Monday, November 17, 2014

What to do about Syria? What is the most truly ethical stance?

Is it possible to know what the truly ethical foreign policy stance towards the current conflict in Syria is? Perhaps not in practice but I believe states should at least attempt to abide by idealist values, however unrealistic and unachievable this may be in reality. The obstacles to a truly ethical foreign policy are that the political world is highly unpredictable as people are not predictable. Whether or not western states should intervene, to what extent and by what means is hotly contested in all western countries and unlike economic policy, the different positions on Syria by western actors cannot easily be placed on the left/right wing spectrum.

 I will now elaborate on what I mean by this. As war and the political world is unpredictable, states and political leaders like Barack Obama will have looked at previous conflicts in order to predict the most likely outcome of each action he could take as commander in chief of the world's largest military and leader of the global hegemon. One example is the Lebanon civil war which ran from 1975-1990. With its circumstances and actors similar to Syria, another Middle Eastern country, Obama could be confident that this war may last for around the same amount of time, despite western intervention. Each side, Assad and the Syrian Rebels, simply had too much to lose in order to stop fighting, making a ceasefire highly unlikely.

Obama would also have been aware of the Iraq War, which started in 2003 and resulted in half a million innocent Iraqis dying as a result of the US intervention, and a country that has turned into a failed state despite the US ploughing billions of dollars into it in order to transform it into a democracy. Isis, an Islamic terrorist group have taken over parts of Iraq and the US has again had to intervene with air strikes against the terrorists, despite only withdrawing troops a few years ago and President Bush in 2003 stating, “Mission accomplished.”

Like how easy it was to oust Saddam Hussain, it would be relatively easy given the US’s power and military strength to defeat Assad. But the failure of the US to install a stable liberal democracy would play on Obama’s mind with regards to Syria. Quite simply, if you did not grow up in the region, and do not specialize in this area, no amount of research, debate and information can make you understand the situation in its entirety.

The US originally supported the Syrian opposition unofficially, supplying arms and resources, but has since stopped this after some members of the Syrian rebels were exposed as being Islamic extremists, who later went on to form Isis. The US has made the same mistake before, backing the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Members of the Mujahedeen, like Osama Bin Laden, later went on to form Al Qaeda, and launch the single largest terrorist attack on American soil. Therefore it is not always true that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, however tempting this may be.

Some would argue that by gaining UN security council approval to intervene, this gives western states more of an ethical stance on the conflict. However I see problems with this. Firstly the UNSC is made up of 5 permanent members, two of which, democracies France and the UK, only have around 60 million people living in their countries. On the other hand, the world’s largest democracy, India with over a billion people living there, does not have a permanent position on the UNSC. Furthermore, there is no country from the Middle East, or Africa on the UNSC, and yet many of the decisions made on the council concern conflicts occurring in these regions.

The countries most likely to know what is the right decision to take on Syria are those that are in the Arab League. And those people who are acting with purely altruistic and humanitarian reasons, and not in the name of profit eg arms manufacturers, can most be trusted.

Quite simply, the only thing ethical stance that most people agree is the right action to take is to support Syrian refugees with housing, clothing, food and other supplies, letting them into western countries and supporting them to start a new life away from the conflict. There are also 11 million people in need of humanitarian aid in Syria, although it is harder to help those. Regarding military intervention it’s just not clear what the most ethical stance is. Only history can tell us that. And even that will be up for debate in the future.

Western powers have intervened in conflicts in the middle east for over a hundred years ago, and not one of these has been a success. They should support whatever the Arab League desires, and also keep on pressing the countries that are supplying arms and other resources to both sides of the conflict in order to do their best to bring an end to this horrific war.

Below are several petitions from people and groups whose motives are altruistic and humanitarian and are meant to end the war in Syria:-

Click here to pressure the US & Iran to meet to find a diplomatic path to bring forward a ceasefire in Syria

Click here to pressure the European Union to impose an arms embargo and asset freezes, sanctions and travel bans on the Syrian regime

Click here for an Oxfam petition to pressure world leaders to form peace talks on Syria

Monday, October 27, 2014

Transforming a criminal justice system into a competitive market? What could possibly go wrong!!

Because businesses are often seen as being more economically efficient than the government, governments often introduce the private sector into traditionally state run services. The capacity to grow shareholder profits whilst saving taxpayer money is presented as attractive especially in a time of fiscal tightening. Competition does indeed motivate people and organizations to perform well, because they lose out on revenue if they don’t.

However this ideological shift to convert public funds into private profits can be damaging and often wasteful itself. This can especially be seen in the case of prison privatization in various western countries, such as the US, UK & Canada. One example is that in the UK, two of the companies involved in prisons are being investigated for overcharging the government by tens of millions of pounds.

Also prison privatization often delivers poor results and dangerous services. Driven by profits and not social justice, corporations will often pay low wages and hire inexperienced staff. They will have a higher turnover of staff, meaning a lack of consistency and poor continuity of care for prisoners.
A 2003 report in the UK found that despite some evidence of good performance by privatized prisons, they performed less well in safety and security with high levels of assaults. Prisoners also expressed concerns about personal safety due to the experience of staff.

In 2012, it was reported that Canada’s only privatized prison, in Ontario had poorer security, health care and recidivism rates than public prisons of the same size.

