About Scott Martens

Scott is a US-raised Canadian living in Brussels with his American wife. His political background is well to the left of centre, even for Europe, and is very interested in immigration, cultural integration and language policy issues. He is presently working against a deadline on his doctorate in computational linguistics and is on hiatus. Wrote Pedantry, also on hiatus.

Lebanon: So much for a “strong mandate”

According to today’s Haaretz, Israel has abandoned the idea of an international force in Lebanon designed to disarm Hezbollah. What they are now talking about is a 1 km wide “demilitarized zone” along the Israeli border where Hezbollah can’t deploy, enforced by Israeli artillery over the border in Israel.

Since Hezbollah’s rockets go a lot further into Israel than that, this indicates, if the report is true, that stopping rocket attacks is no longer seen as a viable goal for this conflict. And, a demilitarized zone enforced by artillery fire has no impact on Hezbollah’s ability to undertake the kind of border skirmishes that served as pretext for this fight. So, deployment of an international force is becoming not much more than a cover for Israel to declare some form of victory in a conflict they certainly appear to be losing. So much for “strong mandates” and avoiding, in Condoleeza Rice’s words, “temporary solutions”.

Beirut’s Daily Star is offering a more optimistic outlook this morning, suggesting Israel will accept some kind of negotiated trade for its kidnapped soldiers (which it could have gotten in the first place without going to war) and that Hezbollah might agree to stop to rocket attacks on Israel in return for some sort of settlement on the Shebaa farms area, an end to Israeli harassment of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and some other outstanding issues. If either side was going to be honest in making such an agreement, an international force would hardly be necessary to keep the peace. In a true flight of fancy, the Lebanese editorialist sees such an agreement as opening the way to settlements between Israel and Syria, and to addressing Palestinian grievances. Fat chance.

Hezbollah’s chief is openly declaring the intent to continue rocket attacks even while declaring itself open to political discussions to resolve the conflict. He also admits that no one expected Israel to freak out like this. This willingness to discuss options from Hezbollah, and Israel’s apparent willingness to accept reduced demands, might be indicative of an openness to some kind of agreement, as the author of the editorial suggests. But it almost certainly means no meaningful solution.

Again, I have to ask: Why should anyone send troops to Lebanon if the intended outcome is nothing more than a restoration of the status quo ante that led to this war in the first place? If negotiation is supposed to end this conflict without actually undermining either side, then what purpose is served by a peacekeeping force with no mandate to keep the peace? Why should outsiders participate in saving face for Israel and in solidifying what will no doubt be perceived in the Middle East as a Hezbollah victory?

NATO peacekeepers in Lebanon: Why Europe should just say no

For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind – Hosea 8:7

The new American-Israeli proposal for peace in Lebanon is a NATO-led force with a “strong mandate” rather than UN-led blue helmets. “NATO” in this case is a code word for European troops under effective US command, since it must be presumed that American forces are about as welcome in Lebanon as the IDF, and Israel is unlikely to tolerate a strong international force under any independent authority.

It would be an incredibly stupid idea for Europeans to go along with this. The “strong mandate” of such a force would no doubt be the suppression of Hezbollah. Let the Israelis do their own damn dirty work. They lost a war in Lebanon once already, let them lose again. I see no reason why Europeans should have to back Israel up in its campaign of collective punishment against the people of southern Lebanon. “Israel has the right to defend itself” – this has been the mantra of Israeli governments for decades, evoked in defense of every atrocity it commits. So let them defend themselves. Why should Europe intervene in support of a state that targets civilians?
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SWIFT will likely escape criminal penalties in Belgium

Today’s Le Soir is reporting on the conclusions that the Belgian parliamentary committee on intelligence services (the Comité R) seems to be coming to in its closed door hearings on the SWIFT banking information affair (see here and here). The article is in the print edition of Le Soir, and online for a fee.

According to the paper, SWIFT will likely escape criminal sanction, but may face civil penalties if the courts decide they gave the Americans more data than was strictly necessary to fight terrorism. Much of the logic appears to be based on the fact that the data itself is outside of Belgium, in the Netherlands and the USA. Furthermore, it seems likely that SWIFT employees will not face charges for failing to inform the Belgian government of its decision to give the CIA access to its records, since such a disclosure would have meant criminal penalties in the US.

