4.27.2015

The Battle for Food: Winners, Losers and Victims

The battle for control over what's in our plate. It's all in a new book I just reviewed - 5 stars on Amazon, an excellent read, I highly recommend it. I did a review for Impakter magazine that you will find here and here's the opening on Impakter:

http://impakter.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/cover1-1050x509.jpg

THE BATTLE FOR FOOD: SMALL FARMERS VS. BIG CORPORATIONS: WHO WINS? 

BOOK REVIEW BY CLAUDE FORTHOMME

Food Security Governance, Empowering communities, regulating corporations by Nora McKeon, Routledge’s Critical Security Studies, February 2015. $38.
The battle between rural communities and big corporations is a modern replay of David vs. Goliath. And it’s a battle that concerns all of us, as Nora McKeon, a political scientist and the author of three books on the United Nations and civil society, reminds us  in her latest, just-published book, Food Security Governance. She  reveals the complexities of the world food crisis and provides a unique chronicle of how this battle landed at the United Nations.
The book opens with a vivid account of the food riots that erupted around the world in 2008 when spikes in food prices sent thousands of people protesting in the streets, from Cairo to Lima. And it reminds us that such episodes will happen again and again as food price volatility has become a permanent feature of our food production system.
algeria food rio
Hunger – especially in developing countries – is only one of the recurrent problems. Others are rising food waste, greenhouse gas emissions, health problems like obesity and diabetes that affect all of us in the developed world.
The rest on Impakter, click here.





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4.21.2015

The GermanWings Crash: Did the Suicidal Pilot Deserve a Candle?

It is surely a sign of our times that we delicately talk of "pilot suicide" when in fact this German Wings pilot killed 149 people along with himself when he slammed the plane in the mountainside. In any other society, at any other time in History, this would have been called a homicide. In plain English: murder.

So far, only the New York Times has come out with a really outstanding article about this tragedy, apportioning responsibility where it belongs, in particular to Lufthansa's management - that overlooked the danger signals regarding this pilot when he was in training, "haltingly" going through the process as the Times put it (it took him several years with many unexplained stops).

As far as I know, no media in Europe has done as good a job of probing into this problem of "denial of risk of pilot suicide", and if I'm wrong about this, please signal it in the comments. All I see is that Lufthansa took the position that it was "not required" to report the pilot's "depression" to the aviation authorities (see related article below).

The New York Times attributes this "denial of risk" to Germany's culture of privacy: in the German view, if you have health or mental problems, these are a private matter and you don't need to share information. Fine and well. Until you threaten, as the experts say, "aviation safety". More bluntly: until you kill human lives. Then perhaps, privacy cannot be used as an excuse.

Moreover, I'm not sure it's just a question of privacy. There is something else at work here.

Consider the non-denominational memorial ceremony organized by German Wings and held five days ago in the Cologne Cathedral in memory of all those who died in that tragic crash. It was attended by the German President and Angela Merkel, as well as all family members, rescuers and German Wings personnel. A moving ceremony with 150 candles lit for each victim.

150 candles?

Forgiveness was extended to the pilot and he got his own candle. When you think that he snuffed out, among others, the young lives of many exchange students and two renowned opera singers - all innocent people who deserved to live a full life - one cannot help but wonder. What is the meaning of forgiveness? What kind of society is it that celebrates the memory of a man who has taken along with his own life, the lives of 149 innocent people? Yes, of course, the answer is: a forgiving society. A tolerant society. The Cardinal urged forgiveness for the depressed pilot...

What is your opinion? Did he deserve a candle? Does anyone dare say what they feel?


Source: UK Guardian, photo: Action Press/REX Shutterstock


4.15.2015

Sometimes You Just Have to Let Yourself Go...

Sometimes you have to leave behind the pains of the world, the pressure of work, your responsibilities to all your loved ones and... take a walk! Breathe deeply, take a few steps outdoors and then some more, and yet more, for an hour or two, until, for a few heady moments, you feel FREE...

That's exactly what I did a few days ago, it was a cool spring day on Lake Trasimeno, in the heart of Italy - a lake that straddles Tuscany and Umbria. It wasn't at sunset (like on the cover of my book "Crimson Clouds"), it was midday. A cold wind was blowing but the sun shone bright, the birds sang, and horses happily grazed in the fields. Here are some of the images I took on my smart phone that I want to share with you, starting with the lake:


This is Isola Polvese - an island that is a natural reserve - and the shot is taken from high up. In fact, we had driven up to the small, medieval village of San Savino, with its characteristic tower:


 You can glimpse the lake in the back, to the right. The tower dates back to the 12th Century and is part of a fortress - not a place you can actually visit, people still live in it. Here it is:


The castle was restored - or rather rebuilt - in the 14th Century. You can learn more about San Savino here, and if you want to spend sometime in the village, you can even rent small flats with great views - but be warned, the place is so small that there are no shops, no restaurants or cafés and that, in Italy, is very rare. Most villages have at least a café. But you're very close to the Lake and the pleasant little town of San Feliciano, from where you can take a ferryboat to Isola Polvese.

