Archive for the ‘international’ Category

Expert on avoiding kidnapping is kidnapped in Mexico

It may look peaceful from space, but mucho people are getting kidnapped down there

It may look peaceful from space, but mucho people are getting kidnapped down there

Mexico has a really bad problem with kidnappings.  It’s so bad, that even experts on how to avoid being kidnapped, like American Felix Batista, get kidnapped.  Batista works for Houston-based ASI Global, a security firm, and was recently kidnapped just after giving a seminar on how to avoid that fate.  It is thought that police, who were among the few who knew of his whereabouts, tipped off the criminals, who probably wanted to send a message with the kidnapping.

Law enforcement officers and officials frequently are implicated in kidnapping in our neighbor to the south.  Several were recently arrested for the kidnapping a murder of a 14-year-old Fernando Marti a few months ago.  Many Mexicans don’t even go to the police when they get ransom demands; they figure it’s far better to handle the matter themselves.  Kidnapping is a big business south of the border; it’s usually done by drug cartels for the ransom money, but occasionally, as in the case of Mr. Batista, is done to send a message as well.

Fully 5% of the country’s 106 million people report having been kidnapped or having known someone who was kidnapped.  And 45% of Mexicans who have a phone said they’ve been victims of telephone extortion, in which someone has called them, claimed they’ve abducted a family member, and demand ransom money.   These claims are often false, but abductions are so common there that they’re plausible and often result in ransoms being paid anyway.  In the cases of real kidnappings, the captors often mail back the victims body parts, like ears and fingers, if the money isn’t paid quickly enough.

The Flag of Mexico is a vertical tricolor with the National Coat of Arms, which is too small to make out any detail on

The Flag of Mexico is a vertical tricolor with the National Coat of Arms, which is too small and complex to make out any detail on

To counter these threats, wealthy Mexicans have taken to hiring armed security guards, living in what amount to fortified compounds, and riding around in armored vehicles (though doing so didn’t help Fernando Marti).  And now the LA Times is reporting that some are having tiny transmitters inserted under their skin that can transmit their location to orbiting satellites in the event that they’re captured.

According to official statistics, 65 people are kidnapped each month; but since most aren’t reported, the actual number is estimated to be about 500 per month by some observers. Earlier this year 100,000 people demonstrated in Mexico City for the government to do more to solve the problem.  Hopefully their demands will be met.

South Korean lawmakers get in fight, break out power tools

MSNBC reports that members of South Korea’s unicameral parliament have gotten into fisticuffs.  Again.

The chamber of the South Korean National Assembly looks like this when there is no fight going on

The chamber of the South Korean National Assembly looks like this when there is no fight going on

This time, the ruling party locked opposition members outside the committee room where the recently signed South Korea-U.S. trade pact will be introduced.  They feared that the opposition would try to oppose ratification of the pact.  Go figure.  Opposition members tried to batter down the door to the room, using a sledge hammer and eventually a power saw to break through—but to no avail, as the ruling party members had piled furniture up behind said door as an additional barricade.

The ruling Grand National Party controls 172 out of 299 seats in the National Assembly and so should be able to push the trade pact through.  The U.S. Congress has not yet approved the deal.

Fights are not at all uncommon among South Korean lawmakers—even on the floor of the National Assembly itself.  Sometimes they even throw chairs and microphones.  Here is a video of a fight that broke out last December:

Mecca to be remodeled

A pilgrim at the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.  The Kaaba is seen in the midground.

A pilgrim at the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. The Kaaba is seen in the midground.

The Economist has an interesting story about Saudi plans to remodel Mecca, the holiest city is Islam.  The city is the original hometown of Mohammed, the founder and chief figure in Islam, and was a key religious center even before that time.  Muslims are supposed to pray five times each day, at appointed times, all while facing in the direction of Mecca, and are urged to participate in the haj, a pilgrimage to the city during the holy month of Ramadan, at least once in their life if they are able.

As international travel has gotten easier, more Muslims have been able to visit Mecca, causing significant logistical problems (including people often being trampled to death).  A chief reason for remodeling parts of the city, including the most important mosque there, the Masjid al-Haram (“Sacred Mosque”) is to accommodate the 2.5 million pilgrims that come to Mecca during the haj each year.  At present, the mosque can hold up to 900,000 visitors; plans are to expand it to a capacity of 1.5 million.

