Scotland’s growing influence on UK foreign policy

Open Democracy News Analysis - 1 hour 50 min ago

Kirsty Hughes talks to Scottish National Party and Scottish Green politicians on foreign policy, the EU and the tectonic shift in Scottish politics.

Expect Scotland's influence to grow. Flickr/Scottish Government. Some rights reserved.

Scotland’s policy stances on the EU and on global foreign policy, even in the absence of independence, are set to be of growing importance and influence – but have received remarkably little attention during the election campaign. 

And while the outcome of the 2015 general election could transform the UK’s EU and wider foreign policy, one of the few similarities in the different campaigns in England and Scotland is that the focus of debate in both has been primarily domestic.

The probable greater impact of Scotland on UK foreign policy is in part due to the increased devolution of powers to Scotland, promised by the Unionist camp at the time of the referendum campaign and set out further through the Smith Commission Report. It means Scottish views on a raft of EU policies – from agriculture to finance to renewable energy – are going to need to be represented more in Brussels. And there is likely to be growing, quite likely controversial, demands from the Scottish government for a greater role and influence over key UK EU policies.

At the same time, if the SNP ends up with 50 or so MPs at Westminster as the polls predict – a seismic shift in Scottish and UK politics – they would certainly have some important influence over the EU and foreign policies of a minority Labour government. Even a minority Tory government might find that winning some foreign policy votes on sensitive issues that might split their own party could be won or lost depending on the SNP’s stance.

One reason Scottish foreign policy views have received little attention is that there is a general but mistaken view that devolution covers domestic issues only, and that even under ‘devo-max’, foreign policy and security would be excluded from Scottish influence. Yet with the UK part of the EU this domestic-foreign distinction makes little sense. With the EU passing laws from health and safety, age discrimination, competition and trade policy to sanctions, renewables targets and so on, what is domestic or ‘foreign’ is blurred and overlapping, and many of the EU policy areas lie within Scotland’s devolved areas of policy.

There is in fact already a certain amount of UK-Scotland coordination on EU policies necessitated by the existing devolution of powers, but it is limited. And with the SNP now not only in power as the Scottish government  but also likely at the same time to be the third biggest party at Westminister, the foreign and EU policy impact of Scottish devolution, and Scottish politics, is about to become noticeable.

Scotland and the EU

Catching up on the campaign trail with rising young Scottish politician, Humza Yousaf, Minister for Europe and International Development in the Scottish government, and a SNP Member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow, Yousaf is clear about the important role the SNP has in promoting Scotland’s interests in the world.

It’s a campaign that Yousaf says is going “phenomenally well in Scotland as the polls and our own canvass results reflect.” He sees the “tectonic plates of Scottish politics shifting” and says he’s never seen anything like it not even during the referendum campaign.

But he admits readily that Europe and foreign policy are not coming up often on the doorstep during this campaign. This is in contrast to Scottish Green candidate for Edinburgh East, Peter McColl who says he has been asked about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) at all the hustings.

Yousaf thinks there is a general strong interest in Scotland – beyond the election campaign –in Europe and the wider world. Without exaggerating differences in Scottish and English opinion, he says “there is a more pro-European stance here.” There is also now much more outside interest in Scotland and its views on Europe and the world, says Yousaf, with ambassadors and other visitors coming in much greater numbers since the referendum, despite the ‘no’ vote, or asking when SNP politicians are next in London.

But does Scotland at present have enough influence on British positions regarding key EU policies? “No, definitely not enough” says Yousaf. He explains there are quarterly joint ministerial meetings between the UK and Scotland but “there isn’t enough discussion on policy formation…Smith left the door open a bit and said we would need to discuss more how to represent Scotland’s views on the global stage.” It’s a big issue that has been left hanging.

The SNP according to Yousaf will definitely be looking for more influence over EU policies and on wider foreign policy. He complains strongly that even where Scotland has the most competent and experienced minister – for instance on fisheries – London will not let Scottish ministers speak for the UK in Brussels’ councils, pulling in unelected Lords or British diplomats in Brussels instead when UK ministers are absent. It’s a long way for now from the Belgian approach where both Flemish and Walloon ministers regularly step in at EU meetings, and pressure for a more fair and rational approach for Scotland and the UK is likely to grow.

Asked about Greece’s struggles to escape austerity, something the SNP might be expected to agree with, Yousaf is sympathetic but cautious: “I don’t believe it is necessary for Greece to leave [the euro] for stability, any member leaving would be a disaster for the EU… I have faith they will find a manageable compromise.” He talks about Syriza having to “navigate” the promises they made to their voters to find a way to a compromise.

Scotland produces about 25% of total EU wind energy, and has the most ambitious renewables targets in the EU – a critical policy area where Scotland may well differ from English approaches or levels of ambition. Peter McColl thinks 100% of electricity (though not all energy) in Scotland will be from renewables by 2030. The Scottish Greens see future benefits from independence in Scotland being able to lead on such issues in the EU and to defend its own interests more effectively than as part of the UK. Some tough questions though on combining the shift to a low carbon economy in Scotland with policy on North Sea oil reserves remain to be answered by both the SNP and the Scottish Greens.

EU Referendum and ‘Brexit’ - only for England?

Humza Yousaf sees ‘Brexit’ as still not beyond the realms of possibility, if the Tories put together an informal coalition with two or three other parties, depending on their final share of the vote on May 7. Yousaf says “it [a referendum] is playing with fire, exit could have devastating consequences for the whole of the UK.” He sees no groundswell of public opinion for having a referendum on the EU, in contrast to what he says was there for the Scottish independence referendum.

"There is a more pro-European stance here", according to Yousaf. Flickr/Gregg. Some rights reserved.

But Yousaf is cautious about the impact of a possible ‘no’ vote if there is an EU in-out referendum – something that his party leader Nicola Sturgeon has said could lead to a case for a new independence referendum in Scotland: This election is not about another [independence] referendum….If Scotland voted to stay in the EU and the rest of the UK to leave and we were about to be dragged out against our will that might be a trigger, and people would say we would rather be an independent country and in Europe.” For the Scottish Greens, McColl is more emphatic “If there is a ‘no’ in an EU referendum, there would be a very strong case for a new referendum [in Scotland]. I think it would be a very easy referendum to win.”

Yousaf refers to Irish anxieties about a possible Brexit (given shared borders and other common interests) and obviously sees similar concerns potentially for Scotland. He thinks it is better for the whole of the UK to stay in the EU. There is a conundrum here since while an EU referendum with an English ‘no’ vote might be a positive catalyst for Scottish independence, it would in fact in many ways be better for an independent Scotland, if England too remained in the EU. Nicola Sturgeon has demanded a ‘double-lock’ on any EU referendum – so that all four countries of the UK should say ‘no’ not just the majority of votes, for Brexit to happen. This proposal has already been slapped down by David Cameron – and in the absence of a UK federal constitution spelling out such issues and powers, the answer is likely to remain ‘no’ should a referendum go ahead.

Asked who might be the main allies of a one-day independent Scotland in the EU, Yousaf says “primarily the [rest of the] UK would be a natural ally in the EU and Ireland, first and foremost, we would work closely with them, and yes with some of the Nordics – Sweden, Finland and Denmark.” In fact, he says, Scotland already has a Nordic and Baltics strategy – not least due to all these countries being of similar size, geographical position, sharing a number of common security and other policy concerns.

Yousaf says he is sure if they had won the Scottish referendum, Scotland would have stayed in the EU: “Brussels would have found a way, there is no doubt in my mind. The EU is a pragmatic organisation as it was when East Germany joined. We have been in for 40 years and our laws reflect the acquis, we have 100,000 EU citizens here in Scotland, 25% of EU wind energy….so you could imagine the practical problems if we weren’t in the EU for a day, the disruption.” 

Asked about planning that is said to have been done ahead of the referendum vote on how to establish a Foreign Office for an independent Scotland, Yousaf explains that they wouldn’t have had to start from scratch. There are, he says, existing Scottish trade and investment offices around the world that could have become embassies, with priority given to the most important partners – the EU and US.  A newly independent Scotland might have asked for help in the transition years to a fully diplomatic network from the EU’s own pan-European offices around the world, from other EU member states, including even the UK, and UN advice would have been available to Scotland as a newly independent country.

Wider foreign policy

Most attention on SNP foreign policies has been on their aim of getting rid of Trident. Trident, says Yousaf, has no moral, political or economic purpose. But he goes on to emphasise “we are not a party of pacifists” and attacks the current government for giving soldiers on the frontline their P45s and not investing enough in conventional forces. How SNP MPs vote on defence spending could be an interesting issue to watch in the new UK parliament.

Yousaf also emphasises the SNP’s commitment to UK development aid spending, something that would fit well with Labour’s commitment to maintain aid spending too. Yousaf describes with enthusiasm the particular focus Scotland already has on aid to Malawi, involving “lots of churches, faith groups… schools, there’s probably not a school in the country that has not had a link.”

Amidst the chaos and conflict surrounding Europe – from Ukraine to Syria to Libya – Yousaf emphasises in particular the SNP’s commitment to recognising Palestine as a state: “We said we would push to recognise the state of Palestine, if you believe in a two state solution…it is a very vocal issue [for us].”

Migration is another issue where the SNP has positioned itself in a progressive position compared to the UK’s main parties. Yousaf talks of needing a ‘tier and points’ system for migration and insists migration is positive and necessary for Scotland given its aging population. He admits it is an issue where people can feel strong concerns but says it has not damaged them at the polls: “it is a policy that doesn’t always get the most positive reception but I hope being positive can also help to shape attitudes.”

The SNP foreign policy role at Westminster - plenty to discuss

A minority Labour government looking for voting support in the House of Commons on foreign policy issues is likely to find the SNP a partner they will need to discuss and compromise with – amongst the myriad of international challenges facing any UK government, the SNP is more progressive than Labour on migration, and on Palestine, might possibly even be more cautious on defence cuts (outside of Trident), more ambitious on climate change and renewables, and a straightforward partner on international aid.

What sort of attacks any foreign policy cooperation between a minority Labour government and SNP MPs would come under from the Tories can be seen from Cameron’s onslaught during the election campaign. These Tory attacks on the legitimacy of SNP MPs at Westminister – voting as Cameron would put it on ‘English issues’ – have angered Scottish voters: “The anger” says Yousaf “is tangible.” “From six or seven months ago, when Cameron was saying ‘you should not leave the UK’ to saying ‘your voice is illegitimate and you should have no say in a future government’….people are apoplectic, very angry.”

From domestic policies to foreign and EU policy, it is clear that the SNP have policies and views that will be expressed and voted on at Westminster, and by the devolved Scottish government, whatever the Tories say, and whatever approach any eventual Labour minority government might take.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Five things you should know about foreign policy this election Trident: weak defence The tartan tsunami and how It will change Scotland and the UK for good Country or region:  Scotland Topics:  Democracy and government International politics
Categories: les flux rss

My Beeb: a precarious memoir

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2 hours 36 min ago

Working at the BBC is no guarantee of a career in journalism. An ex-employee recounts their journey from the news desk to claiming unemployment benefits. 


F̶O̶L̶L̶O̶W̶ ̶Y̶O̶U̶R̶ ̶D̶R̶E̶A̶M̶S̶ (aka chimney sweep) by Banksy. Image Flickr/ Chris Devers:

What would Freddie Lyons, the fictional character from the BBC's Television series 'The Hour' do if alive and aspiring in 21 century Britain? I don't know. Unlike Freddie, I never went to Grammar school. But like Freddie, I was also an outsider of little means, who excelled. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I graduated as a prize-winning student with a first class BA Hons degree. Also, like Freddie, I once worked for BBC News.

Where would Freddie be today faced with so many precarious contracts? My original BBC contract was for four months. My wages were £12k per annum. Not many chances to network in the BBC club on that. I tried though. I had to rely on tax credits to afford to work there. Anyone who is on a precarious contract will tell you the stress and uncertainty this can cause, let alone the hassle of dealing with the geniuses at HMRC telling you do not qualify for tax credits, then that you do, then that you don’t, then that you do, until two years later you receive a cheque with a letter stating you were underpaid all along.

Just to put this in context:

Two-thirds of all senior managers who left the BBC between 1 April 2005 and 31 March 2013 received a severance payment at a cost, after adjusting for inflation, of £60 million (National Audit Office, BBC Trust)

I worked hard. It was noticed: my contract was renewed twice, taking me up to 11 months... one more month and I would've been the genuine Freddie with a permanent contract. Alas, this was a time of mass redundancies and, as later revealed, massive pay offs to senior staff, some of whom were then re-hired. By contrast people with disabilities who are employed via the BBC’s Extend scheme are not allowed to work for the BBC via that scheme again. It is not much of a career ladder when a 5.5% recruitment target cannot be met.

During my time in News, I discovered that to be employed as a BBC News Broadcast Journalist, a postgrad qualification had become a must have. But it costs £9000 to do an M.A. at City University, which fast tracks you for a BBC News work placement. How would Freddie find the time or money to do it, whilst caring for his disabled father, in addition to navigating the bedroom tax, and the Work Capability Assessment? Most likely, in today’s world, both Freddie and his father would have been sanctioned and using a foodbank.

The careers of people who I worked with at the BBC went onwards and upwards. Fair play to them, they had talent, worked hard and epitomised ‘professional’. I was very fortunate to work with and learn from them. I liked them. I wanted to be as professional as they were. I undertook every News training course possible, and all the internal free online training courses during my lunch breaks and long after everyone had gone home. 

When I left the BBC one month short of a contract for life, I stupidly thought after achieving so much, and what with the BBC wanting to reflect its audience, I had a half decent chance of getting back in. So I applied, and re-applied... and re-applied. I lost count of the BBC jobs I applied for well within my skills range. I also applied for hundreds of other jobs across an industry that I had clearly proven to have excelled in. 

Did I have what it takes to be a broadcast journalist during my time with the BBC? No. But did I have the potential? Yes. I believe so. 

Since leaving the BBC, I’ve had the odd bit of journalism published. At the time though, I was too busy trying to prove myself to my employer, my team mates and coming to terms with a different culture. I made the best I could of it though. No one is entitled to become a BBC Journo or a BBC employee. I get that. It’s just I discovered the BBC seemed to employ a fair few entitled people who would find ways of pointing out social status.

Throughout my first shoot a presenter on one of the shows I was working on dubbed me "reflector bitch". No, I was not working on Top Gear and yes I’ve been called worse. Upon meeting new non-team staffers I sometimes found myself facing questions like "How did you end up working there?" or "You work in news?". These were not isolated incidents. The rest are for my book. Add precarious contracts to this culture and it’s easy to see why people are concerned that the BBC will end up with a workforce based on bank balance, and not talent. Privilege is the other side of the precarious coin. Yet we all pay for the BBC via the licence fee. 

When I read John Humphries recent comments telling aspiring precarious young journalists "not to do it", I thought it must make the BBC proud to rely on a pensioner as its most cited example of outsider come staffer done good. I doubt a young Mr Humphries was ever asked to purchase a large hamper from Fortnum and Masons – on his own credit card.

I can imagine Freddie’s response:   

Who am I buying it for? James Bond? Ian Fleming? Or do we have one of those nice government ministers coming in to give us some helpful advice regarding our editorial policies?

When the hamper incident occurred, and I couldn’t buy it, I felt I was letting the team down. I was reminded of my poverty, and my rent.

I had a quiet word with a team member who quickly resolved the problem. The second time, with a different team, was worse. During a meeting I was told I would be travelling abroad to work on shoot. Yay! I just had to buy myself ticket, and put it on my credit card to claim back. I had to declare to the whole team I possessed neither a credit card nor the funds. These are numerical facts if you’re precariously employed. The team’s response was great and supportive. Buttons went abroad. The incident was as uncomfortable for the team as it was for me.   

Why was this a problem? Perhaps because the precarious existence of the Freddies of the world means they are not actually meant to exist at the BBC on a precarious contract at all - except in fiction. In an ultra competitive globalised media world maybe familiarity breeds security.

My career went from being at the BBC to being an unemployed claimant at A4E. Precarious contracts and precarious existences are interchangeable. What would Freddie have done when told by A4E staff, at an event, to go over to a stall to find out about advice for single parents, to fill in the paper work whilst providing a photo op? I had no children, and I made this clear. It did not stop me being manhandled towards the said stall, my objection to which saw me sanctioned. Still, at least I was ahead of the sanctions curve. Over 900,000 people were victims last year.

It surprises me however - given my training in BBC News editorial guidelines - that stories on benefit sanctions are filed under the Business news section on the BBC website

Politics anyone? Could this be because anyone who understands what a sanction actually means for people has been pushed out of the BBC door by a precarious contract? So, yes I feel aggrieved that in my capacity as an anti-poverty campaigner I have received emails from BBC staff, requesting a contact list of 'normal people' for BBC shows. Was Freddie normal? Am I the only person to do the BBC’s online diversity training module? Someone missed the Lenny Henry memo. 

If I had to do my precarious time at the BBC all over again, I would. I’d tell anyone: don’t listen to John Humphries – go for it. The point of my BBC memoir? Would be journalists of modest or no resources, are not only faced with a globalised jobs market, they are also faced with complex behemoths like universal credit, internships, sanctions, workfare schemes, and zero-hour contracts. For many aspiring journos it is a privilege to have any kind of paid work full stop, let alone the massive, and increasingly distant privilege to work for the BBC.

As such, surely it is in everybody’s democratic interests - especially the BBCs - that the privilege to be had by employing people like Freddie is recognised as exactly that; a privilege. Precarious contracts make this less, not more likely. By the way, I’m open to job offers, so please do get in touch.   

If you want to keep OurBeeb debating the BBC, please chip in what you can afford.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Welcome to the echo chamber "Nobody has a God given right to be heard": an interview with John Humphrys Positive discrimination may have to be introduced at the BBC We, the precariat
Categories: les flux rss

Migrant “cockroaches” and the need to tame tabloid hate

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2 hours 48 min ago

The moment for action is now, in the election run-up, but current regulation of the British press offers no prospect of fast-tracking urgent and serious complaints. 

Paper boat protests against Mediterranean migrant deaths, Brussels, April 20. Demotix/ Frederik Sadones. All rights reserved.Britain’s leading tabloid newspaper, the Sun, has been carpeted by the United Nations human rights chief for describing migrants as “cockroaches” in a piece of journalism which he says is reminiscent of anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda.

He is not wrong. The word resonates with anyone who has charted the use of hate-speech in the Nazi era and the genocide in Rwanda 21 years ago.

By any standards the column produced by Sun columnist Katie Hopkins torched ethical standards on the need for sensitive, humane reporting of humanitarian issues.

In the midst of global media coverage of the tragic scenes of suffering by hundreds of migrants who drowned off the coast of Italy earlier this month, Hopkins wrote:

I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care…. these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984’, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors.”

This incendiary piece appeared only hours before another migrant ship sank off the coast of Libya killing some 800 people. It prompted protests on a massive scale: more than 300,000 online protests and more than 300 complaints to the freshly-scrubbed Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).

But the intervention of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein shows that the frustration over media-inspired hatred, particularly coming from Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper and one owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd, one of the world’s largest media conglomerates, extends far beyond the shores of the United Kingdom.

“The Nazi media described people their masters wanted to eliminate as rats and cockroaches,” said Zeid. He called on the UK government, media and regulators to respect national and international laws on curbing incitement to hatred.

His intervention raises two issues that should concern Britain’s troubled press industry.

The first is whether the tabloid press, despite all the post-Leveson promises of reform, is really willing to regulate itself effectively.

And the second is to explain why Britain appears to be the only settled democracy in Europe where the problem of hate speech is generated less from outside the newsroom – by extremist political or religious leaders –than from within, where it is flourishes amidst a mix of editorial stereotypes, political bias and commercial self-interest.

As Britain’s general election campaign gathers pace, political leaders, even those from the anti-migration parties, have avoided stirring up xenophobic passions.

But when the issue comes into the headlines it is often as a result of editorial choice, something highlighted by Zeid who said that while elsewhere in Europe “demonisation” of migrants is taking place, this is “usually led by extremist political parties or demagogues rather than extremist media”.

He pointed to other examples of the tabloid press attacking migrants and recalled how the Daily Express 12 years ago “ran 22 negative front pages stories about asylum seekers and refugees in a single 31-day period.”

That case (the only time in almost 50 years in journalism when I recall journalists reporting their own newspaper to the national press council) was also highlighted by Lord Leveson in his investigation into the excesses of the British press three years ago.

In his final report Leveson condemned "careless or reckless reporting" and concludes that regular discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced coverage of ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers amounts to press hostility and xenophobia.

In particular, he highlighted how some sections of the press portray Muslims in a negative light and questions whether such articles "are appropriate in a mature democracy…”

He accused newspapers of manufacturing stories to suit their anti-migrant political agenda. A story in The Sun headlined "Swan Bake," for instance, alleged that gangs of Eastern European asylum seekers were killing and eating swans in London. Unidentified people were cited as witnesses. But the story was totally unfounded.

