Seven years into its catastrophic conflict, Syria has witnessed yet another major chemical strike. This time the target was the rebel-held city of Douma in Eastern Ghouta, just outside Damascus. The death toll currently stands at around 70 – making the attack as deadly as the infamous sarin strike at Khan Sheikhoun almost exactly a year ago to the day. It is thought the number of confirmed fatalities could rise to 150.
The White Helmets have reported that most of the victims were women and children. A local journalist said the scene “was like judgement day … the situation, the fear, and the destruction are indescribable”.
Like previous incidents, the attack has been widely blamed on Bashar al-Assad’s government. The agent used has not been confirmed. Witnesses say they smelled chlorine, but the sheer level of destruction suggests that something more lethal may have been used as well. There are allegations that the regime used a sarin barrel bomb.
Whatever the precise details, no-one should be surprised by what has happened. Horrified, yes – but Assad has repeatedly used chemical weapons in the civil conflict since 2012, and clearly he is not inclined to stop.
As per usual, the incident has attracted condemnation from Assad’s enemies around the world. US President Donald Trump tweeted that there will be a “big price” to pay for the attack, and derided Assad as an “animal”. The European Union called for “an immediate response by the international community”. Pope Francis weighed in too: “Nothing, nothing can justify the use of such devices of extermination against defenceless people and populations.”
Tough talk indeed. But whether or not this turns into decisive action is another story. After all, we have been here many times before.
Enough is enough
This isn’t to say the world hasn’t responded at all. After Khan Shaykhun last year, for example, Trump ordered missile strikes against a Syrian airbase with 59 Tomahawk missiles. His reference to a “big price” suggests there could be a similar move in the offing. Asked how the US might respond to the latest attack, White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert was asked whether a US response was coming and replied, “I wouldn’t take anything off the table”.
But previous measures, including Trump’s missile strikes, have achieved little. Many at the United Nations have worked hard to bring Assad and his allies to account, but they have been stymied by Russia’s Security Council veto. Former US president, Barack Obama, succeeded in getting Assad to the negotiating table and – together with the support of Russia – he agreed to accede Syria to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the main international agreement that bans and eliminates chemical arms. But Assad still continues to use chemical arms.
Even if these moves have limited the scale of the Syrian government’s chemical attacks, they have continued. Trump and his administration have repeatedly said Trump will observe the red line against chemical warfare set by his Obama – but the line is still being crossed, again and again and again.
As well as the big attacks that make headlines, Assad has repeatedly overseen smaller chlorine strikes. In 2017, Trump was asked in an interview about Assad’s use of chlorine – and Trump didn’t even know that Assad was still using chemical weapons. This doesn’t suggest the president is treating this as a priority. The world is acting, but it isn’t doing enough.
Securing the future
Failing to act decisively now could set off a domino effect. Allowing anyone to carry out chemical strikes with impunity sends a dangerous message. If Assad is not held to his account for his actions, why should anyone else stop short of chemical violence for fear of the world’s wrath?
Punishing violators in itself reinforces, supports and promotes the convention’s ideals. Leaving them unpunished weakens the norm that chemical warfare is wrong – and failing to make an example of Assad threatens the entire weapons control regime. Some argue that violations will not necessarily bring down the Chemical Weapons Convention, but their arguments assume that those who do violate it will be punished somehow.
The world’s progress in controlling chemical weapons should not be underestimated, and the admittedly limited measures such as Trump’s missile strikes that have been taken against Assad deserve credit. Still, it’s incumbent on all those with the power to intervene to ask themselves how many times we have to see horrific and traumatic images of chemical warfare before stronger action is taken.
It’s very easy to sit in front of a computer and type this. It’s hardly an easy problem to solve, especially while Russia continues to support Assad’s government and its forces. But there are severe implications if Assad is not stopped.
THE cricket world reacted with shock and outrage to revelations of Australia’s premeditated attempt to cheat against South Africa and the English newspapers have had a field day on their backpages.
Steve Smith, who has made it clear he doesn’t intend to stand down as skipper over the ball-tampering furore, and his leadership group discussed the merits of using sticky tape to illegally alter the ball at lunch on day three of the contest in Cape Town.
Christmas has become a cultural event, associated with the giving of gifts and lavish meals with friends and family.
But the traditional understanding of Christmas is that it’s a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus.
The idea of giving gifts may be traced to the Bible, in which the infant Jesus was presented with gold, frankincense and myrrh by the Three Wise Men, named in apocryphal texts as Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior.
This received a boost in the Middle Ages, when Boxing Day, December 26, became a holiday when masters gave their apprentices and other employees “boxes” – that is, gifts.
Yet the celebration of Christmas has distinct variations around the world. Some of these local traditions are very interesting and arise from particular historical circumstances.
