Isn’t Canada committed to human rights?

Once again, human rights groups are sounding alarms with regard to Canada’s questionable actions and decisions in the sphere of human rights. No more than two months ago, Canada cast a blind eye on the blatant American involvement in torture by amending a national document to avoid naming America as a “suspected torturer.”

Last week, the federal government ruled that prisoners captured by Canadian soldiers on foreign ground do not have equal rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Instead, Justice Anne Mactavish announced that detainees had rights under Afghan and International law. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association claims that by denying detainees these rights, Canada places their fate in the hands of torturers, with no hope of a fair trial.

The Harper government, pleased with the decision, stood in opposition to a decision made by the chairman of the Military Police Complaints Commissions to order a public hearing, which would result in an investigation into the fate of prisoners. This government has been persistent in refusing to provide full access to relevant documents and information for the purposes of the investigation, going so far as to blank out entire pages. They cry “national security” while human rights activists retort “intended obscurity.”

Though the Harper government may have the Canadian Evidence Act to back up its secrecy and discretion, human rights groups have specific examples when it comes to the battle surrounding torture. In 2006, Canadian troops landed in Kandahar, handing over detainees to Afghan authorities. Soon after, the world saw the release of a report that made allegations about the torture the detainees suffered. The Canadian government eventually conceded to conducting surprise visits to Afghan jails. It was on one of these visits that an Afghan man was found beaten and unconscious, indicating that torture had occurred.

Though the handing-over of detainees ceased for a period after the incident, it has recently resumed. This leaves human rights groups and the general public asking, “What is our government thinking?” If denying detainees the rights outlined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms means sentencing them to the unavoidable fate of torture, Canada fails to uphold its obligation explicitly outlined by the United Nations Declaration of Human rights. As a signatory to the UNDHR, Canada must protect those detainees from torture, which casts the government’s recent decisions in an even more negative light. Failing to prevent torture makes them a direct accessory to the criminal act itself.

Though the public hearing called by Chairman Peter Tinsley will cost approximately $2 million, and the public inquiry itself would add months to the investigation, few would disagree that the time and money are a small price to pay when human beings’ essential rights are on the line.

More than just a random gun crime

It’s been over two years since the 2005 Boxing Day shooting that killed 15-year-old Jane Creba. Thanks to our inept judicial system, those responsible for Creba’s death have yet to be brought to justice.

Last Friday, Justice Timothy Lipson lessened the charges for two of the men involved.

Only one of the accused, Jeremiah Valentine, will be tried for second-degree murder charges while other men involved, Louis Woodcock and Tyshaun Barnett, have had their charges lessened from second-degree murder to manslaughter. All three are also charged with attempted murder for shooting and wounding six bystanders in the same incident. Four other men are charged with manslaughter in the Creba case.

After the shooting, the public demanded tougher gun laws and sentences. Why then? Toronto had already seen nearly 80 murders in the city that year, 51 of which were gun related. Innocent people had been caught in the crossfire before, including Jason Huxtable, 18, while visiting a friend living in the wrong area of town, and Livvette Olivea Miller, 26, caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting, but their murders barely made the news for a few days.

The truth is that little was done before the Boxing Day shooting because Jane Creba was white. Most people who live comfortably and safely in the suburbs don’t pause when they hear about shootings in poorer areas, especially if the victim of a shooting is black. Sadly, these suburbanites assume that the victim was probably involved in gang activity, and therefore brought it upon him or herself.

Of course, we don’t all think this way. I would hope that the majority of us are well educated enough to know the difference between being black and being in a gang. Still, even after we recognize the escalating problem of gun violence, what are we doing to make a difference?

The first change we must make is political. It starts with who we elect to government. From the start of his mayoral campaign, David Miller made it clear that crime was not a great concern to him, and it doesn’t seem probable that he will take effective action to mend this problem.

It wasn’t until the shooting of Jane Creba that Miller took minimal interest in restricting gun laws. The mayor admitted that the shooting affected him because he remembered shopping with his family on Yonge Street just as Creba was shopping with her family. If Creba had not been white and shot in an area familiar to David Miller, would he have shown as much interest?

Then there is Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Given his white, upper- class background, it’s doubtful he relates to the majority of people caught up in gang violence, innocent or not, because they do not live in similar circumstances. Instead of programs designed to uplift those susceptible to joining gangs by ending the cycle of poverty, Harper is intent on creating diligent crime and punishment laws. A large branch of his supporters would never allow him to ban handguns.