Given the great importance of the mosque and Mecca to Muslims, it is not surprising that the Saudi plans are stirring up debate.  The fact that one of the architects chosen for the project, Briton Norman Foster, is a non-Muslim has added to the controversy.  Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter Mecca, so he’d have to supervise the project from a distance and couldn’t visit the site itself.

But the city has already undergone huge changes.  The Economist reports:

Even before the plans to give the Haram mosque a facelift emerged, many Muslims were uneasy about the renovations already underway in Mecca. The modern city bears little resemblance to the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. Visitors to Mecca can buy a latte from Starbucks and a snack from KFC or McDonald’s. Moreover, the first Islamic school where Muhammad is believed to have taught as well as the house of Khadija, his first wife, are believed to have been destroyed as construction in Mecca has boomed. Critics such as Mr Angawi fear that if these plans go ahead, more damage will be wrought upon Mecca’s historic buildings. Some suggest that Saudi Arabia’s rulers don’t concern themselves much about preserving these historic sites because their interpretation of Islam regards venerating holy places as akin to idol worship.

It will be interesting to see what sorts of decisions are made by Saudi leaders, including King Abdullah—who is the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (in Mecca and Medina)—in this matter.

This highway sign indicates that non-Muslims must take the bypass around Mecca, where only Muslims are permitted

This highway sign indicates that non-Muslims must take the bypass around Mecca, where only Muslims are permitted. (Click to enlarge)

Woman becomes mother at age 70, sets record

The Flag of India is a horizontal tricolor with the 24-spoke Ashoka Chakra wheel in the middle

The Flag of India is a horizontal tricolor with the 24-spoke Ashoka Chakra wheel in the middle

Rajo Devi of Alewa, India has become the oldest woman ever to give birth, as reported by Slate. She is 70 years old; the father, her husband, is 72.

Obviously, she is two decades past menopause and incapable of having children normally.  However, there are fertility treatments now by which a woman can have a child at virtually any age.  But just because we can do a thing does not mean that we must do that thing.  Or even that we should.  Rajo Devi and her husban will be octogenarians by the time the kid is 10.  I’m not sure what the age of majority is in India, but the mom will be 88 when the kid is 18.  How is this a good idea?

The desire to be parents is natural and understandable.  But if you can’t have children naturally, as Rajo Devi and her husband couldn’t, why not adopt?  There are surely enough orphans in the world (a lack of them would be a problem worth having). Why create a new child who will be deprived of parents while still young?  I think that maybe we should think a little bit more about this whole old people having babies after drastic medical intervention thing.

New groups wants total elimination of nuclear weapons

A new group that will formally launch this Tuesday (9 December), Global Zero, seeks the total elimination of nuclear weapons over the next 25 years.  After their big kickoff in Paris, they’re going to Moscow to meet with Russian officials and subsequently to Washington to meet with Bush administration figures, and possible advisors to President-elect Obama.

The 11-megaton Castle Romeo nuclear test, the third largest ever conducted by the United States

The 11-megaton Castle Romeo nuclear test, the third largest ever conducted by the United States. This image is often used to make nukes look scary, which they are.

The group, which has been organizing for 18 months already, is not a bunch of wild-eyed peaceniks.  Listed supporters include former President Jimmy Carter; former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger; former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci; former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev; Shaharyar Khan, a former Pakistani foreign minister; retired Air Chief Marshal Shashindra Pal Tyagi of India;  Malcolm Rifkind, a former British foreign secretary; Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.); Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission; Robert Blackwill, a former top Bush administration official on Iraq policy; former Nebraska Senator and Governor Bob Kerrey; Strobe Talbott and Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution; former U.S. Ambassador Tom Pickering; former diplomat Richard Burt; retired Marine General John J. Sheehan; former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski, Anthony Lake and Sandy Berger; and retired four-star Marine General Anthony Zinni.  Other supporters include British billionaire Richard Branson and Jordan’s Queen Noor.

