Thursday, December 27, 2012

Happy endings

Sorry, guys. This is not about what you may be thinking right now.
Recent postings on my FB page have prodded me to blog again on the subject of happiness which I have tackled in the past particularly with regard to Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a unique way of measuring national progress instead of the more popular Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The Bhutanese people have long recognized that the GDP as it is currently used by most nations does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of the people.
The average income in Bhutan is about $110 per month, making the kingdom of Bhutan one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Most Bhutanese don’t pay taxes which are only levied on annual incomes less than $2,000. Yet, Bhutan is ranked as the happiest nation in Asia and the eight happiest in the world, despite being one of the world’s poorest.
Bhutan's wheel of happiness. Photo courtesy of Laura Turner Seydel. Click link to view
"What is Gross National Happiness"  as explained in 3  minutes in a video by Morten
But again, this is not about the Bhutan alternative model of Gross National Happiness for there are already many interesting articles describing how it has affected not just the Bhutanese people but also the United Nations which has placed happiness on its global agenda last July 2011. This blog is about happiness from a philosophical reflection, though not strictly from the vantage view of philosophers as we know them. In other words, this is not a highly intellectual essay but simply the down-to-earth observations of an uncomplicated mind.
A friend on my FB page has once asked why we are so concerned about happiness. A relatively harmless question but impudent, perhaps even profane, in these difficult and trying times. Typical of the young who would spin an issue into a process of thought experiment, he would pose questions for the sake of asking, the cerebral luxury of idle minds. There’s no definitive purpose in his asking or throwing an observation, but simply to pick on his friends’ brains to complete a supposedly holistic and analytic examination of an issue, even if the question itself is self-intuitive or plain common sense. To him and others like him, there’s nothing commonsensical about things, and apparently this is what drives him to look at all angles (Euclidean and otherwise) and to examine the history and roots of an event or phenomenon as if he’s learning it for the very first time.
To cite a disingenuous example of this person’s FB posting, this Christmas he enjoined others to remember the original message of this holiday season. According to him, this message is about “hope and unity and struggle against the ills of the world,” as perpetuated by imperialism. When I was young, I also mouthed anti-imperialist slogans as a student activist and later as an actual participant in the national democratic struggle. At least our grievance then against imperialist control and influence over developing societies, particularly by the United States, was well-grounded on easily understandable political issues and the conditions of those times. But today’s anti-imperialist harangue is more or less the ambiguous product of unbridled leftist passion, couched in the hardline language of an ideologue, and shows a gaping disconnect between those who condemn its evils with the existential problems of oppression.
What is really egregious about this young friend’s FB posting is when he attempts to pervert the true meaning of Christmas. Yes, we are all in this struggle against oppression, but this is not what Christmas really means to most of us. The true spirit of Christmas is to share with others our love and compassion, especially to those who are less fortunate. This person has the temerity to greet all his FB friends with “merry, merry all,” a message that is not only lacking of the object of what we ought to be merry or happy about, but is insulting and defiant of the rest of us common folks’ celebratory mood, which he is probably painfully struggling within his own subconscious.
There are many other issues over which he has painted an imposing landscape of his constricted or prejudiced opinions, which by and large project his abject view of the world. Perhaps, the reason why he once asked why people were so concerned about being happy.
There is a good and sensible advice for this young man that I have picked from a message sent in 1739 by Comte de Mirabeau to his friend the Marquis de Vauvenargues, where the former reproached his friend for living from day to day without having any plan for achieving happiness: “See here, my friend, you think all the time, you study, and nothing is beyond the scope of your ideas; and yet you never think for a moment about making a clear plan leading to what should be our only goal: happiness.” Every important political idea has promised, more or less directly, greater happiness. Nothing is there to be embarrassed about because it doesn’t diminish you a bit if you dream of mundane happiness even once in a while. Broadly considered, happiness has always been the main quest of mankind.
One final advice: when you ask whether you are happy or unhappy, always remember that only unhappy people ask such questions. Get a life, and in the words of Bobby McFerrin, “Don't Worry, Be Happy.”
A picture of happiness on the faces of young Bhutanese boys. Click link to view
 images of Charlie Chaplin while  listening to the music of "Smile" by Michael
Jackson, Photo by Jean Timsit.
 As we turn the page to a new year, let’s dwell on some happy endings we have experienced during this year and some wishes that others could also turn into blissful conclusions as well.
Foremost among these happy endings is the non-event Mayan apocalypse of the end of times. Nothing happened and we’re all standing alive, hoping and greeting one another with the traditional greetings of Christmastime. But the actual end of the world could happen one day and perhaps much sooner if we continue not to show respect to the increasingly fragile environment that we inhabit. At least we survived the Mayan prediction and we should be happy about it.
U.S. President Barack Obama has been re-elected for another four years. This is a good reason to rejoice, considered against all odds of what a Romney presidency could bring. To our American cousins in the south, life is the sum of all the choices you make, as the great French writer Albert Camus once said. To echo a familiar line from one of Obama’s speeches, you will all sink and rise as one nation under God. Every American, whether Democrat or Republican, should be happy with the re-election of their president and hope a détente between their bickering representatives in the U.S. Congress can eventually be achieved in order for them to rescue the country from its worst fiscal crisis of all times.
Last June 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi was finally able to receive her Nobel peace prize in Oslo, which she won in 1991 for non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights in Myanmar (formerly Burma). An important symbol in the struggle against oppression, Suu Kyi was under house arrest for more than 15 years. Released on November 13, 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to the lower house of the Burmese parliament last April 2012.
Prince William and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, will soon become parents to a new heir to the British throne. Obviously a happy non-ending even for their naysayers, the blissful life of this royal couple is still a work in progress.
The Seattle Seahawks has found a gem in its quarterback, Russell Wilson. Not picked up during the first round because he stands at 5 feet 11 inches, Wilson is too short for a prototypical N.F.L. quarterback. Against the San Francisco 49ers that appeared like the league’s best team after a road win over the New England Patriots, Wilson threw four touchdown passes, one short of Peyton Manning’s single season rookie record. Who said short people could not throw the football in the big leagues? Doug Flutie already disproved that, and now Wilson is on the road to a great football career.
As much as we have some happy endings this year, there are also some events we hope would as well close as happily.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was found by the court guilty for breaching a conflict of interest guideline and as a consequence, lost the mayoralty. On appeal, Ford hopes to get back his post against the hopes of majority of Torontonians that he’s done for good. It could be a happy ending to Toronto to see Rob Ford out of city hall. Ford, at least, would not run out of choices for another career. He could always bring his confrontational leadership skills on the football field which appears to be the most natural environment for bullies whose bodies are much bigger than their brains.
Darwin, the Ikea monkey that shot to worldwide fame on YouTube, has been ordered to stay at an animal sanctuary until at least mid-January of next year. The famous monkey was found wandering an Ikea parking lot in Toronto wearing a faux shearling coat and seen on YouTube brushing his teeth with owner Yasmin Nakhuda. Darwin’s owners filed a suit to regain custody of the monkey. The owner of the pet monkey claimed that “Darwin is not a dog, he’s not a cat, he’s not lizard. He’s 93 per cent human DNA.” Let’s hope Darwin gets freed to live with his owners happily ever after.
Manny Pacquiao lost to Mexican fighter Juan Manuel Marquez by a devastating knockout in the dying seconds of the 6th round in Las Vegas. Pacquiao’s surprising loss could still turn into a happy ending if only he could accept the nobility in hanging up his gloves for good and focus on politics and humanitarian or civic work, or anything that would not entail fisticuffs on the ring.
A Filipino has recently been appointed by the ruling Conservative government to the Canadian Senate, the first ever for a Canadian of Filipino descent. A senator in Canada has virtually no significant legislative function but serves merely as a formal stamping pad in approving bills passed by Parliament. If he were elected as a city councillor or a member of the provincial or federal Parliament, then every Filipino-Canadian should have a valid reason to be happy, but then he’s not.
As human beings, we don’t have an inexhaustible period of time. We’re not the immortal characters in a Jorge Luis Borges’ story who are unconcerned with their lives or their surroundings. We’re just filling time for now. If we could achieve happiness in our lives here on earth, whether for a long time or short period, then we could tell ourselves that we have lived our lives the way we wanted. Happiness could be that simple.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