If we the public wish to make a change, we have to start with our political choices. We need politicians who are able to relate to more than a minority wealthy elite living in safe areas, but rather to all residents of the city. Only then will we see change for the better

Tibet: Not an issue of Good versus Evil

For supposed peace-loving individuals seeking inner harmony with nature, Buddhist monks seem to be doing a lot of rioting. Violent clashes between ethnic Tibetan protestors and Chinese authorities over the past week have highlighted simmering tensions in Chinese domestic politics. But it is precisely that: domestic politics.

While an unconfirmed number of protestors have died as a result of the Chinese crackdown, international media coverage generally overlooks the acts of violence carried out by the protestors. This is no passive campaign of civil disobedience, but rather a full scale urban riot led by Buddhist monks only too willing to use violence as a means to further their agenda.

What began as a peaceful protest to commemorate the 49th anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule has been hijacked by rowdy monks, and other Tibetan radicals. Protestors have targeted police stations and other government offices in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, symbols of Chinese authority. However, less appetizing is violence targeted toward the Han Chinese population in the capital, who are specifically singled out by the ethnic Tibetan protestors. As Chinese-owned businesses are looted and set ablaze, individuals are physically attacked. On the Internet, there is a video of an innocent bicyclist thrown to the ground, and then subsequently stoned by a mob of goons. These attacks are on Han Chinese, but also the predominantly Muslim Hui people, and can only be labeled as xenophobic, ethnically-based hate crimes.

While the Dalai Lama has distanced himself from the violent rioter conduct, he’s rejected calls to publicly ask the protestors to stop. The declared objective of the radical protestors is outright independence. While some may be inclined to support the independence movements of distinctive ethnic minority populations, anyone with a basic understanding of China will understand why the central government cannot allow this.

China is not made up of one people. Some 56 distinct ethnicities make up the over 1.3 billion people that inhabit the mainland, and for the sake of its national integrity, China cannot carve out its territory. Another point of grievance is the Chinese government’s policy to encourage the migration of the Han Chinese into Tibet. The Dalai Lama claims this to be “cultural genocide.” This type of xenophobic rhetoric might be expected from the likes of Lou Dobbs, but this does not bode well when a supposedly enlightened figure entertains the notion of cultural contamination due to an influx of immigration.

The protestors are undoubtedly playing into the spotlight of the international media, hoping to embarrass the Chinese government ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Hollywood celebrities such as Richard Gere make the rounds on CNN, attempting to capitalize on the deaths caused by agitators and calling for the boycott of the Olympic Games.

It would be foolish and immoral to support the Chinese government’s crackdown on protestors. But in light of the unwillingness of the mainstream media to explore the intricacies of the issues, a fair portrayal of such counter arguments is absolutely necessary.

The Internet isn’t private

Back in the good ol’ days, when Facebook was exclusively a post-secondary student networking site, I let incriminating photos slide. As far as I was concerned, the “remove tag” function was a vanity option for insecure undergrads phobic of unflattering camera angles.

Then my teenage brother got on Facebook. After that, some younger cousins. Former high school teachers, current professors, and mothers of bygone boyfriends followed in rapid succession. It wasn’t long before I became concerned at the fragments of my life I allowed to be documented.

While I adamantly refuse by superficial grounds—dopey grins and bad-hair days—to remove my name from Facebook photos, I am careful to edit myself out of pictures that draw attention to particularly uncouth moments of indiscretion. There are parts of my life that simply need not to be seen by everyone I know.

Online screening of prospective employees on networking sites is now practically standard procedure. A few months ago, an on-campus acquaintance attested to having been recruited by a family member to comb the Facebook profile of another student for hiring purposes. She dutifully, if guiltily, relayed the data she has amassed to her family member, who chose not to hire the applicant for reasons largely attributed to information gleaned from the applicant’s account.

Is this type of uninvited online attention an unfair transgression of personal space? Maybe, but it comes with the territory. As our ongoing obsession with Facebook plainly demonstrates, privacy is a right we will happily forfeit in order to feel socially connected.

