Monday, 27 December 2010

National Geographic: 7 Billion

National Geographic today posted a highly effective and visually compelling infographic to celebrate (?!) the imminent increase of the global population of human beings to 7 billion:

Friday, 24 December 2010

Scientists: Expect extreme winters thanks to global warming

Steve Connor, Science Editor for the Independent, summarises suggestions arising from recent research into changing British climate patterns:
Scientists have established a link between the cold, snowy winters in Britain and melting sea ice in the Arctic and have warned that long periods of freezing weather are likely to become more frequent in years to come.

An analysis of the ice-free regions of the Arctic Ocean has found that the higher temperatures there caused by global warming, which have melted the sea ice in the summer months, have paradoxically increased the chances of colder winters in Britain and the rest of northern Europe.

The findings are being assessed by British climate scientists, who have been asked by ministers for advice on whether the past two cold winters are part of a wider pattern of climate change that will cause further damaging disruption to the nation's creaking transport infrastructure.
Read the rest... It's good to know what we might (probably) be in for!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Economist Videographic: Europe - the inside story

The Economist has a tongue-in-cheek video examination of how Europe's history shapes the continent's modern geopolitics:

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Guardian: US Senate approves nuclear arms control treaty with Russia

Vote on new strategic arms reduction treaty passes 71-26 after 13 Republicans and two independents vote with Democrats
The US Senate ratified an arms control treaty with Russia today that reduces the number of both countries' nuclear weapons, giving President Barack Obama a major foreign policy success in the closing hours of the outgoing session of the current Congress.

Thirteen Republicans broke with their top representatives in the upper house and joined 56 Democrats and two independents to provide the necessary two-thirds vote to approve the treaty. The vote was 71-26.

The accord, which still must be approved by Russia, would restart weapons inspections as successors to President Ronald Reagan have embraced his edict of "trust, but verify".

Calling the treaty a national security imperative, Obama had pressed for its approval before a new, more Republican Congress assumes power in January.

The Obama administration has argued that the United States must show credibility in its improved relations with its former cold war foe, and that the treaty was critical to any rapprochement. The White House is counting on Russia to help pressure Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

The new strategic arms reduction treaty (Start) – signed by Obama and the Russian resident, Dmitry Medvedev, in April – would limit each country's strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would establish a system for monitoring and verification. US weapons inspections ended last year with the expiry of a 1991 treaty.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Economist: Exploding Misconceptions (about Terrorism)

The Economist yesterday published a brief but interesting article (reproduced below) exploring the socio-economic background of typical terrorists:
“Extremely poor societies…provide optimal breeding grounds for disease, terrorism and conflict.” So said Barack Obama, arguing in favour of more development aid to poor countries. Mr Obama is not alone in regarding economic development as a weapon against terrorism. Hillary Clinton, America’s secretary of state, has called development “an integral part of America’s national security policy”. The idea that poverty could be associated with terrorism is not implausible. If acts of terror are committed by people with little to lose, then it is reasonable to expect them to be carried out disproportionately by poor, ill-educated people with dismal economic prospects.

Some terrorists certainly fit this profile. Yet the ranks of high-profile terrorism suspects also boast plenty of middle-class, well-educated people. The would-be Times Square bomber, Faisal Shehzad, boasts an MBA and is the son of a senior Pakistani air-force officer. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who stands accused of lighting a makeshift bomb on a transatlantic flight in the so-called “underwear plot”, had a degree from University College, London, and is the son of a rich Nigerian banker. The suspected suicide-bomber in this week’s attacks in Stockholm had a degree from a British university. Are well-heeled terrorists representative or are they exceptions to the rule?

Social scientists have collected a large amount of data on the socioeconomic background of terrorists. According to a 2008 survey of such studies by Alan Krueger of Princeton University, they have found little evidence that the typical terrorist is unusually poor or badly schooled. Claude Berrebi of the RAND Corporation compared the characteristics of suicide-bombers recruited by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from the West Bank and Gaza with those of the general adult male Palestinian population. Nearly 60% of suicide-bombers had more than a high-school education, compared with less than 15% of the general population. They were less than half as likely to come from an impoverished family as an average adult man from the general population. Mr Krueger carried out a similar exercise in Lebanon by collecting biographical information for Hizbullah militants. They too proved to be better educated and less likely to be from poor families than the general population of the Shia-dominated southern areas of Lebanon from which most came.

