Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Unique Version of Governance in Switzerland

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Pioneer Journal

Arguably the most successful, and certainly the most peaceful, nation in Europe, is the Swiss Confederation, or Switzerland.

Since it is rarely in the news, most people, if they think of Switzerland at all, call to mind the Alps, banks, cheese, chocolates, cuckoo clocks, Geneva-based international organizations like the Red Cross, watches, and the story of William Tell. (Also, in my case, Swiss postage stamps, which I collected as a youth; they are artistic gems.)

But there’s a lot more. It is a country which, though diverse in ethnicity, language, and religion, has held together in relative peace for centuries – perhaps a model for less fortunate places.

Switzerland comprises three distinct ethnic groups -- Germans, French and Italians; four official languages – German, French, Italian, plus Romansh (a Romance language); and two established religions – the Protestant Swiss Reformed Church and Roman Catholicism.

About two thirds of the country’s eight million citizens speak German, some 20 per cent French and seven per cent Italian. The country is historically about evenly balanced between Catholic and Protestant regions.

Switzerland is a true confederation. The 1999 constitution guarantees the sovereignty of the 26 cantons, leaving the federal government only those powers that the cantons entrust to it. Each canton has its own constitution, and its own parliament, government and courts.

Most of the cantons are historical entities that predate the formation of the confederation and hence have first call upon the patriotism of their citizens -- in a quarrel between themselves and the confederation, they take precedence in terms of the loyalty of their population.

There is no overall state religion, though all of the cantons except for Geneva and Neuchatel recognize either the Catholic Church or the Swiss Reformed Church as official churches.

It is also the cantons, not the country, that preserve ethnicity and language. Language rights in Switzerland are accorded on a strictly territorial basis, by canton, and in 22 of them, territorial unilingualism is the price of linguistic peace. (All but nine cantons are in their official language German only.)

Indeed, since the French and German language communities make few concessions towards each other, when francophones and German speakers do business, they often end up speaking English to each other!

The nucleus of the Swiss confederation dates back to three cantons which came together some seven centuries ago. From 1515 to 1798 there was a Helvetic Confederation of 13 cantons. French armies imposed a unitary republic in 1798 but in 1815 the Congress of Vienna recognized the modern state, with its 25 cantons. (In 1980 this rose to 26 when the French-speaking Jura was carved out of German-majority Berne.)  The modern Swiss state dates back to a constitution promulgated in 1848, following a brief civil war.

Cantons strengthen the feeling of localism in many ways. For example, there is a hereditary cantonal citizenship that existed prior to the creation of the modern confederation. There are all sorts of professional and other qualifications that vary from one canton to the next, making mobility difficult. Switzerland has no capital city as such -- Berne, Zurich, and Geneva all house different government branches and offices.

Also, referenda have been a central component of Swiss cantonal decision-making since the 1830s; they have existed at the country-wide level since 1891.

Given all this, politics at the national arena are relatively unimportant. The members of the country’s 200-member lower house, the National Council, are elected via proportional representation, but the constituencies into which the country is divided are the cantons.

The Council of States, the 46-member upper house, also represents the cantons. Twenty cantons elect two members each, while the remaining six – the so-called half-cantons -- elect one each.

The Federal Council is a collegial body of seven members, elected by the two houses of parliament, and functions as the Swiss collective head of state, with each councilor, in rotation, serving a one-year term as confederation president. So at the top, in an arrangement known as the “magic formula,” a coalition of parties (now five) has governed by consensus since 1959.

 In 1848 Switzerland declared itself neutral and, though bordered by Austria, France, Germany, and Italy, managed to keep out of both 20th century world wars. It is not a member of the European Union and only joined the United Nations in 2002.

The Swiss are an insular people and have not been overly welcome to outsiders. Swiss officials said recently that they planned to restrict immigration from Western European countries; they already impose quotas on residence permits for people from eight Eastern European countries.

Situated in the heart of the continent, Switzerland is indeed a European country like no other.

Monday, April 22, 2013

What Constitutes Sovereignty in Today's World?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

We think of nations as being either independent or not. But in actual fact, some jurisdictions that are not entirely sovereign possess many -- in some cases most -- of the attributes of statehood.

They are to all intents and purposes independent actors in the global community, unconstrained by the fact that they are legally still bound to some other entity. But for a variety of economic, ethnic, geographic or political reasons, they choose not to become fully sovereign states. Most are small islands.

