Numbers: From the Sanctuary of Method to the Social Service Station

Yesterday was a numbers day. When I first went out, I went to the bank with an installer to whom I had given a cheque that bounced. I had deposited a money order – that alone shows that I belong to an older obsolete age – from another account in another bank to cover the amount of the cheque to the service company. I did not know that banks could or would hold off certifying a deposited money order because I thought that a bank money order was the equivalent of cash. I learned that I should have just taken cash out of one account in one bank and deposited it in the other; after all, the banks were directly across the street from one another. For I was wrong. Banks can hold back crediting money orders to your account. Instead of cash, I could also have obtained a cashier’s cheque or implemented a direct electronic transfer.

That chore resolved, I then went to the dentist to have a crown put on one tooth. Talk about numbers and dollars!

I had a time gap where it did not pay to go home because I was going on to hear the keynote speaker for the Walter Gordon Symposium that I planned to attend the next day (today) on: “Making Policy Count: The Social Implications of Data-Driven Decision-Making.” The subject of the keynote address was, “The Ethics of Counting.” The presenter was Professor Deborah Stone. In the interval between the dentist appointment and the lecture, I was reading the 26 March 2018 issue of The New Yorker and, as I sat in the auditorium waiting for the lecture to begin, totally coincidentally, I was nearing the end of the magazine and was reading the section on “The Critics.” It was an essay called, “The Shorebird: Rachel Carson and the rising of the seas.” The writer was Jill Lepore whom I had gone to hear deliver the three Priestley lectures the week before on, respectively, “Facts,” “Numbers,” and “Data” and about whom I have already written extensively.

As we all know, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (1962), first published as a three-part series in The New Yorker, alone is credited with launching the environmental movement. Jill Lepore took a different tack. Though mentioning the revolution in science and policy of correlating data on the use of DDT and the disappearance of birds, the focus of Lepore’s essay began with Carson’s personal biography and her lyrical writing about birds, fish, shad and the sea. Why? Because Sandra Steingraber, editor of a collection of essays called, Silent Spring and Other Writings on the Environment, had omitted any reference to that lyrical oeuvre because, though sometimes alluding to environmental threats, those essays failed to call for any specific social action. Lepore was determined to balance the books in her review essay for, as she claimed, Carson could not have written Silent Spring unless she had clambered down rocks and waded in tidal pools and written about what she saw and studied. For her earlier books were not just about molluscs or turtles or, a major concern, shad, or about kingfishers and redstarts, but about placing those creatures within an environmental context. Those earlier books, The Sea Around Us and Under the Sea-Wind became national best-sellers.

Those studies and writings led Rachel Carson to question government policy and the practice of eliminating “career men of long experience and high professional competence and their replacement by political appointees.” There seemed to be some correlation, not only between DDT and aerial spraying and the death of species, but between the emerging practice of dealing with social problems through the lens of power politics rather than the microscopic analyses of the skilled work of the products of The Sanctuary of Method. The mistreatment of the natural environment and of the research environment had similar roots, a concern with exploitation rather than exploration and understanding as we find ourselves located “in an instant of time that is mine…determined by our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea.” Very soon after the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson died of cancer before she could write a new envisioned book on the rising and warming of the oceans.

Deborah Stone’s most famous book is her classic study, Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. Her lecture on counting was intended to introduce those attending to the question of how to build policy in a data-driven, more than simply a numbers-driven, world, a world of proprietary and indecipherable algorithms and not just numerical correlations. For an earlier stage in the stream of intellectual time, a key issue, which Stone played a significant part in unpacking, was the hidden assumptions and built-in norms behind the statistical evidence and correlations used to produce policy. In a previous blog, I had offered a simple narrative example of the time I got on the university pension committee to question the use of the gender category to doll out different pensions to women than men. Based on such false categorization, Blacks and handicapped professors should get higher pensions.

Other works have driven home similar points: Michael Wheeler’s (1976) Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics: The Manipulation of Public Opinion in the United States. The clever phrasing allegedly went back to Mark Twain who viewed statistics as the greatest source of lies for he had lived in the nineteenth century rather than at the end of the twentieth when data-driven analyses prevailed and superseded statistics in that accusation. In history, however, the reference was initially made in the context of allocating pensions in 1891 in Britain. A more recent work, Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (2016), carries the argument forward into a data rather than simply statistical-driven age. Mathematical algorithms can be tweaked and formulated to serve interests and power as she illustrated the effects on the financial crisis of 2007-08.

In yesterday’s Washington Post, I read an article on how polling itself – who is ahead and who is behind – influences voting patterns. Reporting that Hillary Clinton was highly favoured to win, rather than data of the percentage of the vote she would likely get, tended to decrease the incentive for supporters to go out and vote. However, Deborah Stone was dealing with an earlier version of such distortions, with numbers and statistics rather than data and algorithms, for the latter are ethically charged models built into the sophisticated mathematics.

Deborah Stone focused on a more fundamental problem characteristic of the transition from the Sanctuary of Method to the Social Service Station in which symbol and numbers were tied to causes and interests depending on the categories used. The latter led to interpretations and decisions dependent often on the negative or positive connotation of the category. Stone in her lecture went back to basics. We can learn to count by focusing only on identicals or by focusing on differences united by a single category, such as counting different kinds of cookies and not just identical glasses of milk. Counting is, thus, not just about identicals, but about categorizing what is different as an identical. In the case of the pension issue that I discussed, instead of treating all professors as equals, they were divided by gender to allocate pensions. In the name of distributive justice, namely that women retirees needed the same money each year as male retirees, such a principle of distribution was unethical.

Deborah offered a ream of illustrations of such a misuse of statistics that led to and supported unjust policies. In collecting numbers on violence against women, the collection depended upon what was classified as violence, who did the counting and for what purpose. For example, did relegating a second wife and child to a small room in the back of the house, expulsion from the house as a form of punishment, rebukes for giving birth to female babies, count as violence as Bangladeshi women contended? Or were European and North American models of violence predominant in the counting. Think before counting was one mantra. Take into consideration the language and concern of those counted was another. Always take into consideration what people wanted to accomplish by collecting such statistics. For numbers carry clout.

Interestingly, Stone referred, but in greater detail, to the same illustration that Lepore used in her lecture, the three-fifths rule for counting slaves built into the American constitution by James Madison in an early attempt to reconcile the paradox that slaves were, on the one hand, property that could be bought and sold, and were, on the other hand, sentient human beings who were held accountable and punishable for their actions. Tax policies and the distribution of votes depended on how slaves were counted.

Numbers count, whether referring to the numbers attending President Trump’s inauguration or to back whether you should take Lipitor to deal with your cholesterol level. Do we ask questions whether you believe immigrants take your jobs in undertaking a survey, or do you ask whether they contribute to create jobs by starting businesses?

Let me take up both issues of the application of statistics and their creation. On the recommendation of my heart specialist, I use Lipitor, the brand name of Pfizer Pharmaceutical that has earned the company $130 billion in sales since the drug was approved for human use in 1996, to lower my cholesterol level and, therefore, to introduce a preventive measure against blood clots. (I once developed a 2.5 inch-long blood clot in a leg vein that went just above my knee.) This in turn would reduce the risk of a heart attack and stroke by lowering plaque build-up in my veins. I have never investigated the categories or methods used in the research behind the drug. I take the drug based on the authority of my physician.