In another example, a Daily Star article headlined, "Asylum seekers eat our donkeys" - a fabrication based upon the disappearance of nine donkeys from a park in London. In a piece of total speculation the article went on to claim that donkey meat was “a speciality in Somalia and Eastern Europe” and that there were "large numbers of Somali asylum-seekers" with some Albanians living nearby.

Three years on the newly-launched IPSO has issued a po-faced statement over the Hopkins incident. They confirm that they have received complaints and that an investigation would be held - no mention of the importance of the issue, no hint of the depth of public concern, no reiteration of calls for press responsibility in this area, particularly with a national election only days away.

This bureaucratic response can only fuel the fear that, for editors and tabloid press owners at least, the press has returned to business as usual after Leveson. They hope this embarrassing gaffe, like others in the past, will be kicked into long grass.

An adjudication will come some weeks hence, and it will probably be critical of The Sun and its columnist. How could it be otherwise? But it will be post-election and when the memory of the original offence is fading into the folk-lore of past misdemeanors.

That will be a pity. The moment for action is now, but the regulation of the British press as it now stands offers no prospect of fast-tracking urgent and serious complaints.

And it fails to answer the challenge posed by Zeid to find a way of eliminating from press discourse, once and for all, the threats that come with casual, hateful and dangerous discrimination against vulnerable minorities.     

“History has shown us time and again the dangers of demonising foreigners and minorities,” he warns, “and it is extraordinary and deeply shameful to see these types of tactics being used in a variety of countries, simply because racism and xenophobia are so easy to arouse in order to win votes or sell newspapers.”

Sideboxes Related stories:  Can we afford to ignore what Katie Hopkins says about migrants drowning in the Med? Journalism for sale: can media overcome the corruption now threatening the newsroom? A letter to the British people from a refugee activist Charlie Hebdo: how journalism needs to respond to this unconscionable attack Country or region:  UK Topics:  Culture Democracy and government Equality International politics
Categories: les flux rss

The crisis of national and religious identity in Afghanistan today

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2 hours 58 min ago

On the anniversary of Afghanistan’s Communist Party coup d’état, how Afghani modernization had to deal with a series of “others” like British colonialism, Soviet communism, or US capitalism, hindering development of a strong national identity.  

Amanullah, King of Afghanistan,1919 - 1929. Wikicommons.Some rights reserved.Afghanistan finally took its current name as a country in reformist king Amanullah Khan’s 1923 constitution. Amanullah Khan wanted to rapidly modernize Afghanistan along western lines.  Most of the changes that Amanullah Khan initiated rapidly failed. He also met with little success in his goal of creating Afghani national identity. Amanullah Khan’s struggle to forge this national identity continues today.

By 870, Arabic Muslims completed the campaign they began in 642 to dominate the lands that make up present day Afghanistan. During the next five centuries, most Afghanis converted to Islam. Afghani Muslims have made major contributions to Shariah, theology, Sufism, philosophy, physical sciences, literature, and art with local features. The founder of the largest, most rational school of Shariah among Muslims, Abu Hanifah, had Afghani ancestors in Kabul.  Balkh, in northern Afghanistan has been a main source of intellectual thought in the history of Islamic theology and was known as Murij Abad (the palace of Murjitte; the most liberal group in the history of Islam which shunned the idea of judging people based on their religious deeds).  Very great Sufis like Khawja Abdullah Ansari, Sanaii, Howjwari, Rumi and Jami were Afghanis, and enhanced the Afghani understanding of Islam. The major philosophers of Islam, including al-Farabi and Avicenna, were from Afghanistan and had a great impact on Islamic theology.  Biruni, perhaps the greatest scientist in Islamic history flourished in Ghazni. Afghani writers and poets like Firdawsi, Nasir Khesrow, and Rumi generated the greater part of Persian rich literatures. Herat’s school of miniature painting is known for its outstanding style and affected greatly Iranian and Indian schools.

This fertile ground shaped Afghani Islam and culture in a unique form, open to different cultures and traditions. This is why tribal traditions, even among the most conservative people of Pashtu in southern and eastern Afghanistan have been more influential than Islamic traditions. During its reign, the Taliban tried hard to replace several tribal customs with religious ones, such as those regarding women and marriage, but they did not succeed. The tradition-conscious Pashtu and the hierarchical Sufis backed current president Muhammad Ashraf Ghani, though he is known for his western mindset and Christian wife.  

Modernization

Amanullah Khan as a young prince. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.The process of modernization in Afghanistan begun with Amanullah Khan (1892-1960), who seized power in 1919, after his father, Amir Habibullah, was assassinated. It is widely believed that Amanullah supported the plot, knowing that he could then institute his proposed reforms.  Focusing on this very complicated event brings us to the heart of the current crisis. There are three dimensions. 

The first is political. The conflictual background with British power, War World I, and colonialism’s shift from military to economic domination provided the chance for Amanullah to declare war against Britain for Afghanistan’s independence in May 1919.  In addition to their military campaigns, the British even created a civil war between Sunni and Shiite in Qandahar, before finally accepting Afghanistan’s independence in August 1919.

After that, Amanullah maintained friendly relation with western powers, including the British. However, the memory of colonialism still remains strong in Afghani minds, in part thanks to the popular notions that Britain planted to undermine Amanullah’s reformist agenda, stirring up religious zealots against the King. 

Secondly, radical reformism. Amanullah established a new modern cabinet, enacted a constitution, and made elementary education obligatory for all Afghanis. Unlike previous Afghans, Amanullah understood the value of education. He emphasized it so much that, during his reign, education programs received more from the annual budget than all other activities except the defense department and payments to the loyal family. In 1927 Amanullah spent just over six months visiting Egypt, Turkey, Iran, India, Italy, France, Germany, British, and Russia in order to learn from their experiences with reform. He came back to Afghanistan with dreams of modernizing the country very rapidly. Having founded co-educational schooling and sent several unmarried Afghani girls abroad to study, he focused on dress code changes for men which prohibited traditional regional dress, removed traditional Hijabs from women, prohibited polygamy, and encouraged Afghani women to look to men for equality.

This angered conservatives, who then spread propaganda against him.  Pictures taken of his wife during his trip abroad, without the traditional Hijab, circulated among uneducated people, and gave them the impression the King had abandoned his faith. A conflict between religious identity and national identity was triggered. In eastern Afghanistan, the Shinwari tribe launched a local rebellion and took power in several districts. They demanded that the king divorce the first lady, close girls’ schools, rescind the constitution, give clerics political positions, and shut down all foreign legations in Kabul except the British one. It was rebels from northern Afghanistan under the leadership of Bache Saqaw, however, who finally stormed Kabul and brought down Amanullah. 

Thirdly – there is the tribal issue. Bache Saqaw came to power calling himself “The Servant of the Religion and of the Messenger of God,” and did away with Amanullah’s reforms and the constitution. Bache Saqaw himself lasted only about nine months before he too was sacked, accused of assassinating the king and taking power illegally. Bache Saqaw’s ouster at the hands of those who had previously supported him has fueled many suspicions among historians, that the British masterminded Amanullah’s elimination – and then Bache Saqaw’s – to keep Afghanistan without a strong, modern leader, and therefore under British influence.

Bache Saqaw’s grip on power was never assured, even without Britain’s alleged interference, because of his Tajik ethnicity. The country’s large Pashtu majority would not have borne this. Even in the twentieth century and contemporary Afghanistan, tribal identities remain stronger than either religious ones or the newly national identity.

Although Amanullah’s successor, Nadir Shah, did not appear to take modernization seriously, his son Zahir Shah, now called “the Father of the nation” in the present constitution of Afghanistan, took major steps toward modernization in his last decade of power.  He stayed in power for forty years (1933-1973), the last decade of which is known as “the decade of democracy” and “the decade of the Constitution.”

In 1964, the new constitution was adopted which was later accepted in 2001 as the temporary constitution of Afghanistan (excepting its articles on the monarchy). The term “Afghan,” referring to the nationality of Afghanis appeared there for the first time.  It was previously used for Pashtu people only. During that period, however, Zahir Shah developed the country’s educational system and fostered political freedom. The political parties established in those years can be categorized in two main factions: majority Marxist parties and minority Islamist student associations. The first groups were inspired by Russian and Chinese social-communist parties, and the second by Egyptian Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood. They had a hand in the formation of the current socio-political conditions of Afghanistan, strongly influenced as they were by the modernization projects of the Marxist and Islamist agendas. 

In 1973, while the king was visiting abroad, Muhammad Dawood, the Shah’s brother-in-law and cousin, took power through a coup d’etat and declared the country a Republic, with the support of socialist and communist activists. In his last years, Dawood drew closer to the US and distanced himself from Moscow and the main Afghan communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, or PDPA. This led to the assassination of Dawood and his family in the Haft-e Saur Revolution of April 28, 1978. 

Afghanistan’s political system then changed from a republic to the Democratic Republic with the PDPA as the main focus of power. The PDPA later split into two opposing parties, and coups led finally to the Soviet Union’s invasion in 1979 lasting to 1989. The political struggle between Islamist groups and the Marxist government, as well as the cold war between the Soviet Union and the US, was fought out in a brutal civil war in Afghanistan between the Mujahidin and the communist government.  Politicized modernization soon exposed its hidden potential to turn into militant radicalism. 

Modernization in Afghanistan may have begun with the establishment of independence from the British, but, as we will see, it led to the arrival of militant Islamism from other countries. The Soviet Union’s backing for Afghanistan’s communist government prompted the US to support the anti-Soviet Mujahidin, therefore making Afghanistan a battlefield on which to pursue its Cold War objectives. 

Afghani modernization became the struggle to deal with a series of “others” like British colonialism, Soviet communism, or US capitalism. Afghanis’ reflexive backlash against the alien systems those “others” brought to their country occurred even without a clear or advanced understanding of these others, or an accurate picture of how their own society could benefit from rejecting the others’ ways – in whole or in part. This hindered the development of a strong national identity, fuelling suspicious about foreigners and a crisis in religious identity. 

Islamism

The majority of Afghani Muslims are Sunnis. More specifically, they are Maturidi, and with regards to Islamic Jurisprudence, they are Hanafi. Maturidi is a rational school of theology which values reason over revelation. There is, therefore, no connection between them and the Salafists, who are trained to understand Islam through the literal interpretation of revelation. 

Also, the Hanafi School emphasizes a similarly rational approach to understanding and interpreting Islamic law. Its founder, Imam Abu Hanifah, was the most liberal and rational Imam among the four leaders of Sunni Islam’s Shariah school. In this context, liberal means openness to secular achievements and concerns, while rational means that the Quran’s words should be interpreted in a common-sense way rather than taking only their literal meaning at the moment of revelation. 

It is well-known that Hanifah accepted only 17 Hadiths (quotations) as narrated by the Prophet.  For this rational approach his school was known as “the people of opinion,” as opposed to the Madenia Schools, which accepted thousands of Hadiths and were known as “the people of Hadith/Narration”. Imam Malik accepted 300, and Imam Ahmad bn Hambal, considered as the Salafis’ spiritual leader 30000 Hadiths. Abu Hanifah used to refuse even proven Hadiths which seemed no longer to make sense. Therefore, there is a huge chasm between the Afghan Hanafi rational school and current Salafi textual approaches. 

For example, a well known Fatwa from the Hanafi School equates Wahhabism with the Kharijites. Wahhabism is the most influential movement within Salafism, following Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab’s (1703-1792) extremist view of Islam, which favors literal interpretation of the holy texts. The Kharijites were an extremist Muslim group active in the seventh century in what is today Saudi Arabia and Iraq, fighting against both Sunni and Shiite holy figures. They were the first group in Islam’s history who used excommunication (Takfir), and fought against and finally assassinated Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Caliph of Sunni Islam and the first Imam of the Shiites. The Kharijites also promoted the idea of immigration (Hijra) as part of their radical doctrines. These two features, excommunication and immigration, have reappeared in Wahhaabi Islam in recent centuries. The Hanafi’s Fatwa equating Wahhabism with the Kharijites demonstrates not only the former’s disapproval of Wahhabi extremist views, but also shows the distance between the two schools’ points of view.

The extremism of the Wahhabi/Salafi school caused the three kings of Afghanistan, Dost Muhammad Khan (1793-1863), Sher Ali Khan (1825-1879), and Abdur Rahman Khan (1844-1901) to stoutly resist the formation of Salafi movements in Afghanistan.  For instance, King Sher Ali Khan himself wrote a book called “Shahab-e Saqib Dar radd-e Wahhabiyat-e Kazib” (A meteor against false Wahhabism). The last king supported local religious leaders who wrote and published a common work called, “Taqwim al-Din” (Straightening the faith). The authors argued that Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab was evil incarnate, a half-learned man bent on misleading and ultimately dividing the Muslims community. 

For most of the twentieth century Afghani religious students studied at Al-Azhar, in Cairo, and Deubandi in India, neither of which fell under the sway of Wahhabi textualism. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, however, provided an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to finance and train Afghani Sunni as part of their support for the Mujahidin. They promoted Wahhabism as the “true belief,” in sharp contrast to the “infidel” communist government and the “deviant” Islam followed by Sufis and Shiites. Despite this infusion of money, ideology, and inspiration, Afghani Sunni Mujahidin groups, such as Jamiiayt Islami and Hizb-e Islami, steered clear of Wahhabi ideology because of their grounding in the Afghani moderate style of Islam. The majority of Sunni Mujahidin were more influenced by the Islamic Brotherhood and anti-colonial ideology. 

When the Soviet Union left Afghanistan there was a major controversy over whether fighting against the central Afghani government is legal as Jihad. For example, under Hanafi jurisprudence, Afghanistan could only make the transition from Dar al-Islam (house of Islam) to Dar al-Harb (house of war) and thus become a proper battlefield for Jihad, if three conditions were met: (1) if all Islamic rules were replaced with infidel rules; (2) if Islamic lands became adjacent to the lawful battlefield (the land of war); and (3) if there is no safety for Muslims.  Thus, although Afghanistan bordered on the Soviet Union, Jihad was inappropriate because Muslims were largely safe and Kabul’s communist government had to some extent supplanted Islamic rules with secular ones, but not whole Islamic rules. Jihadists still fighting the central government therefore did so on political, rather than religious grounds. This failure to follow Hanafi law therefore created a collapse in religious identity.    

However, although their leaders were more or less moderate, the foot soldiers who were immigrants to Pakistan were gradually accepting Wahhabi ideology in Pakistani Madrasas financed by the Saudis. The extremists of the Taliban took power as a result of the civil war and corruption among the Mujahidin, but also thanks to Pakistani support. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the only countries which recognized the Taliban regime and provided them substantial aid. Although the Taliban denied being Wahhabi, to a large extent Afghani Mujahidin considered them to be foreigners.        

As a result, Afghanistan lost its spirit of moderate Islam under the influence of foreign Islamist entities: a confluence of the Egyptian Brotherhood in the Sunni Mujahidin, Saudi Salafism in the Taliban, and the Iranian Revolution among Shiite political groups. 

Afghanistan’s identity crisis

Before the process of modernization, Afghanis used to identify with religious and tribal values. The process of modernization brought to them the concept of the nation-state and then nationality. This formation of the nation is not yet complete, however.  For example, during this period various national flags and anthems appeared but mostly they did not last because they reflected ideological agendas rather than national ideals. Even the name of Afghanistan still is controversial since it may reflect only one tribal identity. While the constitution and Pashtu groups emphasize the term “Afghan” referring to Afghani citizens, non-Pashtu groups use “Afghanistani.” Last year a huge dispute erupted over issuing new Afghani national ID cards mentioning tribal identity. The latest presidential election in Afghanistan, the only peaceful transition of power in modern Afghanistan, led to very aggressive and heated debate due to tribal and racial tensions. All this only suggests how much Afghanis still struggle to establish a national identity. 

If the process of nation-making has had only limited success up till this point, the shaping of a religious identity is visibly regressing. The dominance of textual trends is going to affect new generations. The corrupt government and un-seen benefits of international aid for public benefit or infrastructural construction in Afghanistan has always paved and still paves the way for extremists. Mujahidin who have appeared under the name of Islam and fought against communist governments became tribal and political parties who looked out for their own economic and political interests rather than the religious ideals they claimed to fight for. During fights against the Taliban they were supported by Russia who was their earlier enemy. The current Chief Executive Officer of Afghanistan who is supposed to represent the Mujahidin side, suggested a well-known member of the PDPA for interior ministry. Despite the Taliban’s widely known religious extremism in Afghanistan, they are still offered negotiations thanks to various tribal affiliations. 

In sum, the lack of a national identity and the distance from the moderating spirit of Afghani Islam have led to the crisis of the Afghani spirit. The same crisis makes any clear prediction about Afghanistan’s future fraught with difficulty. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  With Ghani in Kabul, will relations with Pakistan change? Afghanistan-Iraq: back to the future Afghanistan: history repeats itself when ignored
Categories: les flux rss

Women’s power to stop war: rereading Virginia Woolf

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3 hours 26 min ago

Three Guineas was published in 1938 but it remains startlingly relevant. War will not end while women are kept out of power and while power is governed on the historic terms that men established.

A portrait of Woolf by Roger Fry c.1917

How essential it is that we should realize that unity the dead bodies, the ruined houses prove. For such will be our ruin if you, in the immensity of your public abstractions forget the private figure, or if we, in the intensity of our private emotions forget the public world.’ (Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas)

There appears to be something missing in coverage of the UK General Election: war and peace. It’s understandable, given the recession and subsequent cuts, that the nation’s everyday suffering is in full focus, but watching the news you’d be forgiven for thinking that Britain is not in fact a military force with the power of life and death over thousands of women, men and children.

Both the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government and the Labour opposition seek to replace our nuclear missile system, Trident, for £100 billion (the same money could fund 1.5 million affordable homes see 4 million students though university). Meanwhile, as some 900 more refugees died in the Mediterranean last week, we were reminded that it was the UK Government that cruelly withdrew funding for search and rescue missions. Iraq Body Count tells us that post-military intervention, civilian deaths are almost doubling year on year. A documented 137,248 - 155,338 civilians have died from violence since the bloody conflict began in 2003, 211,000 including combatants. The prevalence of violence is also bleak domestically: two women still die each week because of violence from a former or current male partner.

I carry this burden heavy on my shoulders as I head to The Hague today to report, with openDemocracy 50.50, on the centenary conference of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. ‘We still live in a world where women’s voices and experiences are excluded, bringing continued violence and war’ reads the programme.

I’ve just reread Virginia Woolf’s iconic essay, Three Guineas, and it’s made me hopeful for the event. It conjures up another image of politics, one in which the private and public spheres speak to each other. One in which the imagination can make the leap to see how struggles at home are linked to struggles abroad. It’s not just me, there’s a buzz among women’s peace activists in Britain since recent TV debates showed for the first time three women party leaders speak against nuclear weapons, environmental degradation and xenophobia. There’s a common sense that we might be moving forward if only more women could ‘get in’. 9.1 million women failed to vote in the last election. That’s one million women for each decade of freedom since women first won suffrage. Meanwhile, just 22% of MPs are women.

How can we convince women, in this context, of their power to change politics, stop war and forge new avenues for peace?

Going back to Virginia Woolf is not an obvious choice. At a time when social media has taken centre stage it can feel indulgent to go back to the past in search of inspiration. Meanwhile Woolf has fallen out of fashion. Although some young feminists still read her 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own, many ask, what can her white, upper class, dated perspective contribute to the intersectionality of modern feminism?

There are three main lessons that I take away from Woolf’s essay which inspire me as a peace activist some 77 years on from its 1938 publication. The first relates to the relationship between culture, capital and war; the second to women’s private and public experience of conflict and oppression; and the third to the relationship between conflict and patriotism. The essay reminds us that war cannot be stopped by the international actors alone, but requires a systematic shift in discourse and power in democracy domestically as well as abroad.

Culture, capital and war

In 1920, Woolf wrote in her diary that her ‘generation [was] daily scourged by the bloody war’. The question that she seeks to answer in Three Guineas, many years on, is how are we to prevent war? She begins by locating the ubiquity of war in a society dominated by oppressive ideas of masculinity and commodity. Everywhere men are in power and the perspectives of women – rendered different by their experience of societal marginalisation – are ignored.

Tackling culturally imposed grandiose ideas of manliness is at the core of Woolf’s message for peace. Her analyses of the media, run by capitalist tycoons who have an interest in maintaining conflict and competition, is highly poignant for today’s feminist audience. She captures the power of discourse, arguing that reclaiming the media from the monocles of the super-rich is imperative to restoring independent thought. Throughout the essay Woolf takes us back time and time again to a newspaper image of the Spanish Civil War, of corpses so badly mutilated they are undiscernible as man, woman or pig. We are conditioned to see that as justification for war, she explains, but a different sensibility has been repressed by patriarchy. Similar debates continue to surface, as in relation to recent media coverage of ISIS.

Yes, the culture of war remains dominant in today’s society, in our schools and in the public sphere. Though the British Empire has formally fallen, what Woolf calls its ‘commodifying attitude’ is now at the ‘helm of modern capitalism’. Anticipating strategies of current activism against neoliberalism, she calls for public divestment from the arms trade. More money should instead be channelled into funding for women’s organisations, she argues. This is a universal dilemma, for ‘money makes it possible to speak without fear or flattery.’

