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About Jessica Loudis

Jessica Loudis is a writer who works for Slate Magazine and is an associate editor of Conjunctions

Articles by Jessica Loudis

This week's editor

NSS, editor

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to 50.50.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Haiti's 'restaveks'

Less than a month after Haiti was brought to its knees by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake, another story emerged from the island that briefly arrested international attention and interrupted the torrent of post-disaster coverage...

Beauty is power

Davide Panagia’s The Political Life of Sensation asks whether there is an aesthetics in democracy.

The "rights of nature"

At the end of September, voters in Ecuador enthusiastically approved a referendum designed to consolidate power under leftist president Rafael Correa and to strategically shock the country's flagging economy. After enduring economic meltdown, runaway inflation, and other equally dramatic financial crises, the populace was more than ready to welcome Correa's plan, which passed with 65 percent popular approval. Under the new constitution, which openDemocracy writer Guy Hedgecoe has critiqued as a "labyrinth of idealistic generalisation, nebulous ambiguity and outright contradiction," Correa will be able to intervene easily in the private sector (the government can now take over farmland not considered "socially useful") as well as the judiciary and legislature. Additionally, Correa will be able to run for two consecutive re-elections, a move that can potentially extend his presidency until 2017, and has led critics to accuse him of harbouring more radical ambitions.

Forest in Banos, Ecuador, with thanks to: Laura Travels at

But social reforms and allegations of power grabbing aside, what has generated the most debate is a short section in the referendum entitled The Rights of Nature (RoN), a bill aimed to grant nature the kind of inalienable rights ordinarily reserved for citizens.

Protecting "Pachamama"

In recent years, the only thing in Ecuador more blighted than the economy is the environment. According to, Ecuador has the highest deforestation rate in South America - no small feat with competitors like Brazil - as well as the continent's worst environmental record. Currently, the country is embroiled in a massive lawsuit against Chevron/Texaco, which has dumped billions of gallons of crude oil in Ecuador's western Amazon over the past 25 years, and which spilled 17 million gallons of oil into the country's river systems in 1992. Since July, the case has escalated into the realm of international politics, with Chevron asking the Bush administration to cut off trade preferences to Ecuador, and anti-Chevron activists appealing to Barack Obama to push the issue through Congress and ensure the country a fair trial.

So with this in mind, over the past year, Pennsylvania NGO The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) was invited to work with members of Ecuador's constitutional assembly and draft RoN, a legal document that environmentalists hope will mark a milestone in Ecuadorian and international law.

Here's the bill's first article: "Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution." By granting nature the right to its own "processes," CELDF hopes to create safeguards against corrupt governments and foreign businesses, which currently operate unchecked and with impunity. Jessica Loudis is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn who specialises in Latin America and US politics.

Obviously, as the first constitutional document to recognize nature as having rights, the RoN raises many difficult and nuanced legal questions. At what point exactly does human development infringe on nature's right to exist? Who is capable of invoking RoN, and where does their authority come from? Finally, can a piece of legislature this ambiguous deliver on its promise to stand up against the behemoth of neoliberalism?

Fresh beginnings

One way of considering these questions, and more broadly, the problems underlying RoN, is through Hannah Arendt and her thinking about rights. As one of the founders of modern human rights theory - as well as one of its harshest critics - Arendt is crucial for understanding the legal arguments that underpin contemporary human rights law, and in cases such as this one, the difficulties that can arise in applying them to alternate agendas. For Arendt, the primary function of rights - the function that failed so dramatically in the years prior to 1941 - is to preserve the basic life and dignity of individuals, either from states or transnational forces.

But the great paradox in human rights is where exactly the authority to protect them should be found - at the level of the state, which can so easily violate them, or on a global level, which runs the risk of lacking sufficient bite to follow its bark. By rooting RoN in a national constitution, the framers have put themselves in the odd position of attempting to claim universality through invoking the language of rights, yet still finding themselves subject to the discretion and oversight of a state.

Another helpful Arendtian concept for thinking about how to use The Rights of Nature is through the notion of natality, or "the capacity for beginning," which Arendt believes to be innate to every human. For Arendt, natality signifies not just birth, but also the possibility of radical newness, of remaking the world over and over again through "the entry of a novel creature... as something entirely new." Natality, in other words, is the thing that both enables politics and also saves it from itself through offering the possibility of renewal, and as such, the possibility of difference. Writing in the aftermath of the Second World War - a moment of total political devastation - Arendt found solace in the potential to begin again.

Thinking back to Ecuador, in the wake of oil spills, massive deforestation and the near destruction of the country's ecosystem, the language of the RoN reflects a fairly Arendtian conclusion: rather than draw up legislation premised on specific policy proposals which can be circumvented or ignored, the referendum is designed towards loftier ideals, and thus left deliberately open-ended in order to preserve the very possibility of a future.

