Truthout Stories Mon, 27 Apr 2015 13:09:24 -0400 en-gb A People Expunged: Marking the 100th Anniversary of Armenian Genocide Amid Ongoing Turkish Denials

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. On April 24, 1915, the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire began a systematic, premeditated genocide against the Armenian people - an unarmed Christian minority living under Turkish rule. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated through direct killing, starvation, torture and forced death marches. Another million fled into permanent exile. Today, the Turkish government continues to deny this genocide, and since becoming president, President Obama has avoided using the term "genocide" to describe it. We're joined by Peter Balakian, professor of humanities at Colgate University and author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response; Anahid Katchian, whose father was a survivor of the 1915 Armenian genocide; and Simon Maghakyan, an activist with Armenians of Colorado. We also play a recording of Armenian broadcaster and writer David Barsamian's mother recalling her experience during the Armenian genocide as a young girl. Araxie Barsamian survived, but her parents and brothers did not.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman. We're on the road in Denver, Colorado. This week marks the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide. On April 24, 1915, the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire began a systematic, premeditated genocide of the Armenian people, an unarmed Christian minority living under Turkish rule. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated through direct killing, starvation, torture and forced death marches. Another million fled into permanent exile. An ancient civilization was expunged from its homeland of 2,500 years.

Today, the Turkish government continues to deny the genocide. Books about the slaughter are banned in Turkey, and its government lobbies heavily in the United States, as well, against congressional resolutions on genocide.

In a minute, we'll be joined by three guests, but I first want to turn to a recording of Armenian broadcaster and writer David Barsamian's mother recalling her experience during the Armenian genocide as a young girl. Araxie Barsamian survived, but her parents and brothers did not. In 1986, she told her story to a history class at the University of Denver. She's introduced by the well-known broadcaster of Alternative Radio, her son, David Barsamian.

DAVID BARSAMIAN: Now you will hear eyewitness testimony from Araxie Barsamian, my mother. She survived the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. Her parents, four brothers and members of her extended family were not so fortunate.

Araxie was born in the village of Dubne, north of the historic Armenian city of Dikranagerd, now called Diyarbakir. Her parents were Giragos and Mariam Giragosian. Her younger brothers were Sarkis, Mardiros, Hovsep and Tavit. Unaware of the looming calamity about to envelop her, she remembers an omen. Early in 1915, the village was covered with grasshoppers. Elders said it was a bad sign. A few months later, the wheat was ripe and about to be harvested, when the end came. The Turks came to the village, took all the men and young boys, marched them outside of town and shot them. The remaining women and children were told to assemble at the church. They were going to be "resettled" - that was the euphemism for deportation - to the uninhabitable desert wastes hundreds of miles to the south. They were to walk to their new homes. Promises that they would be protected en route were quickly broken. The defenseless caravans were waylaid and attacked throughout the deportation march. Girls were kidnapped and raped. Starvation and disease took care of many of those the Turks did not kill.

Araxie walked as far as the city of Urfa, where she was separated from her mother, brothers and other relatives. She eventually found her way into an orphanage in Aleppo in northern Syria. In August 1921, she married my father, Bedros Barsamian, in Beirut. Three months later, they were living in a tenement walk-up on Horatio Street in New York's West Village. The following year, at 17, she had the first of her four children.

In 1986, just a few months before her death, Araxie spoke to a history class at the University of Colorado at Denver. I was there with her. She begins by describing what happened to her father.

ARAXIE BARSAMIAN: When we left, my family was 25 in the family. They took all the men folks. They ask my father, "Where is your ammunition?" He says, "I sold it." So, he says, "Go get it." So when he went in [inaudible] town to get it, they beat him, and they took him, all his clothes. And when he came back - this is my mother tells me the story. When he came back, their body - he went in jail. They cut his arms. "Where's the ammunition?" He says, "I haven't got it. They didn't give me." So he die in jail.

And all the mens, they took all the mens in the field. They tied their hands, and they shooted, killed them, every one of them. I remember they collect the only 15-years-old boys, left just like this. They were sitting, and their hands are tied back. And they took in a field. They shoot them, too. Nothing left, only women and small children.

We deported in some city. There, food, nothing to eat. They took everything from us. They say, they put in a church, "When you come back, we'll give you back," which is not true. So we went to some city. My aunt gave birth. They left - she left her baby over there. And then we walk, walk, walk, so many, no water. I remember my mother used to - had handkerchief and, excuse me, horse urine, and wipe our mouth. We were so dry. Just think that. I forgot lots things. If I remember things, day and night I tell, not finish.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Araxie Barsamian, mother of the well-known radio broadcaster and writer, David Barsamian. She's a survivor of the Armenian genocide. David lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he hosts Alternative Radio. But he's overseas today commemorating the hundredth anniversary.

For more, we're joined by three guests. Here in Denver, Anahid Katchian's father was a survivor of the 1915 Armenian genocide. She has interviewed 44 survivors here in the United States. And Simon Maghakyan is a lecturer in political science at the University of Colorado and activist with Armenians of Colorado. In New York, Peter Balakian joins us, professor of humanities at Colgate University, author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response. His new books include the poetry collection, Ozone Journal, about trauma, memory and art, and Vise and Shadow, a collection of profiles of Armenian poets and artists who were killed or affected by the genocide. His op-ed in the Los Angeles Times is headlined "On Armenian genocide, go ahead and offend Turkey."

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Peter, I want to begin with you. Why is the Armenian genocide so difficult for many in the United States to get accurate information on?

PETER BALAKIAN: Well, I really think there's been an amazing kind of development of scholarship over the last 25 years. I think right now the bibliography on the Armenian genocide is impressive, and there are amazing works of scholarship from scholars around the world, from different archives and different cultures. So, I do think there's been an enormous recovery of this history, which had been more obscured, I suppose, more lost, in the 1970s and '80s. But now I think that the frequency of teaching the Armenian genocide in the curriculum around the country, both in high school and at the university level, is on its way to becoming almost standard in certain kinds of courses, and especially in courses that deal with the World War I era or that deal in genocide and human rights studies and issues.

AMY GOODMAN: What does the Turkish government say today?

PETER BALAKIAN: Well, you know, the Turkish government's denialism has been a consistent policy from really the time of the event. I mean, even at the time, the minister of the interior, Talaat, was engaged in wholesale denial of the mass killings as they were happening on the spot. He was trying to bury skeletons and bones from European inspectors. And Turkey has persisted in a deeply misguided kind of nationalist project, in which they're incapable of dealing with this enormous crime that's lodged at the very cornerstone of their modern history. They continue to have a state-educated - a state-mandated education system, in which there is no critical analysis allowed or permitted in the curriculum. And for the most part, the genocide of the Armenians is ignored, or it is given two or three sentences in which the Armenians are vilified and blamed for their own fate. I do think that behind this -

AMY GOODMAN: And how does Turkey - Peter, how does Turkey affect academia, people learning this, in the United States?

PETER BALAKIAN: Well, again, here, I'm happy to say we have seen an amazing shift. Twenty, 25 years ago, there was still what I would call a pernicious kind of Turkish nationalism that infested the teaching of Middle Eastern studies. And Ottoman studies was really under the tight control of Ankara. That has passed. There's a new generation of young, talented Ottoman scholars, Middle East scholars, and, of course, many, many other scholars in different fields. But the breakthrough in the Ottoman studies world has been really noticeable. So I think what was once a more pernicious situation is less so. Nevertheless, there are still official kind of state-involved Turkish deniers out there, and they exist in a few pockets around the nation. And I think, slowly, that will erode, because they remain on the wrong side of truth, critical inquiry and history.

AMY GOODMAN: Simon Maghakyan, talk about what's happening here in Denver at the State Capitol.

SIMON MAGHAKYAN: This afternoon, Governor Hickenlooper and the Armenian community will unveil an Armenian genocide monument on State Capitol grounds in memory of all crimes against humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: How did this happen?

SIMON MAGHAKYAN: It started three years ago when the Armenian community was offered a donation by a man named Alexander Ter-Hovakimyan from Armenia. And we already had a garden installed by Armenians of Colorado in 1982, so building on that project, we were able to work with the state, get the General Assembly's and the governor's support, to bring this beautiful monument to Colorado.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it look like?

SIMON MAGHAKYAN: It's a khachkar. It's intricately carved, has different symbols on it of different faiths. It's actually a replica of a monument that was destroyed only 10 years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about your own family history?

SIMON MAGHAKYAN: My family is from Urfa. That's where Araxie Barsamian was taken where they were taken on the march. It's a magical place, the homeland of Abraham and my ancestors, Hagop and Khatun [phon.]. Hagop was a soldier in the Ottoman army. And when he returned home in 1918, no one welcomed him or thanked him for his service. He had no idea that the Armenian genocide had been going on. And his entire family had been either wiped out or driven out, except for his would-be wife, Khatun, who was hiding and living secretly with a kind Turkish widow. And my would-be great-grandmother was rescued, and the two met in Aleppo years later. And that's where my grandfather and his three brothers were born.

AMY GOODMAN: Anahid Katchian, can you talk about your family's history, particularly your father and what happened to him?

ANAHID KATCHIAN: My father, Azad Katchian, was six at the time of the genocide, at the beginning. They lived in the northern Black Sea coast, sea coast, city of Trabizon. And when they realized they must flee, they went to the port and were told the last boat that allowed Armenians left this morning and would not - they missed the boat by half a day. And from that, they were taken - he was taken with his sister - six years old, four years old - to a place that did take children. We do not know exactly where this place was, but they were left at a place that took children.

And from that place, eventually, he was, with other children his age, put on a march. He was told, "We're going out on a picnic." They started out, and the march began. He was, as a child, put on the march for several years through the mountains, walking, walking, walking. Like Araxie was saying, the parching - more than hunger was the thirst. The walking, blistering his feet. He had scars to the end of his life on his foot. But he survived. He survived.