Though I’ve heard nothing about him being affiliated with Global Zero, former Kennedy- and Johnson-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara has voiced support for reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons.  He included an appendix in his 1995 book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam on the topic, writing that “insofar as achievable—and I underline that phrase—we should move back to a nonnuclear world. ”  McNamara argues, after some analysis, that “the military utility of nuclear weapons is limited to deterring one’s opponent from their use.  Therefore, if our opponent has no nuclear weapons, there is no need for us to possess them.”

Global Zero says its goal is achieving a binding verifiable agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons by working through diplomacy and international public opinion.  They hope to organize a summit of world leaders in January of 2010.  Global Zero is funded by several charitable foundations.  This blog commends the group’s efforts.

Thoughts on China’s economy

Did you know that red was Karl Marx's favorite color?  Anyway, the PRC has a good flag.

Did you know that red was Karl Marx's favorite color? Anyway, the PRC has a pretty good flag.

Jonah Goldberg, editor and columnist for National Review Online, raises some interesting questions about the Chinese economy.  He is skeptical of all the claims that China will surpass the United States economically in 2027 (or whatever year people are now predicting) on account of some serious structural problems with China’s institutions.

Ask yourself this: Why are we in this financial crisis?

Any short list of reasons would include a lack of transparency in markets and regulatory rule-making; collusion between business and government; the politicization of lending practices (including the socialization of risk and the privatization of profit through giant governmental entities like Fannie Mae); and, of course, simple greed.

Does anyone honestly think China doesn’t have these problems ten times over? It has no free press, no democratic accountability, and no truly independent regulators.

After every Chinese earthquake, we discover that safety inspectors couldn’t be trusted to oversee the construction of schools and hospitals. And we’re supposed to believe that China’s corrupt model produces toxic baby formula but spic-and-span finances?

Goldberg calls China’s entire economy “one big Fannie Mae” and suspects it won’t be anytime soon that the People’s Republic surpasses the United States as the world’s leading economy, just as predictions in the 1980s that Japan would do so proved incorrect.

Palestinians offer peace plan to Israel

The Palestinians don't have a state, but they have a good flag.  That's a good sign.

The Palestinians don't have a state but they already have a good flag. That's a good sign.

There is a positive development in the Arab-Israeli conflict: the Palestinian Authority has published, in Hebrew, a peace proposal in Israel’s four largest daily papers.  It outlines the plan that’s backed by both Saudi Arabia and the Arab League that calls for:

  1. Israel withdraws from entire Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Eastern Jerusalem;
  2. Normalization of relations between Israel and the 57 members of the Arab League, who would “consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended”; and
  3. the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Apparently it was Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s idea to place the ads, which describe what Israeli officials have called a “positive initiative” that need to be “fine tuned and corrected.”.

Like the majority of Israelis and Palestinians, this blog favors a two-state solution and welcomes this development.  This is a serious proposal, and hopefully is being offered and will be taken and seriously. 

Of course the third item, the Palestinian right of return, would significantly change the nature of Israel in the short-term,  making it about 40% Arab, and would have the longer-term effect of there being two Palestinian states, due to demographics changes. However, the plan calls for a “just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem,” which could be accomplished via other means.  For instance, I rather think it’d be well worth it for the United States to put up several billion dollars to compensate the refugees and allow them to get on with their lives in a rebuilding Palestinian state; it’d be much cheaper and safer than an indefinite continuation of the status quo. 

8. The precise shade of blue is not specified.

The Flag of Israel has a hight:width ratio of 11:8. The precise shade of blue is not specified.

There are two major stumbling blocks that need to be removed.  For their part, Israel needs to remove the settlements which have been built in the West Bank.  Just as two Palestinian states wouldn’t qualify as a solution neither would two Israeli states, which is basically what is accomplished with these settlements.  They need to be dismantled, something which can be accomplished fairly easily.  Israel should begin removing these outposts immediately and unilaterally.  That will put the onus on the Palestinians to do their part and will show everyone that Israel is serious about making a Palestinian state possible.

The second major problem going forward is the ability of the Palestinian Authority to end the attacks on Israel.  If they can’t do that, this isn’t going to work; Israel must have security.  Lasting peace will require two states, side by side, and living in peace with each other.  Of course, there will be some radicals on both sides who will reject any possible compromise; some on the Arab side will likely resort to violence.

