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Guns: world issue hits close to home April 26, 2010

Posted by Dominique Millette in Canada, United Nations.
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One third of all guns in the world are in the U.S. And half the guns used to commit crimes in Canada come from south of the border. So yes, this country needs and wants an International Arms Treaty. “Here in Canada we live next to a country with as many guns as people and those guns are killing Canadians. This is the main argument for an international agreement,” asserted Coalition for Gun Control president Wendy Cukier during an April 22 conference in Toronto.

The Coalition for Gun Control includes more than 300 policing, public safety and violence prevention organizations and was founded in the wake of the Montreal Massacre.

Whether in the Congo or in Canada, every one of the 200,000 civilian gun deaths which occur yearly in the world happens in a neighbourhood. That neighbourhood is connected not only to a community, but to the world at large. To what extent, how often and what can anyone do about it was the subject of the talk, sponsored by York University’s Centre for International and Security Studies.

Guest speakers were Cukier, also Associate Dean at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson; James Sheptycki, York University Professor of Criminology; Kenneth Epps, Senior Program Associate at Project Ploughshares and Detective Sergeant Rob Didanieli, of the Toronto Police Department’s Organized Crime Firearms Enforcement Unit.

“Guns tend to increase lethalization,” Cukier pointed out. As it happens, it’s a women’s issue: the percentage of women killed by partners in the past year was “55 % in U.S., 46 % in Brazil and 25 % in Canada”.

Firearms flow from unregulated areas to regulated areas. This is the case from gun-heavy South Africa to surrounding countries, as well as for the U.S. to Canada. Many guns may come from legal sources but are diverted into illegal use. Regulation addresses this problem by trying to plug the holes. The objectives of an international agreement are to lower the risk of misuse and diversion, as on the national level. The UN Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons seeks to ensure that states prevent illegal possession.

Since most guns in the world are in civilian hands, in non-conflict situations, the human rights aspect of gun control is that states which fail to adequately regulate firearms are failing to protect citizens from gun violence.

Though the impact of regulations is difficult to prove, Cukier asserts there is broad evidence. “The difference between Canadian and U.S. homicide rates (200 versus 10,000) is explained entirely by the difference in firearms,” she observes. Meanwhile, Canadian homicide rates without firearms are only slightly lower than the ones in the U.S.

In Ontario, according to the Advocacy Project, possession or access to firearms is the fifth leading risk factor for femicide. Murders of women with guns are down 60 % in last 15 years alone, which correlates with stricter controls.

Kenneth Epps of Project Ploughshares described the push for an International Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). “National controls vary and are inadequate”, he noted, adding there is a need for common global standards in the face of the impact of irresponsible arms transfers. An ATT would regulate not only civilian weapons but also conventional military matériel.

Negotiations have started in the U.N., and are mandated by U.N. Charter. They also have overwhelming support, from 153 out of 192 countries. In addition to inclusiveness, there is a need for high standards for authorizing transfers, and for effective implementation and transparency. Given the requirement of documentation, tracing and marking, the treaty must provide help for ill-equipped states. Negotiations will start July 2010 and a treaty conference will be held July 2012. The U.S. has indicated its support despite ferocious opposition from the National Rifle Association (NRA) but has required that the conference be conducted by consensus. This raises the potential problem of problem of going to the lowest common denominator, observes Epps.

James Sheptycki described what he termed “pistolization” to describe the social phenomenon of the gun as an everyday item. Civilians own 650 million of the total 875 million combined civilian, law enforcement and military personnel weapons in the world; therefore, pistolization is a major concern. Non-conflict deaths due to firearms are high in many countries. They amount to 39,000-42,000 deaths per year in Brazil, where there are active, violent criminal networks. Meanwhile, the U.S. is the “only advanced industrial democracy in the world with a high rate of pistolization”.