The article also claims that the Belgian National Bank, which was informed of the program, will likely face the most criticism. The bank had decided that since SWIFT’s decision did not affect financial stability, it was not the bank’s responsibility to take any action. The committee, however, seems to have decided that this was a serious error. The National Bank had a responsibility to inform the state and would not have been subject to criminal penalties for doing so.

The committee has also apparently let the state security services and the federal police off the hook for not doing anything, claiming that the first had no responsibility outside of military threats and that the second didn’t know until the New York Times broke the story. As is typically the case in Belgium, the legislation controlling the police’s responsibility is somewhat vague. The federal police are supposed to protect Belgium’s “scientific and economic potential” and no one seems clear on what that means in practice.

Balkenende government falls over Ayaan Hirsi Ali

It seems that this morning Dutch PM Jan Peter Balkenende is visiting the Queen to signal the resignation of the cabinet. The smallest of the three parties in the centre-right government, D66 with six seats, has signaled that it would not continue to support the coalition if Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk retains her portfolio. The cabinet refused, so now they have to resign.

The main coalition partners, the CDA and the VVD (Christian Democrats and Liberals), blame D66 for taking umbrage at a minister who was just doing her job. D66 complains that it did not intend to force a crisis on the government, it just wanted Verdonk to resign.

At the centre of this is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ms Verdonk is something of a controversial character in her own right, but her handling of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s immigration status appears to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. According to Trouw, Ayaan Hirsi Ali finds it “sad” that the cabinet fell over her immigration status.

It’s not clear whether there will be an election forthwith. It seems that Balkenende may be able to form a minority government with just the two main coalition partners, although the lifespan of such a government might be short. Otherwise, Dutch law calls for elections within three months. Polls suggest the centre-right parties do not have the support to come back into government, but it’s close enough that the election campaign might make a difference.

Update: Guy has a much more extensive post on the subject at A Few Euros More, which I didn’t see when I posted this.

SWIFT and European privacy law

Henry Farrell has a good piece up at Crooked Timber on the issues involved in the SWIFT data disclosure controversy. His case is that SWIFT did not, in fact do due diligence under Belgian law when it decided to give its records to the CIA. There is a precedent concerning US efforts to gain access to airline passenger data to the effect that whether or not a legitimate national security reason existed for the disclosure, it was not up to SWIFT to decide on behalf of Europeans.

It’s a good explanation of the issues at stake in Europe, and well worth the read.

A disturbing pattern

I’ve been surprised at the lack of uproar over the discovery that the CIA has been data mining SWIFT transfer archives. I suppose it’s because this is far from the first troubling secret breech of the right to privacy by the Bush administration, and most people – the ones that don’t have large sums of money – generally don’t have any banking privacy anyway. But this new secret program touches a core Bush constituency: white-collar criminals. If Bush is able to secretly monitor transactions in the name of anti-terrorism, a future Democratic government might be able to use it against money laundering and accounting fraud. That’s surely something the Republican Party could never stand for.

SWIFT is headquartered in Belgium, but operates computer centres both in the US and the EU, so the company probably was not in a position to refuse the government’s request. According to page 4 of the original NY Times article: “Intelligence officials were so eager to use the Swift data that they discussed having the C.I.A. covertly gain access to the system, several officials involved in the talks said.” If they were prepared to break in to get the data, there was little to be gained by the firm taking a stand.

But I note in today’s Le Monde something about this affair that I find troubling.
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ICRC admits Israel and Palestine

According to this morning’s news, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent had admitted the Israeli Magen David Adom and Palestinian Red Crescent Society as full members, following the final passage of a text allowing the new “red crystal” symbol. The red crystal looks to me like a red Renault logo, but I guess at least it doesn’t have much religious significance for anybody.
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Somalia: As if the West’s lack of concern could be plainer

So now, according to CNN, the US and various others are now talking about paying for an African Union peacekeeping force for Somaila. They just had some wanker on talking about how Somalia is a place where children don’t got to school, they join militias, where there’s no law and order, where “there’s been too much chaos for too long.”

Gee, fifteen years of it and only now they notice.

