Sunday, September 24, 2006

Who Will Fly the Birds to Freedom?

By Otto Spijkers

In the movie Fly Away Home, a young girl mothers a group of geese; when it’s time for the birds to escape the cold Canadian winter and fly to California, she even escorts them there, using a small airplane (see picture on the left). The geese have names, like Featherbrain and Igor (first she calls the goose Limpy, because it can’t fly, but the name is later changed to Igor in order to avoid a psychological complex). The geese get individual names, because the girl believes they all have different personalities.

That is promising, but do these birds also have legal personality? To be a legal person, with rights and duties, is not something that comes natural. The term natural rights is misleading, because many persons had to struggle in order to get their personality, and ensuing rights. Some humans only recently acquired their natural human rights. And now it is time for the animals. But they have a difficulty none of the suppressed humans had: the animals do not speak the language of the one power that hands out legal personality, and legal rights: man.

Fortunately, some men act as the animal’s advocates, chief amongst them is probably Peter Singer. His book Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, is a classic. And there's more: Since 2000, Harvard Law School has a course on Animal Rights. Moreover, there are many animal rights’ initiatives on the internet: the Great Ape Project, which aims (as a first step?) to establish a Declaration on Great Apes, inspired by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (And yes: there's also an anti-animal rights website.) But most important of all: in the Netherlands we have a new political party participating in the upcoming elections: the Partij voor de Dieren (Party for the Animals) aiming to represent the interests of the animals in Parliament.

When the personality of animals is recognized, that doesn’t necessarily mean we can no longer eat them (after all: they do eat eachother too), or use their fur for winter coats. What it means is that the following will be deemed fundamentally mistaken: to consider - and treat! - animals solely as products, property, or as resources for human purposes.

The website of Stork Food Systems, a Dutch company, is a good example of the way animals are looked at, and treated. On Stork’s website, you can find many machines designed to efficiently kill, defeather, cut up and debone poultry - admittedly, there’s a stunning device too (see picture, and see website ). The “precise slit” of the Killer KS-10, one of Stork’s machines, is heralded: “Inside the killer the knife can apply a perfect slit at the side of the neck thanks to a precise way of positioning the head. The artery and veins are opened while the trachea and gullet remain entirely intact which ensures optimum functioning of the head/trachea puller.” There’s a documentary, “Our Daily Bread”, I have seen only parts of it myself, that shows how our food – read: animals - is processed.

What does an animal need to do in order to avoid being treated as a product? Well, it has to have its personality established, both morally and legally. It needs help from lawyers and philosophers to counter the familair arguments: the argument that animals do not deserve rights because they do not respect the rights of others; or the argument that (some) animals have no soul, no ratio, or no capability to experience pain. Perhaps even more importantly, the animal needs the help of children's books, Hollywood movies (like Fly Away Home), and documentaries (like Our Daily Bread), to create awareness and change the common perception.

Much is at stake. To possess personality is life-saving. However, there may be other ways for an animal to prevent being eaten. The following dialogue suggests that being filthy may do an animal just as much good as having personality:

Vincent (left) and Jules (right)

Vincent: “Want some bacon?”
Jules: “No man, I don’t eat pork.”
Vincent: “Are you Jewish?”
Jules: “No, I ain’t Jewish, I just don’t dig on swine, that’s all.”
Vincent: “Why not?”
Jules: “Pigs are filthy animals. I don’t eat filthy animals.”
Vincent: “Yeah, but bacon tastes good; pork chops taste good.”
Jules: “Sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I’d never know, because I’d never eat the filthy motherfucker. Pigs sleep and root in shit, that’s a filthy animal. I don't wanna eat nothin' that ain't got enough sense to disregard its own faeces.”
Vincent: “How about a dog? A dog eats its own faeces?”
Jules: “I don’t eat dog either.”
Vincent: “Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?”
Jules: “I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy, but they’re definitely dirty. But, a dog’s got personality. And personality goes a long way.”
Vincent: “Ah, so by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, it ceased to be a filthy animal? Is that true?”
Jules: “Well, we had to be talking about one charming motherfucking pig!”

Pictures are from Fly Away Home, the Great Ape Project, Stork Food Systems, and Pulp Fiction (the dialogue is also from that movie).

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Right to Food and Development

By Otto Spijkers

I don't think many people object to the idea that all individuals are equally deserving of an opportunity to secure a decent standard of living for themselves and their family. Unfortunately, due to facts beyond their control, many people do not have these opportunities: no matter how hard they may try, there's no possibility for them to secure an adequate standard of living. International human rights law can change this unfortunate gap between what is and ought to be, primarily by giving individuals a claim-right and others a corresponding obligation.

