© Brian Megens

Ambassador Lecture Series – Roadmap to Peace?

It is an incredible feat to have the highest representatives of Israel and Palestine in the Netherlands in one table openly talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The event is a testament to the hard work of the Ambassador Lecture Series team, the United Nations Student Association Maastricht (UNSA) and the European Law Students’ Association (ELSA) Maastricht. Not surprising given the contentious topic, it took more than a year of planning and organisation for the event to materialise. Our two student reporters, Brian Megens and Karissa Atienza, attended the lecture for this blog.
Text: Karissa Atienza
Text & Photography: Brian Megens

© Brian Megens

Ambassador Lecture Series, Israel-Palestine Dialogue, H.E. Mr Haim Divon

H.E. Mr Haim Divon represented the State of Israel. A native of Jerusalem, he has served as the Ambassador to the Netherlands since August 2011. Ambassador Divon’s diplomatic career has spanned over three decades, having received postings in India, Sri Lanka, Canada, and Ethiopia.Meanwhile, the State of Palestine was represented by H.E. Dr Nabil Abuznaid, the Head of the Palestinian Delegation to the Netherlands since September 2009. A Hebron local, Dr Abuznaid’s public service dates back to his tenure as a policy advisor to the late Chairman and President of the PLO, Yasser Arafat during the Oslo Peace Negotiations. 

© Brian Megens

Ambassador Lecture Series, Israel-Palestine Dialogue, H.E. Dr. Nabil Abuznaid

The event commenced with introductory remarks from each participant. Ambassador Abuznaid wasted little time for pleasantries and went straight to business, listing a number of instances of Israeli aggression including the 2014 attacks on Gaza and the burgeoning Israeli government-supported settlements in Palestine territories. To this, Ambassador Divon replied with humour, stating that “we don’t get up in the morning and say, what can we do today in order to annoy the rest of world?” He states that the settlements are not the problem. The core of the issue, he says, is the denial of the presence of a Jewish state while the main obstacle to peace is the refusal to sit down and talk. Ambassador Abuznaid recognises and respects the right of Israel to exist and live in secure borders. However, he is against the Israel policy of occupation. According to him, under this policy, all Palestinians have to go through humiliating checkpoints every day, essentially restricting their freedom and dignity.

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Ambassador Lecture Series, Israel-Palestine Dialogue

The two student moderators, Jakob Henninger and Adrienne McManus, divert the conversation towards the role of young people in the conflict. Ambassador Abuznaid states that Israeli children are forced to go to war, carrying weapons at 18 years old and patrolling checkpoints. “Why not enjoy the beaches?” he says. He continues that “security comes with peace with your neighbours, all these weapons would not bring security.” Ambassador Divon retorts that if Israel does not send these young men and women to the army, there would be no Israel. The level of threat in this “crazy neighbourhood” requires them to have a strong army, “otherwise, you are out of the game.”

© Brian Megens

Ambassador Lecture Series, Israel-Palestine Dialogue

The conversation turns toward the concept of a two-state solution. Ambassador Divon states that he is very hopeful, but the key is to sit down and talk. However, Ambassador Abuznaid believes that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to keep the status quo. He believes that Prime Minister Netanyahu will never stop building settlements nor accept a Palestinian state.

© Brian Megens

Ambassador Lecture Series, Israel-Palestine Dialogue

At this point, the floor is opened to questions from the student audience. Maastricht Students reporter Brian Megens who was three weeks in the West Bank for a personal photography project last January, asks to Ambassador Divon whether it is reasonable to expect people who live right next a wall, which is illegal under international law, to set the first steps for peace. Ambassador Divon replies that back when there was no checkpoints and no wall, suicide bombings had killed innocent people. He states that Israel was left with no choice, but he concedes that the wall is “ugly and inconvenient.”