A quick caveat here: In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt noted that one of the greatest perils to human rights was that it could lapse into the rhetoric of animal rights, and thus losing sight of the fundamental dignity of man. In light of this concern, while Arendt is a helpful tool for evaluating the RoN, I'm certain that she would have loathed the application of her thinking in this context. Nevertheless, RoN does take a cue from Arendt, and borrows from her the notion that rights are necessary to preserve life in all its diversity.

Weighing the possibilities

Given that the bill is designed to protect the continuity of nature, it would make sense that its proponents use natality as a criterion for deciding whether or not the RoN has been violated. That is to say, in making decisions about drilling for oil or deforesting the Amazon - in short, actions that would disturb existing patterns - these choices must be carefully weighed against whether or not they would foreclose the possibility of a future, and moreover, a future that could be radically different.

For example, if a chemical manufacturer proposes to build a plant whose production could alter the ecosystem around it, then one means of evaluation would be to determine if nature could successfully reestablish itself after the plant has disappeared. This doesn't mean that all incursions into Ecuador's environment or natural resources should be prohibited, but it does mean that the government must seriously consider whether or not an action could permanently scar its natural surrounds.

At this point, the referendum could be either a wild success or prove simply useless. With CELDF fielding calls from all around the world to help write environmental law into new constitutions (including Nepal's), Ecuador may very well establish a trend of global legal environmentalism. On the other hand, if the RoN is invoked too often and too easily, it'll probably be perceived as an obstacle to economic growth and pitted politically against the needs of citizens. For RoN to work, activists must frame the preservation of nature as a project with immediate and tangible benefits for Ecuadorians, underlining the urgency of both environmental and economic crises. Without making the implications of the RoN tangibly real to Ecuadorians, implementation will be impossible. It's one thing to grant rights to nature; it's quite another to make sure they're actually protected.

¿Si se puede?

As John McCain and Barack Obama prepare to wage their foreign policy battles over the middle east, another much closer region remains a lacuna in the ongoing contest. Latin America has barely featured in the race, despite its historical and persisting centrality in US strategic thinking and despite the growing population of Latinos in the country. Obama will have to hope that his Latin American silence proves golden.

Latin America came up briefly during the primary season. In the November/December 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, Hillary Clinton laid out her foreign policy blueprint for a Clinton presidency, declaring rather blandly that her stance was one of "vigorous engagement" with Latin America. The strategy behind this statement was twofold: first, to call attention to Bush's failed promise to build stronger relations throughout the continent (and perhaps to critique the administration's Cold War approach to the so-called "rogue" Latin American socialist states) and also to cater to her active and substantial Hispanic voter base.

Not to be outdone, Obama, the soon-to-be Democratic nominee, followed suit, also calling for more "vigorous engagement" with the continent, distinguishing himself from Clinton only in terms of his views on Cuba. Clinton's Foreign Affairs article was published several months after she promised to uphold the administration's draconian approach towards travel restrictions to Cuba, which Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation aptly described as "a policy in which people have to choose between attending their mother's funeral, or their father's." (The current policy allows Cuban-Americans to return to the island once every three years, and only after clearing a veritable Olympic course of bureaucratic hurdles). Smelling blood, at a Cuban Independence Day celebration in Miami in late May, Obama unveiled his own approach towards Cuba, emphasizing a greater leniency towards travel and a willingness to relax the 46-year trade embargo (a policy only a year younger than Obama himself).

Crisis darkens in Burma

Junta tightens political grip in Burma

Hopes for a political breakthrough in Burma have begun to dwindle after the reigning military junta announced it won 92% approval on a referendum for a military-drafted constitution last weekend. Under the junta's control, international aid groups have been prevented from accessing areas hardest hit by the cyclone, including the Irrawaddy Delta, which bore the brunt of the storm. Additionally, some international aid groups have accused the military of confiscating their food, with others refusing to speak out against the government for fear of being banned from the country. In light of the junta's reluctance to work with humanitarian organizations, the UN has decided to send a top official to Burma to persuade leaders to comply with foreign aid. In the two weeks since Cyclone Nargis struck Burma, 128,000 people have been killed and entire communities have been destroyed, devastating the country's infrastructure and exposing the brutal policies of the nation's current ruling junta.

The toD verdict: In addition to wreaking havoc on Burma's population and infrastructure, Cyclone Nargis has exposed the country to a new threat: harsher government crackdowns in the wake of increased international scrutiny. In the weeks following the crisis, governments and aid organizations from all over the world have focused their attention on Burma, inundating the country with aid packages and field workers, and furthermore, threatening to destabilise the country's tightly-guarded political insularity. As a result, the government has responded with stricter controls against foreigners, and a series of measures designed to affirm its "legitimate" and "popularly mandated" authority.