I will discuss the human rights law related to individual development. Contrary to what many people seem to think, the human rights to development and food are maturing and may, together with the increasing recognition of the individual as having an international legal personality, lead to interesting international claim-rights in the future.

So what is this universal human right to development and food? The first document that is usually referred to is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to this non-binding Declaration, everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, and this includes adequate food and other essentials (Article 25). Moreover, everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which this right can be fully realized (article 28). An international order which prevents billions of people from securing an adequate standard of living, is thus an order that violates the human rights of billions of people (this is Pogge's argument).

However, this Universal Declaration is non-binding, and thus not helpful for individuals who wish to claim something. It may be better to refer to binding international treaties, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which is binding on all 149 member-states (the US is not a party). In Article 2 of this Covenant, member states undertake to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, to the maximum of available resources (which means?), with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in that Covenant. One of the rights recognized in the Covenant is the the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger. In order to safeguard these rights, member-states shall take measures individually and through international co-operation to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need (Article 11). As yet, individuals cannot send complaints to an independent monitoring body when they believe their rights are violated, but this may change in the future, and then both the particular state and the international community as a whole could be held responsible (see E/CN.4/2004/44).

If individuals can ever hope to claim an opportunity to secure an adequate standard of living for themselves and their familiy, then the universal human rights to an adequate standard of living, food and human development, must be developed further. In 1986, the General Assembly adopted the (non-binding) Declaration on the Right to Development (with the US casting the only dissenting vote), which stated unambiguously that the right to development is an inalienable human right. More recently, the Millennium Declaration was unanimously adopted by the then largest-ever gathering of world leaders (189 member-states, most of them represented by heads of state and government). In the Declaration, the world community pledged to “spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected. We are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want.” In an address to the recently established Human Rights Council, Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggested that perhaps the Council’s most important task was to “make the 'right to development' clear and specific enough to be effectively enforced and upheld”. To do so, the Human Rights Council has a special Working Group on the Right to Development.

Meanwhile, as the world is exploring the exact meaning of these human rights and the ensuing responsibilities, and the obstacles and consequences that may follow the recognition of a claim-right for individuals, the US sticks to its own position: in 2002, the US Government made a reservation to a declaration on food. According to the US Government, “the attainment of the right to an adequate standard of living is a goal or aspiration to be realized progressively that does not give rise to any international obligation.” That position seems a bit oldfashioned nowadays.

The first picture is from the Center for Economic and Social Right's website, the second from the Food and Agriculture Organization's website. The final picture is taken by a friend in Geneva.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Illogic of Suicide Terrorism

By Richard Norman

How should we feel about Islamist[1] suicide terrorism? There are two main camps of thought. The first suggests that it is an asymmetrical weapon employed by the oppressed and otherwise powerless. The second believes it is an irrational, reprehensible act. (Those who claim it is a politically “understandable” tactic belong to the first camp)[2].

The debate about Islamist suicide terrorism takes place in deep and muddy waters. This water is muddied by, among other things, growing anti-Americanism throughout the world, religion, xenophobia, and exoticism. But if we examine the assumptions underlying common responses to this form of suicide terrorism, we may gain some insight.

To begin with, this is not a debate about mens rea. We are not discussing the question of guilt or intentionality because the suicide terrorist freely admits that his aim is to kill as many civilians as possible (a canard here is that the terrorist may choose to avoid the distinction between soldiers and civilians, claiming both are his enemy). Criminality is established. But as everyone knows there are moral exemptions to criminal liability.

The issue at hand is not intentionality: it is the extenuation of explanation. Just as some extenuate the amorality of a mass murderer by pointing to his childhood of abuse, others point to the courage, dedication, and political rationality of the suicide terrorist. Often such people do not look further than statements made, in the case of al-Qaeda, by Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri. Statements made by these men, which suggest that an aggressive American and Israeli foreign policy is the root cause of global (and particularly Middle Eastern) injustices, often jibes with some in the West who argue for a more peaceful and equitable foreign policy, one that celebrates differences and human rights.

Because they share an argument—American and Israeli foreign policy is responsible for a lot of injustices—some liberals can understand or explain al-Qaeda’s actions (though the vast majority would condemn them). Suicide terrorism is an effect of a cause (unjust American or Israeli foreign policy). The act of suicide terrorism, though clearly criminal, is a rational response to the desperate suffering of the bomber’s people. It is understandable why people would behave in such a way. Furthermore, though they should be condemned, they certainly show a strong commitment to their “cause.” A famous example of this thinking belongs to Susan Sontag, who a week after the attacks of September 11th, wrote that, “In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.”