© Brian Megens

Ambassador Lecture Series, Israel-Palestine Dialogue

This is not the first time both ambassadors have sat at the same table in Maastricht. In 2012, Studium Generale organised an event on the Israel-Palestine relationship in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, featuring both ambassadors at the same lecture hall. Have their opinions on the matter changed since then? We do not know. However, one thing is for sure. As a salesman would never say his products are bad, it was in the line of expectations that last week’s Ambassador Lecture Series’ Roadmap to Peace for Israel and Palestine with Ambassadors Divon and Abuznaid provided little concrete solution nor glimmer of hope that the Israeli-Palestine conflict would be resolved anytime soon. The organisation of the Ambassador Lecture Series deserves respect for setting up an event dealing with such high politics. However, taking a more realistic approach for future events might be advisable. Making the two representatives of Israel and Palestine sit together was itself the biggest achievement of the evening as a real dialogue between the two never took off.

Roundtable on Oslo Principles, what are they and what will they mean?

“Cross-border cooperation by nations could be the key to preventing climate disaster”

Climate change, is it a ‘thing’ and how serious is it? The more legal-minded people might have heard or read about the latest ruling in Dutch courts, Urgenda, where a group of academics and private citizens sued the government for non-compliance with its plan to reduce emissions. The court in The Hague gave this organisation the victory, where many had given up hope, and said that the government had to effectuate at least 25% decrease in carbon-dioxide emissions by 2020, against the claimed 40% by Urgenda. Nevertheless, this is a worldwide landmark that is starting a trend where citizens can claim reduction of gasses with legal effect.  

On a related note, not too long ago I attended an interesting event on the ‘Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations’ at The Hague Institute for Global Justice. This institution is an independent organisation established to conduct research overlapping several fields, develop tools by specialists, sharing knowledge between several disciplines. 

The Roundtable event at the Institute for Global Justice was set up to have an hour of presentations by two professors, after which the attendees were invited to pose questions on the Oslo Principles and their obligations towards countries and corporations. In the audience were members of several ministries, international diplomats, company officials and students like myself.

First speaker with an impressive CV: prof. dr. Thomas Pogge who serves as Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs and Director of Global Justice Program at Yale University.

Prof. Pogge (left) during his address

Prof. Pogge (left) during his address

Maximizing bargains or a moral approach?
Prof. Pogge started off by stating that cross-border cooperation by nations could be the key to preventing climate disaster. The only problem with that approach to climate change prevention is that in an economic sense we’re still living in a world of competing entities, where everyone’s trying to maximize their bargains. This eventually leads to the so-called ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ where the negative consequences are felt by all, yet the gain is felt by one. The question here is how to distribute burdens to prevent climate change among states.
The Oslo Principles are therefore a cooperative legal framework, with appeal for moral common sense, instead of focusing on the vulnerability-based bargaining where a country with high CO2-emission would have to contribute more than other countries towards making it “undone” (monetary penalties/cutting the emission). However, this seems highly unfair if you consider that these countries are usually the less developed ones, with a growing economy. Pogge mentioned that the goal is to stay below a 2 degrees Celsius increase, which, if exceeded, would lead to vast negative impacts.
The main points that call for action are the following:

  1. Climate change is making oceans less alkaline, which means that the pH level has gone from 8,2 to 8,1. This might seem like a small alteration, but the impact of this has enormous consequences.
  2. With more CO2 in the atmosphere, the heat of the sun is getting trapped in, causing the global warming.

The problem is that if we would stop today with our polluting activities, the earth will still keep on heating up.
On a general note, that’s not a reassuring thing to hear.

Maastricht University’s honorary professor
One of Maastricht University Faculty of Law’s Honorary Professors, prof. dr. Jaap Spier, who is also Advocate-General at the Dutch Supreme Court spoke next.
Both Pogge and Spier led a group of elite academics in international law, human rights law and environmental law and wrote the ‘Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations’. These principles have been set up to reduce the imminent threat of fatal climate change that is happening right now on a global level.