Woolf also answers a key dilemma of the modern feminist movement. At a time when we are telling young girls to ‘lean in’, how can women succeed in public institutions and in politics without becoming part of the dominant culture?  ‘We too can leave the house, wear wigs and gowns, make money, administer justice’, as she puts it, ‘but on what terms shall we join that procession?’

In Woolf’s universe, enfranchising women is an opportunity to reinvent the institutions according to a different logic, of collaboration and peace rather than of competition and conflict. ‘We can best help you to prevent war’, she tells men, ‘not by repeating your words and following your methods but by finding new worlds and creating new methods’.

Conflict in private and public spheres

By linking women’s domestic struggles to become educated and earn a living to the cause of challenging war, Woolf makes an explicit link between the private and the public spheres. For her, fighting for a living wage and paid care work are all part of the peace movement, a plan for enhancing democracy and liberty in the face of oppression and dictatorship. ‘To help women to earn their livings...’, she explains, ‘is to help them to possess that weapon of independent opinion which is still their most powerful weapon. It is to help them to have a mind of their own and a will of their own which will help you to prevent war’. 

Although it is now widely recognised that women and men experience conflict and peace differently, as spelled out in instruments such as CEDAW, at the time of writing Woolf was bold to put the social segregation of men and women at the heart of her analysis. In 1938 the navy and army were closed to women, as were the diplomatic service, clergy and the stock exchange. Woolf felt, as many others have, that this exclusion from public life gave women an advantage to see a ‘new world’ free from the ‘untrue loyalties’ imposed on men in the public sphere.

Woolf also draws on poetry by Wilfred Owen on the ‘unnaturalness of weapons’ and the ‘foolishness of war’ to explore how men experience war in different ways, challenging the idea of ‘the ideal solider’. And women too, she explains, are embroiled in propagating ideas of military masculinity. ‘Give not the white feather of cowardice not the red feather of courage, but no feather at all’, she asks us. One can imagine that Woolf would have been an avid contributor to the Everyday Sexism project, because she saw the culture of violence as very much an assemblage of everyday experiences.

Patriotism and war

Women’s ‘Outsider perspective’, contends Woolf, not only gives us a unique vision of what peace might look like, but allows us to empathise with the oppression of others. ‘Those who would keep women in the home are no better than Dictators’, she decries. In a particularly bold passage, she asserts that ‘the monster has widened his scope’, tracing a historical genealogy of oppression that spans the family home and Nazi Germany.

It is the Outsider experience which prevents women from getting behind the patriotism of war and the duties of war. What does ‘our country’ mean to women as Outsiders, she asks. How much of England actually belongs to us? ‘Throughout the greater part, history has treated me as a slave’, she concludes, ‘...as a woman I have no country’. Ending war then, for Woolf, requires women and men to rid themselves both of ‘pride of nationality’ and the presumed ‘superiority of patriotism’. 

In almost a century much has changed in the nature of war and peace in Britain and abroad, leaving us to wonder what relevance Woolf’s essay can still carry. Her letter, certainly, is remarkably forward-looking. She foresees many strategies of the women’s peace movement, from sex strikes, calls to ban Page 3 and pressure on public institutions to divest in arms and fossil fuels. Her work was also, and remains, instrumental in placing women’s, and to some extent men’s, lived experiences of war and peace at the heart of analysis.

As feminists we often struggle to articulate the dialectic between our work at the everyday and ideological levels. But what Woolf reminds us is that war will not end while women are kept out of power. And similarly, war will not end while power is governed on the same historic terms which men have established in the absence of half of society. Woolf concludes with a startling, leveling image. Under patriarchy, we are all, she posits, ourselves the figure of the uniformed soldier. Adopting this identity is a source of hope for Woolf, ‘it suggests that we are not spectators doomed to unresisting obedience, but by our thoughts and actions can ourselves change that figure’.

Jennifer Allsopp is reporting from WILPF's centenary international civil society conference in the Hague, 27-29 April. Read more articles in 50.50's series Women's Power to Stop War. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Creating peace: a manifesto for the 21st century This is what a feminist foreign policy looks like Women's power to stop war: Hubris or hope? Violence is not inevitable: It is a choice Walking together: imagining a new chapter in Korean history An alternative history of peacemaking: a century of disarmament efforts A common vision: The abolition of militarism Debating the long and the short-term view of sexual violence in war Military intervention in Yemen: the international system in crisis Women peacebuilders: transforming the system from the inside out? Why we need a feminist foreign policy to stop war Scrapping Trident: the holistic approach Mairead Maguire: breaking the silence on Palestine Executed: what were the principles for which Edith Cavell lived and died? Topics:  Civil society Conflict
Categories: les flux rss

Mourning the Mediterranean dead and locking up survivors

Open Democracy News Analysis - 4 hours 25 min ago

Although the EU, US and others have demonstrated a willingness to intervene militarily in Libya or Syria, a willingness to take responsibility for the consequences is woefully lacking. 

24 Libyan bodies brought to Malta, April 20. Demotix/ Christian Mangion.All rights reserved.Loss of life in the Mediterranean during the last few weeks brings the death toll this year to 1,776. 2015 is on course to be the deadliest year on record. The avoidable loss of life is all the more devastating in light of its predictability. Ongoing violence and instability in Syria, Palestine, Somalia, Libya and elsewhere meant that people would continue to leave these areas and attempt to reach Europe. The lack of legal avenues into Europe for migrants and refugees alongside the EU’s emphasis on border control ensured that they would be obliged to resort to the services of smugglers and to dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean. Finally, the reduction in resources committed by EU member states to search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean since October 2014 guaranteed that many more of those embarking on the journey would not arrive on the Sea’s northern shores.

We know all too little of the nameless bodies that are once again washing up on Mediterranean beaches this week: we do know that they are men, women, and children who had fled violence, instability, and poverty and attempted to find safe places for their children to grow and a better life in Europe. There are reports that they included people from Syria, Somalia, Palestine, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh. In recent days, Malta and Italy buried the limited number of dead pulled from the Sea in coffins anonymously marked with haunting words: ‘Body No: 132’.

As Nando Sigona has written, the avoidable deaths of so many people brings into sharp relief the question of how much a human life is worth. It also raises the uncomfortable question of when we bestow worth onto particular human beings. The hypocrisy during this last week has been clear: as with previous, avoidable tragedies at sea, while the dead are commemorated, the few lucky enough to survive are branded as ‘illegal’, put into detention, and threatened with deportation.

Following the response of EU politicians this week, you would be forgiven for thinking that people cross the Mediterranean solely because of their access to smugglers’ boats or because of good weather. Politicians have been quick to call this latest incident a tragedy, and quicker still to lay blame at the feet of smugglers. Although the President of the European Council declared that the EU’s ‘overriding priority is to prevent more people from dying at sea’, and at an emergency summit on Thursday EU member states pledged to triple the resources available to Frontex operations in the Central Mediterranean, the emphasis is still overwhelmingly on enforcement and deterrence. If there was any doubt, Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri drove the message home on the eve of the EU summit maintaining that saving lives in the Mediterranean was not a priority for the agency.

The deterrent and enforcement aspects of the EU’s response have centered on smugglers, characterized by politicians in recent days as ‘slave traders’. The EU announced it would launch an operation to seize and destroy boats used by smugglers in Libya. The details of the plan remain hazy, yet the rhetoric reduces migrants and refugees to flotsam and jetsam pushed and pulled by more powerful forces.

It overlooks the fact that despite enormous resources spent on building ‘Fortress Europe’, borders remain porous and migration routes adapt in the face of new control measures. Significantly, the emphasis on combatting smugglers also obscures the ways in which EU border controls have contributed to the business of smuggling. With no legal routes around the walls and barriers that surround Europe, Syrian and Somali refugees, migrants trapped in Libya, and others are left with few options but to engage a smuggler. The surest way to undermine this booming business of smuggling would be to open legal channels into Europe.

Conspicuously absent in the EU policy response is also any discussion of the conflicts that have, for example, caused the number of Syrians crossing the Central Mediterranean to increase from 100 in 2012 to 10,000 in 2013 and 42,000 in 2014. Although the EU, the US, and other western states have demonstrated a willingness to intervene militarily and politically in Libya, Syria, and other parts of the region, a willingness to take responsibility for the consequences of these interventions is woefully lacking. Thus, while Turkey, Lebanon, Jordon, and other neighboring countries host more than three million Syrian refugees, only 150,000 asylum applications have been made by Syrians in the EU.

Though many welcome the promise of an expansion of Frontex operations that effectively act as a search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean, we would do well to remember that even at the height of Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation last year, over 3,000 people lost their lives. Search and rescue operations cannot replace legal access to Europe, access that has been considerably restricted for most of the world’s population over the last 25 years.

The Mediterranean Sea was the deadliest part of the world for migrants in 2014: the 3,166 people who lost their lives between the Sea’s northern and southern shores constituted over 70% of migrant deaths worldwide according to the International Organization for Migration. These deaths occurred despite the extensive search and rescue activities of Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation that rescued more than 150,000 people between October 2013 and October 2014.  Given the still limited resources to rescue people at sea as well as the lack of legal channels into Europe for the vast majority of Syrian, Somalis, Palestinians and others, the recent deaths at sea and the response by EU politicians raise the question of what kind of Europe we want to create and live in: one that is a leader in the world because it lives up to its principles of inclusion, freedom of movement, refugee protection and other human rights, or one that builds walls to exclude, allows people to die en masse at its borders, and leads the world only in migrant deaths? 

Sideboxes Related stories:  How many people have to die before we start talking responsibly about immigration? Securitisation not the response to deaths at sea After the recent tragedy in the Med, why can’t we talk about free migration? Country or region:  EU Topics:  Conflict Culture Democracy and government Equality International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Sexual surveillance and moral quarantines: a history of anti-trafficking

Open Democracy News Analysis - 6 hours 30 min ago
The US government is using anti-human trafficking laws to intensify the surveillance and criminalisation of migrating women and harden the national security state—as it has since 1875.

Immigration inspectors, circa 1924. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Last year the shining jewel of the US Defense Department, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), announced that it was joining the fight against human trafficking as part of its national security mandate. The agency that helped to create the Internet has developed a programme named Memex to scour the deep web—the part of the Internet ignored by commercial search engines like Google—for evidence of criminal activities. According to DARPA: “The use of forums, chats, advertisements, job postings, hidden services, etc., continues to enable a growing industry of modern slavery.” DARPA invited proposals for computer science programmes interested in helping to shed light on the darker corners of the Internet. Artur Dubrawski, a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, was awarded one of these prestigious contracts. He noted, “Originally, we looked for ways to help victims of human trafficking, but we quickly realized the best way to help victims would be to help law enforcement.”

In its 140-year history of fighting sex trafficking, the United States has always prioritised law enforcement, border control, and national security over aid to victims or concerns about privacy. The developers in charge of Memex were themselves concerned about the privacy implications of their work. “We didn’t want to cloud this work unnecessarily by dragging in the specter of snooping and surveillance.” DARPA is only one piece of the United States’ extraordinary national security infrastructure, a conglomeration of institutions that includes the National Security Agency. This agency, as the revelations released by Edward Snowden attest, has routinely used its national security mandate to develop and use mass surveillance systems against American citizens (as well as citizens of other countries). As Katie Cruz noted on this website, trafficking is “bound up with border control and criminalisation.” I would argue that intertwined with border control and criminalisation is national security, and these three issues have been entangled for well over one hundred years in the enforcement of anti-trafficking laws in the United States.

Chinese immigrant women: the original targets of anti-trafficking law

Congress passed the first anti-trafficking law in the United States in 1875 within the context of an anti-Chinese nativist movement. This claimed that Chinese immigration formed a “modern slave trade system”, in the words of a congressman from Massachusetts, because of the high percentage of sex workers among its tiny female population. The Page Act outlawed the importation of women for the purposes of prostitution or “any other immoral purpose” and it made the trafficking of Chinese women from East Asia a felony. Chinese women were frequently assumed to be prostitutes by the racist imaginations of immigration inspectors, largely because many of the women were trafficked to the Western United States by entrepreneurs seeking to take advantage of the large number of male Chinese labourers. So in the aftermath of this law, female immigration from China began to dwindle well before the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act put a stop to most migration from China to the United States. The Immigration Bureau, founded in 1891 to enforce the anti-Chinese laws, saw its responsibility as one of protecting the country from the “morally, mentally and physically deficient,” according to its 1907 annual report. From the Immigration Bureau’s perspective depravity and disease were entangled concepts that centred on the body of the migrating sex worker.

Deciding whether a migrant woman was an immoral-prostitute-in-hiding or an innocent victim of sex trafficking relied on the gendered imaginations of the men who staffed the Immigration Bureau. It was a moral reading of women’s bodies that reflected assumptions about class: attire, demeanour, and hygiene were read as indicators of morality. The reliance on such flimsy readings produced comedies of error at the border. According to New York Times reports from the time, in 1903 an immigrant inspector in New York grew suspicious of one woman who occupied a first-class cabin, yet travelled alone. This was enough to raise suspicions that she might be a well-paid prostitute. As the inspector asked increasingly personal questions, the woman became increasingly “hysterical.” The ensuing investigation revealed that she was the wife of a ship captain based in Seattle and was travelling to reunite with her husband.

A game of cat and mouse

Sex workers who were aware of US immigration laws could easily avoid detection by presenting themselves in ways that satisfied inspectors’ gendered assumptions. In 1909, as part of an investigation into white slavery in Europe, one inspector learned that prostitutes working in the United States frequently returned to Europe to visit their families. When he pointed out to his sex worker interlocutors that such behaviour was in violation of US immigration law, one woman laughed and called him a “chump.” His final report, which recorded these interactions, caused the Immigration Bureau to conclude:

The most alarming feature of this traffic from the bureau’s point of view consists . . . of the vastly increasing numbers of alien prostitutes flooding the country, finding in the existing immigration laws, with their present means of enforcement, only slight impediment to their passage back and forth, and in the great and callous indifference displayed to the existence of these leprous sores upon the body politic in the various cities which throw the cloak of protection over the districts wherein are gathered the brothels, dives, and houses of assignation.

The Immigration Bureau sought to build a stronger moral wall at the border in order to better identify sex workers who were evading the law. It asked Congress to fortify the 1875 law with the Immigration Acts of 1903, 1907, 1910, and 1917. Combined, these outlawed the importation of sex workers, women coming for other ‘immoral’ purposes, and men demonstrating ‘moral turpitude’. They also made the acts of procuring, pimping, and sex work deportable offences. With each additional law, the Immigration Bureau found itself in need of more manpower to carry out its mandate, surveilling the borders and the interior of the country in order to ensure both remained secure.

Year Prostitute Procurer LPC* Total Debarred 1892 80   1002 2164 1893     431 1053 1894 2   802 1389 1895     1714 2419 1896     2012 2799 1897     1277 1617 1898     2261 3030 1899     2599 3798 1900 7   2974 4246 1901 3   2798 3516 1902 3   3944 4974 1903 13   5812 8769 1904 9 3 4798 7994 1905 24 4 7898 11480 1906 30 2 7069 12432 1907 18 1 6866 13064 1908 124 43 3741 10902 1909 323 181 4458 10411 1910 316 179 15927 22607 1911 253 141 12048 22349

Table 1. Prostitutes, Procurers, and LPC’s Excluded from Entry, 1892-1911.
Source: Annual Report for the Commissioner General, 1904-1911
* Aliens likely to become public charges.
 

More powers, more players

The Immigration Bureau was not the only federal agency that used sex trafficking to increase its institutional reach. To supplement the immigration acts, the US Congress passed the White Slave Traffic Act in 1910 (commonly known as the Mann Act) to halt sex trafficking within the US, and to protect what one congressman called the “blue-eyed girl” in America. Enforcement of this expansive law, which made it illegal to take a woman or girl over state borders for the purposes of prostitution, debauchery or “any other immoral purpose,” fell to the young Bureau of Investigation, now the FBI. When the law was passed in 1910, the FBI had only 61 agents, yet by 1914 the agency had over 300 representatives spread throughout the nation. I argue in my book Policing Sexuality that it was the active policing of sex trafficking that led to the national growth of the FBI.

The FBI encountered the same problems as the Bureau of Immigration when it came to identifying sex workers. After a 1917 Supreme Court case upheld the constitutionality of the Mann Act, the Bureau solved this vexing puzzle by policing heterosexuality more broadly, including cases of run-away daughters, adulterous wives, and migrating sex workers. Under this expanded purview, the FBI used the anti-sex trafficking law to justify its increasing oversight of the physical and moral health of the nation.

The Memex programme once again brings sex trafficking firmly under the umbrella of national security. The Obama administration established an expansive vision of national security in its 2010 National Security Strategy, which covers everything from immigration and education to health and scientific innovation. Under this vision the National Security Council’s territory has expanded beyond the traditional focus on international military activities and foreign policy to include trade, organised crime, travel, and a wide array of other activities.

DARPA’s celebration of the law enforcement potential of the Memex project should not be taken lightly. The project significantly increases the surveillance state and makes its findings available to law enforcement. This expanded surveillance is justified by drawing on the discursive and political power of the anti-trafficking movement in the United States, and it will be a powerful gift to law enforcement. But if the history of the surveillance national security state and the enforcement of anti-trafficking laws teaches us anything, it suggests that in the past these initiatives grew the power of the state while criminalising the behaviour of migrating women.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Anti-trafficking campaigns, sex workers and the roots of damage Gotcha! the ‘bait and switch and bait again’ of US anti-trafficking policy Filipina entertainers and South Korean anti-trafficking laws
Categories: les flux rss

Living with smartness

Open Democracy News Analysis - 10 hours 30 min ago

Will new technologies turn people into passive human beings?

Credit: http://www.tumotech.com/. All rights reserved.

I used to see smartness as tyrannical. This was over a decade ago, when I was toiling away in a cold-calling telephone sales job. I tried to communicate my struggles to my manager. I was working hard, I informed him, but with little success. His response was simply to point out that I should “work smarter, not harder.”

The message, as I interpreted it, was simple: failure is your fault—the product of your lack of ingenuity, limited initiative, and absence of guile. You’re not entrepreneurial enough. You’re not smart.

There it was—the blame lay squarely on my shoulders. Smartness made my inadequacies tangible. I wasn’t competing effectively. This was one of those “brushes with neoliberalism on a granular scale” recently described by the writer Philip Mirowski—moments when we discover that “competition is a primary virtue, and solidarity a sign of weakness.” Smartness was the vehicle by which the individualizing properties of contemporary capitalism found their way into my life.

I was jolted into these memories by a recent gift—a complimentary bottle of “Smartwater” that came with a supermarket food delivery. Smartwater, we are told, is inspired by ‘nature’ and ‘clouds’ and includes ‘electrolytes.’ The implicit suggestion is that this is water that adapts to our individual needs for hydration.

This appears to be a new product, but it’s not the first time I’ve come across a mention of smart water. A few years ago I was at York railway station and noticed a large billboard informing me that “smart water” was used in the city—in this case to stain the clothes of criminals and make them visible to law enforcement officers.

So today, smartness is still a means for promoting individualization, but it finds its way into our lives in the very objects that surround us. Such notions of smartness are now ubiquitous, like the advert for “smart toothpaste” that recently appeared on my TV. This is a kind of toothpaste that knows your mouth better than you do. It can change its actions to suit the needs of your breath, plaque levels, cavity prevention, enamel erosion, whiteness and so on.  It judges these needs for itself, with autonomy and thinking-power, treating us as individuals.

The most obvious presence of smartness in our lives is in our cell-phones. We’ve had “smart-phones” since around 2007, when the iPhone was launched, and over the last few years they’ve become a familiar and established presence. Smart-phones have become a part of bodily routines, narratives and lifestyle images, and are deeply woven into the social fabric. They’re a part of how people live. Their smartness is celebrated and enthused over.

Smart-phones learn about us in different ways and respond to our needs. They predict things about us and what we might want to know. We get recommendations through them. We get notified. We get anticipated.

The idea of smart objects is a notion that can be placed at the boundary between technology and science fiction, a line that is often blurred. Encouraged by science fiction, designers have been imagining smart technologies for many years, like the smart fridge. This is a fridge that notes which items of food are getting low and orders replacements. It is likely to be found in the kitchen of a ‘thinking home’ that adapts to how you live and guesses what temperature, humidity or light levels you would like without you asking.

Radio Frequency Identity Tags are often used in these types of technologies—minute sensors that can be embedded in objects, spaces or bodies to give them a unique identity code that can be scanned. These tags lead us to envision the ‘internet of things’ and the enmeshing of the material and immaterial.  The connected environment is seen as the smart environment.

These environments are already with us, but in a more humdrum form. We have on-demand TV and music streaming services that predict our tastes, and make recommendations. Indeed, recommendations are everywhere and are delivered to us by lots of smart devices.

