torture in Iraq was worse than it was under Saddam.

But now, there's some sign that people are being held accountable for Iraq's de facto policy of torture, with Interior Minister Bayan Jabr apparantly being forced from office:

Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, whose ministry is accused of operating clandestine prisons where some detainees were tortured, will vacate his job shortly, security and political sources in Baghdad said yesterday.

Mr. Jabr has been under pressure to step down since a Nov. 15 raid by U.S. forces of a secret prison in the Baghdad neighborhood of Jadriyah, where 166 prisoners were discovered, most of them Sunni Muslims and some showing signs of torture.


Multiple sources contacted by telephone from London agreed that Mr. Jabr would not retain his position. Most said he was being forced out, although one said he would resign of his own volition because he found the pressure unbearable.

While I'd prefer to see him and all his minions prosecuted, this is at least a good start. Meanwhile, despite widespread reports that the US has been running a secret network of prisons where "high-value" detainees are subjected to waterboarding, no US official has yet been held accountable for this gross violation of US law and values.

(Hat tip: Washington Monthly)

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Blaming others for your own policies

Back in the 90's, the then National government wanted to Revolutionise science. The old DSIR was to be split up, its scientists scattered among ten new Crown Research Institutes. These CRIs would be expected to behave like businesses, returning a profit to the Crown (from money given to them by the Crown in the first place), and seeking out opportunities for outside funding and the financial exploitation of their research.

The problem with this model (implemented in the Crown Research Institutes Act 1992) is that sometimes businesses fail. Particularly when they're working in inherantly risky areas such as the commercialisation of new technologies.

Fast-forward to 2005: one of those CRI's (Industrial Research Limited - which does most of the non-sheep-and-cows stuff) has indeed run into financial trouble, losing almost $6 million this year (the third loss in a row) after a commercialisation venture went bad. And leading the witch-hunt with a call for a Select Committee inquiry is... the National Party. I know political memories are short, but do they really think no-one will notice that they're now trying to embarass the government with a perfectly forseeable consequence of a policy they established in the first place?

There are perfectly legitimate questions to be asked about whether IRL's commercialisation venture was too risky for a CRI to engage in - but I think that the role of the commercial model of scientific research (and the resulting pressure to make a good "return on investment" for the Shareholding Minister) cannot be ignored.

Banking is the new Amway

Once upon a time, working in a bank was a respectable job. Now, it seems to be turning into the new Amway. First, Westpac staff were expected to push a certain amount of debt on their customers, regardless of whether they needed it or not. Now, BNZ staff have been asked to engage in "social prospecting" of their friends and relatives during the Christmas break, so that they can be sold more debt products (such as mortgages and credit cards) after the holidays. I'm sure that will deepen and strengthen their personal relationships no end...

At the same time, the bank is talking about "work-life balance" - the "balance" seeming to lie in the total colonisation of all aspects of life by work.

Sedition by Example XVII: O F Nelson

(An ongoing attempt to incite the public against our archaic law of sedition)

Samoa mo Samoa (Samoa for Samoans) -- Motto of the Samoan Mau

Other posts in the sedition by example series have focused on the words which resulted in prosecution for sedition. This is difficult to do in the case of Olaf Frederick Nelson. Rather than being prosecuted for specific words alleged to have a seditious meaning or intention, Nelson was prosecuted for his support (and presumed leadership) of a seditious organisation, the League of Samoa, better known as the Mau. The Mau was formed in 1926 to demand "the advancement of Samoa", and specifically a greater voice for Samoans in their own government (Western Samoa then being administered by New Zealand under a League of Nations Mandate). Nelson had been one of the organisers of the public meetings which led to its founding, and was seen by the Administration as being its leader. After the Mau's campaign of boycotts and civil disobedience made the islands effectively ungovernable, Nelson was exiled without trial from the country of his birth for being

the recognised and active head of an organisation called the "Mau" or League of Samoa, the purpose of which is to secure self-government for Samoa and in furtherance of such purpose, by unlawful means to frustrate and render ineffective... the functioning of the Administration of the Territory.

Nelson continued to argue for Samoan independence from Auckland. Meanwhile, the Mau continued without him. In 1932, he returned to Samoa, having served his term of exile - but again became involved in the Mau. He was quickly prosecuted under the Samoan Seditious Organisations Ordinance for "aiding and abetting", convicted, and sentenced to eight months imprisonment (to be served in New Zealand) and a further ten years exile. The election of the First Labour Government in 1935 led to a change in policy towards Samoa, and Nelson's sentence was remitted in 1936. He returned to Samoa to a hero's welcome.

(Source: Mau: Samoa's Struggle Against New Zealand Oppression by Michael Field, A H & A W Reed, 1984).

Sunday, December 25, 2005

On this day, a child was born

Or more properly, a bear:

Pooh - based on the bedtime stories by Alan Alexander (AA) Milne - first appeared in the London Evening News on Christmas Eve 1925 in a story called The Wrong Sort of Bees.

You know, he doesn't look 80...


The sharp-eyed among you may have noticed that I've finished reading Jared Diamond's Collapse. I started reading it way back in April, put it down to do some higher priority reading, and have only just got round to finishing it. I'm glad I made the effort.

Much of Collapse consists of the stories of past societies which, for one reason or another, disappeared. Easter Island, the Maya, the Anasasi of the American Southwest are just some of the examples. Many of these stories (and particularly those of Pitcairn and Henderson and the Greenland Vikings) are relentlessly depressing. Diamond identifies four factors which may contribute to a society's collapse: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours and disruption of trade links. But the most important factor is how that society responds to its challenges. Sometimes, as in the case of Pitcairn and Henderson, nothing can be done. These societies were locally unsustainable colonies effectively supported by trade; when that trade dried up (due to the parent society engaging in environmentally unsustainable practices), the colonies slowly died off. In other cases, as with Tokogawa Japan and Tikopia, changes can be made which ensure sustainability and social survival (Tokogawa Japan enacted strict laws to prevent deforestation; the Tikopians killed all their pigs because they recognised that they were destroying their island's fragile environment). But the most tragic cases are those where a solution was clearly possible, but was not taken - as in Greenland, where a Viking colony died out because of their refusal to eat fish (!) and insistence on trying to live as European sheep-herders in an environment which simply did not support it.

