All The News That’s Fit to Compartmentalize

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The best way to watch the news is to view it as one single very long continuous meta-narrative that extends over months. What comes packed as “a story” is best thought of as a chapter of that much longer story, where a subplot or supporting character is developed. This way, you don’t fall for the compartmentalization of events that bypasses your logic and skepticism, and start to see the underlying motives and tensions causing events to unfold the way they do.

A story: “Bahrain: takeover of hospitals ‘violation of international law’”. The UN Human Rights chief has declared that the Bahrain’s seizure of hospitals amidst the ongoing unrest there is a violation of human rights. I personally agree that what Bahrain is doing is appalling. Hospitals are non-political entities that should be off-limits. So it’s pretty easy to find yourself agreeing with the UN official here.

Another story: “As U.N. Backs Military Action in Libya, U.S. Role Is Unclear” The UN Security Council voted to approve military action in Libya to deal with the burgeoning civil war there, including but not limited to enforcing a no-fly zone. This comes about two weeks after the Libyan government deployed its army and air force to quell the unrest. Again, it seems grossly “unfair” and asymmetric to our Western sensibilities for a government to use its colossal military apparatus to put down some angry rioters. So this too seems ok. Better late than never, right? We don’t want this becoming a massacre.

But if you agree with the UN official in the first story and the security council in the second, first ask yourself how a government’s seizure of hospitals in its own territory can constitute a violation of international law, which typically governs relations between sovereign nations. Second, ask yourself why the UN didn’t think all the other acts of force these governments have taken to squash the protesters, like shooting haphazardly into traffic, raiding homes, and kidnapping organizers, did not also constitute a violation of that same international law. Third, ask yourself why the acts of the dictatorships through their secret police apparatuses along with the general lack of political freedom for decades that gave rise to the protests in the first place were not also violations of whatever international laws the UN is claiming were violated here.

Acts of sovereign nations to enforce their civil order sometimes become violations of international law. But not always. Why? Such violations allow the Western powers to intervene. But their intervention is discretionary. There was no intervention in Iran, for example. So what triggers action? They package the stories separately so you think about them separately. Look at them together, and a clearer picture emerges. When does domestic unrest become civil war? When does police reaction to civil unrest become a violation of international law, allowing UN intervention.

A third set of stories:
”[US] Regulators Aware For Years Of Understated Seismic Risks To Nuclear Plants”
”Cuomo Wants To Shut New York’s Indian Point Nuke Plant” Because of the Fukushima accident in Japan, governors and regulators in the US want to close down the plants here. Nothing wrong with re-assessing risk. It’s only prudent, right?

The context: “Brent oil slumped $3 Friday after major crude exporter Libya called a ceasefire with rebels, easing fears about possible damage to its energy facilities.”

Here’s one way of seeing the complete picture: In the first stories, the unrest in key oil countries is threatening the production of oil or it’s availability to the international markets, which is reflected in a first price spike. It doesn’t matter how the resource is threatened. It makes no difference whether the rebels built their base in an oil refinery and Qaddafi has to bomb it, or it’s a labor strike of pipeline workers. Then, the nuclear disaster in Japan has lowered US tolerance for nuclear risk, suggesting nuclear power will not be as great a source of energy in the future as we thought. So oil becomes even more important than it already was. Which means the West must intervene in those oil producing countries where only a few weeks ago it was willing to stay out. To do this, the Western powers need a story that people won’t object to. Enter human rights. The guy who controls the well as the pipelines can run a secret police force and oppress and kill his own people to his heart’s content. The moment he risks accidentally blowing up some production facilities in the process of keeping control of his country, it’s a violation of human rights and we send in the carrier battle fleet. Which ironically is powered by a nuclear reactor.

Domestic scale events achieve an international scale not because of their size or their social implications, but merely when the social disturbance threatens the supply of an important resource to international markets. All wars in the post-Soviet era are fought over scarce resources. About ensuring the flow to the markets. Water rights, arable land, pipeline routes. Oil. Energy.

There is not clash of civilizations or war of ideologies. There is only the market. If your political action anywhere in the world disrupts markets in a resource that is vital to the West or its allies, you will see fighter planes and CIA-backed fighters. If your political action does not disturb the markets, you will see CNN’s B-team and Doctors Without Borders.
 

