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Supreme Court

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Do You Feel Lucky, Hugo?

29 June 2009

Do You Feel Lucky, Hugo?

By Gwynne Dyer

Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, has declared that any attack on his country’s embassy in Honduras will lead to war between the two nations, and I can’t help wishing that the Hondurans would call his bluff. The Venezeluan blowhard is getting tiresome.

In the first of the “Dirty Harry” movies, thirty years ago, Clint Eastwood achieved immortality with a single line. Pointing a very large pistol at an evil-doer (as George W. Bush might have put it), he addresses the miscreant, who is thinking about reaching for his own gun, as follows: “You’ve got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

Hugo Chavez is more a well-meaning idiot than an evil-doer, but the question is the same: will he really go for his gun? The answer is no. He’s not a complete idiot, and his threats to attack other Latin American countries whose behaviour offends him (the most recent was Colombia, last year) always fade away after a while.

What provoked Chavez’s threat was the removal of the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, who had become Chavez’s close ally. Zelaya was arrested by the Honduran military, bundled into a plane and flown to Costa Rica on 28 June.

Elected to a single term as president in 2006, Zelaya astonished friend and foe alike by turning out to be not the centre-right, business-friendly politician he had seemed. Instead, he began moving steadily to the left in his domestic policies, and linked Honduras diplomatically with the other socialist governments in Latin America.

There is no doubt that he caused deep annoyance to the conservative elite who have traditionally dominated Honduran affairs, but they made no move to overthrow him. Why bother? The constitution limits Honduran presidents to one four-year term in office, and Zelaya’s term comes to an end next January.

No other leftist candidate was likely to win the presidential election that is due in November: recent opinion polls suggested that Zelaya’s support nationally is down to around 30 percent. Even Zelaya’s own party was unlikely to nominate another leftist as his successor, and many of its members no longer supported him. So all the major political forces were content to wait for the clock to run out on him — until he started trying to change the constitution.

Zelaya’s bright idea was to end the one-term limit so he could run for president again himself. It’s exactly the same tactic that Chavez has used in Venezuela to prolong his rule indefinitely (he now talks about being in power until 2030), and Zelaya believed, rightly or wrongly, that he could make it work for him in Honduras. So he set about organising a referendum on the subject. It was scheduled for last Sunday.

Alas, the president of Honduras does not have the right to organize a referendum all by himself, and the country’s Supreme Court ordered him to stop. Congress also condemned the manoeuvre, but Zelaya plowed ahead regardless. When the army, obedient to the Supreme Court’s orders, refused to help Zelaya run the referendum, he fired the army’s commanding general and got his own party activists to distribute the ballot boxes.

At that point, Congress voted to remove Zelaya because of his “repeated violations of the constitution and the law and disregard of orders and judgments of the institutions,” and the Supreme Court ordered the army to intervene and arrest the president. It was a mistake to put him on a plane bound for Costa Rica, as that made it look like a traditional Central American coup, but apart from that everything was done within the law.

The speaker of the Congress, Roberto Micheletti, who has taken over until the November elections, insists that he has become interim president “as the result of an absolutely legal transition process.” Chavez and his Bolivian, Ecuadorian, Nicaraguan and Cuban allies claim it’s a military coup, and insist that the United States is behind it.

Washington, which wasn’t paying much attention until last Sunday, has been bounced into backing Zelaya too, as has the Organisation of American States, whose secretary-general, Jose Miguel Insulza, has promised to accompany Zelaya in a grand return to Honduras. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has condemned the events in Honduras as a coup, and for all we know she might accompany Zelaya too.

If Chavez decided to go along too, they would have enough people for a game of celebrity bridge, but all this posturing won’t change anything. It might be different if the next Honduran election were years away and there was time for diplomatic and economic pressures to wear the legitimate Honduran authorities down, but it’s only five months until the 29th of November.

So long as that election is conducted properly, other countries will have no grounds to reject its outcome — and Zelaya is constitutionally barred from running again. End of story.