Of course, this “Islamic Court Union” seems to be the cause of all this new concern. As long as Somalia was a non-sectarian disaster area, or as long as it was merely unpleasant warlords in charge, it was just too hard to try to fix any of the country’s problems. But if an organization that claims adherence to a religion takes over, well, then we have to do something.

There’s a reasonable case for saying that outside intervention in Somalia is a bad idea – it hasn’t worked really well in the past. And, there’s a reasonable case for intervening on humanitarian grounds – the country really is an awful mess. But I really don’t see how there’s more of an argument for intervention today than there was a year ago. If anything, there’s a better argument against inteverntion. This “Islamic Court Union” seems to be relatively competent at reinstalling law and order, and has not so far (at least to the best of my knowledge) started chopping off hands or forcing women to wear burkas. In that part of the world, that may well be the best realizable outcome. The locals seem to prefer it to the US-backed association of local warlords the ICU displaced.

American Dreamz: When satire doesn’t go far enough

A few months back, I picked up, on a lark, a short French novel called Allah Superstar authored by the pseudonymous Y.B. (generally known to be Yassir Benmiloud, columnist for the Algerian daily El Watan). I bought it entirely on the basis of the excerpt on the back cover:

Une fatwa, voilà ce qu’il me faut pour devenir à la mode. C’est plus rapide que Star Academy, ça dure plus longtemps, tu voyages dans le monde entier, tu donnes des conférences, tu descends dans des palaces, tu montes sur scène avec U2, tu prends le thé avec le pape, une bière ou deux voire trois avec Chirac, une vodka givrée avec Poutine, un cigare humide avec Clinton, une grosse ligne avec Bush Junior, un masque à gaz avec Saddam Hussein, à chaque fois que tu dis une connerie tout le monde entier il t’écoute vu que tu as une fatwa au cul le pauvre, alors que le monde entier il est autant dans la merde que toi vu que c’est bientôt la fin du monde pour tout le monde.

A fatwa, that what I need to get famous! It’s faster than Star Academy [a French American Idol-type show], it lasts longer, you can travel the world, give speeches, stay in palaces, be up on stage with U2, take tea with the Pope, a beer or two or even three with Chirac, a chilled vodka with Putin, a humid cigar with Clinton, snort up a thick line with Bush Junior, share a gas mask with Saddam Hussein, and no matter what stupid thing you say everybody listens because you have a fatwa on your ass, while everybody else is just as deep in shit as you are seeing how the world’s gonna end real soon.

Allah Superstar, written as a monologue in several chapters, follows a young Frenchman of half Arab, half-European ancestry as he tries to become a famous comedian. Ultimately, he is seduced to, well, the Dark Side of Islam, gets his fatwa as part of a fundamentalist plot to make him famous, and when he is finally asked to perform at the Olympia in Paris (think: the French version of Radio City Music Hall) for a special September 11th performance, he blows himself up on stage, killing most of the audience.

This plot is similar enough to the one in the film American Dreamz (which has already been out for six weeks in the States, but only just came out here, and which I went to see this afternoon because, frankly, the World Cup is not my bag) that I wonder if “Y.B.” has considered suing the film’s producers. It’s far from identical, but weaker claims have led to studios to pay up.

But where Allah Superstar is a satire of French society that brings together the desire for fame at all costs, transgressive comedy and fears of terrorism, American Dreamz, directed by the man responsible for American Pie, is merely a little joke on shows like American Idol and President Bush. As satire, it falls far below the potential implicit in its concept.

The rest of this review contains spoilers, so you decide if you want to read it.
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Joe Van Holsbeeck

I’m not sure how much this story has been covered elsewhere, but the big story in Belgium for the last couple weeks has been the murder of Joe Van Holsbeeck, a 17 year old who was killed for an MP3 player in the main hall of Brussels Central train station during rush hour.

I left for vacation in Tunisia two days after the murder and returned just last Saturday, so I missed much of the development of the story. On Sunday, some 80,000 people marched, nominally in solidarity with the family but a little more realistically in response to fears about their security. I want to point out that much of Belgian society has behaved admirably. The victim’s family specifically did not want this to turn into a partisan cause. Almost all sectors of society expressed their horror at this crime without resorting to racialism. I’m actually kind of proud of my land of residence, which is not something that happens very often.

I, however, will not be abiding by the family’s wishes. I have a partisan statement make about this killing.
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