We took a walk around the back of San Savino, going beyond the nice, old cemetery and found this jolly horse:


He quickly noticed us and came up:


After that encounter, we felt ready for lunch and drove back towards Perugia  - ten minutes - to the Osteria dell'Olmo, a Seventeenth Century villa turned restaurant. The setting is a pleasure, the dining room with a fireplace is particularly nice in winter:


Overtime, the food has had its ups and downs but now they have a new chef and we ate very well, a superb steak and fried spring potatoes with the skin on, very tasty. But more complex menus are available:


And they have a delightful coffee machine dating back to the 1920s (don't worry, it's not in use!):


Yes, the person in the mirror is me, bent on taking this picture...

In summer, you can eat outdoors, not the case that day (much too cold). But when we looked outside for the restaurant owner who had disappeared in the course of our meal, we found him busy taking care of a herb garden he had recently laid out on the terrace in neat white boxes:


Gardening is an Italian passion!

4.04.2015

Chasing the Flame...

This week leading to Easter was an authentic Via Crucis for some 300 innocents massacred  by demented people: half of them were hapless tourists flying on Lufthansa's low cost GermanWings, the other half, university students in Kenya who were shot and decapitated because they happened to be Christians.

The Pope had unforgettable words on Holy Friday for the Christians who were killed and for all the senseless violence permeating our society. Referring to the Christ's Via Crucis, he said "In you, divine love, we see also today our persecuted brothers and sisters, decapitated and crucified for their faith in you, before our eyes and often with our complicit silence.”
Whether Christian or not, let us all agree that we cannot be silent. That something must be done - all of us can do something either at work or on our days off. And I was reminded of Sergio Vieira de Mello from Brazil, a man who dedicated his life to humanitarian causes and was horrifically killed in the line of duty. Samantha Power wrote an unforgettable book about Sergio - a man defined by Stephen Balbach, one of the reviewers of the book, as the "ultimate go-to guy", in his words:
Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil (simply "Sergio" to many) was the personification of what the United Nations could and should be. As Paul Bremer's adviser Ryan Cocker once said, "Sergio is as good as it gets not only for the UN, but for international diplomacy." Sergio was the UN Secretary General's "ultimate go-to guy", a nation builder in the world's toughest spots like East Timor, Cambodia, Kosovo. No one who met him - from George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq War, to the Khmer Rouge, to Slobodan Milosevic - came away untouched by his intelligence, physical bearing, charisma and integrity. It was a major blow to the world when he and 14 other UN staff were killed on August 19th 2003 by an al-Qaeda suicide bomber at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, an event that has become known as the "UN's 9/11".
Yes, another victim of terrorism - one who died twelve years ago. I only recently came across Samantha Power's book about him (it was published in 2008), in the course of researching my upcoming book about the United Nations. And I was immediately taken in by what is in fact a gripping read.

Here is my own review of it (I gave it 5 stars!):
Available on Amazon here
Brilliantly written, with a title that beautifully reflects the thrust of the book, it draws a spell-binding portrait of an idealist, dedicated to his work and the goals of the UN. At the same time, it depicts with deep compassion a very human person, highly likeable in spite of the flaws. The last chapter, reporting the details of his tragic death, makes for a harrowing read, high drama that will bring tears in the reader's eyes - including tears of frustration, because with a little better organization, his life might have been saved.
Yet, it could be argued that the real value of this book lies in another direction, it zeroes in on a phenomenon I have often come across in my 25 years of work at the UN: the rise of a new class of bureaucrats, far from the stereotype we all think of when the word "bureaucrat" comes up. Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian, was a true cosmopolitan, a man who lived beyond any nationalistic allegiance (though he loved his home country) and who truly believed in the supremacy of human rights, as defined in the UN Charter and the Declaration. Here is no bureaucrat attached to red tape and looking forward to week-end partying. Here is a man who worked incessantly, often putting work before family. I can vouch that there are many more like him in the UN system, people who honestly believe that the world should move beyond nationalism if it is ever to achieve peace and prosperity. Such people are "civil servants" in the most basic sense of the term, i.e. serving Society with a capital "s", and Samantha Power reveals in this book exactly how such people come about, what pushes them, what inspires them and frustrates them, in short, how they act and why.