There are also some chapters devoted to modern societies under pressure - Rwanda, Haiti, China and Australia - which provide modern examples of the same problems. Rwanda has effectively already suffered a collapse, with a genocide at least partly driven by overpopulation and intense pressure for land. Haiti's poverty is at least partly the result of their having destroyed their environment through deforestation. China and Australia face longer-term problems (pollution and outright unsustainability, respectively), which while less likely to lead to collapse, are going to have to result in significant changes if their societies are to survive.

There are two key points I took from Collapse. The first is the dependence of a society on its environment. The environment is the basis of the economy; it provides the food we eat, the water we drink, and the resources and services which make the production of houses and books and oil tankers and computers possible (there is now an entire subdiscipline of ecological economics devoted to studying these links, as well as applying economic thinking to environmental problems and vice versa). Most of Diamond's examples collapsed because they lived substantially beyond their ecological means (though sometimes they had no way of knowing they were doing so until it was too late). There's a leson there for all of us. The second, as mentioned above, is the importance of human choice. Faced with a crucial environmental challenge, we can choose to ignore it, or we can choose to adapt to or resolve it. Which choice we take will affect our quality of life, sometimes drastically. As Diamond notes,

[s]evere problems of overpopulation, environmental impact, and climate change cannot persist indefinitely: sooner or later they are likely to resolve themselves, whether in the manner of Rwanda or in some other manner not of our devising, if we don't succeed in solving them by our own actions.

In a world which is increasingly living beyond its means, we will be facing such situations more often. But thanks to globalisation and increasing interconnectedness (not to mention science, technology, and the lessons of the past), we have more capacity than ever before to solve those problems. I'm just hoping that we collectively manage to make the right choices...

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Correction: Homeland Security library story was a hoax

According to the newspaper which broke the story, last week's report that Homeland Security agents had interviewed a student for interloaning Mao Tse Tung's Little Red Book (blogged about here) was a hoax:

The UMass Dartmouth student who claimed to have been visited by Homeland Security agents over his request for "The Little Red Book" by Mao Zedong has admitted to making up the entire story.

The 22-year-old student tearfully admitted he made the story up to his history professor, Dr. Brian Glyn Williams, and his parents, after being confronted with the inconsistencies in his account.

Basically, the student made it all up. But in the present environment in the USA, where the President asserts the right to bug everyone's phone calls, and with a law on the books that allows the government to search library and bookshop records without probable cause, it didn't seem unbelievable either to his professors, or to the journalists who reported it, or to the people who commented on it.

Still, there's a bright side - namely that the story was a hoax, and that it is safe to do research in the USA.

Christians and Christmas

This time of year, we see a lot of people complaining that the "original spirit" of Christmas has been lost, and that we should "put the Christ back into Christmas".

Fuck them.

If they can appropriate and Christianise pagan festivals like Saturnalia and Yule (and Easter, for that matter), they really have no basis to complain when their own festivals are appropriated and secularised in turn. If they want to celebrate their version, fine - but they shouldn't expect the rest of us, who don't necessarily share their beliefs, to do it their way.

More on the Italian rendition

The Italian government has issued Europe-wide arrest warrants for 22 suspected CIA agents involved in the kidnapping and rendition of Osama Mustafa Hassan from Italy. This means that they can be detained for the charge anywhere in the European Union. I guess they won't be taking any European holidays in future...

The story also contains this snippet:

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a close US ally and has said he can see no basis for the case.

In other words, he has no problem with kidnapping and torture. But then, he doesn't have a problem with Italian fascism either...

Friday, December 23, 2005

No life

With everybody else buggering off for the holidays, I'd just like to repeat what I said at this time last year: I am a sad bastard with no life, and so I will continue to post about what politics and news there is while everyone else is enjoying the sun.

Of course, the only people actually reading will be those who are similarly sad, but I'm sure there's enough desperate information junkies out there...

Not a blank cheque after all

Last week, we learned that the Bush Administration had engaged in widespread domestic eavesdropping in clear violation of US law. The administration's defence was (predicatably) to cry "9/11!". According to a letter from the Justice Department to the House and Senate intelligence committees, authority to violate US law and conduct warrantless wiretapping on US domestic phone and email conversations was implicit in the Authorization for the Use of Military Force approved by Congress just days after September 11th. The state of war was a blank cheque.

Unfortunately for the Bush Administration, there's a little problem: According to former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, Congress explicitly rejected granting the President war authority within the United States:

As drafted, and as finally passed, the resolution authorized the president "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons" who "planned, authorized, committed or aided" the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Literally minutes before the Senate cast its vote, the administration sought to add the words 'in the United States and' after 'appropriate force' in the agreed-upon text," Daschle wrote. "This last-minute change would have given the president broad authority to exercise expansive powers not just overseas -- where we all understood he wanted authority to act -- but right here in the United States, potentially against American citizens. I could see no justification for Congress to accede to this extraordinary request for additional authority. I refused."

Daschle wrote that Congress also rejected draft language from the White House that would have authorized the use of force to "deter and pre-empt any future acts of terrorism or aggression against the United States," not only against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

It seems that that state of war wasn't a bank cheque after all...