America’s other “pop” culture

Pop, pop, pop!, the continuous burst of bullets from a Glock or assault weapon, instantaneously ending the lives of innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time. This ominous sound of pop shows America’s maniacal obsession with guns. Instead of gun culture, they might as well call it more aptly as their other “pop” culture.
Guns have a place in America's culture and history. Canada. Click link to view
CNN's Jonathan Mann reports in "America's Long Standing Gun Culture,"
In America, they shoot their presidents (four successful assassinations – Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy), and of course, innocent little children and just everyone else no matter who they are or how old or young they are. Remember John Lennon, the pop icon? They shot him dead, too. Ronald Reagan was also shot, but his assassin failed.
From Columbine in Colorado to Newtown in Connecticut, all these senseless killings were accomplished through the barrel of a gun. The school massacre in Newtown last week is the absolute worst in U.S. history, twenty little children six years detached from birth, shot to death even before they could have their first Communion or bar mitzvah.
Condemnation after condemnation will not change things as they are. Gun control will never be adequate. The U.S. Constitution is killing Americans, and it’s about time to seriously reconsider “the right to bear arms.”
The Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear arms in the context of a well-regulated militia that is necessary to the security of a free state. This right is valid only insofar as it confers collective right to citizens of the states participating as members of official state militias. For more than 200 years, this has been the law of the land. But the NRA and gun advocates were successful in distorting the Constitution. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in District of Columbia v. Heller that says the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess a firearm, even if unconnected to service in a militia and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. This ruling makes effective gun control in the United States all but impossible.
In an article he wrote concerning the Second Amendment for Harper’s Magazine in October 1999, “Your Constitution is Killing You,” Daniel Lazare, doubted whether the Constitution was “the greatest plan on earth, that it contains notions that are repugnant to the modern sensibility?...Could it be that constitutional faith is not enough to get us through trying times?” Lazare has urged for a serious reconsideration of the right to bear arms but he thought Americans are powerless to change the Second Amendment. “Repealing the Second Amendment would be akin to repealing the four Gospels, the issue is moot,” he wrote.
With the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteeing an individual right to bear arms, there seems no solution to the gun problem within the confines of the Constitution. Banning some kinds of firearms but not others, or limiting handgun purchases, or providing for background checks at unregulated gun bazaars which include Walmart – all will fall short of controlling or wiping out the menace that gun ownership has visited upon the American people.
Imagine if every American citizen would take this right to bear arms for the purpose of self-defence seriously. There’s no need for the police, the FBI, the National Guard or even the army. Each one is responsible for his or her security. Semiautomatics and assault rifles everywhere, this is a sure recipe for anarchy. Then the United States becomes an armed society, no longer recognizable as a civil society. At that point, freedom shall have vanished – which is the ultimate purpose of the Second Amendment.
Lazare, in his more recent book, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of American Democracy, contends that nothing less than a democratic revolution is needed to rescue American politics from growing paralysis and decay. A constitution that cannot be effectively amended by the people is patently absurd. Rather than a constitution that chains the people to the past, Lazare argues that the American people need a constitution over which they can exercise control and which can set them free from the shackles of the past.
In an emotional speech during a memorial service in Newtown last Sunday, U.S. President Barack Obama declared that there was no longer any “excuse for inaction,” suggesting this time may be different. Pundits were quick to compare Obama’s speech to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and others suggested that Newtown may be what Birmingham was to John F. Kennedy in inspiring civil rights action.
But the Obama administration is still saddled with the worst economic crisis the U.S. has faced in generations. The fiscal crisis looms as Obama continues to negotiate with House Speaker John Boehner on a deal that could prevent the government from falling off the cliff when the new year starts. Besides, the Republican-controlled House, whose members are in bed with the NRA, might not be receptive to new gun legislation. So, where does this leave Obama to gather the necessary impetus to embark on meaningful comprehensive gun control without eroding the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment or provoking a near-civil strife scenario led by gun-wielding members of the NRA and its army of followers? Or, does action have to wait a little longer until every American home is equipped with a weaponized drone operated like a PlayStation right in the heart of the living room?

