Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, January 26, 2015

Do Cry for Me, Argentina

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

As Marcellus, one of the sentries at Denmark’s royal castle in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” might have said, “Something is rotten in the state of Argentina.”

The puzzling death of a prosecutor on Jan. 18 has fed speculation that he might have been murdered while gathering evidence in a high-profile terrorist attack more than two decades ago.

In 2004 Alberto Nisman was assigned to investigate the 1994 suicide bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires that left 85 people dead. He eventually traced the plot to Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.

On October 25, 2006, Nisman formally accused the government of Iran of directing the bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building, and Hezbollah of carrying it out.

But the Argentine government, not wishing to get involved in a diplomatic contretemps with Tehran, kept dragging its feet, instead signing an agreement with Iran to create a joint commission to investigate the bombing.

Nisman kept at it, though, and was set to testify to Argentina’s Congress on his report alleging that Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, and other officials had covered up Iran’s connection to the bombing of the building.

They were accused, in a 300-page document, of setting up a “parallel diplomacy” to sign a “secret pact” with Iranian authorities that would lead to the exchange of Argentine grains for much-needed Iranian oil, and even an arms deal, to ease the country’s energy crisis and lack of hard currency.

But now, instead of presenting his findings to legislators, Nisman has been found dead in his apartment with a gun nearby. Government officials rushed to declare it a suicide.

But few believe it. Diego Guelar, a former Argentine ambassador to the United States, told CNN en Espanol that the suicide explanation is “ridiculous.” Patricia Bullrich, head of the legislative committee that invited Nisman to testify, agreed.

“In the days before his death on Sunday, the prosecutor was very active, very focused on the presentation he was going to give before Congress, in the evidence he was going to present and his mind made up about going forward with it,” Bullrich stated. “It's hard to believe that he would have taken his own life.”

Nisman himself had told a reporter a day before his death, “I could end up dead from this.”

Following news of the death, some 2,000 protesters took to the streets near the presidential palace, the Casa Rosada, waving Argentine flags and holding signs proclaiming “Yo soy Nisman” (“I am Nisman”).

“The executive power is consolidating its dictatorship,” remarked protester Luciano Florio. “The judicial system cannot work independently when prosecutors are being killed.”

The 1994 attack, along with a 1992 suicide bombing of the Israeli embassy, which killed 29 people, remains an unhealed wound within Argentine society, particularly for its 180,000-strong Jewish population.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Palestinian Plan to Join International Criminal Court Roils the Waters

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

In an article I published in the Calgary Herald in November 1999, I wrote that “it is conceivable that some international tribunal may some day indict an Israeli leader for war crimes.”

Might this soon come to pass? On Dec. 30, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed the Rome Statute, paving the way for membership in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.

Palestinian chances of joining the ICC improved in 2012 after the United Nations General Assembly voted to upgrade their status to that of a “non-member observer state.”

These are not easy days for Israel. The summer war with Hamas in Gaza, whatever the military outcome, was largely negative from the standpoint of international opinion.

In Europe, more and more countries are moving towards recognition of a Palestinian state, even in the absence of a peace treaty with Israel, recognized borders, the final status of Jerusalem, and other critical issues. The legislatures of Great Britain, Ireland, France, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden have all urged their governments to take this step.

In the United Nations, only the American veto on the Security Council prevents even more drastic international sanctions of various sorts.

Membership in the ICC could see the Palestinians pursue Israel on war crimes charges. The ICC can prosecute individuals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed since July 1, 2002, when the Rome Statute came into force. Israel is not a member of the ICC and does not recognise its jurisdiction.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by asserting that “It is the Palestinian Authority, which is in a unity government with Hamas, an avowed terrorist organisation that, like ISIS, perpetrates war crimes, that needs to be concerned about the International Criminal Court in the Hague.”

The move to join the ICC is part of a strategic shift by the Palestinian leadership to pursue statehood in the international arena after years of failed U.S.-brokered negotiations with Israel. At the same time, Abbas also signed applications to join 20 other international conventions.

All of this follows the narrow rejection of a UN Security Council resolution demanding an end to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories by late 2017. Eight members of the 15-strong Security Council voted for the Jordanian-sponsored resolution, while the U.S. and Australia voted against. Five countries abstained. (It needed nine votes to pass.)

Permanent members China, France and Russia voted yes, while Britain abstained. Nigeria, which had been expected to vote in favor, changed its position at the last minute -- thus preventing its passage.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the resolution’s failure “should teach the Palestinians that provocations and attempts to force Israel into unilateral processes will not achieve anything.”