This is important because, as Salon's David Cole pointed out in his article on Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, the courts do pay attention to the will of Congress in war powers cases:

In what proved to be the most influential opinion in the case, Justice Robert Jackson identified three possible scenarios in which a president's actions may be challenged. Where the president acts with explicit or implicit authorization from Congress, his authority "is at its maximum," and will generally be upheld. Where Congress has been silent, the president acts in a "zone of twilight" in which legality "is likely to depend on the imperatives of events and contemporary imponderables rather than on abstract theories of law." But where the president acts in defiance of "the expressed or implied will of Congress," Justice Jackson maintained, his power is "at its lowest ebb," and his actions can be sustained only if Congress has no authority to regulate the subject at all.

In the steel seizure case, Congress had considered and rejected giving the president the authority to seize businesses in the face of threatened strikes, thereby placing Truman's action in the third of Justice Jackson's categories.

Given the explicit rejection of war authority within the US, it seems certain that Bush's wiretapping scheme will fall into the same category.

An outrageous leak

The High Court has granted a permanant injunction forbidding TVNZ from screening a criminal suspect's videoed confession and renactment of a murder he was subsequently acquitted of. While people may be outraged that the tape was not shown to the jury (it was judged to have breached the defendant's rights), what's really outrageous is that it was leaked to TVNZ by the officer in charge of the case - before the trial had even begun. This is a direct attempt by the police to poison the jury pool and undermine the accused's chances of receiving a fair trial.

According to the judge, the leaking of the tape violated several police regulations. I will now be using the Official Information Act to discover what, if anything, is being done to punish the officer responsible and ensure that such actions do not happen in future.

You can't search us - we're Americans!

The new Afghan Parliament met for its first session the other day, in what will hopefully be an advance for democracy in the country. But the opening wasn't without incident. US Vice-President Dick Cheney was there to attend, and had a little trouble with security...

After Mr Cheney entered the parliament chaotic scenes erupted when Afghan security guards insisted on searching the Americans' bags - including a briefcase containing America's secret nuclear bomb codes. An angry White House official ordered the guards to "open the gate now", an AP reporter said. "These are the vice-president's military aides."

The Afghans, who were trained by the US security contractor Dyncorps, allowed the aides through but insisted on a thorough body search of the rest of the party.

Who do these Afghans think they are, wanting to search Americans in their own country? Don't they know who's in charge there?

As for the potato, you'd have expected the White House to have made proper arrangements beforehand to avoid this sort of scene, rather than simply showing up and expecting the locals (who are justifiably worried about someone sneaking a bomb into their legislature) to obey their every whim.

Berlusconi on fascism

Yesterday, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi leapt to the defence of an Italian footballer who had given the crowd a fascist salute, saying that he was simply "a good boy, just a bit of a show-off". But he also had this to say on fascism itself:

"Fascism is finished, Communism continues," he snorted. Mussolini's era hadn't been so bad, he added, explaining that Fascist racial laws against Jews were only introduced to help the Axis war effort.

"Fascism in Italy was never a criminal doctrine..."

Lest we forget, fascism in Italy involved systematic thuggery, the intimidation, beating and murder of opponents, the organised political violence by a private army of blackshirts, the seizure of power in what was effectively a military coup. And this was before they were the government. If that's not criminal, then you have to wonder what the hell is...

Morales wins outright

With 93% of the vote counted, Bolivia's Evo Morales has an outright majority of 54% - an unassailable lead. Meaning that he wins outright, and that there will be no Congressional vote. This in itself is a victory for Bolivia - normally their Presidents fail to win a majority, and are instead appointed by Congress - but its also a massive win for Morales. He is the Bolivian people's clear choice, and his legitimacy is unquestionable.

It will be interesting to see what he does with his political capital, but I bet the Americans aren't happy...

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Big Brother UK

The UK is already one of the world's worst surveillance societies, with an unparalleled number of video cameras watching citizens as they go about their daily business. And now, it's about to get worse. The Home Office has announced plans for a national surveillance system to record the movements of every vehicle on Britain's roads. Because most people use cars, this means that they will effectively be monitoring the movements of every British citizen. But this isn't just about collecting video footage - they'll be using automatic number-plate recognition software - currently successfully being used to enforce London's traffic congestion charge - to build a database of every vehicle's movements for two years. The application is of course data mining - not just tracking the movements of specific vehicles (and therefore individuals), but which vehicles they were driving with, and of course patterns of travel.

This is likely to have a dramatic effect on crime, particularly on stolen vehicles - but the potential for abuse is enormous. Every police station in the UK will be able to query this system - which means every police officer in the UK will be able to snoop on the everyday movements of their partner, their children, and their neighbours. Where they work, where they shop, who their friends are, whether they went to school on a particular day, whether they stopped off at a motel during their lunch-hour... And that's not even getting into what will happen when they start looking for "suspicious" movement patterns, or at those "associated" with a criminal suspect (those driving along behind them, for example). It is frankly Orwellian. And what's worse is that this is being done with no noise, no fuss, no legislation, and therefore no public debate. Instead, the chiefs of police have decided to do it, and cabinet has given them the money - without any public oversight whatsoever.

We would regard a society in which everyone was followed everywhere by their own personal thuggish-looking man in a trenchcoat and hat as being the height of tyranny. But that is effectively what the Blair government will be doing to Britain. So much for British liberty...

Those swinging Canadians

The Canadian Supreme Court has ruled that "swinger's clubs" are legal in Canada, and overturned a conviction for running a "bawdy house". Their reasoning?

Consensual conduct behind code-locked doors can hardly be supposed to jeopardize a society as vigorous and tolerant as Canadian society

Or, in other words, what happens between consenting adults in the privacy of their bedrooms, motel rooms, or a private room at a club, is none of the government's damn business - no matter how weird they get or how many people are involved. They've also significantly tightened the test for indecency, from whether conduct "[breaches] the rules of conduct necessary for the proper functioning of society" to whether it causes "actual harm or a significant risk of harm to individuals or society" - effectively a statement of Mill's Law.

