26 December, 2013


As someone particularly interested in the movement of the stars (and their impacts on the mundane affairs of human beings), I was intrigued to receive a little “Nepali Christmas” booklet that started off with an astrological explanation for the circumstances of Jesus’s birth. The booklet stated that astrology was well-respected during the time of Jesus’s birth, and an astrological prediction predicted the birth of Jesus. The star seen over the sky during his birth, the booklet states, was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. 

The Star of Bethlehem is the star the three wise men of the East, or the Magi, followed to find baby Jesus when he was born. The star predicted the birth of a great king of the Jews. The Magi, three wise men from non-Jewish cultures, arrive after a long journey with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrah to Jesus’s home, before departing from another route to escape the wrath of King Herod. Despite Herod’s best attempts to kill all the male newborns, Jesus survives, and goes on to spread the word of love to the planet.

According to Discovery.com, Jupiter is one of the top 4 "celestial suspects" for the star:
The King of the Planets: Jupiter
The three wise men referenced in the Biblical story are widely accepted to have been top-notch astrologers. In astrology speak, Jupiter is the King planet and around the birth of Jesus, it completed a retrograde loop (backward motion among the stars) near to Regulus in Leo, the King star! The interaction in the sky between these two objects would have been a sign to the astrologers of the birth of a new King, possibly explaining The Star of Bethlehem.
The same website goes on to speculate that it may have been a retrograde Jupiter. The passage below is from the website:

Jupiter’s Retrograde Motion
Between Sept. 3 B.C. and May 2 B.C. there were three conjunctions (on Sept. 14, 3 B.C., Feb. 17, 2 B.C. and May 8, 2 B.C.) where Jupiter passed close to the star Regulus (the brightest star in the constellation Leo). This rare sequence of events would have looked very strange to those familiar with the night sky.
Thompson found that the gas giant passed Regulus in an easterly motion before appearing to reverse direction, passing the star again in a westerly direction. This change in direction is known as retrograde motion. Due to the near-circular orbits of Earth and Jupiter, as Earth has a faster orbital period than Jupiter, from our point of view we will appear to “overtake” the gas giant. The motion of Jupiter will therefore appear to change direction for several weeks before changing direction again continuing its easterly drift.
The Three Wise Men, thought by many to have been zoroastrianist priests (who were also renowned astrologers) might have noticed this strange motion and considered it to be a ‘sign.’
“The retrograde motion meant the planet was travelling in a westerly direction in the sky and so the [Three Wise Men] may have followed it from Persia,” Thompson told the UK’s Telegraph.
“By camel it would have taken about three months and interestingly this is roughly about the same time Jupiter was travelling in this westward direction.”

Not all scientists write off astrology as rubbish. Check out this paragraph from Archaelogy, a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America, which also considers the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction as a possible cause of what the three wise men may have seen in the night sky:

Combinations of sky phenomena have been suggested, including a conjunction of two or more planets, such as the triple conjunction (three close visual passes in a row) of Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation of Pisces in 7 B.C., a planetary conjunction plus a comet, or eclipses of Saturn and Jupiter by the moon, as well as the zodiacal light, a reflection of sunlight off interplanetary particles in the plane of the planets' orbits, has been cited, as have UFOs. A second category of explanation avoids the necessity of scientific accountability by positing a theophany, an aura of light surrounding God, a supernatural radiance. A third category raises the possibility that the star is neither chronological nor literal and that identifying it either naturally or supernaturally serves no purpose, that it is "just a story."

Which of these explanations one opts for depends on who is asking the question--astronomer, theologian, or historian--and what constitutes meaning for each in the historical framework in which he or she makes the inquiry.