Lieberman’s gloating may be premature. The composition of the Security Council has now changed, with newly-elected members Angola, Malaysia, New Zealand, Venezuela and Spain – none particularly enamoured of Israel -- replacing Argentina, Australia, Luxembourg, the Republic of Korea and Rwanda for two-year terms.

Since South Korea and Rwanda abstained, while Australia was opposed, the same resolution may get nine votes if re-introduced in 2015, necessitating the embarrassment of an American veto.

As for Abbas’ plan to join the ICC, given Washington’s displeasure with the decision it could prove counterproductive. “There will be immediate American and Israeli financial sanctions,” declared Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.

A U.S. State Department spokesman warned that it would only “push the parties further apart.” Meanwhile, Netanyahu will be facing the Israeli electorate in March, and is certainly in no mood to compromise.

Monday, January 12, 2015

What Can We Learn from Paris Terrorist Attacks?


Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The three days of terror in Paris are over. The gunmen who murdered 12 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo have been killed by the French police. The victims, mostly journalists, included the Jewish caricaturist Georges Wolinsk and two police officers.

A second suspect, who killed another  police officer in a separate incident, and then held numerous hostages in a kosher supermarket, murdering at least four of them, has also been killed. There may be others, as yet unknown, who were involved in this. 

It also brought all of France to a standstill.

These were not random attacks. Charlie Hebdo was singled out for its satirical attacks on Islamist extremism, while the Jewish store was undoubtedly selected because of the religion of its owner and customers, especially on the day preceding the Jewish Sabbath, when there would have been many shoppers inside.

The magazine had already been firebombed in 2011 and had enhanced police protection for awhile – but there is only so much that can be done to guard places against attacks that come without any warning. It is simply impossible to protect everyone at all times, or to keep potential terrorists under surveillance indefinitely.

This will of course benefit those on the right in France. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of France’s National Front, tweeted an image of his daughter Marine Le Pen, now the party’s leader, with the slogan “Keep Calm And Vote Le Pen.”

Marine Le Pen remarked that she had been warning of the dangers of Islamist fundamentalism for years. “It is the Islamists who have declared war on France,” she told a French network.

While France’s next presidential election isn't due until 2017, some polls are already showing Le Pen as the most popular candidate in first round voting.

Why should we be surprised? When a liberal political order cannot protect its citizens, eventually people turn to more drastic measures.

The Charlie Hebdo killers might as well have had signs on their backs reading “we are terrorists.” Both were known to the authorities and indeed, one had already served time in prison. They were on an American “no-fly” list. Yet nothing could be done until their massacre at the magazine. In the end, they were killed anyway.

It’s all well and good to worry about “Islamophobia,” but this kind of thing can't just keep going on, whether in stores, offices, caf├ęs, train stations, and so on. Vigilance can only take you so far. 

Constitutional protections may end up victims of enhanced security measures, with civil liberties falling by the wayside. And a frightened public won’t care.

That happened in South America in the 1960s-70s, when radical left groups were kidnapping and killing people. As society became ever more destabilized, eventually a full scale coup, and the complete loss of civil liberties, was the result, in countries like Argentina and Uruguay.

So over-solicitous liberal worries about “rights” may, ironically, end “rights” for everyone! We must find some middle ground.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Afghanistan War Ends with a Whimper

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The western-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan has, we are told, come to an end.

It began on Oct 7, 2001, a month after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, and was initially aimed at degrading Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization, which had found a home in the country, then ruled largely by the fundamentalist Taliban.

By 2003, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force included troops from 43 countries, the bulk coming from the United States. At peak levels the U.S. had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.

But though bin Laden evaded capture and fled to Pakistan, while the Taliban head, Mullah Omar, was never found, this war would go on for a further 13 years, its aims shifting to the virtually impossible task of defeating a movement that clearly epitomized the ethno-religious beliefs of the majority Pashtun population.

A tribal society, Afghanistan became for NATO a project aimed at creating, among other things, a modern state, with a democratic political culture ensuring equal rights for women and minorities.

This was never going to happen. Afghanistan remained mired in economic and political corruption, run by warlords whose income derived largely from the sale of opium for the international drug trade.

The country’s former president, Hamid Karzai, who won two highly suspect elections in 2004 and 2009, was an unstable politician who spent much of the time biting the American hands that kept him in power.

Once Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush in the White House, it was clear the United States and its allies would try to get out of Afghanistan as soon as they could without losing face.

In May 2014, Washington announced that its combat operations would conclude at the end of the year, leaving just a small residual force at Bagram Air Base and in Kabul until the end of 2016.

