Iran, international law, and the bomb

While reading about US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explaining why Iranian nuclear enrichment should be referred to the UN Security Council, I immediately began wondering why such enrichment is a breach of international law. The United States has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), creating certain legal obligations, as has Iran. India, Pakistan, and Israel are non-signatory nuclear powers. For Iran to actually develop nuclear weapons would be a violation of the NPT, but the process of enrichment – even at an industrial scale that could produce enough uranium-235 for bomb making – does not seem to be, in and of itself. Indeed, the NPT explicitly affirms the right of members to develop civilian nuclear technologies, including uranium enrichment.

The much publicized announcement of Iranian enrichment of uranium was about material enriched to the level of about 3.5% uranium-235: the variety necessary for fission bombs. Such bombs require a much higher concentration of uranium-235, in the vicinity of 90%. Without guessing about the ultimate purpose of the program, the present enrichment activity seems to be in keeping with the requirements of nuclear power, rather than nuclear weapons.

When it comes to the United States and their obligations under the NPT, the present scorecard definitely doesn’t look so hot. The nuclear deal with India that President Bush approved and is now seeking Congressional approval for is one such violation, since it includes the provision of nuclear fuel to a state without appropriate controls in place. Likewise, the push to develop new kinds of nuclear weapons is a definite violation of the spirit – if not the precise letter – of the treaty, which stresses the obligation of states to seek disarmament and the reduction of nuclear arsenals.

Maybe it is in the strategic interests of America to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but they shouldn’t try to cloak that as being an enforcement of international law when it is not. More broadly, the United States should realize that using the United Nations at the times where it seems plausible that it might serve their interests, while ignoring it otherwise, seriously diminishes the credibility of their supposed commitment to multilateralism and international law.

All that said, it is certainly possible that Iran is conducting nuclear research with an aim to developing nuclear weapons. If so, evidence of that breach needs to be presented in an open and verifiable way.

Brief comment on Iran

The idea that the United States is planning to attack Iran seems to be gaining currency in the media. Let us hope that this is an intentional strategy of intimidation meant to bolster efforts to deal with the Iranian nuclear program diplomatically. Compared to Iraq – which had been crippled by sanctions and frequent military interventions in the years leading up to the second Gulf War – Iran certainly retains the offensive capability to inflict considerable direct and indirect damage to American and other western interests.

Consider the single possibility of rendering the Strait of Hormuz impassable. Given the sheer volume of oil that passes through there, a disruption could cause severe economic problems worldwide. Between air power and missiles, Iran also has the capacity to strike targets throughout the region. Any military action in Iran would lead to casualties that make the 2000 or so in Iraq so far look like nothing: and that’s just if the strikes are based around conventional forces. There is apparently talk of using tactical nuclear weapons to strike embedded facilities, such as the uranium centrifuge cascade that is supposedly under construction. Even without nuclear weapons, Iran could inflict massive casualties in retaliation for such an attack: an attack that would also be a gross violation of international law and any reasonable code of morality.

Anyone who is as terrified as I am by recent revelations that the United States may be planning an attack on Iran, or who maintains a general interest in the Middle East region, might want to take a look at a new Oxford blog: Middle East Wonks. Among the contributors is my friend and fellow M.Phil student Roham Alvandi, who I was impressed to learn writes about Iran for the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Milosevic’s death

After five years on trial in The Hague, Slobodan Milosevic died in his cell earlier today. On trial for genocide and war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, he is probably the highest profile individual to be put before an international tribunal. Now, despite the thousands of hours in court, the funds expended, and the various difficulties overcome, there will probably never be a verdict.

Of course, it may seem superfluous to deliver one after the death of the man on trial. In this case, however, I don’t think that would be true. It is important to show that these kinds of tribunals are capable of dealing with crimes of the extent Mr. Milosevic is accused of committing. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the equivalent ad hoc tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) were the precursors to the International Criminal Court (ICC), a body that is in need of establishing itself as an effective mechanism both for deterring crimes against humanity and for punishing those who violate international law in such egregious ways.