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10 Responses to All The News That’s Fit to Compartmentalize

  1. BHE says:

    The shorthand way of saying this is that nations, like people, tend only to act when it serves their own best interests.
    Also, World War III will be fought over oil.

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  3. TTFIO says:

    Very provocative, very disturbing, but, just to make sure I have it, the argument here is twofold:

    1) 21st century warfare could be regarded as either really new or really old, in that conflicts are no longer ideological (or, uh, human), but about securing resources–>the apes in 2001 fighting over the watering hole.

    2) The media is in on the game by veiling these conflicts with easily digested narratives presented in discrete, easily digested chunks.

    If that’s right, what’s the endgame hear? Figure out cold-fusion or bust? Or are we living in a world where asking about “endgames” is too quaint to be answered?

    Economics is supposedly the study of resolving the tension between humans’ unlimited wants and the world’s limited resources through effective resource allocation. If I’m reading you write, you’re saying that governments’ current role is the resource allocation part. Do you think there’s room, then, on our part, to try and affect the other part i.e. our unchecked appetites? Does that make a difference?

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  5. tllawyer says:

    Very much enjoy your writing (both here, and your guest spots on TLP), so while not central to your argument, felt your rhetorical interrogation of international law needed a response, lest readers confuse the content/scope of international law (which, despite your first prompt, very much applies to the actions in question) with the selective invocation of international law (where you make a very valid point, but possibly conflate the actions of the media and the state).

    …ask yourself how a government’s seizure of hospitals in its own territory can constitute a violation of international law, which typically governs relations between sovereign nations

    Generally speaking, relations between sovereign nations are conducted through the international treaty process, in which nations agree to be legally bound by the obligations set out in a particular treaty. Bahrain is a party to, and therefore bound by, the Geneva Conventions (including Additional Protocol II relating to non-international armed conflict) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (arguments about whether these treaties are self-executing notwithstanding).

    Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (which applies to “armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one” of the parties to those Conventions) requires persons taking no active part in the hostilities (including the sick and wounded) be treated humanely, that the wounded and sick be collected and cared for, and that “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture” “shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place”.

    Additional Protocol II adds that the wounded shall receive the medical care required by their condition (Art 7), and that medical personnel shall be protected, granted all available help, and “shall neither be compelled to perform acts or to carry out work contrary to, nor be compelled to refrain from acts required by, the rules of medical ethics or other rules designed for the benefit of the wounded and sick” (Arts 9 and 10).

    Almost every paragraph of the linked article describes conduct which would be contrary to the above, quite apart from whether the conduct also offends customary international law.

    …ask yourself why the UN didn’t think all the other acts of force these governments have taken…did not also constitute a violation of that same international law

    It did – see paras 6-8 of the linked article. A quick Google later, the statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay being quoted in the article (UN human rights chief alarmed by military takeover of hospitals in Bahrain) goes on to note that the acts in relation to both the hospital, and towards the protestors generally, were contrary to Bahrain’s obligations under the ICCPR.

    …ask yourself why the acts of the dictatorships through their secret police apparatuses along with the general lack of political freedom for decades that gave rise to the protests in the first place were not also violations of whatever international laws the UN is claiming were violated here…

    They are violations of many of the protections afforded by the ICCPR.

    Acts of sovereign nations to enforce their civil order sometimes become violations of international law. But not always.

    This is the main reason I felt clarification was needed – the three real questions prompted by your discussion are:
    (a) when are the actions of oppressive regimes against their people violations of international law, and are identified as such by those charged with monitoring human rights?
    (b) when are these violations reported by the media, and how is the story presented?
    (c) when are these violations relied upon by other nations as justification to act or intervene?

    To which I think the short answers are:
    (a) violations occur with depressing frequency, and are identified, monitored and reported with often surprising candour by the relevant international organs – see, eg, http://ohchr.org/EN/Pages/WelcomePage.aspx
    (b) only where there is public interest or support for third party intervention, which is in turn driven by the cultural, regional or economic significance of the country in question
    (c) only where, as you’ve identified, there is a direct consequence to the third party of not intervening.

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