This is a welcome judgement - but it's also rather surprising that they'd actually need to make it in the first place...

No avoiding the issue

Last month, the US government abruptly switched its strategy on Jose Padilla. Originally designated an "enemy combatant" and detained without trial for over three years in military custody, Padilla was suddenly charged in civillian court, for offences which had nothing to do with the claims used to justify his extraordinary detention. The reason? Padilla's appeal for a write of Habeas Corpus was about to hit the Supreme Court, and the government desperately wanted to avoid any judicial review of its conduct.

Now, a federal appeals court has said that that's not on, and refused permission to transfer Padilla to civilian custody. And they were pretty explicit about their reasoning:

apart from the need to protect the appearance of regularity in the judicial process, we believe that the issue presented by the government's appeal to this court and Padilla's appeal to the Supreme Court is of sufficient national importance as to warrant consideration by the Supreme Court, even if that consideration concludes only in a denial of certiorari.

They also take a swipe at the government for refusing to provide any explanation for the difference in charges, and for apparantly believing that the principle they have been arguing for three years - that the President has the right to detain anyone, anywhere, with no right of judicial review - "can, in the end, yield to expediency with little or no cost to its conduct of the war against terror". Or its credibility in the courts.

There is now no avoiding the issue. The Imperial Presidency will be tested in court, whether the President likes it or not.

Democracy, Israeli-style

The Palestinian Authority is scheduled to hold Parliamentary elections in January - a valuable step towards making the Palestinian government accountable to its people and resolving some of the problems in the de facto Palestinian state. Now Israel is threatening to stop Palestinians in East Jerusalem from voting - explicitly because they might vote for the "wrong" candidates. The similarities with Egypt ought to be obvious...

More wind

Meridian's plan for a 210 MW wind farm at Makara near Wellington has been unanimously granted resource consent. An appeal is still possible, but its a good start. Meanwhile, this brings the total of wind generation consented in 2005 to over 600 MW - more than the output of the Clyde Dam. And unlike that project, it'll be built in a couple of years rather than a decade...

Interestingly, one of the people quoted on the segment on Checkpoint tonight said that the decision was in part driven by pride in Wellington's reputation as a windy place and a desire "to catch up to the Manawatu". Which is good to see...

Also on the wind fron, the Greater Wellington Regional Council has given the go-ahead for council land to be used for a smaller wind farm on at Puketiro near Whitby. The next stage is finding a developer, then applying for resource consent.

King George

They say a picture is worth ten thousand words. Well, here's President Bush's arguments about the constitutionality and legality of his secret, extra-legal wiretapping program in a nutshell:


(Image stolen from Daily Kos).

Though given the past arguments in this area, perhaps Louis XIV would have been more appropriate...

Watergate and the return of the Imperial Presidency

A couple of weeks ago, before I went on holiday, I watched the documentary "Watergate+30" on the Watergate scandal. The defining feature of Watergate was not the break-ins, the wiretaps and other gross abuses of power, but a President who thought he was above the law - best summed up in the quote from Nixon's lawyer in United States v. Nixon that

The President wants me to argue that he is as powerful a monarch as Louis XIV, only four years at a time, and is not subject to the processes of any court in the land except the court of impeachment.

The reason this is interesting is because it is happening again. On torture, and now on wiretapping, the Bush Administration is claiming that the law does not apply, that it can be rewritten on the whim of the President - in short, that "when the President does it, that means that it's not illegal".

This proposition was tested thirty years ago, in United States v. Nixon, and fifty years ago, in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, and in both cases the US Supreme Court rejected it. Instead, they stood up for one of the US's founding principles: that they are a nation of laws, not men. And when Bush's illegal wiretapping scheme eventually makes it to court, hopefully they will do the same.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Rancid and decaying

Chris Trotter's column in The Independent today perfectly captures my disgust at the Labour government at the moment:

Labour's leaders seem tired and empty of ideas. The political initiative has passed, quite decisively, to the Right.

Those with an eye to the future direction of New Zealand politics now look toward National. In spite of losing the election, it is miles ahead of Labour when it comes to political rejuvenation.

In the government ranks there are precious few who inspire much enthusiasm.

Many had pointed to Shane Jones as a possible breaker of moulds, but his chairing of the select committee of inquiry into TVNZ suggests he is just another ambitious Labour politician.

A party with a vision for a better society has no need to play the man instead of the ball.

A party with a hunger to govern fairly and well does not defend the indefensible nor refuse to take on board reasonable criticism.

Labour in its first term had the sharp tang of new fruit and the refreshing coolness of a summer breeze.

Today it has the rancid, decaying smell of something that has been kept for far too long.

Too much arrogance, too many compromises, too many outright betrayals. Oh, I'm under no illusion that a National government would be better - in fact, I think they'd be far, far worse - but "the lesser evil" is hardly inspiring. Hell, to Labour's soft center voters (as opposed to those of us on the left) it's probably not even believable...

If Labour wants to win the next election, it has to do better than this. People will not turn out to vote for a party that does not inspire them. But then, maybe it should just accept that three terms is as good as it gets, give up pandering to the right and the business community in the misguided belief that this will get them a fourth, and go back to delivering real social democratic policies. At least they'd be able to look their supporters in the eye again...

Fiddling while the planet burns

The government has decided to axe the carbon tax. So, with a little over two years to go until the beginning of the Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period, we now have no coherent policy to reduce emissions or comply with our obligations. Talk about fiddling while the planet burns...

At the same time, the Minister is mouthing platitudes about how "New Zealand is committed to meeting our international obligations under Kyoto and achieving our domestic goal of lowering emissions" and how the government "takes seriously the threat that human-induced climate change poses to our environment, economy, and way of life". Of course they do. That's why they're refusing to do anything about it.