In tandem with the government's efforts to consolidate their power, one of Nargis' most pronounced effects has been to pit Burma's autocratic junta against NGOs and international government. The devastation in Burma - and the government's failure to respond to it - have raised complex sets of questions about outsiders' right to intervene and at what point exactly political sovereignty must cede to the imperatives of human rights. As the death toll rises and the threat of disease grows, these are questions which cannot be put on hold.
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"Indian Mujahideen" take responsibility for Jaipur bombings

A group calling themselves the Indian Mujahideen has claimed responsibility for a spate of bombings that took place in Jaipur this week, killing 61 people and injuring over 216. Eight bombs were strapped to bicycles and detonated in  crowded shopping areas of the city, leading police to suspect the attack was orchestrated by the Bangladeshi militant group Arkat-ul-Jihad al Islami. According to Jaipur media, a local news station received an email from the Mujahideen declaring war on India and threatening to kill tourists. The email also included a video of a bicycle with a bomb attached to it. Authorities are suspicious of the credibility of this claim, and have not made any arrests.

Pentagon plants "surrogates" in US TV

Pentagon wages war on American public

Following the publication of an eleven-page New York Times exposé, the Pentagon has been revealed as having intimate ties with over 150 TV military analysts, shaping their opinions of sensitive military issues through confidential briefings and trips, and in many cases, using them strategically as government mouthpieces. After successfully suing the Department of Defense for over 8,000 pages of emails, transcripts and messages detailing Pentagon operations from Iraq to Guantánamo Bay, the Times has uncovered a vast media campaign aimed at promoting U.S. foreign policy through these high profile military analysts, or what the C.I.A. nicknamed ‘key influentials.' According to the Times: "Internal Pentagon documents repeatedly refer to the military analysts as "message force multipliers" or "surrogates" who could be counted on to deliver administration "themes and messages" to millions of Americans ‘in the form of their own opinions.'"

Basra turmoil continues

Violence persists in Basra

Fighting between Iraqi soldiers and the Mahdi army's Shia militiamen has continued in the city of Basra since a campaign was undertaken on Tuesday to rid the city of "lawless gangs." After three days of small battles which have left 50 dead and over 300 injured, the violence has reached a stalemate, and the militia have shown no signs of relenting. According to a figure released by the British military, of the 30,000 Iraqi troops deployed to Basra to stabilise the city, nearly 16,000 of those troops were from the city itself, whose police force is notorious for being heavily infiltrated by the militia.

Cold War approach to terror offers chilly results

Cold War approach to terror offers chilly results

According to a report from US and EU intelligence officials, there has been little success in penetrating the upper echelons of the al-Qaida organisation since the United States declared its "war on terrorism" over a decade ago, largely due to a continued reliance on Cold War tactics. The 1970s approach of infiltrating organisations with spies and offering cash rewards to informants has floundered, as agencies lack people with appropriate language skills or backgrounds, and also because radical Islamists have proven unwilling to abandon religious causes in exchange for material profit. Instead of prioritising training and skills development, intelligence services have focused heavily on technology, assuming spy satellites and high-tech equipment could compensate for deficits in human resources.

While the CIA enjoyed limited successes in Afghanistan and Iraq - buying off warlords and informants with suitcases full of money - al-Qaida’s central organisations in Pakistan and Afghanistan have remained totally immune to leaks. In spite of working alongside Arab intelligence agencies from 1992-2004 in the hunt to find Osama bin Laden, no progress was made into cracking the network, and the head of the unit eventually resigned. Compounding the problem of the organisation’s extreme discipline is the disposable quality of its soldiers, which create an even greater security risk for foreign spies attempting to move through the al-Qaida ranks.

The toD verdict: The failures of the intelligence services echo the failures of the military in that they reflect an unwillingness to pay attention to the realities on the ground, and instead prefer to respond to imposed fictions. Rather than training spies in Arabic or recruiting potential double agents - not an impossible task, as several Americans have been successfully inducted into al-Qaida in recent years- agencies have chosen to channel money into initiatives that have proven ineffective and hopelessly out of touch. Perhaps in another ten years or so they will decide to fix the problem.

Palestinian talks collapse

Power sharing talks between rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas failed after Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas blamed Hamas officials for refusing to concede leadership. The talks took place in Yemen, and were mediated by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who called for a new round of elections and the institution of a national unity government. Hamas officials said they were willing to enter into a power sharing agreement if their prime minister, Ismail Haniya, was reappointed.