The figure of Santa Claus, the jolly bringer of presents to good children, is derived from St Nicholas, a fourth-century Christian bishop of Myra.
Two famous stories are told of him, that associate him with gifts and children:
He rescued three girls from a life of prostitution by giving their father three bags of gold for their dowries.
He brought back to life three young boys who had been murdered and pickled by an evil innkeeper.
Santa Claus has elves and reindeer as companions in general Western folklore. But in other traditions around the world, Santa’s helpers are far less friendly.
The Netherlands: naughty kids are taken to Spain
In the Netherlands, Sinterklaaas brings children presents on December 5 (the day before the feast of St Nicholas, December 6).
Dutch traditions say that Sinterklaas lives in Madrid, wears a red clerical robe and a bishop’s mitre, and has servants called “Zwarte Pieten” (Black Peters).
He arrives each year at a different port on November 11. Children prepare by leaving carrots for his horse and putting out a shoe for presents to be put in.
The Zwarte Pieten keep lists of the naughty children who receive pieces of coal rather than gifts. Very naughty children are put into sacks and taken to Spain as a punishment.
The reason Sinterklaas lives in Madrid is because between 1518 and 1714 the Netherlands was under the control of the Holy Roman Empire, at that time ruled by the Hapsburg Dynasty of Spain. Spain, therefore, meted out both punishments and rewards to the Netherlands (as the Zwarte Pieten and Sinterklaas do to Dutch children).
Though Zwarte Pieten are black because they spent so much time in chimneys, in the modern Netherlands many are concerned that they may be racist.
Central Europe: St Nicholas’ companion is a sinister creature that whips bad children
In central Europe, including Austria, Bavaria and the Czech Republic, the companion of St Nicholas is the sinister Krampus, a terrifying creature with fangs, horns and fur, who punishes naughty children by whipping them with sticks, called “ruten bundles”. These whippings are intended to make bad children good.
Those who cannot be whipped into niceness are put into Krampus’ sack and taken back to his den (somewhat akin to the Zwarte Pieten and Spain).
Also similar to the Zwarte Pieten is Krampus’ gift of coal, though he also gives ruten bundles (sticks sprayed with gold paint displayed in houses all year round) to remind children to be good throughout the year.
Krampus has pagan origins and is claimed to be the son of Hel, the goddess of the dead in Norse mythology.
The den to which he takes bad children is the Underworld, which literally means that if you are naughty you will die.
This pagan origin made the Christian churches in central Europe hostile to Krampus, in particular the Catholic Church, which banned rituals dedicated to him.
In the 21st century, as the influence of Christianity has receded, these traditions have been revived with great enthusiasm.
Groups of men dress as Krampus and rowdily parade through towns on Krampusnacht (December 5, before the feast of St Nicholas), drinking Krampus schnapps – a traditional fruit brandy brewed extra-strong for the occasion – and scaring children.
Some Krampuses bear more than a passing resemblance to Chewbacca, with horns! Krampus has now been immortalised in film, with “Krampus”, a horror comedy directed by Michael Dougherty, being released in 2015.
South Korea: a family occasion where it’s fashionable to attend a Christmas church service
South Korea has more Christians than many Asian countries and Christmas is a public holiday there, even though 70% of the population is not Christian.
Christmas trees abound, decorated with twinkling lights and often with a red cross on the top. Lavish Christmas displays in shop windows are common. It’s also a time of family celebration.
For many non-Christians, it has become fashionable to attend a Christmas church service, and groups of people walk through neighbourhoods singing Christmas carols.
Christmas cake (though not European-style fruit cake, but either sponge cake with cream, or ice-cream cake) is a popular seasonal indulgence. Christmas dinner, however, is firmly Korean and usually includes noodles, beef bulgogi and kimchi (pickled cabbage).
Santa Claus also features and is called Santa Kullusu or Santa Haraboji (Grandfather). He may sometimes wear a blue suit instead of a red suit, something that was common in the 19th century, when Santa Claus was often portrayed wearing blue or green, until red became the most popular colour.
Yet Christmas is not the great consumerist event that is common in the West; Koreans generally give one gift only to close friends and family.
New Year, which is a huge festival in all East Asian cultures, has far more extravagant celebrations. But Christmas is very popular with younger Koreans and is likely to become a larger part of cultural life in the future.
As the result of a state-sponsored doping regime in the lead-up to and during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has banned Russia from participating at next year’s games.
Bans from the Olympics are not unprecedented. In the aftermath of the two world wars, certain countries – like Germany and Japan – were not permitted to compete.
Also, the IOC banned South Africa for three decades from the 1960s because of its apartheid regime. Afghanistan was suspended from the Olympics in 1999, partly because of the Taliban’s ban on the participation of women athletes. It did not send athletes to the 2000 Olympics.