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Changing Economy, Talkshow with Tomáš Sedláček and Joris Luyendijk

Changing Economy, Tomáš Sedláček & Joris Luyendijk, Studium Generale & SCOOP

Tomáš Sedláček (left) and Joris Luyendijk (right) © Brian Megens

Studium Generale and Scope (study association SBE) organised a talk show about the ethics of today’s economy. They invited Tomáš Sedláček and Joris Luyendijk. Tomáš is a chief macroeconomic strategist at ČSOB Banking Group and member of the Narrative of Europe group which is commissioned by Manuel Barroso. Joris is an anthropologist, journalist for the Guardian and writer of the book ‘Dit kan niet waar zijn’ translated ‘This cannot be true’ about the banking sector in London.

Sitting from out my seat in the lecture hall I can see that Tomáš and Joris have done these kind of events more often together as they are playing with the audience and each other by making jokes and telling anecdotes. Tomáš is the leading ‘comedian’ in this way and opens with a cunning joke on the city’s self-confidence and Maastricht passed with flying colours. Another good thing to know is that according to Tomáš, “Nobody hates Europe as much as the Europeans do.”

Changing Economy, Tomáš Sedláček & Joris Luyendijk, Studium Generale & SCOOP

Changing Economy, Tomáš Sedláček & Joris Luyendijk, Studium Generale & SCOOP

After this comic introduction Tomáš gets more serious and asks us to think of the most perfect society. He comes up with where the elves in Lord of the Rings live, but even there they want to move somewhere else. Another example that he gives involves milking a cow, perfect seems to be not perfect enough. We are always looking for more, bigger, better. Another remarkable message of Tomáš: everyone assumes that Karl Marx opposed capitalism, but was he? Tomáš claims that Marx criticizes the human condition of capitalism which is the alienation of people, but not capitalism itself. Tomáš continuous with an example from Christianity the Garden of Eden, it was perfect, however, just not perfect enough. It is unimaginable to have a perfect society. In short, Tomáš message is that we did not set a goal to reach, therefore, in our drive for more, bigger and better, we do not know to stop.

Changing Economy, Tomáš Sedláček & Joris Luyendijk, Studium Generale & SCOOP

Joris Luyendijk spent two years in the heart of the financial sector London to write a book about how the real financial sector actually works. Are all bankers greedy monsters, and if so, why? He tells that people in the UK have an image of the Dutch as kind hearted but stupid. Joris played this role for the two years when he was working on his book. At the beginning he had a hard time to make bankers talk to him as there is a code of silence. However, when he offered anonymity, more and more people were willing to tell their story. His main finding is that it is not bankers themselves who are greedy monsters, it’s the system that turns them into one. Bankers are exposed to immense temptations and no loyalty from their employers as they can be fired and kicked out of the building within 5 minutes. Therefore, why be loyal to your employer? Bankers are tempted to exploit their profits in the short run although this does imply a much bigger risk for the bank in the long term. As there is no guarantee that the banker will be working for the bank at that period of time, the banker does not care.

In a nutshell, the message of both Tomáš Sedláček as Joris Lyendijk was that it’s the economic system that needs revision, not the people.

All photos © Brian Megens

Lecture by Prof. Dr. Jonathan Holslag ‘The Geopolitical Case for European unity’

Lecture Europe by Prof. Dr. Jonathan Holslag

Euroscepticism was a big factor in the last European Parliament elections. The main question was: ‘do we need more or less European integration in today’s world?’ The issue might seem less topical today with the attention pointed at the crisis in Ukraine and IS, however, the question will definitely pop up in Europe’s near future.

In the light of this dilemma, Maastricht University hosted a lecture with Jonathan Holslag, Professor of International Politics at the Free University Brussels. His lecture titled ‘The Geopolitical Case for European unity’ is based around the idea that Europe does not necessarily need more integration but more effective integration/representation.  He argues that Europe has overcome several crisis in the past but today’s economic crisis is different, and, therefore, needs a different strategy. It is different on four points: the crisis of European politics, the crisis of the pragmatic politician, the crisis of the welfare state and the crisis of the European economy related to the balance of power. Holslag argues that for Europe to stay a global political power, Europe needs to act more unified to the rest of the world. He gives an example of China heavily subsidising the telephone market and these telephones come to Europe causing major disturbance on the market. Europe had planned to set sanctions, however, China pressured Germany, by giving Siemens lucrative contracts in China, to vote against the possible sanctions. Germany obeyed prioritising their short-term self-interest above Europe’s interest.