But one thing everyone agrees with after the Newton school massacre is: less talk. Talk is cheap. It’s time for action. No further argument from this blog. Just roll down the images below and see (or feel for yourself) how private gun ownership in the United States has falsely provided every American citizen the ultimate insurance of their freedom.

Cindy Fairchild, of Aurora, Colo., prays below a six-foot cross in honor of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold at Robert F. Clement Park in Littleton. Fifteen identical crosses were planted on a hill in the park, one for each victim of the shootings at Columbine High, including shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Photo by Steve Gorelick.
October 22, 2008 - Reflection Terrace, the memorial to the victims of the Beltway Sniper Attacks at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, MD. Back in October 2002; 2 men murdered 10 people and injured 3 others in senseless acts of violence that took place in Montgomery County, Prince Georges, Prince William Counties, MD; Spotsylvania County, Arlington County, VA, and Ashland, VA. I personally remember this time, it’s one of the events that I will never forget. I still remember the locations of 4 of the shootings, I remember the media frenzy and knowing that you were not safe, everything that you did you had to be always on looking around, be on high alert. Even when pumping gas, you feared for your life. Photo by Dan Dan The Binary Man.

Time Magazine Cover Virginia Tech Massacre. Photo by Hokie Nation

"Together We Thrive for Tucson and America" Memorial Event. January 12, 2011. By nicandx.

Amy’s sister lives about a mile away from the Century movie theater where the Aurora shootings happened on July 20, 2012. We stopped at the memorial one day. There were amazing amounts of flowers, stuffed animals and other random objects that were placed near crosses to remember the 12 killed and 58 injured.  Photo courtesy of Yooper-Cal.
In memory of the victims of the Wisconsin Sihk Temple shooting. Photo by brianneobrien.
The tragic last school picture of first graders who were gunned down by Sandy Hook shooter with their substitute teacher.
Frank Kulick, adjusts a display of wooden crosses, and a Jewish Star of David, representing the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, on his front lawn, Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut. David Goldman/The Associated Press
A cross bearing all the names of the victims of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut December 14, stands at a makeshift memorial for victims of the shootings in Sandy Hook village in Newtown, December 19, 2012. Six victims of the Newtown school shootings will be honored at funerals and remembrances on Wednesday. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Big Brother is watching