Allowing civilians to bear arms can increase casualties immeasurably. The Virginia Tech shooting resulted in 32 deaths, while the one at Dawson College produced one death, with several wounded. Why the difference? Standing orders. In the U.S., police must worry about crossfire from self-defending civilians, so it takes longer to secure a perimeter. In Montreal, police were able to respond to gunfire immediately, notes Sheptycki.

Meanwhile, outside Canada, pistolization of local cultures affects peacekeepers’ security, development efforts and aid delivery, for example in the Congo. “More research is needed to integrate domestic and international levels of research on pistolization as a public policy issue,” asserted Sheptycki.

Rob Didanieli, Detective Sergeant with Organized Crime Enforcement at the Toronto Police Department, is in charge of the Arms analysis and investigation unit. Last year, 3,000 firearms were seized in Toronto alone. Many handguns are used in crime, since they are easier to conceal and use. Of these, 53 % were sourced to the U.S. and  47 % to Canada, where most were stolen from legitimate businesses.

Didanieli noted that gun running from the U.S. to Canada is a lucrative endeavour. A handgun easily available in Georgia for $300 can be sold on Canadian streets for five times that amount. Since this country is a source of high-grade meth and cannabis, drugs go down and guns come up. The large border is “impossible to police”, said Didanieli, with 300 million people going back and forth just last year.


Canada, the West and the Russian sphere of influence April 13, 2010

Posted by Dominique Millette in Arctic politics, Canada, Canada-Russia issues, geopolitics.
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The Cold War may be over and the First and Second Worlds redefined as the so-called Third World has been renamed, transformed and fragmented, but division of power remains an issue in the post-Communist world. Despite the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Russia clings to imperial dreams and conquests which predate the Revolution of 1917.

Various forces come to play within the cracks of the power vacuum: among them, pan-Islamist ideologies which seek to attract the discontented Muslim populations of Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan, where lie some of the world’s largest oil reserves. The same may be said of the Caucasus. Salafist fundamentalism appears to be gaining ground rapidly in places such as Dagestan, home of suicide bomber Mariam Charipova. The region is now a political powder keg, with the Russian invasion of Chechnya and subsequent interference still an incendiary issue, while local political structures seem to veer into failed statehood. “Everywhere in the North Caucasus there is gross mishandling by local authorities, corruption, human rights abuses… and no one knows how to fix it,” says  David Kramer, Senior Transatlantic Fellow of the German Marshall Fund in Washington D.C.

Canada’s interests in the former Republics of the Soviet Union follow those of the United States to a large extent. Where they differ is that the Arctic becomes more of a concern for us.  Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon will be in Moscow on April 19 and Arctic issues will be on the agenda.

In early April in Toronto, Munk Centre for International Studies invited David Kramer to share his insights on Russia. Kramer was formerly U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and previously, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, responsible for Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus affairs.

Kramer put the blame squarely on the Russian side of the ledger for difficult relations between the U.S. and Russia. As a benchmark, the new START that was signed by the United States and Russia in Prague on Thursday April 8th “was supposed to be the easy part and has taken several years”, he observed. This is despite the fact that, with its arsenal in decline, Russia would have more of an interest in arms reduction than the U.S.

In Kramer’s words, the Russian view of its interests is “zero-sum”: every bit of foreign influence whittles away Russian power. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there’s been a whole lotta whittling going on. President Obama has clearly indicated the U.S. opposes Russia’s attempts to control its neighbours, from its invasion of Chechnya and erstwhile meddling in Ukrainian and Byelorussian elections to the continued Russian troop presence in Georgia and Moldova. Meanwhile, former Soviet Republics such as Georgia and Moldova have applied for NATO membership, as the organization carries out military exercises in the Crimea. Russia views NATO expansion into former Warsaw Pact countries with alarm, as the organization places interceptor missiles in Poland and Romania and proposes a command centre in the Czech Republic. Then there is the EU’s Eastern partnership program, which offers discussion on visa-free travel and free trade, if not outright membership. Russia has accused the European Union of “luring” participating states Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

Kramer noted that efforts to win over or persuade neighbours to comply with Russian interests have backfired so far. These have included a cyberattack on Estonia, banning imports of agricultural products from Moldova and cutting off gas supplies to other republics. At the same time, the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has not borne fruit, as leaders haven’t attended meetings.