To anyone wondering how and why the UN continues to survive the violent attacks against it, including skepticism about is continued relevance, here is the beginning of an answer: the resilience of the UN system lies largely in the quality of (some) of its staff - people like Viera de Mello. The insights "Chasing the Flame" provides into this little known aspect of the UN is what makes this book particularly important and a must read.

Indeed. I consider this  an important piece of evidence for my own book about the UN, tentatively called "Soft Power, the Real Nature of the United Nations System": Sergio exemplifies the special type of "bureaucrat" that the UN system attracts - people who are idealists, who believe in human dignity and in the value of every human life, precisely the reverse of Daesh assassins or suicidal pilots who criminally take the lives of others along with their own.

I hesitate to say "Happy Easter" but we need to make it happy and hopeful, we need to believe that humankind can be redeemed, that there will be in future many more people like Sergio...So have a Happy Easter, whether you are Christian or not!


3.29.2015

How the United Nations Foresees The Future




The United Nations’ Predictions of War, Disaster and Famine till May 2015: The IASC Early Warning Map

One always thinks of the United Nations as the harbinger of bad news, in particular dire predictions of global warming as the upcoming “Paris Climat”, the next World Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris in December 2015, is gathering steam.

But what is not so well known is that the United Nations plays a major role in the international community in predicting the next emergencies, man-made disasters like war devastation and economic collapse, but also some natural disasters that can be foreseen, like famine caused by  a protracted, on-going drought.

Predictions of this kind are essential to get everyone in the humanitarian community prepared for the next emergency. And in a 2-page document that anyone can find on Internet, there is a map of the emergencies foreseen by the UN for a 6-month period ending May 2015 (this one came out in December 2015 – screenshot):

IASC

Eleven hot spots, eleven areas in the world where chances are very high –close to 100 percent – that people will die in large number soon if nothing is done. It’s an amazingly high number.

The rest on Impakter, click here .

3.21.2015

Click with Compassion

That's what Monica Lewinsky tells us in her moving TED talk that has just come out, a talk that is a call for action against our "culture of humiliation", magnified by the Internet, where, alas, cyber-bullying is too often the order of the day.




You can see her talk here:



It got a standing ovation, a rare event on TED and (in my view) well deserved.

Before that talk, she had written an essay on Vanity Fair (published in June 2014, you can see it here). Titled "Shame and Survival", it is brilliantly written and was even nominated for a National Magazine Award for best Essay Writing. In a way, more than the TED talk itself, it constituted for Monica a real comeback, after over a decade of silence as she tried to rebuild her life. Much of what she says in the TED talk is already there, in the essay.

Two things stand out in that essay: one, the headline picture which shows us a sophisticated woman, eons away from the beret-wearing girl with the blue dress that we all remember:



The other thing is something she quotes towards the end of her essay, a snippet from a "New York Supergals" cocktail party conversation held at a chic New York City restaurant, Le Bernardin, in January 1998, to discuss, a week after the scandal had exploded in the media, what it really meant from a female/feminist point of view. That conversation was recorded by writer Francine Prose and published in The New York Observer under the telling title "Supergals Love that Naughty Prez".

Yes, the feminists took President Clinton's side - and what a coterie they were: writers Erica Jong, Nancy Friday, Katie Roiphe, and Elizabeth Benedict; Saturday Night Live writer Patricia Marx; Marisa Bowe, the editor of Word, an online magazine; fashion designer Nicole Miller; former dominatrix Susan Shellogg; and their host, Le Bernardin co-owner Maguy Le Coze. 

Monica imagines herself participating in that meeting, inserting in their conversation her own remarks in italics - it's an interesting exercise in trying to reshape the past, and I quote it here from the VF article:

Marisa Bowe: His whole life is about having to be in control and really intelligent all the time. And his wife is really intelligent and in control all the time. And the idea of just having stupid sex with some not-brilliant woman in the Oval Office, I can see the appeal in that.

Imaginary Me: I’m not saying I’m brilliant, but how do you know I’m not? My first job out of college was at the White House.

Susan Shellogg: And do you think it’s tremendously selfish? Selfish and demanding, having oral sex and not reciprocating? I mean … she didn’t say, “Well, you know he satisfied me.”

Me: And where exactly “didn’t” I say this? In which public statement that I didn’t make? In which testimony that’s not been released?

Katie Roiphe: I think what people are outraged about is the way that [Monica Lewinsky] looks, which is interesting. Because we like to think of our presidents as sort of godlike, and so if J.F.K. has an affair with Marilyn Monroe, it’s all in the realm of the demigods…. I mean, the thing I kept hearing over and over again was Monica Lewinsky’s not that pretty.