Welcome to the new normal.
Starting January 2013, Citizenship and Immigration Canada will implement a host of changes that will overhaul the entire immigration system—from revising the point grid for selection of new immigrants to the new Skilled Trades Stream designed to address labour shortages to facilitating travel to Canada if you’re visiting or working. “These changes are long overdue and will help us move to a fast and flexible immigration system that works for Canada’s economy,” Canada Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced in a recent press release.
Underneath all these new changes is a seemingly harmless but potentially discriminatory policy to require nationals from 29 countries and one territory to provide their biometrics when they apply to travel to Canada to visit, study or work. Requiring fingerprints and photographs, Minister Kenney stressed, is “one of the most effective ways to identify individuals entering the country. By providing immigration officials with greater certainty, biometrics will facilitate legitimate travel to Canada.”
Since the events on September 11, 2001, the biometric community
has made vast technological improvements in protecting the United
States and its borders. Click link to view "Biometrics Since 9/11,"
This new requirement for biometrics applies to all persons from the following countries: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Vietnam, and Yemen.
One can only begin to speculate why these countries were selected, with the exclusion of others. A common thread that binds these countries is the ongoing war or civil strife in their territories that makes them a natural breeding ground for Islamic terrorists and intransigent rebel groups, or for criminals to operate. Right away, biometrics stigmatizes applicants from these countries since there is a putative perception they are being targeted precisely for the purpose of singling out undesirables like those engaged in terrorism or criminality.
Canada Immigration is using code words such as “legitimate travel” and “to protect the safety and security of Canadians” which Mr. Kenney has emphasized in his press release. This means that those who are engaged in terrorism and criminality pose a great danger to Canadian society and should be not be allowed to enter the country. But in identifying a pool of specific countries that should provide biometrics, Canada Immigration is immediately marking people from these source-countries as potentially unwelcome in Canada.
Biometrics has long been used in criminal proceedings, as well as in private and commercial transactions. But the infamy of September 11, 2001 ushered in greater concerns to control and secure the border from unwanted individuals. The U.S. Congress passed the Patriot Act in October 2011 requiring all foreign visitors to provide machine-readable, biometric travel documents, and put into place an entry-exit system to monitor movements to and from the country.
Next year, before newcomers are allowed to step into Canada, their biometric data will be checked to ensure that the individual who was approved to travel is in fact the same person who is entering Canada. The use of biometrics in immigration and border control will bring Canada up-to-date with other countries already using the system which includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, countries in the European Union Schengen Zone, Japan, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia.
Biometrics are physiological or behavioral characteristics used to recognize or verify the identity of a living person. They are digital fingerprints and photographs that are to be embedded in a Canadian visa. Any one of the different types of biometric information can allow border security guards to make rapid and precise, one-to-one (authentication) or one-to-many (verification), identity checks.
There are, however, significant human rights ramifications inherent in the collection, processing and distribution of a person’s biometrics which creates hostility between public policy and the individual’s right to privacy. This friction is now at the heart of the biometrics debate.
Rebekah Thomas, an associate policy and research officer at the Global Commission on International Migration in Geneva and a specialist in international human rights law, has urged policy makers to look at the biometrics debate “from the migrants' perspective because the development of biometric technology is particularly discriminatory towards migrants, both in its application and its effect.”
In When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race, and the Technology of Identity, Shoshana Amielle Magnet contends that very often these technologies fail to work. Magnet is an assistant professor in the Institute of Women’s Studies and the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa. Her study shows that at the moment when biometrics fail, these technologies prove that they work differently and fail to function more often, on women, people of colour, and people with disabilities. Prof. Magnet’s book evaluates the state’s use of biometrics to control and classify vulnerable and marginalized populations—including prisoners, welfare recipients, immigrants, and refugees—and to track individuals beyond a nation’s territorial boundaries.
Things that once seemed like science fiction are now easily usable and can be shared to track immigrants, criminals, welfare recipients or terrorists. In the United States, for example, DNA is now collected from almost anyone who comes in contact with the criminal justice system, and the expansion of DNA collection is becoming a real and serious threat because DNA has the potential to reveal so much information about an individual. The frontier is being stretched and we are not sure which areas could be next.
U.S.  Senators Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham say that a federally issued
ID card with biometric information is necessary to curb illegal immigration to
the United States. Click link
 to view "The National Biometric ID Card: The Mark of the Beast?"
Critics of the use of biometrics in immigrant tracking suggest biometrics should enhance rather than conflict with individual privacy. That it should focus more on preventing identity theft and in providing increased anonymity for the user. Easier said than done because for the most part governments are more concerned with the security and welfare of the greater society rather than protecting an individual’s right to privacy. Privacy is a fundamental human right upheld under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and entrenched in almost every national law. But when it runs in conflict with the greater good such as the state’s security, privacy is usually trumped by public policy that aims to protect the state.
The right to privacy is usually assured through minimum guarantees that personalized computerized data will not be compromised. But these guarantees can be difficult to uphold in the case of biometrics because one of its weaknesses is lack of credibility, whether from error or their vulnerability to interference. When data, for instance, is transferred across different agencies and countries, there is a greater risk that it will trickle into more controversial areas of immigration control, such as tracking and surveillance. This is known as “function creep,” which means data is used for other purposes not foreseen or not consented to at that time it was collected.
Biometric measures are generally criticized for the tendency to discriminate against migrants, partly because of state policy to tackle illegal immigration and as an unavoidable consequence of their contact with borders. Immigrants from Third-World countries, for example those nationals from the 29 countries required by Canada Immigration to provide biometrics, are more likely to need visas for entry, and certain nationals and ethnic groups are deliberately targeted by immigration controls because of fear of terrorism and criminality.
For refugees and asylum seekers, or for just being included in the 29 countries required to provide biometrics, the process of having their biometric information collected may be a terrifying and traumatic experience. As earlier said, belonging to these 29 countries has a stigmatizing effect—the stigma of criminal activity attached to fingerprints or “mug shots,” for example.
Advocates of biometrics argue that these effects are unavoidable in order to ensure border security. Automation of identity checks and consequently raising the level of confidence in border security and immigration controls could reduce the negative myths and stereotypes about migrants and refugees. Traffickers would also be hindered in their attempts to use false identities.
Yet many of these biometric measures target nationals of particular countries who are also entitled to their fundamental human rights. Thus, it becomes more than doubly difficult to balance the policy of the state to secure its borders with the right of the individual to privacy.
A study made by the Global Commission on International Migration in Geneva shows scant evidence from the U.S. and the United Kingdom that biometric technology has contributed to reducing either terrorism or irregular migration. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, more than 200 persons have been arrested since the January 2004 launch of US-VISIT, a program that electronically tracks the entry and exit of foreign visitors using biographical information and biometric identifiers. Those arrested include “convicted rapists, drug traffickers, individuals convicted of credit card fraud, a convicted armed robber, and numerous immigration violators and individuals attempting visa fraud.” After processing over 2.5 million visitors, no terrorist suspects have been caught to date, and these statistics do nothing to change the numbers of migrants who enter legitimately, but who become irregular once inside the country.
Security and human rights, however, are not necessarily incompatible principles. The application of biometric technology can certainly operate within a context that reconciles the needs and rights of both the state and the individual. Achieving the right balance may be elusive at this early stage of biometric applications, but this doesn’t mean that we should give up on our rights to privacy.
Perhaps, the more sensible way is to approach immigration reform and anti-terrorism as two separate and distinct issues. There should be proportionality between biometric data collection and usage and privacy rights. This would make it easier to assess if the measures undertaken are effective enough to justify interference with privacy rights.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A political prisoner’s song