Meanwhile, the destabilization in Kyrgyzstan may threaten the Manas Air Base, key to the war in Afghanistan, and therefore American interests as much as Russian ones. One would think this is also the case in Afghanistan itself: Kramer notes that 90 per cent of the drugs transiting from the war-torn region country through Tajikistan stays in Russia, which is now facing a growing drug problem. This is only one aspect of the security issues in the region.

Canada’s interests follow those of the West. However, with respect to Arctic issues, the Harper government in particular has blustered against any potential Russian threat to Canadian sovereignty that could arise due to recent exploration of the sea floor and greater access to Northern resources with climate change. Earlier, a CBC article reported that “Fresh tensions between Canada and Russia emerged Wednesday after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told a session of his Security Council that his country must be prepared to defend its claims to Arctic mineral riches.” At issue: untapped oil reserves, itself a controversial issue in the context of global warming and conservation efforts. During the latest Arctic Summit on March 29 in Chelsea, Quebec, indigenous groups opposed any exploration and exploitation.

To Kramer, the Russians’ zero-sum approach continues in the Arctic but the country “doesn’t have wherewithal to do it. Its fleet is not in very good shape” and the Arctic is a tough environment in which to operate, with incredibly challenging terrain. To him, there may be competition, but “not to the extent that it causes conflict”.

Our place in the post-recessionary world March 25, 2010

Posted by Dominique Millette in Canada, recession, world economy, world finance.
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Because Canada has emerged relatively more unscathed from the Great Recession than its counterparts in the U.S., Europe and Japan, there’s a tendency for some to feel smug. Yet, the recent storm was only a prelude to the gathering demographic tsunami awaiting fiscal policy makers everywhere. That includes Canada.

This was one of the issues to emerge during “After the Meltdown”, the inaugural conference at Glendon College’s Centre for Global Challenges, on March 24 2010.  The panelists: American Nobel Laureate economist George Akerlof,  award-winning Québec economic columnist Pierre Fortin and London School of Economics professor Tim Besley.

Last year, Akerlof published a book called Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism. The gist of his argument, and of cowriter Robert Shiller’s, is that market forces are not governed by entirely rational decision-making as conventional economic theory posits. Originally, Keynes was the first to use the term “animal spirits” in economic theory. It describes consumer and business confidence, but also the key factor of trust. This, as Akerlof argued during the conference, goes necessarily beyond the rational. The resulting conclusion of the book is that only the steady hand of government can effectively counter the erratic pull of emotional overconfidence and subsequent panic.

Fortin, for his part, writes for the Québec magazine Actualité, but is also professor of economics at the Université du Québec à Montréal. He’s won the Gold Medal of the Governor General of Canada and has won national prizes and medals for his articles and his column. His contribution to the debate centred around the need for zero-deficit fiscal responsibility to prepare for both further economic disruption and needed social spending. A big part of that is our upcoming demographic winter, specifically the problem of ballooning health care. In Ontario alone, as premier Dalton McGuinty pointed out earlier this month, health-care funding will consume 70 per cent of the budget in 12 years if left unchecked. Today, health takes up 46 per cent of provincial spending. Meanwhile, the 15-64 year-old population will stop growing in 2025, just 15 years from now; and the 65+ segment will explode. Fortin stated that no amount of increase in the birth rate, or immigration, will change the fundamental imbalance.