Thus, in order to stay an important political power Europe does not necessarily need more integration on other areas than economy. Holslag says that the way for Europe to get out of the crisis is to act united on relevant areas and not give the rival economic and political powers the chance to undermine this unity.

By Brian Megens

Ambassador Lecture Series: Robotics UMeet

© Brian Megens

© Brian Megens


The second of this year’s Ambassador Lecture Series titled Robots: The Future of Human Evolution was surprisingly interesting. Except for a few robotic jargons, it was engaging, inquisitive and easy to follow. It certainly helped that my evening started off with a lot of pizza courtesy of the ALS team! Structured around the speeches of the four renowned professors from the different departments of Maastricht University, the group of experts introduced the latest developments in artificial intelligence and the ethical questions concerning the development of robots and its influences in human life most notably health care. It also featured presentations from three of the brightest Maastricht students on their idea on possible future human-robot relations. The lucky winner received a gift from the UM gift shop along with the exclusive chance to dine with the four experts.

The ALS team organising the Robotics lecture © Brian Megens

The ALS team organising the Robotics lecture © Brian Megens

Pizza! © Brian Megens

Pizza! © Brian Megens

Live registration of the lecture © Brian Megens

Live registration of the lecture © Brian Megens

all contestants © Brian Megens

all contestants © Brian Megens

The first lecture Success: Luck or Design? was a tremendous success. Having attracted over 400 students, the seats were filled quickly and even students were sent home. This time around was fairly different but not negatively with still 200 students attending the lecture. The target base for this lecture was more selective unlike Robin Sieger’s first lecture which attracted students with very broad interests. This lecture narrowed down the interest group to students specifically interested in ethics and robotics. But as people started pouring in and filling the Mindersbroedersberg Aula, the team breathed a sigh of relief. There wasn’t the long queue that distinguished the first lecture but there was a certain buzz in the air. The seats filled up and the team was ready to go.

 

A warm welcome by our hostesses © Brian Megens

A warm welcome by our hostesses © Brian Megens

The people came well prepared, bringing their laptops © Brian Megens

The people came well prepared, bringing their laptops © Brian Megens

The host for the night was Prof. Dr. Gerhard Weiss. The Chair of the Department of Knowledge Engineering discussed the historical evolution of robotics. Prof. Weiss showed robotics in its infancy stage in the form of mechanical machines to sensor-motoric capabilities leading to cognitive aptitudes and robots eventually reaching autonomy. Prof. Weiss also touched upon the most intriguing questions of all. Will robots eventually take over? Are they our friend or our enemies? He concluded that robots are already everywhere in all facets of human life. The application of robotics is growing as robots’ cognitive abilities and autonomy increases.

Prof. Dr. Gerhard Weiss © Brian Megens

Prof. Dr. Gerhard Weiss © Brian Megens

 

© Brian Megens

© Brian Megens

As Prof. Dr. Luc de Witte took over, we met Paro and the cuddly harp seal quickly stole our attention with its big black eyes, long black whiskers and furry white body. This companion robot is changing the culture of care for elderly people suffering with dementia. The expert from the Department of Health Services Research of Maastricht University states that in his field of work they start with a problem in care and then identify a solution in order to help. He asserted that robotics must solve real life problems in health care not evolve for the sake of evolving.