In her cyborg manifesto, which is now over 25 years old, the feminist writer Donna Haraway suggested that as devices become more mobile and bodies are technologically enhanced, people will become increasingly cybernetic—connected with each other and with machines in systems of communication. Cyborgs and cybernetic imagery are often used to explore the blurring lines between humans and technology.

The result, for Haraway, is that human beings will become directly connected into their surroundings. Her conclusion was that people will become “frighteningly inert,” while the technologies they live with will become “disturbingly lively.” The cyborg metaphor was frequently used in the 1990s and 2000s to evoke both the passive body and the energetic technology that connects people with their informational environments. So the underlying consequence of smart objects might be passive and sedentary human beings.

However, as smartness has become a leitmotif of modern life, notions of liveliness and passivity have become more complex. Rather than people simply becoming immobilized by machines, smart technologies might be seen to assist in the training of the self or as thoughtful facilitators of self-improvement. Smart technologies make our homes supportive of our lifestyles and future-proof our bodies by making them fitter, cleaner and more efficient.

In some cases they do the work for us, and with applications like “Fitbit” or “Strava”—which track and compare fitness and lifestyle data—there are cases where smart technology is pushing the body towards heightened activity, though still based on individualized competition and the use of metrics in search of the ‘perfect lifestyle.’

The sociologists Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval argue that “practical exercises in self-transformation tend to transfer the whole burden of complexity and competition exclusively onto the individual.” Smart objects play the dual role of training the neoliberal subject while also allowing people to feel they have some help and assistance with the individualized burdens and complexities of contemporary life. They stretch us, but they also make us feel that we’re more able to cope with the pressures that are placed upon us.

There is something comforting about the idea that the objects that surround us are smart. We are made to feel special by these objects. They give us personal service. They know about us—intimately. This promotes feelings of a life lived in an environment in which all our needs are catered for.

These objects also enhance our own sense of smartness. They make us feel as though we do indeed work ‘smarter, but not harder,’ and perhaps they even know things about us that we don’t know ourselves—like the type of dental issues diagnosed by my smart toothpaste. The object is the expert, so we can trust them to know what to do. They are thoughtful, autonomous, and deeply individualizing.

But tucked away in these notions of smartness is also the ‘everyday neoliberalism’ to which Mirowski refers. These objects are seen to enhance our own smartness. They contribute towards our effectiveness as self-trained, individualized, entrepreneurial subjects, while also offering the comforting reassurance that they are taking care of us.

Living with smartness is to live with objects and ideals that bring these broader political dynamics to the inside of our everyday lives. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Is passionate work a neoliberal delusion? What happens to democracy in a cashless society? Hard times: the human face of neo-liberalism Topics:  Culture
Categories: les flux rss

Living with smartness

Open Democracy News Analysis - 10 hours 30 min ago

Will new technologies turn people into passive human beings?

Credit: http://www.tumotech.com/. All rights reserved.

I used to see smartness as tyrannical. This was over a decade ago, when I was toiling away in a cold-calling telephone sales job. I tried to communicate my struggles to my manager. I was working hard, I informed him, but with little success. His response was simply to point out that I should “work smarter, not harder.”

The message, as I interpreted it, was simple: failure is your fault—the product of your lack of ingenuity, limited initiative, and absence of guile. You’re not entrepreneurial enough. You’re not smart.

There it was—the blame lay squarely on my shoulders. Smartness made my inadequacies tangible. I wasn’t competing effectively. This was one of those “brushes with neoliberalism on a granular scale” recently described by the writer Philip Mirowski—moments when we discover that “competition is a primary virtue, and solidarity a sign of weakness.” Smartness was the vehicle by which the individualizing properties of contemporary capitalism found their way into my life.

I was jolted into these memories by a recent gift—a complimentary bottle of “Smartwater” that came with a supermarket food delivery. Smartwater, we are told, is inspired by ‘nature’ and ‘clouds’ and includes ‘electrolytes.’ The implicit suggestion is that this is water that adapts to our individual needs for hydration.

This appears to be a new product, but it’s not the first time I’ve come across a mention of smart water. A few years ago I was at York railway station and noticed a large billboard informing me that “smart water” was used in the city—in this case to stain the clothes of criminals and make them visible to law enforcement officers.

So today, smartness is still a means for promoting individualization, but it finds its way into our lives in the very objects that surround us. Such notions of smartness are now ubiquitous, like the advert for “smart toothpaste” that recently appeared on my TV. This is a kind of toothpaste that knows your mouth better than you do. It can change its actions to suit the needs of your breath, plaque levels, cavity prevention, enamel erosion, whiteness and so on.  It judges these needs for itself, with autonomy and thinking-power, treating us as individuals.

The most obvious presence of smartness in our lives is in our cell-phones. We’ve had “smart-phones” since around 2007, when the iPhone was launched, and over the last few years they’ve become a familiar and established presence. Smart-phones have become a part of bodily routines, narratives and lifestyle images, and are deeply woven into the social fabric. They’re a part of how people live. Their smartness is celebrated and enthused over.

Smart-phones learn about us in different ways and respond to our needs. They predict things about us and what we might want to know. We get recommendations through them. We get notified. We get anticipated.

The idea of smart objects is a notion that can be placed at the boundary between technology and science fiction, a line that is often blurred. Encouraged by science fiction, designers have been imagining smart technologies for many years, like the smart fridge. This is a fridge that notes which items of food are getting low and orders replacements. It is likely to be found in the kitchen of a ‘thinking home’ that adapts to how you live and guesses what temperature, humidity or light levels you would like without you asking.

Radio Frequency Identity Tags are often used in these types of technologies—minute sensors that can be embedded in objects, spaces or bodies to give them a unique identity code that can be scanned. These tags lead us to envision the ‘internet of things’ and the enmeshing of the material and immaterial.  The connected environment is seen as the smart environment.

These environments are already with us, but in a more humdrum form. We have on-demand TV and music streaming services that predict our tastes, and make recommendations. Indeed, recommendations are everywhere and are delivered to us by lots of smart devices.

In her cyborg manifesto, which is now over 25 years old, the feminist writer Donna Haraway suggested that as devices become more mobile and bodies are technologically enhanced, people will become increasingly cybernetic—connected with each other and with machines in systems of communication. Cyborgs and cybernetic imagery are often used to explore the blurring lines between humans and technology.

The result, for Haraway, is that human beings will become directly connected into their surroundings. Her conclusion was that people will become “frighteningly inert,” while the technologies they live with will become “disturbingly lively.” The cyborg metaphor was frequently used in the 1990s and 2000s to evoke both the passive body and the energetic technology that connects people with their informational environments. So the underlying consequence of smart objects might be passive and sedentary human beings.

However, as smartness has become a leitmotif of modern life, notions of liveliness and passivity have become more complex. Rather than people simply becoming immobilized by machines, smart technologies might be seen to assist in the training of the self or as thoughtful facilitators of self-improvement. Smart technologies make our homes supportive of our lifestyles and future-proof our bodies by making them fitter, cleaner and more efficient.

In some cases they do the work for us, and with applications like “Fitbit” or “Strava”—which track and compare fitness and lifestyle data—there are cases where smart technology is pushing the body towards heightened activity, though still based on individualized competition and the use of metrics in search of the ‘perfect lifestyle.’

The sociologists Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval argue that “practical exercises in self-transformation tend to transfer the whole burden of complexity and competition exclusively onto the individual.” Smart objects play the dual role of training the neoliberal subject while also allowing people to feel they have some help and assistance with the individualized burdens and complexities of contemporary life. They stretch us, but they also make us feel that we’re more able to cope with the pressures that are placed upon us.

There is something comforting about the idea that the objects that surround us are smart. We are made to feel special by these objects. They give us personal service. They know about us—intimately. This promotes feelings of a life lived in an environment in which all our needs are catered for.

These objects also enhance our own sense of smartness. They make us feel as though we do indeed work ‘smarter, but not harder,’ and perhaps they even know things about us that we don’t know ourselves—like the type of dental issues diagnosed by my smart toothpaste. The object is the expert, so we can trust them to know what to do. They are thoughtful, autonomous, and deeply individualizing.

But tucked away in these notions of smartness is also the ‘everyday neoliberalism’ to which Mirowski refers. These objects are seen to enhance our own smartness. They contribute towards our effectiveness as self-trained, individualized, entrepreneurial subjects, while also offering the comforting reassurance that they are taking care of us.

Living with smartness is to live with objects and ideals that bring these broader political dynamics to the inside of our everyday lives. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Is passionate work a neoliberal delusion? What happens to democracy in a cashless society? Hard times: the human face of neo-liberalism Topics:  Culture
Categories: les flux rss

Whose city? Evicting communities in London

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. April 2015 - 23:41

This video tells the story of a family facing eviction from London’s Sweets Way estate. Yet another community has been destroyed for profit.

This video tells the story of the Sweets Way community’s fight against social cleansing in an increasingly gentrified city.

Sweets Way used to be a social housing estate owned by the Ministry of Defence. In 1996, it was sold to a private company and it will now be demolished to make space for a new development project approved by the local council.

Another community in London has been destroyed for profit. About 160 families are facing eviction. Andrew, Zlatka and Daniel are just one of them.

Sideboxes Related stories:  From castle to cage: what to do about the housing crisis? Video debate: the housing crisis - a very British disease. Tenants in danger: the rise of eviction watches
Categories: les flux rss

Whose city? Evicting communities in London

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. April 2015 - 23:41

This video tells the story of a family facing eviction from London’s Sweets Way estate. Yet another community has been destroyed for profit.

This video tells the story of the Sweets Way community’s fight against social cleansing in an increasingly gentrified city.

Sweets Way used to be a social housing estate owned by the Ministry of Defence. In 1996, it was sold to a private company and it will now be demolished to make space for a new development project approved by the local council.

Another community in London has been destroyed for profit. About 160 families are facing eviction. Andrew, Zlatka and Daniel are just one of them.

Sideboxes Related stories:  From castle to cage: what to do about the housing crisis? Video debate: the housing crisis - a very British disease. Tenants in danger: the rise of eviction watches
Categories: les flux rss

What’s happening with devolution?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. April 2015 - 23:11

What genuine changes have been secured for local democracy across the UK in recent months? Is devolution creating powerhouses or poor houses?


Core Cities UK meet with William Hague MP Chair of the Cabinet Committee for Devolved Powers. Image: Flickr/ BCC News Room

Following George Osborne’s announcement of a devolution package last November, Sir Richard Leese, Manchester City Council leader, is un-quietly confident of becoming the conurbation’s first Elected Mayor, in the vote scheduled for 2017. In the meantime, two local Labour stalwarts have made themselves available to occupy that role on an interim basis. Tony Lloyd, ex-MP and Manchester’s Police and Crime Commissioner, and Wigan Council Leader Peter Smith both put their names forward before nominations closed. The winner will be chosen, not by the general public, but a select ‘electoral college’ of Greater Manchester’s 10 council leaders. 

What may emerge as the cornerstone – or Achilles Heel – of Manchester’s future governance is that, since the start of April, the area has had control over its combined health and social care budget, worth an estimated £6bn. Elsewhere in England, social care is handled by local authorities, while clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) deal with hospitals, community health and mental health issues, and NHS England covers primary and specialised care services. A new Greater Manchester Strategic Health and Social Care Partnership Board will take charge of all this, supported by a joint commissioning board drawn from the 10 local authorities, CCGs and NHS England. The aim is to have the new arrangements in place from April 2016. 

Many of the advantages and disadvantages are obvious. On the one hand, strategic health decisions will be made by local representatives and more closely reflect local needs. The long hoped-for integration of health and social care is vital, too, given the area’s aging population pyramid, and the potential for better patient outcomes through joined-up, more cost-effective services. Equally, however, there are concerns about accountability. Who will carry the can, particularly if the system runs out of cash? Will decisions be made at a local CCG level, or will the Partnership Board be another of the bureaucratic quangos that the Coalition sought to consign to its bonfire? And how well will the Board’s medical and political members work together? 

But as Richard Humphries of the King’s Fund think tank argues, Greater Manchester has a relatively good track record of partnership relationships, something that is not always seen elsewhere. By and large, the proposals have been welcomed, for example by the leader of Oldham Council, Jim McMahon, and the Labour Party nationally. Ironically, its health spokesman Andy Burnham, a Manchester MP, is somewhat less effusive, highlighting the potential for: “a Swiss cheese NHS where some bits of the system are operating to different rules or have different powers and freedoms." 

Another element of Greater Manchester’s devolution is that since the start of the 2015-16 tax year, councils will be able to retain 100% of additional business rate growth. This pilot scheme, in which similar powers have been given to Cheshire, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, was unveiled in George Osborne’s pre-election Budget. The Chancellor argued that while this was fully in line with his vision of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, the benefits of a national recovery had to be spread wider.

The announcement coincided with the launch of a comprehensive review by Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander into business rates across England. Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the chartered public finance accounting body CIPFA, welcomed the review, but expressed concern that the 100% retention rate was being confined to “a few select local authorities”, and should instead have been “done in a fair way that serves the interest of business, communities and local government. His comments were echoed by David Sparks, who chairs the Local Government Association. He felt that; “All parts of the country should be able to reap the benefits of having a thriving local economy . . . in such a way which ensures areas with fewer businesses do not lose out.” 

Merseyside

Things, however, are not quite as bright elsewhere in the North West. The region’s only current elected mayor, Liverpool’s Joe Anderson, is openly jealous about the good relations between Greater Manchester authorities. During an open discussion with Manchester’s Chief Executive Howard Bernstein at the MIPIM international property convention in Cannes in March, Anderson accused other Merseyside council leaders of “lacking vision”. 

LocalismWatch has previously commented on the hostilities between Anderson and Wirral council leader Phil Davies, who was chosen by the area’s other council leaders to head Merseyside’s “super cabinet” in preference to him. Earlier this year, Anderson wrote to the Liverpool Echo accusing his neighbours of “bringing the area into disrepute” in the row over a potential metro-mayor. He alleged that the other council leaders had reneged over having talks “with no preconditions” with the government to grant Merseyside more powers. But Davies hit back, saying: “Mayor Anderson is wrong to question the integrity of certain councils and council leaders for taking the view that we should ask the public for their agreement via a referendum before adopting the metro mayor model.” 

Lancashire

Although Lancashire’s 15 council leaders announced in 2014 that they would be working towards a combined authority, the rate of progress has been criticised. However, the County’s chief executive, Jo Turton feels that enough work has taken place for detailed discussions to start this summer. Speaking at a local business dinner, she argued that “delivering economic growth in every corner of the county” and “partnership” were strategic priorities. She said that the Preston, South Ribble and Lancashire City Deal showed “how the public and private sectors can align their objectives to deliver economic growth, create jobs and support sustainable communities."

But Turton also acknowledged: “One thing that may come up in conversation is how difficult it can be to engage with public services in Lancashire. There’s no denying we have a complex public-sector landscape across what is a large geographic area.” She suggested that the county council was becoming more business-like: “You may have noticed the Lancashire County Pension Fund... nearly bought the government's stake in Eurostar. We were in fact a close second to the successful bid.

The security of our investments – those of the council and the pension fund – is our first priority in this respect, but it's also important to us to make high-quality locally based investments, which is something we will continue to progress.” 

Cumbria

Universities minister Greg Clarke and the chair of Cumbria’s Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) have signed a 6-year Growth Deal. The LEP estimates that up to 3000 new jobs could be created, 3000 new homes built and £60m public and private investment generated in the County. Growth Deals are a £12bn long-term programme of support to England’s 39 LEPs, launched by the Coalition in July 2014. Officially, they’re aimed at revitalising local economies from the bottom up, and sharing the benefits of the recovery around the country. The government’s website hails the deals as a “revolutionary” way of “unlocking growth”, helping “councils, businesses, colleges and universities will help to train young people, create thousands of new jobs, build thousands of new homes and start hundreds of infrastructure project, including transport improvements and superfast broadband networks.”

The press release announcing the expansion of the deals in January 2015 was jubilant: “For the first time ever, infrastructure, housing and other funding has been brought together in a single pot, and put directly into the hands of local authorities and businesses to invest with their knowledge of what is needed in their area to maximise their potential economic growth.” 

If only this were so. Those of us with longer memories – and the occasional capacity for critical reflection - can point to City Challenge and the Single Regeneration Budget, introduced by Michael Heseltine during the Major administration, and continued under Labour in 1997. These had similar economic objectives, and were also based on competitive bidding by local partnerships around local solutions. They also brought several older funds into a single pot (the overall sum of which, incidentally, was also reduced). But they created a landscape of winners and losers at every level, coupled with a performance culture, where the key indicators were set by central government, not local communities. There was no real incentive for sharing best practice with other areas.  And despite the ballyhoo accompanying their launch, there’s little evidence that they brought long-term changes that reduced the gap between the haves and have-nots. 

The North East

Last year, the government approved a combined authority for County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland. The area did not, however, gain a devolution package in the March 2015 Budget. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has, nevertheless, promised greater powers for the North East “soon”. Speaking just before Parliament was dissolved, he said: “I anticipate that [Newcastle] will be the beneficiary of more devolution in the not-too-distant future.” But this is unlikely to happen until sometime after the election, and its precise nature will depend on the new government’s priorities.

Despite this uncertainty, the Combined Authority held a series of open meetings at the beginning of April to discuss its plans for the sort of powers, policies and funding devolution should involve. It also invited the public to engage in these consultations through an online survey. Simon Henig, who chairs this body, welcomes the possibility of new powers in principle. But he told the Guardian of his underlying scepticism: “I would have to ask why talk of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and the developments that have happened – as welcome as they are – have all taken place in the last year of a five-year government. Whatever government comes, let’s hope that agenda is still with us.” 

Yorkshire

Although the Chancellor gave West Yorkshire a mention in his Budget speech, the ‘freedoms’ granted over transport, skills, housing and small business support fell far short of those for Manchester. There was, for example, no funding for strategic job creation. And while its cross-Pennine neighbour may keep 100% of its additional business rate growth, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority is only entitled to 50%. Peter Box, who chairs the Authority, said: “The deal is disappointing and doesn’t match the scale of our ambition. It undermines the government’s claim to want a strong Northern powerhouse. If we are to turn that into a reality we need real devolution, including fiscal devolution.” Keith Wakefield, the leader of Leeds City Council, has described the offer as “timid”. Nick Clegg has condemned these responses as being “churlish and sour”. 

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, David Cameron denied any snub to the area: “Every part of the country is different in terms of when you are bringing local authorities together, and I don’t think that devolution has to be identical in different parts of the country. We want an arrangement between Whitehall and Westminster on one hand and the great northern cities on the other.” He continued: “The best thing for West Yorkshire now is for it to get on with delivering the city deal and if there is more that can be done then there are further conversations that can be had, this is not a sort of one off static process.” 

Maybe the reason for the ‘snub’ is that Manchester’s leaders have united behind the Chancellor’s metro mayor model, which their West Yorkshire counterparts have opposed. James Sproule, the Institute of Directors’ chief economist and policy director, has weighed into the situation, saying the government had a clear preference which Yorkshire had to accept: “If you have a mayor, the feeling in Whitehall is, that there is somebody who is ultimately accountable, somebody whom they can speak to. If they see a very diffuse government, with nobody willing to take responsibility or responsibility divided up in so many different ways, then it’s more difficult to devolve.” 

This all goes to show that to the centralisers, whether in Whitehall or certain London-based think-tanks, devolution’s more about streamlining the terms and conditions of local subservience than real independence and the right to dissent. 

Ed Balls, however, has encouraged West Yorkshire leaders to “stick to their guns” and reject the Coalition’s deal. He unveiled a “£30 bn devolution offer” to end what he described as “a situation in which major spending decisions are taken by Michael Heseltine or a Whitehall official” rather than those who know what is happening in Leeds or other cities. Balls would not compel councils to introduce new bureaucracies around elected mayors, and would allow them all to retain 100% of additional business rate growth. 

The East Midlands

The talk of a Northern Powerhouse has generated a sense of urgency in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, where councils have been working to cement combined authority agreements. Although not all of Derbyshire’s councils were initially happy, Conservative-run Erewash holding out on housing and planning issues, all are now in agreement, making Derbyshire the first two-tier authority to have reached this stage. The combined authority, which will be fully in place in 2017, will be run by a board of council leaders, not an elected Mayor. 

Derbyshire leader Ann Western said: “It is important to stress that this is not about reorganisation of local councils, nor is it about us asking for additional funding. It is about making sure that the money raised locally is used and invested based on local rather than national priorities. We will work collaboratively to ensure that we have the powers that will give the local area real growth with real jobs and real prosperity." 

Nottinghamshire’s leaders have also been talking with each other and central government about a similar arrangement. But they also recognise the need to broker a cross-boundary agreement with Derbyshire, Leicestershire and West Midlands authorities, to help the area compete effectively with the likes of Manchester and West Yorkshire. Nottingham City Council leader Jon Collins said: "There is a danger is that if we are not making our voice loud enough, the Midlands loses out." 

Eric Pickles, asked whether it would be advantageous for the councils in Nottinghamshire to merge, agreed that there was a “more efficient way” of doing things. But he felt that the best approach was for councils to work better together: "What we are really saying to the politicians here is ‘we don't just want to see you in your best suits’, we want you to be beyond ambitious and say we will do it better and produce a better skilled workforce than the government can do. And if we can put that together, that would be a great deal and this is a good start.” 

