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The UN, People & Politics

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Remembering the Best and Worst of 2011
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All in all, 2011 will be remembered as a seminal year, principally due to innovative political uprisings that shook the foundations of established orders. This has produced some hope that a politics of impossibility may lead to an as yet unimaginable global dawn, writes Richard Falk.


16th January 2012 - Published by Transcend Media Service

2011 was an exciting and pivotal year in many respects, although its main outcomes will remain inconclusive for years to come.  We will learn in 2012 whether we are moving closer to fulfilling our hopes, dreams, and goals or are trying to interpret and overcome a recurrence of disappointment and demoralization with respect to progressive change in world affairs. The stakes for some societies, and for humanity, have rarely been higher.

Undoubtedly, the most dramatic moments of the prior year were associated with those many remarkable happenings that collectively became known as the Arab Spring, a complex, varied, and even contradictory phenomenon that did not occur in an historical vacuum. There were many antecedent events, as well as prior heroes and victims, known and unknown, and numerous identified and unidentified villains. Mohamed Bouazizi’s extraordinary self-immolation on December 17, 2010 in the interior Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid provided a catalyzing experience that will never be forgotten by those longing for justice and change.  This suicide achieved much more than highlight personal tragedy, although this sad ending of a young besieged life was itself a most sorrowful occurrence. Bouazizi’s death awakened the Tunisian public to an intolerable set of national conditions that pertained to the whole society. With explosive spontaneity Bouazizi’s tragic death generated Tunisian uprisings throughout the country that led quickly and surprisingly to the fall of the dictatorial and corrupt 23 year old regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali a mere five weeks later, a startling course of events that provided a spark for volcanic action in Egypt, and indeed the entire region.

The brave and transformative Egyptian demonstrations of January 2011, centered in Tahrir Square, contributed to the world many images of populist energy and courage associated with a political awakening of vivid and massive proportions. The fall of Mubarak in Egypt inspired people throughout the region and eventually the world. What was achieved in Tunisia and Egypt reestablished the agency of a mobilized populace that nonviolently challenges an entrenched regime of an oppressive and corrupt character that had endured for some 30 long years.  More than surprising developments in Tunisia and Egypt, regimes regarded as ultra-stable by their Western backers, was the exposure of several distortions embedded in prevalent Orientalist teachings to the effect that Arabs had a slave mentality. In effect, oppressed Arabs were consigned to their unhappy fates because they lacked the will or capacity to embark upon political undertakings to challenge unjust political structures, were reconciled to their subservience, and had no social imaginary that insisted on the dignity of ordinary people and demanded justice for society. In the sharpest contrast, the Tahrir political spectacle exhibited an Arab population prepared to risk death and harsh imprisonment so as to achieve freedom, human rights, democracy, as well as an equitable economic order.

These were inspiring uprisings that achieved unbelievably successful results, toppling tyrants long entrenched at the pinnacles of state power. Many participants and commentators believed that these extraordinary uprisings were accomplishing revolutionary results by toppling the old regimes and thereby transforming the political setting. Unfortunately, such enthusiasm was a disheartening exaggeration, and definitely remains premature. A revolutionary process implies radically transforming the political, economic, and social structures so as to produce just and democratic societies.  Such work has yet to be done anywhere in the Arab world, and it will not be easy, or accomplished without overcoming formidable and desperate resistance from beleaguered governmental, societal, and international elites that had long benefitted from the old regime, and would stand lose from genuine political reform.

Tunisia seems to be moving forward toward the realization of its revolutionary promise, although even progress on its road of political reconstruction is slow, uncertain, and replete with twists and turns. Tunisia has not yet experienced what could be fairly called a revolutionary outcome, although it is so far free from a counter-revolutionary backlash. At this time the overall outlook for Tunisia remains exciting and positive. The same cannot now be said for Egypt, which is gripped by a series of deadly unresolved struggles that leaves its future very much in doubt, and makes us wonder whether 2012 will suggest an Egyptian outcome that is, at best, outwardly reformist, while remaining inwardly regressive. It would be a mistake to ignore counter-revolutionary maneuvers and horizons, abetted by external actors that never privately welcomed the Arab Spring and would welcome restoration of the old regimes, if possible with new faces and a political style that was more superficially congenial with democratic procedures.

And yet many Egyptians continue to struggle on behalf of a revolutionary future. Despite the violence of the Cairo regime without Mubarak they returned in late 2011 to Tahrir Square for a second cycle of demonstrations. The show of unrestrained state violence and cruelty used to crush this renewal of popular demands for democracy, civilian governance, and justice was a reminder that the ouster of Mubarak was the beginning, not the end, of a long and difficult struggle to shape the political future of the country. The Egyptian army that last January seemed almost to greet the fall of Mubarak with a sigh of relief, now seems to be showing its hand as intensely anti-democratic and hostile to fundamental social and economic reforms that might threaten their privileges, but are urgently needed if Egyptian democracy is to become more than a discredited slogan. Also, the domestic situation is complicated by growing tensions between secularists and Islamists as to what sort of role Islam should play in Egypt that are susceptible to manipulation by malevolent outsiders. Although each country in the region is experiencing the Arab Spring in its own way, the form of the Egyptian unfolding, for better or worse, is the one that is most likely to exert a significant influence beyond its borders.