He was taken by different Arab families, even Turkish families. And he always recognized that there was help from certain - certain Turks did help him - and then put back on the march, until the end of World War I, when Near East Relief Americans helped him get on his feet, helped him and thousands of other orphans who had survived, but bedraggled, really truly bedraggled. But Americans helped him get back on his feet. He was taken to an orphanage in Beirut, where Dr. Stanley Kerr and his wife Elsa raised him all the way, educating him in Beirut all the way through medical school at the American University of Beirut.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Balakian, you are a poet as well as an author. I was wondering if you could share a poem about the Armenian genocide?

PETER BALAKIAN: I'm happy to. And in light of the beautiful and moving stories of survivors that you have brought together today, I'd like to read a short poem of mine called "After the Survivors Are Gone."

I tried to imagine the Vilna ghetto,
to see a persimmon tree after the flash at Nagasaki.
Because my own tree had been hacked,
I tried to kiss the lips of Armenia.

At the table and the altar
we said some words written ages ago.
Have we settled for just the wine and bread,
for candles lit and snuffed?

Let us remember how the law has failed us.
Let us remember the child naked,
waiting to be shot on a bright day
with tulips blooming around the ditch.

We shall not forget the earth,
the artifact, the particular song,
the dirt of an idiom -
things that stick in the ear.


AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts, Simon, when you listen to Peter?

SIMON MAGHAKYAN: Peter so well connects the history of what happened to us to the suffering of many more around the world. And it is very important to understand that the Armenian genocide is what defined the international laws of crimes against humanity and genocide. And it is important to recognize all the atrocities that have been committed by governments against the very people they were supposed to protect.

AMY GOODMAN: The pope's statement on the Armenian genocide, Anahid, what did that mean to you?

ANAHID KATCHIAN: It was a light. It was a spotlight that was so very, very energizing. My father would have been absolutely enthralled by it. All he wanted was recognition, acknowledgment by the powers that be in Turkey now. And the pope spoke to it. He gave voice to it in a public arena, wide arena.

AMY GOODMAN: What, Simon, do you want Americans and people around the world to understand on this hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide?

SIMON MAGHAKYAN: I want everyone to understand that the cycle of genocide will continue unless we recognize the injustices of the past. Hitler is famously quoted as saying, "Who, after all, remembers the Armenians?" before he launched the attack on Poland. We have to recognize the history and the trauma that the Armenian people face to this day.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with this. Anahid, will you be also at the State Capitol today?

ANAHID KATCHIAN: Very much so.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there a large Armenian community here in Denver?


AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all. Peter Balakian in New York, professor of humanities at Colgate University, author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response. Anahid Katchian, thank you for joining us, whose father was a survivor of the 1915 Armenian genocide. She's interviewed scores of survivors in the United States. And Simon Maghakyan, lecturer in political science at the University of Colorado, activist with Armenians of Colorado.

That does it for our broadcast. Monday through Wednesday, we'll be broadcasting from The Hague. So do tune in.

News Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
As Obama Apologizes for Deaths of Hostages in Drone Strike, Does the US Know Who It Is Killing?

A US drone strike in Pakistan has reportedly accidentally killed two hostages who were being held captive by al-Qaeda. The White House says US government contractor Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto were killed in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan in January. On Thursday, President Barack Obama took "full responsibility" for the botched operation and described it as a painful loss he profoundly regretted. According to the White House, the operation also reportedly killed an American al-Qaeda leader, Ahmed Farouq. A separate strike apparently killed another American al-Qaeda member, Adam Gadahn. Despite hundreds of hours of surveillance, the White House said it had no reason to believe the US and Italian hostages were being detained in the al-Qaeda compound targeted during the operation. "In neither of the strikes … did the government actually know who it was killing," says Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU. "Yesterday's disclosures just provide more reasons to question what kinds of regulations the government has governing these strikes." The botched operation comes on the heels of a new report chronicling civilian deaths from US drone strikes in Yemen.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We're on the road in Denver, Colorado. President Obama has apologized after the White House revealed a US drone strike killed an American government contractor and an Italian aid worker held hostage by al-Qaeda in January. Despite hundreds of hours of surveillance and near-constant visibility of the al-Qaeda site, officials said they did not know the hostages were there. Officials said the strike also killed an American linked to al-Qaeda, Ahmed Farouq, while another American al-Qaeda member, Adam Gadahn, was killed in a separate strike. Obama apologized to the families of hostages Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want to express our grief and condolences to the families of two hostages - one American, Dr. Warren Weinstein, and an Italian, Giovanni Lo Porto - who were tragically killed in a US counterterrorism operation. As president and as commander-in-chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni. I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.

AMY GOODMAN: The US counterterrorism operation has reportedly accidentally killed two hostages that were being held captive by al-Qaeda - again, US government contractor Warren Weinstein; an Italian, Lo Porto.

We're joined right now by Jameel Jaffer, who is the deputy legal director of the ACLU.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Jameel. Talk about this latest revelation.

JAMEEL JAFFER: Well, you know, I think it provides us with more reasons to question the strength and the reliability of the intelligence that the government is relying on to conduct these drone strikes. You know, in neither of the strikes that the government disclosed yesterday did the government actually know who it was killing. It wasn't until after - and in one case, until weeks after - the strike that the government actually figured out who had been in the sights of the drone operators. And that, I think, is pretty troubling. You know, we've seen over the last few months - over the last couple years, repeated instances in which the government, despite committing itself to applying the most stringent standards, has ended up killing civilians in drone strikes. And it happens over and over and over again. And I think that yesterday's disclosures just provide more reasons to question what it is, what kinds of regulations the government has governing these strikes.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain who these two men are - the American government contractor, Warren Weinstein, and the Italian aid worker, Giovanni Lo Porto?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Right. Well, they were being held hostage, and apparently were held in this al-Qaeda compound. According to the government, the drone operators who were surveilling the compound didn't realize that the hostages were held there, despite having conducted surveillance over a period of at least more than a week, I think. And it was only after the strike was carried out that - when the government saw that six bodies were being taken out of the compound rather than just the four they expected, that they realized that they had killed two people they hadn't known were even there. And it was only later that they determined that those two people were the hostages.

You know, it's obviously a very sad thing. These were entirely innocent people, and nobody is suggesting that the government had any idea they were there, but it does - it does lead one to question again the standards that the government is applying. And I think it leads one to question how much the drone operators actually know before they pull the trigger. And if this were an isolated event - I mean, it's isolated in the sense that we ended up killing hostages, but it's not isolated in the sense that we have - there have been many previous strikes in which the drones ended up killing civilians. And that's something that I think that the country hasn't really confronted.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain also who the American linked to al-Qaeda, Ahmed Farouq, and another American al-Qaeda member, Adam Gadahn, were, killed in a separate strike?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Yeah, I mean, I think we - we don't know a whole lot about them. I mean, these are two Americans who are said to have gone and joined forces with al-Qaeda. Adam Gadahn is somebody who was a spokesperson for that organization. You know, according to the government, neither of these Americans was targeted. And again, it was only after the strikes that the government determined that those Americans were actually there. So, you know, once again, I think that it provides reason to question how much information the drone operators have before they're actually carrying out these strikes. You know, I guess one other -

AMY GOODMAN: Jameel Jaffer, what are your - go ahead.

JAMEEL JAFFER: Well, I was just going to say that one other thing that's remarkable about yesterday's disclosures is the very fact of the disclosures, because normally the government doesn't disclose information about individual drone strikes, at least not on the record like this. This is a very unusual thing, where the government is actually disclosing information about who was killed and a little bit of information about the operation. You know, with the vast majority of drone strikes, we don't get that level of transparency. I wish we did. We still don't know - we don't have the government's information, the government's statistics about civilian casualties, and the government is still withholding even basic information about the legal framework for the program. The Justice Department memos, for example, are still being withheld, with the exception of two memos, that relate to killing US citizens, but there are eight memos that the government is still withholding, despite three or four years of litigation by the ACLU and by The New York Times.

AMY GOODMAN: Has Warren Weinstein's family spoken out?

JAMEEL JAFFER: You know, I did see one statement by Weinstein's family. You know, it was a very, very sad statement, obviously. The family is devastated by the news. I think that they were holding out hope that Mr. Weinstein would be rescued. And I think one can very readily understand why the family is so devastated by the disclosures of yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn back to President Obama with more of his apology when it was revealed that the US had killed these two hostages in the drone strike in Pakistan back in January.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As soon as we determined the cause of their deaths, I directed that the existence of this operation be declassified and disclosed publicly. I did so because the Weinstein and Lo Porto families deserve to know the truth. And I did so because, even as certain aspects of our national security efforts have to remain secret in order to succeed, the United States is a democracy, committed to openness in good times and in bad.

AMY GOODMAN: Jameel Jaffer, can you respond to President Obama talking about this democracy committed to openness?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Well, I mean, I guess I have mixed feelings about that particular statement. You know, as I said, the president made that statement in the context of disclosing information about a drone strike, or about two drone strikes. And I think the president was right to make those disclosures. On the other hand, it's very hard to square that statement, that we're committed to openness, with the government's record on the drone program more generally. You know, the government doesn't release information about who it's targeting. It doesn't release information about civilian casualties. It doesn't even release those kinds of statistics long after the strikes. All of that information is kept secret, except in the cases in which intelligence officials make off-the-record or not-for-attribution disclosures to the press.

And as I mentioned, the legal memos, which are really the law of the targeted killing program, are still being withheld from the government. Until very recently, the CIA's position in court was that the agency couldn't disclose even whether it was involved in a drone program at all, which is obviously an absurd position, given how much is written about this program in the newspapers. But the administration has been taking this very hardline position with respect to transparency around the drone program, releasing almost no information. The memo that was released last year, the Office of Legal Counsel memo that related to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011, that memo was released only after three years of litigation and two appeals courts decisions holding that the government secrecy was unlawful. And even after the disclosure of that memo, the government continues to withhold the other memos that apply to strikes that don't involve US persons, and obviously those strikes account for the vast majority of drone strikes in Pakistan, in Yemen and in Somalia.