However, when you disaggregate the issue of cholesterol, you find there are different types, some “good” cholesterol and some “bad” – low density lipoproteins (LDL). Further, based on research paid for by the drug companies, what counts as a high cholesterol level has been gradually lowered over the years to the great benefit of the bottom line of Pfizer. Given associated risks – to kidneys and liver, to diabetes and muscle diseases, as Lipitor, a statin, reduces the amount of cholesterol made by and stored in the liver – the lecture implied that research funded by Pfizer based on its economic interests should be questioned.

It was clear that Deborah Stone did not favour collecting stats based on supply and demand and she was sceptical about stats collected by economic interests or those interested in perpetuating their political power. Good stats should be based on building a community and social well-being, on fostering empathy and minimizing exploitation. As the lecture progressed on the ethics of numbers, it became clear that Stone was not just interested in issues, where injustice was perpetuated by the use of statistics, but was positively selling an alternative ethic as the basis for statistical analysis. She was a bleeding heart rather than a possessive individualist. She wanted statistics that fostered empathy and undermined the use and abuse of some people by others. Categories used in statistics can and are used to change hearts and minds – though other stats that she collected indicated that prior prejudices meant that information did not work in changing hearts and minds since biases are almost immune to change by numbers. This was readily apparent in a CBC radio show yesterday on the introduction of a cap-and-trade tax on carbon to combat environmental degradation; a Progressive party defender of the tax dealt with calls, mostly by conservatives, who opposed the tax. Statistics were central to the argument but seemed useless in getting anyone to change their mind.

What Stone did not do was disaggregate areas in which numbers were collected ostensibly to foster care and concern for the displaced resulting in a very different origin of distortion. I had an occasion to audit statistics on those made homeless by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Originally, I went to undertake an actual count, but upon arrival in Lebanon during the war, I had found that there had been twelve different counts of those made homeless, so I simply performed an audit rather than a count. The whole project was stimulated by competing numbers. The Israeli government had issued a report that 27,000 Palestinians had been made homeless by the invasion. OXFAM Britain had published full page ads that 600,000 had been made homeless. The discrepancy was too huge to ignore for a research unit determined to establish objective and accurate figures in dealing with refugees.

As it turned out, the original figure of 600,000 was produced by the International Red Cross, but it was not of those made homeless, but of “those affected” by the invasion. OXFAM Britain had switched the stat to refer to a very different category. Further, of the twelve counts on the ground, all were carried out very objectively with an intention of producing accurate figures. The Israeli figures were too low (40,000 Palestinians had been made homeless in southern Lebanon.) The corrected figure of 40,000 rather than the original Israeli figure of 27,000 was more accurate because the Israeli figure was a product of an arithmetical error combined with missing some enclaves where the displaced had taken shelter.

The most thorough count was undertaken by the Palestinian school teachers who wrote down every name of every person who had lost their homes in typical elementary school ledgers. The figure arrived at was considered too high by about 10% because Palestinians whose homes had been destroyed had been counted even when they had not lived in those homes for years and instead rented them out to others, mostly Bangladeshi itinerant workers. None of the other counts had considered that these Bangladeshis had been made homeless by the war, a bias not only of both sides, but of the humanitarian international community.

Using measures to arrive at a common definition, the city engineers’ counts and all the others could all be reconciled to result in a common figure. The interesting irony was that the tool based on the “worst” systematic method, that of the International Red Cross, which arrived at its figure by counting kitchenware packages that had been distributed and multiplying by three, turned out to be the most accurate even though the IRC was clearly ashamed of using such a rough tool to determine the result.

I want to illustrate two points by this story. First, not only can private economic interests or political power interests produce distorted statistics, but so can the collection of statistics motivated by empathy and bleeding hearts. Second, statistics can and do provide objective information based on agreed categories and even different methods of collection and analyses. When the ethics of counting closely correlated with the Sanctuary of Method as a fundamental methodological tool is distorted for social purposes, either for profit, for power or even for humanitarian purposes, that is, for solving a specific set of social problems, the determination of the problem and the bias of a belief in correcting the problem can produce distortions by the use and abuse of categories and the resultant numbers.

I do not have the time and space to illustrate other more serious cases – the count of the alleged numbers killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1996 based on a distortion of the base reference figure that fed a narrative of a second genocide, this time against Hutu rather than Tutsi from Rwanda. For years, until corrected by scholars from both sides, the original figure of the numbers of Palestinians uprooted from their homes in 1948 varied from 520,000 (the standard Israeli figure) and 940,000, the UNRWA figure. Later systematic analysis resulted in a figure of 720,000-740,000 which became an objective reference number for both sides. Objective stats can be collected even in war zones when conflict provided agendas are bracketed and systematic means are used to critique categories and correct for errors.

Stats in themselves are not corrupting, but when we begin to suggest that they be collected to solve a social problem in one direction, say for profit or power, rather than another – enhance aid for refugees or enhance compassion for them – then subjectivity begins to displace objectivity as the critical category and the Sanctuary of Method is undermined as an institutional norm in favour of the Social Service Station. Should the latter be used to enhance wealth accumulation in society or for fostering social justice? For stats are not just correlated with power, as Lepore contended, or with economic interests and power, as Stone contended, but to enhance humanitarian causes. The presumption of subjective bias is partly responsible for the expansion of the idea of post-truth.

To be continued


The Parliamentary Debate over Fighting ISIS – The Liberal Policy

Corporealism XVI: Justin Trudeau Redux

B. The Parliamentary Debate over Fighting ISIS – The Liberal Policy

Justin Trudeau positioned the Liberal Party stance between the NDP, insisting on no combat role whatsoever, and the Conservatives, insisting on the retention of the air fighter jet contribution. The Canadian contribution by the Liberals was set within the context of a humanitarian operation and the larger goal of fighting ISIS in a battle for hearts and minds, of which the military role was an adjunct rather than front and centre. “When we talk about the fight today, it is not just a military fight; it is a fight for the hearts and minds of those who are under pressure to join the Islamic State.”

The issue was how best to leverage Canadian military assets. The policy was broad in its geographical application – Iraq and Syria, Lebanon and Jordan (border security, border monitoring, providing technical equipment and training facilities) – broad in the set of tools brought to the task – military and training, humanitarian programs ($870 million in aid over three years and resettlement of 25,000 Syrian refugees through government sponsorship alone by the end of 2016) and intelligence operations (re chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear security), diplomatic coordination and development aid ($270 million over three years for promoting gender and sexual equality, protecting minority rights, mine and explosive clearance, etc.). The central message – a combat mission if necessary (versus the NDP), but not necessarily a combat mission for the fighter aircraft had been taken out of the equation (versus the Tories).

The Conservative response (to be explicated at greater length tomorrow) offered a great deal of humanitarian aid and helped refugees (???), but asked, why change the military mission in the sky? Air attacks have been successful, restricting ISIS to 25% of the territory it once held in Iraq. ISIS is weaker, more isolated. ISIS is also a threat to Canada. So the direct application of force is necessary, desirable and effective.

The Liberal response to the deployment of six CF-18s: perhaps before when ISIS was spread out; perhaps before, but not when Canada is only flying 2% of the missions; perhaps before, but not when the missions have been cut by a half or two-thirds; perhaps before, but not when the next major battle is for Mosul, a very large city totally infiltrated and controlled by ISIS in which aerial bombardment would be too costly in civilian lives. And perhaps never, for the major battle is not a military one, though a military one is necessary, but one best fought on the ground with well-trained and well-equipped local troops. The central battle is psychological, sociological and political. It is one for the minds and hearts of Iraqis, especially young ones, who are attracted to joining ISIL. As one Liberal member who has coached sports teams for a number of years, argued, you have to adapt the strategy to the current field conditions.