And of course, its always fun to end with the skeptical view, primarily because these guys are so smug in their belief that they are so right. Science has led to some terrible developments that threatens to destroy humankind. But you can be assured that despite the sinister pace of research on everything from brain and mind control to genetics (all of which appears to be done under shrouds of scientific secrecy and without any ethical oversight), there are going to be scientists who “debunk” all the mystical, magical, spiritual views that keep the planet afloat through its transcendental vision of love and peace for their frightening insistence on their one and only “right” scientific view. Physicist Aaron Adair does not believe the Star of Bethlehem has any origins in astronomical phenomena, but is open to the possibility it could be a UFO. Below, the Washington Post interview excerpt:

Q: My favorite is that the star was actually a UFO. Why would anyone believe this theory?
A: It actually fits the description of the star in the Gospels. A UFO can move around and look like anything it wants to, given sufficient technology. It could lead people to a location and hover over a particular spot and say, for example, “Eat at Joe’s.” And sufficiently advanced aliens could have communicated with the Magi. But all this just means it is imaginable. Of course the problem is, we don’t know if there are intelligent aliens out there or whether they traveled to Earth to mess around with a few local Palestinians.

Fortunately for the planet, the spiritual vision, which imagines the interconnection of all human beings through the existence of the Divine, has always been so much more powerful than any scientific advancement. I am looking forward to the day when three wise men come forward, following the light of a star, loaded with gifts, to celebrate the birth of a great scientist. In the meantime, Merry Christmas, and as the Pope says, may all of us have the courage to move towards peace.  

15 December, 2013

Crimes against humanity: jus cogens, non-derogable and no statute of limitation

I worked on the report on the civil conflict in Nepal with a team of researchers at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Kathmandu in 2010.  

Working on this report, and working on issues of access to justice during 2004, the height of Nepal’s civil conflict, made me interested in issues of crimes against humanity. What constitutes a crime against humanity?

According to www.crimesofwar.org:

In 1945, the United States and other Allies developed the Agreement for the Prosecution and Punishment of the Major War Criminals of the European Axis and Charter of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), sitting at Nuremberg, which contained the following definition of crimes against humanity in Article 6(c):
“Crimes against humanity: murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against civilian populations, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.”

Despite differing definitions of crimes of war, the website says:
(1) they refer to specific acts of violence against persons irrespective of whether the person is a national or non-national and irrespective of whether these acts are committed in time of war or time of peace, and (2) these acts must be the product of persecution against an identifiable group of persons irrespective of the make-up of that group or the purpose of the persecution. Such a policy can also be manifested by the “widespread or systematic” conduct of the perpetrators, which results in the commission of the specific crimes contained in the definition.  
See more at: http://www.crimesofwar.org/a-z-guide/crimes-against-humanity/#sthash.piM7ay1y.dpuf

More on jus cogens and non-derogable rule of international laws:

But crimes against humanity are also deemed to be part of jus cogens—the highest standing in international legal norms. Thus, they constitute a non-derogable rule of international law. The implication of this standing is that they are subject to universal jurisdiction, meaning that all States can exercise their jurisdiction in prosecuting a perpetrator irrespective of where the crime was committed. It also means that all States have the duty to prosecute or extradite, that no person charged with that crime can claim the “political offense exception” to extradition, and that States have the duty to assist each other in securing evidence needed to prosecute. But of greater importance is the fact that no perpetrator can claim the “defense of obedience to superior orders” and that no statute of limitation contained in the laws of any State can apply.

And here’s the clincher:
Lastly, no one is immune from prosecution for such crimes, even a head of State.

The International Criminal Court prosecutes crimes against humanity. 

According to its website:

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is an independent, permanent court that tries persons accused of the most serious crimes of international concern, namely genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The ICC is based on a treaty, joined by 122 countries (effective as of 1 May 2013).
The ICC is a court of last resort. It will not act if a case is investigated or prosecuted by a national judicial system unless the national proceedings are not genuine, for example if formal proceedings were undertaken solely to shield a person from criminal responsibility. In addition, the ICC only tries those accused of the gravest crimes.

