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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Senate Panel Approves Syria Strike

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution authorizing President Obama to use military force against Syria. It limits U.S. involvement to a total of 90 days, with no American troops on the ground for combat operations. The 10-7 vote has cleared the way for a full vote in the Senate, likely next week.  The House Foreign Affairs Committee, however, seemed to be divided. Obama’s national security team argued that a strike was necessary as deterrence against using weapons of mass destruction. Obama himself said Syria was a test of U.S. credibility (all other credibility-destroying US actions and in-actions notwithstanding).

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch announced Syria was using cluster bombs, which send dozens of bomblets over an area the size of a football field. Many often fail to explode on impact, essentially becoming miniature land mines.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the West against taking unilateral action in Syria, while Sweden actually did something helpful and granted blanket asylum to all Syrian refugees.

Mexico’s Senate Passes Major Education Overhaul

Mexico’s Senate voted 102-22 in favor of a sweeping reform of the notoriously dysfunctional public education system, backed by President Enrique Pena Nieto. The reform introduces a standardized system of test-based hiring and promotion that will break the teachers’ unions’ stranglehold on school staffing. This included the corrupt sale and inheritance of teaching positions, whereby positions were ‘inherited’ by the teacher’s children or sold to the highest bidder. More than 90% of Mexico’s education spending is for staff compensation, while only 47% of children graduate and the average student-teacher ratio is 25-1.

The bill initially brought Nieto up against Mexico’s largest teacher’s union, SNTE, but after its head was arrested on corruption charges in February, the union did not protest the bill. A smaller union, CNTE, still opposes it despite concessions that education advocates say undermine some of the bill’s key goals. CNTE has been on strike for over a week, paralyzing parts of Mexico City and leaving hundreds of thousands of children in Mexico’s southern states without teachers.

Sri Lanka Slides Back Toward Authoritarianism

Sri Lanka has been under heavy international pressure to end human rights abuses, four years after the end of its bloody civil war against the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels (Tamils are a majority in northern Sri Lanka, but a minority nationally).

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement after she visited the country, saying the people she had interviewed had been harassed and intimidated, both before and after they met with her. Her statement also accused the government of undermining democracy and eroding the rule of law. The Sinhalese-controlled central government defended its actions, citing “terrorism and Muslim extremism” that included the “winning of international opinion for the separatist cause.” 

It has also moved to curtail the existing powers of the northern provinces, causing the Tamil National Alliance to demand federal representation.  The government has yet to investigate the deaths of 40,000 civilians during the final months of the war, whom it allegedly lured to ‘no fire zones’ and then massacred.

South Korean National Assembly Backs Lawmaker’s Arrest

For the first time since it became a democracy, South Korea’s National Assembly has voted (overwhelmingly) to charge a lawmaker with treason. The left-leaning opposition lawmaker, Lee Seok-ki, is accused of plotting to overthrow the government should war break out with North Korea.

South Korea’s spy agency has accused Lee of holding two secret meetings in May during which he plotted with 130 members of his United Progressive Party (some drunk and with children) to start an armed rebellion in support of North Korea. For some reason, presumably.

The case has rekindled two deep-seated fears in South Korea: a North Korean rebellion and an intelligence agency that arrests political opposition leaders under the pretext of hunting Communists.

Afghanistan’s Guantanamo

Despite the fact that control of the notorious detention center in Baghram now belongs to Afghan authorities, dozens of inmates detained by the United States for “enemy actions” remain imprisoned there, without charge. As with Guantanamo, many of those prisoners have been cleared for transfer or release, but the U.S. has been unable to negotiate their release or return to their home countries.

Human rights advocacy group, Justice Project Pakistan, found in its report that “there is absolute confusion on what needs to be done to bring these people home” and criticizes both US and Pakistani authorities for leaving the detainees “in a legal black hole.” The detainees do not have independent lawyers, but must instead be represented by U.S. military lawyers and cannot see any classified evidence used against them.


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