That said, online communities don’t always serve a social function: Facebook can also be a handy tool for academic-related discussion. Then again, recent events have shown that even scholastic pursuits can lead to trouble when staged within the public sphere. Just ask Chris Avenir, the first-year Ryerson computer engineering student who served as admin for a group used for exchanging chemistry queries. The innocent online forum for sharing solutions to homework problems morphed into public controversy when the group’s professor caught wind, and denounced it as cheating. Avenir was charged with 147 counts of academic misconduct—one for himself in addition to each of the 146 students in the group—and faced expulsion hearings last week. He won’t be expelled, but it’s a chilling testament to how Internet- based action can have serious consequences.

Facebook may be a ready-made arena for the clashing of public and private realms, but the social networking site is merely a microcosm for the Internet as a whole, where anyone’s personal information is only a Google search away. The Ryerson Facebook scandal is only one example of recent headline-making incidents of online disclosure gone awry.

Late last week, area private school director David Prashker resigned from his post at the Leo Baeck Jewish Day School as a result of an anonymous email circulated among the school’s parents. The e-mail shed light on a website selling poetry Prashker had previously written, some of which included sexual and violent imagery. The incident sparked in the school’s community. Apparently, parents felt that Prashker should have accounted for young students discovering his explicit writings before making them public.

Three words sum up the lesson learned from Avenir and Prashker’s recent exploits: discretion, discretion, discretion. The Internet is a public forum: there is always the risk of personal information falling into the wrong hands. Privacy can exist, but maintaining it is a matter of personal responsibility. Unfortunately, this lesson is often learned too late.

Studying the brain politik

Tradition holds that political views are a byproduct of personality, family values, and social experience. However, intriguing new research has demonstrated that there may be neural mechanisms underlying a person’s preference of one political view over another. An experiment conducted by David

Amodio, assistant professor of psychology at New York University, used a simple computer game of various political affiliations to test whether there was a correlation between those views and the brain. The game tested how participants were able to respond to information that contradicted an accepted pattern of belief systems by creating a natural situation of developing and breaking a pattern.

Amodio and colleagues scanned the brains of 43 subjects during 500 trials of a task designed to test their ability to break from a habitual response. Prior to the experiment, volunteers rated their political leanings based on a scale from negative five (very liberal) to positive five (very conservative). They were given a computerized test in which they were shown one of two stimuli for 100 milliseconds. If an “M” popped up on the screen, the respondent had 500 milliseconds to press a key on the keyboard. If a “W” appeared, the person was told to do nothing.

The task, known as “go/no-go,” is an example of “conflict monitoring.” This explains the situations where we must pay more attention to what is going on. Subjects became accustomed to pressing the button when they saw an “M,” which appeared 80 per cent of the time during the trials. Thus, when a “W” cropped up, participants faced a conflict between their trained response and a new stimulus.

During the course of the experiment, EEG scans monitored participant brain activity. The pattern that emerged dictated that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) played a vital role in the decision-making process. Amodio explained that the ACC activates and signals to other regions of the brain allowed adaptation according to a sudden change.

“The ACC turns off the autopilot and grabs the wheel,” he said.

Those who reported to be strong liberals generally completed the adaptive task more accurately, displaying higher activity in the ACC than conservatives. On average, people who described themselves as politically liberal boasted 2½ times more activity in their ACCs and were more sensitive to the “nogo” cue than their conservative counterparts.

Although understandably wary of generalizations, Amodio believes that these experiments provide valuable insight into the psychological basis of ideology and personality. He plans to conduct similar research with subjects who have a range of views on politically charged topics such as gun control.

Breaking up UTSU’s balancing act

Students highly critical of UTSU’s officially neutral stance on the $18 levy Bubble plebiscite held an event entitled “Take Back Your Student Union” on Wednesday, March 19. The event consisted of a series of workshops and discussions aimed at pushing the student union’s executive board toward taking strong stances on social justice issues.

The day-long event ran from noon to 9 p.m. in UTSU’s main building. Numerous participatory workshops and art-based activities drew a circulating crowd of students throughout the day.

Talks included was “Police Brutality and Systemic Racism,” a discussion given by Rodney Patricio, vice-chair of the National Filipino-Canadian Youth Alliance. Patricio spoke about Filipino youth

According to Patricio, Filipinos walking in groups of more than fi ve are often automatically stopped and asked for ID.

“The police would label a group as a gang, as opposed to just friends, because they were walking in groups,” he said.

Event organizer Ryan Hayes said that student unions have historically been at the forefront of movements for social justice equity, which include movements to stop fee increases.

“The purpose of this event was to bring students together and make a statement of what we think a student union looks like,” he said.