Reportedly, President-elect Barack Obama finds this Arab proposal to be constructive.  He is also impressed with Benjamin Netanyahu’s “economic peace” plan, which calls for rebuilding the economy and infrastructure of the Palestinian areas as a prelude to a formal peace plan.  If Palestinians had more jobs and were less desperate, they’d be less likely to strap bombs to themselves.

There have been problems with just about all the peace deals offered thus far, and this one from the Arab League is no exception.  However, I think the way forward is becoming pretty clear.  Ultimately, I think there will be two states, based largely on the 1967-borders (with some 1:1 land swaps) and no right of return, but some other sort of compensation to make up for that.  This won’t happen until Israel dismantles, or guarantees it will dismantle, the West Bank settlements and the Palestinians make significant progress in curbing the violence from their side.  I predict this will happen 5-20 years from now.  It’s just a matter of how soon the two sides realize this and make it happen.  More than 42% Palestinians are under 15.  Hopefully they’ll soon realize that violence isn’t going to get them what they want and will reject terrorism and decide that most of what they want with peace and modernization is better than a continuation of the violence.

Iraqi cabinet approves status of forces agreement

The new Iraqi flag eliminates the three stars but keeps the

The new Iraqi flag still has the takbir (Allahu Akbar/God is Great). The version used from 2004-2008 had three stars and a different script. The 1991-2004 flag had yet another script, rumored to have been Saddam's own handwriting.

Today the Iraqi cabinet unanimously approved a Status of Forces Agreement that will allow U.S. forces to stay in the country legally after their UN mandate expires at the end of this year.  According to Al Jazeera the vote was 27-0 with one cabinet member abstaining and nine members not present.  The agreement must now be approved by the full parliament.

The pact requires U.S. troops to leave the country’s towns and cities by mid 2009; they will then be based in rural areas and will assist in urban areas only when called upon to do so by Iraqi forces.  U.S. forces must leave Iraq by the 31 December 2011.  It was because this agreement was in the works and that no Iraqi government would or could approve a document that allowed the U.S. to stay much beyond 2011 that I didn’t think the recent presidential election would have any impact on the withdrawal of the American military from Iraq; John McCain couldn’t keep the troops there indefinitely and Barack Obama is unlikely to pull them out ahead of schedule.  .

While Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs) are considered treaties under international law (see Article 2 Section 2(a) of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties), under U.S. law they are considered executive agreements and are made pursuant to the president’s inherent power as commander in chief of the armed forces, not his or her treaty-making power; they therefore do not require approval either by the full Congress or the Senate.

In Iraq the pact is controversial, with Sunnis tending to be most opposed and some calling for a public referendum.  Now that the Iraqi cabinet has approved it, the agreement must now be passed by the 275-member Iraqi parliament where its fate is uncertain.  It then would have to be ratified by the three-member presidency which includes Sunni Vice President Tariq Hashimi, who has led calls for a public referendum and could veto the pact.  There are currently about 150,000 American military personnel in the country.

Entire country sinking, may need to be relocated

As hinted at by the crescent on their flag, the Maldives is a predominantly Muslim nation

As hinted at by the crescent on their flag, the Maldives is a predominantly Muslim nation

CNN reports that the nation of the Maldives, located entirely on a series of coral islands in the Indian Ocean, is in danger of being swamped by rising sea levels.  The highest point in the whole country is just two meters above sea level and doesn’t even have a name; recent storms have flooded the entire nation.

They just held their first competitive elections in 30 years and their new president,  Mohamed Nasheed, is serious about addressing his nation’s big problem.  He has suggested they acquire land in another country and move their entire nation there, saying “We do not want to end up in refugee tents if the worst happens.”  Nearby India and Sri Lanka are possibilities, as is Australia, which has plenty of room to spare.  Nasheed reports that after initial inquiries, several other countries have been “receptive” to the idea of the Maldives, a country of about 270,000 people, moving there.

Malé, the capital of the Maldives,  is less than one square mile but has about 105,000 people, all less than two meters above sea level. (click to enlarge)

Malé, the capital of the Maldives, is less than one square mile but has about 105,000 people, all less than two meters above sea level. (click to enlarge)

The nation is made up of 1,192 islands, about 250 of which are inhabited.  Tourism is a chief industry there, bringing in over $1 billion U.S. dollars per anum.  The new administration is talking about setting aside part of this revenue for use in the event that the population does need to be relocated somewhere.