This is the case with many British territories, such as Bermuda and the Isle of Man. These islands run their own show with virtually no interference from London. Denmark allows the Faroe Islands and Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) complete autonomy. The Swedish-speaking Aland archipelago is part of Finland, but enjoys a high degree of “home rule.”

Caribbean islands such as Aruba and Curaçao are constituent self-governing units of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The African island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean, which united with mainland Tanganyika in 1964, is a self-governing region that elects its own president, who has control over internal matters.

The Caribbean island of Puerto Rico has the anomalous status of a “Commonwealth.” Its inhabitants are American citizens but it has no representation in the U.S. Congress. Whereas some Puerto Ricans wish to opt for full independence, others would like to see the island become the 51st American state.

Even more curious is the relationship between the U.S. and three former island chains in the Pacific that it governed as United Nations trusteeships. Now fully sovereign states, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau, have entered into Compacts of Free Association (COFAs) with the United States.

These allow the U.S. to station armed forces in Compact areas; Washington is also responsible for administering all international defense treaties and other relations. In turn, the U.S. provides financial assistance and access to many U.S. domestic programs. Citizens of these three countries are also able to work in the U.S.

Queen’s University political scientist Ronald Watts has noted that some 87 islands or archipelagoes are involved in some combination of autonomous self-government combined with formal collaboration in a wider political partnership.

Such mutual interdependence may be more suitable for many islands. The trick, he maintains, is to find the appropriate collaborative institutions and processes that take into account the circumstances of each case, thus surmounting the limitations of the independence/dependence dichotomy.

In federations, of course, there is a constitutional division of powers. The self-governing status of the component units, as well as the division of power between them and the central government, are typically constitutionally entrenched and may not be altered by a unilateral decision of either party.

Federations often include members that have a very powerful sense of their own identity, and which may even at one time have been countries – for instance, Quebec in Canada, Bavaria in Germany, and Texas in the United States. Devolution in the United Kingdom has given Scotland and Wales their own assemblies.

Really, sovereignty exists on a continuum, rather than being a binary “yes” or “no” attribute.

I’ve come up with what I call a “sovereignty index” which can be used to establish the degree of independence which a sub-unit of a larger state possesses. These are the variables:

The degree of constitutionally entrenched jurisdictional autonomy the entity is accorded, including executive powers, legislative powers, and judicial powers, including control over the legal system, both civil and criminal.

The territory’s ability to engage in autonomous relations with other jurisdictions, including the ability to sign international agreements and have representation abroad.

Its right to a separate electoral system and political parties.

The degree of control it has over the following:

Customs, duties, taxation and other revenues and fiscal resources; banking and insurance; the currency; international trade; the environment and natural resources (including offshore resources); citizenship, immigration, and rights of residency; land ownership and use; aviation, communications, postal services and transportation; defence, foreign affairs and security; culture and language; education and institutions of higher learning.

And, perhaps most important, the population’s sense of a distinct identity and shared history.

The diverse forms of governance around the world are more complex than is often realized.

The Worse Things Get the Less They Are Noticed

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown PEI] Guardian

There must be a name for the political version of the law of diminishing returns, especially as it applies to warfare.

If 15 people were to die in a violent incident in Sweden today, that would be big news, spread across the front pages of newspapers outside that country.

But if 15 people get killed in Syria on the same day, it will hardly be noticed. After all, some 70,000 have already been slaughtered in that country's civil war, now into its third year. Two million more Syrians have been internally displaced and 800,000 have fled into neighbouring countries.

Last year Kofi Annan, the UN's former secretary general, was appointed a special envoy and presented a six-point plan under which hostilities would immediately cease within the framework of a ceasefire. Nothing came of it. President Bashar al-Assad will not cede any power because he knows he and his Ba'ath Party would be doomed.

Syria's major cities, including Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, and Hama, have seen entire neighbourhoods reduced to rubble. Thousands more will die before one side or the other wins.

So, ironically, the worse things get, the less they get noticed. How many people even know that the endemic anarchic warfare in the Congo has taken many millions of lives? People get "violence fatigue" and tune out. It becomes the equivalent of a "dog bites man" story - nothing new there.