The West Midlands

Lord Heseltine, who holds no ministerial office yet seems to have a designated role, has pledged that major powers and funding will be devolved to the West Midlands: “There will be a negotiation. Everyone knows what Manchester has got but they also know what Manchester has done to get it. It is up to the leaders of the West Midlands to design their project and proposal in a way that central government can accept.”

A major impediment lies in the damning conclusions of the Kerslake Report into the running of Birmingham City Council. As LocalismWatch has reported, Eric Pickles has placed the council under probation: if matters don’t improve, the options include appointing a commission to govern the city instead of the council and breaking the area up into two or three separate authorities. Kerslake had noted that the council doesn’t work well with communities or outside organisations. Earlier this year, budgets from the city’s ten district committees were withdrawn, as local councillors complained that they had no influence over spending on contracts on local facilities, which were set by the council’s leadership.

In March, Council leader Sir Albert Bore held a consultation on how its future services should be run. This included a question on whether powers should be devolved to a new Sutton Coldfield Town Council. With a population of around 1.1 million, Birmingham is by far the largest local authority in the UK. Although the city council is campaigning for devolved powers from Whitehall, it has no constituted representative bodies at a town or neighbourhood level. 

Not surprisingly, many West Midlands councils don’t want to be part of a deal headed up by Birmingham. Coventry and Solihull are still refusing to join a combined authority: indeed, the top priority of a ‘Coventry manifesto’ is maintaining its separate identity. The four Black Country councils – Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley and Sandwell – although committed to devolution for the conurbation, have publicly rejected both the elected mayor model and calling the area ‘Greater Birmingham. Although it lies outside the traditional West Midlands metropolitan area, Worcestershire has made it known that it doesn’t want to be ‘swallowed up’ by Birmingham: as a two-tier council area, it might well seek combined authority status for itself.

The South West

Nick Clegg’s been getting about, and for good reason. LibDem seats, most of them under threat, tend to be located in the country’s outermost extremities: Cornwall’s an example. Clegg chose the feast of the little-known St. Piran, the county’s patron saint, to call for a referendum on whether Cornwall should have an assembly with similar powers to Wales. The LibDems stressed, however, that they weren’t seeking to create a new layer of bureaucracy, merely to upgrade the status of Cornwall’s unitary council. They wouldn’t confirm if the proposal would be non-negotiable in any future coalition agreement. Cllr Loveday Jenkin of the Cornish nationalist Mebyon Kernow observed: “There must be an election on – the LibDems are talking about a Cornish Assembly. It is an abject shame they have done nothing about meaningful devolution to Cornwall whilst in government over the last five years.” 

Cornwall Council has launched its own campaign for greater powers. These include more comprehensive control over funding, such as not having to hold a referendum on council tax increases, as required under the Localism Act. Its leader, John Pollard, said: “Our ambition is to achieve ‘double devolution’ so that the Council’s partners benefit from the transfer of powers from London to Cornwall. We recognise that there are those with ambitions for different forms of governance and our ‘case’ will lay the foundations for later developments.”

Not everyone shares Pollard’s views. Fiona Ferguson, who leads Cornwall’s opposition Tory group fears that the move would lead to unacceptable tax rises. And ‘The Skipper’, writing in the Falmouth Packet, comments: “Writing lots of buzz words in a flashy document about how we will all have jobs, homes and jam tomorrow is not the same thing as being competent enough to actually make this happen.  The same authority that made the most vulnerable pay council tax, leading to a huge rise in arrears, . . . bailiff visits and a vast ocean of suffering, while conveniently forgetting that the very richest may shoulder the burden, now want the power to hike it . . . to God-only-knows per cent, but do not want to ask us, the people of Cornwall, whether that is a power we want them to have.” 

Another person accused of a dubious commitment to local democracy is Bristol’s elected mayor George Ferguson. At a recent council meeting, he was called a “self-aggrandising dictator” and faced calls for his resignation over implementing residents’ parking zones (RPZs). Local businessman Mark Moran claimed that the mayor and council officers were “out of control” and that the scheme faced “monumental opposition”. He said: “I'm not against RPZs. This is about the whole city and not just one area. The consultation was a sham and the implementation is a joke.”

Labour Cllr Hibaq Jama said that some businesses in her ward had lost up to £130,000 in takings due to the scheme. Conservative and LibDem councillors, while not opposed in principle to RPZs, criticised the way in which they had been implemented. Supporting the RPZs, local resident June Burrough said: “I think [they] are a brilliant thing for the Green Capital because it reduces traffic and makes the air cleaner. I think it is a shocking waste of time and energy to repeal it." Mayor Ferguson said: “What amazes me is that Bristol is one of the last serious cities in the country to roll out RPZs but we are acting like we are the first.”

On a different level, Bristol’s mayor has met his Welsh counterparts in Cardiff and Newport about a possible ‘Great Western Cities’ partnership. This is based on the notion that, with a total economic output of £58 bn, this exceeds any other UK conurbation outside London. However, there is no likelihood that the body would have powers akin to those of Manchester: apart from the constitutional issues, Cardiff and Newport are pursuing their own plans for a Cardiff Capital Region. It just illustrates the point that, whatever the outcome of number-crunching exercises, real localism needs to be about giving more powers to more people and not just individual council leaders. 

London and the South East

The leaders of Havering, Barking and Dagenham, Enfield, Greenwich, Hackney, Redbridge, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest – with a total population of 2.5 million – have published a Prospectus, arguing for devolved powers from central government and the Greater London Assembly. This would include pooled budgets for adult skills and commissioning employment services. Together, the boroughs would remove borrowing restrictions, allowing them to build more homes. Individually, they could intervene in ‘failing’ schools, and have more power over incentives and penalties for business to tackle rising numbers of takeaways and sales of cheap alcohol.

Essex County Council’s leader David Finch has joined his colleagues in calling on George Osborne to give his area more powers: “The government's acknowledgement that the current system needs to change is an encouraging step in the right direction. We will definitely be looking to take advantage of the Chancellor's open door offer to discuss the possibility of Essex receiving the same deal as Cambridge and Manchester in keeping 100% of the additional growth.”

Meanwhile, across the Estuary, the newly-formed United Thanet Party (iPUT) is campaigning for the district to become a unitary authority, separate from Kent. Its leader Grahame Birchall told the local newspaper: “I believe that all town councils should have powers of scrutiny over local Cabinet decisions affecting their own community, and that all chambers of commerce, parish councils and leading trades unions should be given statutory rights of consultation.” iPUT, however, have a bit of competition on their hands. Thanet also happens to be a hotbed of UKIP activity, with Nigel Farage seeking to be one of the area’s new MPs. 

Scotland

Following last autumn’s Smith Report, there’s been a flurry of activity around city deals north of the border. Glasgow is seeking to secure the largest such initiative in the UK, where £500 m in grant funding and £130 m in council borrowing are projected to draw in a further £3.3 bn in private sector investment. Edinburgh and South East Scotland are progressing plans for a £1 bn infrastructure fund to ‘leverage’ an additional £3.2 bn private money. Not to be outdone, Aberdeen City Region aims to release around £2.9billion of funding for infrastructure in the area over the next 20 years, over and above the £1.4 bn already projected for the coming 10 years. Councils in Tayside and Fife, more modestly, have come together to seek a £400 m ‘treasure chest’. 

Bizarrely, Highland Council is also in negotiations about its own city deal. But when one of the area’s MPs just happens to be the outgoing Treasury Secretary and national pursebearer Danny Alexander, it seems that we’re all city-dwellers now. And again, evidence of grassroots engagement in these matters, after the IndyRef had raised so many expectations on both sides of the argument, has been almost non-existent.

Wales

As alluded to earlier, Cardiff City Region representatives are negotiating a city deal that could be worth up to £1 bn over the next 10-15 years. This would support existing plans for an upgraded integrated transport system across the area. The Chancellor announced the proposals in his 2015 Budget speech. In his blog, Cardiff City Council leader Phil Bale recognised that while there was “much work still to do”, he hoped that a formal proposal would be submitted to government before the end of the year.

Northern Ireland

The changes to the province’s local democratic structures that came into effect on 1 April are more extensive than anything seen elsewhere in Great Britain this century. Its last equivalent reforms happened in 1973, so long ago that even LocalismWatch’s aged editor was too young to vote. Due to well-documented gerrymandering and nepotism, plus manipulating housing lists and planning decisions, the 26 local authorities created 42 years ago were only given limited powers, such as street cleaning and registering births, deaths and marriages. Even then, newsworthy mayhem regularly erupted among elected members and other attendees in the council chambers. As one veteran Belfast politician put it: “There was a joke doing the rounds: ‘I went to a fight last night, and halfway through, a council meeting broke out.’” 

Most people hope that the 11 ‘super councils’ that have been formed, a full 16 years after the Belfast Agreement that officially ended the Troubles, will mark a new phase in civic democracy, public engagement, and indeed, real localism. For one thing, the authorities are responsible for planning, something that for decades had been remotely controlled by the Secretary of State through Civil Service departments. Northern Ireland’s chief planning officer says she’s satisfied that the councils have ‘adequate’ impartiality standards. But the province’s Ombudsman believes the changes will ‘make corruption easier’. 

We didn’t have to wait long to find out. A firm operating a factory in Coalisland that has flouted planning laws for the past decade has just received approval from the new Mid Ulster Council for a new plant - seven times larger than the original. Since 2006 the company has run two industrial sheds for paint-spraying without planning permission in a special nature conservation area. Despite court fines totalling £21,000, the unauthorised development is still there.

In 2013 the former Planning Service recommended that the application should be rejected. However, an officer working for the new council recommended its approval. His report admits the proposal “does not accord with the development plan or regional policy” and would likely be refused by the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC). Friends of the Earth NI director James Orr said the case demonstrated his “worst fears” over the changes to the planning system. “What is striking is that the council has approved this application when it knows it was against planning policies. To act in ignorance is one thing - to deliberately act against your own policies at such a high cost to the local community and local amenity is a disgrace. This decision validates unlawful activity.” 

So where are we at?

How then does devolution, as presented by our political elite, stack up? Zach Wilcox of the Centre for Cities offers some interesting perspectives. As he puts it: “While people like the idea of localism, the detail of devolution quickly starts to sound like a political science lecture rather than something people can relate to.” The more events that are held expounding devolution, the more people get put off. Its’ complicated, it isn’t tangible or exciting and it’s also new and uncertain. But it’s also about democracy, and that means accountability and engaging people properly. So there’s a real task in showing how new forms of governance can bring more meaningful outcomes at a grassroots level, not just rhetoric and abstract processes.

But to make this work, it’s important that people across the country get the chance to tell their stories - good and bad - about how local democracy’s working, to challenge the current system, and set out ideas for something better - in their own words and on their own terms.  That, in essence, is what LocalismWatch is all about: we want to see devolution that’s real, that brings good outcomes for people and places across the UK, not just a select few. 

Unless the tightrope walkers and clowns in the election circus are ready to accept all of that, chances are that they’ll revert to type once new administrations are formed and the circus moves on. The grassroots will then be left dumped on, as before, with a layer of discarded sawdust.

This article is part of the LocalismWatch project.

Sideboxes Related stories:  A small glimpse of real local democracy Localism: a case of old friends re-united? The Big Society - the passing of Cameron's dream
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What’s Happening with Devolution?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. April 2015 - 23:11

What genuine changes have been secured for local democracy across the UK in recent months? Is devolution creating powerhouses or poor houses?


Core Cities UK meet with William Hague MP Chair of the Cabinet Committee for Devolved Powers. Image: Flickr/ BCC News Room

Following George Osborne’s announcement of a devolution package last November, Sir Richard Leese, Manchester City Council leader, is un-quietly confident of becoming the conurbation’s first Elected Mayor, in the vote scheduled for 2017. In the meantime, two local Labour stalwarts have made themselves available to occupy that role on an interim basis. Tony Lloyd, ex-MP and Manchester’s Police and Crime Commissioner, and Wigan Council Leader Peter Smith both put their names forward before nominations closed. The winner will be chosen, not by the general public, but a select ‘electoral college’ of Greater Manchester’s 10 council leaders. 

What may emerge as the cornerstone – or Achilles Heel – of Manchester’s future governance is that, since the start of April, the area has had control over its combined health and social care budget, worth an estimated £6bn. Elsewhere in England, social care is handled by local authorities, while clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) deal with hospitals, community health and mental health issues, and NHS England covers primary and specialised care services. A new Greater Manchester Strategic Health and Social Care Partnership Board will take charge of all this, supported by a joint commissioning board drawn from the 10 local authorities, CCGs and NHS England. The aim is to have the new arrangements in place from April 2016. 

Many of the advantages and disadvantages are obvious. On the one hand, strategic health decisions will be made by local representatives and more closely reflect local needs. The long hoped-for integration of health and social care is vital, too, given the area’s aging population pyramid, and the potential for better patient outcomes through joined-up, more cost-effective services. Equally, however, there are concerns about accountability. Who will carry the can, particularly if the system runs out of cash? Will decisions be made at a local CCG level, or will the Partnership Board be another of the bureaucratic quangos that the Coalition sought to consign to its bonfire? And how well will the Board’s medical and political members work together? 

But as Richard Humphries of the King’s Fund think tank argues, Greater Manchester has a relatively good track record of partnership relationships, something that is not always seen elsewhere. By and large, the proposals have been welcomed, for example by the leader of Oldham Council, Jim McMahon, and the Labour Party nationally. Ironically, its health spokesman Andy Burnham, a Manchester MP, is somewhat less effusive, highlighting the potential for: “a Swiss cheese NHS where some bits of the system are operating to different rules or have different powers and freedoms." 

Another element of Greater Manchester’s devolution is that since the start of the 2015-16 tax year, councils will be able to retain 100% of additional business rate growth. This pilot scheme, in which similar powers have been given to Cheshire, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, was unveiled in George Osborne’s pre-election Budget. The Chancellor argued that while this was fully in line with his vision of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, the benefits of a national recovery had to be spread wider.

The announcement coincided with the launch of a comprehensive review by Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander into business rates across England. Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the chartered public finance accounting body CIPFA, welcomed the review, but expressed concern that the 100% retention rate was being confined to “a few select local authorities”, and should instead have been “done in a fair way that serves the interest of business, communities and local government. His comments were echoed by David Sparks, who chairs the Local Government Association. He felt that; “All parts of the country should be able to reap the benefits of having a thriving local economy . . . in such a way which ensures areas with fewer businesses do not lose out.” 

Merseyside

Things, however, are not quite as bright elsewhere in the North West. The region’s only current elected mayor, Liverpool’s Joe Anderson, is openly jealous about the good relations between Greater Manchester authorities. During an open discussion with Manchester’s Chief Executive Howard Bernstein at the MIPIM international property convention in Cannes in March, Anderson accused other Merseyside council leaders of “lacking vision”. 

LocalismWatch has previously commented on the hostilities between Anderson and Wirral council leader Phil Davies, who was chosen by the area’s other council leaders to head Merseyside’s “super cabinet” in preference to him. Earlier this year, Anderson wrote to the Liverpool Echo accusing his neighbours of “bringing the area into disrepute” in the row over a potential metro-mayor. He alleged that the other council leaders had reneged over having talks “with no preconditions” with the government to grant Merseyside more powers. But Davies hit back, saying: “Mayor Anderson is wrong to question the integrity of certain councils and council leaders for taking the view that we should ask the public for their agreement via a referendum before adopting the metro mayor model.” 

Lancashire

Although Lancashire’s 15 council leaders announced in 2014 that they would be working towards a combined authority, the rate of progress has been criticised. However, the County’s chief executive, Jo Turton feels that enough work has taken place for detailed discussions to start this summer. Speaking at a local business dinner, she argued that “delivering economic growth in every corner of the county” and “partnership” were strategic priorities. She said that the Preston, South Ribble and Lancashire City Deal showed “how the public and private sectors can align their objectives to deliver economic growth, create jobs and support sustainable communities."

But Turton also acknowledged: “One thing that may come up in conversation is how difficult it can be to engage with public services in Lancashire. There’s no denying we have a complex public-sector landscape across what is a large geographic area.” She suggested that the county council was becoming more business-like: “You may have noticed the Lancashire County Pension Fund... nearly bought the government's stake in Eurostar. We were in fact a close second to the successful bid.

The security of our investments – those of the council and the pension fund – is our first priority in this respect, but it's also important to us to make high-quality locally based investments, which is something we will continue to progress.” 

Cumbria

Universities minister Greg Clarke and the chair of Cumbria’s Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) have signed a 6-year Growth Deal. The LEP estimates that up to 3000 new jobs could be created, 3000 new homes built and £60m public and private investment generated in the County. Growth Deals are a £12bn long-term programme of support to England’s 39 LEPs, launched by the Coalition in July 2014. Officially, they’re aimed at revitalising local economies from the bottom up, and sharing the benefits of the recovery around the country. The government’s website hails the deals as a “revolutionary” way of “unlocking growth”, helping “councils, businesses, colleges and universities will help to train young people, create thousands of new jobs, build thousands of new homes and start hundreds of infrastructure project, including transport improvements and superfast broadband networks.”

The press release announcing the expansion of the deals in January 2015 was jubilant: “For the first time ever, infrastructure, housing and other funding has been brought together in a single pot, and put directly into the hands of local authorities and businesses to invest with their knowledge of what is needed in their area to maximise their potential economic growth.” 

If only this were so. Those of us with longer memories – and the occasional capacity for critical reflection - can point to City Challenge and the Single Regeneration Budget, introduced by Michael Heseltine during the Major administration, and continued under Labour in 1997. These had similar economic objectives, and were also based on competitive bidding by local partnerships around local solutions. They also brought several older funds into a single pot (the overall sum of which, incidentally, was also reduced). But they created a landscape of winners and losers at every level, coupled with a performance culture, where the key indicators were set by central government, not local communities. There was no real incentive for sharing best practice with other areas.  And despite the ballyhoo accompanying their launch, there’s little evidence that they brought long-term changes that reduced the gap between the haves and have-nots. 

The North East

Last year, the government approved a combined authority for County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland. The area did not, however, gain a devolution package in the March 2015 Budget. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has, nevertheless, promised greater powers for the North East “soon”. Speaking just before Parliament was dissolved, he said: “I anticipate that [Newcastle] will be the beneficiary of more devolution in the not-too-distant future.” But this is unlikely to happen until sometime after the election, and its precise nature will depend on the new government’s priorities.

Despite this uncertainty, the Combined Authority held a series of open meetings at the beginning of April to discuss its plans for the sort of powers, policies and funding devolution should involve. It also invited the public to engage in these consultations through an online survey. Simon Henig, who chairs this body, welcomes the possibility of new powers in principle. But he told the Guardian of his underlying scepticism: “I would have to ask why talk of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and the developments that have happened – as welcome as they are – have all taken place in the last year of a five-year government. Whatever government comes, let’s hope that agenda is still with us.” 

Yorkshire

Although the Chancellor gave West Yorkshire a mention in his Budget speech, the ‘freedoms’ granted over transport, skills, housing and small business support fell far short of those for Manchester. There was, for example, no funding for strategic job creation. And while its cross-Pennine neighbour may keep 100% of its additional business rate growth, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority is only entitled to 50%. Peter Box, who chairs the Authority, said: “The deal is disappointing and doesn’t match the scale of our ambition. It undermines the government’s claim to want a strong Northern powerhouse. If we are to turn that into a reality we need real devolution, including fiscal devolution.” Keith Wakefield, the leader of Leeds City Council, has described the offer as “timid”. Nick Clegg has condemned these responses as being “churlish and sour”. 

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, David Cameron denied any snub to the area: “Every part of the country is different in terms of when you are bringing local authorities together, and I don’t think that devolution has to be identical in different parts of the country. We want an arrangement between Whitehall and Westminster on one hand and the great northern cities on the other.” He continued: “The best thing for West Yorkshire now is for it to get on with delivering the city deal and if there is more that can be done then there are further conversations that can be had, this is not a sort of one off static process.” 

Maybe the reason for the ‘snub’ is that Manchester’s leaders have united behind the Chancellor’s metro mayor model, which their West Yorkshire counterparts have opposed. James Sproule, the Institute of Directors’ chief economist and policy director, has weighed into the situation, saying the government had a clear preference which Yorkshire had to accept: “If you have a mayor, the feeling in Whitehall is, that there is somebody who is ultimately accountable, somebody whom they can speak to. If they see a very diffuse government, with nobody willing to take responsibility or responsibility divided up in so many different ways, then it’s more difficult to devolve.” 

This all goes to show that to the centralisers, whether in Whitehall or certain London-based think-tanks, devolution’s more about streamlining the terms and conditions of local subservience than real independence and the right to dissent. 

Ed Balls, however, has encouraged West Yorkshire leaders to “stick to their guns” and reject the Coalition’s deal. He unveiled a “£30 bn devolution offer” to end what he described as “a situation in which major spending decisions are taken by Michael Heseltine or a Whitehall official” rather than those who know what is happening in Leeds or other cities. Balls would not compel councils to introduce new bureaucracies around elected mayors, and would allow them all to retain 100% of additional business rate growth. 

