"War is the greatest threat to public health." - Gino Strada, Italian war surgeon and founder of the UN-recognized Italian NGO Emergency

Monday, March 30, 2009

Africa Is NOT A Commodity


The United States' keeps tightening its military noose around the globe. With roughly 1000 military bases around the world, the U.S. has pretty tight control over anything it wants to get its hands on just about anywhere. And while all eyes have been on places like Iraq and Afghanistan, a quiet but serious military expansion has been taking place on the African continent, where the U.S. (under President Bush's order) established the United States African Command (AFRICOM) in 2007. In that same year 20% of all U.S. oil imports came from Africa. Hmmmm...

AFRICOM's mission is to "conduct sustained security engagement through military-to-military programs, military-sponsored activities, and other military operations as directed to promote a stable and secure African environment in support of U.S. foreign policy" (Source: AFRICOM Website). Translation: We are going to establish a major military presence in Africa to expand the (endless) War on Terror, ensure uninterrupted access to oil (and other strategic materials), and counter Chinese influence on the continent.

At the recent Seattle Green Festival I attended a presentation by Dedan Gills and Belvie Rooks, co-founders of Growing a Global Heart, whose presentation was called "Our African Journey: An Odyssey of Remembering, Honoring and Healing Along the Slave Coast of Africa." It was a powerful sixty minutes that, through words and pictures, took the audience deep into the spiritual heart of the African (and African American) people, and the pain and suffering that they have endured in recent centuries. Most importantly, it helped me understand the importance of looking back into history to create a better future, and how to (creatively) work towards a sustainable Africa (and world).

I hope to share more about this couple's work in a future posting; for now I want to focus on a particular quote from Belvie. She said (and I apologize if I didn't get it verbatim) that, "First they sold the Africans as slaves; then they sold the continent." That statement struck me like a ton of bricks. Indeed, besides the selling of slaves and shipping them off to foreign ports, numerous European powers colonized the continent and enslaved the African people right at home. They took all they wanted, and when they were done (or finally forced out) they left countries devastated and impoverished.

The post-colonial history of parts of the continent has been difficult and sometimes bloody, and now the United States seems poised to be a new "occupying" power. AFRICOM is not the way for the United States to "promote a stable and secure African environment" in any way (for the African people). The way to do that is through compassionate, collaborative (non-military) assistance that listens to and honors the needs of communities, regions and nations. Africa (along with its people and resources) is not a commodity! If nations want the continent's resources, shouldn't they pay a fair price and not promote promote poverty, conflict and environmental degradation, or greedy dictators?

If you want to help promote peace and sustainability for the African people, one really important way you can get involved is at Resist AFRICOM, a campaign of concerned U.S. and Africa-based organizations and individuals opposed to the new U.S. military command for Africa (AFRICOM).

Another important point made by Belvie and Dedan was that of the "dismissal of human suffering." To paraphrase Dedan, "the consciousness that created the slave trade is the same consciousness that kills whales and hunts wolves." It is the same consciousness that uses (and abuses) people and their lands to acquire all that we want, while "dismissing" their suffering. No longer can we reduce others in order to justify our actions. Isn't it time to develop a new consciousness out of which can grow a compassionate and just U.S. foreign policy? And isn't Africa (and AFRICOM) a good place to start???

Towards Peace and Sustainability,


Note: The article about AFRICOM (referenced in this post) in Foreign Policy in Focus (June, 2008) by Antonia Juhasz, titled AFRI(OIL)COM is very interesting. It has an interactive map that graphically illustrates oil and U.S. military interests on the continent.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Good Communists/Bad Communists, or Let's End the Cuba Travel Embargo!


Have you ever wondered how the United States government is capable of demonizing one "communist" government such as Cuba while embracing another with open arms, as has been the case with China (for many years). Of course, China is an open and shut case; there is big trade and REALLY BIG money involved. In the case of Cuba, there is a long and dirty history. Oh yes, there WAS money involved way back when companies like U.S. Sugar and United Fruit had a firm footing in Cuba. And, it is a long and ugly story of failed (and deeply flawed) United States foreign policy.