There seems to be no evidence, at present, that Mr. Milosevic died of anything other than the high blood pressure and heart condition that had previously served as the justification for an attempt to have him sent to Russia for treatment. It was a request that was not ultimately complied with. Mr. Milosevic died six days after Milan Babic, a fellow Serb prisoner, committed suicide.

Despite the length and expense of these trials, they serve an important documentary role: providing extensive evidence of what took place in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo during the 1990s. They also allow us to look back on choices like the NATO decision to employ a bombing campaign against Serbia with the benefit of better information than we had at the time. To some extent, that uncovering, sorting, and verifying of information has already taken place for the series of wars embodied by the Srebrenica massacre. Hopefully, even without the conviction of Mr. Milosevic, that will serve to make us collectively wiser in the future.

Attempt to spark discussion

Relatively good news this week: The American armed forces have said that they will close the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Of course, with Guantanamo Bay and less well known detention centres in operation, this may be more of an exercise in public relations management than a demonstration of a genuine commitment to human rights.

Relatively bad news: President Bush struck a nuclear deal with India, largely sweeping away the restrictions put in place following its testing of nuclear weapons. The deal is evidence that the period of condemnation following the development of nuclear weapons is relatively short and likely to be truncated for short-term political reasons. Also, like the failure to pursue the reduction of existing weapons stock and experimentation on new designs, the provision of nuclear materials to India violates America’s commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

South Dakota passed a law criminalizing all forms of abortion in which the life of the mother is not at risk. Through the inevitable series of court challenges, the issue will once again be presented to the Supreme Court, where a danger exists that the legally questionable but highly important precedent of Roe v. Wade will be overturned.

For no particularly good reason, the bid of DP World, a firm from the United Arab Emirates, to buy P&O Ports, owner of six major ports in the United States, has been withdrawn due to political opposition. The Dubai-based company would have been subject to the same security requirements as American firms. This outcome seems to be a reflection of the kind of generalized hostility towards the Muslim world that exists in the Western liberal democracies, despite the efforts of leaders to stress that their objection is to terrorism, not to Islam.

Music and frustration: copy protection schemes

Chained pig, BathHaving spent the last few minutes explaining to a friend why a brand-new, legitimately purchased CD will not play in her computer due to the copy protection EMI has included, I am reminded of my considerable indignation about how the music industry is treating their customers. Yes, in this case, it was possible to disable the copy protection program just by holding shift as the CD was inserted into a Windows computer, but there is no guarantee at all that music you buy today is either usable or safe.

In the worst case, such as the notorious Sony BMG rootkit, inserting a legitimate music CD into your computer intentionally breaks it. It also causes it to report what you listen to to Sony, even if you choose ‘no’ when a screen comes up asking for permission to install software. It also creates really sneaky back doors into your system that can be exploited for any number of purposes, by Sony or random others. While Sony is currently facing lawsuits for this particular, infamous piece of malware, it isn’t nearly enough to put my mind at ease. If some 16 year old had written something comparably dangerous, they would probably be in jail.

Legitimately downloaded music is little better. Songs you buy from the iTunes music store may work with your iPod today, but they won’t work with another portable player. They won’t even play in software other than iTunes, and there is no guarantee that they will still work at some point in the future. Spending a great deal of money on songs from there (and they’ve just had their billionth download), is therefore probably not very wise. You don’t actually own the music you are buying – you’re just buying the right to use it on someone else’s terms: terms that they have considerable freedom to change.

Personally, I will not buy any CD that contains copy protection software. I will not buy a Sony BMG CD, regardless of whether it does or not, nor will I be buying any of Sony’s electronics in the near future. This is a business model that needs to change.

Conservatives and Canada: Gay Marriage Redux

Prime-minister-designate Stephen Harper has pledged to introduce a resolution asking MPs whether they want to reopen the controversial [same sex marraige] debate, and promised it would be a free vote in which MPs can choose a side according to their conscience rather than their party.