It must also be admitted that the Arab Spring has already produced its share of extremely disappointing results: Uprisings generated an escalation of oppression in Bahrain, a despondent resignation in Saudi Arabia and Algeria, a destructive and very violent NATO intervention in Libya, a situation of unresolved chaos and violence in Yemen, and a series of inconclusive bloody encounters in Syria.

The unanticipated Occupy Movement

Among the most extraordinary of extra-regional impacts of the events in the Arab world was the totally unanticipated Occupy Movement, starting in Wall Street, but spreading with the speed of an uncontrollable wild fire to cities throughout the United States, and then around the world. The word Occupy was given a radically transformed meaning through this movable feast of radical reclaimings of political space through nonviolent tactics that were confrontational toward the established order, including especially a display of anger about the excesses of capitalism and financial institutions. The movement was indistinct in its contours and goals, seemingly dedicated to the realization of democratic values on a global scale, particularly with respect to the global economy, but without any confidence that desirable ends could be reached by way of conventional politics: elections, political parties, institutional lawmaking, and governmental policies.

The creativity of the movement was embodied in its radical reliance on pure democracy to manage its own collective behavior, giving equality of participation the highest priority. So far, the Occupy Movements have lacked a clear agenda of substantive initiatives and demands, remained leaderless, and operating without a program or even a consistent spokesperson, but in varying ways deferring to the daily needs and wishes of its militants camped out in dozens of city squares and parks. Whether this kind of politics represents the first stage of a new revolutionary politics capable of both challenging the modern capitalist state and of transforming neoliberal globalization into a robust realization of global democracy is most uncertain at present, but may become clearer throughout 2012.  At the very least, the political imagination of resisters in the West to injustice has been temporarily lifted from the doldrums of passivity and despair. The idea that popular discontent need not await the outcome of normal politics is again credible. Such politics can move to occupy and maybe, just maybe, stay around long enough to mount a political challenge that shakes the foundations of what was triumphantly dubbed ‘market-oriented constitutionalism’ at the end of the Cold War.  We should begin to ask ourselves whether we are witnessing the birthpangs of what I have called ‘anarchism without anarchism.’  Or is this just a political dance that will continue only so long as the music plays?

There were many other important happenings in 2011, some encouraging, some foreboding, and some ambiguous. Only a few can be mentioned.

First of all, the speech given by Mohamed Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to the UN General Assembly on September 25, putting forward a clear official argument for the first time calling for an acceptance of Palestinian statehood and sovereignty by the United Nations. The forcefulness of the language used by President Abbas exceeded expectations, and was especially impressive in light of the intense campaign of intimidation mounted by Israeli officials and their American counterparts to warn the Palestinians of dire consequences if they persisted with this political initiative. The speech also was political theater at its best, displaying the solidarity of most governments with the Palestinian effort to escape the ordeals of occupation, refugee status, and pervasive exploitation. Abbas’ words were greeted with explosive applause that no other head of state received at last year’s session of the General Assembly.

As might be expected given the varied conditions of deprivation, not every Palestinian welcomed the PA initiative. There were some well grounded anxieties that any establishment of Palestinian statehood at this time would involve a tacit acceptance of Israeli ‘facts on the ground,’ including settlements, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing, and in such a process sacrifice inalienable Palestinian rights. Some Palestinians also worried that such an international acceptance of the PA would inevitable sideline the parent representative body, the PLO, serving as a prelude to bargaining away the rights of Palestinian refugees and exiles, as well as excluding Hamas from any representational role, which would effectively deny the people of Gaza any opportunity to participate in the diplomacy designed to control their future.

Encouragingly, in October the PA followed up the bold Abbas speech by seeking and gaining membership as a state in UNESCO by an overwhelming  vote of 107-14 despite a barrage of punitive threats and responses by Washington and Tel Aviv (U.S. is committed to withholding 22% of the UNESCO budget for the coming year).  On December 13th the Palestinian flag was raised at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris as Palestine became the 195th  member of the organization. This play of forces at UNESCO is a microcosm of worldwide political sentiments favorable to the Palestinian struggle.

Despite this victory, it now appears that the PA has again lost its nerve, and is retreating to Ramallah. It seems that the PA will make no further effort to gain recognition as a state by the Security Council or General Assembly or attempt to be accepted as a member of other UN institutions, such as the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. If this retreat materializes, it will encourage the Palestinian people to believe that only politics from below can hope to achieve emancipatory results.

We must also not lose sight of existential Palestinian hardships and suffering that is something that the people living under occupation or confined in Gaza or refugee camps experience day by day, hour by hour. These miserable conditions experienced by Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza have persisted for decades, and there is no end in sight. Israel continues to expand its settlements in defiance of international law and world public opinion and goes on insisting on its acceptance as ‘a Jewish state’ despite claiming to be the only democratic country in the region, and the only government that treats its citizens on a non-discriminatory basis. This misleading Israeli propaganda hides policies and patterns of governmental conduct that have long been multiply abusive toward the non-Jewish Palestinian minority in Israel that numbers about 1.4 million or about 20% of the total population.