All we tend to hear these days from the corporate media is about Fidel Castro's illness of the month, or whether his brother Raoul will be more friendly to the United States. And for many years, going back to the 60's we have heard about the Cuban exiles who yearn to return to their country (sans Castro). But why are those "exiles" here in the first place, and why did Castro come to power, and why the heck DON'T we allow travel to and trade with Cuba. Well, here's the wacky, abbreviated (one minute) history.

Spain rules Cuba (too close, geographically, for America's comfort). Cubans rebel against Spanish rule in 1895. U.S. holds back at getting involved (at first). Sinking of the U.S. warship Maine creates national clamor. U.S. declares war against Spain; Spanish-American War is over in three months. America companies begin moving in to Cuba - United Fruit, American Tobacco, Bethlehem Steel. U.S. ensures that the Platt Amendment (passed by the U.S. Congress), which allows the U.S. "the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence", is included in the new Cuban Constitution. Essentially, the U.S. controls Cuba without the historic colonial model!

Skip to 1959 - Fidel Castro, leading a rebel force, overthrows the U.S.-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista on New Years Day (Many well heeled revelers immediately flee the country). Castro confiscates land from American companies in Cuba (which, by the way, control 80-100 percent of utilities, mines, cattle ranches and oil refineries, 40 percent of sugar industry, and 50 percent of public railways). U.S. is NOT HAPPY; pulls the economic plug. Where's a country to go??? The Soviet Union. That's all folks. (Thanks to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492 -Present, C2003 for the real story on Cuba.)

Skip to the present. The U.S. has imposed travel restrictions (on U.S. citizens) to Cuba for decades. Currently, tourist travel is banned, and non-tourist travel is extremely restricted. Attempting to read the U.S. State Department explanation of the restrictions is enough to give one a severe headache. And, did you know that Cuba is a totalitarian police state which relies on repressive methods to maintain control??? Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! That quote from the State Department Website could describe any number of countries (that the U.S. DOES allow travel to and trade with, including China.

O.K., Fidel is no saint; but as "totalitarian" states go, he has done some good things for his people (and others too) including instituting a health care system that has resulted in better statistics for a number of important indicators of health than the United States (particularly when one looks at it in terms of per capita expenditures). So just what damage would be done by opening up the gates and allowing free travel to and from Cuba, and then perhaps opening up trade? Might that actually allow the people of our nations to learn more about each other? Might it bring positive change to Cuba over time? And just perhaps it would show the rest of Latin America that the United States is serious about reconciliation with all of our neighbors to the South?

You can learn more about ending the Cuba travel ban at the Latin American Working Group and the Center for Constitutional Rights. And if you think it's time to end this backwards (and unconstitutional) foreign policy, contact your Representative and Senators and ask them to co-sponsor H.R.874 and S.428.

to (and work for) a foreign policy based on a deep understanding of history and what is necessary to build relationships that foster peace.



P.S. - Fun Fact: Did you know that the U.S. is the only country that restricts travel to Cuba?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

BAN the (Cluster) BOMB!


One has to wonder what kind of person sits around designing any one of the many diabolical weapons systems with which the world's armies go around killing people, particularly weapons like cluster bombs. Any kind of bomb is bad in my book. But cluster bombs are particularly diabolical in that by their very nature, design and use, they end up killing and injuring many more civilians (and particularly children) than enemy soldiers.

If you have never seen one in action - and I hope you never do - you are lucky. You must not live in one of the more than two dozen places where they have been used, such as Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Laos, or Kosovo. Cluster bombs are sometimes referred to as indiscriminate killers; but I would disagree with that assessment. By the very design of the bomblets and their high failure rate, meaning that a large percentage of bomblets do not immediately explode, they are attractive to children who, out of a natural curiosity, pick them up. The results are almost always tragic. They are, in a very real sense, selective killers.

The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that in Laos, where the United States dropped loads of cluster bombs until 1973, as many as 11,000 people have been killed or injured.