There is also no evidence that sympathy for terrorism is greater among deprived people. In a series of surveys carried out as part of the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2004, adults in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey were asked whether they believed that suicide-bombing aimed at American or other Western targets in Iraq was justified. Their answers could be broken down by the respondents’ level of education. Although the proportions varied greatly between countries (with support lowest in Turkey), more schooling usually correlated with more agreement.

Some argue that poverty could be at the root of terror even if terrorists are not themselves poor. Anger about poverty in the countries they are from could cause richer citizens of poor countries to join terrorist organisations. This idea can be tested by looking across countries to see if there is a link between a country’s GDP per head and its propensity to produce terrorists. Mr Krueger did precisely this by looking at data on 956 terrorist events between 1997 and 2003. He found that the poorest countries, those with low literacy, or those whose economies were relatively stagnant did not produce more terrorists. When the analysis was restricted to suicide-attacks, there was a statistically significant pattern—but in the opposite direction. Citizens of the poorest countries were the least likely to commit a suicide-attack. The nationalities of all foreign insurgents captured in Iraq between April and October 2005 also produced no evidence that poorer countries produced more insurgents. If anything, there was weak evidence the other way.

What might explain why so many relatively well-off people from relatively well-off countries end up as terrorists? It may be that a certain level of education makes it more likely that people will become politicised. But the kind of people that terrorist organisations demand also matters. Unlike ordinary street crime, which does tend to attract the down-and-out, terrorism is a complex activity. So terrorist organisations prefer to recruit skilled, educated people to carry out their missions. Using a database of Palestinian suicide-bombers between the years 2000 and 2005, Mr Berrebi and Harvard University’s Efraim Benmelech find that more educated suicide-bombers are assigned to attack more important targets. Such terrorists also kill more people and are less likely to fail or be caught during their attacks.

The finding that more educated terrorists are deadlier may mean, however, that economic conditions can influence terrorism’s effectiveness. Using data on all Palestinian suicide-attackers between 2000 and 2006, Esteban Klor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Messrs Benmelech and Berrebi show in a new paper that the skill level of the average terrorist rises when economic conditions are poor. They reckon that high unemployment enables terror organisations in Palestine to recruit more educated, mature terrorists. So better economic conditions could blunt the effectiveness of terror attacks by reducing the average quality of the talent that terrorist organisations are able to recruit.

There are many reasons to promote economic development in poor countries but the elimination of terror is not a good one. The research on terrorists’ national origins suggested that countries which give their citizens fewer civil and political rights tend to produce more terrorists. Politics, not economics, is likely to be a more fruitful weapon in the fight against terror.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Seed Magazine: On Systemic Risk

In Seed magazine today, Ian Goldin, Director of the James Martin 21st Century School at Oxford University, summarises an article he recently co-authored in the academic journal Foreign Policy:
Many of the greatest challenges of the 21st century are not new. These include the elimination of poverty and disease, the avoidance of conflict and nuclear proliferation, and the loss of biodiversity and natural resources. What is new is the nature of interdependence and complexity, as more integration among an increased number of people, combined with new technology, has led to greater fragility and the creation of a global risk society. The financial crisis is only the first part of the 21st century systemic crisis to manifest. It is vital that we learn from it in order to manage deeper and more damaging global challenges, such as climate change and global pandemics, and to avoid a destabilizing cycle of more acute financial crises.
Read the whole thing:

Goldin presents a balanced assessment and a timely warning of the dangers (as well as the benefits!) of globalisation and interdependence.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Waiting for Reform in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia)

Originally published today in The Wall Street Journal, a wide-ranging and balanced article by Human Rights Watch researcher Christoph Wilcke poses the question: "Is one man's will strong enough to deliver change in Saudi Arabia?" (talking about King Abdullah, of course!)
As King Abdullah al-Saud recovers from his recent surgery in the U.S., his subjects in Saudi Arabia may be wondering what their future holds. The 86-year-old monarch has long branded himself an advocate for reform in the conservative kingdom, saying he supports women's empowerment, increased tolerance for criticism and religious dialogue, and overhauling the justice system. So how far has he managed to take Saudi Arabia.