-The Globe and Mail

Parliament does not have the power to legislate minority rights on a case-by-case basis, as though laws pertaining to them are the same as any other kind of legislation. Minority rights are subject neither to the whims of public opinion nor the maneuvering of politicians: that’s the whole point of the Charter and a central tenet of tolerant liberal democracy. One of the most intelligent things Paul Martin did as Prime Minister was to stress this. MPs who say they will “vote according to the wishes of their constituents” should be ashamed of themselves for either misunderstanding or publicly misrepresenting the nature of minority rights.

The importance of a government choosing to overturn such a law extends beyond the same-sex marriage debate itself. It speaks to the possibility of a socially activist government of a kind that is neither well suited to Canada nor justified by the results of the election. In that way, I am especially glad for people who elected NDP members of Parliament, who I expect will be particularly effective at countering the Conservatives when they step too far.

I think that the complete failure of the Conservatives to win seats in Canada’s three biggest cities: Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver demonstrates the limitations of their perspectives on government. The same irony comes up in the United States, where you see people in places least likely to be directly affected by terrorism most concerned about it and those least exposed to matters like immigration or same-sex marriage most threatened by it. ‘Traditional values’ do not deserve an equal hearing when they are fundamentally oppressive, and tolerance for alternative viewpoints does not need to extend to the point where they can be allowed to form national policy.

I don’t think Stephen Harper will be stupid enough to shift policy too far to the right on social issues. Of particular importance is the fact that he must be hoping that if he can convince enough Canadians that he is a moderate and acceptable leader, he will be returned with a majority at some point in the future. The way to do that may be to placate your socially conservative supporters with a few token gestures, while actually working to stay close to the political centre.

That said, governmental change is unpredictable. We shall have to see what transpires.

Election Day

The polls in Canada are open, but there is a ban on the media reporting any results until they close in the Yukon and British Columbia: eight time zones away. By the time that happens, at 3:00am tonight, I should already be asleep, with a superb essay for Dr. Hurrell printed and consigned to a neatly labeled envelope.

In short, I am looking for any interesting information from people back home: electoral predictions, observations, celebrations, lamentations – whatever you care to share.

The only personal message that I want to send to people in Canada is to take the trouble to get out and vote. This applies especially to friends of mine. While I know that most of you are going to vote anyhow, it’s worth remembering that the turnout among young voters is just abysmal. Regardless of the outcome, this election is going to change the course of Canadian politics. As such, it seems like a basic democratic responsibility to contribute.

[Update: 6:37pm GMT] As a Canadian citizen running a blog from outside Canada that isn’t hosted inside Canada, I am pretty sure I can report whatever I want – regardless of media blackout laws. While I don’t have any early polling results on hand, here is my personal electoral prediction:

Liberal: 94-96
Conservative: 125-128
New Democrat: 28-33
Bloc: 53-57
Independent: 1

The total number of seats in the House of Commons is 308, so a majority would be 154.

[Update 11:36pm GMT] As I understand the closing of polls and the time zones:

Polls in Newfoundland close in fifteen minutes.
Polls in Atlantic Canada close in just under an hour.
Polls in Ontario and Quebec close in three hours.
Polls in British Columbia close in three and a half hours.
Exciting stuff, but no results yet.

[Update 12:23am GMT] Regardless of your political stance, this is an exciting night. The Liberals have been in power since I was ten years old: more than half of my life. All signs indicate that Canada will have a new Prime Minister tomorrow. What’s this going to mean? It’s a question that feels much more pressing than that of whether world war one confirmed or refuted liberal theory: the topic of tomorrow morning’s seminar.

[Update 12:47am GMT] For the moment, at least, it seems that both ProAlberta and Captain’s Quarters (blogs that had declared an intention to publish polling results as they come in) have been overwhelmed by the number of people attempting to access them.

This probably marks the high point in worldwide interest in Newfoundland for at least the last couple of years.

[Update: 2:06am GMT] People have been posting numbers in the comments which, as I understand it, is fine as long as you’re outside Canada. I haven’t seen any numbers myself that I have any reason to believe are credible. In less than an hour, the real numbers will be released by the CBC. Personally, I will be waiting for definitive coverage.

It also seems that Radio Canada International is, intentionally or not, already streaming polling information. It’s only available in RealPlayer or Windows Media format, so I cannot listen. Since the real results will be coming up soon, there really isn’t much point.