Such violence gets relegated to the back pages of newspapers; even the usual attempts at ending the violence through international efforts - United Nations "blue berets," peace talks in some foreign capital, appeals from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and You Tube videos - become passé. The term "peace process" after a while makes eyes glaze over and chases away insomnia.

Indeed, even the ultimate form of mass murder, genocide, after a while loses its unique ability to inspire horror. The president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, was charged four years by the International Criminal Court for the crimes in Darfur. Hundreds of thousands have been killed in "ethnic cleansing" operations by the Janjaweed militias.

An arrest warrant for al-Bashir was issued in 2009, charging him on five counts of crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape) and two counts of war crimes.

Guess what: he's still running the country and Darfur remains a killing field, despite a so-called 2011 peace agreement signed between Sudan and one of the resistance groups in Darfur.

With great fanfare, the UN initiative known as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was unveiled in 2005; former Canadian foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy was one of its main authors. It focuses on preventing and halting genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

But it has no real teeth. Unless war-weary western powers in NATO are willing to do something concrete - against expected opposition from China and Russia on the UN Security Council - the killings in places like the Congo, Darfur and Syria will continue.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Imperial Conquests Were Less One-Sided Than People Think

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Pioneer Journal

Thanks in part to the 1978 publication of the seminal book Orientalism, written by the late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said, many people assume that European countries have been the main imperialist powers in history, conquering and pillaging throughout the African and Asian “East,” as well as the Americas.

A whole host of professors of “post-colonial” theory, often with little knowledge of history, have taken his thesis as gospel truth.

But over the past 1,400 years, more often than not, it was the “East” invading “Christendom.”

Fuelled by their conversion to Islam, Arab armies in the decades following the death of Muhammad in 632 conquered vast areas of the Middle East, extinguishing eastern rite Christian communities and pushing the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire out of Egypt, Palestine and Syria. They also gained control of the eastern Mediterranean islands of Crete, Cyprus and Sicily.

Arab armies crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 711 and had conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula by788. Moving over the Pyrenees into today’s France, they were stopped by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732.

Arab rule over large parts of Spain lasted for centuries and did not end until the capture of Granada, the last outpost of Arab Al-Andalus, in 1492.

Arriving on the vast Russian plain from the steppes of Asia, the Mongols conquered all of present-day Belarus, Russia and Ukraine by 1240 and ruled over its people for more than two centuries.

They moved further west, battling their way into Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Croatia, scoring further victories throughout the 13th century. Many European states became vassals and paid tribute to the Mongol Golden Horde. Infighting among various Mongol leaders finally led to their retreat from eastern Europe.

The Russian re-conquest of their lands began with Tsar Ivan III, who in 1480 formally refused to pay further tribute to the much weakened Golden Horde. Ivan IV in turn defeated the Kazan and Astrakhan Khanates between 1552 and 1556, pushing the Mongols eastwards and establishing Russia as a major power.

Meanwhile, the Seljuk Turks had moved into Anatolia in the 11th century, further reducing the lands under Byzantine control. The establishment of the Anatolian Seljuk state began the Islamic period in Turkey.

However, it was the Ottoman Turks who finally put an end to the Byzantine Empire, with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Soon thereafter, Ottoman armies captured the Balkans and southeastern Europe; they would rule over most of Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and parts of Ukraine for centuries.

Even much of Hungary was under Turkish rule between 1526 and 1687, and the Austrian capital of Vienna was besieged twice, in 1529 and 1683.

During this period, the Christian states of Europe only went on the offensive in the Middle East during the Crusades between the 11th and 13th centuries.

But that was, after all, their attempt to recapture the lands, in particular Palestine, that had been the heartland of Christianity prior to their conquest by the Arab caliphates.

Only with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War did the British and French take over much of the Middle East, and they controlled it for only three decades.

From the 16th century on, the tables did turn elsewhere in the world, as western European powers grew in strength and empires like China and Persia weakened.

It was in the Americas, and in South and southeast Asia, where European exploitation really took place, with the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese in the western hemisphere; the British in the Indian subcontinent; the Dutch in the East Indies; and the French in Indochina.

As well, almost all of Africa was partitioned in 1885 by the Belgians, British, French, Germans, Portuguese, and Spanish, and foreign rule there lasted for some 80 years.

Note that these were western European countries. Those in eastern and southeastern Europe were themselves under foreign rule and not involved in colonialism.