The East Midlands

The talk of a Northern Powerhouse has generated a sense of urgency in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, where councils have been working to cement combined authority agreements. Although not all of Derbyshire’s councils were initially happy, Conservative-run Erewash holding out on housing and planning issues, all are now in agreement, making Derbyshire the first two-tier authority to have reached this stage. The combined authority, which will be fully in place in 2017, will be run by a board of council leaders, not an elected Mayor. 

Derbyshire leader Ann Western said: “It is important to stress that this is not about reorganisation of local councils, nor is it about us asking for additional funding. It is about making sure that the money raised locally is used and invested based on local rather than national priorities. We will work collaboratively to ensure that we have the powers that will give the local area real growth with real jobs and real prosperity." 

Nottinghamshire’s leaders have also been talking with each other and central government about a similar arrangement. But they also recognise the need to broker a cross-boundary agreement with Derbyshire, Leicestershire and West Midlands authorities, to help the area compete effectively with the likes of Manchester and West Yorkshire. Nottingham City Council leader Jon Collins said: "There is a danger is that if we are not making our voice loud enough, the Midlands loses out." 

Eric Pickles, asked whether it would be advantageous for the councils in Nottinghamshire to merge, agreed that there was a “more efficient way” of doing things. But he felt that the best approach was for councils to work better together: "What we are really saying to the politicians here is ‘we don't just want to see you in your best suits’, we want you to be beyond ambitious and say we will do it better and produce a better skilled workforce than the government can do. And if we can put that together, that would be a great deal and this is a good start.” 

The West Midlands

Lord Heseltine, who holds no ministerial office yet seems to have a designated role, has pledged that major powers and funding will be devolved to the West Midlands: “There will be a negotiation. Everyone knows what Manchester has got but they also know what Manchester has done to get it. It is up to the leaders of the West Midlands to design their project and proposal in a way that central government can accept.”

A major impediment lies in the damning conclusions of the Kerslake Report into the running of Birmingham City Council. As LocalismWatch has reported, Eric Pickles has placed the council under probation: if matters don’t improve, the options include appointing a commission to govern the city instead of the council and breaking the area up into two or three separate authorities. Kerslake had noted that the council doesn’t work well with communities or outside organisations. Earlier this year, budgets from the city’s ten district committees were withdrawn, as local councillors complained that they had no influence over spending on contracts on local facilities, which were set by the council’s leadership.

In March, Council leader Sir Albert Bore held a consultation on how its future services should be run. This included a question on whether powers should be devolved to a new Sutton Coldfield Town Council. With a population of around 1.1 million, Birmingham is by far the largest local authority in the UK. Although the city council is campaigning for devolved powers from Whitehall, it has no constituted representative bodies at a town or neighbourhood level. 

Not surprisingly, many West Midlands councils don’t want to be part of a deal headed up by Birmingham. Coventry and Solihull are still refusing to join a combined authority: indeed, the top priority of a ‘Coventry manifesto’ is maintaining its separate identity. The four Black Country councils – Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley and Sandwell – although committed to devolution for the conurbation, have publicly rejected both the elected mayor model and calling the area ‘Greater Birmingham. Although it lies outside the traditional West Midlands metropolitan area, Worcestershire has made it known that it doesn’t want to be ‘swallowed up’ by Birmingham: as a two-tier council area, it might well seek combined authority status for itself.

The South West

Nick Clegg’s been getting about, and for good reason. LibDem seats, most of them under threat, tend to be located in the country’s outermost extremities: Cornwall’s an example. Clegg chose the feast of the little-known St. Piran, the county’s patron saint, to call for a referendum on whether Cornwall should have an assembly with similar powers to Wales. The LibDems stressed, however, that they weren’t seeking to create a new layer of bureaucracy, merely to upgrade the status of Cornwall’s unitary council. They wouldn’t confirm if the proposal would be non-negotiable in any future coalition agreement. Cllr Loveday Jenkin of the Cornish nationalist Mebyon Kernow observed: “There must be an election on – the LibDems are talking about a Cornish Assembly. It is an abject shame they have done nothing about meaningful devolution to Cornwall whilst in government over the last five years.” 

Cornwall Council has launched its own campaign for greater powers. These include more comprehensive control over funding, such as not having to hold a referendum on council tax increases, as required under the Localism Act. Its leader, John Pollard, said: “Our ambition is to achieve ‘double devolution’ so that the Council’s partners benefit from the transfer of powers from London to Cornwall. We recognise that there are those with ambitions for different forms of governance and our ‘case’ will lay the foundations for later developments.”

Not everyone shares Pollard’s views. Fiona Ferguson, who leads Cornwall’s opposition Tory group fears that the move would lead to unacceptable tax rises. And ‘The Skipper’, writing in the Falmouth Packet, comments: “Writing lots of buzz words in a flashy document about how we will all have jobs, homes and jam tomorrow is not the same thing as being competent enough to actually make this happen.  The same authority that made the most vulnerable pay council tax, leading to a huge rise in arrears, . . . bailiff visits and a vast ocean of suffering, while conveniently forgetting that the very richest may shoulder the burden, now want the power to hike it . . . to God-only-knows per cent, but do not want to ask us, the people of Cornwall, whether that is a power we want them to have.” 

Another person accused of a dubious commitment to local democracy is Bristol’s elected mayor George Ferguson. At a recent council meeting, he was called a “self-aggrandising dictator” and faced calls for his resignation over implementing residents’ parking zones (RPZs). Local businessman Mark Moran claimed that the mayor and council officers were “out of control” and that the scheme faced “monumental opposition”. He said: “I'm not against RPZs. This is about the whole city and not just one area. The consultation was a sham and the implementation is a joke.”

Labour Cllr Hibaq Jama said that some businesses in her ward had lost up to £130,000 in takings due to the scheme. Conservative and LibDem councillors, while not opposed in principle to RPZs, criticised the way in which they had been implemented. Supporting the RPZs, local resident June Burrough said: “I think [they] are a brilliant thing for the Green Capital because it reduces traffic and makes the air cleaner. I think it is a shocking waste of time and energy to repeal it." Mayor Ferguson said: “What amazes me is that Bristol is one of the last serious cities in the country to roll out RPZs but we are acting like we are the first.”

On a different level, Bristol’s mayor has met his Welsh counterparts in Cardiff and Newport about a possible ‘Great Western Cities’ partnership. This is based on the notion that, with a total economic output of £58 bn, this exceeds any other UK conurbation outside London. However, there is no likelihood that the body would have powers akin to those of Manchester: apart from the constitutional issues, Cardiff and Newport are pursuing their own plans for a Cardiff Capital Region. It just illustrates the point that, whatever the outcome of number-crunching exercises, real localism needs to be about giving more powers to more people and not just individual council leaders. 

London and the South East

The leaders of Havering, Barking and Dagenham, Enfield, Greenwich, Hackney, Redbridge, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest – with a total population of 2.5 million – have published a Prospectus, arguing for devolved powers from central government and the Greater London Assembly. This would include pooled budgets for adult skills and commissioning employment services. Together, the boroughs would remove borrowing restrictions, allowing them to build more homes. Individually, they could intervene in ‘failing’ schools, and have more power over incentives and penalties for business to tackle rising numbers of takeaways and sales of cheap alcohol.

Essex County Council’s leader David Finch has joined his colleagues in calling on George Osborne to give his area more powers: “The government's acknowledgement that the current system needs to change is an encouraging step in the right direction. We will definitely be looking to take advantage of the Chancellor's open door offer to discuss the possibility of Essex receiving the same deal as Cambridge and Manchester in keeping 100% of the additional growth.”

Meanwhile, across the Estuary, the newly-formed United Thanet Party (iPUT) is campaigning for the district to become a unitary authority, separate from Kent. Its leader Grahame Birchall told the local newspaper: “I believe that all town councils should have powers of scrutiny over local Cabinet decisions affecting their own community, and that all chambers of commerce, parish councils and leading trades unions should be given statutory rights of consultation.” iPUT, however, have a bit of competition on their hands. Thanet also happens to be a hotbed of UKIP activity, with Nigel Farage seeking to be one of the area’s new MPs. 

Scotland

Following last autumn’s Smith Report, there’s been a flurry of activity around city deals north of the border. Glasgow is seeking to secure the largest such initiative in the UK, where £500 m in grant funding and £130 m in council borrowing are projected to draw in a further £3.3 bn in private sector investment. Edinburgh and South East Scotland are progressing plans for a £1 bn infrastructure fund to ‘leverage’ an additional £3.2 bn private money. Not to be outdone, Aberdeen City Region aims to release around £2.9billion of funding for infrastructure in the area over the next 20 years, over and above the £1.4 bn already projected for the coming 10 years. Councils in Tayside and Fife, more modestly, have come together to seek a £400 m ‘treasure chest’. 

Bizarrely, Highland Council is also in negotiations about its own city deal. But when one of the area’s MPs just happens to be the outgoing Treasury Secretary and national pursebearer Danny Alexander, it seems that we’re all city-dwellers now. And again, evidence of grassroots engagement in these matters, after the IndyRef had raised so many expectations on both sides of the argument, has been almost non-existent.

Wales

As alluded to earlier, Cardiff City Region representatives are negotiating a city deal that could be worth up to £1 bn over the next 10-15 years. This would support existing plans for an upgraded integrated transport system across the area. The Chancellor announced the proposals in his 2015 Budget speech. In his blog, Cardiff City Council leader Phil Bale recognised that while there was “much work still to do”, he hoped that a formal proposal would be submitted to government before the end of the year.

Northern Ireland

The changes to the province’s local democratic structures that came into effect on 1 April are more extensive than anything seen elsewhere in Great Britain this century. Its last equivalent reforms happened in 1973, so long ago that even LocalismWatch’s aged editor was too young to vote. Due to well-documented gerrymandering and nepotism, plus manipulating housing lists and planning decisions, the 26 local authorities created 42 years ago were only given limited powers, such as street cleaning and registering births, deaths and marriages. Even then, newsworthy mayhem regularly erupted among elected members and other attendees in the council chambers. As one veteran Belfast politician put it: “There was a joke doing the rounds: ‘I went to a fight last night, and halfway through, a council meeting broke out.’” 

Most people hope that the 11 ‘super councils’ that have been formed, a full 16 years after the Belfast Agreement that officially ended the Troubles, will mark a new phase in civic democracy, public engagement, and indeed, real localism. For one thing, the authorities are responsible for planning, something that for decades had been remotely controlled by the Secretary of State through Civil Service departments. Northern Ireland’s chief planning officer says she’s satisfied that the councils have ‘adequate’ impartiality standards. But the province’s Ombudsman believes the changes will ‘make corruption easier’. 

We didn’t have to wait long to find out. A firm operating a factory in Coalisland that has flouted planning laws for the past decade has just received approval from the new Mid Ulster Council for a new plant - seven times larger than the original. Since 2006 the company has run two industrial sheds for paint-spraying without planning permission in a special nature conservation area. Despite court fines totalling £21,000, the unauthorised development is still there.

In 2013 the former Planning Service recommended that the application should be rejected. However, an officer working for the new council recommended its approval. His report admits the proposal “does not accord with the development plan or regional policy” and would likely be refused by the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC). Friends of the Earth NI director James Orr said the case demonstrated his “worst fears” over the changes to the planning system. “What is striking is that the council has approved this application when it knows it was against planning policies. To act in ignorance is one thing - to deliberately act against your own policies at such a high cost to the local community and local amenity is a disgrace. This decision validates unlawful activity.” 

So where are we at?

How then does devolution, as presented by our political elite, stack up? Zach Wilcox of the Centre for Cities offers some interesting perspectives. As he puts it: “While people like the idea of localism, the detail of devolution quickly starts to sound like a political science lecture rather than something people can relate to.” The more events that are held expounding devolution, the more people get put off. Its’ complicated, it isn’t tangible or exciting and it’s also new and uncertain. But it’s also about democracy, and that means accountability and engaging people properly. So there’s a real task in showing how new forms of governance can bring more meaningful outcomes at a grassroots level, not just rhetoric and abstract processes.

But to make this work, it’s important that people across the country get the chance to tell their stories - good and bad - about how local democracy’s working, to challenge the current system, and set out ideas for something better - in their own words and on their own terms.  That, in essence, is what LocalismWatch is all about: we want to see devolution that’s real, that brings good outcomes for people and places across the UK, not just a select few. 

Unless the tightrope walkers and clowns in the election circus are ready to accept all of that, chances are that they’ll revert to type once new administrations are formed and the circus moves on. The grassroots will then be left dumped on, as before, with a layer of discarded sawdust.

This article is part of the LocalismWatch project.

Sideboxes Related stories:  A small glimpse of real local democracy Localism: a case of old friends re-united? The Big Society - the passing of Cameron's dream
Categories: les flux rss

Security is not just CCTV: valuing ourselves is security

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. April 2015 - 7:45

It feels as if the entire world has been given over to the most perverse notions of 'safety'  that are really about death and destruction, cruelty and conflict, grandiosity and greed. Marion Bowman reports from the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference in the Netherlands.

It was a classic image of protectiveness. The figure of a soldier stood, fatherly, silent, unyielding, over a seated woman, small, lovely, smiling. But it was not how it seemed. The soldier was a full-scale replica of one of China’s Terracotta Warriors, one of several being used as ornaments in a country house hotel in the Netherlands. The woman was Dicki Chhoyang, a Tibetan politician who was leading a discussion at the 2015 Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on human rights.

The image was poignant, for China has illegally and forcibly occupied Tibet for 65 years and the armour-clad warrior of an ancient Chinese dynasty, with his clenched fists ready to grasp weapons, loomed over Chhoyang reminding us that what is often passed off as protection in the relationship between women and men and between countries is really control.

As in gender relations, so in international affairs. ‘Security’ is everywhere in official circles yet increasingly it feels as if the entire world has been given over to the most perverse notions of safety, notions of ‘safety’ that are really about death and destruction, cruelty and conflict, grandiosity and greed. From 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (ostensibly to win a war against terror but which have merely spawned ISIS and more violence), to increased efforts by the EU to control borders in response to the Mediterranean migrant crisis, while hundreds of traumatised and terrified people die,  governments around the world keep proving incapable of understanding what real human security is made of.  

It’s a point not missed at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference underway in the Netherlands. The people in the room listening to Dicki Chhoyang and her panellists were there to explore how women who promote and defend human rights can be protected.

They started with hugging. Each person, and they were mostly women, was asked to hug the people next to them. I hugged Zaynab El Sawi, who recently had to leave Sudan because the women’s resource centre she helped run for 17 years was finally raided and closed last year by the government. ‘We had been training thousands of women and youths to be human rights activists,’ she said. ‘They said we were creating a generation that doesn’t match the ideology of the government. They couldn’t tolerate us anymore. They took everything, our bank account, our computers, our library.’ I shared another hug with Heli Bathija on my left, a Finnish doctor who represents the Global Fund for Women. Hope Chigudu, a founder of the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network and the first moderator for the day, chided everyone so that the conference could begin: ‘Once women start hugging they will never stop.’

This was not just conference group dynamics or New Age warm fuzzies. This was about women taking care of themselves and each other and keeping people alive. The theme of the conference this weekend is ‘Defending the Defenders! Building Global Support for Women Human Rights Defenders’. Chigudu’s first statement after everyone had sat down again and fallen silent was: ‘When we are being threatened, who will defend us? We have to defend ourselves.’

There was an unremitting focus on this reality. Research by the Swedish Kvinna Till Kvinna Foundation found that the women who face the most hatred, threats or violence are those working on violence against women, gender equality, gender stereotypes, LGBT rights, sexual violence, militarism, and corruption and organised crime. Fourteen percent of their survey’s respondents had survived murder attempts. Panellist Lisa VeneKlasen of Just Associates painted a picture of the problem around the world: ‘What we see now is patriarchy and capitalism on steroids.’  Sima Samar of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said: ‘The global war on terror and the emphasis on security has closed the space for activists to challenge power. When any woman confronts power, the closer they get, the more dangerous it is.’ While they spoke, a slide show silently rolled through on big screens either side of the platform, picturing women such as Ummaya Gabbara, women’s affairs adviser to the mayor of her town in Iraq , killed on 22 June 2014 defending it from ISIS; Nasseb Miloud Karfana, a television journalist in Libya killed for doing her job on 29 May 2014; and Farida Afindi, executive director of a human rights group in Pakistan, shot dead in cold blood on 7 July 2014.  

Despite obligations on governments that are members of the UN to keep women human rights defenders safe, the women believe their own networks are their own best hope. ‘Networks are a historical tool of feminists,’ said Marusia Lopez of IM Defensoras. ‘Security is not just CCTV! Valuing ourselves is security.’ Since 2010, 39 women human rights defenders have been killed in MesoAmerican countries, she said. Women there have built networks in four countries which have varied activities, from registering attacks to supporting the self-care of women. ‘Women can go to a safe place and have some rest,’ she said. ‘We should recognise our own need for health and wellbeing, so each network has a small team assisting on health and healing.’ Such shelters and safe houses are replicated elsewhere. A system of Bamboo Huts has been created in Manipur, India, where an armed conflict has raged, forgotten by the international community and denied by the Indian government, for decades. ‘People bang with stones on lamp posts to warn women that armed men are coming,’ said Binalakshmi Nepram of the Manipur Women Gun Survivor Network.

Yanar Mohammed, of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, said that setting up shelters itself is risky. When she was preparing to set up the first one in Baghdad, the campaign against it claimed it would encourage women to be promiscuous. Then in 2003, in an internet café, she received an email. In the subject line was ‘Killing Yanar Mohammed within days.’ ‘It was like an electric shock.  I was too scared to cross the road from the café to go back to the office,’ she said. ‘I just had to go home and hide.’ She now lives in secret locations in both Iraq and Canada. ‘But we kept going and now there are six shelters including one for Iraq’s LGBT. We have tens of thousands of supporters in Iraq and thousands internationally. Women are not weak. They do not need defending, they just need to be supported and acknowledged. The future will be ours, it’s just a matter of when.’

The weekend’s conference had opened with inspirational speeches by three of the six Nobel Peace laureates behind the Nobel Women’s Initiative. After Northern Ireland’s Mairead Maguire and Iran’s Shirin Ebadi came the US’s Jody Williams. Williams approached the podium haltingly. She said she was in pain from a bad back. She was weary. ‘I don’t have the fiery energy of Shirin or the global love of Mairead. I just want to thank you for coming,’ she said laconically. ‘This is a lovely place and that’s not an accident. We need to nurture ourselves so we can continue the struggle. We are in beautiful surroundings because we want you to have the space to breathe and enjoy yourselves, to take care of yourselves. You are here to learn from each other, the things that have worked and the things that haven’t but,’ she said,’ take time to look at the ducks on the pond and the leaves on the trees coming into life because when we forget the glory and beauty of the world we lose hope.’

Under the dead-eyed gaze of the Terracotta Warriors, guarding the power of their ruler even in death, Dicki Chhoyang later told how she had met Yanar Mohammed for the first time over breakfast and, making conference small talk, asked where she lived in Canada. ‘I can’t tell you that,’ said Mohammed, ‘because it’s where I go when I get death threats.’ And they just carried on drinking fresh orange juice and eating lovely food off fine china at a table spread with crisp, fresh table linen as the spring birds sang outside in the morning sunshine. 

Marion Bowman is reporting for oD 50.50 from the Nobel Women's Initiative conference: 'Defending the Defenders' , April 24-26. Read articles by participants and speakers framing and addressing the discussions. Read previous years' coverage.

 

 

 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Defending the Defenders: a daunting challenge Women human rights defenders: reigniting the embers Women human rights defenders: protecting each other A tribute to Joan Kagezi: the murder of a human rights defender Sabeen Mahmud: “I stand up for what I believe in, but I can’t fight guns” At the margins of visibility: recognising women human rights defenders "It starts with us": Breaking one of Canada's best kept secrets Awaiting justice: Indigenous resistance in the tar sands of Canada Women human rights defenders: activism's front-line Positive women human rights defenders Iranian women human rights defenders: challenges and opportunities
Categories: les flux rss

Security is not just CCTV: valuing ourselves is security

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. April 2015 - 7:45

It feels as if the entire world has been given over to the most perverse notions of 'safety'  that are really about death and destruction, cruelty and conflict, grandiosity and greed. Marion Bowman reports from the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference in the Netherlands.

It was a classic image of protectiveness. The figure of a soldier stood, fatherly, silent, unyielding, over a seated woman, small, lovely, smiling. But it was not how it seemed. The soldier was a full-scale replica of one of China’s Terracotta Warriors, one of several being used as ornaments in a country house hotel in the Netherlands. The woman was Dicki Chhoyang, a Tibetan politician who was leading a discussion at the 2015 Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on human rights.

The image was poignant, for China has illegally and forcibly occupied Tibet for 65 years and the armour-clad warrior of an ancient Chinese dynasty, with his clenched fists ready to grasp weapons, loomed over Chhoyang reminding us that what is often passed off as protection in the relationship between women and men and between countries is really control.