One of the problems, of course, is that changing health care costs is a titanic struggle. Québec doctors regularly leave the province for Ontario, which pays twice as much, or for the U.S., which can pay even more. MDs in the U.S. make about $200,000, which is between 2 and 5 times as much as doctors make in other countries. The effect is to pressure Canadian provincial governments into negotiating higher fees with its medical professionals. This is one factor which keeps costs high compared to other developed countries; another, argued Fortin, is health care bureaucracy.

If cost-cutting becomes too great a challenge, revenue generation must take its place. This leads to the issue of comparative productivity: Canada and Italy are the snails of productivity in the G7 countries, asserted Fortin. This lag translates into lower fiscal revenues.

Tim Besley then weighed in with his analysis, which he has also brought to bear as External Member of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee and as consultant to the English Treasury.  He observed that normally, capital would flow from rich countries to poor ones, while before the recent crisis the opposite occurred. This ought to have given us pause. Besley gave an overview of the policy and theoretical failures underlying the crisis: the emphasis on inflation targeting as sufficient for global stability; the rejection of activist fiscal policy — a view he espoused personally, he acknowledged; the dismissal of economic inequalities as inconsequential; and the spread of globalization limiting the power to tax. A major pitfall, of course, was lack of strong regulation, as demonstrated by the shell games major financial institutions played — Lehman Brothers and Citigroup being only two examples.

Other factors created pent-up pressure for the direction ultimately taken by capital flows. For example, current account balances diverged dramatically in recent decades with Germany, China and Japan producing surpluses while the U.S. and U.K. created deficits. This sent borrowed money flowing out of some economies and into others. There was also strong growth in financial liabilities: in Spain and in the U.K., these grew to 200 per cent of GDP by the year 2000. As a result, there was an increase in securitization and related derivatives, instruments at the heart of the recent crisis. Meanwhile, financial sector wages skyrocketed from 1.5 to 4 times the rate of other non-farm sector workers from 1990 to the mid-oughts, which increased the number of people eager and willing to wade into the trough. At the same time, there was an unusual compression of risk premia: by 2004-05, buyers accepted a much lower compensation for risk, which indicated very high confidence. Too high, as it turned out.

All in all, what emerged from this discussion, and subsequent questions, was that global governance and local oversight are major issues for the G20 today — and Canada has an important role to play, though we cannot afford to be complacent within our own borders by any means.

Pearson’s dream withering to nothing February 24, 2010

Posted by Dominique Millette in Canada and multilateralism.
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Canada prides itself on its peacekeeping role, a legacy of Lester B. Pearson’s Nobel-prize winning innovation and advocacy. Today, however, it lags 56th in the world in its contributions to the U.N.-backed international missions. Such a ranking is a far cry from when Canadian forces constituted 10 per cent of the total: “Once the supplier of nearly 3,300 peacekeeping soldiers, Canada now contributes less than one busload, just 57”, states a 2009 document by the Peace Operations Working Group (POWG).

This hasn’t deterred Canadians, and others in the Western world, from viewing intervention as necessary medecine to cure what ails failed states and warring factions abroad. Such is the backdrop to human rights lawyer Ronald Poulton’s book Pale Blue Hope: Death and Life in Asian Peacekeeping, which examines missions and their outcomes in Cambodia and Tajikistan.

Poulton was one of two speakers at a Woodsworth College Alumni Association conference held on February 23, 2010.  He detailed the difficulties of persuading a judge to apply the rule of law in Cambodia, and the challenges of applying due process in a case where men were on trial for killing U.N. peacekeepers in Tajikistan.

According to Poulton, the soldiers he spoke to around the world indicated a dislike of peacekeeping — where often soldiers are unarmed, as are the vehicles they use. Instead, they expressed a desire for more active combat roles. They are certainly getting these in Afghanistan. This outlook, combined with the Defense Ministry’s budget cuts during the Chrétien administration, is what set the stage for Canada’s anemic contributions to U.N. peackeeping missions today. The lawyer-turned author deplores such a development, judging Canada’s noble legacy is worth ressucitating.