Trying to Find Perspective on Aleppo and Mosul

As the bombing of Aleppo continues and the fighting around Mosul intensifies, Western leaders and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have denounced blatant violations of international humanitarian law. Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the High Commissioner, recently condemned the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in eastern Aleppo as possible war crimes. While no official figures are available, the United Nations has said that nearly 200 civilians have been killed by the Islamic State outside Mosul. A photographer for The New York Times wrote almost a full-page story in the October 27 edition about being wounded while accompanying Iraqi counter terrorism forces pushing towards Mosul. The horrors of the wars in Iraq and Syria are being more than documented.

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The Local vs the Majority

The former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Tip O'Neill is credited with saying “All politics is local.” But how local can you get? The recent vote in Wallonia, Belgium, against the European Union (EU) - Canada trade deal has led to Belgium’s withdrawing support and the potential collapse of the deal. The local parliament voted against the agreement, and since all 28 EU member countries must sign a trade agreement, Belgium has effectively vetoed the deal. The 27 other members of the EU were on board.

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Should We Thank Donald Trump?

The US presidential campaign continues to sink lower and lower. Personal insults – “Lock her up” – and revelations about sexual misconduct – both about Donald Trump and references to Bill Clinton – have hampered any serious discussion about major issues. What to do in Syria? How to overcome income inequality and racial tensions? While neither candidate has stayed completely on the high road, there is no question that Donald Trump has been in the forefront of the personal attacks.

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Can There Be Too Much Democracy?

Besides cuckoo clocks, chocolate and watches, Switzerland is world renowned for direct democracy within its political system. At the federal level, citizens can propose changes to the constitution through initiatives or ask for a referendum on any law passed by the parliament. Swiss citizens are more powerful than citizens in representative democracies such as the United States. This rule by the people is greatly admired, and certainly more democratic than the American system by which nine judges on the Supreme Court can eventually rule a law unconstitutional.

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Who Did It?

Who shot down a Malaysian Airlines plane over Ukraine two years ago? Was Russia involved? Was Saudi Arabia involved in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States? Can the families of the victims sue Saudi Arabia for any role in the plot?  

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The Trump Phenomenon

As the US presidential campaign draws to its close in early November and the race seems to be tightening, there is more and more interest in Donald Trump and the real possibility of his becoming the next president of the United States. While he was considered to be an exotic candidate during the primaries, there is no denying his staying power and growing popularity as the official Republican candidate.

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Are You Proud of Stan?

The Swiss player Stan Wawrinka won the 2016 US Open Tennis Championships, defeating top-seeded Novak Djokovic in four sets. It was Wawrinka’s third major title and another milestone for Swiss tennis, to go along with Roger Federer’s 17 and Martina Hingis’ 5 major singles titles. Why should we include Wawrinka with Federer and Hingis? The answer is that for a country such as Switzerland to have players who have won 25 major singles titles in the modern era is quite an accomplishment, certainly exceptional for a small Alpine country where skiing and curling are predominant sports. Yet the Swiss are resoundingly proud of Stan, Roger and Martina.

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Is Switzerland Hospitable to Expatriates?

Switzerland was ranked 31st out of 67 countries in a recent study of hospitality for expatriates by the German group Internations. The survey included facts about demography and moving but also about expats’ happiness with the quality of life in their new country, such as work-life balance, raising children and making friends. The study, Expat Insider, classed Switzerland fourth in 2014 and 14th in 2015. In the 2016 study, Switzerland fell 17 places.

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The Ought/Is Schism: What Good Are International Norms?

Earlier this month, a Médecins Sans Frontières-supported hospital in Yemen was bombed, killing 19 people. This is not the first time a MSF hospital has been attacked. In October 2016, a United States airstrike killed 42 civilians in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Bombing a hospital or bombing other civilian targets such as schools are breaches of international humanitarian law and can be considered war crimes or crimes against humanity.

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When Is The Past Only The Past?

Nothing is fixed in our memories. We remember and forget. But what we remember or forget changes over time. At a given moment, perceptions evolve of an event that took place. At the recent Locarno Film Festival, two movies touched on dramatic events in contemporary Swiss history. “Un Juif pour l’exemple” and “Il Nido” are films about the past, the memory of which are ongoing, including the films themselves. The movies are part of the process of memorialization.

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The Super Bowls of Politics

The parties’ parties are over. The Republican and Democratic Party conventions have concluded. Beyond the brouhaha over Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech and the leaked emails of the head of the Democratic National Committee, the designation of the candidates for president and vice-president of the U.S. of the two major political parties have become official. Whereas the selection has sometimes taken place during the convention, the presumptive nominees for president and vice president had been done before the conventions, leaving little room for surprise.

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Russia Again Under the Radar Screen

“Summertime, and the livin is easy.” Contrary to the famous words by the Gershwins in the musical Porgy and Bess, this summer has not been easy. Racial violence in the United States, coup attempt in Turkey, terrorist attacks in France and Germany, doping scandal involving Russian athletes and Brexit have all dominated the headlines, not to mention the American presidential campaign, continued migration chaos and the civil war in Syria.

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Do You Know How to Stand in Line?

Last week at Wimbledon I was given a formal, printed card about how to queue. Most people spend some part of their lives standing in line. Whether in a store, at the post office, at the bank or waiting to enter a train or plane, we must wait. For each situation, there are informal rules about who goes first; there are norms about how to queue. Not everyone follows the rules. But to get a formal card, printed in color on heavy paper about how to stand in line was a truly unique experience.