Me: Well, thanks. The first picture that surfaced was a passport photo. Would you like to have a passport photo splattered across publications around the world as the picture that defines you?

What you are also saying here is that the primary quality that would qualify a woman to have an intimate relationship with a powerful man is physical attractiveness. If that’s not setting the movement back, I don’t know what is.

Erica Jong: My dental hygienist pointed out that she had third-stage gum disease.

Shellogg: What do you think will happen to [her]? I mean, she’ll just fade out quietly or write a book? Or people will forget about her six months from now?

Nancy Friday: She can rent out her mouth.

Me: (Speechless.)

Jong: But, you know, men do like to get close to the mouth that has been close to power. Think of the fantasy in the man’s mind as she’s going down on him and he’s thinking, “Oh my God.”

Elizabeth Benedict: Do for me what you did to the President. Do that.

Me: (Still speechless.)

Jong: I think it’s a tribute to how far we’ve come that we’re not trashing Monica Lewinsky.

Mmm, yes, of course they were the feminists of 1998. Times have changed (I hope). What strikes me in all this is Monica Lewinsky's basic contention that "the price of shame" exacted by the Internet is much higher than it would ever have been possible without it.

Hugh Merle's painting - Scarlet Letter
And perhaps that explains why over here, in Europe and particularly in France, as we watched the scandal unfold in the USA, we wondered why American society was reacting so violently to what seemed like a minor case of "sex at work" - hardly something to write home about. I remember we all figured that Americans were over-reacting to their President's philandering out of puritanism; after all, those were the roots of American culture, Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous Scarlet Letter etc.  etc.

But we tended to overlook the fact that in 1998, the Internet was not present in Europe the way it already was in the US. And now that the Internet has invaded Europe (and the world for that matter), the philandering of powerful political figures is no longer taken so lightly. The French have notably changed their mind in how they view President Hollande's whizzing about on a motorbike to see his latest paramour or Dominique Strauss Kahn's sexual pranks.

The Internet does change how people view other people's lives. As Monica Lewinsky says, "how do we cope with the shame game as it’s played in the Internet Age?"

In closing her essay, she tells us that her current goal is to "get involved with efforts on behalf of victims of online humiliation and harassment and to start speaking on this topic in public forums". She has certainly started doing that with a bang and should be congratulated for the courage she is showing in coming out. 

So please, let's follow her advice, let's call on everyone to click with compassion!

3.16.2015

My Life without You

Simone Ruyters - her brushes, one of her paintings
To all my friends and those who enjoy reading my blog: please forgive the silence, my mother passed away on 12 March, she was 101 years old. It's been very painful for her and of course for her family but now at last, she rests in peace. The last time I talked on my blog about her was on the occasion of her 100th birthday, back in 2013, and  I uploaded a page about her, "Ruyters: A Painter's Life", you can see it here (she worked every day until 2009 when she declared she couldn't see well enough to go on). I found it difficult to keep up with my blog and instead wrote a poem that I dedicate to her:


The First Days of My Life without You


The first day of my life without you
I cannot believe it has happened,
Your eyes are closed, your lips don’t move,
You will never smile at me again.
You look so serene in your sleep. Are you still breathing?
I stare at the brown-striped blanket covering your body,
I think I see the cotton threads moving slightly,
But nothing moves.

The second day of my life without you,
The lid comes down over your face.
The Church is dark and peaceful, flowers cover your bier.
This is the last time we are together.
Outside the sun has lit up the spring sky,
Rome looks the way you have always loved it,
You are carried out by four men in a silvery car,
You are gone and I’m left with my tears.

The third day of my life without you,
I see in your house all the things you have loved,
I want to leave them the way they always were,
Yet I cannot, life must go on.
I find your paint box in a corner where you used to work,
The paint has dried in the tubes, unusable.
On the table, your brushes are crowded in pots,
Wooden stems sticking up, like dead flowers.

I don’t want to throw anything out.
I look at your paintings around me, on the walls,
Silent witnesses of your life, they live on.
But I have something more, my memories of you,
Special moments between a mother and her daughter,
Moments that only you and I have lived through,
Moments that will live on as long as I do,
All the coming days of my life without you. 

Simone Ruyters at her easel, fifty years ago

2.28.2015

Getting Close to the "Darkest Hour": Ancient Art Destroyed, Lives Lost, A Voice for Freedom Silenced

We are getting close to Mankind's "darkest hour". The Voice for Freedom, silenced in Moscow on 27 February, was that of Boris Nemtsov. It was close to midnight, he was gunned down not far from the Kremlin, as he was walking home from a radio interview in which he had dared to take Putin to task for his warmongering in Ukraine.