The ban on Russia from competing at next year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea is, however, unique: it is directly linked to the country’s lack of sporting integrity.
How might Russia react?
The ban is a humiliating blow to Russian sport generally but also to the country’s president, Vladimir Putin. His interest in winter sports was evidenced by Russia spending a record US$51 billion on hosting the Olympics in 2014, which surpassed the previous record Beijing set in 2008.
But just one Olympic cycle later, the integrity of that event – at which Russia topped the medal table – has been undermined, and the Russian flag will not fly at the 2018 Games. Russian state TV has already said it will not broadcast from South Korea, where the country’s athletes were expected to be medal contenders in one-third of its 102 events.
Aside from Putin’s reaction, there are several further points of interest arising from the ban.
First, it is likely that Russia will appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Russia appealed its ban from the 2016 Rio Paralympics – it remains banned from the Winter Paralympics – to CAS. This time, expect the appeal to be founded on the due process argument that the reports upon which the IOC’s decision is based – the McLaren reports of 2016 and the IOC’s Schmid Commission – were investigatory only. While the evidence, at first instance, appears compelling, Russia has yet to test or answer it in an adversarial setting.
Second, the IOC’s ban is not a blanket prohibition, and the IOC has said that it will allow athletes from Russia to compete under a neutral flag and as “Olympic Athletes from Russia”.
Similar to what occurred in the lead-up to the Rio Olympics in 2016 – where a ban on Russia competing was contemplated – the IOC has laid down strict testing criteria which such neutral athletes must satisfy before being declared eligible. Expect multiple CAS appeals to emanate from the IOC’s interpretation of criteria.
Echoes and lessons of history
CAS appeals may be rendered moot if Russia, as has been hinted, decides that such is the disproportionate, biased nature of the IOC’s actions that it will fully boycott the event and prohibit its athletes from competing even as “Olympic Athletes from Russia”.
Boycotts have historical connotations. The last time Russia hosted an Olympics (in Moscow in 1980) it boycotted the subsequent (1984) Games for political reasons relating to the Cold War.
One of the consequences for sport in the Cold War era was the use of sporting success as a propaganda tool. The Soviets and many of its satellite states – notably East Germany – used sophisticated state-sponsored doping regimes to fuel this success.
Echoes of that regime, particularly the East German system, resonate today. Its system was not so much state-sponsored but state-mandated.
Evidence from the surviving athletes themselves and from the Stasi files of the era reveal that young East German athletes rarely had a choice when it came to ingesting almost industrial levels of steroids, which had a devastating impact on their long-term health.
Team versus individual doping
The issue of informed, collective consent and fault in sports doping has been discussed at CAS – notably in the Essendon drugs case in Australian rules football. And the nature of doping infractions in a team setting is often much more nuanced than might first appear.
Athletes generally have a real-time appreciation of their bodies: their focus is on the next game or event; they often, rightly or wrongly, assign their long-term health to others in their entourage or support staff.
While doping ultimately reveals itself in the testing of athletes’ samples, as a matter of causation or responsibility, fault may lie elsewhere.
In Russia’s case, it is of note that the IOC has also banned its current deputy prime minister and former sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, from all future Olympic Games. But while Mutko will not be able to attend the 2018 Winter Olympics, he will continue to be the chief organiser for the 2018 football World Cup, which Russia will host.
FIFA, world football’s governing body, does not believe this is an impediment to Russia hosting the World Cup. But expect its attitude to come under intense scrutiny in coming months, as well as the wider issue of the prevalence of doping in football.
Finally, banning Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics was a straightforward decision for the IOC. The trickier issue will come with regard to the 2020 Summer Olympics. Will Russia have reformed its anti-doping policy and procedure to the standards expected by entities such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)?
The criteria used by WADA and others to judge Russia will be highly technical in nature. Perhaps the most important way to gauge Russia’s good faith on this matter would be to see how it treated three key whistleblowers who have been central to this whole affair: Vitaly Stepanov and his wife Yuliya, and Grigory Rodchenkov.
Thus far, Russia has traduced them. They no longer live in Russia, but in fear. If Russia continues to discredit them, it should remain discredited in the eyes of the sporting world.
DONALD Trump has issued a dire threat to Kim Jong un as Russia warns of North Korea’s next missile launch.
US President Donald Trump said that diplomatic efforts with North Korea have consistently failed, adding that “only one thing will work.”
Trump has engaged in an escalating war of words with North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un, trading insults amid rising tensions between the two nuclear-armed rivals.
“Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid,” Trump tweeted.
It “hasn’t worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!” The US has not ruled out the use of force to compel Pyongyang to halt missile and nuclear tests, and Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” the country.