For Toni Morrison, an African-American writer and Nobel prize winner for literature, the crucial distinction is not the difference between fact and fiction, but between fact and truth. “Because facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot,” she writes.
History tells us that repressive governments never waver in denying the truth, until they come crushing down in defeat to the forces of change. Wherever there is repression, there is always a cover-up by those who are culpable. The amazing truth is they almost believe their infallibility, that their crimes against the people would never be exposed.
Take the case of the state of political prisoners in the Philippines, for example.
President Benigno Aquino III has steadfastly maintained that the present government has no official policy on human rights violations. The spokesperson for President Aquino, Edwin Lacierda, speaking on behalf of his boss, said this is so because there are no political prisoners in the Philippines. Remember that this was also the official line of the Marcos dictatorship from 1972 until 1984 when more than 70,000 political prisoners were arbitrarily detained during the martial law period. The same position was duplicated by President Aquino’s predecessors, from his mother Cory Aquino to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Click link to view
"Tanikala at Talinhaga (Chained Metaphors), a doucmentary on artist-
political prisoners in the Philippines, featuring the segment on poet
Ericson Acosta.
Denial has always been the customary practice of repressive governments or states that have no respect for human dignity. Argentina, Chile, Cambodia, Burma and other states that went through a period of repressive rule had denied the existence of political prisoners in their countries. To these despotic regimes, there was only one category of prisoners: prisoners held under criminal law.
Without charging anyone for complicity with rebellion or treason or for participation in any political activity that opposed the government, these prisoners were held for common crimes such as murder, assault, robbery, kidnapping, illegal possession of firearms, disturbing the peace, and other garden-variety infractions.
Karapatan, a human rights non-governmental organization in the Philippines, has found almost 447 documented victims of illegal arrests under the present Aquino government from July 2010 to September 2012. These were farmers and indigenous peoples rounded up by the Philippine military in the fields and forests on the pretext that they were New People’s Army (NPA) soldiers or supporters. During that same period, Karapatan also documented some 401 political prisoners, with 123 persons arrested and detained by the Aquino government.
But the Aquino government deemed these individuals as mere common criminals, who committed crimes against the law, and therefore, must be put in prison. So far, from the time martial law was imposed in 1972 until now, those who have opposed or criticized the government of the Philippines, or who might have participated in political activity opposed to the government whether by peaceful means or resistance, could spend time in jail as common criminals. Yet as common criminals, the irony is they are deprived of their right to a speedy trial to which they are entitled under the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. In fact, they could be detained for as long as the government wants. After languishing in jail, they are released with the charges against them dropped without going to trial.
This was the lasting legacy of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos. A legacy that engendered a culture of impunity by the state – from illegal arrests and detention to torture to forced disappearances and extra-judicial killings. Cases upon cases have been documented by Karapatan and other human rights organizations, yet the government continues to deny that there are political prisoners. Only common criminals, the government insists.
Very recently last week, President Noynoy Aquino must have suffered from a change of heart. He ordered the creation of an Inter-Agency Committee (IAC) to handle cases of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other forms of human rights abuses committed under the previous administration. Note that documented cases of abuses and violations of human rights under the Aquino administration are not covered by this new human rights body.
But why create this human rights “superbody” in the first place?
A month ago in Phnom Penh, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that included President Aquino adopted a human rights declaration that purportedly would enshrine human right protections for the region’s 600 million people. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario called it as “a legacy for our children.” Immediately, the ASEAN agreement came under fire from various critics including the United Nations rights chief, Navi Pillay, who asked that the pact be postponed because of concerns that it might undermine universal rights standards by allowing loopholes for governments.
This didn’t stop President Aquino from jumping the gun and ordering the creation of his government’s new human rights “superbody.” But here’s the catch. Aquino appointed the heads of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) as members of the Inter-Agency Committee (IAC). How could we then expect the IAC to be an independent body when the chiefs of the AFP and PNP are involved in investigating and resolving cases of human rights violations carried out by their own members? How is this body different from the Melo Commission during the Arroyo administration? Recall that despite evidence pointing to members of the military and the police as perpetrators of human rights violations, the Melo Commission exonerated them of any complicity or responsibility for crimes against human rights.
Critics of the ASEAN human rights pact are right in stating that the declaration only lowers human rights standards by creating new loopholes and justifications ASEAN members can use to justify abusing the rights of their citizens. Aquino’s Inter-Agency Committee, other than a mere publicity stunt for the administration’s avowed seriousness in defending human rights, is just another new loophole for the government to absolve the military and the police of abuses and violations of human rights.
If President Aquino is truly sincere with his promise three years ago to uphold human rights, he can begin with a declaration of amnesty to all political prisoners who are languishing in various prisons in the country. But first, he must admit that there are political prisoners in the Philippines. The recognition of political prisoners is essential to a democratic and national reconciliation process. Denial of their political status is a denial of their human dignity.
December 3 marks the International Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners as
detainees around the world raise awareness of their plight and longing for freedom
through poetry reading. Click link
to listen  to Anakbayan-Toronto as they read on Radyo Migrante "Awit ng Bilanggong
Politikal/Political Prisoner's Song,"  a poem written by peasant advocate, Axel Pinpin.
Last Monday, December 3, political prisoners from all over the Philippines commemorated the International Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners with a reading of a poem about the longing for freedom. The poem, “Awit ng Bilanggong Politikal” (Political Prisoner’s Song) was written by Axel Pinpin, a peasant advocate imprisoned during the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration. Pinpin was arrested in Tagaytay City along with four others and spent more than two years in prison before being released without trial for alleged crimes.
Originally written in Filipino, the poem has been translated in seven languages, including French, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian. Pinpin’s poem was read by political prisoners in Quezon Provincial Jail, Laguna Provincial Jail, Camp Vicente Lim, Batangas Provincial Jail, Bicutan Detention Center, Philippine National Police (PNP) Custodial Center at Camp Crame and other detention facilities in Bicol and Samar. High-profile political prisoners in other countries, including journalist Mumia Ali-Jamal, the Cuban 5, punk band Pussy Riot and Kurdistan revolutionary leader Abdullah Öcalan also joined the poetry reading.
Here’s Axel Pinpin’s poem:
Ang pader ko’y di lamang malamig at malagkit,
Nakakwadro rin dito ang latay ng pasakit.
Ang sahig ko’y di lamang marumi at maganit,
Nakaratay din dito ang tisikong inip.
Ang rehas ko’y di lamang kalawang ang galis,
Naglangib na rin dito ang paglayang nais.
(My wall is not only cold and unkempt,
Framed on it is the welt mark of torment.
My floor is not only dirty and roughly done,
Laid on it is my sick boredom
My prison bars do not only have rust for scabs,
Crusting on it are wounds of longed for freedom.)
Wisikan ng tula ang langib ng paglaya!
Wasakin, wasakin ang rehas na sutla!
Wakasan, wakasan ang salot ng pagdusta!
Bumangon sa dilim na ngitngit ang tanglaw!
Banggain, banggain ang pader na ampaw!
Banggain ang karsel na pagtakas ang hiyaw!
(Wash with the salve of poems the wounds of freedom!
Bash, bash down the smooth bars of prison!
Smash, and smash down the pestilence of oppression!
Rise, rise up in the night with the raging light!
Break, break down the weak walls of repression!
Fight, fight back incarceration with cries of emancipation!)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Elections not measure of real change

