Archive for March, 2011

I didn’t mean for everyone you dolt! Just me!

In the face of crimes against humanity we should ask ourselves which of the following:

  1. Is it in our interest to help?
  2. How much is helping going to cost us exactly?
  3. Are these people from the same national/religious/ethnic background as us or form a different national/religious/ethnic background?
  4. As the crow flies, how far away from us are these people?
  5. What’s our exit strategy?
  6. Well, we’re kind of busy at the moment with other pressing matters, can this whole crimes against humanity situation wait until things have settled down a bit here?
  7. Are you expecting us to help today and tomorrow?
  8. Why are you expecting us to help, there are plenty of others around who could help?
  9. Given the uncertainty of the future, our lack of perfect information, and our inability to provide perfect assistance, aren’t we barred from providing any help whatsoever?
  10. We helped somewhere else yesterday, it may or may not have ended well, now you want us to try and help again today?
  11. What will future generations condemn us for?

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"Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish text." (via Wikipedia)

Proponents of the responsibility to protect (R2P) have confronted the meaning and consequences of the post-World War II body of international legal texts for the international system. They find consequences for both states’ conduct towards each other and states’ conduct towards their residents; the chief consequence being circumscribing state sovereignty. Critics of R2P have not grappled with these same texts; they have not explained why this international human rights project was undertaken. What were the aims and purposes of establishing these institutions, codifying these principles on human dignity (and common humanity)? Were all those politicians, diplomats, lawyers, and activists simply wasting their time composing the laws of war, the Nuremberg Principles, the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the core international human rights conventions?

Should the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights just shut up shop now, what does the Vienna Declaration and Program for Action mean anyway? All the treaty-monitoring bodies cease making general recommendations and reviewing states’ reports? Were all the participants from non-Western states merely puppets of the humanitarian interventionist, R2P advancing, neo-imperialists? What are we to make of more than six decades of explicit international human rights law? Is it a nullity? What are the consequences of the proposition that everyone has human rights for international affairs? I have not read opponents of R2P tackle these issues. Answering these questions does not inevitably lead to supporting intervention in Libya, but I would find their objections more weighty if non-interventionists attempted an answer rather than crying national interest, neo-imperialism, imperfect information, or state sovereignty.

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US President Obama and Chilean President Sebastián Piñera
La Moneda Palace, Santiago, Chile on March 21 (UPI/Jonathan G. Mancilla)

During a press conference with President Obama last week, Chilean President Piñera made an observation about regional integration in the Americas that stood out to me.

No doubt that insofar as integration of the Americas, we are lagging behind. And the best way to illustrate this is to compare what has happened in America with what happened in Europe.

Last century, the Europeans had two world wars with a toll of more than 70 million casualties. But at some point, they had the wisdom, the courage to abandon the rationale of Line Maginot, or Siegfried Line and to embrace Maastricht Treaty. With the leadership and the vision of such renowned statesmen like Adenauer and De Gasperi, Housman, Truman — they began to build what today we know of as European Union.

And in America, we are much behind that. In America, 20 years ago, President Bush, father, raised the idea of a free trade area from Alaska to “Fire Land” (Tierra del Fuego) generating a lot of enthusiasm in the region, but it never came true, never materialized.

And so the time is right now because Latin America has been for too long the continent of hope or of the future, but a continent cannot be a promise forever. And so we are of age now and we need to fulfill our mission. Therefore the main task of Latin America is to recover the lost time and tap all of its potential….

While I disfavor framing the discussion as different regions of the world racing against one another, Piñera’s larger point is spot on. The Organization of American States (OAS) is an underdeveloped international organization. It took politicians with vision to steer Europe towards regional integration, the OAS requires similarly committed national leaders to direct the organization toward a stature on the world stage like that of the EU.

Past colonialism and an imperious US stance towards the Americas creates a legacy that makes growing an intergovernmental-supranational hybrid like the EU more difficult in the Americas. Reading the charter of the OAS, the repeated reaffirmations of sovereignty and weak (relative to the European Commission) bureaucratic institutions means the OAS was not in the EU’s league from the outset. In terms of fostering regional integration, the OAS sits firmly in the intergovernmental camp. Also, the OAS has not met the same success as the EU due to the absence of a committed Franco-German engine equivalent; the EU benefits from successive generations of French and German leaders working in partnership to drive the organization forward. In the Americas, that engine would necessarily include the United States and a partner, perhaps Brazil.