So we really have a program that is cloaked in secrecy, even now. The public is heavily reliant on information released by the government itself, and the government itself quite often cherry-picks information, releasing only the information that casts the program in the most favorable light. So, while I - you know, I suppose, I applaud the president for stating that the government is committed to transparency, I question whether the government's actions actually reflect that commitment.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl asked White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest about the legal justification for killing an American citizen said to be a member of al-Qaeda.

JONATHAN KARL: Is it legal - under the guidelines that this administration has put in place, is it legal to kill American citizens who do not represent an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States?

PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: What is permissible, under international law and in the protocol that the president has established, is for the United States to carry out strikes, to carry out operations against al-Qaeda compounds that we can assess with near certainty are al-Qaeda compounds that are frequented by al-Qaeda leaders. And that is the operation that took place. And that operation did result in the death of al-Qaeda fighters and al-Qaeda leaders who were in this al-Qaeda compound.

JONATHAN KARL: But would it have been illegal for you to intentionally target those two men?

PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: Well, there is a separate procedure and protocol for specifically targeting American citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: Jameel Jaffer, can you explain?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Sure. You know, I think there's a lot of confusion here about what procedures the government is actually applying in what places. The president announced in May of 2013, during a speech at the National Defense University, a series of procedures that the government would comply with when it used lethal force, when it used armed drones to carry out these strikes. And one of the things that the president said was that we would not use lethal force unless there was a near certainty that no civilians would be killed. Now, the understanding was that that standard was going to be phased in and that it would apply outside zones of active hostilities. But there's a lot of uncertainty about precisely where that standard is being applied.

And even where it's clear that that standard is the one that's supposed to be governing the government's actions - for example, in Yemen - we see repeatedly these instances in which US drones end up killing civilians. And just last week or the week before, the Open Society Justice Initiative released a report that discusses nine drone strikes, or nine incidents in Yemen, in which drones ended up killing civilians. And some of those incidents post-dated the president's May 2013 speech. And so, even where it's clear that that near-certainty standard is the one that the government says is applying, we see these repeated instances in which civilians are being killed.

So it's hard to understand. You know, I think there's a question for us: Is the government really applying that standard in those places? And if it is, then is the government using these words in ways that are different from the ways we ordinarily use them? Because "near certainty" is hard to reconcile with the number of civilian deaths that are being reported.

News Mon, 27 Apr 2015 12:34:49 -0400
Pentagon Speeds Efforts to Resettle Guantanamo Prisoners Ahead of Vote on Two-Year Transfer Ban

The Washington Post reports the Pentagon plans to increase its efforts to resettle dozens of detainees from the US military prison at Guantánamo in the coming months before Congress can block future transfers and derail President Obama's plan to shutter the US military prison. As a first step, officials plan to send up to 10 prisoners overseas, possibly in June. In all, the Pentagon hopes that 57 inmates who are approved for transfer will be resettled by the end of 2015. We get reaction from Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, who says the new legislation would make it nearly impossible to close the facility.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, very quickly, Jameel Jaffer, this front-page Washington Post report that, lower down in the piece, mentions that President Obama plans to close Guantánamo, any word on this?

JAMEEL JAFFER: Well, this is very important, because next week the House Armed Services Committee is going to vote on new restrictions on transferring prisoners out of Guantánamo. And if that - if Congress does impose these restrictions - I think what's being proposed right now is a two-year ban on any transfer from Guantánamo - it's going to make it literally impossible to close that prison. So it's very important that the president do everything that he can to prevent those restrictions from becoming law. And it's also important that anyone who can call their member of Congress do so and make clear that it's important that legislators vote against those proposed transfer bans. It really would make it very, very difficult to close the prison and to transfer out people who have been cleared for release now for many, many years. At least - about half the people who are still held at Guantánamo have been cleared for release, meaning that six different government agencies have agreed that they don't belong at Guantánamo. And those are the people whom the government couldn't transfer if Congress impose these restrictions.

AMY GOODMAN: Jameel Jaffer, I want to thank you for being with us, deputy legal director of the ACLU.


AMY GOODMAN: When we come back, explosive new video showing extreme violence against a teenage prisoner at Rikers Island in New York. Stay with us.

News Mon, 27 Apr 2015 12:29:43 -0400
On the News With Thom Hartmann: We Spend $2 Billion a Year on Congress

In today's On the News segment: We spend about $2 billion every year on our dysfunctional Congress; one woman in Texas says that she can use a so-called religious freedom law to feed the homeless; Senator Warren and her colleagues sent a letter to the FCC asking that agency to reject the proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger; and more.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.


Thom Hartmann here - on the best of the rest of Economic and Labor News...

You need to know this. You may be surprised to learn that we spend about $2 billion every year on our dysfunctional Congress. However, it's even more surprising to learn that corporate lobbyists spend even more to buy off our federal lawmakers. According to a recent article by Ezra Klein over at, corporations outspend US taxpayers by more than half of a billion dollars. Yet, some people actually wonder why Congress is so beholden to their corporate masters. The money we pay as taxpayers funds lawmakers' salaries, their staff and the Congressional Budget Office and Congressional Research Service, which are the two agencies responsible for educating our lawmakers about the bills they vote on. When corporations want Congress to vote in their favor, they do much more than just contribute to a lawmaker's next election. Lobbyists also use stockpiles of corporate cash to pay pro-business think tanks to generate billionaire-friendly "studies." Then then use those industry-funded studies to convince members of Congress to vote in the best interest of corporations rather than in the best interest of working Americans. Although Congress has agencies to conduct research, there's no way that the CBO or CRS can compete with billion-dollar industries. To make matters worse, Congresspeople don't only have to resist the corporate money - they often have to resist the influence of their former colleagues and staffers. Corporate lobbying firms scoop up nearly every retired lawmakers and well-connected staffer they can get their hands on, and they pay them far more than the taxpayers ever could. For the first time in our history, getting elected to Congress is more about the lobbying job of the future than it is about governing our country. It's time to end the revolving door between Congress and lobbying firms, and to get the corporate influence out of our nation's capital. Let's keep up the fight to get money out and take our democracy back.

If Indiana can let people use so-called religious freedom to discriminate, one woman in Texas says that she can use a similar law to feed the homeless. For the last decade, Joan Cheever of San Antonio has been serving meals to the homeless. However, that didn't stop police officers from writing her a $2,000 ticket for serving food without a permit. Unlike those who want to claim their religion gives them the right to hate others, Ms. Cheevers says that the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act gives her the right to care for the homeless as part of her religion. And, you can certainly find plenty of religious teachings about caring for those in need. All over our country, states and municipalities have criminalized homelessness and punished those who try to help people who live on the street. From Florida fining a couple $600 for feeding the homeless to various cities making it a crime to sit or lay down in public, there has been an all-out attack on the homeless in our nation. Now, more than ever, the compassionate work of people like Joan Cheever should be celebrated, not banned. And, if we happen to find a positive use for these right-to-discriminate laws, than that's just an extra bonus.

It's not often that US senators stand up to big business, but when they do, they usually have help from Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Last week, Senator Warren and five of her colleagues sent a letter to the FCC asking that agency to reject the proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger. Days later, it was announced that the deal was being scrapped If the $45.2 billion merger was allowed to through, one company would have controlled 57 percent of all broadband internet and 30 percent of cable television service for the whole country. That also would have meant that one massive company would have controlled news and information for a very large portion of the US. The resulting company would have also been so large that the Justice Department was looking into anti-trust prohibitions. Together with Senators Al Franken, Bernie Sanders, Ron Wyden, Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey, Senator Warren should be applauded for standing up to this media giant, and helping stop the Comcast Time-Warner merger.

Austerity is harming more than just our economy. According to an open letter from four hundred mental-health experts, budget cuts are extremely harmful to the psychological well-being and overall quality of life of those impacted by austerity. Although the letter focused on the harmful effects of budget cuts in Britain, the warning has broader implications for all nations that have pursued austerity. The experts wrote, "the past five years have seen a radical shift in the kinds of issues generating distress in our clients: increasing inequality and outright poverty, [and] families forced to move against their wishes." They added, "perhaps the most important, benefits claimants (including the disabled and ill people) and those seeking work are being subjected to a quite new, intimidatory kind of disciplinary regime." If these problems don't sound familiar, you haven't been paying attention. Regardless of which country we're talking about, the effects are the same, and that's exactly why we need to put an end to austerity once and for all.

And finally... progressive federal lawmakers aren't the only ones fighting for working Americans. Last week, the Connecticut state legislature advanced a bill that would make it harder for big businesses to skimp on workers' wages. The measure would fine large, non-union companies that pay workers less than $15 an hour. As expected, Republicans in that state criticized the bill as being "anti-business," but Connecticut Democrats said that they need to worry about more than just being business-friendly. State Sen. Edwin A. Gomes said, "I think it's time to be employee friendly." In addition to generating about $300 million a year for the state of Connecticut to offset corporate welfare in the the form of food stamps, housing assistance and medicaid paid to low-wage employees, this bill could entice big companies to raise wages. Large Connecticut employers have the option of paying more to the state or more to workers. Either way, it could be a big win for the state of Connecticut.

And that's the way it is - for the week of April 27, 2015 - I'm Thom Hartmann - on the Economic and Labor News.

News Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Experts Warn of "Cataclysmic" Changes as Planetary Temperatures Rise

Two unprecedentedly high temperatures were recorded in Antarctica, providing an ominous sign of accelerating ACD as one of the readings came in at just over 63 degrees Fahrenheit. (Photo: Iceberg via Shutterstock)Two unprecedentedly high temperatures were recorded in Antarctica, providing an ominous sign of accelerating climate change as one of the readings came in at just more than 63 degrees Fahrenheit. (Photo: Iceberg via Shutterstock)

As California's epic drought worsens, every day is considered "fire season," record temperatures are set in the Antarctic and the majority of glaciers in Canada are expected to be gone by the end of the century. According to recent studies, we are at the very beginning of a period of "abrupt" climate disruption.