[Final Update: 2:21am] The best numbers I can see are up at The Surly Beaver, which is running from London. If you don’t want to wait 39 more minutes for CBC results, scoot that way.

[Super Final Update: 3:02am GMT] The CBC numbers are up. Here are the preliminary figures: Elected, (Leading), Vote share

Conservatives: 12, (75), 34.99%
Liberals: 18, (52), 38.31%
Bloc: 1, (28), 1.55%
NDP: 3, (20), 22.00%

It felt really good to be part of the media for a while, but I am happy to let the pros take over now.

A heretical position, indeed

Thinking back to my days of university level debate – days which might not have ended, had the Oxford Union been more reasonably priced – I remember how, at tournaments, you would often see teams huddled in the hallways, frantically pouring through a magazine in search of something to talk about. Almost invariably, that magazine was The Economist.

Last night, while trying to fall asleep, I read one of their articles that embodies all the reasons for that. It’s controversial, even extremely so, but also backed by sound and unexpected argumentation. In short, it makes you think. Equally importantly, you could advocate it and never risk seeming a complete fool. On that basis I would suggest that people take a look at this week’s Lexington column, about why the Democrats should abandon support for Roe v. Wade. (It startled me, as well, when I read it.)

The point isn’t to embrace the criminalization of abortion, but to stop having its legality founded upon a ruling that any honest lawyer, judge, or legal scholar will acknowledge as touchy, in constitutional terms. The need to defend this precedent, as well as the desire to attack it, also has the unfortunate effect of politicizing the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court nomination process. Given 80% support for legal abortion in the United States, would the Republicans risk undermining their support and splitting their support base in an attempt to criminalize it?

Like The Economist‘s campaign for the legalization of all drugs, this is a pretty radical idea. While it’s not one that wins me over entirely, largely due to the obvious risks involved, it does represent something that you don’t often see in journalism: getting past the tired talking points of different sides and presenting something new. For that reason alone, it’s worth having a look.

For those who don’t have access to the article linked above, send me an email and I will forward it on to you.

I fought the law and… did fairly well, actually

Out for drinks with ITG

Today was mostly marked with good news. The Justice of the Peace who adjudicated my Translink case gave me a very considerable reduction in my fine: from $173 to a much more manageable $15. After the very brief court appearance, I spent a few hours reading The Economist and then having sushi for lunch with my father, near his office. When I got home, I was pleased to find a letter from the domestic bursar at Wadham College informing me that I’ve been granted a room for next year within the main complex of the College. I will be living in the Library Court, immediately above the College library. As my mother suggested, perhaps this will save the the discomfort of lugging a bicycle across half of England.

The one piece of bad news so far today relates to the fish paper. As E.D. Brown said in an email today:

Our referee was fairly positive about your paper though he felt that it could have been more tightly focussed and had a tendency to wander off into related regions/theories. He also noted that it was based on only a handful of secondary sources. Despite these observations, we might well have accepted your paper had it not been in competition with a significant number of other papers. 

Reading it, the vision of an academic life that has been coming into tighter and tighter focus over the last few months wavered a bit. I am still hopeful that some journal can be found that will be willing to publish it. I always thought it more than a bit ambitious to submit it to Marine Policy in the first place, given my position as an interested neophyte in the subject area.

Last night, Fernando and I hammered together the version of the NASCA report which has been passed on to Allen Sens. It has been duly titled: “Common Threats, Shared Responses.” That’s partly to highlight our determination to make constructive criticisms rather than simply anger them with out uncomfortable undergraduate convictions.

In an hour, I am to meet with ITG – partly to discuss the future of the fish paper and partly as a sendoff. I am looking forward very much to the party on Saturday evening, as well as the hike on Friday morning. Alison and Ashley are both on board for the latter, with thoughtful messages from a few others who had to decline to participate.

Having a conversation and a drink with Ian was interesting, as always. Hopefully, he and Daniel Pauly will find some journal willing to publish the fish paper – once I have appropriately modified it for them. He has, in any case, been brought into the rolls of those who have official knowledge of the blog.

Departure in seven days.