Engine required

The US has been complacent, satisfied with bilateral arrangements like trade agreements between the US and Chile or the US and Peru, with US-Panama and US-Colombia trade agreements proposed. The North American Free Trade Agreement is neither as broad nor as deep as South America’s Mercosur, let alone the EU. Trade agreements (reviving the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas if possible), routinized ministerial cooperation, and privileged migration status should all be top tier goals for the Americas and US policy for the hemisphere.

The OAS is worthy of increased US commitment. Broader US interests would be advanced by strengthening the operations of our regional international organization. Major European countries get two bites at the apple in global affairs given they bring influence to bear both through the traditional national means and through the EU. The US is missing a trick by allowing the OAS to remain underdeveloped. Even if the US position in the world this moment does not absolutely require a full service OAS akin to the EU, an increasingly multipolar world means the US should exhaust all avenues for exercising influence. (Meaning the US should also join the Commonwealth of Nations.)

On occasion, Obama did mention the OAS in his speeches during his tour through Latin America this month. In his keynote speech in Chile, Obama put forward the laudable goal of 100,000 more US students studying in the Americas and 100,000 more students from the Americas studying in the US. Obama also highlighted cooperation on counter-narcotics and energy policy. The global war on drugs policy aside, setting forward reasonable, incremental goals for US policy. But Obama should set his sights far higher. Overall, the Obama administration has not yet shown the commitment to institution building in the Americas on the scale or scope required, as Piñera put it, to tap the region’s unrealized potential.

, as Piñera put it, tap the region’s unrealized potential.

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Self-Portrait, Glenn Ligon (1996)

Interested in art, race, or the subaltern? Then, if at all possible, you have to visit the Glenn Ligon retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (March 10 – June 5)*. Ligon intelligently engages the fraught territory of the African-American experience. No mean feat in a nation of cowards on race, to use Attorney General Eric Holder’s words.

It’s difficult to describe a thoughtful exhibition in terms that do not make it appear as work. I’ve jotted notes about unpacking the present using techniques from the past, consumption of varying performances of black masculinity, and presentations of exoticized outside Other. Add to that interterxuality, semiotics, and voila a stew of big, complex critical theory or art words. Not to disparage the curator’s explanatory notes at all, but at some point I come up against the art equivalent of the quip “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. Suffice it to say that various Ligon pieces made me and my gallery-going companion smile or laugh out loud. Ligon was at times witty, at times subversive, and at times serious. Throughout questioning. Offering few pat, simple answers. Altogether, another perspective for viewing an incredibly complex subject.

In all, well worth the visit.

* Glenn Ligon: AMERICA will be at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in fall 2011 and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in early 2012

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"Obama with his Nobel Peace Prize Medal and Diploma at the Award Ceremony in Oslo, Norway" (Norwegian Nobel Institute, 2009)

Russian legislator Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Bolivian President Evo Morales have called for the Norwegian Nobel Institute to revoke Barack Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Someone tweeted that, “Barack Obama has now fired more cruise missiles than all other Nobel Peace prize winners combined.” As far as I’m aware, the Nobel Institute does not accept attempts to return prizes, rejections of prizes, or allow for the recall of prizes. But should Operation Odyssey Dawn cast a shadow over Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize?


A notional takeback might include 1984 Peace laureate Desmond Tutu. On the BBC World Service’s Focus on Africa Tutu chastised African leaders for being insufficiently robust in their response to events in Libya. Tutu went further, endorsing the responsibility to protect (R2P), the principle that undergirds international action against states that fail to protect their residents from gross human rights violations. R2P establishes the construct of international respect for sovereignty as contingent upon states conforming to minimum human rights standards.

A notional tackback might also include the United Nations, 2001 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. UN Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973 addressing Libya reference R2P. Resolution 1970 recalls “the Libyan authorities’ responsibility to protect its population”; resolution 1973 repeats this language and reaffirms “that parties to armed conflicts bear the primary responsibility to take all feasible steps to ensure the protection of civilians”. In addition to the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly included R2P in the 2005 World Summit Outcome document, later reaffirmed by the Assembly in 2009. Had UN organs not adopted R2P the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s 2001 report would be just another tome collecting dust in law school libraries and international relation scholars’ offices.

UN General Assembly hall

The UN Charter establishes a tension between respecting state sovereignty and human rights. Under UN auspices the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted and affirmed, along with its nine core international human rights regime treaty progeny and the related Genocide Convention. This constitutes the environment in which sovereignty is now embedded and R2P emerged. State sovereignty is losing its preeminence; it can no longer be relied upon to shield gross human rights violations from international scrutiny and action.