Trudeau also argued that Canada should concentrate on its expertise in advice and training developed from ten years in Afghanistan. Trudeau implied that, even though other countries desired primarily to play a training role, Canada was one of the best countries to fulfill it. To say, as Trudeau did, that Canada does not “have any troops on the ground in the front lines,” is very misleading, for in insurgency warfare, the enemy comes to you from the side, from the back, from underneath, from within. The battlefield does not have a front line by definition.

If the Liberals were engaged in a massive rebranding operation to portray Canadians as much more on the side of the angels involved in a hearts and minds fight rather than a direct combat role, why not go all the way? Why a hybrid mission with a scanty skirt of possible and risky combat training? If political stability is key, why get involved in the killing at all? The answer was there in the debate, but indirect and not really articulated very well by Justin Trudeau or other Liberals. It depended on how you characterized the enemy. It depended on how you characterized the means to combat the enemy.

On the question of the typology of the enemy, the Tories and Liberals were on the same ground, though the Tories used more fiery and unequivocal language. Daesh, ISIS, ISIL was evil incarnate, vicious. The militants in ISIS were “homicidal maniacs.” John McKay, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Defence Minister, called Daesh, “evil, brutal, and a completely ruthless collective of organizations that specializes in the use of terror to accomplish its aims. ISIL seeks to conquer and subjugate, with the interest and intent of establishing a quasi-nation state.” Stéphane Dion, Minister of Foreign Affairs, not to be outdone by the Tories, said, This is certainly a horrible group, and no word, be it ‘genocide,’ ‘massacre,’ or ‘terror,’ is strong enough,” thereby contradicting Tony Clement’s claim that the Liberals were reluctant to characterize ISIL’s treatment of the Yazidis and the Christians as “genocide.” “This group is driven by a perverse and terrible ideology that makes young people think they will win salvation if they murder everyone who does not believe what they believe and if they kill men, women and children. We must do everything in our power to fight it.”

Dion added, “It is important that we do everything to eradicate this group.” Not defeat! Not vanquish! Eliminate. Exterminate. Eradicate. When is the last time you heard such language applied to an enemy? Daesh was characterized as perverse and diabolical by both the Liberals and the Tories.

On the question of the utility of the air strikes, they may have not only prevented Daesh from taking more territory but they helped push back the militants by providing air cover to the Peshmerga Kurdish forces. The Tories could have quoted Falah Mustafa Bakir, the top diplomat for the Iraq Kurds in the north, who said, when he toured Canada three months ago, that, “the Kurds would prefer Canada continue air strikes in Iraq and Syria.” Perhaps the Tories did not quote him because he put the position gently and added that, if Canada chooses to take another course, then the Kurds hoped that other forms of support (political presumably as well as economic and humanitarian) would be forthcoming. Fighter jets were helpful, but not absolutely necessary, was his message. The Tories tended only to generalize about the first half of Bakir’s remarks.

The smartest response to the Tory criticisms came from John McKay. “The Conservatives agree that we should triple our advise-and-assist mission. The Conservatives agree that we should double our intelligence mission. The Conservatives agree that a helicopter component is an important component to these two missions. The Conservatives agree that we should have a medical component to this mission. The Conservatives agree with the upping of the amount of money for humanitarian assistance. The Conservatives actually agree, reluctantly may I say, with the resettlement of refugees here in this country. The Conservatives kind of reluctantly agree, as well, that diplomatic re-engagement is a good thing. The only thing they disagree with is our opposition to the bombing mission continuing.” On that question, the core argument was not over past effectiveness but, given the changing circumstances, whether a re-evaluation should take place and, if so, whether the evaluation recommended ending the air mission.

That was the nub once it was agreed that a combat mission was not ruled out in accordance with NDP preferences. And the Liberals were vulnerable on this question. First, they had campaigned on withdrawing the six fighter jets, not on re-evaluating whether the continuing deployment of fighter jets should be part of the Canadian contribution. The books seemed to be cooked before the Liberals took office. They did undertake that re-evaluation when they had access to all the requisite evidence. Secondly, a number of reputable scholars on defence matters, while welcoming the overall package of changes, argued that the continuing deployment of the jets was important for the following reasons:

  • training Canadian pilots in actual combat situations
  • the need to continue the degrading of ISIL
  • the need to have air cover for troops on the ground when training missions took them into combat zones
  • the preference for Canadian jets supplying that ground cover because direct communication was better, compatible communication equipment was in play and, hence, a more rapid response could be expected, one which decreased the possibility of friendly fire on one’s own troops.

The options had to be weighed against alternative uses of resources, the significant decline in the sorties for those jets, questioning the results in the use of such expensive equipment relative to costs and whether other resources in the air from Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Jordan, Netherlands, U.K., Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and UAE could readily fill in the gap while Canadians contributed in other ways.

After reading the debates, I became convinced that the main reason for withdrawal of the six jets was not an exercise in cost effectiveness or effectiveness more generally, or whether the Canadian contribution was essential or could be made up by others given the diminution in the number of sorties. The main issue, I believe, was rebranding and the complementary strategic stress on giving priority to a hearts and minds campaign over the military one without compromising those military goals. Since neither the Conservatives (at least, on record) nor the NDP objected to either the rebranding and the new emphasis on the hearts and minds campaign, the only question, setting aside all the irrelevancies about past performance of the jets and the other errors and faults of Liberals over the past two decades, was the question of whether the withdrawal of the jets compromises a) either the overall military effort of the consortium of sixty-six countries or b) compromises Canada’s relationship with its allies or c) is the best approach given the nature of the enemy and the relevant strategies available.

Since the answer to the first two questions, as I piece it together from the replies and remarks elsewhere, seems to be “No,” no to compromising the overall military effort, and no to putting Canada offside with its allies, then the whole debate comes off as blather when it comes to Conservative-Liberal differences, all steam and smoke but a product of hot air rather than fire. The blessing was that it was conducted with great civility, a complement to the new mood of parliament, even when John McKay called Obhrai’s verbose speech “entertaining,” to which Obhrai took offence.

Obhrai, exasperated, just protested that the change was “at the expense of the most effective weapon we have in destroying ISIL.” So why did he not spend his time piling on one piece of evidence after another to try to prove that point instead of going off into a multitude of tangents? Why did he not quote from allies that “the coalition forces are a little disappointed in the Liberal government?” But more on this tomorrow. It may be true that, to the best of one’s knowledge, the CF-18s have never attacked civilian targets and have destroyed infrastructure, fighting positions, training grounds and weapon caches. The actual record after their final mission has been:

  • 251 airstrikes, only 5 in Syria
  • dropping 606 bombs
  • destroyed 267 ISIL fighting positions
  • destroyed 102 vehicles or other pieces of equipment
  • destroyed 30 improvised explosive device factories or storage facilities

I do not know, and I could not find anything to tell me, whether this was an efficient or inefficient use of resources, assuming all claimed successes are correct. I could not find any strong arguments, pro or con, to help conclude whether, going forward, the deployment of jets would be the most efficient or effective use of resources.

On the matter of allied criticism of the change in policy, on  8 February Justin Trudeau claimed that he had spoken both to President Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel and both expressed understanding of Canada’s change in policy and did not condemn it. Canada was asked to continue its refueling and reconnaissance roles and Canada complied. Bruce Heyman, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, in his statement not only called Canada’s contributions “significant,” not only noted that Canada was among the first to join in the fight against the Islamic State, but affirmed that the new Canadian policy was “in line with the Coalition’s current (my italics) needs.”