Unless Chavez actually attacks Honduras, that is, but it is a long way from Venezuela and Chavez’s forces are not really equipped or trained for amphibious assaults or long-range air-drops. You can almost hear the Honduran soldiers muttering “Go ahead, make my day.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“In the first…for awhile”)

The New Consensus in Pakistan

17 March 2009

The New Consensus in Pakistan

By Gwynne Dyer

The dancing in the streets in Pakistan after the latest political crisis ended may have been overdone, but the relief was genuine. Americans should be dancing in the streets, too, because what has happened in Pakistan will probably force the United States to abandon its foolish anti-Pashtun war in Afghanistan before we get much older. But since the Obama administration doesn’t yet realise that it should stop that war, there were no celebrations in Washington.

It was pressure from Washington, as well as from the Pakistani army, that forced President Asif Ali Zardari to back down. Washington did that to save Zardari from his own folly, for it still wants his loyal support in its war in Afghanistan, but he hasn’t been saved for long.

Zardari’s sole claim to fame is that he married Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister of Pakistan and hereditary leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). After she was assassinated in December, 2007, he inherited the party leadership, became prime minister on a sympathy vote in the ensuing election, and promoted himself to president in September.

Zardari’s reputation for corruption is unparallelled, and his political skills are minimal. Both those aspects of his character featured prominently in the recent crisis, which centred on Zardari’s refusal to re-appoint former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, dismissed by former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, to Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

Chaudhry’s determination to enforce the law despite the Musharraf regime’s corruption and contempt for the constitution became a rallying point for civilians demanding a return to democracy. His return to the Supreme Court was one of the founding principles of the coalition between Zardari’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML–N) that took control when Musharraf finally surrendered power — but it didn’t happen.

Zardari simply couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was afraid that once Chaudhry was back at the Supreme Court, he would cancel the amnesty that had let Benazir Bhutto and him return from exile in 2007. He may have been right, since the amnesty (on various corruption charges) was part of a deal in which the United States was trying to prop up its favourite Pakistani general, Musharraf, with a pro-American civilian government led by Benazir.

It might have worked if she had lived, but she didn’t. Zardari took over the PPP, Musharraf was finally forced out — and then the coalition between the PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML–N foundered last May over Zardari’s refusal to reappoint Chief Justice Chaudhry.

Just business as usual in Pakistani politics, but then the country’s lawyers started staging daily demonstrations on Chaudhry’s behalf. Zardari really overstepped the bounds last month when he got the tame Supreme Court to rule that neither Nawaz Sharif nor his brother Shahbaz, the chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest province, could hold elective office. He placed Punjab under central government rule, briefly closed down two independent TV stations, and alienated just about everybody.

The protests got bigger and bigger, the army and the United States told him to back down, and eventually he did. Chaudhry is back as the head of the Supreme Court, and the reins of government will probably pass to Nawaz Sharif within a year. So what?

It’s good that Pakistanis have chosen democracy and the rule of law, even knowing how badly they have been deceived and disappointed by their politicians in the past. But there is something bigger going on here.

A conservative, nationalist consensus is emerging that promises to transform Pakistani politics — and to reject the country’s role as America’s obedient ally in the “war on terror.”

Almost nobody in Washington understands that the United States is at war with the Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan. The Taliban are an almost exclusively Pashtun organisation, and ALL the Pashtun-majority provinces in Afghanistan are in revolt against the foreign occupation, while all of the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara-majority provinces are at peace.

The US allied itself with the other minorities in order to drive the Taliban from power in 2001, but that meant driving the Pashtuns from power, and they are fighting to regain their share.

Every Pakistani understands this, because most of the world’s Pashtuns live on the Pakistani side of the border. Pakistan’s Pashtuns have been radicalised by the war against their brothers in Afghanistan, to the point where Taliban values now dominate in the western fifth of Pakistan as well. Music has been silenced, barbers no longer dare to shave men’s beards, and 140 girls’ schools have been blown up or burned down.

Taliban-style terrorist attacks in the rest of Pakistan are now an almost daily event, and lurking somewhere just below the horizon is the possibility of a unified, Islamist-ruled Pashtun state that would destroy the unity of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pakistanis will not let that happen, so the country’s acquiescence in the US “war on terror” under both Musharraf and Zardari, which has even extended in the past two years to tacit permission for American Predator drones to kill people in the Pashtun parts of Pakistan, is coming to an end. Without Pakistan’s support, the Western war in Afghanistan will have to stop — and high time, too.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“It might…everybody”)

Civil Liberties: The Turn of the Tide

12 June 2008

Civil Liberties: The Turn of the Tide

By Gwynne Dyer

Two hundred and seventy people convicted of no crime languish in Guantanamo, and the British parliament has just voted to extend detention without trial to forty-two days. In both the United States and Britain, governments that attack civil liberties in the name of security still rule. But in the past week the tide has turned in both countries.

