So, perceptive readers, you may have noticed that a brief break in your regularly scheduled programming is at foot, and we have the explanation for it: it’s summer, and we’re on vacation.
Yes, its true, even bloggers need breaks sometimes – and because our bloggers are those exceptionally busy types who are always doing many things at once (while writing from locations all over the world), we felt that it was important to give them a bit of ‘time off’ too.
No fears however, as we will be continuing as a team in the fall, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and full of new international issues to debate with you about. We thank you for your continued support (and always-interesting comments and discussion) and look forward to seeing you again in the fall! In the meantime, feel free to share topics you’d like us to cover in the comments section.
The Taliban seem to be in a confident mood following the departure of American General Stanley McChrystal. The general was busily commanding NATO forces in Afghanistan until he was suddenly relieved of command last week, in the wake of a Rolling Stone article that recounted some unflattering comments by him and his staff about the civilian leadership in Washington. Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid put matters quite succinctly:
“We are certain that we are winning. Why should we talk if we have the upper hand, and the foreign troops are considering withdrawal, and there are differences in the ranks of our enemies?”
As oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico from a well owned by the multinational oil company BP, albeit at a reduced rate now that some of the outflow from the well is being captured, an odd transatlantic spat has developed around the fact that the initials BP used to stand for “British Petroleum” but now stand for nothing at all. US President Barack Obama referred to BP as “British Petroleum” at one point, and this left his ambassador to the UK scrambling to explain that this was not intended as a slight against Britain. Nevertheless, some UK commentators – notably Peter Hitchens, brother of Christopher – were quick to take offense, and even to suggest that some deeply rooted hostility towards Britain was coming to the surface.
Although it’s true that Obama has displayed few signs of wanting to maintain a “special relationship” with Britain, I tend to agree with Mary Ellen Foley that his administration’s outrage over BP’s incontinent well has little to do with the company’s national origins. However, I do find it a little unsettling that BP has become a meaningless acronym, as if to epitomise the idea of a nebulous corporate entity that comes from nowhere, is accountable to no one, and is interested in nothing apart from the bottom line. A meaningless acronym is also, of course, a blank canvas onto which people are free to project their own impressions. In the wake of the accident in the Gulf of Mexico, BP might as well stand for Bloody Prats, Betrayed Principles, Bountiful Profits, Bungled Penetration, Barracuda Patrol, Big Problems, Bringing Pain or Better Pray.
Just a quick vignette from Beijing, where I live and work. Yesterday evening I was walking to my usual Mexican restaurant, through streets that were a little busier than usual because it was the first day of a three-day holiday marking the festival of Duānwŭ Jié. Duānwŭ Jié is sometimes known as the Dragonboat Festival, and indeed dragonboat racing is one of the traditional activities associated with the festival; another is eating zòngzi, which are sticky rice dumplings that are normally pyramidal in shape and wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Anyway, I was on my way to the Mexican restaurant when I heard a strange, prolonged, foghorn-like blast of noise very different from the automotive honking that you hear all the time in Beijing. Looking around, I realised that the sound was coming from two or three people wielding what I recognised from descriptions in news reports as vuvuzelas, the uniquely loud and obnoxious plastic horns that are driving some people to distraction at the World Cup in South Africa. Inside the Mexican restaurant, the Netherlands were handily beating Denmark live from Johannesburg as the occasional vuvuzela-groan wafted in from the street. So there I was, eating a burrito in China as two European soccer teams battled it out to a distinctly African soundtrack.
I haven’t been following the debate over reforms to Canada’s refugee system with any particular closeness, but it’s encouraging to see Immigration Minister Jason Kenney at least attempting to do something about the issue. Any reasonable policy for processing refugee claimants would aim to balance two opposite risks: that genuine victims might be rebuffed and sent away to face persecution or worse, and that opportunists might slip through and succeed in taking up residence in Canada. Unfortunately, Canada’s system appears to have been designed by people who lay awake worrying that we might accidentally send away a deserving claimant, but didn’t much care how many undeserving ones made it through. As a result, the balance has been upset in spades.
The problem is a long-standing one, and is perfectly well-documented. Back in 1992, the Liberal politician and former Immigration Appeal Board member David Anderson called a newly constituted version of the board “a wretched monster that’s out of control”, and commented acidly that the rule of law was being “subverted” by acceptance of false claims. He also noted that Canada’s acceptance rate for refugee claims was 64% – more than triple Britain’s, and more than nine times Australia’s. Since then our acceptance rate has dropped off to some extent, but remains relatively high. Data provided by the Canadian Council for Refugees imply a rate of 54.8% in 2008.
While I’ve been amusing myself with the adventures of the “Freedom Flotilla”, important things have been happening in a part of the world much more important to Canadian interests at the moment, namely Afghanistan. The five-day visit to that country by members of the parliamentary commission on the Afghan mission is probably as good a place to start as any. The chair of the committee is Conservative MP Kevin Sorenson, but committee member Bob Rae seized the media spotlight in the wake of the visit by suggesting that it might be worth continuing the military aspect of the mission after our theoretical exit date in 2011:
“We have an obligation to see this thing through,” Rae said. “The door is open to serious discussion in Canada — and between Canada and NATO — about what the future looks like.”
The saga of the “Freedom Flotilla” attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza ended today with a tiny little whimper, as Israeli soldiers boarded the last ship in the Flotilla and took it to the port of Ashdod. The eleven Malaysian and Irish activists and nine crew members on board the MV Rachel Corrie offered no resistance, a decision that was almost guaranteed to preclude any sort of grand finale.
The people aboard the Rachel Corrie, by all accounts, weren’t really a fighting bunch. The Northern Irish Nobel laureate Máiread Corrigan-Maguire (or simply Máiread Maguire, in a lot of the coverage I’ve seen) was the most prominent among them, but other significant figures included the former UN Assistant Secretary-General Denis Halliday, the Malaysian MP Mohd Nizar bin Zakaria, and an interesting character called Matthias Chang. The Free Gaza website describes him as follows:
Matthias Chang Wen Chieh is a Malaysian of Chinese descent. He is a Barrister of 32 years standing and once served as the Political Secretary to the Fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. He is the author of three bestsellers, “Future Fast Forward”, “Brainwashed for War, Programmed to Kill”, and “The Shadow Money-Lenders and the Global Financial Tsunami”, published in the US and in Malaysia.