 

Prof. Dr. Luc de Witte © Brian Megens

Prof. Dr. Luc de Witte © Brian Megens

 

© Brian Megens

© Brian Megens

Paro the robot-seal © Brian Megens

Paro the robot-seal © Brian Megens

Prof. Dr. Tsjalling Swierstra followed this by predicting that we will not be able to predict the future. Why? Because he believes that the future depends on the choices we make. The chair of the Department of Philosophy then presented us a number of scenarios. A robot presented as a child, would this child pornography be considered acceptable as there is technically no harm done? A robot used as a partner in sexual intercourse, would this constitute as rape? If the robot’s memory can be reset and wiped off, is there no harm done? The Chair of the Department of Philosophy & Director for the Ethics and Politics of Emerging Technologies asked some very intriguing and sensitive ethical and moral questions. How should we treat robots? Is there such a thing as mistreating robots? We want them to look like us, be similar to us but different enough so we can order them around to do our biding without feeling guilty. We design them to be “just like real people but not really people.”

 

Prof. Dr. Tsjalling Swierstra  © Brian Megens

Prof. Dr. Tsjalling Swierstra © Brian Megens

© Brian Megens

© Brian Megens

Prof. Dr.Rico Möckel of SwarmLab meanwhile stresses the need for the artificial evolution of robots. He compares the natural evolution in nature, how changes is not planned and yet nature still out performs robots. He states that artificial evolution is needed as it allows the creation of robotic systems allowing the autonomous creation of robust systems behind the imagination of engineers. He gives an example of evolving swarm robots for disaster management or for assistive living. Will robots feature in our future? Prof. Möckel ultimately answers that our present life would be impossible without the already existing robots.

 

Prof. Dr.Rico Möckel © Brian Megens

Prof. Dr.Rico Möckel © Brian Megens

After the four speeches by the University’s expert panel, we move on to the student competition. We started with a presentation from Mark Fingerhuth, a 20 year old Science Programme student. He states that there is an exponential growth in technology further predicting that one day robots will take over our job. He notes this as a positive change. He believes that by passing on all the work to the robots we would not have to work anymore and this will lead to the obsolescence of Monday thus, resulting to the downfall of capitalism. What would he have us do instead? Nothing. From his perspective, we would not have do anything in the future. All of our time will be devoted to entertainment. We would read books and spend our idle time doing whatever we please. One of the four professors quips, the how would we relate to the people in the books? If we don’t have jobs and responsibilities, how can we sympathise with the people we’re reading? We then move on to David Natarajan, a Malaysian second year Department of Knowledge Engineering student. David also predicts that in the future robots will take over our jobs and that we are near this point. By taking over our jobs, society would be better off. He took for example the jury. By replacing human jury members, we take away the emotions on the trials leaving only known facts. He declares that this will lead to a real fair trial. He further predicts that in the future robots will look, act and communicate like humans. But the difference is that they will not have medical problems. The future of robots will not only lie in helping us humans but also our society. The last contestant, Elgianni Boersma, is a Filipino-Dutch second year DKE student as well. Elgianni states that robotics is like toddlers at this point in time. We need to teach them and take control as they are only autonomous in so far. They are good at straightforward task but for the more difficult tasks like driving in Mars, robots still need human direct commands. He asks what do we do when they are fully intelligible? Do we treated them as slaves or do we accept them as one of us? As the population is increasing exponentially, by the time we reach full artificial capacity who can afford them he asked. It would create an even bigger disparity. It was a tough call for the panel of experts but ultimately Mark Fingerhuth won the chance to dine with the four experts on the field.

 

Mark Fingerhuth © Brian Megens

Mark Fingerhuth © Brian Megens

David Natarajan © Brian Megens

David Natarajan © Brian Megens

Elgianni Boersma © Brian Megens

Elgianni Boersma © Brian Megens

It is not whether the future of human evolution features robots but how and in what capacity. They already present in all facets of human life. The question is how much robots are going to be involved in our daily human life. Will they really eventually take over our jobs? I guess that’s to debate for another lecture.

Guest reporter:
Karissa May Atienza

Karissa May Atienza, our guest reporter © Brian Megens

Karissa May Atienza, our guest reporter © Brian Megens