To confuse courage with delusion, and rationality with the most dangerous sophistry, is a serious error. But this view is quite prevalent, and must be addressed.

Islamic suicide terrorism is not a rational effect of a rational cause. Part of its appeal (distinct from its cause) may be the provision of an enemy—the United States, for example, whose foreign policy may provide a supposed jus ad jihad—but suicide terrorism is caused by (in other words, its object of action is) delusion and the cult of martyrdom. No reasonable reading of the Quran can offer its legitimation. (And even if a reading could legitimate it, this would hardly make it any more rational). The engine driving suicide terrorism is not American foreign policy, but the cult of martyrdom. Without the mechanistic notion of the Islamist’s jihad, nothing causes suicide terrorism. Islamism, as Martin Amis recently wrote in his essay “The Age of Horrorism,” is “varnish on a vacuum . . . ideology superimposed on religion.” It explains nothing but itself.

A suicide bomber may strongly believe that having struck a blow against the infidels and hastened the coming of the great war that will establish the global caliphate, he will ascend instantly to paradise. He may indeed believe this—just as members of the Manson Family strongly believed the commission of their murders would hasten an apocalyptic race war (which would conclude with Charles Manson emperor over all). This analogy is not a spurious provocation. Death is the technique of a death cult.

Suicide terrorism’s effect is no more rational than its cause. It makes no effort to separate those whom it hates (Americans and other infidels) from those it might reasonable—if it had a rational political program—exempt from murder (fellow Muslims). Both were killed in the World Trade Center among people of more than eighty other nations, many of whom were citizens of countries who had never oppressed a Muslim person. This is to say that its violence is more than essentialist (not distinguishing between American soldiers and civilians), it is totalizing: everyone at the scene of a suicide terrorist’s detonation will die no matter who they are or what their creed may be. Its effect is therefore not only disproportionate to its supposed cause, but completely dissonant.

Imagine a man who has been fired from his job, whose wife has left him. He enters his former place of employment and opens fire with an assault rifle. He kills people at the water cooler, people at their desks, people working to feed their families, and finally he turns the gun on himself. We may examine his life, his psychology, his circumstances, in the hopes of understanding him. But do we say he has believed rationally? That no man could withstand such suffering—a lost job, a lost wife—without going on a murderous rampage? No: we condemn in the strongest terms the actions of man whose behaviour made sense only in his own mind. So we should think of Islamist suicide terrorists.

(The picture above shows a bus destroyed by a bomber during the 7 July 2005 attacks on London)
[1]There is an important distinction between Islamism, a violent theological and political ideology, and Islam, a largely peaceful religion.

[2]The American government is often criticized for its rhetorical shiftiness. Some critics suggest that combatants in Afghanistan who were once called Freedom Fighters by President Reagan are now called Terrorists by President Bush, and use this claim to cast aspersions on the moral consistency of American foreign policy. Leaving aside the fact that the Afghan mujahideen were of a very different quality than the Arab “mujahideen,” let’s define our terms this way: a freedom fighter would use violence exclusively against military installations, uniformed soldiers, or political figures (not every person who commissions such action is a “freedom fighter”), while a terrorist uses violence against civilians.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

A Nuclear Iran

By Richard Norman

The reaction to Iran’s 31 August declaration that it would continue to pursue “its inalienable right to the full nuclear fuel cycle” was met with the usual reactions on both sides of the Atlantic. The Americans pushed for targeted sanctions through the auspices of the UN; the Europeans (with whom Iran actually does trade) continued to put their faith in diplomacy.

For nearly four years now—since Iran’s secret nuclear program was revealed by the dissident, Alireza Jafarzadeh—the Americans and Europeans have busied themselves alternately attempting to frighten and seduce Iran into giving up its program (which Iran claims is for civilian energy uses only). For the last four years, in response to this cajoling, Iran has stalled and delayed all diplomatic entreaties, while simultaneously making clear statements that it has no intention of giving up its program.

It is becoming clear that the will simply does not exist to take serious diplomatic or military action against Iran. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest is the civil war now being fought in Iraq. Assuming the present course, the result will be, soon enough, a nuclear Iran. My question is: Why is this so terrible?

