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Political philosophy to the rescue of islanders

Small island nations have been one of history's consistent political losers. Precisely because they are so small, they lack the power to resist domination by larger powers.

After seizing the Marshall Islands from Japan during World War II, the United States proceeded to use the the islands as a site for over 100 atmospheric nuclear tests. Decades of litigation resulted in only paltry compensation for the disposessed islanders.

The British expelled thousands of Chagos islanders from their homeland in the 1960s to make way for a military base and recently refused them the right to return to their tiny island in the Indian Ocean. The grounds? It would be too expensive to relocate them.

Nowadays, it is through pollution and global warming that world powers most threaten small island nations. If current trends hold, many inhabited islands will be submerged completely due to rising sea levels. Assuming large states are unwilling to reverse this trend by implementing drastic pollution controls, we have to ask: Will they compensate islanders for eliminating their territories altogether, and how?

Mathias Risse, a political philosopher at Harvard, supports a radical proposition made by Anote Tong, president of the island nation of Kiribati:

[S]catter his people of about 100,000 through the nations of the world as rising sea levels swallow up their native island.

Risse justifies this solution by invoking the 17th-century ideas of Hugo Grotius, who argued that the Earth should be viewed as owned collectively by humanity. If we take this view, states are obligated to accept immigrants whose ownership rights have been infringed upon because their home territories no longer exist. This raises the further question: Are states that contribute more to global warming more obligated to accept the resulting refugees?

This is all abstract, normative philosophy that rests on a contestable assumption; Risse theorizes about about what governments should think and do rather than what they in reality do think and do. But these issues might end up in court. Such philosophical arguments would then play an important role in determining the fate of the many islanders soon-to-be made homeless by global warming.

Photo: TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images, Wikipedia

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The fallout of the U.S. attack in Syria

More details are coming out about the U.S. helicopter strike in the Syrian town of Abu Kamal on Sunday. Anonymous U.S. officials are calling the raid a "success," saying that it killed Abu Ghadiyah, an Iraqi loyal to al Qaeda who smuggled foreign fighters into Iraq. Meanwhile, the Syrian government is sticking to its story that the US military overran a farm, killing eight unarmed civilians. On Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem condemned the U.S. attack as an act of "terrorist aggression" on Syria.

The ease with which Syria's enemies have violated its sovereignty represents a serious blow to Syria's credibility on the international stage. In Sept. 2007, Israel bombed a mysterious site in northern Syria, and Syria's only reaction was a muted denunciation of the attack. If Syria is seen as unable to retaliate to attacks on its own territory, it will likely find itself victim to more of these incursions in the future.

The lingering question from this attack is: why now? Gen. David Petraeus had praised Syria last year for cutting down the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq from its territory -- the number crossing the border now is estimated at around 20 a month, down from a high of 100 a month. Still, U.S. commanders recently voiced frustration that Syria has not cut off the flow of fighters completely. The most likely scenario is that the military simply calculated that the risk to the lives of US soldiers in Iraq outweighed the minimal risk of Syrian retaliation triggered by crossing over the border.

Photo: RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images