North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Friday, June 22, 2012

The environmental summit at Rio

A United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) is wrapping up today in in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rio+20 is the conference's short name, meant to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), in the same city, and the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Geography reminder ...

The breathtaking city called Rio de Janeiro

The conference website ( the gathering as "an historic opportunity to define pathways to a safer, more equitable, cleaner, greener and more prosperous world for all." The Rio+20 Conference is one "at the highest possible level, including Heads of State and Government or other representatives, and focused on two themes: (a) a green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication; and (b) the institutional framework for sustainable development." Similar to the conference's short title, Rio +20's closing document and slogan, is also easier to remember than the above mouthful, it is "The Future We Want."

Official opening by Brazil's president Dilma Roussef - tiny figure in red at the front of the room

As with most world conferences of this type, a lot of work preceded the event, and the gathering is really meant to highlight new plans or accomplishments. This conference had seven areas designated to receive priority attention; decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness.

Progressive businesses - typically building products for a green economy - attend the event in droves, some even getting to speak at numerous workshops.

During the actual conference itself, there is a clamor from both invited official guests (Ambassadorial level folks, progressive business leaders, many environmental groups doing substantial work) and uninvited advocacy groups, publicizing their positions on the environment or social conditions. Typically, invited or not, environmental activists will be disappointed-to-outraged at the hypocrisy and stinginess of the world's nations for not doing more, including opening up national purse strings. Nation states themselves jockey for perceived leadership that gives them status as "green and caring."

Speaking at Rio+20, Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace, says he wants hold the financial sector to account.

The more colorful and emotional publicity stunts and parades - that does not mean their causes are frivolous - take place off the summit grounds themselves .

Inside the conference, statements are read and there is some give and take in various forums. With over 100 world leaders present, there are usually some new levels of commitment made - hopefully funding as well - to address the priority areas mentioned above. A draft concluding document (the goal of the conference) had been hammered out by the opening of the conference on Tuesday which set the stage for two days of discussion and amendments. As today winds down, some final negotiations over the wording will be concluded, and the final paper presented.

Very important people (VIPs) from positions worlds apart come together to speak on environmental themes at these conferences:

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, left, greets Sweden's King Carl Gustaf as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon looks on.

Iranian President presenting his vision of a healthy environment ... (sans Israel?)

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be present on Rio+20's final day

The conclusions of the conference will be sorted through during the next week.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

16,000 and counting

It has been nearly four months since a post on Syria and its chaos (February 25, 2012). Unfortunately, nothing has changed for the better, but much for the worse.

A posting from a Syrian opposition communication blog created a graphic that compels us to update the sorrow and death toll there.

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Since February, a number of events or trends have emerged or become clearer ...

The UN Peace Plan

According to Wikipedia, "The Kofi Annan peace plan for Syria or the U.N.-Arab League peace envoy for Syria launched in February 2012, is considered the most serious international attempt to resolve the Syrian conflict in the Middle East diplomatically. The peace plan enforced a cease-fire to take place across Syria since April 10, 2012, though in reality the cease-fire was announced by the Syrian government on April 14. Following the Houla massacre and the consequent Free Syrian Army (FSA) ultimatum to the Syrian government, the cease fire practically collapsed towards the end of May 2012 ..."

So, this peace plan pushed by former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan ended predictably. While one would never dismiss an attempt or repeated attempts to find diplomatic solutions, there is a point at which one must consider this effort in particular, an exercise in futility. With Assad having little reason to think he needed to give up power, and with the opposition receiving little more than faint praise, nearly everyone expected that it would end in failure, though no one would say so. Thus, we were able to listen to the chief proponent Annan singularly providing a lone positive spin on talks, unable to admit any possibility of it not working in order to negate any charges of a self-fulfilling prophecy. (The plan was simply that Bashar al-Assad and the opposition would sit down rationally and negotiate peacefully, UN monitors would come in and monitor, and the conflict would wind down in orderly fashion ...)

UN envoy Kofi Annan, left, and Bashar al-Assad, Syrian President, right, "conferring" on the prospects for peace in Syria ...

As the string of public meetings between Annan and Assad ran its course (along with a charade of positive statements: "hope" seen, monitors to be deployed, etc.) the shabiha - Assad's shadowy militia/gang - orchestrated massacres, shooting families in their homes execution style in Houla a series of villages near the Syrian city of Homs, while Assad's formal forces with heavy weaponry shelled opposition neighborhoods indiscriminately in several cities.