And its definition of crimes against humanity is:

What are crimes against humanity?
“Crimes against humanity” include any of the following acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:
  • murder;
  • extermination;
  • enslavement;
  • deportation or forcible transfer of population;
  • imprisonment;
  • torture;
  • rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;
  • persecution against an identifiable group on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious or gender grounds;
  • enforced disappearance of persons;
  • the crime of apartheid;
  • other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering or serious bodily or mental injury.
In many instances, it is about “connecting the dots” on large scale persecution of human beings that may be occurring right under our eyes. The evidence is already out there. The Nazis, for instance, started their death camps as early as 1938. The camps came to an end only in 1945. Why were these horrors allowed to go on for so long, despite evidence? Why did it take so long for the camps to come to an end?

In part, it was because Hitler commanded near total control over the apparatus of propaganda, which made it impossible for the Germans to question his authority. In part, it appears because the reality of the Holocaust was questioned and witnesses not believed--despite great evidence, it took a long time for people even within Germany  to acknowledge these horrors were occurring in their country.   

We flatter ourselves that the 21st century is somehow “Hitler-proof”—our institutions of media strong and free, and our world so diverse something like this would never occur again. But is this in fact the reality—or could something like the Holocaust (mass persecution of human beings, mental and physical suffering, extermination) occur in a “widespread or systematic” manner—with victims disbelieved for their testimonies?

13 December, 2013

Mandela, Buddha and the Western Imagination

Watching Nelson Mandela’s memorial on TV, I realized what an extraordinary man he had been, all over again.

Despite the horrors of Apartheid, and the torture and incarceration he faced at the hands of his captors, he never showed any hatred towards them. Mandela's greatest legacy was forgiveness, say commentators.

Then there was the Truth and Reconciliation Committee which looked at the human rights abuses that took place under Apartheid. Both sides were brought together, and amnesties were granted along with reparations. This process, through flawed, was integral to South Africa moving forward as a nation. Mandela could have spent the next thirty years after his release taking revenge on his captors. But he didn’t do that—allowing South Africa to move on as a nation after the end of the Apartheid.

Watching Mandela’s funeral made me think about the Buddha. What are the historical conditions that create certain individuals to be born and shaped in certain times? Buddha was 2600 years ago, in a small kingdom which now falls within the borders of Nepal. At 29, he walked out of his comfortable palace, determined to find the causes of human suffering. His whole life was dedicated to ending human suffering—which doesn’t sound that out of the ordinary, until you realize that most of Western history has been filled with human beings whose sole aim has been to torture, give suffering to, and impose control over other human beings.

The Crusades, the Inquisitions, the Holocaust. All of these have come out of the Western imagination, whose singular drive to control and to subjugate has been responsible for some of the greatest horrors of history, and of the present moment.

How different from people who dedicated their lives to ensure that not even a single thought would harm another human being. How fundamentally different these two approaches to life.

What are the geographical and cultural conditions that give birth to, and nurture, a Nelson Mandela  in Africa, and a Gautama Buddha in Asia? What makes some people spend their entire life in the cessation of human suffering, while others dedicate their entire lives (and national treasuries) in imposing suffering on other human beings?

I can’t really answer that question. All I know is that those whose sole quest has been on the imposition of human suffering eventually fade away. Hitler probably imagined his empire would last for ever. Dr. Mengele probably never dreamt his experiments would become one day known to the whole world. The victims of Auschwitz probably never dreamt that one day the day would come when they would be liberated.

But strangely, the smokestacks of the death camps one day stopped emitting black smoke. To the victims, it may have seemed like this day would never come. But one day, it did come.

Buddha’s greatest teaching was the knowledge of transience. The tortures of the present moment will become history at some future time. The Dr. Mengeles of the present, and their activities, will one day be revealed in the future.

How the world deals with the truth and reconciliation processes of the present may determine how we move forward in the next 2600 years.

10 December, 2013

Access to justice assessments in the Asia Pacific: a report

I worked on this UNDP report on access to justice in the Asia Pacific during 2004-2005.

Our Nepal team of five interviewed over 600 individuals involved in formal and informal justice in various different locations, including Nepalgunj, Biratnagar and Birjung, during the height of the civil conflict.

Here's the report, online.