That action is where the UN and Obama enter the frame. Presenting his report In Larger Freedom to the General Assembly, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that,

This hall has heard enough high-sounding declarations to last us for some decades to come. We all know what the problems are and we all know what we have promised to achieve. What is needed now is not more declarations or promises, but action – action to fulfil the promises already made.

Upholding and enforcing the post-World War II commitments of the international system is part of that action. Those that pursue gross human rights violations are rightly targets of intervention. Far from constituting “a violation, an assault, an aggression” as Evo Morales claimed, humanitarian intervention and R2P reinforce human security.

Far from an affront to peace, R2P is a clarification of principles laid out in the UN Charter’s Preamble,

We the peoples of the United Nations determined

  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

And for these ends

  • to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and
  • to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
  • to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
  • to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,

Have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims

Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.

"Edward Reilly Stettinius, Jr., Secretary of State, Chairman of the delegation from the United States, signing the UN Charter at a ceremony held at the Veterans' War Memorial Building on 26 June 1945. At left is President Harry S. Truman." (UN Photo)

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This month I moved from London back home to New York. A little while ago a friend told me there are three stages to living abroad: euphoria, melancholy, and new equilibrium. (I prefer her description to the honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, mastery phases outlined in Wikipedia’s culture shock entry.)

First, euphoria. The novelty of new surroundings intoxicates. How does to describe euphoria? Well, I couldn’t stop smiling. Elation at encounters with anything and everything. Nothing could go wrong, I was in London! The day-to-day life of being abroad was imbued with positive qualities for the simple fact that it was not home, not regular, not normal, not the same old things the same old way; both the US and UK imagine their cultures are more similar than they actually are. In euphoria, nothing is an inconvenience or an annoyance. There’s just so much new stuff around to see and do. New museums, new parks, new sights to see. And as I was studying abroad, a new university, new libraries, and of course new friends. For me, the bureaucratic tasks of setting up life in a new place were swept up in the newness of it all. And luckily for me, nothing did go wrong for some time.

Melencolia I
Albrecht Dürer, 1514

The second stage of living abroad: melancholy. Homesickness strikes. Faultfinding is entangled with missing family and friends. All the novelty becomes empty. “They don’t do it this way back home,” becomes the disapproving refrain. The sheen attaching itself to everything loses its glittering appeal. On Thanksgiving it was strange to see the British press reporting on the holiday in America. Everyone just carries on as though it was any other workday, lectures and commuting. Talking to family at Thanksgiving dinner back home in the wee hours of the morning also brought home the apartness created by being abroad. The Atlantic Ocean can be a pond for some people on occasion, but in this stage it is keenly felt as an ocean. Phone calls, emails, and pictures do not replace the sights, sounds, and smells of home.

The third and final stage of living abroad is new equilibrium, accepting the pros and cons of home home and new home.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
— Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad

Hopefully, travel educates the traveler. “They don’t do it this way back home,” becomes a more rigorous scrutiny of the whys and wherefores of both home and abroad. One gets a better eye for what is taken for granted where and why.

All of which to say, living in London was magnificent and living in New York again is also magnificent. Though New York will always be just that little bit more special for being home home.

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Of Gods and Men follows the story of a small monastery in the Algerian countryside. The monks are established members of the community, selling honey at the market and a monk who is a doctor hosts a clinic at the monastery for the nearby village. The monks must decide whether to stay in an increasingly dangerous Algeria or leave the country for their safety. A scene that encapsulates the challenge, a monk says “We are like birds on a branch” in not knowing whether to stay or go. A woman in the community replies, “We are the birds, you are the branch. If you leave, we lose our footing.”

Of Gods and Men is a film as unrelenting an affirmation of faith as Quills is a challenge to faith. In a line of argument worthy of the new atheists, in Quills the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) asks the Abbé du Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) “Why should I love God?” closing the challenge with, “He strung up his son like a side of veal.”

Of Gods and Men is the opposite of that forceful push against faith. Not a simplistic faith, a faith that contends with the world and our place in it as much as the atheist’s rejection of faith poses similar questions. Difficult questions. It is a film unafraid to linger in the contemplative. There are sequences of quiet punctured by the violence of sound – in a scene the monks’ Gregorian chant(?) must contend with the noise of an intruding helicopter. Given this pattern in the use of sound, the scene where the monks sit and listen to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is an act of (even more) brilliant filmmaking. Like the use of Debussy’s Claire de Lune in the film Tokyo Sonata, Of Gods and Men would be incomplete without spending the time with the monks listening to Swan Lake.

A thoughtful, outstanding film.

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