Assad's friends: Iran and Hezbollah enthusiastically fund Syria's Assad in their attempt to build a crescent of power, while Russia honors weapons agreements without regard or sympathy to the use of those weapons against Syria's own people. Both China and Russia declare - continually - that what a sovereign nation does inside its own borders is no one else's business (and these two countries represent a pack of oppressive governments who don't want another instance of an outside force interfering in a sovereign nation's affairs).

Syrian opposition's quiet and timid allies:
Turkey is providing refugee camps and security to over 24,000 Syrians, including some rear base sanctuary for Syria's Free Army elements. But in the past two months, this nation, at one time speaking loudly against its former ally has been quiet. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf state nations are quietly funneling money to the opposition, though up to very recently, no heavier weapons than small arms have been in the Free Syrian Army's arsenal.

Syria's and the world's vulture - Al Qaeda:
Abu Musab Al Suri, one of Al Qaeda's foremost strategists, was recently released from an Aleppo prison, according to an article in the London-based newspaper Al Hayat.

"Mr Al Suri was reportedly captured by the US army in Pakistan several years ago and, oddly, handed over to the Syrian authorities. Now he is out there, but nobody knows where exactly in a very unstable Syria, the writer said. Soon after his release, two bomb attacks hit security buildings in the city of Aleppo, north-west of Syria. Sure enough, Al Qaeda's Iraq branch issued a statement endorsing "jihad in Syria," though not explicitly claiming responsibility for the attacks."

The handwringing, moralizing, declaration-heavy but procrastinating and cautious Western response:
The US and Europe find all sorts of reasons (at least on the surface) to stay out of this one - eerily citing a litany of reasons that also applied to some degree to Libya which did NOT prevent their open intervention.

So here is the status of Syria's woes 15 months later after it began. The only difference is the steady increase in deaths, displacement and the likelihood of a bitter civil war, which would be reported on daily. As we've learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a terrible cost in intervention. But as we've learned in Rwanda and Darfur, there is also a horrific cost of sitting on one's hands.

Going forward - a few new elements

A new face
The Syrian National Council, the main opposition group outside Syria, last week chose Abdulbaset Sieda, a 56-year-old activist who has been living in Sweden for more than a decade, as their new face and perhaps leader. (One of the Western world's complaints is that they don't know who the Syrian opposition "really is," so now they have a person at least.)

Abdulbaset Sieda, the new face of a main Syrian opposition group. His Kurdish ethnicity raises interesting hackles and connections over in Iraq, as well as Turkey...

Time ticking on Turkey-US coordination of patience, patience, and more patience
From a Foreign Policy article, "Ankara and Washington both abhor the Syrian regime’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators. But according to some reports, Ankara is hosting the Syrian opposition and possibly even helping arm it.

In contrast, Obama’s cautious policy on Syria appears to be driven by a desire to avoid three things: the political unknown after Bashar al-Assad, war in an election year, and a new military campaign in a Muslim country.

[Turkey Prime Minister] Erdogan might find it increasingly difficult to tolerate Obama’s “wait-and-see” strategy. For the Turks, slaughter in Syria is not an overseas affair, but rather a tragedy close to home that they cannot ignore.

Turkey’s border with Syria spans 510 miles, crisscrossing ethnic groups and families. Some Turks have loved ones in Syria who are in harm’s way. These constituents demand that Erdogan do his utmost to stop the al-Assad regime from perpetrating its crimes.

And many Sunni Turks, including those in the Ankara government, cannot turn a blind eye to the crackdown because they see the violence as a horrifying case of persecution by the Alawites who run the country.

Such religious sensitivities will be heightened later this summer during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts in late July."

Will, in fact, the holy month of Ramadan (late July) change anything, or is it just another marker along the way?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Egypt's revolution adrift ...

Egypt's 81 + million population, the most among the Arab nations, lives concentrated in cities, towns, and villages along the Nile River.

The fertile delta of the Nile, as it enters the Mediterranean Sea, is lit up with Egyptian life (Israeli population centers to the right)

It has been nearly 18 months now, since Egypt's revolution and the new slogan, "Arab Spring" emerged. Following closely on Tunisia's popular uprising, Egypt's initial resistance was youth dominated and included the strong presence of women. The huge street protests eventually resulted in the crumbling of support for Hosni Mubarak, the strong man ruler of the country for over 30 years. While Mubarak sat in prison awaiting trial on charges of murder stemming from putting down street protests (plus corruption charges and a number of others), a series of elections promised by the military, were held. A new parliament was elected, dominated by Islamists, most strikingly the Muslim Brotherhood which had been banned under Mubarak and whose ideology raises concerns across the Western world. And now, one of two candidates stand ready to take on the formal reins of power in the next few weeks.

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The formalities of the trial of former President Mubarak, as well as a cohort of relatives and close allies.