Two unprecedentedly high temperatures were recorded in Antarctica, providing an ominous sign of accelerating ACD as one of the readings came in at just over 63 degrees Fahrenheit. (Photo: Iceberg via Shutterstock)Two unprecedentedly high temperatures were recorded in Antarctica, providing an ominous sign of accelerating climate change as one of the readings came in at just more than 63 degrees Fahrenheit. (Photo: Iceberg via Shutterstock)

This month's anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) dispatch begins with the fact that recently released National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data show that this March was, by far, the hottest planetary March ever recorded, and the hottest January to March period on record as well.

We are watching unprecedented melting of glaciers across the planet, increasingly high temperature records and epic-level droughts that are now becoming the new normal: Planetary distress signals are increasing in volume.

To see more stories like this, visit "Planet or Profit?"

One of these took place recently in Antarctica, of all places, where two unprecedentedly high temperatures were recorded, providing an ominous sign of accelerating ACD as one of the readings came in at just over 63 degrees Fahrenheit.

"We're going to be out of water."

A fascinating recent report shows that approximately 12 million people living in coastal areas will be displaced during the next 85 years, with areas along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States seeing some of the most dramatic impacts.

Climate Disruption Dispatches

In the US, another report shows that the Navajo Nation is literally dying of thirst, with one of the nation's leaders flatly sounding the alarm by stating, "We're going to be out of water."

A study just published in Geophysical Research Letters bolsters the case that a period of much faster ACD is imminent, if it hasn't already begun.

On that note, leading climate researchers recently said there is a possibility that the world will see a 6-degree Celsius temperature increase by 2100, which would lead to "cataclysmic changes" and "unimaginable consequences for human civilization."

With these developments in mind, let us take a look at recent developments across the planet since the last dispatch.


Signs of ACD's impact across this sector of the planet are once again plentiful, and the fact that the Amazon is suffering is always a very loud alarm buzzer, given that every year the world's largest rainforest cycles through 18 billion tons of carbon when its 6 million square kilometers of trees breathe in carbon dioxide and then release it back into the atmosphere when they die. This is twice the amount of carbon that fossil fuel burning emits in an entire year. A recent report shows that while the Amazon is continuing to absorb more carbon than it is releasing, a tipping point is coming, and likely soon, as deforestation, drought and fires there continue to remove precious trees at a frightful rate. With 1.5 acres of rainforest lost every single second, somewhere around the world, the situation in the Amazon does not bode well for our future.

In the United States, in Harvard Forest, located 70 miles west of the university's campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, hemlock trees are dying at an alarming rate. Harvard Forest is a case study, as it is part of a network of 60 forests around the world called the Center for Tropical Forest Science-Forest Global Earth Observatories, where they are being studied for their response to ACD and other anthropogenic issues. Kristina Anderson-Teixeira, an ecologist with the network, said its forests are "being impacted by a number of different global change factors. We do expect more of this, be it pests or pathogens or droughts or heat waves or thawing permafrost."

Another report from April revealed that Russia has been losing an amount of forest the size of Switzerland (16,600 square miles of tree cover) every year, for three years running.

Without ice in the summer, polar bears will starve and die off.

Terrestrial animals continue to struggle to survive in many areas. It should come as no surprise that in the Arctic, a recent study shows that the theory that polar bears will be able to adapt to ice-free seas in the summer by eating on land has been debunked. Without ice in the summer, polar bears will starve and die off.

Another study shows that ACD is threatening mountain goats, due to the warming that is occurring even at the higher elevations where the goats live, as the rate of warming there is two to three times faster than the rest of the planet. According to the study, due to the warming, the goats' future is now uncertain.

In California, sea lion strandings have already reached more than 2,250 for this year alone, which is a record. The worsening phenomenon is being blamed on warming seas that are disrupting the food supply of marine mammals.

Across the United States, hunters are seeing their traditions being changed by ACD. "I could point you to a million different forums online where hunters are complaining about the season and how hunting is terrible," said one hunter in a recent report. "At the end of the day, it's changing weather patterns. Winters around here are not as cold as they used to be."

A March report from a researcher in Rhode Island showed that the growth and molting rates of juvenile lobsters are decreasing "significantly" due to oceans becoming increasingly acidic from ACD. This makes the animals more vulnerable to predations, thus leading to fewer adult lobsters and an overall rapidly declining population.


There have been a few major developments recently in this sector of our analysis.

Interestingly, some of the more commonly used anesthetics are apparently accumulating in the planet's atmosphere, thus contributing to warming of the climate, according to a report in April. It is a small amount, mind you, but the volume is increasing.

US greenhouse gas pollution increased 2 percent over the previous year in 2013.

Bad news on the mitigation front comes in the form of a study that revealed that ongoing urban sprawl and auto exhaust is hampering cities' best efforts toward lowering carbon dioxide emissions. If people continue to drive as much as they are, and development continues apace, the push to build more dense housing, better transit systems and more bike lanes in urban centers will be for naught.

Speaking of lack of mitigation, the US Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that US greenhouse gas pollution increased 2 percent over the previous year in 2013.

Drought plagued California gets more bad news in this sector, as recently released data shows that the state continues to have its warmest year ever recorded, with statewide temperatures coming in nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the previous record, which was set in 2014. The state is quite literally baking.

Another study showed that the frozen soil (permafrost) of the planets' northern polar regions that holds billions of tons of organic carbon is melting and that melting is being sped up by ACD, hence releasing even more carbon into our already carbon dioxide-supersaturated atmosphere.

Lastly in this section, those who believe in technological fixes for our predicament received some bad news in April, which came in the form of a report that shows that any attempts to geoengineer the climate are likely to result in "different" climate disruption, rather than an elimination of the problem. The most popular proposed idea of solar radiation management that would utilize stratospheric sulfate aerosols to dim the sun has been proven to be, well, destructive. Using a variety of climate models, Ken Caldeira from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, has investigated the likely consequences of such geoengineering on agriculture across the globe.

According to a report on the matter:

His research showed that while dimming could rapidly decrease global temperatures, high carbon dioxide levels would be expected to persist, and it is the balance between temperature, carbon dioxide, and sunlight that affects plant growth and agriculture. Exploring the regional effects, he finds that a stratospherically dimmed world would show increased plant productivity in the tropics, but lessened plant growth across the northerly latitudes of America, Europe and Asia. It is easy to see how there might be geopolitical shifts associated with changes in regional food production across the globe. "It's probably the poor tropics that stand to benefit and the rich north that stands to lose," said Prof Caldeira.

Hence, given that the results would be detrimental to the "rich north," which by far and away has pumped more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the "poor tropics," the results of geoengineering would indeed be karmic.


In the United States, California's epic drought continues to lead in the water sector of analysis.

For the first time in California's history, mandatory water use reductions have been imposed on residents after a winter of record-low snowfalls, and hence a record-low snowpack. "People should realize we are in a new era," Gov. Jerry Brown said at a news conference there in April, standing on a patch of brown and green grass that would normally be thick with snow that time of year. "The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past."

Climate scientists also recently announced, disconcertingly, that California's record-breaking drought is merely a preview of future ACD-generated megadroughts.

Shortly after Brown announced the mandatory water restrictions for his state, another study was released showing that California will also be facing more extreme heat waves, along with rising seas, caused by increasingly intense impacts from ACD. According to the study, the average number of days with temperatures reaching 95 degrees will double or even triple by the end of this century. Simultaneously, at least $19 billion worth of coastal property will literally disappear as sea levels continue to rise.

Experts also announced in April that in "drought-era" California, "every day" should now be considered "fire season." NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory climatologist Bill Patzert said of California, "We are in an incendiary situation."

California's state climatologist, Michael Anderson, issued a very stark warning in April when he said the state faces dust bowl-like conditions, as he compared the water crisis in California to the legendary US dustbowl. "You're looking on numbers that are right on par with what was the Dust Bowl," he said.

Forty out of the 50 US states will face a water shortage within the next 10 years.

As aforementioned, this year's dry, warm winter has left the entire western United States snowpack at record-low levels. Given that this is a critical source of fresh surface water for the entire region, this will only exacerbate the already critical water shortages that are plaguing the region.

One ramification of this is exampled by how the once-powerful Rio Grande River has been reduced to a mere trickle still hundreds of miles from its destination at the end of its 1,900-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico, thanks to the increasing impacts of ACD. Farmers and residents who rely on it for water are in deep trouble.

And it's not just California and the US Southwest that are dealing with major water shortages. The Government Accountability Office recently released a report showing that 40 out of the 50 US states will face a water shortage within the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, up in Alaska, that state's iconic Iditarod sled dog race has been reduced to having mushers have their dogs drag their sleds across large swaths of mud that spanned over 100 miles in some areas, due to warmer temperatures there melting snow and ice that used to cover the course. "I love the challenge, being able to overcome anything on the trail," said four-time winner Martin Buser of the new conditions. "But if this is a new normal, I'm not sure I can sustain it."

In this writer's backyard, glaciers are melting away at dramatic rates in Olympic National Park. Pictures tell the story, which was also addressed in detail recently at a talk given at the park by University of Washington research professor Michelle Koutnik, who was part of a team monitoring the park's Blue Glacier. By way of example, an entire section of the lower Blue Glacier that existed in 1989 was completely gone by 2008, and melt rates are increasing. A sobering "before and after" look at the photographic evidence should not be missed.

A recent study gave another grim report on glaciers, this one focusing on Canada where glaciers in British Columbia and Alberta are projected to shrink by at least 70 percent by the end of this century, and of course ACD was noted as the main driving force behind the change. "Most of that is going to go," one of the researchers said of Canada's glaciers. "And most seems to be on its way out."

A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that as the Arctic Ocean warms and loses its sea ice cover, phytoplankton populations will explode. This creates another positive feedback loop for ACD, as it further amplifies warming in a region that is already heating up twice as fast as the rest of the globe.