In the United States, the Supreme Court has ruled for the third time in four years that the people detained in Guantanamo can challenge their imprisonment in US civilian courts. When the Court made the same ruling in 2004 and 2006, an obedient Congress passed legislation overruling it, but that will not happen this time.

The Supreme Court judges have ruled once again that the ancient rule of habeas corpus, the right of every prisoner to be brought before a court where the state must give a legal justification for his detention, cannot be thrust aside on the pretext that the suspect is a foreigner, or a terrorist, or an “illegal combatant.” The government still has to convince a judge that it has the evidence to justify the charge, and then bring the accused to trial.

With Democratic majorities almost certain in both houses of Congress after the November elections, and both presidential candidates committed to shutting Guantanamo, this time the Supreme Court’s ruling will stick. As Justice Anthony Kennedy put it, “The laws and constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times. Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law.”

The rule of law is returning in the United States after years of abuse. In Britain, it is still under attack, but the fight back has started in earnest. After Prime Minister Gordon Brown forced through the 42-day detention law on Wednesday despite the resistance of both major opposition parties and 36 rebels from his own Labour Party, something unprecedented happened.

David Davis, the Conservative MP who serves as shadow home secretary (the opposition spokesman on domestic affairs), resigned his seat the following day. He declared that he would run for re-election on a platform of opposition to the “monstrosity” of 42-day detention and to the “government’s slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms.”

The Great British Public, it must be admitted, is not very interested in fundamental British freedoms. As Gordon Brown pointed out in defence of his law, a majority of the public supports 42-day detention.

Indeed, a majority of the British public, given the right lead by the gutter press, would probably also support 90-day detention, waterboarding of suspects, 180-day detention, torture of their relatives, 360-day detention, and summary execution of detainees. Provided they were Muslim, of course.

But democratic countries have laws and constitutions precisely to fend off this kind of ignorant populism. David Davis is acting in defence of habeas corpus, and when the voters of his constituency are forced to confront the issue of human rights squarely they will probably vindicate him.

Former prime minister Tony Blair began the attack on civil liberties even before 9/11. British citizens, who could previously be held by the police for only two days before being charged or released, found that period raised to seven days by the Terrorism Act of 2000, and to fourteen days by the Criminal Justice Act of 2003.

A significant minority of his own party rebelled when Blair tried to extend it again to ninety days in 2005, and after much haggling it was fixed at 28 days — already the longest period of pre-charge detention in the democratic world. So what possessed Gordon Brown to want to lengthen it yet again, given that there had been no request from the security services and no recent terrorist atrocity?

Political expediency, of course. Brown’s unchallenged succession to Blair as prime minister is already seen as Labour’s great mistake, and it is almost universally assumed that the Conservatives will win the next election in less than two years’ time. So Brown cast around for some symbolic gesture that would wrong-foot the Tories, and came up with 42 days: paint himself as tough on security, and force the Conservatives to choose between defending unpopular civil liberties or playing me-too.

Stupid. The Conservatives decided to oppose the legislation, although with some misgivings. (Indeed, David Davis’s spectacular action is partly intended to nail his own party to its commitment to kill the 42 days when it comes to power.) About fifty Labour MPs were initially prepared to vote against their own government, although various pressures reduced that to 36 for the final vote.

The law squeaked through last Wednesday by a majority of only nine votes — thanks to nine Democratic Unionists from Northern Ireland who agreed to support Brown in return for large sums of money spent in that province. Brown is weakened by this vote, not strengthened, and the ugly law he has pushed through the House of Commons will almost certainly die in the House of Lords (as he knew all along — it was only done to make him look “tough on terror”).

In both of the countries where civil liberties were most grievously damaged by the “war on terror,” the tide is turning. About time, too.


To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 9. (“The Great…him”)

Orange Revolution

26 November 2004

The Orange Revolution

By Gwynne Dyer

“There will be fraud, but the scenario of victory by the government through fraud is utopian, it won’t happen,” said Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko just before the vote was held on 21 November. He may well be right, but we probably won’t know for another week or so. These non-violent democratic revolutions generally take two or three weeks.