The NDP objected to any combat role or risk of a combat role for the Canadian military. Further, when it came to repeated questions about the Arms Trade Treaty, the Liberals either obfuscated or simply went on to answer an imaginary question on another matter. According to UNODA (United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs),

Under the landmark Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) countries regulate the international trade in conventional weapons – from small arms to battle tanks, combat aircraft and warships – and work to prevent the diversion of arms and ammunition.”

The treaty has 131 signatories, including Canada, but Canada is among the fifty countries that have yet to ratify the treaty. Yet no explanation was offered when the NDP used this debate to raise the issue. Of course, it fits in with the NDP’s major point that the prime thrust of policy in dealing with ISIS should be cutting off its access to recruits, arms and funds. But, again, more on this tomorrow.

Other than the withdrawal of the CF-18s from the air mission, what changes were being made on the ground? According to the Liberals, Canadians realized that our efforts to help the local government win could best be served by increasing the amount of resources and troops who contributed to the training mission and to intelligence, provincial reconstruction, and actual regional stabilization. From about 2005 to 2010, this transition was under way and applied with great determination and skill, by not only the Canadian Armed Forces personnel, but indeed by all those who contributed to a so-called “whole-of-government” approach.

Sven Spengemann (Mississauga—Lakeshore, Liberal), who once served as a UN official with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Baghdad, put it this way: boots on the ground were absolutely necessary. However, the great shortfall is in training indigenous forces. What was needed was boots on the ground who were:

  • the best trained
  • local
  • had the best intelligence.

The Liberals wanted local forces to fight ISIS. The ground seized by Daesh, displacing millions of refugees and throwing the region into turmoil, will, the Liberals argued, only be taken back by efforts on the ground. To retake that ground, local allies need better training and support to take the fight to Daesh directly and allow people to return to their homes. To that end, Canada needed to train, advise and mentor them. The Canadian complement of military personnel taking part in Operation Impact will increase from approximately 630 to 850 focused on operational planning, targeting, and intelligence. The size of Canada’s training, advice, and assist mission will also be tripled and will include equipment, such as small arms, ammunition, and optics to assist in the training of Iraqi security forces, to boost local security forces’ independence. Consistent with international law, Canada would provide training in the use of that military equipment supplied by the Government of Canada.

The Liberals promised to provide additional intelligence resources in northern Iraq and theatre-wide to better protect coalition forces and those of the host country and enable the coalition to develop a more detailed understanding of the threat and improve its ability to target, degrade, and defeat ISIS by choking off the flow of supplies, money and personnel in an “observe, detect, orient, and react cycle.” Canada’s air mission would not end entirely. The Liberal government continued to support coalition operations using the Canadian CC-150 Polaris aerial refueller and two CP-140 Aurora surveillance aircraft.

However, the new emphasis was not on the military, but on humanitarian, development and diplomatic assistance. In recognition of the worsening humanitarian crisis, Canada will undertake an $870 million three year commitment, 30% more than the previous three years, for humanitarian aid to support the basic needs of conflict-affected areas. Assisting Syrian refugees to resettle in Canada is an integral part of that humanitarian program. Canada will welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February and 25,000 government-sponsored refugees by the end of this year.

In the area of development assistance, as stated above, Canada will spend $270 million for development and resilience aid over three years, double the amount of the previous three years, to improve the living conditions of conflicted populations, and help to build the foundations for long-term regional stability of host communities, including Lebanon and Jordan, and work with local partners to build the capacity to provide basic social services, and foster inclusive growth and employment:

  • help create jobs by, for example, supporting Jordan’s commitment to put in place conditions that will create jobs for Syrian refugees in exchange for greater targeted development aid and better access to foreign markets for Jordanian exports
  • ensure that people have access to essential services
  • teach local officials how to operate water supply, water treatment, and sanitary facilities to prevent water-borne diseases associated with unsanitary conditions.
  • increase children’s access to education
  • provide a safe and healthy learning environment for the children of the local populations and the refugees
  • renovate schools
  • advance inclusive and accountable governance.

The education component is crucial. In hundreds of schools in Jordan and Lebanon, school has been shortened to half a day to permit refugee children to attend in the afternoons. Two million children in Syria and 700,000 in the camps no longer attend school. An entire generation is missing an education, with enormous long-term human and economic consequences. After all, education is the cement in order to build a democracy and maintain peace as well as provide the foundation for economic growth.

Since the solution to the crises in the region is first and foremost political, the diplomatic component will also be bolstered by additional staff in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Diplomats will work for a political solution to the crisis in Syria by supporting the UN-sponsored peace process as well as the reconciliation efforts of the Iraqi government and other crises in the region.


Tomorrow: A detailed critique from the Opposition parties


With the help of Alex Zisman

The El Jiyeh UN Oil Spill: Financial and Political Fairness

The El Jiyeh UN Oil Spill: Financial and Political Fairness


Howard Adelman

As discussed in the last blog, whether in Anglo Tort law or in Article 1382 of the 1804 French Civil Code (“Droit of la Responsibilité”), the principle for calculating compensation is similar. In summary, that code says: “Tout fait quelconque de l’homme, qui cause à autrui un dommage, oblige celui par la faute duquel il est arrivé à le réparer.” He who causes the damage, must pay. In English, “any loss caused to a person through the behaviour of another must be repaired by the person whose fault it was that the loss occurred.” The extended version in English is loosely translated as: Reparation to the victim of a crime or a tort must, in principle, be responsible for the complete damage the victim has suffered. Moral damage is taken into account as well as material damage. Indirect damages must be taken into consideration, but only as long as they are revealed as connected to the fact of the tort. In principle, the current damage done at the time only comes into consideration for the calculation of the reparation. In exceptional circumstances, a judge may take into account future damages if, firstly, the realization is certain and if, in addition, the means exists to assess in advance the exact amount of those damages.

Costs include not only environmental damage, but costs to fisheries and the tourism industry. Hundreds of suits have been filed as a result of these provisions against other offenders in a variety of oil spills. None have become issues for the United Nations General Assembly, especially ones that occurred as a result of hostilities. The issue is not about the principle for assessing a claim. The issue is about the venue and the procedure.

Further, since this is a claim made under international law and not domestic law, one principle for assessing the justice of a claim, particularly when the claim is about damages consequent to hostilities, is to discuss the purpose of the damage caused. In WWII, there were over 300 attacks against oil storage depots and refineries according to British and American bombing surveys, the last one in the European theatre against a refinery in Norway in April of 1945. Assessments after the war compared the effects of targeting the oil infrastructure. Compared to other targets, including the bombing of transportation, especially trains, the attacks on oil refineries and oil storage facilities infrastructure in areas controlled by Nazi Germany were considered to be the only unequivocal successes in damaging the German war effort, a conclusion which reaffirmed the opinion not only of Hermann Gӧring, but also Luftwaffe commander Adolf Galland in his book, General der Jagdflieger. Compared to WWII, the two attacks by Israel were pinpricks.