On the other end of the water spectrum, rising seas continue to afflict Venice, where the city is seeing dramatic changes. According to a recent report: "In the 1920s, there were about 400 incidents of acqua alta, or high water, when the right mix of tides and winds drives the liquid streets up into homes and shops in the lowers parts of the city. By the 1990s, there were 2,400 incidents - and new records are set every year."


An April report shows that ACD is predicted to bring more fires and less snow to the iconic Yellowstone National Park. These changes will likely fuel catastrophic wildfires, cause declines in mountain snows and threaten the survival of animals and plants, according to the scientists who authored the report. It shows that expected warming over the US West over the next three decades will transform the land in and around Yellowstone from a wetter, mostly forested Rocky Mountain ecosystem into a more open landscape, more akin to the arid US Southwest.

"Ecological Implications of Climate Change on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem," compiled by more than 20 university and government scientists, said that such dry conditions in that area have not been seen for the last 10,000 years, and extremely destructive wildfires like the one in 1988 that burned thousands of acres of the park are going to become more common, while years without major fires will become rare.

Denial and Reality

The climate disruption deniers have been barking loudly over the last month, which should be expected as irrefutable evidence of ACD continues in an avalanche.

Following Florida's lead, Wisconsin officially became the next state to censor its employees' work regarding climate disruption. Wisconsin has banned its employees from working on ACD, after Florida banned the use of the terms "climate change" and "global warming."

Perhaps this is what played a role in inspiring acclaimed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to proclaim that politicians denying science is "the beginning of the end of an informed democracy."

Facing a loss of high-profile corporate sponsors, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), now tired of being accused of ACD denial, has threatened action against activist groups that accuse it of denying ACD. This "action" could come in the form of lawsuits.

The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication released very interesting county-by-county maps of the United States, which show the various levels of ACD denial across the country and are worth examining.

Over the last four years, extreme weather events in the US caused 1,286 fatalities and $227 billion in economic losses.

Not to be outdone by fellow Republican ACD-denying presidential candidates, Marco Rubio voluntarily donned the dunce cap by stating that scientists have not determined what percentage of ACD is due to human activities compared to natural climate variability, and added brilliantly, "climate is always changing."

This year has seen us cross yet another milestone in the Arctic - this one being that sea ice covering the top of the world reached the lowest maximum extent yet observed during the winter. This means, ominously, that in just the last four years Arctic sea ice has seen a new low both for its seasonal winter peak (2015) and for its summer minimum (2012). While most sane people would see this as a gut-wrenching fact to have to process emotionally, Robert Molnar, the CEO of the Sailing the Arctic Race, is busily planning an "extreme yacht race" for the summer and fall of 2017 there. "The more ice that's being melted, the more free water is there for us to be sailing," he said.

In stark contrast, US Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting the Arctic amid concerns over the melting ice, and some of the mainstream media, in this case The Washington Post, are running op-eds claiming that ACD deniers are actually now in retreat due to their own outlandish comments.

In a historic move, even oil giant BP's shareholders voted overwhelmingly to support a resolution that would force the company to disclose some of its ACD-related risks.

Also on the reality front, recently released analysis shows that densely populated Asian islands and countries like Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines are likely to face even more intense climatic events in the future.

Another report, this one titled "An Era of Extreme Weather" by the Center for American Progress, shows that major weather events across the United States in 2014 cost an estimated $19 billion and caused at least 65 human fatalities. The report also shows that over the last four years, extreme weather events in the US caused 1,286 fatalities and $227 billion in economic losses spanning 44 states.

US President Barack Obama formally submitted to the UN a commitment to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by up to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Critics believe this is far too little, too late, but at least it is a move in the right direction.

In an interesting twist of fate, while many Florida Republican lawmakers are busily denying ACD, other Florida Republicans are busy working to protect their state's coastal areas from rising seas resulting from advancing ACD.

Lastly in this month's dispatch, a recently published study shows that acidic oceans helped fuel the largest mass extinction event in the history of the planet, which wiped out approximately 90 percent of all life on earth.

The carbon released that was one of the primary drivers of that extinction event was found to have been released at a similar rate to modern emissions. Dr. Matthew Clarkson, one of the authors of the study, commented: "Scientists have long suspected that an ocean acidification event occurred during the greatest mass extinction of all time, but direct evidence has been lacking until now. This is a worrying finding, considering that we can already see an increase in ocean acidity today that is the result of human carbon emissions."

News Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Death of the Republic

"The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government."    — Article IV, Section 4, US Constitution

A republican form of government is one in which power resides in elected officials representing the citizens, and government leaders exercise power according to the rule of law. In The Federalist Papers, James Madison defined a republic as “a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people . . . .”

On April 22, 2015, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive trade agreement that would override our republican form of government and hand judicial and legislative authority to a foreign three-person panel of corporate lawyers.

The secretive TPP is an agreement with Mexico, Canada, Japan, Singapore and seven other countries that affects 40% of global markets. Fast-track authority could now go to the full Senate for a vote as early as next week. Fast-track means Congress will be prohibited from amending the trade deal, which will be put to a simple up or down majority vote. Negotiating the TPP in secret and fast-tracking it through Congress is considered necessary to secure its passage, since if the public had time to review its onerous provisions, opposition would mount and defeat it.

Abdicating the Judicial Function to Corporate Lawyers

James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers:

"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, . . . may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. . . . “Were the power of judging joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control, for the judge would then be the legislator. . . .”

And that, from what we now know of the TPP’s secret provisions, will be its dire effect.

The most controversial provision of the TPP is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) section, which strengthens existing ISDS  procedures. ISDS first appeared in a bilateral trade agreement in 1959. According to The Economist, ISDS gives foreign firms a special right to apply to a secretive tribunal of highly paid corporate lawyers for compensation whenever the government passes a law to do things that hurt corporate profits — such things as discouraging smoking, protecting the environment or preventing a nuclear catastrophe.

Arbitrators are paid $600-700 an hour, giving them little incentive to dismiss cases; and the secretive nature of the arbitration process and the lack of any requirement to consider precedent gives wide scope for creative judgments.

To date, the highest ISDS award has been for $2.3 billion to Occidental Oil Company against the government of Ecuador over its termination of an oil-concession contract, this although the termination was apparently legal. Still in arbitration is a demand by Vattenfall, a Swedish utility that operates two nuclear plants in Germany, for compensation of €3.7 billion ($4.7 billion) under the ISDS clause of a treaty on energy investments, after the German government decided to shut down its nuclear power industry following the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.

Under the TPP, however, even larger judgments can be anticipated, since the sort of “investment” it protects includes not just “the commitment of capital or other resources” but “the expectation of gain or profit.” That means the rights of corporations in other countries extend not just to their factories and other “capital” but to the profits they expect to receive there.

In an article posted by Yves Smith, Joe Firestone poses some interesting hypotheticals:

Under the TPP, could the US government be sued and be held liable if it decided to stop issuing Treasury debt and financed deficit spending in some other way (perhaps by quantitative easing or by issuing trillion dollar coins)? Why not, since some private companies would lose profits as a result?

Under the TPP or the TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership under negotiation with the European Union), would the Federal Reserve be sued if it failed to bail out banks that were too big to fail?

Firestone notes that under the Netherlands-Czech trade agreement, the Czech Republic was sued in an investor-state dispute for failing to bail out an insolvent bank in which the complainant had an interest. The investor company was awarded $236 million in the dispute settlement. What might the damages be, asks Firestone, if the Fed decided to let the Bank of America fail, and a Saudi-based investment company decided to sue?

Abdicating the Legislative Function to Multinational Corporations

Just the threat of this sort of massive damage award could be enough to block prospective legislation. But the TPP goes further and takes on the legislative function directly, by forbidding specific forms of regulation.

Public Citizen observes that the TPP would provide big banks with a backdoor means of watering down efforts to re-regulate Wall Street, after deregulation triggered the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression:

The TPP would forbid countries from banning particularly risky financial products, such as the toxic derivatives that led to the $183 billion government bailout of AIG. It would prohibit policies to prevent banks from becoming “too big to fail,” and threaten the use of “firewalls” to prevent banks that keep our savings accounts from taking hedge-fund-style bets.

The TPP would also restrict capital controls, an essential policy tool to counter destabilizing flows of speculative money. . . . And the deal would prohibit taxes on Wall Street speculation, such as the proposed Robin Hood Tax that would generate billions of dollars’ worth of revenue for social, health, or environmental causes.

Clauses on dispute settlement in earlier free trade agreements have been invoked to challenge efforts to regulate big business. The fossil fuel industry is seeking to overturn Quebec’s ban on the ecologically destructive practice of fracking. Veolia, the French behemoth known for building a tram network to serve Israeli settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, is contesting increases in Egypt’s minimum wage. The tobacco maker Philip Morris is suing against anti-smoking initiatives in Uruguay and Australia.

The TPP would empower not just foreign manufacturers but foreign financial firms to attack financial policies in foreign tribunals, demanding taxpayer compensation for regulations that they claim frustrate their expectations and inhibit their profits.

Preempting Government Sovereignty

What is the justification for this encroachment on the sovereign rights of government? Allegedly, ISDS is necessary in order to increase foreign investment. But as noted in The Economist, investors can protect themselves by purchasing political-risk insurance. Moreover, Brazil continues to receive sizable foreign investment despite its long-standing refusal to sign any treaty with an ISDS mechanism. Other countries are beginning to follow Brazil’s lead.

In an April 22nd report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, gains from multilateral trade liberalization were shown to be very small, equal to only about 0.014% of consumption, or about $.43 per person per month. And that assumes that any benefits are distributed uniformly across the economic spectrum. In fact, transnational corporations get the bulk of the benefits, at the expense of most of the world’s population.

Something else besides attracting investment money and encouraging foreign trade seems to be going on. The TPP would destroy our republican form of government under the rule of law, by elevating the rights of investors – also called the rights of “capital” – above the rights of the citizens.