It’s easy to be captivated by a grand theory espoused by an academic with a political agenda. That’s why historical facts come in handy. It’s a much more balanced record than Said’s acolytes assume.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Detroit Continues to Face Poverty-Related Challenges

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Pioneer Journal

A friend of mine once said to me, “thirty miles outside of any city, you’re back in the middle ages.”

By this he meant that cities were the anchors of culture and progress. But, in the United States, this may not necessarily be true any longer.

Right up against the Canadian border, across the Detroit River from Windsor, lies a “dying” American city, Detroit. It has become so destitute that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder recently appointed an emergency financial manager for the city.

Detroit’s prosperity in the 20th century was linked to the American automobile industry. The “Big Three” – Chrysler, Ford and General Motors – made it the centre of car manufacturing. It was “Motor City.”

But all that changed in the 1960s, as German, Japanese and Korean companies began to challenge the established auto companies. As their market share dropped and workforces shrunk, and as many of their plants moved to places with cheaper labour, so too did Detroit’s fortunes decline. By 2008 GM and Chrysler had gone bankrupt.

The decline of the auto industry has seen the city lose population. Between 2000 and 2010, Detroit’s population fell by 25 per cent, and it dropped in size from the country’s 10th largest city to 18th. From a total of 1.8 million people in 1950, it shrank to 713,000 people.

The July 1967 race riot, finally quelled by National Guard and Army troops, also precipitated a mass exodus. Casualties included 43 dead, 467 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed in looting and arson. Tens of thousands left the city in ensuing years.

As plants and people moved, the property taxes and income taxes they had supplied went with them. The city could no longer afford even basic services without going deeply into debt.

Detroit is now running a $375 million deficit, and its long-term debt is $14 billion. Median household income in the city is $26,098, and the median income for a family is $31,011; 36 per cent of its residents live in poverty.

Urban decay is a major problem. The city has some 90,000 abandoned or vacant homes, many completely vandalized and beyond repair. Others have been turned into drug dens. Crime is rampant.

As downtown stores and businesses shut down, even the city’s centre began to look like a ghost town. Some people have even suggested demolishing entire neighbourhoods and turning the space into parkland.

Today, as journalist Charlie LeDuff, author of the book Detroit: An American Autopsy, remarked, the city is “an archaeological ruin.” He told the New York Times he was past finding the city “frightening anymore. It was empty and forlorn and pathetic.”

Detroit has seen a major demographic shift. In 1910, fewer than 6,000 Blacks called the city home; by 1930 more than 120,000 Blacks lived in Detroit. Thousands of African-Americans had come to Detroit from the South for jobs.

In 1950, Detroit had 1.5 million white residents. By 2010, that had fallen to 75,585. The Black population grew to 590,226 from 300,506 during that time. The city is now about 83 per cent African-American. And unlike in the past, jobs are few and not well paid.

But this isn't the whole story. Most of the whites who left Detroit proper (Wayne County) moved to nearby suburbs. Surrounding the city are five predominantly white counties, making the population of the metro area 4.2 million. These towns now have the amenities Detroit lacks.

Oakland County (75 per cent white) is home to a variety of cities, villages and townships. These communities range from blue-collar, inner-ring suburbs like Ferndale and Hazel Park, to wealthy places such as Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, and Franklin.

The white-collar cities of Southfield, Farmington Hills and Auburn Hills are home to many large companies. The median income for a household in the county is $61,907, and the median income for a family is $75,540.

Grosse Pointe, partly in Macomb County, and home to auto company executives, comprises five upscale individual communities.

Ann Arbor in Washtenaw County, 56 kilometres west of Detroit, is a college town, home of the renowned University of Michigan.

With its 43,000 students, it shapes Ann Arbor’s economy. It employs about 30,000 workers, including about 12,000 in the medical center. Other employers are drawn to the area by the university's research and development money.

And of course there are numerous bars, restaurants, bicycle shops, and other businesses catering to the student population. When Michigan’s Big Ten football team, the Wolverines, play on a Saturday afternoon, 114,000 spectators fill the gigantic Michigan Stadium.

Health services are another major component of the city’s economy; numerous medical offices, laboratories, and associated companies are located in the city. High tech companies have been locating in the area since the 1930s.

There is also a wealth of cultural activity, with museums, theatres, art and film festivals, and bookstores (the Borders chain began in Ann Arbor).