But what about the environmental consequences? Let’s put the El Jiyeh oil spill in comparison to the costs and size of other oil spills. The $850 million dollar total liability estimate included about 25% for cleanup costs. That amount can be compared to the environmental damage costs of the Exxon Valdez oil spill which was at least ten times larger. The latter’s cleanup costs, in a much more difficult and expensive terrain and covering 2,100 km of coastline rather than 170 km, were $3.5 billion. Although the Lebanese oil spill was often equated in the media with the Exxon Valdez spill, the cleanup costs in Lebanon were much less, just over $200 million, in this case an amount reasonably proportionate to the Exxon Valdez cleanup costs.
For another comparison, the costs to Saudi Arabia for the cleanup from the First Gulf War up to 2011 was $700 million Saudi riyal (over $180 million) in environmental rehabilitation in addition to the $45 million contributed internationally. However, compare the 240-336 million gallons of oil spilled from the Sea Island terminal and destroyed tankers in the 1991 Kuwait Gulf War by Iraq, supposedly to foil a US marine landing and to prevent the oil from falling into American hands, with the 5 million gallons spilled in the El Jiyeh disaster. The resulting oil slick in the First Gulf War was over 100 miles long, 42 miles wide and as much as 13 cm. thick in some places, several times the size even of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Just to cap the 700 wells and douse the fires cost Kuwait $1.5 billion in addition to the $225 million cost to clean up the environmental disaster. The Jiyeh spill was 5% the size of the Gulf spill, yet the cleanup costs were said to be about equivalent.

Take another example, this time from the Second Iraq War in 2002. Rather than an oil spill, consider the much more serious damage to the ozone layer by 60,000-80,000 combat missions that released 2,000 tons of ozone-destroying halons and stealth bombers that released freon fuel additives which, together, were estimated to be the equivalent of the global civilian releases destroying the ozone layer for three months. In neither the first nor the second Iraqi wars was there ever any attempt to attribute responsibilities and costs. No claims were made by the United Nations General Assembly against one of its members for these environmental calamities that occurred in the course of hostilities.

The oil spill can also be placed in the context of commercial as well as military environmental disasters:

Year Millions Location Cause

1978 68.7 Amoco Cadiz ship grounding in storm
1979 88.3 Coast of Tinidad Tobago two tankers colliding
1983 80 Nowruk Oil Field Persian Gulf collision with a platform
1983 80 Coast of South Africa, Soldana Bay Castillo de Bellver
1988 43 Coast of Nova Scotia break up of Odyssey in storm
1989 84 Alaska’s Prince William Sound Exxon Valdez struck Bligh reef
1991 80 Coast of Angola shipboard explosion
1991 42 Coast of Genoa Haven Tanker explosion
2010 185 Gulf of Mexico Deep Water Horizon blowout

The El Jiyeh oil spill was relatively small, less than 5 million gallons, compared to these oil spills ranging from 42 to 185 million gallons. The point of listing these non-military incidents is not to downplay the Lebanese oil spill, but to use these disasters to ascertain how liability is estimated and assessed. In commercial disasters, evidence is collected and analyzed, testimony is heard by a detached party, legal precedents and regulations are cited and, in contrast to the way the issues are handled by the media (the example of Anderson Cooper’s sensationalist coverage of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is often cited), there is a strenuous effort to avoid sensationalism by those assessing costs.

In the 2010 Gulf of Mexico Deep Water Horizon blowout, BP was required to pay $1 billion, just over the costs for which Israel was held by the UNGA to be liable for an oil spill that was 1/57th the size of the Deep Water Horizon spill.

In the case of these commercial oil spills, there is never an effort at repeating year after year another step in the evaluation process. The way the General Assembly handles the procedure is to insert in each motion a requirement that the Secretary-General report back on results and future action, thereby ensuring another future annual resolution and another opportunity for publicizing Israel’s alleged wrongs. This issue is about distraction from the real culprit, shaming and blaming to make a political point, not the collection of reparations.

When the motion is softened as a “request”, countries can vote for the motion seeing nothing wrong in asking Israel to pay for the damages. Nor do they have to confront the outrageously one-sided nature of the process or the very issue of whether the UN General Assembly was or is an appropriate place to assess blame and costs. Further, the repetition of one UN motion after another, to the exclusion of any other jurisdictions re parallel cases or any comparisons, allows the issue to remain in an isolated silo, in the same manner as the Palestinian refugees, who are treated totally differently than any other refugees. And those who were victims of the environmental disaster suffer the same fate as the Palestinian refugees – compensation is delayed endlessly because the issue of compensation and liability have not been separated. I can find no information that compensation has ever been paid to victims of the El Jiyeh oil spill.

There is another problem. The costs to the fisheries, mostly resulting from the blockade imposed by Israel against Lebanon from 12 July to 9 September 2006, are all viewed as costs to be attributed to the oil spill. The costs associated with loss of restaurant businesses because of the apprehension of Lebanese who arguably would not go to seafood restaurants or eat seafood because of possible effects on their health, are conflated with losses to restaurants because, during a war, there was very little tendency to want to risk eating in a public venue.

Israel is an active participant in the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea and works with all parties to the convention to promote its aims. Israel offered to work with others in a fair and judicious process to assess costs and liabilities of all environmental damages from the war. The offer was never taken up.

Instead of a separate procedure for determining compensation owed to victims and one for determining the liability for that compensation, the two issues were conflated in the El Jiyeh oil spill. The result is impotency in providing relief to victims in the name of making a political statement. The politicized process has been characterized by initial hyperbole, subsequent significant inflation – monetary, environmental and political – a one-sided assessment (the environmental damage done to Israel by its enemy, Hezbollah, was totally ignored), a singular focus that is decontextualized in both time and space. Precedents are ignored. The legal process is caricatured. The result is politics in its worst form, not justice.

As a final comparison, earlier this week I wrote about the break in the Eilat/Ashkelon oil pipeline 20 km. north of Eilat that took place last Thursday near Be’er Ora. There the spilled oil was also heavy crude, the most difficult to clean up. Initially, the original estimate of the amount of the spill was 1 million litres, but it has since been increased to 3 million litres (700,000 gallons). That means the Arava oils spill was one/seventh of the size of the El Jiyeh spill which, in turn, was one-tenth the size of the average commercial oil spill that attracts widespread media coverage. In both the Arava and the El Jiyeh cases, nature reserves were threatened and the cleanup had to take place swiftly in a very delicate eco-system. So one can also imagine that if the Israeli blockade did prevent a cleanup of the spill for up to a month, how much more disastrous the Lebanese spill, already seven times larger, was than the Israeli spill where there was almost panic that the oil would spill into the delicate ecosystem of the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat. In the Lebanese oil spill, much of the five million gallons flowed into the Mediterranean Sea.

However, when costs of the cleanup are compared, the Israeli cleanup is expected to cost 17 million Israeli shekels or a little over $4 million, almost one-fiftieth (1/50th) of the cost of the Lebanese cleanup, costs which were so much higher than the costs of most other oil cleanups. Compared to the $850 million assessed against Israel as liability costs, the costs of the Israeli oil spill seem a pittance. The costs in the Arava spill will be, if the estimates are correct, 1/200th of the liability assessed against Israel and 2% of the cleanup costs in the Lebanese oil spill. So I am torn between being appalled at the extent of devastation caused to Lebanon in 2006 and upset at the gross injustice in both procedure and substance that seems so outrageous and disheartening.

But I should not be so shocked. After all, I worked in the late eighties and early nineties with the UN on early warning systems to anticipate and prevent hostilities and was part of the investigating team in the inquiry into the UN role in the Rwanda genocide where I learned firsthand of both the fickleness and impotence of the United Nations.