Real world failure rates for cluster bombs are as much as 30%, and one cluster bomb can contain as many as 2000 bomblets. Do the math!!! Try and picture an area the size of two football fields littered with unexploded bomblets. But instead of well mowed football fields, they are in farmers' fields or in and around villages, and are often difficult to spot.

Getting back to the high failure rate, I don't understand how companies that produce some of the most sophisticated weapons systems can produce a weapon that is such a lemon. Or is it??? Could it be that cluster bombs are actually intended to leave behind many unexploded bomblets in order to keep on killing and maiming? Whatever the intent, it is clear that cluster bombs must be banned, and that is just what the Convention on Cluster Munitions (that was signed in Oslo this last December by 92 nations) will do once ratified.

To get an idea of what life might be like with landmines and cluster bomblets littering our streets, parks and playing fields, watch this YouTube video.

The United States (under the Bush Administration) refused to sign the cluster bomb treaty, but Congress and President Obama just permanently banned the export of nearly all cluster munitions! And now we can help Congress pass the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act of 2009 (S. 416/H.R. 981) that would block use of cluster munitions (by U.S. forces) that leave behind more than one percent of bomblets as duds, and any use in areas where civilians live. It isn't a total ban, but it IS a huge step in that direction.

CLICK HERE to read more about cluster bombs and learn how to participate in the National Call-In Day on March 30th. We want to flood Congressional offices with calls telling them to pass the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act. You can also CLICK HERE to send an email to your senator, and CLICK HERE to email your Representative.

The U.S. has been the World's biggest user of cluster munitions. We are on the verge of joining the nations that have already signed the Convention (and leading by example for a change), and perhaps one day the use of cluster munitions will be only a bad memory. Let's make that happen.



Photo Credits:
Child cluster bomb victim: http://aftermathnews.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/cluster-bomb-victim.jpg

Thursday, March 19, 2009

We Don't Celebrate THIS Anniversary!


Today is March 19, the day that marks the beginning of the invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain in 2003. This isn't exactly an anniversary to celebrate; it IS, however, one to contemplate, and consider just how things really are six years later. Thousands of U.S. troops dead, tens of thousands wounded (both physically and mentally), and God knows how many Iraqis dead, wounded and displaced. Iraq still has inadequate water, sanitation and electricity; it's infrastructure is a mess.

The Bush administration has gone and left the new administration to clean up the mess. Most of the profiteers have finished their work (much of which was never done in the first place) and left with their bags of money, leaving projects that no building inspector in the U.S. would ever have passed (unless seriously on the take). There are alleged plans for withdrawal from Iraq, while the emphasis shifts to Afghanistan. And finally, the American Empire teeters on the verge of collapse due to shear weight of economic gravity.

What is not seen, what is not generally spoken, is that beyond the greed on (and beyond) Wall Street that has taken down huge institutions in a virtual financial bloodletting, there is another behemoth that is taking down the country slowly, but surely. That behemoth is the Military Industrial Complex. The American Empire (as with every empire throughout history) is essentially a military empire that has its tentacles extended around the world, with roughly 1000 overseas military bases scattered all over, protecting U.S. interests (among them, oil and other strategic resources).

But empires come, and empires go. The question is whether this empire will go gently, or will it crash and burn. The previous president fiddled while the empire burned, or perhaps I should say that he built up the fires and kept stoking them for eight years. The new president has his hands full putting out all the fires and trying to prevent the hot spots from flaring up. The fate of the American Empire will quite likely hinge (in large part) on the way President Obama handles the exit from Iraq, and whether he chooses a military surge in Afghanistan or uses the military selectively to protect the assets important to the Afghan people while "surging" assistance with agriculture, education, health care, and other good will measures to really help the Afghan people build their nation.

Here, from Voters for Peace along with September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, are their Top Ten Reasons to End the Occupation of Afghanistan along with their Recommendations for a Changed US Policy. You can read the full report covering all of these issues by clicking here.