That means that TPP is blatantly unconstitutional. But as Joe Firestone observes, neo-liberalism and corporate contributions seem to have blinded the deal’s proponents so much that they cannot see they are selling out the sovereignty of the United States to foreign and multinational corporations.

Opinion Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Forty Years Later, Will the End Games in Iraq and Afghanistan Follow the Vietnam Playbook?

If our wars in the Greater Middle East ever end, it's a pretty safe bet that they will end badly - and it won't be the first time. The "fall of Saigon" in 1975 was the quintessential bitter end to a war. Oddly enough, however, we've since found ways to reimagine that denouement which miraculously transformed a failed and brutal war of American aggression into a tragic humanitarian rescue mission. Our most popular Vietnam end-stories bury the long, ghastly history that preceded the "fall," while managing to absolve us of our primary responsibility for creating the disaster. Think of them as silver-lining tributes to good intentions and last-ditch heroism that may come in handy in the years ahead.

The trick, it turned out, was to separate the final act from the rest of the play. To be sure, the ending in Vietnam was not a happy one, at least not for many Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. This week we mark the 40th anniversary of those final days of the war.  We will once again surely see the searing images of terrified refugees, desperate evacuations, and final defeat. But even that grim tale offers a lesson to those who will someday memorialize our present round of disastrous wars: toss out the historical background and you can recast any U.S. mission as a flawed but honorable, if not noble, effort by good-guy rescuers to save innocents from the rampaging forces of aggression. In the Vietnamese case, of course, the rescue was so incomplete and the defeat so total that many Americans concluded their country had "abandoned" its cause and "betrayed" its allies. By focusing on the gloomy conclusion, however, you could at least stop dwelling on the far more incriminating tale of the war's origins and expansion, and the ruthless way the U.S. waged it.

Here's another way to feel better about America's role in starting and fighting bad wars: make sure U.S. troops leave the stage for a decent interval before the final debacle. That way, in the last act, they can swoop back in with a new and less objectionable mission. Instead of once again waging brutal counterinsurgencies on behalf of despised governments, American troops can concentrate on a humanitarian effort most war-weary citizens and soldiers would welcome: evacuation and escape.

Phony Endings and Actual Ones

An American president announces an honorable end to our longest war. The last U.S. troops are headed for home. Media executives shut down their war zone bureaus. The faraway country where the war took place, once a synonym for slaughter, disappears from TV screens and public consciousness. Attention shifts to home-front scandals and sensations. So it was in the United States in 1973 and 1974, years when most Americans mistakenly believed that the Vietnam War was over.

In many ways, eerily enough, this could be a story from our own time. After all, a few years ago, we had reason to hope that our seemingly endless wars - this time in distant Iraq and Afghanistan - were finally over or soon would be. In December 2011, in front of U.S. troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, President Obama proclaimed an end to the American war in Iraq. "We're leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq," he said proudly. "This is an extraordinary achievement." In a similar fashion, last December the president announced that in Afghanistan "the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion."

If only. Instead, warfare, strife, and suffering of every kind continue in both countries, while spreading across ever more of the Greater Middle East. American troops are still dying in Afghanistan and in Iraq the U.S. military is back, once again bombing and advising, this time against the Islamic State (or Daesh), an extremist spin-off from its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq, an organization that only came to life well after (and in reaction to) the U.S. invasion and occupation of that country. It now seems likely that the nightmare of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which began decades ago, will simply drag on with no end in sight.

The Vietnam War, long as it was, did finally come to a decisive conclusion. When Vietnam screamed back into the headlines in early 1975, 14 North Vietnamese divisions were racing toward Saigon, virtually unopposed. Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese troops (shades of the Iraqi army in 2014) were stripping off their military uniforms, abandoning their American equipment, and fleeing. With the massive U.S. military presence gone, what had once been a brutal stalemate was now a rout, stunning evidence that "nation-building" by the U.S. military in South Vietnam had utterly failed (as it would in the twenty-first century in Iraq and Afghanistan).

On April 30, 1975, a Communist tank crashed through the gates of Independence Palace in the southern capital of Saigon, a dramatic and triumphant conclusion to a 30-year-long Vietnamese struggle to achieve national independence and reunification. The blood-soaked American effort to construct a permanent non-Communist nation called South Vietnam ended in humiliating defeat.

It's hard now to imagine such a climactic conclusion in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike Vietnam, where the Communists successfully tapped a deep vein of nationalist and revolutionary fervor throughout the country, in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan has any faction, party, or government had such success or the kind of appeal that might lead it to gain full and uncontested control of the country. Yet in Iraq, there have at least been a series of mass evacuations and displacements reminiscent of the final days in Vietnam. In fact, the region, including Syria, is now engulfed in a refugee crisis of staggering proportions with millions seeking sanctuary across national boundaries and millions more homeless and displaced internally.

Last August, U.S. forces returned to Iraq (as in Vietnam four decades earlier) on the basis of a "humanitarian" mission. Some 40,000 Iraqis of the Yazidi sect, threatened with slaughter, had been stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq surrounded by Islamic State militants. While most of the Yazidi were, in fact, successfully evacuated by Kurdish fighters via ground trails, small groups were flown out on helicopters by the Iraqi military with U.S. help. When one of those choppers went down wounding many of its passengers but killing only the pilot, General Majid Ahmed Saadi, New York Times reporter Alissa Rubin, injured in the crash, praised his heroism.  Before his death, he had told her that the evacuation missions were "the most important thing he had done in his life, the most significant thing he had done in his 35 years of flying."

In this way, a tortured history inconceivable without the American invasion of 2003 and almost a decade of excesses, including the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib, as well as counterinsurgency warfare, finally produced a heroic tale of American humanitarian intervention to rescue victims of murderous extremists. The model for that kind of story had been well established in 1975.

Stripping the Fall of Saigon of Historical Context

Defeat in Vietnam might have been the occasion for a full-scale reckoning on the entire horrific war, but we preferred stories that sought to salvage some faith in American virtue amid the wreckage. For the most riveting recent example, we need look no further than Rory Kennedy's 2014 Academy Award-nominated documentary Last Days in Vietnam. The film focuses on a handful of Americans and a few Vietnamese who, in defiance of orders, helped expedite and expand a belated and inadequate evacuation of South Vietnamese who had hitched their lives to the American cause. 

The film's cast of humanitarian heroes felt obligated to carry out their ad hocrescue missions because the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin, refused to believe that defeat was inevitable. Whenever aides begged him to initiate an evacuation, he responded with comments like, "It's not so bleak. I won't have this negative talk." Only when North Vietnamese tanks reached the outskirts of Saigon did he order the grandiloquently titled Operation Frequent Wind - the helicopter evacuation of the city - to begin.

By that time, Army Captain Stuart Herrington and others like him had already led secret "black ops" missions to help South Vietnamese army officers and their families get aboard outgoing aircraft and ships. Prior to the official evacuation, the U.S. government explicitly forbade the evacuation of South Vietnamese military personnel who were under orders to remain in the country and continue fighting. But, as Herrington puts it in the film, "sometimes there's an issue not of legal and illegal, but right and wrong." Although the war itself failed to provide U.S. troops with a compelling moral cause, Last Days in Vietnam produces one. The film's heroic rescuers are willing to risk their careers for the just cause of evacuating their allies.

The drama and danger are amped up by the film's insistence that all Vietnamese linked to the Americans were in mortal peril. Several of the witnesses invoke the specter of a Communist "bloodbath," a staple of pro-war propaganda since the 1960s. (President Richard Nixon, for instance, once warned that the Communists would massacre civilians "by the millions" if the U.S. pulled out.) Herrington refers to the South Vietnamese officers he helped evacuate as "dead men walking." Another of the American rescuers, Paul Jacobs, used his Navy ship without authorization to escort dozens of South Vietnamese vessels, crammed with some 30,000 people, to the Philippines. Had he ordered the ships back to Vietnam, he claims in the film, the Communists "woulda killed 'em all."

The Communist victors were certainly not merciful. They imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people in "re-education camps" and subjected them to brutal treatment. The predicted bloodbath, however, was a figment of the American imagination. No program of systematic execution of significant numbers of people who had collaborated with the Americans ever happened.

Following another script that first emerged in U.S. wartime propaganda, the film implies that South Vietnam was vehemently anti-communist. To illustrate, we are shown a map in which North Vietnamese red ink floods ever downward over an all-white South - as if the war were a Communist invasion instead of a countrywide struggle that began in the South in opposition to an American-backed government.

Had the South been uniformly and fervently anti-Communist, the war might well have had a different outcome, but the Saigon regime was vulnerable primarily because many southern Vietnamese fought tooth and nail to defeat it and many others were unwilling to put their lives on the line to defend it. In truth, significant parts of the South had been "red" since the 1940s.  The U.S. blocked reunification elections in 1956 exactly because it feared that southerners might vote in Communist leader Ho Chi Minh as president. Put another way, the U.S. betrayed the people of Vietnam and their right to self-determination not by pulling out of the country, but by going in.

Last Days in Vietnam may be the best silver-lining story of the fall of Saigon ever told, but it is by no means the first. Well before the end of April 1975, when crowds of terrified Vietnamese surrounded the U.S. embassy in Saigon begging for admission or trying to scale its fences, the media was on the lookout for feel-good stories that might take some of the sting out of the unremitting tableaus of fear and failure.

They thought they found just the thing in Operation Babylift. A month before ordering the final evacuation of Vietnam, Ambassador Martin approved an airlift of thousands of South Vietnamese orphans to the United States where they were to be adopted by Americans. Although he stubbornly refused to accept that the end was near, he hoped the sight of all those children embraced by their new American parents might move Congress to allocate additional funds to support the crumbling South Vietnamese government.

Commenting on Operation Babylift, pro-war political scientist Lucien Pye said, "We want to know we're still good, we're still decent." It did not go as planned. The first plane full of children and aid workers crashed and 138 of its passengers died. And while thousands of children did eventually make it to the U.S., a significant portion of them were not orphans. In war-ravaged South Vietnam some parents placed their children in orphanages for protection, fully intending to reclaim them in safer times. Critics claimed the operation was tantamount to kidnapping.