The Astralian reports that global warming has been overstated as a cause of concern for Maldivians.  A much bigger problem, they say, is increased mining for coral, about the only indiginous building material available in the country.  This removes barrier reefs that protect the islands of the country from erosion from waves and storm surges.  The incoming government indicates that they will seek international help to strengthen and preserve the nation’s natural reef barriers.

Some climate models predict that sea level could rise by as much as 59 centimeters (about two feet) in the next century; this would put most of the Maldives under water.

Monks fight at tomb of Jesus. For the second time. This year.

If you worked here you'd be a monk. And you'd be getting in fights all the time.

If you worked here you'd be a monk. And you'd be fighting all the time.

This is embarassing.  Armenian Christians and Greek Orthodox Christians got into a brawl at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the shrine which probably marks the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial—so it’s only about the holiest spot on the planet to Christians.   Too bad we can’t say this is the first time it’s happened.  This year.

The Guardian describes the action:

Armenian monks and their worshippers had been participating in a ceremony marking the 4th-century discovery of the cross on which Christ was crucified when they found their path blocked by a Greek Orthodox monk posted in Jesus’s tomb. Fists began flying, kicking monks lost their footing and 10ft ceremonial candlesticks and banners toppled to the ground. Police dragged priests from the melee in head locks and arrested two Armenian clerics, who were later released.

Here’s a video of the brawl that has been circulating on YouTube:

Monks get in fights at the church all the time—this is the second time this year alone that police have had to break up fisticuffs there.  The situation is complicated, but these fights and ill will stem from a centuries old agreement that divides up the church amongst the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenians, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac Churches; it governs which group controls which areas and when and how they can use common areas.  The agreement was imposed by the Ottomans, who controlled Palestine at the time, in 1767 and divides the church among the claimants; it was confirmed and made permanent in 1852. 

But the agreement hasn’t really helped things much; there is no sense of unity or charity amongst the various groups controlling the Holy Sepulchre.  In 2002 a brawl resulted in eleven people being hospitalized.  The cause?  A Coptic monk stationed on the roof moved his chair on a hot day from its agreed spot into the shade. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, who apparently had control over the shady spot, and a fight broke out.  How Christian.

If that desn’t tell you how sad the situation is, maybe this will: above the entryway to the church—which, again, probably marks the place where Jesus Christ was crucified and buried—is a ladder.  No big deal, right?  Right.  Except it’s been there for over a hundred and fifty (150) years because the various factions can’t agree about what to do with it.  Here’s an idea: move the dang thing!  Their inability to reach agreement has bigger consequences too. Recent inspections indicate that the roof is unstable and will collapse soon and destroy the whole church; it needs urgent repairs but the Ethiopians and Coptics who control the area can’t agree on what to do.  For a simpleton like me, the solution seems obvious (fix the roof) but these holy men of God can’t reach an agreement on that so soon there won’t be any roof at all—shady spots and all will be destroyed in a massive collapse which will be well deserved if these simpletons can’t get their act together.

The entrance to the church.  Note the ladder above the doorway has been there, in that same exact spot, for at least 150 years.

The entrance to the church. Note the ladder above the doorway; it has been in that exact spot for at least 150 years.

What happened to the unity that Jesus called for his followers to have?  What happened to the charity that we are supposed to show others?  Turning the other cheek, anyone?  Or does being at the tomb of Jesus absolve one from the need to actually follow what he taught?  Happily, the keys to the church are controlled by two Muslim families, who Saladin himself entrusted with that duty in 1192.  Can you imagine how much worse this ridiculous squabbling would be if any of the Christian groups got their hands on the keys?  If they don’t straighten out pretty quick there won’t be any church anymore.  Maybe that’d actually be better; this fighting does more to sully Jesus’s legacy than the presence of the building can ever do to preserve it.

Wikipedia has a good article on the church, including the history of the building, and reasons to think it may be the real place.  It also has lots of pictures of the interior and exterior, including the ladder.