Syria: Not Our Problem?

Something I forgot to mention in yesterday’s post: I’ve tried to take an open-minded approach to this crisis, accepting and appreciating viewpoints on either side of the debate, but one argument I have no time for is that Syria is “not our problem.”  You’ll surely have heard other variations of this: “Leave the Muslims alone to kill each other” and other often xenophobic statements.   Fair enough, you might dispute the West’s moral right to intervene in Syria or the effect such intervention might have on our economy, but to suggest that atrocities committed in Syria does not affect us is absolutely wrong.

Firstly, there’s the wishy-washy but strong point that we are all members of the human race and that atrocities committed to some directly affects us all.  If you disagree with this fundamental principle then, logically, you’re arguing that we were right to allow Rwanda’s genocide to happen, that we were wrong to stop Hitler’s holocaust, that any group of human beings can be tortured, massacred and desecrated so long as it doesn’t directly affect us.  This analogy is perhaps overused, but it’s the same as saying that ignoring a stranger being mugged, raped or murdered is morally acceptable.  To be clear, this isn’t necessarily an argument for intervening in Syria but it definitely does make the atrocities committed there the responsibility of us all.

More practically, we share a planet with Syria so naturally anything which happens there will have an impact upon us.  The war could spread to other countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey or Israel, creating more of a problem for all of us.  The destruction of a country’s infrastructure and displacement of millions of its population is bound to have economic ramifications (someone described the strain upon Lebanon and Jordan as being equivalent to the entire Canadian population crossing the border into the USA).  The longer the conflict goes on, the more extreme elements of both the rebellion and government will become, the more weapons will proliferate – and therefore the change instability beyond Syria’s borders and of terrorist attacks against the West will increase rapidly.  Again, not necessarily an argument for intervention, but you simply cannot deny that what happens in Syria won’t affect us.

Whether we decide that conducting military strikes and/or further intervention is right or wrong, there is no doubt that Syria’s war is absolutely the international community’s problem and that it’s in the interests of us all to bring it to an end.

NEWS UPDATE: Since yesterday, the British Parliament has voted on a government motion and Labour’s amendment – both were rejected.  I’m a bit confused about where this leaves us.  The motion supported military action if backed up by appropriate UN evidence, so now this has been defeated will we definitely not be joining the USA’s missile strikes?  Or will a second vote next week in which Labour may or may not support strikes still go ahead?  This is impossible to keep up with!

Yes, that appears to be the case.  Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has confirmed there will be no military action in Syria.  Wow.  For a prime minister and government to be so decisively defeated on an issue of foreign policy must be almost unprecedented.  Can Cameron ever overcome this embarrassment?  Wow.  Um.  If I have enough to say, I think I’ll blog my reactions to this tomorrow when I’m less tired.

Demographics: The Future in Graphs!

About a week ago I came across this fascinating article on the Washington Post website which shows the United Nations’ predictions of how demographic changes shall develop in the future.  I’d best roughly explain a basic theory of demographics first – current models identify five stages in a country’s development:

  1. Before development there are high, fluctuating birth and death rates (influenced by factors like war, disease and famine) with the population remaining stable.
  2. Advanced to medical procedures, number of hospitals, more food, better diets, more access to vaccinations and many other factors cause a country to enter the second stage.  There are too many existing theories to discuss here as to why this happens – a liberalised economy, intellectual freedom and industrialisation being some of them – but this causes a distinct fall in the death rate.  Consequently, the population experiences a sudden, unprecedented rise (as Europe did in the 19th century, as much of the developing world is now).
  3. The birth rate falls about a generation later, perhaps due to a shift in culture (couples marrying later, there being less necessity to have lots of children) and a wider availability of family planning.  This causes the population growth to decrease, though it still occurs – this is where India is now, for instance.
  4. The birth and death rates largely level out, where few people die young, infant mortality is down and less babies are born.
  5. The country experiences an ageing population which causes an increase to the death rate and decrease to birth rate (older people tend to die more and have less children).
  6. Who knows?