What the Palestinian people endured in 2011 was mainly experienced as a dismal confirmation of continuity. Perhaps, the Abbas abortive effort at the UN will seem in 2012 to have sounded the deathknell of diplomacy from above as the way forward for the Palestinian people. In its place will grow an increasing reliance on various forms of borderless and nonviolent politics from below. At present, the ever strengthening global solidarity movement encourages such a shift in emphasis. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Campaign (BDS) is presently the clearest and most encouraging expression of this Palestinian move away from inter-governmental frameworks of conflict solution.  And for BDS maybe 2012 will be the year that sanctions come to reinforce the stunning successes already achieved with respect to boycotts and divestment.

The climate change clock

In 2011, the climate change clock continued to tick. Greenhouse gas emissions keep rising far above safe levels, despite the scientific community’s warnings that the failure to regulate emissions is causing present harm of a severe sort and threatening much worse in the years and decades ahead. By the time such warnings are likely to be heeded because the damage has become so widespread and manifest, it may well be too late, as the effects of a carbon buildup cannot be reversed after certain thresholds are crossed. Already extreme weather in the form of storms, tornados, floods, and droughts have brought devastation and suffering to many societies in the world, especially those most vulnerable due to their geography or poverty. The early effects of global warning have been most severely experienced in sub-Saharan Africa where 33 of the 48 least developed countries are situated. The annual UN conferences on climate change have run up against a stonewall of geopolitical irresponsibility, led by the U.S. refusal to allow any framework of regulation to come into being that imposes obligations on states, burdens the private sector, and questions the cult of consumerism. The EU seems ready to offer the world a more constructive approach to climate change, but whether it can rally enough political support to impose controls on the principal emitters of carbon dioxide remains doubtful. It is crucial that those seeking a just future for humanity do not neglect the challenge of climate change, which is less tangible and immediate in its harmful impact than other concerns, but no less deadly. Without adjustments prior to catastrophic events, ecological and civilizational collapse could make a nightmare of the near future for all peoples living on the planet.

The meltdown and damage at the Daichi Fukushima nuclear reactor complex initiated by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 are a foretaste of what can happen anywhere in the world. For Japan to experience ‘a second Hiroshima’ both deepens the tragedy and is testimony to a sad irony of history. It also challenges Japan and the world to find safer alternatives to nuclear energy to meet the demands of society, and raises questions about the sustainability of consumer-based modernity with its high per capita energy demand. For other countries, especially the United States, the unmonitored huge energy requirements needed to maintain 21st century military establishments is a further aggravating circumstance, with many secondary harmful effects, including accident-prone deep sea oil drilling and the attempted conversion of environmentally devastating tar sands into usable forms of energy. Fukushima exhibited the dire consequences of natural catastrophe abetted by human error and wrongdoing in the form of corporate mendacity relied upon to hide risks from the public and governmental complicity in issuing false reassurances about the extent of the damage and the degree of exposure of the Japanese population to lethal doses of radioactivity in water, food, and air.

Disturbing, also, were unacceptably belligerent moves by Israel and the United States threatening to wage war against Iran. This appetite for waging war against Muslim countries is making the projected clash of civilizations a self-fulfilling prophesy as it becomes established as an undeniable historical reality. In the first decade of this century the West has already intervened militarily in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, as well as gearing up for war against Iran, and even threatening to use force in Syria and mounting deadly drone attacks in Pakistan. In all these post-9/11 encounters there was no serious claim of self-defense and no UN mandate except in Libya where a limited protective authority to use force was approved by the UN Security Council, and later improperly converted by NATO into an instrument to sway the internal play of forces in an internal struggle within Libya. These were each unlawful wars that inflicted devastation, heavy casualties, and massive displacement on the target societies. Each was in its essence an imperial war fought far from the imperial homelands, and each represented a strategic failure by the imperial power, a definite signal to the world of imperial decline, further confirmed by economic troubles at home and the rise of extremist oppositional parties with highly irresponsible agendas and ‘solutions.’ For instance, all of the Republican Party presidential candidates are ‘climate skeptics’ who defy the scientific consensus, which should be understood as a turning away from evidence and reason, in effect, a flight from reality.

All in all, 2011 will be remembered as a seminal year, principally due to innovative political uprisings that shook the foundations of established orders. More subtly, also, 2011 dramatizded a series of challenges that will not be resolved for a long time as to the sustainability of development and the global maintenance of stable ecological and economic conditions. These challenges seem to exceed the capacity of a world of sovereign states to address in acceptable forms. Two major effects are observable: first, a widespread politics of denial to divert attention from the ticking bombs of worsening conditions associated with these unmet challenges; and secondly, the exhilarating realization that toppling oppressive structures of government in the Arab world has already moved beyond the realm of the possible, having achieved more than could have been dreamed of in 2010, and producing some hope that a politics of impossibility may lead to an as yet unimaginable global dawn.


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. He is currently serving his fourth year of a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).

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