Ten Reasons to End the Occupation of Afghanistan
1. US and NATO occupation creates civilian casualties, angering Afghans.
2. Military occupation has hampered humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts.
3. Afghan women continue to face violence and oppression under the occupation.
4. US policy has empowered warlords, drug lords and the Taliban.
5. The occupation contributes to violence and destabilization for ordinary Afghans, including refugees.
6. NATO allies and military leaders are questioning the occupation.
7. US troop casualties in Afghanistan are on the rise.
8. Afghans are calling for a negotiated end to the war.
9. Military escalation will only increase the violence, and potentially lead to a wider war involving nuclear-armed Pakistan.
10. Military occupation of Afghanistan does not curb terrorism.

Recommendations for a Changed US Policy
1. Set a swift timetable for the withdrawal of US and NATO military forces, to be substituted by UN forces for short-term security.
2. Immediately cease air strikes on targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
3. Support negotiations between all parties involved in the conflict, including Afghan women leaders.
4. Reform humanitarian aid and reconstruction funding efforts to prioritize Afghan organizations over foreign contractors. Ensure that funded projects address the needs and requests of Afghans and are not simply pet projects of foreign donors.
5. Invest in long-term aid that increases self-reliance such as sustainable agriculture efforts.
6. Immediately discontinue the use of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which are costly, inefficient, and have militarized the aid process.
7. Standardize, increase, and publicly document compensation to Afghan families and communities affected by US military actions.
8. Sign the treaty to ban cluster bombs, pay for cluster bomb and landmine clean up in Afghanistan, and pledge never to use these weapons again.

If you agree that the U.S. needs to change its policy in Afghanistan, click here to send President Obama your message; let him know what you think. Help him make the best choice!

You can also send your message to your members of Congress to "support economic development, not escalation , in Afghanistan" courtesy of Sojourners.

Wars never bring peace, just suffering and more war. It is time to end the occupations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and really help both countries rebuild and heal. If we can do that, then perhaps one day we WILL have something to celebrate.



Thursday, March 12, 2009

Proposition 8 - The Tyranny of the Majority


The last time I checked, the United States of America was still a democracy, "a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges" (Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009). One might rightly wonder, observing recent events in California surrounding the passage of Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment (by voter initiative) eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry, what is happening to America's democracy these days.

In a nation such as the United States, where a majority of the people can pass laws (such as California's Proposition 8) that apply to everyone, there must be a mechanism to determine whether such laws are reasonable and fair to all, or unreasonable, unfair and intolerable to a minority (as is the case with Prop. 8). Democracy is meant to protect individual rights, and it would seem that in the case of Prop. 8, a minority group's (gays and lesbians) right to marry is on the chopping block.

It seems self evident that the majority is applying a moral standard outside of that which the government, a secular institution, - we are not yet a theocracy in the U.S. - would use to determine whether such a law would even be considered. Of course, the government does mix law and morality, but only to the extent that it applies a moral standard to our mutual protection, such as laws against murder, torture, rape or stealing. The test then... Does it hurt anyone else?

So just what is the problem with lesbian and gay people marrying and raising children? Does it hurt anyone? I think not! So why did so many (Christian) people spend so much time, energy and money to pass a law that seems patently unconstitutional? At the heart of this nation is a commitment to equality for everyone. And so I am hopeful that the legal challenge will hold up, and Prop. 8 will be invalidated, thus protecting a minority group from the tyranny of the majority.

As for those who brought this initiative, as well as the majority of voters (many who evidently claim Christianity) who voted for the initiative, I ask them just what God they worship who tells them to treat any other human being as anything less than a child of God, fully equal in the eyes of God? I have to wonder if most of those same people have spoken out as loudly to prevent the invasion of sovereign nations and the killing and terrorizing of their citizens. Have they spoken out against the death penalty? Have they spoken out against so many injustices that their God (through the lessons taught by Jesus) taught them through his words and actions? Have they?

It is quite likely that America's founders understood the tyranny wrought by Christianity over the centuries through inquisitions and witch trials as they crafted a government that would be separated from religious influence (at least in terms of making laws). Although imperfect, our nation upholds the value that all people are created equal and should enjoy equal rights under the law. Anything less would be an injustice, and there can be no peace without justice.