Each of these stages have various implications for the countries experiencing them, as the article explains.  I find the graphs it includes to be incredible.  Never does a day pass without some article getting published about the West’s decline, the rise of China and Asia, etc.  This is true, to an extent – we are experiencing ageing populations which will decrease our economic output (though this is being counteracted to an extent by immigration), while the likes of China are continuing to shoot upwards and achieve their full potential.  But what we’re never told is that Asia’s rise on the world stage might be equally as temporary.  If the 18th, 19th centuries belonged to Europe, the 20th belonged to America and the 21st moving to Asia, could the 22nd century be the dawn of an African golden era?  None of us will be around to see it, of course, but it’s a fascinating theory.

What could the implications of these changes be?  Asian languages are expected to become ever more significant this century, but how would that be affected by the rise of Africa?  Many African countries still have English and French as their national languages; when Africa contains almost half the world’s population, will these languages see a resurgence?  Or by this point will Africa have cast off its colonial legacy and promote traditional languages around the world?  That would be rather nice.  And I enjoy very much this irony of colonialism: Europe colonised Africa to subjugate it and steal its resources, but we inadvertently introduced systems which promoted population growth and could result in Africa becoming a leader in world affairs.

One major flaw in my idea is that the size of population is not necessarily equal to power and influence, particularly if a country lacks the resources to support such a population.  But it certainly helps.  And regardless of economics, in this globalised, connected age, the size of a population really has an impact upon its status around the world.

To conclude, these graphs are terrifying.  Not because of what they tell us – there’s no reason to fear the growth of either Asia or Africa, or even the decline of our own Western countries – but because of what do not.  Right now we know nothing except that the world will change dramatically in the next 100 years.  There’s a strong argument for saying that major events in human history, including the world wars, the rise of democracy, most revolutions and our entire economic system, is a result of demographic changes in Europe and the Americas.  What sort of world will similarly dramatic changes in Asia and Africa usher in?  I haven’t even mentioned the obvious issue of producing food for all these people, nor the massive strain it will put upon water management and energy production.  The ‘Western model’ gives us a vague insight but, really, the future is impossible to predict.  That said, I’m sure excited to find out!

Pariah States Stick Together

Today, Panama has announced that it stopped a North Korean cargo ship passing through the Panama canal from Cuba which contained materials used in the construction of missiles under the guise of trading sugar.  The ship was suspected to have been carrying drugs when the much more sinister reality was discovered.  The need for secrecy was so imperative that apparently the crew resisted the search and the captain even attempted suicide.  Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli has said that this violates United Nations resolutions on arms trafficking.

This kind of lucrative cooperation between pariah states, hostile to many of their neighbours, is not unusual – particularly not between Communist countries (at least, the few countries which remain Communist in name; in reality all have abandoned the essential principles of Socialism and North Korea no longer even refers to Communism as its official doctrine).  To see similarities between the countries, simply look at their flags!  Both exist in a world which increasingly rejects their economic and political models and face threats from the USA.   I’ve read similar stories in the past regarding Iran and North Korea.  Of course, once you start looking at the Middle East these kinds of secret deals are everywhere: Iran and Russia to Syria; Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Libya to the Syrian opposition; Iran to Hezbollah; probably most of the countries mentioned to Hamas; etc.

Secret agreements between countries has always been a feature of international relations.  In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars there were various understandings that some great powers, most commonly Austria, would step in to prevent revolutionary uprisings and prop up Monarchies in any way possible.  Before the First World War a complex web of alliances spanned the globe.  During the Cold War the tap really opened and weapons flowed to Africa, Asia, South America – everywhere, really – in the many proxy wars between Capitalism and Communism.

However, since the collapse of Communism this business really has begun to dry up.  The fact that an Arms Trade Treaty can pass through the UN is proof of this.  The last 20 or so years has seen this business occur largely between the small number of authoritarian, isolated countries that still remain opposed to the international consensus – usually countries particularly opposed to the USA.  Even during this period the number of such ‘rogue states’ has dwindled – 2003 saw the collapse of Hussein’s Iraq and 2011 saw Gaddafi’s Libya fall, for instance.