On December 28, 2014 the International Security Assistance Force formally ended combat operations in Afghanistan and transferred full security responsibility to the Afghan government at a rather muted ceremony in Kabul.

President Obama issued a statement declaring the step “a milestone for our country,” adding that “the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.”

The ceremony was held on the floor of an indoor basketball court, and many people stayed away for fear of the Taliban, which has carried out an unprecedented wave of attacks in the capital while retaking territory abandoned by western troops.

It wasn’t exactly a victory parade, nor will the day be commemorated, the way V-E Day is remembered as the end of the Second World War in Europe in 1945.

By the Afghanistan war’s end, 3,387 coalition troops had been killed, including 2,257 American, 453 British, and 158 Canadian, soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan National Army and Taliban militants had also died, along with countless civilians.

The war has cost America alone over one trillion dollars since 2001. As for Canada, Ottawa spent at least $18 billion and perhaps as much as $22 billion.

Operation Enduring Freedom, as the U.S. mission in Afghanistan had been known since 2001, has come to an end. But it will not be enduring, nor did it bring freedom.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted Dec. 11-14 found 56 per cent of respondents concluding that it had not been worth fighting.

In the Pashtun heartland in the south and east, many people value the Taliban way of life and moral code. The Taliban made major gains last summer, killing a record number of Afghan policemen and soldiers.

“The Taliban still carries the banner of Islamic morals,” a senior diplomat told the New York Times recently. “The Taliban still grabs people’s minds. And in a fight about who is right, you must gain the minds of the people.”

Karzai may be gone but the Kabul government remains corrupt and untrustworthy. His successor, Ashraf Ghani, the winner in another questionable election last year, is little better.

 A State Department poll conducted in late October found that 66 per cent of Afghans favour amnesty for Taliban leaders if it paved the way for a peace deal.

So the Taliban is regaining control of much of the country, and the dreams of democracy and modernization have proved to be mirages, unable to transcend the country’s political culture.

Monday, January 05, 2015

How Valid is the U.S. Terrorism List?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
Now that U.S. President Barack Obama has indicated that he will be removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, only three countries – Iran, Sudan and Syria – remain.

The list began in December 1979, with Libya, Iraq, South Yemen, and Syria. Cuba, Iran and North Korea were later added. During his 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush declared that North Korea, Iran and Iraq -- then ruled by Saddam Hussein -- formed an “axis of evil.”

According to the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, which determines which nations deserve the designation, a country can be added to the list if it has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” and can be taken off only when there is a demonstrable shift in the government’s policies or leadership.

Being branded as a terrorism sponsor comes with consequences, including bans on U.S. financial assistance, defence exports, and considerable banking restrictions that can effectively cut a country off from the global financial system.

Libya agreed to dismantle its nuclear program in 2006 in exchange for being taken off the list, even though Muammar Gadhafi had been one of the main sponsors of terrorist groups for decades and was behind the bombing of Pan Am Flight103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, killing all 259 people on board.

Two years later, President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list in exchange for its cooperation in scaling back its nuclear program. Compounding the mistake, wrote Michael Auslin for the conservative National Review, Obama kept it off the list, despite North Korean actions like the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in 2010 and conducting a nuclear test in 2013.

On the other hand, Fidel Castro’s support of Colombia’s leftist FARC rebels and the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) movement, which was the original rationale for placing Cuba on the list 32 years ago, is no longer an issue.

Indeed, the U.S. State Department last year admitted that there was “no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”

Frankly, the list is dated. While Iran remains the main purveyor of terrorism worldwide, Syria and Sudan have had their own troubles in recent years.

Since 2012, the United States has seen a resurgence of activity by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force (IRGC-QF), the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), and Tehran’s ally, the militant Lebanese Hezbollah.

Among their many activities were the smuggling of weapons and explosives to insurgents in Bahrain and Yemen, and a bus bombing at the Burgas Airport in Bulgaria in July 2012.

The explosion killed the Bulgarian bus driver and five Israelis. Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the Bulgarian interior minister said there was “well-grounded” evidence that Hezbollah was behind the attack. Most ominously, Tehran continues to pursue the development of nuclear weapons.

Syria, though, is not much of a threat. It has been home to a number of Palestinian terrorist groups in the past, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

But today the Assad regime is in the midst of a bloody civil war and hanging on for dear life; it’s doubtful that Damascus has the ability to engage in terrorism abroad.

In Sudan, the National Islamic Front has been the power behind the throne since the 1989 coup that brought President Omar al-Bashir to power. In its attempts to Islamize the country, it has been ruthless in its use of violence.