Last year, the country had reason to hope for dramatic changes. In February 2009 King Abdullah shuffled his cabinet and other government bodies, ousting hard-liners and even appointing the first woman to the position of deputy minister for education. The king began promoting his Interfaith Dialogue Initiative abroad to bring together leaders of various religions. And in November last year, when flash floods in Jeddah killed more than 120 people, he called for the prosecution of city officials whose shoddy planning had allegedly made the floods so deadly.

That's hardly a democratic revolution, but in Saudi Arabia, where entrenched political and religious elites militate against any reform, these were bold steps. Over the past few months though, even these gains have been squandered, and Saudi Arabia has seen setbacks in all these areas of human rights. ...

Saudis are now wondering whether anything at all will come of King Abdullah's reformist talk, and indeed whether he is the symbolic figurehead they need to change their country. Even if Saudis broadly share King Abdullah's vision of a more modern country, their institutions remain rooted in the old ways. This means that lasting reforms will continue to hinge on one individual's will. So far, it has not been strong enough.
 Read the whole thing—I've only given you a taster, with the start and very end of the article... You may ask: Why should be so bothered with the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia? Well, if nothing else, Saudi Arabia's domain includes the Islamic holy cities of Makkah and Medina... The way things are done in the kingdom has the potential to send a very loud message to Muslims worldwide, either for good or for ill.

Commentary Magazine: The Palestinian Proletariat

Michael Bernstam in this month's Comnmentary magazine has a thought-provoking article regarding the use (and abuse) of what he terms "the Palestinian proletariat", currently 'imprisoned' within refugee camps and exploited by a variety of governments and agencies for their own ends... Nothing that hasn't been said before—particularly with regard to UNWRA—but rarely has it been articulated so succinctly:
British Prime Minister David Cameron recently called Gaza a “prison camp.” Former President Jimmy Carter has called it a “cage.” At first glance, these characterizations of the Hamas-ruled province seem like rhetorical excesses designed to cast Israel in the role of the unjust jailer blockading the strip. But Cameron and Carter have got it right, in a way. Gaza is a totalitarian paramilitary camp at war with its neighbors and other Palestinians. It is a paramilitary camp because it is a unique type of refugee camp. The narrow confines of the 139 square miles of the Gaza district—surrounded by Israel to the north and east, Egypt to the south, and the Mediterranean Sea to the west—feature eight separate Palestinian refugee camps, plus dozens of surrounding ghettos. Altogether, they combine the features of a refugee camp and a military camp and, cut off from the world, look to some extent like the cages Carter mentioned.

These camps were established in 1949 and have been financed ever since by the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Yet far from seeking to help residents build a new and better life either in Gaza or elsewhere, UNRWA is paying millions of refugees to perpetuate their refugee status, generation after generation, as they await their forcible return to the land inside the State of Israel.

Though pundits and foreign-policy experts focus on the question of settlements or the current temperature of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, UNRWA’s institutionalization of refugee-cum-military camps is, in my view, the principal obstacle to peace in the Middle East. The chances of achieving peace and security in the Middle East will continue to be remote as long as UNRWA is, in effect, underwriting a self-destructive Palestinian cycle of violence, internecine warfare, and a perpetual war against Israel.

The core issue is a phenomenon we can call “refugeeism.” For 60 years, UNRWA has been paying four generations of Palestinians to remain refugees, reproduce refugees, and live in refugee camps. It is UNRWA that put them in refugee cages and watched the number of inhabitants grow. The Palestinian refugee population in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza has exploded from 726,000 in 1950 to 4.8 million in 2010. About 95 percent live under UNRWA care. The unprecedented nature of this guardianship is rooted in the unusual nature of this institution. UNRWA is a supranational welfare state that pays its residents not to build their own nation-state, for, were they to do so, they would forfeit their refugee status and its entitlements of cash, housing, health care, education, credit, and other largesse.

It is these perverse incentives above all that have undermined efforts to improve the lot of the Palestinian people, such as those measures aimed at fostering economic development in the West Bank undertaken by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and the Israeli government. If the international community truly wishes to serve the needs of the Palestinians and improve their lot, its first task would be the abolition of UNRWA.
 Just the introduction, of course - do read the whole article to get "the other side of the (usual) story" and see what you think....