Nor did Operation Babylift move Congress to send additional aid, which was hardly surprising since virtually no one in the United States wanted to continue to fight the war. Indeed, the most prevalent emotion was stunned resignation. But there did remain a pervasive need to salvage some sense of national virtue as the house of cards collapsed and the story of those "babies," no matter how tarnished, nonetheless proved helpful in the process.

Putting the Fall of Saigon Back in Context

For most Vietnamese - in the South as well as the North - the end was not a time of fear and flight, but joy and relief. Finally, the much-reviled, American-backed government in Saigon had been overthrown and the country reunited. After three decades of turmoil and war, peace had come at last. The South was not united in accepting the Communist victory as an unambiguous "liberation," but there did remain broad and bitter revulsion over the wreckage the Americans had brought to their land.

Indeed, throughout the South and particularly in the countryside, most people viewed the Americans not as saviors but as destroyers. And with good reason. The U.S. military dropped four million tons of bombs on South Vietnam, the very land it claimed to be saving, making it by far the most bombed country in history. Much of that bombing was indiscriminate. Though policymakers blathered on about the necessity of "winning the hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese, the ruthlessness of their war-making drove many southerners into the arms of the Viet Cong, the local revolutionaries. It wasn't Communist hordes from the North that such Vietnamese feared, but the Americans and their South Vietnamese military allies.

The many refugees who fled Vietnam at war's end and after, ultimately a million or more of them, not only lost a war, they lost their home, and their traumatic experiences are not to be minimized. Yet we should also remember the suffering of the far greater number of South Vietnamese who were driven off their land by U.S. wartime policies. Because many southern peasants supported the Communist-led insurgency with food, shelter, intelligence, and recruits, the U.S. military decided that it had to deprive the Viet Cong of its rural base. What followed was a long series of forced relocations designed to remove peasants en masse from their lands and relocate them to places where they could more easily be controlled and indoctrinated.

The most conservative estimate of internal refugees created by such policies (with anodyne names like the "strategic hamlet program" or "Operation Cedar Falls") is 5 million, but the real figure may have been 10 million or more in a country of less than 20 million. Keep in mind that, in these years, the U.S. military listed "refugees generated" - that is, Vietnamese purposely forced off their lands - as a metric of "progress," a sign of declining support for the enemy.

Our vivid collective memories are of Vietnamese refugees fleeing their homeland at war's end. Gone is any broad awareness of how the U.S. burned down, plowed under, or bombed into oblivion thousands of Vietnamese villages, and herded survivors into refugee camps. The destroyed villages were then declared "free fire zones" where Americans claimed the right to kill anything that moved. 

In 1967, Jim Soular was a flight chief on a gigantic Chinook helicopter. One of his main missions was the forced relocation of Vietnamese peasants. Here's the sort of memory that you won't find in Miss Saigon, Last Days in Vietnam, or much of anything else that purports to let us know about the war that ended in 1975. This is not the sort of thing you're likely to see much of this week in any 40th anniversary media musings. 

"On one mission where we were depopulating a village we packed about sixty people into my Chinook. They'd never been near this kind of machine and were really scared but they had people forcing them in with M-16s. Even at that time I felt within myself that the forced dislocation of these people was a real tragedy. I never flew refugees back in. It was always out. Quite often they would find their own way back into those free-fire zones. We didn't understand that their ancestors were buried there, that it was very important to their culture and religion to be with their ancestors. They had no say in what was happening. I could see the terror in their faces. They were defecating and urinating and completely freaked out. It was horrible. Everything I'd been raised to believe in was contrary to what I saw in Vietnam. We might have learned so much from them instead of learning nothing and doing so much damage."

What Will We Forget If Baghdad "Falls"?

The time may come, if it hasn't already, when many of us will forget, Vietnam-style, that our leaders sent us to war in Iraq falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction he intended to use against us; that he had a "sinister nexus" with the al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked on 9/11; that the war would essentially pay for itself; that it would be over in "weeks rather than months"; that the Iraqis would greet us as liberators; or that we would build an Iraqi democracy that would be a model for the entire region. And will we also forget that in the process nearly 4,500 Americans were killed along with perhaps 500,000 Iraqis, that millions of Iraqis were displaced from their homes into internal exile or forced from the country itself, and that by almost every measure civil society has failed to return to pre-war levels of stability and security?

The picture is no less grim in Afghanistan. What silver linings can possibly emerge from our endless wars? If history is any guide, I'm sure we'll think of something.

Opinion Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Divestment Dividend

Fossil Fuel Extinction. (Cartoon: Khalil Bendib / OtherWords)Fossil Fuel Extinction. (Cartoon: Khalil Bendib / OtherWords)

Investors who refuse to put their money into oil, gas, and coal may reap financial gains for doing the right thing.

As Earth Day approached, fossil-fuel divestment actions rattled college campuses large and small. Targets ranged from Harvard University's $36-billion endowment to the University of Mary Washington's $46-million nest egg.

That's only natural: Students, professors, and alumni are increasingly telling their schools to put their money where their mission is by shunning oil, gas, and coal assets. And there's no more symbolic time of year to make that kind of statement.

Conservative icon George Will, realizing this is a thing, ridiculed Syracuse University's recent decision to sweep all dirty-energy holdings out of its $1.2-billion endowment. Even for fossils like the widely syndicated columnist, it's too hard to ignore the growing movement to make universities — and everyone else — lock these industries out of their investments.

At least 20 colleges and universities have sworn off either just coal or all fossil fuels so far, along with dozens of cities and many religious and philanthropic institutions. Some 1,500 individuals, myself included, have pledged to shun those assets and actively invest in climate solutions.

If you find this debate confusing, you're not alone. People on either side argue over different things.

Supporters dwell on the specter of a climate catastrophe. They cast divestment as a moral, ethical, scientific, and environmental duty. Foes, meanwhile, harp about finances. They sneer that shunning entire industries is reckless and bound to crimp returns.

I would support divestment even if the naysayers were right. Happily, they're not.

Yes, the fate of the Earth matters more than how quickly Harvard's endowment crosses the $50-billion line. But it turns out that marrying your money and climate mission can pay dividends.

In other words, this increasingly diverse community — both the First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee and the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon are in — will probably profit from jilting oil, gas, and coal.

MSCI, a leading global stock market index company, tracks fossil-free performance. It determined at the end of March that stock portfolios without exposure to these industries had outperformed investments that included fossil fuels over the prior five years. Since November 2010, MSCI's fossil-free index has gained 13 percent on an annualized basis, eclipsing conventional investment approaches by 1.2 percentage points.

That bodes well for divestment. So, would Harvard's holdings gain or lose if it took the plunge?

Because most of those assets are secret, I can't say. Yet it's public knowledge that the university owns (or did pretty recently) shares in Anadarko, a Texas-based oil and gas company that's active in fracking and played a major role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Harvard also owns shares in Vale SA, a Brazilian-based mining conglomerate, Fossil Free Indexes observes.

Over the past year, Anadarko shares declined 6.5 percent while the Standard & Poor's 500 benchmark stock index gained 11.5 percent. And Vale shares have withered as prices for the coal and iron ore the company exports have sunk. Its shares have lost more than half their value over the past 12 months.

Even though Anadarko hasn't faltered as badly as its competitors — oil and gas funds fell an average of 17 percent last year — Harvard's endowment would have performed better without it or Vale.

The upshot: When George Will says "the effect on the growth of institutions' endowments will be negative" if they divest, he's ignoring market realities, flaunting his financial ignorance, or deliberately misinforming the public.

Some dirty-energy asset prices clawed back from multi-year lows while Harvard students, alumni, and faculty were making a very public case for divestment. Still, there's no reason to bet on a sustained rebound when experts predict that oil, gas, and coal prices will remain depressed.

Given the financial rewards investors can reap for getting out of fossil fuels, the real question isn't whether divestment is risky. It's why anyone would willingly pollute their portfolio regardless of where they stand on climate change.

Opinion Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Can You Really Be GM-Free? Why New European Laws Pose a Moral Dilemma

If public morality justifies a national ban on GM food, why is no such ban required for GM feed and GM crops also? (Photo: GMO Wheat via Shutterstock)If public morality justifies a national ban on GM food, why is no such ban required for GM feed and GM crops? (Photo: GMO Wheat via Shutterstock)

It's all very well choosing not to eat genetically modified (GM) food, or even banning it entirely, but what if you then rear your cows on GM soya? Can you really maintain a consistent moral objection?

This is the dilemma many European countries are faced with now the EU has proposed measures that will further de-harmonise rules on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The latest proposal would allow member states to "opt-out" from the use of GM food and animal feed, thereby mirroring legislation passed earlier this year that allowed members to opt-out from GM cultivation.

The official aim is to allow member states to impose restrictions on GM food and feed "in respect of democratic choice and in the interest of consistency." But countries expecting to pick and choose from different GMOs, whether crops, food or feed, will find their freedom heavily constrained.

Any GM restrictions must still comply with EU law. This firstly requires that any measures be necessary to protect a "relevant legitimate objective." Worries over the environment or public health don't count - in theory these are dealt with under the initial authorisation process. This leaves objectives such as public morality, consumer protection or agricultural policy (preventing contamination between GM and non-GM crops, or having to change farms to use for GM crops). Even then, there must still be no arbitrary discrimination or disguised protectionism.

An Italo-Irish Headache

Consider the example of Ireland and Italy: two green, agricultural nations who may shortly be faced with serious headaches. Both have mixed feelings regarding GMOs and both have interests in prohibiting certain products, but crucially not all.

In particular, a substantial proportion of animal feed used in both Italy and Ireland is of GM origin. A 2010 report indicated that more than 90% of protein feed for livestock in Ireland contained EU-authorised GM varieties - mostly soya, maize, cotton and rapeseed.