But Sudan was forced in 2011 to give up one third of its southern territory and allow the birth of Christian-majority South Sudan; it also faces a continuing struggle against rebels in Darfur.

The government has taken steps to limit the activities of foreign terrorist groups within Sudan and has worked hard to disrupt foreign fighters’ use of Sudan as a logistics base and transit point for extremists going to Iraq. It is not the threat it was when it harbored Osama bin Laden in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, following the recent cyber attacks against Sony Pictures, blamed on North Korea, for producing the movie “The Interview,” which ridicules North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, there have now been calls to again place the Pyongyang Communist regime on the terrorism sponsors list.

North Korea has been committing mayhem for decades, and continues to do so. Given their unpredictability and involvement in numerous nefarious military and political activities, the North Koreans would certainly be a “worthy,” and more logical, replacement for Cuba.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

The Complex Politics of Indonesia

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Last year, with the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370, the world’s spotlight was focused on Malaysia.

Now, the crash of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 halfway through a two-hour flight between Surabaya, Indonesia and the island state of Singapore, has drawn our attention to the neighbouring southeast Asian country of Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago, with some 13,000 islands stretching over thousands of kilometres.

It ranks as the fourth-largest country in the world in population, as well as the biggest economy in southeast Asia.

Around 88 per cent of Indonesia’s 250 million people are Muslim, making it the world’s biggest Islamic nation. Seven per cent of the population is Christian, 1.7 per cent Hindu, and less than one per cent Buddhist.

But Indonesia is not a state ruled by Islamic law. Most Indonesians are moderate Muslims, and approve of a secular and pluralist society. The political parties that support a moderate and tolerant Islamic democracy and society remain popular.

The April 9, 2014 legislative election saw the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) come first with 19.8 per cent, followed by Golkar, the ruling party from 1973 to 1999, at 14.6 per cent.

Five Islamic parties won a combined count of 31.9 per cent of the vote. The National Awakening Party (PKB) was the best performer among the Islamic parties, with nine per cent, up from 4.9 per cent in 2009. The National Mandate Party (PAN) scored 7.5 per cent, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) gained 6.79 per cent, the United Development Party (PPP) received 6.7 per cent, and the Crescent Star Party (PBB) 1.46 per cent.  

But the PKB is allied with the country’s biggest Muslim organization, the moderate Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), and has pledged to keep religion out of policy-making.

“What’s important is that our behavior is Islamic and by that I mean upholding justice, rule of law, defending ordinary citizens' rights, welfare, health, stability -- all that is in line with Islam,” said Said Aqil Siradj, the head of NU. “We don't need an Islamic country or Islamic parties to do that.”

As well, in the July 9 presidential election, Joko Widodo defeated retired Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, who was backed by the Islamic parties. Widodo, who obtained 53.1 per cent of the vote, was nominated by the PDI-P.

That party’s ideology is based on the official Indonesian national philosophy, Pancasila, whose principles are belief in one supreme God; humanitarianism; nationalism expressed in the unity of Indonesia; consultative democracy; and social justice.

The Chinese population of the country consists of some 2.8 million people who self-identify as ethnic Chinese; some estimates place it as much higher. Though small in numbers, the Chinese control much of the country’s privately owned commerce and wealth, especially in the capital, Jakarta, and hence are often the subjects of populist envy.

As well, they are not Muslim, and so are sometimes the targets of extremists.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a 48-year-old Chinese Protestant whose grandfather was a tin miner from Guangzhou, China, has become the Governor of Jakarta. On Nov. 14, he was confirmed by Jakarta City Council and was inaugurated by President Widodo, his predecessor as head of the city of 10 million people, four days later.

This did not go unchallenged. A rally organized by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), founded by Muhammad Rizieq Syihab, warned against the appointment, because, the group said, it is forbidden to have “an infidel as the head of Jakarta.”

FPI’s members have conducted yearly raids during the month of Ramadan, attacking nightclubs, bars and other venues, which they say are not in line with Islam.

The FPI is one of a number of radical organizations that wish to implement sharia law, are anti-western, and often use violence. The Islamic Congregation (Jema’ah Islamiyah), founded by Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, in particular, has been responsible for some of the most vicious attacks in recent years.

The most notorious were the 2002 bombings which killed over 200 people on the island of Bali, home to most of Indonesia’s Hindus.

But while the virulent brand of Islamist activism epitomized by the ideology and agenda of such groups is a feature of the social-political terrain in Indonesia, they form a small fraction of the wider Muslim community.