Thursday, 9 December 2010

LSE Video Presentation: The Limits of Human Rights

Where do human rights come from? Are they universal across time and space, or do they, as Professor Chetan Bhatt (LSE) asks, "stop at the door of culture"? Should human rights organisations defend everyone, or have some persons forfeited their right to protection? When it was announced that Muslim cleric and prominent Al Qaeda spokesman Anwar al-Awlaki was to be the subject of a "targeted killing", a curious dilemma arose for human rights organisations.

Targeted killings – effectively, state-endorsed assassinations – are not unprecendented, but Al-Awlaki is an unusual case: he is an American citizen, currently believed to be hiding in Yemen. Can the President of the United States order the execution of one of his own citizens without due process, without prosecution in a public trial?

In the US, the American Civil Liberties Union and Center for Constitutional Rights launched a lawsuit protesting that the executive order against al-Awlaki was illegal. In response, members within those organisations protested that it was not the role of human rights organisations to militate in favour of persons who themselves had no respect for human rights. In this internal contradiction, a serious ethical situation has arisen. What limits are there to the defence of human rights?

The presentation lasts about 4 mins 30 secs - worth watching!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Guardian: WikiLeaks: Shell's grip on Nigerian state revealed

The Guardian outlines the latest scoop from the Wikileaks cables exposé: From the oil-rich nation of Nigeria, US embassy cables reveal a top Shell executive's claims that company 'knows everything' about key decisions in Nigerian government ministries.

Full article:

Clearly, these revelations have considerable significance for the apparent capacity of multinational companies to compromise the sovereignty of states in the developing world (the article notes that 70% of Nigerians live below the poverty line, despite the oil).

A brilliant example of recent globalisation or something that has already gone on for centuries?

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

New York Post: US in Mideast? Now They Want Us

Michael J. Totten, a key American commentator writing in yesterday's New York Post, sums up the apparent accommodation with a US presence—even an American offensive—in today's Middle East region:
Few Americans seem to have noticed, but a huge number of Middle Easterners have a very different opinion about the deployment of American military power in the region than they did a few years ago.

In the run-up to the 2003 war, no Middle East government -- not even Israel -- lobbied for regime change in Iraq. Indeed, the US-led invasion was all but unanimously opposed in the region. Today, by contrast, Middle East governments almost unanimously support a US military strike against Iran's nuclear weapons facilities.

The only reason Iran has not been attacked, or at least threatened with an attack if it doesn't stand down, is because both the Bush and Obama administrations have so far been against it. We were too aggressive for most in the Middle East earlier, but now we're too passive. Just look at the latest batch of WikiLeaks.
 In summary, Totten quotes another blogger:
American "imperialism" apparently isn't so bad if it serves regional interests. As Middle East blogger Jesse Aizenstat once put it, "There is nothing like a fanatical band of Persian cats to bind the Semitic tribes".

Monday, 6 December 2010

Economist Daily Chart: China's Missiles

An interactive diagram (Flash-based) from The Economist today in their Daily Chart series:

MISSILES have been a pillar of China’s military modernisation. After awesome demonstrations of American firepower, in Operation Desert Storm in the first Gulf war, and then in 1996, when the United States sailed two carrier strike groups close to Taiwan to deter Chinese aggression, China felt that it could no longer depend on sheer manpower for its defence. So it has invested heavily in the strength and technical sophistication of its missiles. The Pentagon has described China’s programme as “the most active land-based ballistic- and cruise-missile programme in the world”. Missiles are good value. Compared with a fully equipped aircraft-carrier, which might cost $15 billion-20 billion, a missile costs about $1m. And missiles can be potent. The chart shows how, in terms of numbers, China has concentrated on short- and medium-range missiles. This puts Taiwan within easy range of a devastating cruise- and ballistic-missile attack. Military analysts fear that the Second Artillery could retarget the missiles, putting Japan at risk, as well as America’s Asian bases. China also has a few intercontinental ballistic missiles, able to carry a nuclear payload. And American strategists are closely watching an experimental anti-ship ballistic missile with a manoeuvrable warhead, which could make it hard for American fleets to approach the Chinese shore. China recently hinted that it may be ready to cut the number of missiles targeting Taiwan. Whether this comes to anything will depend upon relations with the island—and they can be highly unpredictable.