The core idea behind the carbon tax was that people should pay the cost of their pollution. Greenhouse gas emissions impose costs on others (in the form of long-term climate change), but are "free" to the emitter. They are a clear example of what economists call a negative externality. But markets don't work properly when there are externalities; resources are misallocated, resulting in activities which are privately profitable but socially destructive. A carbon tax (or its equivalent, an emissions trading regime) would have internalised this externality, ensuring that carbon emitters paid the full social cost of their activities, and thus made socially destructive activities unprofitable. It would also have helped shift the market towards a lower regime, by providing a direct incentive (in the form of saved taxes) for adopting lower-emissions technology. Now, that's less likely to happen, and we look set to continue along the same dirty, high emissions path we were before.

The decision doesn't even seem to make economic sense. According to the government, the cabon tax "would not cut emissions enough to justify its introduction". But according to the figures in the Greens press release, it would have cost the economy an estimated 0.2% of GDP in 2012 - or about $300 million. The tax would have saved an estimated 13 million tons of CO2-equivalent, or about a third of our total emissions overflow. The cost of buying credits to cover that now is around $150 million, and it is expected to increase substantially. A mere doubling in carbon prices is at the lower end of the range. The cost of carbon in Europe is already around 20 Euros, or NZ$30 - and at that price the carbon tax more than pays for itself. By canning it, the government has just committed us to a large and uncertain risk on international carbon markets. All of those worried that we will be paying a billion dollars to the Russians, congratulations; the government has just more or less guaranteed that we will.

(I'll have more analysis and some proper number crunching once I've had time to read the full report. Hopefully one will be arriving in the mail by the end of the week...)

I am disgusted by the government's utter gutlessness on this. Ten years of policy development and the long term interests of New Zealanders and the planet pissed away because Labour didn't want to face criticism from the self-interested business sector. If we'd wanted the country to be run by Business NZ, we would have voted for National. Unfortunately, that's what we seem to have gotten anyway.

So much for "intelligent design"

A US judge has confirmed what we all knew: that "intelligent design" is not a scientific theory, but a transparent attempt to promote religion, and that teaching it in public schools violates the separation of church and state. The particular issue was already pretty much moot, as the school board responsible had been de-elected over it, but other schools and other states are still trying to push their religious propaganda in the classroom. This ruling will at least provide some ammunition against that.

The full ruling is here [PDF].

A Christmas present for the poor

The minimum wage is increasing again - from $9.50 to $10.25 an hour. This is the biggest increase Labour has made during its time in office, and shows that they will at least be trying to achieve that $12 / hour target.

Needless to say, this would not be happening under a National-led government, and it does provide some hope to those wondering whether there's really any difference between a center-right government led by national, and one led by Labour...

(Some) justice for Munir

An Indonesian airline pilot has been found guilty of murdering human rights activist Munir Said Thalib, and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. This is some justice for Munir - but it is not enough. While the court found that Pollycarpus Priyanto had poisoned Munir with arsenic during a flight to Amsterdam in 2004, and that the killing was politically motivated, it steadfastly avoided the question of who Priyanto was working with. The independent inquiry into Munir's death which recommended laying charges in the first place pointed the finger squarely at Indonesia's intelligence services - and in particular at at former intelligence chief Abdullah Hendropriyono and at one of his deputies, Major General Muchdi Purwopranjono (who is also accused of war crimes in East Timor). But no charges were laid, and the question was never addressed by the court. Instead, it seems that the rule of law in Indonesia has failed, and that it is still a country where the military and security services can kill citizens with impunity and get away with murder...

Kyoto: Buying our way out of trouble?

By now, everyone should know that rather than meeting our emissions reduction target under the Kyoto Protocol, New Zealand will exceed it - by 36.2 MTCO2-equivalent, according to the projected balance of units. So what can we do about it?

One option is to buy our way out of trouble - not by purchasing credits outright, but by using the Clean Development Mechanism. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allows parties to the Kyoto Protocol to gain credit for reducing emissions in developing nations. The logic is impeccable: a ton of CO2 is a ton of CO2, and it doesn't matter whether it comes from New Zealand or Nauru, provided it is not emitted or balanced with a sink. And given that many developing nations use older, dirtier technology, equipment upgrades to reduce emissions there are often going to be cheaper than equivalent reductions in richer nations. We will therefore be able to get a greater reduction at lower economic cost. Or at least, that's the theory; in practice, the CDM hasn't been used much due to problems with certifying projects and uncertainties about the price of carbon. But now that seems to be changing:

A World Bank fund signed deals to buy pollution credits from two Chinese chemical companies for $930 million under a plan that lets richer countries meet commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions by paying for reductions in poorer economies.


The two Chinese companies, Jiangsu Meilan Chemical Co Ltd and Changshu 3F Zhonghao New Chemicals Material Co Ltd, agreed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 19 million tons a year for an unspecified period, the bank said.

The World Bank will get credits at least until 2012, but are being cagey about the exact length of the contract. But that means they're getting their carbon for only US$9.80 a ton, and proportionately lower the longer the contract lasts. Conceivably, they could be getting it for only half that, if the contract goes for ten years.

The opportunity here ought to be obvious. US$10 per ton is at the lower end of estimated carbon prices, and with it looking increasingly likely that New Zealand will have to take responsibility for its emissions through the acquisition of credits, we ought to be looking seriously at it - though with more of a development and environmental focus. I am not suggesting for an instant that we should give up on efforts to actually reduce emissions (I think there is quite a lot we can do on that front) - but carbon trading is likely to be part of our solution. And if we're acquiring credits, I'd rather this was done in a way which helped people in need, rather than simply lining people's pockets...