I’m sure the vision of many – a vision that I share – is that one day we’ll see a world of democratic, friendly countries working in harmony with one another.  This is unlikely to happen for many reasons – tensions between the mostly democratic South America and the USA is proof of this – but I do believe we can get to a stage where the more ‘rogue’ states are integrated enough with the international consensus that the need for such illicit arms transfers might become a thing of the past.  At the moment, all we can do is work towards preventing these illegal transfers of weapons (and continue cracking down upon those which are are still legal, though that’s a different issue) and edge slowly closer to this dream.

A Quarter to Freedom

Just finished my first exam!  Advanced Higher History, 3 hours – not fun.  Here are the essay questions on the South Africa section we’ve studied, if you’re curious (in bold are the ones I chose):

1.  How important were the demands of the diamond and gold mining industries in determining South African government policy, 1910-1939?
2.  To what extent was disunity amongst resistance groups the main factor in undermining the effectiveness of opposition to segregation before 1939?
3.  How far can it be argued that the unique sense of Afrikaner identity was the main reason for the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism before 1948?
4.  How valid is the view that the policy of Separate Development after 1959 was apartheid by another name?
5.  How significant was the United Nations in influencing the foreign policy of the South African government, 1960-1984?
(all worth 25 marks)

The first could have been better but I rambled a fair few points and remember a lot of historiography.  The second was close to the subject of my dissertation (which I’ll upload after I get my results on 6th August!) so that was a rather pleasant experience!  And I got to criticise Thatcher and Reagan, which is always fun.  Just realised I spelled Reagan’s name wrong in the exam…

The source questions weren’t so good.  Basically, we have a 16 mark question to compare the views of two sources, and add recall; a 12 mark ‘how useful’ question to analyse the provenence of a source, and add recall; and a 12 mark ‘how fully’ question, to interpret the points of a source… And add recall.  Unfortunately, after 90 minutes, noisy people on BOTH sides of the room, noisy rain falling onto the fragile roof and a bell INSIDE the exam room (great idea), my nerves were a little weakened and I fell apart a little bit on these questions.  Hopefully not majorly, but… Oh, and we had to fill in a page’s worth of details whenever we needed new sheets of paper.  Does the SQA want us to pass?

Anyhow.  Moaning aside, hopefully I passed.  I have three exams left, the next being English on Monday.  Not too worried, as it’s only worth 30% of the overall grade (along with a dissertation and two creative writing pieces), so I’d be satisfied just to ramble together something passable.

Basically, this post is an update to say my blog posting probably will be low for the meantime, but I think I’ll continue with my reviews; I’m seeing Star Trek: Into Darkness tomorrow and I *have* to review Saturday’s The Name of the Doctor.

I’ve also been feeling inspiration begin to return, now I’m nearing the end.  Perhaps I’ll have an array of stories and poems to show off by the end of the Summer.

Arms Trade Treaty

Today, the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour on a resolution adopting a draft for an International Arms Trade Treaty.  The result of over a decade of campaigning, at last there will be some control over one of the world’s least regulated trades.  It shall apply to small arms, tanks, attack helicopters, warships and missiles, among other weapons.  This is the first ever global treaty of its kind and there is, understandably, much jubilation and optimism among the treaty’s supporters.  Here’s a map of how the countries voted:

Arms Trade Treaty UNGA Vote
(blue = ‘yes’, red = ‘no’, grey = abstention and white = didn’t vote)

Unsurprisingly, Syria, Iran and North Korea voted against the resolution, no doubt fearing a threat to their ability to use such weapons upon their own uncooperative citizens.  What is surprising is that countries such as China, Russia and, most of all, the USA, did not vote against it.  The majority of the abstentions cited a lack of provisions for arming non-state entities as a reason for not voting in favour.  With such comments voiced by more, shall we say, ‘respectable countries’ like Indonesia or India, it’s clear that there are flaws in the treaty.  However, rights groups including Amnesty International appear mostly happy with the treaty, and  I’m happy to go along with their judgments.