Towards Peace,


P.S. - You can learn about the challenge to Proposition 8 by clicking here.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Proposition 8 - The Plot Sickens


The French mathematician and physicist, Blaise Pascal, once said that "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction." One of my greatest frustrations (in working within the church as an advocate for peace and justice) has been the ability of people who claim to follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to (seemingly) so "completely and cheerfully" try to reduce the humanity of their fellow children of God.

I understand that this morning Ken Starr, the dean of Pepperdine University's School of Law, will argue before the California Supreme Court in defense of Proposition 8, and that he will argue against gay families with the claim that there are "substantial adverse consequences for children that often flow from alternative household arrangements." Pepperdine University prides itself on being a "Christian university committed to the highest standards of academic excellence and Christian values."

That anyone would argue against people exercising their human right to engage in a private, loving relationship in which they choose to raise children amazes, but does not surprise me. That Christians would do so simply repulses me; it is antithetical to the life and teachings of Jesus. Beyond that; when the church starts meddling with the state, attempting to pass laws that cross the line between church and state, it walks a slippery slope.

Perhaps the centuries of empire invading the sanctuary have muddied the waters, confusing Christians about that dividing line, which, in the United States is as much about protecting the state from the influence of the church as it is about protecting the church from the influence of the state. Is the ongoing persecution - and this IS a form of persecution - of those with a sexual orientation that does not please some akin to the Inquisition, and other religious-based episodes of persecution throughout history? Is it not really just hate repackaged by misguided religion?

I wonder how my fellow Christians can expend so much time, energy and money on this issue when there are other issues that beg our attention and action – hunger, famine, war, disease, nuclear weapons, refugees, slavery, HIV/AIDS, violence against women and children, homelessness, and destruction of our environment to name a few. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, an outspoken advocate for human rights, when given an award by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in 2008, apologized on behalf of his church for ostracizing gay people; he said, "How sad it is, that the church should be so obsessed with this particular issue of human sexuality when God's children are facing massive problems — poverty, disease, corruption, conflict... "

We could go around forever arguing the finer points of Biblical writings on homosexuality, so instead I offer the words some interesting words spoken by a rabbi on the subject of homosexuality in 1994. "Here I must confess that I am an agnostic about homosexuality. I don’t know why the commandments in Leviticus are there. I don’t know whether homosexuality is a genetic predisposition or not. I do not know whether it is a sin or not. In short, I only really know enough to know that I can’t judge people who are gay. But I do know that God would certainly approve if, in my confusion, I chose to act godly by being accepting of gays and lesbians…For our God is, above all, understanding and merciful. It is no sin to err on the side of love" (from A Biblical Approach to Homosexuality, Statement by John J. Shaffer, Pastor, Stanwood United Methodist Church, June 23, 2003).

I, for one, have seen so many "substantial adverse consequences for children that often flow from" what would probably be considered by Ken Starr to be normal "household arrangements." And I have seen relationships between same sex couples in which they have raised children (with love and nurturing), and without "adverse consequences". In a world that is falling apart due to the evils of greed, lust for power and hatred, isn't it time for those of us who call ourselves Christians to become who we say we are?

If we truly follow Jesus, then do we not do as Jesus did and embrace all people with love, understanding and mercy? Is the movement to exclude homosexuals from full participation in the life of both the church community and the greater community moving us closer to or farther from the world that God wants us to create? Anything less than full inclusion is unacceptable in the eyes of a compassionate God; and in my life I choose to follow (as best I can) in the path that Jesus (and the likes of Archbishop Tutu) walked. And if I err, I will do my best to "err on the side of love."

Learn about END THE LIES at the Human Rights Campaign, and sign the petition to Ken Starr challenging his actions. While there, you can learn about other struggles around the United States to obtain and maintain equal rights, and perhaps get involved in advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equal rights.

After all; doesn't real peace require equal rights for all people? Why can't we ALL "completely and cheerfully" sow seeds of compassion (and justice) with such conviction.

Towards Real Peace,


Check out the Human Rights Campaign at http://www.hrc.org/.

Photo Credit:
Proposition 8 Protest in Boston City Hall Square, Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bethaleh/3032584185/.