As in gender relations, so in international affairs. ‘Security’ is everywhere in official circles yet increasingly it feels as if the entire world has been given over to the most perverse notions of safety, notions of ‘safety’ that are really about death and destruction, cruelty and conflict, grandiosity and greed. From 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (ostensibly to win a war against terror but which have merely spawned ISIS and more violence), to increased efforts by the EU to control borders in response to the Mediterranean migrant crisis, while hundreds of traumatised and terrified people die,  governments around the world keep proving incapable of understanding what real human security is made of.  

It’s a point not missed at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference underway in the Netherlands. The people in the room listening to Dicki Chhoyang and her panellists were there to explore how women who promote and defend human rights can be protected.

They started with hugging. Each person, and they were mostly women, was asked to hug the people next to them. I hugged Zaynab El Sawi, who recently had to leave Sudan because the women’s resource centre she helped run for 17 years was finally raided and closed last year by the government. ‘We had been training thousands of women and youths to be human rights activists,’ she said. ‘They said we were creating a generation that doesn’t match the ideology of the government. They couldn’t tolerate us anymore. They took everything, our bank account, our computers, our library.’ I shared another hug with Heli Bathija on my left, a Finnish doctor who represents the Global Fund for Women. Hope Chigudu, a founder of the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network and the first moderator for the day, chided everyone so that the conference could begin: ‘Once women start hugging they will never stop.’

This was not just conference group dynamics or New Age warm fuzzies. This was about women taking care of themselves and each other and keeping people alive. The theme of the conference this weekend is ‘Defending the Defenders! Building Global Support for Women Human Rights Defenders’. Chigudu’s first statement after everyone had sat down again and fallen silent was: ‘When we are being threatened, who will defend us? We have to defend ourselves.’

There was an unremitting focus on this reality. Research by the Swedish Kvinna Till Kvinna Foundation found that the women who face the most hatred, threats or violence are those working on violence against women, gender equality, gender stereotypes, LGBT rights, sexual violence, militarism, and corruption and organised crime. Fourteen percent of their survey’s respondents had survived murder attempts. Panellist Lisa VeneKlasen of Just Associates painted a picture of the problem around the world: ‘What we see now is patriarchy and capitalism on steroids.’  Sima Samar of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said: ‘The global war on terror and the emphasis on security has closed the space for activists to challenge power. When any woman confronts power, the closer they get, the more dangerous it is.’ While they spoke, a slide show silently rolled through on big screens either side of the platform, picturing women such as Ummaya Gabbara, women’s affairs adviser to the mayor of her town in Iraq , killed on 22 June 2014 defending it from ISIS; Nasseb Miloud Karfana, a television journalist in Libya killed for doing her job on 29 May 2014; and Farida Afindi, executive director of a human rights group in Pakistan, shot dead in cold blood on 7 July 2014.  

Despite obligations on governments that are members of the UN to keep women human rights defenders safe, the women believe their own networks are their own best hope. ‘Networks are a historical tool of feminists,’ said Marusia Lopez of IM Defensoras. ‘Security is not just CCTV! Valuing ourselves is security.’ Since 2010, 39 women human rights defenders have been killed in MesoAmerican countries, she said. Women there have built networks in four countries which have varied activities, from registering attacks to supporting the self-care of women. ‘Women can go to a safe place and have some rest,’ she said. ‘We should recognise our own need for health and wellbeing, so each network has a small team assisting on health and healing.’ Such shelters and safe houses are replicated elsewhere. A system of Bamboo Huts has been created in Manipur, India, where an armed conflict has raged, forgotten by the international community and denied by the Indian government, for decades. ‘People bang with stones on lamp posts to warn women that armed men are coming,’ said Binalakshmi Nepram of the Manipur Women Gun Survivor Network.

Yanar Mohammed, of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, said that setting up shelters itself is risky. When she was preparing to set up the first one in Baghdad, the campaign against it claimed it would encourage women to be promiscuous. Then in 2003, in an internet café, she received an email. In the subject line was ‘Killing Yanar Mohammed within days.’ ‘It was like an electric shock.  I was too scared to cross the road from the café to go back to the office,’ she said. ‘I just had to go home and hide.’ She now lives in secret locations in both Iraq and Canada. ‘But we kept going and now there are six shelters including one for Iraq’s LGBT. We have tens of supporters in Iraq. And hundreds around the world. Women are not weak. They do not need defending, they just need to be supported and acknowledged. The future will be ours, it’s just a matter of when.’

The weekend’s conference had opened with inspirational speeches by three of the six Nobel Peace laureates behind the Nobel Women’s Initiative. After Northern Ireland’s Mairead Maguire and Iran’s Shirin Ebadi came the US’s Jody Williams. Williams approached the podium haltingly. She said she was in pain from a bad back. She was weary. ‘I don’t have the fiery energy of Shirin or the global love of Mairead. I just want to thank you for coming,’ she said laconically. ‘This is a lovely place and that’s not an accident. We need to nurture ourselves so we can continue the struggle. We are in beautiful surroundings because we want you to have the space to breathe and enjoy yourselves, to take care of yourselves. You are here to learn from each other, the things that have worked and the things that haven’t but,’ she said,’ take time to look at the ducks on the pond and the leaves on the trees coming into life because when we forget the glory and beauty of the world we lose hope.’

Under the dead-eyed gaze of the Terracotta Warriors, guarding the power of their ruler even in death, Dicki Chhoyang later told how she had met Yanar Mohammed for the first time over breakfast and, making conference small talk, asked where she lived in Canada. ‘I can’t tell you that,’ said Mohammed, ‘because it’s where I go when I get death threats.’ And they just carried on drinking fresh orange juice and eating lovely food off fine china at a table spread with crisp, fresh table linen as the spring birds sang outside in the morning sunshine. 

Marion Bowman is reporting for oD 50.50 from the Nobel Women's Initiative conference: 'Defending the Defenders' , April 24-26. Read articles by participants and speakers framing and addressing the discussions. Read previous years' coverage.

 

 

 

Categories: les flux rss

Iraq’s female citizens: prisoners of war

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. April 2015 - 7:33

Iraqi woman human rights defender Yanar Mohammed spoke to Jennifer Allsopp at the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference about grass-roots responses to the atrocities women are facing under ISIS.

On the second day of the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on building global support for women human rights defenders, the 100 participants delivered a sobering and urgent message: history is still repeating itself. Watching the military-industrial complex wreak havoc in the Middle East, reflected Shirin Ebadi, holder of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, is like ‘rewinding a movie’. Women human rights defenders from across the globe were in agreement: the incalculable suffering of the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have taught us, once and for all, that bombs lead to suffering, and never peace.

In her keynote speech, Shirin reflected on what a different world might have looked like if, in response to the atrocities of September 11th, the United States and its allies had built schools in Afghanistan in memory of the victims instead of retaliating with war and occupation. ‘You can’t fight an ideology by bombing it’, she told us, speaking of the heinous war crimes currently being committed by the Islamic State. ‘If a terrorist is taken out, his children will replace him. We must throw books not bombs’.

One participant who knows first-hand the horrors that come from forgetting history, and from erasing women from history in particular, is Yanar Mohammed, co-founder and Director of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. I spoke to hear about the situation in her country 12 years after I first marched for peace in London, and 12 years since the war on terror began.

Yanar leading a women's rally in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. Photo: Roj Women's Assoc.

Jennifer Allsopp: Yanar, what is the situation of women’s human rights in Iraq right now?

Yanar Mohammed: The new update of 2014-2015 is, of course, the attack of ISIS. But this is rooted in recent history. It is the direct result of all the politics that came into Iraq with the occupation. The US empowered the Shi’a Islamic political groups and marginalised a big part of the country who were recognised as Sunni people. It was only to be expected that the next step would be for the sectarian religious dynamics to surface, for one religious group to be fighting another religious group. The leading members of ISIS were either tortured in US military prisons or in the prisons of the Shi’a government which the Americans put in place. When you torture a person for long periods you might get a very passionate human rights defender but most probably you will get a beast whose only concern is to seek his revenge in the best way possible. And that’s what happened with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who was in Bucca prison, being tortured by the Americans and being prepared for his next role in life, head of ISIS. Before 2003, none of us knew which part of the country was Sunni and which part was Shi’a. This was something new to Iraq and we are reaping the results at this point. Women’s wellbeing has paid the price.

As well as the crisis of ISIS we’re dealing with other fallout from the last war, like the ongoing crisis of Iraqi orphans. There are 5 million Iraqi orphans of war, and tens of thousands of them have been trafficked in the last decade. Five million orphans growing into teenagers is a very big difficulty for any society. Young women growing into situations with no parents are usually material for exploitation in the brothels. Many do not have proper identification papers. Although the law is not against giving them papers, whenever they go to any governmental establishment and ask for them they are asked to bring their father or their brother, when they don’t have anybody. They reside in the worst houses in Iraq and they are exploited on a daily basis because they do not have access to citizenship. It’s been more than 10 years since this started. The exploited female teenager’s right to citizenship is a major, major issue.

JA: Before the emergence of ISIS, were things improving at all for women in Iraq?

YM: We saw some relative peace in the previous years, relative in the sense that the capital was in control and the major cities had peace, but the religious parties always held the upper hand. They didn’t let a single year pass without surprising us. The last time was in 2013 when the Ministry of Justice announced their intention to introduce the Al Jaafari law, which is the Shi’a Islamist law for personal status that rules family life. This law would allow the marriage of a 9 year old girl, the humiliating treatment of women in matters of marriage and divorce, and generally to treat women like objects, not as human beings. This law is hundreds of years old and they wanted to make it a reality for us now; they want to abort hundreds of years of improvement in Iraq.

JA: How did the women’s movement respond?

YM: We demonstrated. We spoke over our radio. We have a community radio in Baghdad called Al Musawat, which means Equality radio. We spoke out very strongly. We had slogans that said ‘we will not allow you to rape our young daughters’. We explained to the public what the law means and we were able to gather quite some opposition against it so that the government eventually had to announce that it will not be passed “at this point”. They say it needs to be amended, but this is an excuse for them to hide the draft of the law. Eventually we were ordered to close the radio on the pretext that our “registration was not complete”. So yes, even before ISIS, the government’s attack on women’s rights and women’s status in law kept us busy.

JA: How has the women’s human rights movement in Iraq evolved in response to ISIS?

YM: When ISIS took over the Northern city of Mosul in June last year, which is the second biggest city in the country, that was a landmark for us all, that really was a landmark. We felt: the government is not the only oppressor of women, there is a new group which has emerged and which has turned gigantic, which is claiming a big part of the country. We were aware that the political situation was not secure and that our safety was not guaranteed. Many of us have our families in the parts of Iraq which ISIS has taken over. My father’s family is from the city of Telafar, which was taken by ISIS, and I have thousands of relatives who are homeless now.

And what has ISIS done to the women in the cities they have conquered? Direct enslavement, humiliation and turning women into concubines to be bought and sold. This was something nobody expected to see in Iraq. In the beginning, in 2003, there was the Iraqi resistance, which didn’t want the US occupation, then they developed Al Qaeda, but even then it was never this monstrous, this inhumane and as misogynistic as what we’re seeing now under ISIS.

We began immediately contacting the women in Mosul and in the other cities that were occupied. We set up a network of women in that city to whom we speak continuously. We try to be in touch with their difficulties and to be of use to those who face direct attacks. We also set up a coalition for ending the trafficking of Iraqi women and we came up with two recommendations. The first one was to gain legal status for our shelters for women and the second recommendation was that the Iraqi government recognise the Yazidi women’s enslavement and their status as prisoners of war who have been tortured by the enemy, and to give them benefits as such. We have had many wars with other countries and when a prisoner comes back they get many benefits, they get a house, they get a salary and we want the Iraqi government to do this for the Yazidi women so that they can have the social status that would allow a good future, a good family and a good status in society.

The women of Yazidi faith in my country have witnessed the most horrific practices, things that not many women in modern times have seen. A few months ago, I made a trip to the Kurdish part of the county, to where the women who were enslaved by ISIS had run away. I sat down with women in the Kadhiya camp and asked them about their experiences. A girl as young as 15 had been bought and sold more than ten times, from one ISIS fighter to another. She was raped by all those men. I asked her, “what was your most difficult moment during those two months that you were detained there?” She said, “it was the moments when one man would be selling me to the other and they would stand around me and look at me as a piece of meat on which they would be jumping the next day”. She told me that one of the fighters who had bought her would pray daily; after he finished prayer he would come and rape her. She told me stories that I would never expect to hear in a country where people were used to living peacefully with each other. We did have dictators, we did have times of war but it never reached the point where one person, or a group, would be attacking another group and would be enslaving all the women of that group.

JA: Are your recommendations being recognised, is the coalition having an impact?

YP: We’re still working on it. We started the coalition in its embryonic shape last September but in January and March the campaign picked up and we are beginning to see some results. The campaign has many aspects but the shelter is the most important one. At the very start of the war on Iraq our organisation made it known that we intended to start a shelter for women at risk, but the government did not allow us to do that, they said it was illegal. But from that time until now, with the support of our sisters in the international community and with the support of some actors like the Dutch government and the EU, we have been able to do it anyway. We’ve set up three women’s shelters in Baghdad and two in Karbala for the refugee women who are escaping ISIS, in addition to one LGBT shelter in Baghdad. So although they try to illegalise our sheltering activity, in practice we’ve persevered and we’ve been able to multiply them. This is crucial. It means that, at this moment, when a woman feels threatened by honour killing, by domestic abuse and political oppression, they are knocking on our doors and they know there is the network that will protect them and be there for them.

We see different kinds of things. Two months ago a woman came to me, her name is Zainab. She was in charge of a meeting hall in Baghdad and she’s extremely good looking. She was accused of being corrupt and of taking bribes by some officials who wanted to have sex with her. So they put her in prison, they made her go through very humiliating treatment, and when she left prison she felt she was threatened. She came and knocked on our doors and asked if we could protect her. So she is staying with us in one of our shelters and her daughter comes to visit her from time to time.

JA: And what’s the next step for you? What would you like to see happen in the next year?

YM: In the next year I would like to see a law legalising women’s shelters in Iraq. I would like to see our radio being opened again as a result of the pressure that we’re putting on the governmental body that could allow this. I would like to see the Iraqi government guarantee social insurance for the Yazidi women who were enslaved and to recognise their status as prisoners of war.

Jennifer Allsopp is reporting for 50.50 from the Nobel Women's Initiative conference: 'Defending the Defenders' , April 24-26. Read articles by participants and speakers framing and addressing the discussions. Read previous years' coverage.

 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Sexualized violence in Iraq: how to understand and fight it Religious minority women of Iraq: time to speak up Iraq: gendering authoritarianism Country or region:  Iraq Topics:  Civil society Conflict
Categories: les flux rss

Iraq’s female citizens: prisoners of war

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. April 2015 - 7:33

Iraqi woman human rights defender Yanar Mohammed spoke to Jennifer Allsopp at the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference about grass-roots responses to the atrocities women are facing under ISIS.

On the second day of the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on building global support for women human rights defenders, the 100 participants delivered a sobering and urgent message: history is still repeating itself. Watching the military-industrial complex wreak havoc in the Middle East, reflected Shirin Ebadi, holder of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, is like ‘rewinding a movie’. Women human rights defenders from across the globe were in agreement: the incalculable suffering of the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have taught us, once and for all, that bombs lead to suffering, and never peace.

In her keynote speech, Shirin reflected on what a different world might have looked like if, in response to the atrocities of September 11th, the United States and its allies had built schools in Afghanistan in memory of the victims instead of retaliating with war and occupation. ‘You can’t fight an ideology by bombing it’, she told us, speaking of the heinous war crimes currently being committed by the Islamic State. ‘If a terrorist is taken out, his children will replace him. We must throw books not bombs’.

One participant who knows first-hand the horrors that come from forgetting history, and from erasing women from history in particular, is Yanar Mohammed, co-founder and Director of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. I spoke to hear about the situation in her country 12 years after I first marched for peace in London, and 12 years since the war on terror began.

Yanar leading a women's rally in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. Photo: Roj Women's Assoc.

Jennifer Allsopp: Yanar, what is the situation of women’s human rights in Iraq right now?

Yanar Mohammed: The new update of 2014-2015 is, of course, the attack of ISIS. But this is rooted in recent history. It is the direct result of all the politics that came into Iraq with the occupation. The US empowered the Shi’a Islamic political groups and marginalised a big part of the country who were recognised as Sunni people. It was only to be expected that the next step would be for the sectarian religious dynamics to surface, for one religious group to be fighting another religious group. The leading members of ISIS were either tortured in US military prisons or in the prisons of the Shi’a government which the Americans put in place. When you torture a person for long periods you might get a very passionate human rights defender but most probably you will get a beast whose only concern is to seek his revenge in the best way possible. And that’s what happened with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who was in Bucca prison, being tortured by the Americans and being prepared for his next role in life, head of ISIS. Before 2003, none of us knew which part of the country was Sunni and which part was Shi’a. This was something new to Iraq and we are reaping the results at this point. Women’s wellbeing has paid the price.

As well as the crisis of ISIS we’re dealing with other fallout from the last war, like the ongoing crisis of Iraqi orphans. There are 5 million Iraqi orphans of war, and tens of thousands of them have been trafficked in the last decade. Five million orphans growing into teenagers is a very big difficulty for any society. Young women growing into situations with no parents are usually material for exploitation in the brothels. Many do not have proper identification papers. Although the law is not against giving them papers, whenever they go to any governmental establishment and ask for them they are asked to bring their father or their brother, when they don’t have anybody. They reside in the worst houses in Iraq and they are exploited on a daily basis because they do not have access to citizenship. It’s been more than 10 years since this started. The exploited female teenager’s right to citizenship is a major, major issue.

JA: Before the emergence of ISIS, were things improving at all for women in Iraq?

YM: We saw some relative peace in the previous years, relative in the sense that the capital was in control and the major cities had peace, but the religious parties always held the upper hand. They didn’t let a single year pass without surprising us. The last time was in 2013 when the Ministry of Justice announced their intention to introduce the Al Jaafari law, which is the Shi’a Islamist law for personal status that rules family life. This law would allow the marriage of a 9 year old girl, the humiliating treatment of women in matters of marriage and divorce, and generally to treat women like objects, not as human beings. This law is hundreds of years old and they wanted to make it a reality for us now; they want to abort hundreds of years of improvement in Iraq.

JA: How did the women’s movement respond?

YM: We demonstrated. We spoke over our radio. We have a community radio in Baghdad called Al Musawat, which means Equality radio. We spoke out very strongly. We had slogans that said ‘we will not allow you to rape our young daughters’. We explained to the public what the law means and we were able to gather quite some opposition against it so that the government eventually had to announce that it will not be passed “at this point”. They say it needs to be amended, but this is an excuse for them to hide the draft of the law. Eventually we were ordered to close the radio on the pretext that our “registration was not complete”. So yes, even before ISIS, the government’s attack on women’s rights and women’s status in law kept us busy.

JA: How has the women’s human rights movement in Iraq evolved in response to ISIS?

YM: When ISIS took over the Northern city of Mosul in June last year, which is the second biggest city in the country, that was a landmark for us all, that really was a landmark. We felt: the government is not the only oppressor of women, there is a new group which has emerged and which has turned gigantic, which is claiming a big part of the country. We were aware that the political situation was not secure and that our safety was not guaranteed. Many of us have our families in the parts of Iraq which ISIS has taken over. My father’s family is from the city of Telafar, which was taken by ISIS, and I have thousands of relatives who are homeless now.

And what has ISIS done to the women in the cities they have conquered? Direct enslavement, humiliation and turning women into concubines to be bought and sold. This was something nobody expected to see in Iraq. In the beginning there was the Iraqi resistance, which didn’t want the US occupation, then they developed Al Qaeda, but even then it was never this monstrous, this inhumane and as misogynistic as what we’re seeing now under ISIS.

We began immediately contacting the women in Mosul and in the other cities that were occupied. We set up a network of women in that city to whom we speak continuously. We try to be in touch with their difficulties and to be of use to those who face direct attacks. We also set up a coalition for ending the trafficking of Iraqi women and we came up with two recommendations. The first one was to gain legal status for our shelters for women and the second recommendation was that the Iraqi government recognise the Yazidi women’s enslavement and their status as prisoners of war who have been tortured by the enemy, and to give them benefits as such. We have had many wars with other countries and when a prisoner comes back they get many benefits, they get a house, they get a salary and we want the Iraqi government to do this for the Yazidi women so that they can have the social status that would allow a good future, a good family and a good status in society.

The women of Yazidi faith in my country have witnessed the most horrific practices, things that not many women in modern times have seen. A few months ago, I made a trip to the Kurdish part of the county, to where the women who were enslaved by ISIS had run away. I sat down with women in the Khadija camp and asked them about their experiences. A girl as young as 15 had been bought and sold more than ten times, from one ISIS fighter to another. She was raped by all those men. I asked her, “what was your most difficult moment during those two months that you were detained there?” She said, “it was the moments when one man would be selling me to the other and they would stand around me and look at me as a piece of meat on which they would be jumping the next day”. She told me that one of the fighters who had bought her would pray daily; after he finished prayer he would come and rape her. She told me stories that I would never expect to hear in a country where people were used to living peacefully with each other. We did have dictators, we did have times of war but it never reached the point where one person, or a group, would be attacking another group and would be enslaving all the women of that group.