That’s how long it took for the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia to overthrow the band of cronies and crooks around former president Eduard Shevardnadze almost exactly a year ago. By the end of the first week it was clear to everybody that the demonstrators protesting a rigged election were not going to lose interest and wander off, and that Shevardnadze had only two choices: to open fire on his fellow Georgians, or to yield power to the real election victors.

The outgoing Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, now faces the same unhappy choice. The electoral abuses that transformed a 54-43 percent victory for Yushchenko in the exit polls into a 49-46 percent win for his rival and Kuchma’s chosen successor, Viktor Yanukovich, in the final count, were so blatant that the European Parliament’s chief observer compared the process to a North Korean election.

The national turn-out was 76 percent, but in Yanukovich’s personal fiefdom, Donetsk, there was allegedly a 96 percent turn-out — with 96 percent of the votes going to Yanukovich. The rigging was so shameless that Yushchenko’s supporters came out on the streets of Kiev and other Ukrainian cities in the hundreds of thousands — and having come out, stayed out. Once they had demonstrated their willingness to stay out on the streets day after day, regardless of the freezing weather, Kuchma had no options left except shooting or surrender.

There will now be a pause while the old regime and its Russian backers contemplate these options, and the Ukrainian Supreme Court considers an opposition demand to cancel the Central Electoral Commission’s final report declaring Yanukovich the victor on the grounds of gross fraud. But the Supreme Court’s last-minute agreement to rule on the opposition’s petition may just be an attempt to legitimise that report, for most of its members were appointed during the long reign of the gangster-capitalists who have dominated Ukraine since independence 13 years ago.

A court ruling that sets the crooked vote count aside and requires a new election would give the old regime a chance to surrender power gracefully if it decides not to fight on in the face of such strong popular outrage. As in Georgia last year, the leading regime members would probably be able to negotiate some sort of amnesty for their crimes. But if the Supreme Court should rule in favour of the existing regime, the crisis will not end: it is not that widely trusted.

In the end, the decision really does lie with Yanukovich, Kuchma, and their Russian sponsor, President Vladimir Putin. If they permit a new election under international supervision, then the oligarchs who control the heavy industry of the Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine lose their power, and Russia loses its bid to bring Ukraine’s 50 million people back into a Moscow-led common market that would effectively recreate the old Soviet Union. But if they decide to hang on, then they will have to clear the streets by force, and that could trigger a civil war.

This is the way non-violence works. Its practitioners are not naive about the possibility of violence; on the contrary, they dare the regime to resort to force and accept the certainty of international condemnation and the risk of civil war that comes with it. If the regime does not use force in these circumstances, it is usually finished, but in a surprisingly large number of cases even deeply corrupt regimes will relinquish power rather than start killing. Even crooks can be patriots — and of course they can’t be sure that the police and army would obey an order to open fire on peaceful protesters anyway.

The situation in Ukraine is complicated by the Russian dimension of the crisis. Putin has backed Yanukovich very strongly, visiting Ukraine twice during the election campaign to appeal to Russian-speaking voters on his behalf and telephoning Yanukovich to offer him premature congratulations on his “victory” when the suspect vote totals were first released. But Putin could not support the use of force against Ukrainian citizens without gravely damaging his ties with the European Union and the United States, and he is unlikely to risk that.

The odds are, therefore, that Yushchenko and the Ukrainian democrats will not be driven from the streets by force. They have nationalism on their side, and Ukrainian nationalists dominate the capital and the west of the country whereas the Russian-speaking minority is concentrated in the heavily industrialised east, where many of their forebears arrived as immigrants during Stalin’s forced industrialisation of the Donbas region in the 1930s. Besides, not all Russian-speakers put ethnic solidarity ahead of democracy.

The outcome is still uncertain, and the stakes in Ukraine are so high that one false move could trigger violence. But the chances are good that for the third time in four years, after Serbia in 2000 and Georgia in 2003, an ex-Communist criminal oligarchy is going to be overthrown by non-violent democratic protest. The “Orange Revolution” (the opposition’s supporters favour orange flags and scarves) looks like it is going to win.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The situation…democracy”)