Even though the adoption of the “Oil Slick on Lebanese Shores” Resolution by the General Assembly is deliberately worded as a request because the UN General Assembly lacks jurisdiction and also to gain as many votes for the resolution as possible, Dr. Nawaf Salam, the Permanent Representative of Lebanon to the United Nations, after the passage of the resolution, stated that the UN ruled that, “Israel has to pay for the damages inflicted on Lebanon in the immediate aftermath of El-Jiyeh attack.” The politics of the resolution is what is important, certainly not the compensation to victims. The Lebanese Permanent Representative to the UN envisioned the resolution as merely paving the way for further compensation in other areas of damage (health, ecosystem services as habitat, potential ground water contamination, and marine diversity) from the 2006 war.

The unique presumption is that Israel alone is liable for environmental damages caused during the 2006 Lebanese War or in any hostilities. Further, only environmental damage to Lebanon and not to Israel is to be considered. Israel is blamed as the aggressor even though, on 12 July 2006, Hezbollah’s military wing, as an exercise in Islamic “resistance”, launched rockets across the Lebanese border with Israel targeting the town of Shlomi and a military outpost at Shebaa Farms. Hezbollah also initiated a cross-border attack against two IDF Humvees, killing five Israeli soldiers and capturing two others. The objective of the Hezbollah aggression was ostensibly to free Arab prisoners held in Israeli jails. Israel retaliated by ground, air and sea attacks. Israeli navy gunships bombarded an electric power station on the coast at Jiyeh that resulted in the oil spill. The naval blockade to prevent the resupply of weapons to Hezbollah, which had fired about 4,000 rockets at northern Israel, may possibly have prevented a speedy cleanup. Security Council resolutions had called for full respect for the Blue Line by both parties and full implementation of the Taif Agreement, of resolutions 1559 and 1680 that required the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon. In spite of all this, Israel is considered the aggressor and liable for all costs resulting from the oil spill.

This is not justice. This is propaganda. It is enough, or almost enough, to make a peacenik like myself vote for Harper’s Tories in the next election for its principled stand on this issue at the UN — if it were not for the Harper government’s systematic destruction of the independence of the knowledge base of the Canadian civil service, its disregard of the environment, the lack of attention and progress on substantive issues of concern to aboriginal peoples, an absence of any real initiative to help refugees, and so much more.

The El Jiyeh UN Oil Spill: Legal Issues

The El Jiyeh UN Oil Spill: Legal Issues


Howard Adelman

There is no question that Israel bombed the oil storage tanks at the El Jiyeh electrical production facility south of Beirut during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War. There is no question that Israel did so deliberately. However, did Israel do so knowing, or was it reasonable for Israel to have known, that 10,000-15,000 tons of IFP number 6 heavy fuel oil from the ruptured tanks would leak into the Mediterranean?

I do not know. From reading the repeated UN “inquiries” and reports into the environmental disaster, one could never find out. Because there is no effort to ask the question, let alone find answers. The inquiries begin with a presumption of guilt and responsibility and merely tried to make as strong a case for the prosecution as possible, much more in the nature of the procedures for a kangaroo court than an independent and objective inquiry in which one gathers and hears all the evidence, raises all the key questions, analyzes the results and tries, as much as possible, to arrive at an objective finding.

As much as one loves the environment and is determined to do everything to protect it, and even if one is critical for Israel going to war with Lebanon when Hezbollah rained 4,000 missiles down on the northern half of the country, the process adopted, if one believes in principles of fairness, has to make a detached observer sympathetic to the position of Israel on this question.

Begin with the legal question. Is Israel guilty for the financial costs of the environmental damage, and, perhaps, also the damage to the tourist and fisheries industries, according to international law? The reports all cite international law, but the citations are akin to those of a first-year university student who believes simply that you cite what you perhaps read as proof rather than offering supporting authoritative evidence to give weight to an interpretation or argument. Where domestic law is cited, it is only used as a basis for making a claim without considering whether the claim in general is valid.

There exist both law and legal routes to assess and attribute costs to various parties in order to assess liability and financial responsibility for damage from oils spills. Some of that is domestic law. For example, there is the America‘s Oil Pollution Act or its equivalent in other legal jurisdictions. There is international law. And there is case law in both domestic and international proceedings. However, there is no precedent for the United Nations General Assembly, and the office of the Secretary-General, becoming involved in assessing responsibility and costs for an oil spill.

Section I of the 2014 UNDP “Report on the Measurement & Quantification of the Environmental Damage of the Oil Spill on Lebanon” summarizes the contents on the legal question as dealt with in seven other 2006 and 2007 UN reports on the issue:

• Experts Working Group for Lebanon, Lebanon Marine and Coastal Oil Pollution International Assistance Action Plan, 25 August 2006;
• International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Lebanon Oil Spill Rapid Assessment and Response Mission Consultancy Report, 11 September 2006;
• Conseil National de la Recherche Scientifique Results of the Scientific Researches Undertaken by the Council in relation with the consequences of the last Israeli aggression on Lebanon (in Arabic), 20 October 2006;
• Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Lebanon – Damage and Early Recovery Needs – Assessment of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, November 2006;
• United Nations Development Programme, Rapid Environmental Assessment for Greening Recovery, Reconstruction and Reform – 2006;
• World Bank, Republic of Lebanon – Economic Assessment of Environmental Degradation Due to July 2006 Hostilities, 11 October 2007;
• United Nations Environment Programme, Lebanon – Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment, 2007.

The focus (and expertise) of virtually all these reports was to assess damages and the costs for recovery, sometimes including damages unrelated to the oil spill, but not to determine liability. In other words, who has the duty and responsibility for compensation? The first reference is to domestic Lebanese law which is heavily influenced by French law. As in English tort law, it includes the general principle that “any wrongful act which causes prejudice to another person obliges the culprit to indemnify the aggrieved party”. That is, the act must be a wrongful one, there must be a causal link between the wrongful act and the consequences (in this case, of the oil spill), and there is a question of indemnification. In summary, the polluter pays. The 2014 UNDP Report specifically states that it will not go into any of these three questions because the UN General Assembly has already made that determination, in fact, numerous times. So once again, legal analysis is not attempted on the most fundamental issue because there has already been a finding of guilt. Circularity permeates the whole process. A party is guilty because that party has been found guilty.

The 2014 UNDP Report explores whether Lebanon tried to mitigate the damages because, if it did not, then Israel could escape some or all responsibility. The Report holds that, because Israel imposed an almost month-long maritime blockade on Lebanon, that country was unable to exert any effort to mitigate the consequences of the oil spill and, therefore, there was nothing to mitigate Israel’s responsibility. No evidence is cited. No international law on liability for the untoward effects of blockades in cases of hostilities is cited. Israel is simply fully responsible because one of the results of the blockade was, presumably, preventing Lebanon from mitigating the effects of the oil spill — even though there was no effort to determine whether Lebanon made such an effort, including requesting Israel’s cooperation, and whether Israel’s blockade actually prevented mitigation efforts.

How much ought to be assessed against the party which commits the wrongful act? For the totality of the prejudice sustained by Lebanon, a principle applicable to individual or collective disasters. Totality means the restoration in full to re-establish the equilibrium destroyed by the alleged wrongful act had the oil spill not occurred. Prejudices may not just be direct consequences but can include all indirect results, including future estimated or even possible results – such as lost profits and lost opportunity costs – as long as those indirect consequences can be linked to the wrongful act. In addition to indirect costs, there are ricochet effects, for example, the losses suffered by taxi drivers as a result of the loss of tourism which can be connected to the oil spill, or, an even greater ricochet effect, the loss of renovation work because owners of restaurants and hotels did not make their usual improvements because of huge losses suffered as a ricochet effect. However, in French law, moral as well as material costs are not included, such as loss of reputation to the tourist industry in Lebanon.