JA: Are your recommendations being recognised, is the coalition having an impact?

YP: We’re still working on it. We started the coalition in its embryonic shape last September but in January and March the campaign picked up and we are beginning to see some results. The campaign has many aspects but the shelter is the most important one. At the very start of the war on Iraq our organisation made it known that we intended to start a shelter for women at risk, but the government did not allow us to do that, they said it was illegal. But from that time until now, with the support of our sisters in the international community and with the support of some actors like the Dutch government and the EU, we have been able to do it anyway. We’ve set up three women’s shelters in Baghdad and two in Karbala for the refugee women who are escaping ISIS, in addition to one LGBT shelter in Baghdad. So although they try to illegalise our sheltering activity, in practice we’ve persevered and we’ve been able to multiply them. This is crucial. It means that, at this moment, when a woman feels threatened by honour killing, by domestic abuse and political oppression, they are knocking on our doors and they know there is the network that will protect them and be there for them.

We see different kinds of things. Two months ago a woman came to me, her name is Zainab. She was in charge of a meeting hall in Baghdad and she’s extremely good looking. She was accused of being corrupt and of taking bribes by some officials who wanted to have sex with her. So they put her in prison, they made her go through very humiliating treatment, and when she left prison she felt she was threatened. She came and knocked on our doors and asked if we could protect her. So she is staying with us in one of our shelters and her daughter comes to visit her from time to time.

JA: And what’s the next step for you? What would you like to see happen in the next year?

YM: In the next year I would like to see a law legalising women’s shelters in Iraq. I would like to see our radio being opened again as a result of the pressure that we’re putting on the governmental body that could allow this. I would like to see the Iraqi government guarantee social insurance for the Yazidi women who were enslaved and to recognise their status as prisoners of war.

Jennifer Allsopp is reporting for 50.50 from the Nobel Women's Initiative conference: 'Defending the Defenders' , April 24-26. Read articles by participants and speakers framing and addressing the discussions. Read previous years' coverage.

 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Sexualized violence in Iraq: how to understand and fight it Religious minority women of Iraq: time to speak up Iraq: gendering authoritarianism Country or region:  Iraq Topics:  Civil society Conflict
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Iran behind the conciliatory veil

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. April 2015 - 21:34

Right-wing US and Israeli venom against the outline agreement is one thing; genuine concern about the Islamic regime’s Shia expansionism and human-rights record is however another.

As Iran and the ‘P5+1’ (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) prepared for a new round of negotiations in late April to finalise the details of a nuclear agreement, a group of 24 executives and investors were touring the country on a ‘fact-finding’ mission. Although Iran still remains under a sanctions and American companies are prohibited from doing business there, the trip was the group’s third to the Islamic republic. So although several important differences remain between the US and Iranian interpretations of the tentative agreement on 2 April in Lausanne, some American firms are already signalling their hopes for new business opportunities with Iran.

Sanctions have massively undermined Iran’s economy but that anticipated new era is a matter of mutual interest. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has implicitly supported the view of the president, Hassan Rouhani, that the nuclear issue is a “symptom” of mistrust and conflict, not a “cause”. For the first time in decades, he indicated that reaching a decent deal might lead Iran to more co-operation with the US in the region. A few days later in the New York Times, the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, underlined that “there are multiple arenas where the interests of Iran and other major stakeholders intersect … This unique opportunity for engagement must not be squandered.”

It seems then, that “the waiting list” of US companies—as Dick Simon, a co-founder of the Young Presidents’ Organization and one of the executives who visited Iran put it—is expanding. Another American investor told BBC Persian that the “vast number of educated youth, a huge market in the region, a western consumer middle class and the friendly attitude of the people” had made “the prospect of a changing Iran a very interesting one”.

Substantial disagreements

As the US president, Barack Obama, has made clear, however, this is not a done deal and hardliners on both sides are trying to sabotage it. There are substantial disagreements between the US ‘fact-sheet’ on the outline agreement and Iran’s understanding. Iran insists that nothing has been surrendered and “none of the nuclear facilities or related activities will be stopped, shut down, or suspended” but the US summary suggests otherwise. In addition to the lack of such crucial detail, there are at least two main differences: over the inspection arrangements and the lifting of sanctions.

Contrary to the ‘fact-sheet’, Iran insists that its military bases are not to be subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—as both Khamenei and the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, have reaffirmed. On the other hand, Iran maintains that all sanctions should go within days of the signing of the final agreement: “At the same time as the start of Iran’s nuclear-related implementation work, all of the sanctions will be annulled on a single specified day.” But the ‘P5+1’ are insisting that sanctions will only be suspended through verifications by the IAEA and “at the end of the first stage of implementation, not at the beginning”. According to the US secretary of state, John Kerry, this could take six months to a year. 

Even more importantly, however, there is a critical suspicion as to whether the Islamic regime is genuinely changing. What puts Iran’s policy in question is its aggressive strategy, regionally and domestically.

Hegemonic influence

Some members of the US Congress have already discounted any agreement with Iran. The former Republican secretary of state James Baker alleged that it would “alienate all of our allies in the region”, making clear by this he meant not just Israel but all “moderate Arab states”. Yet Algeria, Oman, Iraqi, Lebanon and Tunisia all welcomed the framework deal as a positive alternative to war.

Since Shaheed assumed his post, he claims nearly 2,000 Iranians have been executed by the regime

Iran’s desire to increase its hegemonic influence in the region has agitated some countries, however, especially Saudi Arabia. Many Saudi media have claimed that Iran is trying to shape a ‘Shiite arc’, comprising Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Bahrain. And there is some evidence that the Saudi government sought to sabotage any agreement with Iran. Although immediately after the announcement of the potential deal Obama called King Salman to reassure him of America’s “enduring friendship”, Saudi officials have several times declared their anxiety about Iran’s nuclear programme.

So Saudi Arabia has moved in advance of the outcome of further negotiations in July, partly because of Iran’s aggressive policy within some Arab nations to influence Shiite populations and challenge Saudi power. And there is no sign yet, from either side, of a peaceful resolution of this hegemonic conflict between the two regional powers, being played out in Syria, Iraq and Yemen (while some other Arab states in the Persian Gulf, like Bahrain, are not as stable as they might seem).

King Salman did say he hoped “the deal would reinforce the stability and security of the region and the world” but this was an official gloss. Al Arabiya, a Saudi-backed news website, carried the unvarnished claim that “the Saudi king decided his country could no longer bear the provocative Iranian expansive policy in the Middle East, or the American silence over it”. In this perspective the skeleton deal has only reinforced Salman’s determination to push back against Iranian influence, with or without Washington.

Total suppression

“This is the new Iran,” the American entrepreneurs were told during their visit. Nasrollah Jahangard, Iran’s deputy minister of telecommunications, encouraged them to invest in a country where the number of smartphones was soon expected to reach 40m, or one for every two Iranians. Jahangard also told them privately that although the internet was filtered and Facebook banned in Iran, there were more than 30m users and at least 10m actively used Facebook every day. As one of the youngest countries in the world with a huge number of university students, there were many other socio-economic factors which could lead western companies to consider “the potential of getting involved in Iran”, Simon told BBC Persian after the group came back to America.

Hassan Rouhani—his administration hangs on nuclear deal. Wikimedia / BotMultichillT. Creative Commons.The main concern for human-rights activists, however, is the regime’s total suppression of socio-political demands while it open up economically to foreign investment—and here even the Islamic republic’s rhetoric has not changed. The most recent reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International indicate that human rights are sharply deteriorating and the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, has echoed that the situation has worsened since Rouhani was appointed.

Since Shaheed assumed his post, he claims nearly 2,000 Iranians have been executed by the regime, while there are “around 900 prisoners of conscience in Iran, many of them in prison for simply expressing their opinions”. Based on official reports, during the past few months more than 200 people have been hanged and a large number on death row risk imminent execution.       

Many experts thus suggest Rouhani’s administration has only one mission—to solve Iran’s nuclear problem with the west. In the annual budget socio-cultural sectors have faced a 62% cut over the past three years while provision for the military, allied to that of the police and domestic paramilitary forces, has increased just this year by 32.5%. The state remains utterly silent on the situation of minorities and those who were jailed following the protests against the controversial 2009 election, as well as the continued house arrest of the ‘green movement’ leaders.

Domestically, therefore, not only is there no genuine change in the Islamic regime with Rouhani’s government but no hope of that is in prospect. So perhaps that US ‘enduring friendship’ with Saudi Arabia—regardless of its infamous human-rights situation—provides a new perspective for Iran to define an economic relationship with America.

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Iran behind the conciliatory veil

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. April 2015 - 21:34

Right-wing US and Israeli venom against the outline agreement is one thing; genuine concern about the Islamic regime’s Shia expansionism and human-rights record is however another.

As Iran and the ‘P5+1’ (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) prepared for a new round of negotiations in late April to finalise the details of a nuclear agreement, a group of 24 executives and investors were touring the country on a ‘fact-finding’ mission. Although Iran still remains under a sanctions and American companies are prohibited from doing business there, the trip was the group’s third to the Islamic republic. So although several important differences remain between the US and Iranian interpretations of the tentative agreement on 2 April in Lausanne, some American firms are already signalling their hopes for new business opportunities with Iran.

Sanctions have massively undermined Iran’s economy but that anticipated new era is a matter of mutual interest. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has implicitly supported the view of the president, Hassan Rouhani, that the nuclear issue is a “symptom” of mistrust and conflict, not a “cause”. For the first time in decades, he indicated that reaching a decent deal might lead Iran to more co-operation with the US in the region. A few days later in the New York Times, the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, underlined that “there are multiple arenas where the interests of Iran and other major stakeholders intersect … This unique opportunity for engagement must not be squandered.”

It seems then, that “the waiting list” of US companies—as Dick Simon, a co-founder of the Young Presidents’ Organization and one of the executives who visited Iran put it—is expanding. Another American investor told BBC Persian that the “vast number of educated youth, a huge market in the region, a western consumer middle class and the friendly attitude of the people” had made “the prospect of a changing Iran a very interesting one”.

Substantial disagreements

As the US president, Barack Obama, has made clear, however, this is not a done deal and hardliners on both sides are trying to sabotage it. There are substantial disagreements between the US ‘fact-sheet’ on the outline agreement and Iran’s understanding. Iran insists that nothing has been surrendered and “none of the nuclear facilities or related activities will be stopped, shut down, or suspended” but the US summary suggests otherwise. In addition to the lack of such crucial detail, there are at least two main differences: over the inspection arrangements and the lifting of sanctions.

Contrary to the ‘fact-sheet’, Iran insists that its military bases are not to be subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—as both Khamenei and the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, have reaffirmed. On the other hand, Iran maintains that all sanctions should go within days of the signing of the final agreement: “At the same time as the start of Iran’s nuclear-related implementation work, all of the sanctions will be annulled on a single specified day.” But the ‘P5+1’ are insisting that sanctions will only be suspended through verifications by the IAEA and “at the end of the first stage of implementation, not at the beginning”. According to the US secretary of state, John Kerry, this could take six months to a year. 

Even more importantly, however, there is a critical suspicion as to whether the Islamic regime is genuinely changing. What puts Iran’s policy in question is its aggressive strategy, regionally and domestically.

Hegemonic influence

Some members of the US Congress have already discounted any agreement with Iran. The former Republican secretary of state James Baker alleged that it would “alienate all of our allies in the region”, making clear by this he meant not just Israel but all “moderate Arab states”. Yet Algeria, Oman, Iraqi, Lebanon and Tunisia all welcomed the framework deal as a positive alternative to war.

Since Shaheed assumed his post, he claims nearly 2,000 Iranians have been executed by the regime

Iran’s desire to increase its hegemonic influence in the region has agitated some countries, however, especially Saudi Arabia. Many Saudi media have claimed that Iran is trying to shape a ‘Shiite arc’, comprising Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Bahrain. And there is some evidence that the Saudi government sought to sabotage any agreement with Iran. Although immediately after the announcement of the potential deal Obama called King Salman to reassure him of America’s “enduring friendship”, Saudi officials have several times declared their anxiety about Iran’s nuclear programme.

So Saudi Arabia has moved in advance of the outcome of further negotiations in July, partly because of Iran’s aggressive policy within some Arab nations to influence Shiite populations and challenge Saudi power. And there is no sign yet, from either side, of a peaceful resolution of this hegemonic conflict between the two regional powers, being played out in Syria, Iraq and Yemen (while some other Arab states in the Persian Gulf, like Bahrain, are not as stable as they might seem).

King Salman did say he hoped “the deal would reinforce the stability and security of the region and the world” but this was an official gloss. Al Arabiya, a Saudi-backed news website, carried the unvarnished claim that “the Saudi king decided his country could no longer bear the provocative Iranian expansive policy in the Middle East, or the American silence over it”. In this perspective the skeleton deal has only reinforced Salman’s determination to push back against Iranian influence, with or without Washington.

Total suppression

“This is the new Iran,” the American entrepreneurs were told during their visit. Nasrollah Jahangard, Iran’s deputy minister of telecommunications, encouraged them to invest in a country where the number of smartphones was soon expected to reach 40m, or one for every two Iranians. Jahangard also told them privately that although the internet was filtered and Facebook banned in Iran, there were more than 30m users and at least 10m actively used Facebook every day. As one of the youngest countries in the world with a huge number of university students, there were many other socio-economic factors which could lead western companies to consider “the potential of getting involved in Iran”, Simon told BBC Persian after the group came back to America.

Hassan Rouhani—his administration hangs on nuclear deal. Wikimedia / BotMultichillT. Creative Commons.The main concern for human-rights activists, however, is the regime’s total suppression of socio-political demands while it open up economically to foreign investment—and here even the Islamic republic’s rhetoric has not changed. The most recent reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International indicate that human rights are sharply deteriorating and the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, has echoed that the situation has worsened since Rouhani was appointed.

Since Shaheed assumed his post, he claims nearly 2,000 Iranians have been executed by the regime, while there are “around 900 prisoners of conscience in Iran, many of them in prison for simply expressing their opinions”. Based on official reports, during the past few months more than 200 people have been hanged and a large number on death row risk imminent execution.       

Many experts thus suggest Rouhani’s administration has only one mission—to solve Iran’s nuclear problem with the west. In the annual budget socio-cultural sectors have faced a 62% cut over the past three years while provision for the military, allied to that of the police and domestic paramilitary forces, has increased just this year by 32.5%. The state remains utterly silent on the situation of minorities and those who were jailed following the protests against the controversial 2009 election, as well as the continued house arrest of the ‘green movement’ leaders.

Domestically, therefore, not only is there no genuine change in the Islamic regime with Rouhani’s government but no hope of that is in prospect. So perhaps that US ‘enduring friendship’ with Saudi Arabia—regardless of its infamous human-rights situation—provides a new perspective for Iran to define an economic relationship with America.

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The Arab World: towards bi-polarity?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. April 2015 - 15:18

In Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Bahrain, it will be very difficult for revolutionary democratic movements to succeed in such a bi-polar order.

It has been four years since the Arab Revolt was ignited and the resulting social upheaval has all but left the region in tatters. From Egypt to Syria and Iraq, it appears that the old elites in these countries are unable to remain in power without substantial international support. Beset by social unrest and the rise of violent non-state actors, some of these states have lost their ability to act autonomously in the international arena. They have becomes proxies to other regional powers, most notably Saudi Arabia and Iran, as they expand their quest for regional dominance.

US Secretary of State with King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Demotix Live News/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Thus, the multi-polar nature of the regional order has steadily shifted towards bi-polarity, with Saudi Arabia acting as one regional super power, forming a coalition of Sunni conservative regimes, and Iran acting as the other, forming a coalition of Shia proxies. The powers of Egypt, Syria and Iraq - the traditional contenders for leadership - have all but evaporated, as their ruling elites rely on their patrons to maintain their flimsy grip on power.

Kenneth Waltz, one of the most celebrated International Relations theorists, argued in “The Theory of International Politics” that the behavior of states in an international system depends on the distribution of power within that system.

A system that has more than one major power is called a multi-polar system, which is considered unstable. While a system that has only two major powers is a bi-polar system, considered the most stable. Recently, under pax Americana, the age of a sole super power has emerged and the stability of this uni-polar world is still being widely debated.

Waltz goes on to argue that the reasons behind the stability of a bi-polar system is the ability of the two powers to control their junior partners, so that no junior partner can jeopardize a full scale war by dragging the major powers into an undesired confrontation - the dynamic of World War I is cited as an example. There is also less uncertainty in this system and the threat of war can be averted, since there are only two major powers communicating - European peace during the Cold War is cited in support of this hypothesis.  

This is the theory, but how does this apply to the Middle East?

The Saudi-led Sunni conservative camp

Saudi Arabia has emerged from the past four years relatively unscathed. There were hopes of a possible “Saudi Spring”, however these hopes have been crushed.

The Kingdom has actually emerged as a bastion of regional anti-revolutionary activity, as it supported the Egyptian military in its bid to maintain power and crush the revolution. The Kingdom led regional efforts, followed by the United Arab Emirates, to pump needed capital into the Egyptian economy, which is directly dominated by the military. In effect, this has allowed the Egyptian military to consolidate its grip on the country.

The Kingdom also followed an active and aggressive foreign policy in terms of intervening in neighboring states, especially if Shia elements are involved in an internal struggle. The first of such interventions was in Bahrain, now in Yemen, where Egypt and other junior allies are set to play prominent roles.

Based on this, one could argue that Saudi Arabia has become the most important power in the Sunni Arab World. The Kingdom has managed to accomplish this by ensuring a decline in its prospective competitors’ powers and their dependence on Saudi support to keep revolution at bay. As such, the only possible competitor was Egypt, which has been significantly weakened due to the revolution and become even more dependent on Saudi aid and international support to survive.

The Iranian camp

The same dynamic is visible in Iran. Iran through a careful and long-term policy of cultivating allies, combined with the folly of the United States and the Arab Revolt, has been able to amplify its influence in the Arab World. 

Iran has long-term strategic relationships with “radical” movements and regimes in the region, which include Hamas, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. This has allowed it to establish deep inroads in the Arab World by not only supporting the Shia cause, but by supporting issues that were of significant importance for the Arab populace, namely the occupation of Palestine, which it used skillfully to build its soft power in the region.

The US has also contributed to the expansion of Iranian power by removing two major rivals, the Iraqi Baathist regime and the Taliban in Afghanistan, giving Iran significant freedom of movement particularly in Iraq, as the Iraqi polity became more sectarian. Moreover, the decline of other regional powers made them mere proxies of Iran, most notably Iraq and Syria.

In Iraq, the increasing sectarian nature of Iraqi politics, which was culminated with the rise of ISIS, has all but led to the corrosion of the Iraqi state, opening up the way for an expansion of Iranian influence, which in some respects threatens to replace the state.

This is very clear in the prominent role played by Iran in the battle for Tikrit, where Iranian backed militias played a prominent role, which in essence negates the role of the states and destroys their monopoly on violence. In simpler terms, the Iraqi state has become unable to protect itself and its citizens without Iranian backing, negating the reasons for its existence.

In Syria, a similar scenario has occurred. The Assad regime has become reliant on Iranian backing in order to remain in power. Thus, losing all autonomy in the realm of foreign policy. For the foreseeable future, the Syrian regime has no choice but to follow orders from Tehran.

In the middle of all this bloodshed, where is this stability predicted by Waltz?

One needs to remember that International Relations Theory is exceptionally Euro-centric, which explains the cultural blind spots it has. It simply ignores the large number of regional wars, civil wars, proxy wars, coups and counter coups, and the involvement of super powers, such as the United States, and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Europe might have been stable, but the Third World suffered significant losses.

Based on this, what can we reasonably expect?

One could argue that a full-scale war between the two regional powers is neither desirable nor likely. However, a series of proxy confrontations, that have already been taking place in countries like Syria and possibly Yemen, are bound to follow, where both parties compete for the extension of their hegemony over the Arab World or what is, sadly, left of it. 

This does not bode well for democratic and revolutionary movements of what has now become the Arab Periphery. In Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Bahrain as they find themselves pulled into this regional conflict face, not only their oppressive governments, but also their governments’ supporters from either of the above mentioned camps. The success of revolutionary democratic movements in a bi-polar order will be very difficult, as attested by Mosaddegh, Allende and Patrice Lumumba.        

Sideboxes Related stories:  Arab autocracy & revolution In the shadow of an empire Arab dictators: between tactical brilliance and strategic stupidity ISIS airstrikes: between imperialism and orientalism ISIS airstrikes: how to rehabilitate dictators and destroy the revolution The revolt of the periphery Country or region:  Egypt Syria Iraq Iran Saudi Arabia United Arab Emirates Topics:  Conflict Democracy and government International politics
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