Hayes applauded student unions raising broader issues, such as workers’ rights, poverty, and war.

The day included a discussion about student unionism in Latin America and a video screening presented by Students Against Israeli Apartheid.

Xavier LaFrance, an organizer of 2005’s student strike over tuition in Quebec, moderated a discussion on eliminating all tuition and ancillary fees.

“These events are generally things that the union hasn’t taken positions on in the past,” said Hadia Akhtar, UTSU associate VP university affairs.

“We’re really just trying to create awareness as to what a student union is for, in positions of things, and to not be neutral,” said Akhtar.

The rise of technopolitics

Just in case you needed further evidence that presidential hopefuls are employing that burgeoning area of message distribution, social media—aka, everything on the Internet including social networks, blogs, and websites— just search for the Will.I.Am and Obama music video, “Yes We Can,” on Youtube.

But is the Internet simply a new way of communicating the old message, or are they changing the nature of our politics? That was the topic for discussion at “The Permanent Campaign: The Impact of Technology on Politics,” held at the MaRS building on Tuesday afternoon. Speakers included U of T alum and CBC industry analyst Jesse Hirsh, Dr. Greg Elmer, Ryerson professor and director of the Infoscape Research Lab, and Andrew Coyne, national editor at Maclean’s magazine.

A permanent campaign is one that continues off TV screens and away from public appearances, running around the clock through media such as the Internet. The idea of the permanent campaign is nothing new: though first defined by Jimmy Carter’s advisor Patrick Caddell, it has been around for 200 years.

But, added the conference’s experts, in the political climate of the information age—with its expanded cultural politics, easier transnational travel, increased competition within TV media itself, and the development of social media—the permanent campaign is a must. This kind of marketing requires a large number of decidedly partisan staff and volunteers, usually taking the form of extremely opinionated bloggers. This may be where the Internet has changed politics the most: blogs have become an important part of the election process to influence political writers in more traditional newsmedia.

Perhaps the turn to web-based campaigning is a rehash of a simpler time when people would have known their candidates through face-to-face meetings. Although Internet campaigning and social media is still small in its influence compared to television and public appearances, social media is an area in which uncensored opinions can be divulged and people can contest a statement publicly without regard to political correctness. In this way, the biases that would have been imposed through television and newspapers can be removed. Videos on Youtube and Facebook profiles might seem to divulge more about the personality of each candidate. Social media may change what it means for a candidate to win office based on reputation.

Rez fees go through the leaky roof

Students in residence at New College are nervously rebudgeting at the news that their rent will rise 20 per cent next fall. Many are organizing in opposition—the New College Residence Council and the student activists AlwaysQuestion have planned a protest for Thursday, March 20. New College is looking for a way out of a financial sinkhole dating back at least to the double cohort, but principal Rick Halpern said the fee increase was planned for years, and is not meant to fix the college’s large deficit.

Even if the hike isn’t a direct response to the financial woes, the decision to spring it the all at once, rather than rolling it out over several years, is calculated to shock.

“I saw it as a political intervention whereby I could get the Provost and Simcoe Hall to respond to the college’s situation,” said Halpern. That situation is an operating deficit of $2.3 million for this year alone. Halpern said he hopes to renegotiate the mortgage for 45 Willcocks and sell several floors of the building back to Simcoe Hall.

Halpern defended the increase on the grounds that it brought New College residence fees in lines with other colleges’. To some students, this argumnet fell flat.

“There is a reason why New College has the lowest-price residence,” said Ann Marie Chung, president of the New College Residence Council. “The other two buildings, Wilson and Wetmore, have been in a state of disrepair for a long time.”

The original–and, most would now concede, flawed–business plan for 45 Willcocks suggested that profits from Wilson and Wetmore could pay down the mortgage for the new residence. But the leaky older buildings have not paid off their own 40-plus-year-old mortgages. Willcocks’ original plan predicted 100 per cent occupancy all year round, an assumption Halpern pronounced “ridiculous.”

The chances of U of T bailing out the college with a the college a no-interest loan look slim. In a possible sign of a new approach to ancillary services at U of T, the university is insisting that New College get its financial affairs in order on its own. A report, to be presented to the University Affairs Board next Tuesday, suggests that instead of receiving subsidies from the university, ancillary services should actually produce funds for the university. In fact, the report predicts that by 2013, ancillary services will make U of T a profit to the tune of $1.9 million.

Thursday’s protest meets at 1 p.m. in the New College quad.