In his recent column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Conrado de Quiros talked about the wisdom behind universal suffrage. According to de Quiros, had the right to vote been limited to those who have education, we would not have reforms or change, in government or in society at large. “Wealth and power would have remained with the landowners, the slave-owners, the gun-owners, the caciques, the compradors, the owners of fabricas and companias, with no end in sight,” de Quiros wrote.
Election festival in the Philippines. Click link to view "Politics as Entertainment:
Covering the 2010 Philippine elections," a project of the University of the Philippines
Open University, 
That’s putting too much unnecessary weight on elections being the most predominant feature of Western democracy. We have often heard American politicians pontificate that the United States should spread the concept of free elections in countries where democracy has not yet gained its foothold. As if elections were the only thing that matters in a democracy.
Before elections became fashionable, political reforms or social change, as history would tell us, was only achievable through the barrel of a gun, not by the ballot box. The revolutions in France and America and the U.S. civil war brought about radical changes that have become the bedrock of their democracies, and models for the rest of the world to adopt. New independent republics were born through people’s armed uprisings against their colonizers or despotic rulers. Wealth and power, in the political and economic sense turned to be more easily redistributable once revolutions changed societies and restructured the ordering of social relations.
But of course, as nations became more civilized, the rule of law has been established as the foundation of governance, for the majority of countries that have opted for the democratic system. So we have elections to select our leaders and representatives, and this process constitutes the hallmark of our democratic government.
Whether modern-day elections continue to serve the purpose of achieving great political and social reforms remain questionable, however, or at least dependent on how the process is put into practice. The gruesome Maguindanao massacre on November 23, 2009, that was perpetrated by the Ampatuan clan is a grim reminder of how political warlords could subvert the electoral process by means of their private armies, wealth and power. That this kind of aberration in a democracy had actually happened and its recurrence still threaten the so-called free electoral process in the Philippines only shows that elections are a double-edged knife, that it could be both a good or bad thing depending on how it is used.

The massacre of 34 journalists in Maguindanao in November 2009 shocked the
world. What really happened that day; why has so little light been shed on the
killings? Click link to view
"Turning a Blind Eye -- Philippines."