Mapping freedom

DPF pointed to the annual "Freedom in the World" survey from Freedom House. Every year they rate countries for political rights and civil liberties, then divide them into three broad groups: free, partly free, and not free.

While their charts and graphs [PDF] are interesting in showing the growth of freedom in the last thirty years and its distribution around the world, the core table is a little hard to use. So here's a map. Free countries are coded green, partly free countries yellow, and non-free countries red:


(Click for larger version).

What's most apparant is how far we have to go yet. But at least things are generally heading (albeit slowly) in the right direction...

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Cowardly in the extreme

In May this year, the Uzbek government massacred 700 demonstrators in the town of Andijan. Following the massacre, the EU imposed "smart sanctions" on the Uzbek regime, barring arms sales and denying visas to key members of the Uzbek regime. You can imagine the fury then when it was learned that Uzbek Interior Minister Zokirjon Almatov, the man responsible for Uzbekistan's policy of systematic torture, as well as for the murderers at Andijan, was in a German hospital being treated for cancer.

Human Rights Watch immediately laid a complaint with Germany's federal prosecutor on behalf of a group of Uzbek torture victims, calling for Almatov to be prosecuted under Germany's universal jurisdiction law for torture and crimes against humanity. And the prosecutor did... nothing. According to The Independent,

as of last [Sunday] night not a finger had been lifted. It was reported moreover, that the man known as the "Butcher of Tashkent" was safely back in Uzbekistan.

This is cowardly in the extreme. Up until this week, Germany had taken a leading role in establishing international accountability for crimes against humanity. Now, they've deliberately looked the other way and let one of the great criminals of our age escape justice, because they didn't want to cause an international incident.

Coincidentally, Germany has a military base in Uzbekistan, which it uses to support operations in Afghanistan. And the Uzbeks have withdrawn their threat to close it down. But I'm sure that that has nothing to do with it, and there was no sordid quid pro quo...

Kidnapped by America

Khaled El-Masri, the German tourist rendered from Macedonia, tells his story...

In Ethiopia, opposition is treason

Earlier in the year, the Ethiopian government held a fixed election in which they naturally won a clear majority. This led to an opposition boycott of Parliament, and eventually to violent public protests in which 46 people were killed. Now, the Ethiopian government has charged 131 opposition leaders, journalists and aid workers with treason, conspiracy and genocide for their role in the protests.

This would be funny, if it wasn't so serious. Genocide? Why not just charge them with "bigmay, sodomy, and fnord" and be done with it? But the charge carries the death penalty, as does treason, and the laying of such ridiculous charges clearly shows that the government doesn't give a damn about truth or credibility. Instead, they simply want their political opponents out of the way - permanantly.

It is one thing to prosecute people for incitement to riot. It is quite another to equate opposition to the government with treason and seek to punish politicians for contesting an election and demanding that democracy be upheld. Ethiopia deserves to become a pariah for this. Unfortunately, I don't see too many countries speaking up about it.

Taking a stronger stand against torture

Something else I learned while browsing the select committee pages: the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee has been conducting an inquiry into the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture, and concluded [PDF] that we should ratify. The Optional Protocol is intended to give the CAT some teeth, by establishing an international monitoring system for prisons and other places of incarceration and detention. It also requires parties to establish their own "National Preventative Mechanisms" for the same purpose. In New Zealand, this is already done by a combination of the Ombudsmen, Police Complaints Authority, and Human Rights Commission, and so ratification will not require enormous changes.

The Committee identified a number of reasons for ratification - chief among which is that we helped write the thing, and pushed hard for its adoption by the UN; it would therefore be good to be seen to be putting our money where our mouth is. Early ratification would also encourage others to do likewise, and boost efforts to eradicate torture and strengthen international law. The Committee also notes that

The inspection measures provided for by the Protocol, and the resulting increased transparency, will strengthen protection of persons deproved of their liberty in New Zealand... This will help to ensure that New Zealand maintains its reputation as a State free of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment..

While torture is non-existent in New Zealand, and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment very rare, it is always good to have a backstop to make sure we stick to our ideals.

Ratification will require legislation, and so will depend on the priority the government assigns it on the Parliamentary calendar. Let's hope they assign it a high one...

Boosting aid

At the beginning of the year, the Council for International Development organised a petititon calling on the government to honour its promise to boost its level of foreign aid to the UN target of 0.7% of GDP, and to set a firm target for doing so. Their petition was considered by the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee, and today it has reported back, backing the call for further rises. The question now is whether the government will listen to the committee, or continue to ignore its international responsibilities.

Officially dead

It's official: Nanaia Mahuta's Legal Services (Territorial Customary Rights) Amendment Bill is dead. A couple of weeks ago, it has disappeared from the order paper; now it is listed in the progress of legislation as having been discharged. Unlike a defeat, discharging a bill does not prevent a new bill addressing the same question from being reintroduced, so the Maori Party is perfectly free to put their own version on the ballot.

New Fisk

Another truly brave man dies in Lebanon

Monday, December 19, 2005

Morales wins in Bolivia

According to exit polls, Evo Morales has won an outright majority in the Bolivian election, and looks set to become Bolivia's first indigenous President. Morales is a leftist, who has promised to legalise coca-farming (reportedly a staple crop for indigenious Bolivians), make foreign companies pay a higher price for their exploitation of Bolivia's natural gas, and generally roll back the tide of neo-liberal "reform" imposed on Bolivia by the IMF and World Bank. He's likely to be deeply unpopular with Washington, which views him as being in the same camp as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Castro - and has already said "no to a relationship of submission" with the US and promised to be America's "nightmare". But he's Bolivia's democratic choice, and Washington will just have to accept him.

Full results will be released on Tuesday.

