War drums and Tomahawks

Matters of the moment

About a fortnight ago the French President Francois Hollande, the British Prime Minister David Cameron and US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Secretary of State John Kerry were rearing to punish and blast Syria with clinical air and missile strikes for allegedly crossing the red line of using chemical weapons in deadly attacks on 21 August 2013 against opponents of the Syrian regime. Options for a possible punitive response and strike plans were drawn in Paris, London and Washington and military assets such as destroyers armed with cruise missiles were moved into the Mediterranean.

As the assembly of world nations stood silent against this trigger-happy belligerence, a series of events have hobbled this battle plan. The British Parliament recalled urgently by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, rejected his motion to authorize Britain to participate in the attack. David Cameron said that he would abide by the vote. Last week, at least 116 Congressmen including 18 Democrats asked President Obama to seek, in line with the American Constitution, Congressional statutory approval for any military strike against Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons in that country. In the American Constitution the authority to declare war rests with Congress and not with the President. This is specially the case when there is no direct threat to the US. As a consequence President Obama has sought Congressional approval for limited military strikes against Syria. Congress has this week started holding its public hearings on this issue. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey have appeared in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and are briefing Congress to canvass support for limited and proportionate military strikes against Syria.

In France, pressure is also mounting from the opposition on President Hollande to obtain formal approval from the French National Assembly instead of a non-voting debate on Syria this week, akin to what is happening in Britain and the United States. According to latest polls, public opinion in all three countries as well as generally in the world is overwhelmingly against intervention in Syria. In the US, according to recent poll figures a meagre 9% of Americans are in favour of intervention. A poll in France this week showed that most Frenchmen did not want France to take part in military action in Syria.

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has been clear that military action without Security Council authorization is prohibited by the UN Charter. Yet three of the world’s prominent leaders of countries which are permanent members of the UN Security Council were about a fortnight ago ready to rain destruction, havoc and death on Syria in a concerted US-led action without the authority of their respective legislatures and more importantly the approval of the United Nations.

While Britain is sidelined and President Obama is waiting for congressional approval as he is away from Washington for meetings in Sweden and the G20 meeting in Russia, France has declared that they will not act alone against Syria. This is not Mali.

The sabre rattling of a week ago has already had adverse consequences on the world economy presently in the throes of the on-going international crisis, as oil prices jumped to a two-year high and stock exchange values across the world registered a material drop last week. Echoes of war drums have dire consequences on the real world economy and the livelihood of people. If the buzz on the imminence of military strikes can cause such adverse movements in oil prices and the stock markets, an actual armed conflict with Syria, however short, will impair through cost push effects the economic and trading environment thus undermining the efforts of all countries to overcome the international financial crisis. An armed conflict will also negatively impact on the recovery efforts of France, Britain and the US out of the financial crisis and have an adverse domino effect on the economic prospects of the rest of the world including Mauritius. It will exacerbate the economic and financial stress on countries across the world and their people.

Military strikes using the new generation Tomahawk cruise missiles with 1000-pound bomb payloads can never have a limited impact or contained collateral damage. The geopolitics and delicate balance of power of the region, with Syria and its allies enjoying the support of Russia and China, make it a tinderbox which it would be foolhardy to tinker with. An armed conflict could easily get out of hand, the more so as various vested interests including the Syrian opposition and extremists would do anything to draw the Allied forces more significantly into the conflict to get rid of the Syrian regime. In spite of a no ‘boots on the ground’ policy, military action in Syria in the midst of such an explosive region comprising Lebanon, Iran and Israel is fraught with high risks and should not be contemplated.

Heeding the lessons of history

Lessons must be learned from the involvement of the Allied forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and more recently support to help Arab spring movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. There is not much to show for the support to get rid of the dictatorships in the Arab Spring countries. It has disappointingly not led to the emergence of a stable democratic system which reflects the plural diversity of these countries. Instead these countries have, in the absence of a strong leadership or a guiding authority, become a hotbed of instability, a haven for extremism and a scene of frequent terrorist attacks afflicting the civil population. There are already signs that the popular movement in favour of democratisation helped by the free world has been hijacked by forces of extremism. In addition what is perceived as western interference to serve their oil and other interests in the region has spawned a sense of alienation which helps add to the growing ranks of extremist groups.

Transparency and peace through consensus
among nations

As regards Syria, the first step should be for the evidence gathered by the UN inspectors to be scrutinized and assessed by the United Nations Security Council. If there is a consensus that the allegations are proven without any doubt against the Syrian regime, then any consequent action must be taken only under the aegis of the United Nations. Now that President Vladimir Putin has stated that Russia will act if there is irrefutable proven evidence of chemical attacks by the regime, the support of Russia and China must be enlisted to usher a political transition in Syria and to bring those guilty of using chemical weapons to justice at the International Criminal Tribunal.