The prisons may well be run more efficiently under privatization but after they can’t get more efficient, the corporation will still be seeking higher profits, such is their obligation to their shareholders. Because the best interests of the business to keep prisoners in the system for as long as possible- the employee’s jobs depend on keeping them there, and the subsequent lobbying for longer prison sentences, will eventually cost more money. Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest owner of private prisons, made a pitch to 48 governors state run prisons, which included an ‘occupancy agreement’- a clause demanding the state keep those newly privatized prisons at least 90% full at all times. Occupancy agreements are common practice within the private prisons sector.

They will also lobby against progressive policies like decriminalizing marijuana, would cut back into the corporations’ profits, as would measures aimed at reducing the system’s racism, given incarceration rates for black people is 7 times that of white people.

Furthermore, powers like having a right to detain, to remove an individual’s liberty and to restrain, should only be exercised by public servants- employed by the state, whose line of reporting runs straight to the minister in charge of prisons.

In conclusion, a process of transforming a criminal justice system into a competitive market place in which the attainment is financial return rather than social justice may maximize profits for the corporations involved and may even save money in the short term, but it is at odds with offender rehabilitation and public safety, often costing more money in the long term and resulting in aggressive lobbying against progressive policies by corporations.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Pragmatic Idealism is my excuse, and I'm sticking with it.

As I sit on my chair typing away, to the left is my book shelf, full of around 50 books that I will need to pack away when I move in the next few months. Few I have read fully, most I have read at least the first chapter. Apart from two, they have one thing in common- they are all non fiction, and apart from five, they are all, at least in part, political. Mostly coming from a progressive (ie left wing, egalitarian, sustainable, humanist) perspective, they range in where they would sit on the left wing spectrum. Some would argue that American politics is so skewed to the right and ridiculous that a former president's autobiography can't possible be considered 'left wing' outside of America. Over on the far left, two of Noam Chomsky's books are probably the most radical. And yet I would enjoy reading them all, and find myself agreeing, and disagreeing in all of them. This is me, my political views are fluid and never fixed, but I always consider myself on the left.

Some people reject the 'left v right' label, ok well I want a society that is more equal regardless of gender, sexuality, race, creed etc and more environmental, valuing the clean air and water over the amount of shoes, or cars, owned, to give a few examples. I believe in the democratic process, just because people died in order to that we could have the vote, but because I consider democracy to be about more than just turning up to vote every few years. In liberal democratic nations, we have freedom of speech, however much we battle the right wing press for validity and truth. We have the ability to engage with our non-political friends, colleagues and family and attempt to steer them towards our type of worldview. We are armed with progressive values, facts and evidence, and the right is armed with money, power, influence and narratives that often combine asylum seekers, muslims, immigrants and refugees into one homogenous mass of undesirables. Yet we continue to speak out, for we must.

Where exactly am I on the political spectrum, I often ask myself. Not because I feel the need to label myself, but because I find politics fascinating, and I am fascinated by how I arrived with these progressive ideals, having not been brought up in a particularly political family. When people do inquire as to, "Are you a socialist? Are you a social democrat? Environmentalist? Feminist?" I think, "Yes, all of those things, for the most part" and reply, "I'm a pragmatic idealist." This gives me room for manoeuvre, for I am not one to hold onto one ideology and insist it is the only one that works. Probably because that would leave me intensely frustrated, I like it when things seem to be going my way. If they weren't, I would probably give up.

Having been criticized for volunteering for an environmental festival where we have corporations as vendors in return for a three figure sum so that the event can be free to everyone, I rely on my pragmatic idealist label. This is my first year volunteering for this group, and I chose to do it because last year I saw what a great opportunity it was to educate and empower the community and individuals about the need for environmental protection, and what they can do to reduce their own carbon footprint. There are of course many protests and rallies that happen in Victoria all the time, yet few attract 5000 people, mostly people who don't consider themselves activists and otherwise wouldn't learn about the need to protect the Great Bear Rainforest.

Of course we are all pragmatic idealists to an extent- few anti-capitalists refuse to own a laptop, or even join Facebook because of them being made by corporations. We live in a corporate world, and we have to use their means to fight it. We cannot totally shut ourselves out from the economic system we live in, because it is all inter-connected. I believe we will slowly adjust to a more just, sustainable system but change rarely happens instantly, maybe we don't see it happening. We don't want another drought in the horn of Africa made worse by man made climate change, but we know when one comes, we are going to use it to attempt to waken up society to the injustice of continuing to burn fossil fuels. We want people to see the world the way we do, but we need to realize they won't always, and therefore we need to be pragmatic.

I know I don't ever want to work for a corporation again, I know I want to make a real difference in the world, I know I want a job that I enjoy, and I know I don't know what that job is.

Having to go to college for two years in order to stay in Canada and then attain a three year work permit after graduation, I could take a financial diploma, I could do well. I could even use that diploma to gain a good job in a credit union and help to make a difference in my community. I know that me taking a 'Criminal and social justice' diploma is less valuable to my future career because I know there aren't many jobs in that field.

Having taken the 'Criminal and social justice' diploma, I could try hard for a job as a social justice activist and come up empty handed. With my then being in my early 30's and probably longing for a family and feeling the need for a career, I could go and sell my soul to a corporation for a tidy wage.

Or I could manage to find a good job as some kind of community organizer, move to the city and only use public transit, and find a nice house with a garden where I grow all my own food.

My pragmatic idealism means I will probably end up somewhere inbetween these. It means my future is uncertain but it means I always have the 'Well I'm a pragmatic idealist' excuse.