The Annual No Right Turn Christmas Appeal

Christmas is supposed to the season for giving, so I'd like to take the opportunity to remind everyone to remember others at this time of year. Below are a couple of links to worthy causes. If you've enjoyed reading No Right Turn this year, or are simply naturally generous, please consider flicking them a few dollars to help them in the year ahead.

If you support human rights, then please consider donating to Amnesty International (online form here). They are a strong, consistent and impartial voice for human rights worldwide: for the release of prisoners of conscience, for fair trials, for an end to torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings, and for the abolition of the death penalty. They do good work, and while the constant flood of stories about human rights abuses may make it seem like they're getting nowhere, they do get results. Amnesty's ability to focus international attention on individual cases has saved thousands of people from torture, imprisonment, and death.

(As an aside, their latest appeal is for funds to work against extraordinary rendition and the US's use of torture in the name of fighting terrorism - one of the chief subjects of this blog...)

If you would prefer to be "non-political", I suggest the Auckland SPCA (online form here, or you can call 0900 99 SPCA to make a one-off, $25 donation). This is their busiest time of year, and they need all the help they can get to deal with the post-Christmas rush from morons who abandon their animals when they go on holiday, or buy a pet for Christmas but balk at the long-term commitment.

There are countless other worthy causes equally deserving (and in need of) assistance; these are just two which I think will have sufficiently wide appeal. Please remember them this Christmas, and give generously.

Must read

Salon has an extended review of Robert Fisk's The Great War For Civilisation...

WTO: the same old scam

BBC reports that negotiators at the WTO ministerial in Hong Kong have reached an agreement - but that it is largely symbolic and aimed at saving face and avoiding a perception of failure. The rich world have made trivial concessions, agreeing to phase out export (but not production) subsidies by 2013, and to allow the least developed nations tarrif and quota-free market access for 97% of goods (the 3% excluded being the goods these countries actually export - like textiles). But even this minimal progress is contingent on reaching a full global trade agreement - including on trade in services - by the end of April 30th next year. In other words, this is really the same old scam: a one-sided agreement in which the rich get access to poorer nations' economies, while giving up nothing in return. The only difference is that its not so glaringly obvious this time round.

Negotiations will now move to Geneva, where fewer poor countries are represented, and in the meantime the rich countries will work on bullying the poorer ones into line. I guess we just have to hope that they manage to hold firm.

Update: Corrected date for final agreement. This is even more of a nothing deal than I thought.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The irony of creeping totalitarianism

Via Daily Kos, Another sign of creeping totalitarianism in the US: The Department of Homeland security is monitoring which books people read:

A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's tome on Communism called "The Little Red Book."

Two history professors at UMass Dartmouth, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, said the student told them he requested the book through the UMass Dartmouth library's interlibrary loan program.

The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand's class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents' home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said.

The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a "watch list," and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further.

Well, it looks like he got a first-hand lesson in what he was studying. But jokes aside, this is really rather frightening. What else are they monitoring? What other "suspicious" behaviour will get you a visit from the "defenders" of American "freedom"? And if they're already at this stage - something which would be decried as the height of totalitarianism if the story was told about Stalin's Russia or present-day China - what exactly are they supposed to be "defending"?

Update (24/12/05): The story was a hoax. See here for details.

WTO: The poor revolt again

Two years ago in Cancun, a revolt of poorer nations under the banner of the G20 led to the collapse of WTO talks. Now, at the WTO ministerial in Hong Kong, they're doing it again. One hundred and twenty developing countries - more than 75% of the WTO's membership - have clubbed together in an unprecedented display of solidarity to demand that the talks' agenda reflect the interests of the majority of its members. Their key complaints are - once again - a lack of reciprocation on market access, and attempts by rich nations to hijack the agenda towards trade in services rather than development (which is what the talks are supposed to be about). The rich nations' response has been to promise more aid - in the form of loans, of course - but opening markets would deliver far more into the pockets of the poor, without burdening them with debt which could be used as leverage against them in future. Which is precisely why the rich are against it (that, and domestic political considerations, which poorer nations are expected to ignore).

A deadlock in Hong Kong would mean no progress on ending rich-nation farm subsidies, and would seriously damage the credibility of the WTO to boot. But the poorer nations don't seem to mind that prospect - and who can blame them? Every WTO summit they are faced with the same old scam: the rich promise to open their (mostly closed) markets a tiny bit more, in exchange for a few "minor" concessions which will allow them to rape the poor even worse than they already are - and then to add insult to injury they renege on their end of the bargain. It is a mug's game, designed to lock in a permanent pattern of economic subjugation and exploitation - and faced with this, refusing to play any more is a perfectly rational solution. What's surprising is how long it has taken poorer nations to get to this stage...

I do not expect the revolt of the poor to succeed in extracting concessions from the rich; the US,EU and Japan will simply walk away, just as they did at Cancun. But that is tantamount to saying that the WTO will only ever be a one-sided system of exploitation - in which case, it deserves to die rather than continue.

The Nike Presidency

Via Daily Dissent, an amusing rant from one of CNN's talking head on the Nike Presidency, whose answer to any troubling question of constitutional law or human rights is "just do it":

Who cares about whether the Patriot Act gets renewed? Want to abuse our civil liberties? Just do it.

Who cares about the Geneva Conventions. Want to torture prisoners? Just do it.

Who cares about rules concerning the identity of CIA agents. Want to reveal the name of a covert operative? Just do it.

Who cares about whether the intelligence concerning WMDS is accurate. Want to invade Iraq? Just do it.

Who cares about qualifications to serve on the nation's highest court. Want to nominate a personal friend with no qualifications? Just do it.

And the latest outrage, which I read about in "The New York Times" this morning, who cares about needing a court order to eavesdrop on American citizens. Want to wiretap their phone conversations? Just do it. What a joke. A very cruel, very sad joke.