Clearly, there will not be changes overnight.  The treaty still needs to be ratified by UN member states, due to happen sometime in June, I believe, and once 50 states have done so it will enter into practice after another period of time.  Bureaucratic reasons will halt its effectively but also, inevitably, the lack of will among certain countries.  Russia and China, two of the world’s largest arms exporters, abstained on the vote and therefore may not immediately ratify the treaty.  The world’s largest arms exporter, the USA, still must get the treaty through Congress which may prove a challenge as the National Rifle Association will put up fierce opposition, believing the treaty to be a contravention of the country’s 2nd constitutional amendment.  North Korea, Syria and Iran will have no obligation to curb their arms sales.

Despite these limitations, today is a landmark day.  In the long run, most commentators are agreed that it will have a beneficial effect in reducing arms-related violence around the world and prevent the fueling of wars.

Arms Contradiction

Just a thought: as a member of Amnesty International, I am of course very eager to see an International Arms Trade Treaty, currently being debated, adopted by the United Nations.  Thousands upon thousands of soldiers, civilians and children are killed every year by arms-related violence, which could so easily be reduced by limiting the supply of such weapons.  This would also have the effect of stabilising many countries in the world which regularly become torn apart by rebellions, as well as limiting the ability of rogue dictatorships to violently repress their citizens.

And yet, at the same time, I think I tentatively support the supplying of arms to the Syrian Opposition.  Is this a contradiction?  It’s my belief, from the limited knowledge available to me, that to do so would in the long run reduce lives lost in the conflict.  If it’s inevitable that the Assad regime will fall, which I believe to be so, then doing nothing will continue to drag out the stalemate which sees over 100 people killed every day.  If we were to alter the balance and allow the opposition to gain the upper hand, the conflict might be slightly closer to a conclusion.  It would be naive to think that the regime ending would end all fighting, and there is the very real possibility of the civil war continuing on ethnic grounds afterwards.  There is also the high possibility of arms falling into the hands of Islamic extremists.  Thing is, both of these negative outcomes will happen even if we do nothing.  By allowing arms to flow to the more moderate sections of the opposition, chances are they will have more influence in a post-Assad Syria than the extremists.  The longer the conflict goes on, the more sectarian it will become.

Both my beliefs on these issues are founded in the desire to prevent the loss of life through violence, yet they’re in direct conflict with one another.  I’m not sure how to overcome this ideological impasse.

Our Bright Future

I have noticed a growing number of reports in the news recently, about the concerns held by many biological scientists over the possibility of society heading towards a world without antibiotics.  In the last couple of centuries, humanity has launched an all-out assault on the diseases which, for most of history, have had us at their heels.  Since then there seems to have been an arms race between evolving bacteria and developing drugs.  Unfortunately, from my limited knowledge, it seems that we’re creating the conditions which allows these ‘superbugs’ to develop; overusing antibiotics means that the bacteria which, through random mutations, happen to develop an immunity, will be guaranteed to take over as the dominant strain.  The answer is generally to find new drugs, but in the last 30 years or so there has been a distinct lack of new discoveries.  I’m not sure whether this is because there’s no profit motive in doing so or we’ve simply run out of options.  I’m dearly hoping for Explanation 1.

Having grown up in an age of the utmost medical efficiency, where we can realistically expect to live to a grand age, where, until the age of 11 or so, I almost believed science as capable of anything, this concept is shocking.  It’s been compared as great a threat to the UK (and the world, presumably) as terrorism, though I would say it’s far worse than that.  A world in which people can die of infected cuts, where cancer, appendicitis, etc. kill simply as a result of treatment, is utterly terrifying.

The governments of the world need to invest more into scientific research for this issue, or to give companies motivations for conducting their own research.  If the governments can’t be trusted to deal with such a long term issue, which is likely, then international organisations like the European Union or the United Nations should step in and campaign for it.  The problem won’t go away, and needs to be dealt with as soon as possible.  It would be such a drag to get through 40 years of life then die of a paper cut, because governments were too busy trying to save money and avoid upsetting bankers.