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Economists Fail Economics 101

Economics 101 was a great challenge during my studies. When I took the introductory required course I had no economics background or particular mathematical skill. The first day the professor put on blackboard a supply and demand curve. He explained that all economic theory was based on a simple formula: As demand rose, supply diminished. As supply rose, demand diminished. There was something elegant but puzzling here. Could all human activity be reduced to this simple formula? Could all our behavior be shown in mathematical equations and linear charts?

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Brexit and Donald Trump

If Donald Trump’s campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again,” a majority of Britons can be said to have voted for “Make Britain Great Again.” Those who supported the Leave campaign were people nostalgic for a return to a pre-eminent Great Britain, if not a return to the Empire. Polls indicated that those over 45 years of age and many retirees, white males, and those with only high school diplomas who were in favor of Brexit have similar profiles to Trump supporters.

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How Bad Is Today’s World?

How bad is today's world? Mass shootings in Orlando; riots, assassinations and strikes in France; potential secession of Britain from the EU; overwhelming exodus of migrants and refugees from war-torn societies with many lost at sea; the rise of populism with accompanying fascist tendencies; the loss of communal attachments from heightened individualism; continuing carnage in Syria and the Middle East with no end in sight; increased radicalism and fragile states; seemingly perpetual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; growing income inequality; and looming catastrophes from climate change are just some of the disturbing realities.

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Obsessions Satisfied and Postponed: The Gotthard Tunnel and the Crossing of Lake Geneva

We all have obsessions. We all have dreams we hope to realize. (Mine is winning Wimbledon. Every year I prepare my victory speech and get teary when I listen to the victor. It should be me!) Rarely do we satisfy our obsessions; rarely do we actualize what we hope we will accomplish. That said, the Swiss have satisfied one national obsession with the opening of the Gotthard Tunnel; Genevans still have a long way to go with the crossing of Lake Geneva.

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The Passing Away of the Champ: Muhammad Ali and Me

Muhammad Ali has gone down for the final count. For an entire generation, he was the Champ. Not only was he a great fighter, he was revered by many for his political stance for social justice. The Louisville Lip was more than a showman. Behind his unique sense of performance was a moral compass. I met him once, as described in the following blog I posted in 2011 on the death of Joe Frazier.

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Uncritical Prejudices vs. Competence

In a recent article in a local Geneva newspaper – not the Tribune – the future president of the administrative council of the Geneva public transport system is taken to task for several items in her curriculum vitae. The author begins by asking who is Anne Hornung-Soukup, and then negatively goes point by point through her cv. Although Ms. Hornung-Soukup has not yet taken up her function, it is worthwhile to analyze the criticisms to better understand how ad hominem, prejudicial arguments can overwhelm factual evaluations of competence.

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Turning the Page? President Obama’s Visit to Vietnam and Hiroshima

President Barack Obama is making a short tour of Asia as part of his last months in office. He is visiting Vietnam and then Japan, ostensibly to demonstrate the importance of the region in his foreign policy, the so called “shift to Asia.” Besides the geostrategic significance of the trip and its implications to counter the growing importance of China, the President will be dealing with the memories of the Vietnam War and Hiroshima.

Or will he?

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The Upcoming World Humanitarian Summit – “A Fig-Leaf of Good Intentions”?

The first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) will take place in Istanbul, Turkey, from May 23-24. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on heads of state and government to deliver a strong message that “we will not accept the erosion of humanity which we see in the world today.” “We must not fail the people who need us, when they need us most,” said the UN chief. There will be seven roundtable sessions over the two days to provide a space for leaders from Member States, civil society and the private sector to focus on a number of challenges. The themes of the roundtables are: Preventing and Ending Conflict; Upholding the Norms that Safeguard Humanity; Leaving No-one Behind; Natural Disasters and Climate Change; From Delivering Aid to Ending Need; Gender Equality; and Investing in Humanity.

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Leadership and the Perfect Résumé

Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton had quite a tiff about who was better qualified to be president during one of their debates. Sanders claimed that Clinton lacked judgment; Clinton claimed that Sanders lacked experience. Donald Trump’s recent questioning of those with a “perfect résumé” is an interesting interrogation of those qualities we look for in leaders. If, as he claims, résumés are not the answer, then by what else can we choose?

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Are the Olympics Still Games?

Why do we feel uneasy about the upcoming Olympic Games in Brazil? The Olympic are the world’s grandest sporting event. We love to play games. We love to watch games. And yet, with about 100 days left until the August 5 opening in Rio, we have doubts that these Games will be “vivid, concrete, swift and fun,” as the theologian Michael Novak described the joy of sports.

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The Contested Role of Public Intellectuals

The French intellectual Alain Finkielkraut was booed and chased away by participants in the Nuit debout (roughly translated as "Up All Night", "Standing Night", or "Rise up at night") movement Saturday in Paris. Finkielkraut was insulted and called a dirty fascist. He defended himself: “I was thrown out from a place where democracy and pluralism should reign…. They wanted to purify the Place de la République of my presence.” The extreme right in France wasted no time in lambasting the scenario as an example of the “hate and intolerance” of the protesters.

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Feeling the Frustration of Others

What could be better than watching the Masters Tournament in early April in Augusta, Georgia, with its idyllic setting of rolling hills, blooming azaleas and the coveted green jacket waiting the winner? What better way to take off the radar screen pictures of exhausted, disillusioned migrants than to watch the world’s top golfers shooting for the ultimate prize of having last year’s winner put on the new champion the only jacket money can’t buy?

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