We lived in Ann Arbor for two years in the 1980s, when my spouse Patricia was finishing her PhD at the university. There was no need to go to Detroit – Ann Arbor, like the other cities beyond Wayne County, had everything one could ask for.


Monday, April 01, 2013

Legacies of Empire Fuel Conflict Among Southeast Asian States

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

It sounds at first like the plot of a comic opera: A group of men from a small Filipino island chain attack a Malaysian village on the nearby island of Borneo.
But there’s actually quite a long history behind this.

The Philippines, an archipelago of some 7,000 islands in Southeast Asia, was a Spanish colony for centuries, until lost to the United States in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War, it attained its independence in 1946.
Though most of its people are Roman Catholics, thanks to centuries of Spanish rule, the southern island of Mindanao is home to a large Muslim population. It has been the site of a long-term insurgency against the Manila government by rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front, two groups seeking to create a Muslim state on Mindanao.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Sultanate of Sulu, a Muslim entity, controlled the southwestern part of Mindanao, the Sulu Islands off Mindanao, and the northeastern part of Borneo, the world’s third-largest island.
While Mindanao and the islands of the Sulu Sultanate came under the control of Spain and became part of the Philippines, Spain relinquished all claims to the part of Borneo which had belonged to the Sultanate in an agreement made with Great Britain and Germany in 1885.

The southern three-quarters of Borneo, known as Kalimantan, is part of Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago, and it was ruled for centuries as part of the Dutch East Indies. The northern part, however, was divided into two British possessions, Sarawak and North Borneo, as well as the tiny Muslim protectorate of Brunei Darussalam.
North Borneo, which was proclaimed a British protectorate in 1888, included areas that had been under the jurisdiction of the Sulu Sultanate.

In 1963, Sarawak and North Borneo (now renamed Sabah), were joined with the former British colony of Malaya, the Muslim-majority peninsula across the South China Sea, as the Federation of Malaysia. Singapore was also, for a time, part of this new nation, though oil-rich Brunei never joined.
While Sabah is inhabited by numerous indigenous ethnic groups, about two-thirds are Muslim. Sarawak is the only state in Malaysia where Christians form a majority.

While the Sultanate of Sulu is no longer a sovereign state, many of its inhabitants still consider it a legitimate entity and recognize Jamalul Kiram III as sultan.
They also continue to claim Sabah, maintaining that it was only leased, not ceded, to the British North Borneo Company in the 19th century, with the Sultan’s sovereignty never being relinquished.

The 1963 Manila Accord signed by the heads of Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, at the time Sabah became part of Malaysia, stated that “the inclusion of Sabah in the Federation of Malaysia will not prejudice the interest of parties concerned until the issue of the Sabah claim is finally resolved by the United Nations.” This has not happened.
The Philippines broke diplomatic relations with Malaysia after the Federation had included Sabah in 1963; Malaysia, in turn, asserted that the people of North Borneo had been polled and supported joining the Federation.

Not wishing to continue the quarrel over territory with Malaysia, the Manila government has not pressed its claim in recent years. (For a time in the 1960s Indonesia, too, had claimed the entire island of Borneo and launched armed incursions into Malaysian territory.)
So supporters of the Sulu royal house decided to take matters into their own hands. Calling themselves the Royal Army of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, about 200 men attacked and occupied the coastal Sabah village of Tanduo on February 12 in order to reaffirm their claim to Sabah. Some members of the Moro National Liberation Front were also involved.

After days of sporadic fighting between the invaders and Malaysian forces, government troops mounted a full-scale assault on Tanduo at the end of the month and retook the village. “Our patience has reached the limit,” Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia declared.
Supporters of the Sultanate criticized Philippine President Benigno Aquino III for saying that the incursion into Sabah was triggered by self-interest and that the invaders had not considered the welfare of the 800,000 Filipinos working in Sabah.

However, Aquino affirmed the country’s claim on Sabah, stating that his administration would pursue it through dialogue and diplomacy.
Meanwhile, lawyers acting for the Sultanate of Sulu are preparing charges against Malaysia for usurpation of authority and illegal development of natural wealth in Sabah. They will be seeking a $25 billion “fine” from the Malaysian government before the International Court of Justice.

So this obscure, centuries-old territorial dispute, like so many others, will continue to fester and remain an issue between Malaysia and the Philippines, providing one more source of instability in Southeast Asia.