Video here, for those who want to watch rather than read.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Time for some checks and balances

Another sign of the decline of the US into a police state: President Bush ordered the NSA to evesdrop on domestic email and telephone conversations. As a guest poster points out on Political Animal, this is an outright violation of US law; the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act bars any electronic surveillance by the government except as specifically authorised by statute. And despite his Nixonian pretentions to being "as powerful a monarch as Louis XIV", the President's word is not law. Or at least, it isn't yet. But on torture and now on wiretapping, that seems to be something this President is endeavouring to change...

This time, though, Bush seems to have gone too far. The revelation of widespread illegal wiretapping has already helped bolster support for the filibustering of the renewal of the PATRIOT Act, with Senator Russ Feingold saying

I don't want to hear again from the attorney general or anyone on this floor that this government has shown it can be trusted to use the power we give it with restraint and care.

It is time to have some checks and balances in this country.

Indeed it is. Meanwhile. prominent Republicans are promising hearings early next year. Hopefully, those hearings will be followed by prosecutions. People in the NSA have broken the law, and they must be held accountable for it. Unfortunately, while its easy to hold low-level surveillance technicians accountable, there seems to be no way to prosecute their superiors and those who "authorised" (or rather, claimed to authorise) it. But even low-level prosecutions will "encourager les autres" to make damn sure they have a warrant before wiretapping.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Iraq votes

Iraqis are going to the polls today to elect a new legislature and government. No matter what you think of the war and the US occupation, this is a sign of hope. And with even the insurgants urging people to get out and vote, there's also the possibility that a solution will emerge at the ballot box rather than at gunpoint.

But while I hope for success, I expect the worst. The last election, for a temporary assembly, showed the worst of democracy: a temporary majority with a winner-take-all attitude determined to impose a solution which permenantly advantaged their factions at the expense of the Sunnis. That, more than anything else, is what has to change. And I'm not sure whether it will...

Bush blinks

Last week, the US Congress called the Presidents bluff by passing the McCain Amendment - a provision barring the torture or cruel or inhumane treatment of any prisoner under US control. President Bush had threatened to veto the military appropriations bill the amendment was a part of, on the grounds that it unduly restricted "the president's authority to protect Americans effectively from terrorist attack". Today, he backed down. The bill will be signed into law, and the amendment with it. It's a clear defeat for Bush and his cabal of torturers, especially given that the Republicans control both houses at the moment. And OTOH, I'm sure the White House has already had its lawyers devise a weasel around the law, which will allow them to continue doing exactly what they're doing, while technically escaping its provisions. It's a sad indictement of the Bush Administration that they regard human rights in this way: as barriers to be weaseled around with legal sophistry, rather than as rules whose spirit as well as letter must be respected...

Babies: the new terrorist threat

Since September 11th, the United States has maintained a "no-fly" list of people forbidden to board an aircraft because they are judged (with no trial) to be terrorists. So far, this list has simply been suspicious, with a disturbing number of Greens and Democrats (as well as the odd US Senator) forbidden to fly for no apparant reason. But now its moved from the suspicious to the ridiculous. The new terrorist threat? Babies. A nine-month-old baby boy was forbidden from boarding a flight to Italy after their name appeared on the list. What did they expect him to do? Crawl down the aisle screaming at the top of its lungs before attempting to hijack the aircraft with a stinky nappy?

Silliness aside, the real problem here is that once someone is on the no-fly list, there is effectively no way off. If someone with a name similar to yours is suspected (on secret evidence) of being a threat, you are grounded for life, with no real right of appeal. And there's no way of finding out if your name is on the list until you are stopped at the airport. This runs deeply counter to the values of a free society - and its just another way in which the US has sold the very values it is supposed to be protecting in the name of the "war on terror".

New Fisk

A fearfully light coffin is carried to a Beirut grave. Who will be next?
Robert Fisk on The Murders of Gibran Tueni, Rafik Hariri and the Changing Tide in Lebanon (Democracy Now interview)
In Lebanon, the men do the dying, and the women do the mourning


The Local Government and Environment Committee is seeking submissions on the Manukau City Council (Control of Street Prostitution) Bill. 20 copies, by Friday, 24 February 2006, to

Robina Richardson
Local Government and Environment Committee Secretariat
Parliament Buildings

No matter what you think of this bill, if you want to influence its passage through Parliament, you need to speak up about it. It is not difficult to make a submission - the Office of the Clerk has a handy guide here - and I recommend that anyone with strong views on the subject make the effort to be heard. Remember, in a democracy it is participate or perish; if you don't stand up for your views and in consequence get walked all over by someone who does, you have no-one to blame but yourself.

Mapping the CAT

In his Human Rights Day message, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged countries to ratify the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. So who has actually ratified? Here's a little map I whipped up last week, using information from the OHCHR's list of ratifications:


By far the majority of countries have ratified the CAT. Yet many of them still engage in torture. The problem then isn't with ratifications, but with getting states to keep their word and work to stamp out torture.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Howard's Australia

While I wasn't really following the news in Australia, it was difficult to avoid hearing about the Sydney riots. I'm not sure what the New Zealand coverage has been like, but from reading The Age, one thing is crystal clear: this is Howard's Australia, the endpoint of his policy of xenophobia towards immigrants. It's a point powerfully made by Bill Leak in a cartoon in The Australian on Tuesday, depicting "Howard's battlers" echoing his words on refugees - but applying them to Australians:


And its a point made in The Age, which pointed the finger at Bali, 9/11, and the Tampa, the boatload of helpless refugees the Australian government refused to let ashore, and instead sent to its own offshore gulag on Nauru.

John Howard claims that Australia is not a racist nation. He's wrong. When even casual visitors are confronted with newspaper headlines about "blacks", and overhear people in the train station talking about "wogs" and "Lebbos" and how great it was that they got a bashing, you know that there is something deeply wrong with Australian society.