War has hardly solved any problems. It is time for a new approach which make consensus among nations, transparent process under the aegis of the UN and peaceful means of engagement become the prime drivers of settling the conflicts of the world. As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s rousing ‘I have a dream’ speech, isn’t it timely for Barack Obama, the first African-American President, to initiate a paradigm shift from gunboat diplomacy and vested lobbies towards placing the interests of people and nations in a spirit of fairness at the centre of American leadership and international conflict resolution policy in particular?

* * *

New National Identity cards

It is essential to have a more secure national Identity card in Mauritius. There is however reservations on two aspects of the new proposed National Identity card. First, the fingerprinting of all adults in the country as the security vehicle for identification of each individual is objectionable in the minds of people as this method has traditionally been used across the world in relation to tracking, identifying and keeping a data bank on criminals. There is an uneasy feeling that it encroaches on the citizen’s fundamental rights of privacy and carries the risk of misuse. It is true that fingerprints are used in Europe as a component of biometric identification. However, a new and more secure method of identification is the iris recognition of each individual.

Iris recognition is an automated method of biometric identification that uses mathematical pattern-recognition techniques on video images of the irides of an individual’s eyes, whose complex random patterns are unique. A key advantage of iris recognition, besides its speed of matching and its extreme resistance to false matches, is the stability of the iris as an internal, protected, yet externally visible organ of the eye. It is widely used to issue visas for entry in Europe or the United States and in some national ID systems. It would provide a more acceptable and safe alternative to fingerprinting, as the vehicle of individual identification in the new ID card.

The second issue relates to the security of the range of personal and sensitive information to be stored in the new ID. All the individual information must be encrypted and firm guarantees of individual data protection must be enshrined in the enabling legislation to ensure that all the personal information remain personal and confidential and that access to this information is severely restricted to very few who will be bound by strict rules of secrecy carrying stiff penalties so as to prevent any possibility of misuse or the development of a Big Brother syndrome in our country.

* * *

Ensuring quality education in our
tertiary knowledge hub

The quality of Universities across the world is established by the content, standards and methods of learning being dispensed, the quality of its academia, its international reputation and the broad recognition of the degrees and diplomas issued by the Examining Board of the University.

As we aspire to establish a world class Tertiary Education hub of learning in Mauritius, it is essential that we ensure through rigorous benchmarks diligently supervised by the Tertiary Education Commission an independent monitoring that only the best internationally recognized institutions are allowed to operate in Mauritius. Any lack of rigour in selection of institutions or quality of courses proposed or controversy over commitments made in the promotional advertisements of institutions or a run down in the standard and reputation of any institution within the Education hub will undermine the future and success of the whole venture.

There is such a big demand for tertiary education in Mauritius that young Mauritians will enroll in almost anything available in the market if the authorities do not establish lofty standards and select institutions for operating in Mauritius accordingly. It should be remembered that the bulk of Mauritians aspiring for a tertiary education cannot afford to study abroad. Our Tertiary Education hub should therefore aim at providing access in Mauritius to top class Tertiary sector institutions in accordance with the skills priorities of the country and the region in order to attract this captive market as well as international students in the region.

All major countries offering quality Tertiary education publish every year a league table available on the net of the best performing institutions of tertiary education determined by objective criteria in each of the main branches of learning such as Arts, Science, Life Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, Computer Science, Management, Economics and Social Sciences, etc. We must therefore prospect these recognised Universities abroad to set up shop in Mauritius to offer tertiary level courses of relevance to the human resources requirements of Mauritius and the region. All courses offered on the various campuses of the Tertiary Education hub must be rewarded by diplomas and degrees issued either by the parent University or an internationally recognised institution.

If we are to ensure the success of Tertiary Education in Mauritius as a world-class hub of learning, we have to select quality institutions and ensure that they replicate some of their academic activities here according to the same benchmarks as their parent institution. It is equally important to ensure that the institutions operating in the Tertiary Education hub have a transparent mode of admission and rigorously honour the commitments made in their prospectus and promotional literature.

In a bid to cater for more foreign students, incentives must be given by the Government to individual homeowners or promoters to invest in quality accommodation for these students. In Germany there is a long established culture of households accommodating rent paying students in their homes which also help in improving their total family incomes. On a small scale this is already happening in localities around the Reduit campus. This trend must be encouraged through appropriate incentives and website linkages.


Laudable new national policy initiatives without rigorous implementation and supervision or announcing actions without due process and consensus may as per the proverb cause many a slip between cup and lip!

* Published in print edition on 6 September 2013

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