Malaysia urged to stop caning 'epidemic'

BBC News Online has a summary of an Amnesty International report, published today, regarding corporal punishment in Malaysia:
Caning as a form of judicial punishment in Malaysia has reached "epidemic" proportions and should be banned, according to a human rights group.

Blows administered to the body with a long cane are a legal punishment for more than 60 offences in the country.

Amnesty International claims at least 10,000 prisoners and 6,000 refugees are caned there each year.

The government says caning is a legal and effective deterrent from criminal activity.

But Amnesty says the practice amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment as it leaves both physical and psychological damage, and should be banned.
Whole article:

Original report:

By the way, rattan canes are used for religious punishments elsewhere in the world (Indonesia, for example).

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Guardian: Iran unveils use of locally mined uranium for first time

Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation reveals use of domestically produced refined ore in defiance of the west, as reported by The Guardian in an article this evening:
Iran took a step towards nuclear self-sufficiency today, using locally mined uranium for the first time in an act of defiance to the west on the eve of the resumption of talks over its atomic programme.

The Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran announced it had used domestically produced uranium yellowcake (refined ore) at its conversion plant in Isfahan. The mining and milling of uranium ore is not banned by UN resolutions (which focus on uranium enrichment), but one of the ways the international community has sought to close down Iran's nuclear programme is to stop it importing yellowcake.

Today's announcement appeared to a signal that such measures would not stop Iran pursuing its nuclear ambitions. For the time being, however, it is little more than a symbolic step as Iran's ore deposits are mostly low grade and its capacity to produce yellowcake is limited.

The timing of the announcement is unlikely to be accidental, observers said, coming the day before Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, is due to meet diplomats from six major powers in Geneva, to resume a dialogue over Iran's ambitions after a break of 14 months. ....

... The regime has shown no sign of making concessions over the central issue – UN demands for Iran to suspend its enrichment of uranium. Tehran insists the programme is for entirely peaceful means, and portrays the UN sanctions against it as an attempt to deny its sovereign rights.

WikiLeaks portray Saudi Arabia as cash machine for terrorists

The Guardian has the latest (non)-surprise: a Hillary Clinton memo highlights Gulf states' failure to block funding for groups like al-Qaida, Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Saudi Arabia is the world's largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba – but the Saudi government is reluctant to stem the flow of money, according to Hillary Clinton.
"More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups," says a secret December 2009 paper signed by the US secretary of state. Her memo urged US diplomats to redouble their efforts to stop Gulf money reaching extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide," she said.

Three other Arab countries are listed as sources of militant money: Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

The cables highlight an often ignored factor in the Pakistani and Afghan conflicts: that the violence is partly bankrolled by rich, conservative donors across the Arabian Sea whose governments do little to stop them.
 The rest of the article is well worth a read. Interestingly, American cartoonists Cox & Forkum produced a cartoon several years ago that cleverly captured suspicion for this double-handed activity that even then prevailed amongst many in the West:

Observer: Afghanistan's propaganda war takes a new twist

In The Observer today Andrew Anthony includes a hard-hitting piece that poses the following dilemma:
Critics say that pictures of an Afghan girl disfigured by the Taliban are being used to justify the occupation. But can we just abandon women like Bibi Aisha to their fate?
Anthony's article balances the vexed presence of (largely) Western coalition forces in Afghanistan—and the desire of many to see them removed—with the likely fate of Afghan women under a restored Taliban regime (almost certainly the fate of the country if outside support is removed). In the midst of this debate is one woman, Bibi Aisha... Is she merely a propaganda tool or are concerns regarding her human rights (and those of her fellow Afghan women) a legitimate concern? Read it: see what you think.

The New York Times had a similar article back in August:

You can read the original Time magazine article (29 July) online as well—it explores the religious and human rights dimensions in far greater depth.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

So, what has Europe ever done for us? Apart from...

Hunting around for some additional resources on the European Union led to a useful "Top 50"-style presentation from the Independent newspaper of the benefits of the European Union to its citizens. It's largely from a UK perspective and dates from the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome (21 March 1957), but still very useful to aid understanding of some of the motivation for countries joining (and remaining within!) the EU:

The general factors that have fostered European integration is a likely focus of questions in the Unit 3 paper, so this is an article well worth reading!