China escalates crackdown against Tibetan protestors

In spite of recent assertions that protests had calmed, Chinese news agency Xinhua now reports that anti-Beijing protests have moved beyond the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China (TAR) and that the Chinese government has responded with a harsh crackdown on protesters. Hundreds of troops have been deployed to Tibetan regions and all foreign journalists have been evacuated from the country in the largest response to the protests since they began on 10 March. Twenty-four people have been arrested and over 170 people have "turned themselves over" to the authorities since the uprisings began.

Bin Laden issues threat to EU

In a new internet audio posting, Osama bin Laden threatened the European Union for insulting the prophet Muhammad following the re-issue of the controversial cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in major newspapers across Denmark.  Released on the prophet’s birthday and the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, bin Laden accused the EU of going “overboard in your unbelief” and claimed that the EU was intentionally targeting Muslim women and children on behalf of US interests. Bin Laden is believed to be hiding somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

China modernises People’s Liberation Army
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Following leaders’ repeated insistence that China needs a stronger military to control crises domestically and abroad, Beijing has recently approved a 17.6% increase in China’s military budget, bringing the annual amount to €38 billion. The attention to the military has drawn international scrutiny, as neighboring countries fear China is trying to fashion itself into a military superpower. Others worry about the country’s plans for Tibet. Although China has claimed that it only intends to modernise the army and improve living conditions for soldiers, it has clearly decided to model this process on matching US military strength, stating that it no longer wants “to be pushed around."

Russia requests NATO meeting over Kosovo arms supply

Russia issued a request for an emergency Russia-NATO council meeting after the US authorised a decision to provide arms to Kosovo on Wednesday. According to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass, Russia has accused Washington of violating international agreements by offering Kosovo arms, and challenged the claim that they will be used to fight terrorism. Alongside Belgrade, Russia has stood in firm opposition against Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.

Israel's language of violence

Israeli media and the language of conflict

In a recent London Review of Books article, Yonatan Mendel, a former correspondent for the Israeli news agency Walla examines the semantics of the Israeli media, making the case that “journalists and publishers see themselves as actors within the Zionist movement, not as critical outsiders.” Analysing the Israeli media's use of language, Mendel found that while Israelis ‘confirm’ or ‘say,’ Palestinians always ‘claim;’ and while Israelis ‘respond’ to violence, Palestinians ‘provoke,’ or ‘attack.’ Additionally, Palestinians killed by Israeli attacks often tend to be posthumously "promoted" – after a Hamas secretary was assassinated in 2003, media organisations immediately adopted the IDF assertion that he was head of the military wing of Hamas in Gaza.

Beyond lexical choices, the very infrastructure of Israeli media reflects a similar unwillingness to grant Palestinians a fair voice. Native Arabic speakers are almost never hired as Israeli correspondents for Arab affairs – they must always be Jews. Foreign media deemed insufficiently pro-Israel have been prevented from broadcasting. But while these measures have been internalized in Israeli media, “a majority of Israelis feel that their media are too left-wing, insufficiently patriotic, not on Israel’s side.”

The toD verdict: While the Israeli media is careful to regulate how issues are framed and language is used, by employing media to prop up government policy, Israel distances itself further and further from any kind of real journalism and as well as from the realities on the ground. By maintaining a system that is fundamentally exclusionary, the media becomes little more than a state mouthpiece with few claims to legitimacy. In this respect, perhaps what is most telling in Israeli journalism is what is not being said.

Kidnapped Iraqi archbishop found dead

A Chaldean Catholic archbishop kidnapped last month in northern Iraq is now dead, according to reports from Iraqi church officials. Paulos Faraj Rahho was abducted in Mosul last month after leaving mass, the latest in a growing list of Chaldean clerics who have been kidnapped since the onset of the war in 2003. His body was found buried near Mosul.

Tibetan protesters arrested in India

More than 100 Tibetan exiles were arrested this week as they began a six-month march in protest of China’s control of Tibet. The marchers, mostly monks and nuns, were arrested in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh after police detained one of their members and the rest of the group sat in the road in protest. Beginning the march in Dharamsala, the home of the Tibetan government in exile, the group planned on reaching the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in August, timing their arrival with the beginning of the Olympic games in Beijing. The group has since undertaken a hunger strike in protest of the arrests.

Palestine's Iran-Contra?

U.S. puppeteers civil war in Palestine

Confidential documents have recently surfaced revealing that the Bush administration drafted and pursued a plan to incite a Palestinian civil war following Hamas' electoral triumph in 2006, when Hamas defeated the fragmented and weakened Fatah party. In response, the United States demanded that Hamas recognise Israel and renounce violence, and then promptly cut off all aid to the Palestinian Authority when the Islamist group refused.

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