Given that the guilty party was identified by UN General Assembly resolutions, given this set of guidelines to determine damages, what process can be used? Three possibilities are set forth:
1. A UN agency or a combination of them makes the determination;
2. A panel of independent experts makes the determination;
3. A task force of government experts drawn from the party affected makes the determination.

In the assessment of environmental damages from the Iraqi actions following its invasion of Kuwait in defending its aggression by releasing oil into the Gulf, the Security Council, not the General Assembly, made the determination via a United Nations Compensation Commission that was provided with an interim fund. The Security Council, which has jurisdiction in cases of determining fault in a war, made the decision on how compensation would be handled. None of the options above were used; rather, a special UN agency was created, which was given interim funding to deal with the compensation and separate liability issues from victim compensation. To prepare claims for compensation, the Kuwait government set up a Public Authority consisting of representatives from both government and the private sector, supported by experts, to review any claims and to file the claims before the Claims Commission which would adjudicate those claims.

In adjudicating claims, including intangible assets such as lost business revenues, the losses had to be connected with the action, but, in the case of the Kuwait situation, the action was not restricted to the losses from the pollution caused by the oil spill into the Gulf, but any losses resulting from Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait. If the latter was used as a precedent for claims by Lebanon as a result of the oil spill, then the accumulation of claims would be far greater than just those caused by the oil spill. In the Iraqi-Kuwait case, environmental claims were given the lowest priority.

Note further that the UN General Assembly started a process to create an international convention with respect to compensation as a result of hostilities between parties where one party is considered to have committed a wrongful act. The UN drafted proposed articles with respect to reparations that were referred the International Law Commission in 2001, but they have never been in force or given any application. Nevertheless, they were used as guiding principles for assessing responsibility.

In summary,
1. There was never any determination of responsibility for the hostilities;
2. Responsibility for the oil spill was determined independently, in fact, without any determination of responsibility for hostilities;
3. The UNGA lacked jurisdiction for determining responsibility or assessing compensation for environmental damages;
4. The UNGA had never proposed let alone passed a convention dealing with compensation in cases of oil spills;
5. There was no separation in determination of liability and determination of compensation;
6. There was no assessment whether the blockade in fact prevented any mitigation of damages;
7. The process of adjudication of compensation had no independence;
8. There never seemed to be a process for differentiating losses resulting from the hostilities and losses resulting from the oil spill;
9. No rationale was offered for making environmental damages the highest priority whereas they were made the lowest priority in the Kuwait case;
10. There was certainly no assessment or evaluation on the environmental damages suffered by Israel as a result of the hostilities.

The UN cited the following to justify its decision and its previous motions:
• United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, especially principle 7 of the Declaration of the Conference, which requested States to take all possible steps to prevent pollution of the seas;
• the need to protect and preserve the marine environment in accordance with international law;
• the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development especially principle 16, which stipulates that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution.

None of these references come anywhere close to assessing legal responsibility for the financial costs of the El Jiyeh oil spill to Israel. When Professor Richard Steiner, a marine professor at the University of Alaska, who participated in the assessment of the oil spill in Lebanon, asserted that the State of Israel should participate in a full and independent legal inquiry, establish a fund of $1 billion to reimburse all costs for oil-spill response, clean-up and economic losses caused, and implement a comprehensive restoration program, he had offered no legal justification for such a recommendation and had no expertise to make such a determination.

Other UN reports note that assessing blame and damages for environmental disasters were inapplicable when caused as a result of armed hostilities. Further, such provisions, in any case, do not relate to land-based incidents but only pertain to oil spills at sea. The provision for the United Nations Compensation Commission in the case of Kuwait is the only precedent major oil-spill compensation regime for spills arising from armed hostilities. It depended entirely on both the Security Council having jurisdiction and the prior finding of Iraqi responsibility for the hostilities.

Finally, the assessment of liabilities has precedents for other situations of oil spills during armed hostilities. For example, in the current war against IS involving the US and its allies, including Arab allies, on September 23rd, American aircraft bombed refineries and other oil installations in areas of Syria controlled by the Islamic State. In October it became known that the US was considering, as a serious option, bombing the oil pipelines over which IS had gained control, especially since IS generates $2 million per day to fund its aggressive efforts. My guess is that the U.S, and its allies are reticent, not so much because of the potential for environmental damage, but because of the precedent set that would invite sabotage initiatives by IS against American and Saudi pipelines.
In any case, you can make a large wager that neither the U.S. nor any of its Arab allies will be held to account for any environmental damage that takes place as a result of bombings targeting IS-controlled refineries and pipelines.

Tomorrow: The El Jiyeh UN Oil Spill: Financial and Political Fairness

Lebanon: The UN El Jiyeh Oil Spill Resolution

Lebanon: The UN El Jiyeh Oil Spill Resolution


Howard Adelman

[Note: 1 metric tonne of fuel oil = approx. 7 barrels = almost 318 gallons.]

This morning I will continue to examine the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through my annual regional survey of the Middle East, now focused on Lebanon. I will also continue to focus on the conflict through an environmental lens. This is not merely because of the angle I took on Jordan and the story of the recent oil spill in Israel because of a fractured oil pipeline. Last Friday (19 December 2014) the UN General Assembly voted to request that Israel “promptly” pay $856.4 million (often rounded off to $850 million) in damages, as a result of the oil spill caused when, on 13 and 15 July 2006, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) launched two air strikes which targeted and destroyed the oil storage tanks near the El Jiyeh electric power plant 30 km. south of Beirut which resulted in the burning of 55,000 tons of heavy fuel oil and the spill of 10,000-15,000 tons (up to 5 million gallons) into the eastern Mediterranean, polluting Lebanon’s shoreline for 170 km, two-thirds of Lebanon’s coastline. (Some UN resolutions claimed the damage covered the entire Lebanese coastline, in which case it would, inevitably, have included the Israeli coast, which it did not.) The incident is generally referred to as the Jiyeh Oil Spill (JOS).

Of the 46 environmental impacts, nine included littoral pollution, impact on marine biodiversity (especially rocky biogenic reefs and Palm Islands Nature Reserve where 100 oiled birds were observed), air pollution from El-Jiyeh fire, marine sediment impact from sunken oil, soil pollution from deposited contaminants of fuel burning at El-Jiyeh, 2), impact on seawater quality from the oil spill and the soil impact at El-Jiyeh site affecting plants and ecosystem from fuel burning. Rocks were covered in black sludge right up until the southern part of Syria killing fish and endangering the habitat of endangered species such as marine loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) and green turtles (Chelonya mydas).

Initial reports on the extent and depth of the damage were hyperbolic and UN resolutions continued that tone even though the United Nations Environmental Program revised its initial estimates and minimized the long-term damage. For example, it reported that the sediment from sunken oil was not nearly as bad as originally feared and left no significant long-lasting impact. Similarly, seawater quality was not degraded significantly or for very long. Further, the UNEP report stated that routine stress from untreated sewage, boating and other activities had damaged the Lebanese marine environment far more than the oil spill.

There have been a series of eight UN General Assembly resolutions previously dealing with this oil spill, the first two, a resolution adopted by the Second Committee of the UN, 22 November 2006 and a resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 20 December 2006, and the latest previous one, res. 68/206 on 20 December 2013. They are all very similar except this one designated a dollar figure.