It was in this context that Senator Miriam Santiago made her sardonic commentary on Filipino voters in a talk before a Manila university which then became the subject of Mr. de Quiros’s column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Senator Santiago did not mince her words when she said that majority of Filipinos are “not educated for voting.” That majority of candidates are “not educated for serving” too, she added. The lady senator gave the example of movie stars getting elected in Congress because of the “ignorance of the Filipino electorate.”
Senator Santiago, however, was wrong to ridicule the Filipino masses for being not educated (or schooled, perhaps) for voting, which Mr. de Quiros rightfully debunked. But if Senator Santiago was referring to a level of education (completion of college education perhaps) which she thought every Filipino voter must have achieved before being allowed to exercise the right to vote, then, she could probably be right. With the pervasive level of poverty in the Philippines, way more than a majority of the population have not reached tertiary education or have completed at least a secondary education. But criticizing them for not knowing how to vote only reveals how ignorant even a highly-educated senator like Miriam Santiago could be in appreciating the limits of the electoral process.
The right to choose leaders or representatives in government is not predicated on one’s possession of higher education. If the right to vote is inherent in a democracy, it should be given to all those who have earned that right, regardless of whether a voter is a moron or an intellectual. Every citizen of voting age is a member of a democratic society and should be given the right to exercise the right to choose his or her leaders or representatives in Congress. Attainment of legal age and residence should be enough to qualify a citizen to the right to a democratic vote, all other factors are irrelevant.
This talk about Filipinos not being educated enough to vote is akin to the concept of voter suppression, or disenfranchisement. It has happened during the recent U.S. presidential elections. In Florida, the Republican-dominated state legislature tried to reduce the number of days for early voting, prohibit Sunday voting, and impose a 48-hour time limit on third-party voter groups to register new voters. It was criticized as making voting more difficult, a decision meant to disenfranchise African-Americans and Latinos who were leaning to vote for the Democratic Party. The decision backfired against the GOPs on Election Day as thousands and thousands of voters lined up to vote and had to be accommodated until the following day while the rest of the votes from the other states had already been counted. When the final vote was counted, Florida ended up voting for Obama instead of Romney, but the Florida vote didn’t matter anymore because the election had already been decided by the other states.
In Pennsylvania, the state legislature passed a law requiring voter-identification, which was criticized by some civil rights groups as having the effect of suppressing mostly poor or minority voters—a demographic more inclined to vote Democrat. Photo ID requirements have been opposed by minority, handicapped and elderly voters who don’t normally maintain driver’s licenses.
Senator Santiago is barking at the wrong tree. Instead of putting down the electorate with her condescending remarks, she should sponsor a law in Congress that would tighten the qualifications of candidates for public office, prohibit political dynasty as envisioned in the Constitution, impose stricter and effective term limits, and limit campaign financing to level the playing field. Every candidate for public office must not only be beyond reproach, but must be able to represent or mirror the needs and issues of his or her constituency. If we must have a functioning representative democracy, the leaders and representatives we elect must stand and speak for the interests of their constituencies, not for their own selfish reasons or for the wishes of the special interests that help them get elected.
We have a dysfunctional electoral system that could easily be manipulated by special interests and professional politicians or “trapos.” The level of apathy or a disengaged electorate is a result of the ability of the elite and special interests to control the elections; it’s never the by-product of an uninformed or uninvolved electorate because it is not well-educated enough to vote.
In The Idea of Justice, the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote: “… in understanding the roots of democracy in the world, we have to take interest in the history of people’s participation and public reasoning in different parts of the world. We have to look beyond thinking of democracy only in terms of European and American evolution. We would fail to understand the pervasive demands for participatory living, on which Aristotle spoke with far-reaching insight, if we take democracy to be a kind of a specialized product of the West.”
The old Athenian democracy, where balloting emerged in a particular form, used a process called sortition where nearly all government offices are filled by lottery of full citizens rather than by election. Women, slaves and aliens had no say. Candidates were almost always male, Greek, educated citizens holding a minimum of wealth and status. Yet, even Plato attacked this system which he criticized as putting the state into the hands of ignoramuses unable to distinguish between right from wrong.
How is this different from the system we have now?
We have a senator who plagiarizes and unabashedly maintains his innocence, senators who are children elected on account of their father’s “splendid” legislative record, a congresswoman who was wife to a former dictator and mother to a sitting senator, or movie stars who continue to “act” in their roles as representatives of the people, or a “know-nothing” or “can-do-all” president (depending on which side of the aisle you stand on) elevated to the highest office in the land on the political legacy of his parents. Is this circus the desire and hope of the people who elected them?
“Democracy’s capacity to shock has been its own demise,” wrote A. C. Grayling. We could only wish, for heaven’s sake, the kind of revenge our democracy will bring upon us next time. Perhaps not through the electoral process, and we could just imagine how those who abuse or shamelessly make a mockery of their democratic responsibilities will enjoy being out of power or less in control than they used to be.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Privatizing immigration