As imported feed is vital to keep Ireland's cows and sheep well fed, and since it's tough to guarantee zero contamination by GM sources, the country supported an amendment to EU legislation allowing for temporary tolerances of unauthorised GM feed at a level of 0.1%. Even if they would avoid GM feed in neutral circumstances, the market has created a high level of dependency by national producers on GM feed.

Dilemma Time

This adds to a dilemma surrounding specific products produced nationally with GM counterparts produced outside the EU.

Rapeseed is an important crop in Ireland, for instance, just as it is in the UK. Although GM rapeseed is not currently authorised for cultivation in the EU, GM rapeseed food and animal feed grown elsewhere, mostly in Canada, is authorised.

Italy is Europe's main producer of soybeans. As with rapeseed, you can't grow GM soya in the EU, but GM soya products are authorised if imported, with the main suppliers based in America, Brazil and Argentina. Therefore European producers (all non-GM) are in competition with those beyond the EU, both GM and non-GM.

While Ireland and Italy depend on imported GM rapeseed and soya feed too much to impose restrictions, the two nations might be tempted to give their national producers a helping hand by attempting to prohibit GM rapeseed and soya food products. Yet if either were to prohibit these GM foods and not others, irrespective of any legitimate objective claimed, it would indicate "arbitrary discrimination" - whether direct or indirect.

Moral Confusion

What of a general ban on GM food, based on consumer protection or public morality? Consumer protection won't work. Shoppers could be sufficiently protected by labelling, which is already required (even if not considered full and accurate information).

Public morality might justify such restrictions, but if purely on GM food this would appear hypocritical. If public morality justifies a national ban on GM food, why is no such ban required for GM feed and GM crops also? Especially when the GM feed or crops lead eventually to food.

That just leaves environmental and health protection that could justify restricting one GM food and not another, or GM food generally and not feed or crops. However both are expressly excluded under the EU's proposed legislation.

Consequently, Ireland and Italy may be able to impose unilateral restrictions on GM crops, food or feed for a range of legitimate objectives. They could indeed be truly "GM-free." However, if you claim public morality justifies prohibiting GM crops or food, you cannot then backflip and still permit GM feed.

Restrictions on cultivation might be permitted without restrictions on other GM products, but this is due to it also promoting separate objectives such as protection of traditional farming or producer choice. For the measures to be acceptable, they must be consistent.

The Conversation

News Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Wolf in Sheep's Skin? On the Use and Abuse of Volunteerism, AKA Unpaid Labor

Political and social pressure to volunteer is on the rise. Charities are now relying on volunteer work to deliver state subcontracted services. It is time to question this trend and what it means for the rising percentage of unemployed people who are pushed into working for free.

Walk around London and you will notice the many posters endorsed by the Mayor of London encouraging people to volunteer to increase their career chances. Volunteering at football clubs helps doctors become better at their jobs while volunteering at a zoo will help aspiring zookeepers find employment. Whatever you may want to do professionally in the public or third-sector, get volunteering to fill up that CV!

Political and social pressure to volunteer—and to volunteer to get a job—is on the rise even as jobs in the charities sector and elsewhere become ever rarer. At the same time, charities are increasingly relying on volunteer work to deliver state (subcontracted) services, and more and more volunteers are people who are seeking employment. Increasingly volunteering is just a fancy word for un-paid work and a band-aid for cutting services. This is not to say that volunteering isn't an admirable activity or that people shouldn't be contributing their skills, time, knowledge and compassion for causes they care about and indeed for the benefit of their community. But the political glorification of volunteering in an age of austerity needs to come with a public debate about replacing paid and qualified labour with unpaid labour, especially in the charity sector.

A foot in which door?

Many of today's volunteers are people seeking employment. They end up working for free to be able to gain some sort of experience and access a job.

According to the community life survey for 2013-2014, 27% of unemployed people engage in formal voluntary work, an increase of five percent since 2011 and a higher proportion than people in employment. This is true of both women and men, young and middle-aged and it holds an important message: people who may indeed want a job are working for free with or without the actual prospect of employment at the end of their volunteering period.

There is a subtle but unquestionable class dimension at play. Volunteering is generally recommended to everyone aiming to get a foot in the employment door as a way of gaining experience and understanding the system. For example, for NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) and immigrants seeking to work in the third-sector, the recommendation to volunteer is almost immediate. This is all the more problematic as it seems to go relatively unquestioned by those who have to undergo it: giving up your time and skills for free comes with the package of looking for a job and needs to be accepted as such. These 'volunteers' are often youth or adults who are in need of a job, who need to support families and who hope that this is one of the ways in which they can enhance their chances at paid employment.

Internships as the gateway for a graduate job follow a similar pattern: work for free and you might end up being paid. Interns, however, have in the past years started to mobilize, asking for their right to be paid. Internships also tend to supply recruits for professional and managerial roles whereas volunteers can usually hope only to work in lower status jobs involving direct service delivery.

In 2014, the National Council for Voluntary Organizations published a report where it addressed the benefits that volunteering has for those seeking employment. A quick read further reinforces many of the concerns raised here. The report is explicit in encouraging people to work for free to increase their chances of employment. In particular, it stresses the self-esteem and confidence that the long-term unemployed can gain through volunteering to lessen the stigma of unemployment. Volunteering may well have this function, but think of what an actual paid job could do. Moreover, cast in this light, volunteering becomes a sort of rite of passage on the way to paid employment: work for free enthusiastically enough, build your skills and you might be rewarded with a job. Volunteering is in fact a problematic work relationship that sets the parameters for potential employment. Veiling unpaid labour in the clothes of 'it will do you good' is disingenuous at best.

Service delivery at lower human labour costs

There is a growing industry of volunteer recruitment (volunteer coordinators and managers; volunteer support workers; volunteer strategies and retreats). This industry provides the tools to allow volunteering to complement, if not at times outright replace, paid workers in outsourced government services. This apparatus and the messaging it produces helps instil the idea that it is wonderful to be a volunteer, no matter the cause. The language used for recruitment appeals to volunteers' kindness and compassion and stresses the 'exciting opportunities' volunteering provides for volunteers.

Charities' attempts to reduce labour costs is understandable, but alarming, in a sector that is delivering state-subcontracted services. While it is widely repeated that the use of volunteers should not substitute paid labour, this is increasingly empty lip-service, particularly in organizations that undergo a process of restructuring or downsizing. According to established consultants in the business of volunteer management:

'Increasing the number of volunteers in organisations will not solve all the problems we face in these challenging times, but it has to be a serious option. Faced with two undesirable redundancy situations – letting all staff go and closing a service, or retaining a skeleton staff and increasing the number of volunteers – we would advocate the latter every time.'  

It would be telling to look at the number of full-time employees made redundant in a specific organization as it downsizes and then see how many volunteers are being used in their stead. That way we could deduce the extent to which paid labour is being replaced by free labour. This type of information, however, does not seem to be publicly available. Similarly, it is an interesting exercise to look at guidelines for calculating the value of volunteering. Such guidelines highlight the way in which organizations think about and utilize volunteers, which has little to do with the kindness or compassion and everything to do with balancing the books. Substituting volunteers for paid workers can then be used to reinforce a charity's claim to 'value for money' and strengthen its image as an 'outstanding entity' in its bid for funding from donors. Using volunteers makes your organization more competitive by cutting costs and by virtue of having more volunteers, as that helps maintain and promote the image of an 'ideal' type of organization to which people devote their time, knowledge and skills.

One experience I had helps illustrate the dynamic described. It involved a government-funded programme that presents irregular migrants and rejected asylum-seekers—some of whom were detained and facing removal—with the option to leave the UK.  A small resettlement grant was offered to those whose asylum claims had been rejected and who, faced with the alternative of detention and removal, opted for returning to their home country. Higher rates of 'voluntary return' translated into significant savings for the government by allowing it to avoid a costly forcible removal. Volunteers were always an important part of this service, but the organization I worked with is now increasingly reliant on this free labour. After it underwent a downsizing process, the number of volunteers increased considerably. Beyond the replacement of paid workers with volunteers, I think this case rises two wider questions: what is an acceptable use of unpaid labour for state-sponsored services without public scrutiny? And what causes can legitimately be presented as volunteer-worthy?

Political endorsement of volunteering

There is currently a strong political push to support volunteering. It places rather less emphasis, however, on the benefits of volunteering for a government that is pushing the unemployed to work for free in order to provide services for which public funding has been cut. Yet so long as the idea of volunteering is associated only with civic participation and lauded for the benefits it confers to those involved, the idea of unpaid labour can be politically instrumentalized.

A visit to the Mayor of London's volunteering web page can leave one slightly puzzled. It heralds, 'The new platform will enable young people to build an online CV of their volunteering experiences, and use the skills they gain to access to paid work opportunities provided by London employers.' It goes on, advertising, 'Young Londoners will also be able to access thousands of volunteer opportunities posted by the capital's Volunteer Centres through the new service.' In other words, we are encouraging young people to work for free, accumulate as much and as diverse unpaid work experience as possible, and then suggesting that this might eventually become appealing to London employers.

This development is not limited to the UK. The UN has developed the 2014-2017 UNV (UN Volunteers) Strategic Framework that focuses on 'harnessing the power of volunteers and volunteerism to support the achievement of internationally agreed goals.' Or, in one of the bolder admissions of the principle, it argues volunteers can help by 'Complementing essential basic services where they are lacking or where they are insufficient.' States agree that for service delivery goals to be realized, it is alright  to delegate the attendant responsibilities to volunteers.

Wolf in sheep's skin?

In times of dire economic stress, there should be no question about the need to lend time and skills in order to reinforce the spirit of solidarity and sense of togetherness that makes people forge a common future. But beware of wolves in sheep's skins. In addition to the continuous professionalization of volunteer management and volunteer support roles in organizations, the political endorsement of volunteering is opening the door to an even easier acceptance of what is essentially free labour, however it ends up being justified.  There is an ever greater need to critically interrogate this practice. At present, people are being pushed into doing the work of the state for free in hopes of getting a job somewhere down the line.

Opinion Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400