He was a liberal politician, a fighter of corruption, one of the most important leaders in the opposition to Putin. As a young man, he'd been close to Yeltsin, serving as his first deputy minister and many thought that since he was Yeltsin's right arm, he would succeed him; instead, Putin, Yeltsin's left arm, the man picked to spy on several of his colleagues, was the one ultimately chosen - with the catastrophic results we all know.


And of course Putin is behind the failed cease-fire in Ukraine. Merkel and Hollande unwittingly played their part: the agreement they brokered was faulty, the rebels quickly took advantage of the loophole and trapped the Ukrainian army.



As to the situation in Iraq, we can only watch with rising horror as ISIS and like-minded terrorist groups in Libya systematically pursue and behead Christians - putting at stake the very survival of Christians among the Muslims - and, as if this were not enough, destroying ancient art in Mosul, proving to the world that they have sunk to the levels of animals. Yes, indeed, Yeats' poem of the Second Coming, with its image of the beast, comes to mind:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?



The "darkest hour" is the phrase coined by Winston Churchill to describe the desperate moment when Britain stood alone against Hitler, as the Nazi forces invaded France in 1940 and the Soviet Union in 1941. The "finest hour" is perhaps one of his most famous speeches, delivered to the House of Commons on 18 June, 1940 two days after France had sought an armistice.

It is probably one of the world's greatest masterpieces of oratorical art, both defiant and uplifting.

The peroration of that speech, if you substitute references to Britain with the phrases civilization and "human rights", eerily applies to our situation today.

....However matters may go [...], we [...] will never lose our sense of comradeship with the [Christians of the Orient] ... the Battle of [Human Rights] is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of... civilization. Upon it depends our own [...] life, and the long continuity of our institutions... The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.... If we can stand up to him, all [the world] may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
But if we fail, then the whole world, ... including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if [civilization and human rights] last for [another] thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.
What a pity the United Nations continues to be bypassed: our best instrument to avoid war and defend human rights remains sadly unused, as the Big Powers take turns to block the Security Council. 

All we have for now are comments from the UN affiliated organizations. Two stand out:

  • One made earlier by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, a Jordanian prince and the first UN human rights chief from the Muslim and Arab world: reacting to the horrific beheadings perpetrated by ISIS, he implored the Security Council to support efforts to overturn ISIS' “ideology of violence and death” , saying there was no space for it in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No space at all.

  • The other from UNESCO. Irina Bokova, UNESCO's head, condemned ISIS' destruction of ancient Assyrian art "as a deliberate attack against Iraq's millennial history and culture, and an inflammatory incitement to violence and hatred."
as a deliberate attack against Iraq's millennial history and culture, and as an inflammatory incitement to violence and hatred - See more at: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2015/Feb-28/289122-unsc-condemns-isiss-barbaric-terrorist-acts-in-iraq.ashx#sthash.3VLKW3P0.dpuf
The head of the U.N. culture, education and science agency UNESCO, Irina Bokova, also condemned the destruction of artifacts in the Mosul Museum.
"I condemn this as a deliberate attack against Iraq's millennial history and culture, and as an inflammatory incitement to violence and hatred," she said in a statement.
- See more at: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2015/Feb-28/289122-unsc-condemns-isiss-barbaric-terrorist-acts-in-iraq.ashx#sthash.3VLKW3P0.dpuf
The head of the U.N. culture, education and science agency UNESCO, Irina Bokova, also condemned the destruction of artifacts in the Mosul Museum.
"I condemn this as a deliberate attack against Iraq's millennial history and culture, and as an inflammatory incitement to violence and hatred," she said in a statement.
- See more at: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2015/Feb-28/289122-unsc-condemns-isiss-barbaric-terrorist-acts-in-iraq.ashx#sthash.3VLKW3P0.dpuf


Naturally, the Security Council also condemned ISIS, but it continues to debate the situation in Syria with no resolution in sight, because of Russia's and China's threat to block any action with their veto. Authoritarian regimes band together to trample human rights, no surprise there. 

This week, in a New York Times Op-Ed aptly titled "Unshackle the United Nations", Amnesty International vigorously called for the Big Powers to stop using their veto when human rights were at stake. "2014 was a catastrophic year", it said, listing human rights abuses in 160 countries and noting that the Security Council wielded their veto power on the sole basis of "vested interests and political expediency."

Wounded Syria girl treated at a hospital. See NPR article
The world has become more dangerous than ever, a dark place. Very sad...