It all began with the rapid rise in the number of temporary foreign workers who have been coming to Canada to fill in labour shortages that cannot be addressed by Canadian workers. There is no quota for this type of workers, no upper limits.
There are more temporary foreign workers in Canada over the past decade, more so and rapidly since 2006. Today their ranks outnumber those of economic immigrants.
In 2010 alone, there were 283,096 temporary foreign workers in Canada, doing work that employers claimed there was no Canadian available to do. This is the highest on record, but only slightly higher than the number recorded during the worst of the recession in 2009.
The highest demand for temporary foreign workers comes from Alberta and Saskatchewan, the fastest-growing economies in Canada. But every Canadian province except Newfoundland and Labrador and Nunavut has at least doubled its number of “guest workers” over the years.
In an effort to modernize Canada's immigration process, the Harper government has
introduced several key proposals. The Agenda looks at what the proposals mean for
those coming to Canada. Click link to view "Realigning Canadian Immigration,"
Armine Yalnizyan, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, has observed that this shift to temporary foreign workers or “guest workers” as others call them, is an indication of government’s off-loading of public policy to private sector interests. The public interest which is much broader than employers’ needs is increasingly being taken over by the private sector such as Canada Immigration’s plan to allow employers to define Canadian immigration policy.
While the involvement of employers can help reduce skill mismatches between local economic needs and immigration quotas set by Canada Immigration, there is a clear and present danger in allowing employers alone to determine the workers they are willing to admit because they are intuitively looking for average workers, not skilled labour. Employers are now taking advantage of the temporary work permit program to bring workers for hotels, fast food outlets, janitorial services and factories – typical Canadian jobs, albeit low-paying.
According to Naomi Alboim, Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University, “while the use of temporary foreign workers to address acute skill or labour shortages is justifiable, some employers are using them to fill ongoing vacancies without exploring more durable long-term solutions. This is an illustration of how federal policies which facilitate temporary entry to Canada sometimes have long-lasting detrimental effects.”
Temporary workers come to Canada practically as guests of the employer. Oftentimes, they have very few rights or which they are usually unaware. They have no access to services available to other immigrants, and rarely is there a path for them to permanent residency.
Yessy Byl, a lawyer who volunteers with the Edmonton Community Legal Centre describes the temporary foreign worker program as really about contracting out immigration. “In fact the government is setting the stage for a bizarre non-immigration program because those workers can’t immigrate,” Byl adds.
Now comes the Expression of Interest (EOI) program that Canada Immigration Minister Jason Kenny proposes to install beginning January 2013. It’s a program borrowed from New Zealand and also adopted by Australia last July 2012, which builds a pool of skilled worker applicants that will allow employers to cherry-pick potential immigrants to fill regional labour shortages. By the end of 2014, Canada Immigration expects this pool of candidates to be made available to employers who can screen and choose the workers they would allow to immigrate.
Essentially, this amounts to privatizing immigration. Whether unintentional or not, the present Conservative government seems bent on passing to employers the responsibility for focusing the country’s immigration program towards meeting their labour market needs. To Minister Kenney, allowing employers to determine who they are willing to accept is needed to generate growth for the Canadian economy. In a statement issued last year, Mr. Kenney said “Employers are best positioned to decide who can best fill the open jobs rather than a passive and bureaucratic system.”
Based on the New Zealand experience, the Expression of Interest program is nothing but a paper review of an immigrant’s application, minus the required proof or documents needed to assess the application. An applicant can submit electronically or on paper an expression of interest to apply under the skilled migrant category. The questionnaire that accompanies the application is no different from the same standard questions an applicant needs to answer when applying for immigration. It’s still in a long format that asks for personal information, work experience, job qualifications and educational background. But the application appears to be biased in favour of those who have undergone post-secondary schooling or post-graduate studies in New Zealand, and those who have had work experience in New Zealand. If after a review the expression of interest is accepted, one must score at least 100 points to be included in the pool, then the applicant is required to submit all documentary proof of his or her answers to the questionnaire.
The pace and scope of change in Canada's immigration system in recent years leaves
one breathless. Click link to view
Prof. Naomi Alboim's "Shaping the Future: Canada's Rapidly Changing Immigration
How different is the Expression of Interest system from the current assessment of an application for any of the categories under Canada’s Immigration system? If New Zealand or Australia can accomplish its EOI assessment in 6 months or less, there is no excuse for Canada not to do the same. Except for one thing, there could be more Canadian applications than those submitted for New Zealand and Australia. But it’s not a good excuse if Canada Immigration is really sincere in its objective of reducing or eliminating the backlog of applications, which appears to be addressed by more efficient processing rather than by legislation or by a single ministerial decision.
Remember that all applications for immigration to Canada that were received prior to 2008 have all been wiped out from the backlog. More than 280,000 applications were affected, simply by a sweeping decision of an Immigration Minister, without comprehensive consultation, discussion and parliamentary debate. This also shows unpredictability in Canada’s immigration policy. The fact that changes in criteria can now be made unilaterally by a single minister and imposed retroactively indicates that the rules of the game are constantly changing.
Since the affected applicants had been waiting for seven years for their applications to be considered, they have refused to accept Minister Kenney’s decision to annul their applications. Lawyers for the applicants have asked the court for permission to bring a class action against the government. Lorne Waldman, a lawyer representing the applicants, has said that Mr Kenney's decision is unconstitutional and inconsistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canada’s Bill of Rights.
The Expression of Interest system that is being proposed by Canada Immigration will not fully solve the issue of qualification and employment, especially if the determination is going to be left primarily to employers. While it is the federal government that regulates immigration, provincial and professional bodies play key roles in facilitating the employment of immigrants once they have settled in the country. Today, there is less coordination between professional bodies and industry and the government. Attracting qualified new immigrants with promises of good jobs would be misleading them, more so if they find out that it’s the provincial and professional bodies that really control access to jobs. The sad consequence is that these immigrants become deprofessionalized and are forced to accept jobs in the labour market that either underemploy or deskill them.
More to the point, Canada Immigration is increasingly becoming a slave to the labour market. The reliance on temporary foreign workers who are selected by employers based on their own short-term interests is headed towards a very troubling path. It is a policy that augurs well for the normalization of migrant labour in Canada, but doesn’t bode well for diversity, appalling for the workplace, and could potentially turn immigration into a source of social tension.
Privatizing immigration adds to the growing list of public services that the present Conservative government insists are better delivered and more cost-effective if transferred to the hands of the private sector. Health care, education, social services, utilities, even the prison system, are just a few of those targeted for privatization. The overhaul of Canada’s Immigration system is a clear sign that employers and the labour market are being given the primary responsibility to determine public policy to the detriment of national interest.
Throughout its history, Canada has been a welcoming nation to immigrants, unifying their families and providing citizenship and accepting their full participation in Canadian society. Canada’s radical shift in immigration policy from one that is based on the huge potential of human capital is reversing this trend and pushing Canada downwards to a troubling new direction.