The United States is, for the most part, deeply ignorant of Iranian culture and politics, and tends to see Iran exclusively through the lens of the Iranian Hostage Crisis of more than twenty-five years ago (indeed, following President Ahmadinejad's election last year there were suggestions in the United States that he had been one of the actual hostage takers--though the CIA refutes it). Iran, though admittedly a theocracy, is not a totalitarian society; it has strong democratic tendencies and its citizens are nowhere near as dogmatic and illiberal as they are often portrayed. As the nuclear issue began to come to the world's attention, I spent several weeks traveling in Iran--from Tabriz in the north-west, to Tehran, and on to Esfahan--and was again and again reminded that the differences the people of Iran have with the United States and Israel are political and not personal or ideological (though they are admittedly encouraged by official progaganda). Nor is Anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment the product of irrational delusion: it is based on national experience and national interpretations of that experience. Though the United States and Israel are both widely hated and disparaged, there are few, if any, individual politicians or clerics who hope for war with them. What Iranians want is increased respect and self-respect.

There is a tendency among Iranians to see themselves as victims of the West, and not without reason. There are many public reminders of the devastating Iran-Iraq war in which the United States gave support to Saddam Hussein and European countries sold him chemical weapons which were used against Iranian civilians. This tendency, however, does not equal a desire for revenge; instead, it urges self-respect and empowerment. One would expect a vengeful, hell-bent Iran to be rapidly militarizing. In fact it has one of the lowest levels of defence spending per capita in the Persian Gulf.

A look at Pakistan and its nuclear program illustrates how hypocritical (and hysterical) many of the reactions to the “Iranian nuclear crisis” (as it is often called in the United States) are. Pakistan is a state that has sold nuclear technology to the highest bidder; allowed al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives safe harbour in its territory; and has a large, barely suppressed, population of Islamic fundamentalist (more militant than the Iranian mullahs) clamouring to kill the Pakistani president and take over the government. Yet the Americans and Europeans are happy to do business with Pakistan and make no complaint about its continued nuclear build-up.

So what is so bad about Iran? Evidently, not much, as neither the Americans nor Europeans feel inspired to do anything more than hand-wring and practice rhetoric.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Michel Houellebecq and Modern Tourism

By Otto Spijkers

Michel Houellebecq was born in 1958 on the French island Réunion, in East-Africa. His parents soon lost interest in him, and thus he was raised by his grandmother who lived near Paris; Houellebecq now lives in Ireland. Houellebecq reached world fame when he published Les Particules élémentaires (“Atomized”, published in 1998), a novel about two half-brothers who are detached from society in two different ways. This book was followed by Plateforme: au milieu du monde (“Platform”, 2001), about international tourism (more on this book below), and most recently La Possibilité d'une île (“Possibility of an island”, 2005), in which Houellebecq paints a picture of the future.

Houellebecq describes the detachment and lack of belonging often associated with present day life. In Plateforme, the book about modern tourism, Houellebecq writes:

Qu’avais-je, pour ma part, à reprocher à l’Occident? Pas grand-chose, mais je n’y étais pas spécialement attaché (et j’arrivais de moins en moins à comprendre qu’on soit attaché à une idée, un pays, à autre chose en général qu’à un individu). […] Je pris soudain conscience avec gêne que je considérais la société où je vivais à peu près comme un milieu naturel – disons une savane, ou un jungle – aux lois duquel j’aurais dû m’adapter. L’idée que j’étais solidaire de ce milieu ne m’avait jamais effleuré; c’était comme une atrophie chez moi, une absence. (Plateforme, p. 339.)

And thus, since there is no compelling reason for loyalty and attachment to one’s own country, modern individuals attempt to escape. Plateforme is really about people’s desire to flee their own community whenever they can:

Dès qu’ils ont quelques jours de liberté, les habitants d’Europe occidentale se précipitent à l’autre bout du monde, ils traversent la moitié du monde en avion, ils se comportent littéralement comme des évadés de prison. (Plateforme, p. 34.)

What these travelers are looking for is unclear. In any case, tourists always desire to keep a certain distance between themselves and the country they are visiting:

Comme tous les habitants d’Europe occidentale, je souhaite voyager. Enfin il y a les difficultés, la barrière de la langue, la mauvaise organisation des transports en commun, les risques de vol ou d’arnaque : pour dire les choses plus crûment, ce que je souhaite au fond, c’est pratiquer le tourisme. (Plateforme, p. 34.)

Moreover, tourists only show a distant interest in the struggles and difficulties of local life. The problem is that this is no different when these tourists return home; the distance always remains, and thus becomes the general condition, described by Houellebecq as follows:

Il se sentait séparé du monde par quelques centimètres de vide, formant autour de lui comme une carapace ou une armure. (Houellebecq, Les Particules élémentaires, p. 109.)

In the end, says Houellebecq, humans can only be attached to one other individual (partner), or a dog. Not to a community (a country), or an idea. His latest book, La Possibilité d'une île, ends with the description of a journey, undertaken by a future man together with his cloned dog, named Fox, to escape his detached existence and become a community-man again. He fails.