Various UN and international agencies have been apprised and become involved on the issue, including the United Nations (FAO), the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Bank, and UNEP/Mediterranean Action Plan/Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Centre for the Mediterranean Sea (REMPEC) in addition to the Lebanese government. Under various rubrics, such as environmental protection, biodiversity, sustainable economic development, human health protection, fisheries protection, reservation of tourism and various other so-called relevant general themes, resolutions along the same lines have been introduced and passed by the UN since 2006. But the almost billion dollar figure seemed to catch enormous attention.

If you google “Jiyeh oil spill”, the reports of the UN decision assessing Israel for over $850 million in damages will be reflected in citations from almost every media outlet in the world. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of stories this past week. Although the issue has come up in the United Nations General Assembly many times before, never has it been so widely reported, most often with little context, especially about the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. Even though the resolution is non-binding, and even though it is recorded as a “request”, even though the UN General Assembly has no authority to levy fines or costs from an environmental disaster, the usual impression is that the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to find Israel guilty of the oil spill and responsible for all costs connected with it. Clearly, the figure of almost a billion dollar assessment caught the attention of the media.

Israel has not been held liable for the deaths of 1,200 Lebanese during that war. But it is being held financially responsible for an environmental disaster. A 2007 Secretary General’s Report on the oil spill reported that the damage caused was $729 million although the original damage claimed by Lebanon, including clean-up costs and damage to the Lebanese economy, was $203 million. The latest costs have been corrected to allow for inflation, but do not include interest on the total monies claimed. Further, these are only the alleged costs to Lebanon. For example, expenditures by Japan and Norway, which participated in the clean-up, cost $1.8 million. The Canadian International Development Agency spent $35,587 in a follow-up survey.

These costs do not include the outlays incurred by other international agencies and other countries and NGOs that helped with the cleanup, including Israel that cooperated with the United Nations Environmental Program. However, in the 2014 resolution, the Secretary-General was asked to conduct further studies to quantify environmental damage sustained by neighbouring countries (e,g, Syria, Turkey and even Cyprus presumably), ensuring the issue will come before the UN General Assembly next year.

Routinely, Israel, the United States, Canada and Australia vote against the resolution along with shifting numbers of Micronesian states. Mr. Mally, the US delegate in 2006, put the American position clearly, a position which has been repeated ever since. After expressing the American delegation’s condolences to the people of Lebanon for the tragic loss of Industry Minister Mr. Pierre Gemayel and the United States support for the Lebanese people’s desire to live in peace, the U.S. registered its criticisms for the “one-sided and unbalanced language and placed demands on one party to the conflict while failing to acknowledge the role of those responsible for initiating the hostilities in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. It was Hizbollah that had provoked the conflict with its incursion into Israel on 12 July. That fact was not acknowledged in the draft resolution.” The U.S. regretted “the pollution of the shores of Lebanon…However, the Committee had important responsibilities and should not be used to advance one-sided and unbalanced views. In particular, it was inappropriate for the Committee to take a position on Israel’s responsibilities to compensate Lebanon for damage caused during the course of an armed conflict.”

Canada opposed the resolution because it argued, and has always argued, that the UN General Assembly was an inappropriate place to take up a matter of legal and financial liability.

Israel insisted that the issue was politically motivated and no consideration was given to the context of the war, the initial attacks by Hezbollah, the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, the fires caused in northern Israel by Hezbollah that caused massive environmental damage. Certainly there was no consideration for Israel’s statement in its defence by Ilan Fluss, the Israeli delegate who called the resolution

a blatant attempt to politicize an issue of environmental concern and paint Israel, once again, as the unjust aggressor. It joined the litany of one-sided resolutions that flowed out of the General Assembly each year. The Committee must not allow politicization to infiltrate its work, as it distracted attention from issues of substance and relevance. The draft resolution omitted a crucial detail relating to the context of the events described. It did not mention the entire reason for the conflict — namely, that on 12 July 2006 Hizbollah terrorists had crossed an internationally recognized border into Israel and kidnapped and killed Israeli soldiers. Had the Government of Lebanon exercised its sovereignty and fulfilled the conditions demanded of it by Security Council resolution 1559 (2004), the conflict would not have occurred. But the Government of Lebanon had been derelict in its duty and irresponsibly allowed the growth of a ‘state within a state’, and now the peoples and land of Lebanon and Israel were paying the price.

In response to Hizbollah’s attack, Israel had done what any other country would have done: defend and protect the lives of its citizens and eliminate the impending threat. As 4,000 Katyusha rockets had rained down on Israeli towns and citizens, it had been Israel’s moral duty to defend its people. The obligation of a responsible Government was first and foremost to its citizenry. The same could not be said for the Government of Lebanon, which had ignored its people and its land and allowed terrorists to hijack both.

That was not to say that there was no reason for concern regarding the environmental health and vitality of Lebanon’s coast. Professional agencies — including United Nations bodies such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) — were assessing and addressing the situation on the ground, in ways that would accomplish far more than the draft resolution. Moreover, if the sponsors were earnest in their desire to address the development ramifications of the conflict, they would have mentioned the more than half a million trees and 52,000 dunams of forest that had burnt down in Israel as a result of fires caused by Hizbollah rockets; the 25 Israeli cement and asbestos buildings that had been damaged, polluting an area of 20,000 square metres; or the direct hit by a Katyusha rocket on a sludge-thickening plant in Tzafat. The omission of reference to those environmental catastrophes in Israel proved that the draft resolution was an act of political demonization. Israel urged those Member States that believed in authentically addressing the challenges and responsibilities of the Committee to distance themselves from yet another act of partisan politicking. That was not the way to deal responsibly with matters requiring genuine attention.

Almost all other countries supported the resolution with very few abstentions and, also, very few speeches, none of which addressed the complaints of the countries that voted against. Though the dollar figure helped garner the headlines, the resolution was clearly about politics, for the Prime Minister of Lebanon used the occasion to welcome the action and to call on the UN to force Israel to stop violating Lebanese territory and to retreat from the Shebaa Farms, a small strip of disputed land at the intersection of the Lebanese-Syrian border and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the strategically located Kfarshouba Hills, once the home of the second largest village in south Lebanon on the borders of Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights, now largely destroyed. The village has been repeatedly attacked by Israeli forces in 1967, 1970, 1972, 1982, 2006. In May 2000, following the Israeli army withdrawal from Lebanon, the UN certified that Israel has withdrawn fully from all Lebanese territory.

The third area the Prime Minister of Lebanon complained about was the north part of the Ghajar village. Bibi, backed up by an Israeli cabinet decision, promised to hand the control over the area to UNIFIL on condition that the Lebanese Army protect the vicinity north of the village, while UNIFIL would be deployed in the village itself to deal both with Israel’s security concerns and the disputed claims over the territory between Lebanon and Syria. Ghajar was under full Syrian control before the 1967 war, including the northern part that Israel is being asked to return to Lebanon.

Contrast this political performance with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikat’s response to the indictment by a US-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon on the 2005 assassination of former Premier Rafiq Harari, along with 20 others in a massive car bombing, that named four members of the Lebanese resistance movement of Hezbollah. The Lebanese Prime Minister then insisted that the evidence was not conclusive and that, “Every individual is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.” He went further by showing Israeli unmanned video footage and played recorded messages of alleged “fifth columnists” to claim that Israel was responsible for the attack, even though no motive was even suggested why Israel might want to kill an enemy of Hezbollah.

Tomorrow: The El Jiyeh Oil Spill: Legal, Financial and Political Fairness