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Egyptians in their common dress, watched the trial unfolding on TV.

Last week, the trial of Hosni Mubarak and associates concluded. The verdicts were mixed, pleasing very few it seems. Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison, some police officers were acquitted. One Mubarak son was sentenced to time already served, etc. And a variety of street protests began again - not a bad thing in itself as before the population had little opportunity to express itself.

Many protested against Mubarak getting "only" a life sentence

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Others used the occasion to protest against continued military rule. This man holds a placard with script made of spent bullet cartridges "Down with Military Rule"

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Some, looking ahead, protested against Mubarak's former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq being one of the final two presidential candidates.

Indeed, one of the mysteries of the presidential election is that one of the two runoff candidates is actually Mubarak's former Prime Minister. Who is supporting this man with enough votes to challenge the other candidate, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi? Regardless, voting for Egypt's President is scheduled to begin June 16, and the odds on favorite is an Islamist.

The next President of Egypt is one of these two men. Ahmed Shafiq, left, or Mahmoud Morsi, right.

A Canadian Free Press article summarizes it this way, "Now Islamists make up a majority in the Egyptian Parliament. Their presidential candidate, Mahmoud Morsi, is an Islamist. The opposition candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, is from the old regime, a military member and a Mubarak look-alike. Corrupted elections fraught with bribes – votes traded for oil, rice and potatoes—brought them about. All are advocates of Islamic Sharia law, a state religious system having nothing in common with democratic principles, now making the outcome for the people of Egypt a grim reality."

Why so grim an assessment? The world will find out soon what leadership the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to bring. However, one of the darker aspects of this past week's protests was another attack on Friday by a mob of Egyptian men on a group of women who were attempting to highlight rampant sexism in Egyptian culture. The women were groped and beaten, with reports of some being sexually assaulted. An ugly statement - some saying it was a clear message that women would have little social space in the upcoming society beyond that of home.

Egyptian women definitely do NOT have any safer or broader space in Egypt's new democracy.

An AP story describes the situation this way, "Sexual harassment of women, including against those who wear the Islamic headscarf or even cover their face, is common in the streets of Cairo. A 2008 report by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights says two-thirds of women in Egypt experienced sexual harassment on a daily basis. A string of mass assaults on women in 2006 during the Muslim feast following the holy month of Ramadan prompted police to increase the number of patrols to combat it but legislation providing punishment was never passed.

After Friday's attack, many were already calling for another, much larger stand in the square against such assaults.

Another participant in Friday's march, Ahmed Hawary, said a close female friend of his was attacked by a mob of men in Tahrir Square in January. She was rushed off in an ambulance, which was the only way to get her out, he said. After suffering from a nervous breakdown, she left Cairo altogether to work elsewhere in Egypt.

"Women activists are at the core of the revolution," Hawary said. "They are the courage of this movement. If you break them, you break the spirit of the revolution.

Full article at

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Queen's Diamond Jubilee

How many queens, approximately, are there in the world today? Ask google, Jeeves, Wikipedia, and the answer is ... a dozen. Apparently there are two different types of Queens: Queen Consort, and Queen Regnant. Queens Regnant are queens who have the constitutional power, and are actually the ones who were, at some point, first in line to their throne.

- Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands
- Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Great Britain, Northern Ireland, and the Commonwealth.
- Queen Margrethe II of Denmark

Queen Consorts are married to one King or another, and have no power. There are currently 9:

Queen Paola, consort of Albert II of the Belgians
Queen Rania, consort of Abdullah II of Jordan
Queen Silvia, consort of Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden
Queen Sirikit, consort of Rama IX of Thailand
Queen Sofia, consort of Juan Carlos I of Spain
Queen Sonja, consort of Harald V of Norway
Queen 'Masenate, consort of Letsie III of Lesotho
Empress Michiko, consort of Akihito of Japan
Queen Sylvia, consort of Muwenda Mutebi II of Buganda

Queens, regnant or consort regardless, have many ceremonial duties. Here Queen Sirikit of Thailand is escorting Russian leader Putin into a state dinner ...

At the moment, Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth (a very loose grouping of most nations that have some history as a colony of the United Kingdom and keep the connection), is celebrating the 60th year of her reign.

The UK Commonwealth of Nations

Let the celebrations begin - the performers perform, the royal family be seen, the photographers snap, commentators muse, and citizens of all these countries take pride.

Queen Elizabeth, her husband Prince Philip, and a couple wives of her son and grandson respectively

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From the left: the lesser known "royal" Beatrice of York, the well known Kate and her husband William, along with Harry

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Fireworks display

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The finely costumed is perhaps performing a salute ...

Next, its the Olympics in London in July!