This isn't a National Health Service - or even a healthcare market. It's a cabal - and it looks something like this.
Image: Spinwatch - to enlarge, click here.
The battle is on for the future of the NHS. Apparently.
Ed Miliband came out hard, declaring he will ‘put patients before profits and stop the privatisation’.
David Cameron’s camp countered with a commitment to fully fund the next wave of NHS reforms.
Like pro-wrestling, it’s a good show, but a phony fight.
How can you tell?
Just look at the players sitting round the table.
Let’s start with former Labour Health Minister and arch-reformer, Alan Milburn, a man who has since made a personal fortune from working with private health firms.
When Milburn was in charge of the NHS from 1999 to 2003 he pushed through many of the ‘reforms’ that the Conservative party have merely accelerated. His team at the time consisted of policy advisor Simon Stevens; private secretary Tony Sampson; and media advisor, Andrew Harrison.
Where are they now?
Simon Steven’s journey is well known. He left the NHS in 2004 and spent a decade learning how the American’s do healthcare at US giant, UnitedHealth (at first Steven’s was put on selling UnitedHealth services to European health systems, then became Vice President and lobbyist for the whole UH Group). Stevens was described in the Financial Times as “a key architect, along with Mr Milburn and Mr Blair – to whom he went on to serve as health adviser – of the reforms that for the first time broke up the NHS monolith, introducing privately run treatment centres.”
Maybe less well-known is that Milburn’s private secretary, Tony Sampson, was also drawn to UnitedHealth. From 2005 to 2013, Steven’s former close colleague was UnitedHealth’s chief lobbyist in the UK.
What’s hardly known at all is that Milburn’s other aide, Andrew Harrison, has also long been in the employ of UnitedHealth. Harrison is head of health at lobbying firm Hanover, which has lobbied for UnitedHealth since at least 2007.
So, that’s the whole team – Stevens, Sampson, and Harrison – all lobbying for UnitedHealth for the best part of a decade.
And today we’re surprised that UnitedHealth is in line to pick up billion pound NHS contracts?
Milburn’s seat also opens up the table for venture capitalists Bridgepoint. Bridgepoint has investments in Care UK, which calls itself ‘the UK’s largest independent provider of health and social care’. From its care home roots, Care UK now runs over 50 NHS services, and has been bidding for huge contracts.
Care UK also bagged Jim Easton, one of a handful of senior health officials to push through the Coalition’s controversial reforms, and designer of the troubled 111 helpline contract (which continues to be criticised for poorly trained staff). Weeks after Easton joined Care UK, they bought up Harmoni - the firm that had beaten them to be the main private 111 provider. Following the withdrawal of NHS Direct who said the prices set out in the contract were ‘unsustainably’ low, Care UK are now the key player in this particular out of hours healthcare ‘market’.
Bridgepoint also have investments in telehealth provider, Tunstall, which is already starting to cash in on reforms that move care ‘closer to home’. And in Alliance Medical, a private firm providing scanning services (that has also employed lobbyists Hanover for years).
Milburn also helps out PwC, which claims to have ‘acted on more privatisations than any other financial adviser’. It is currently advising local NHS commissioners on how to reform health services, and pushing the case for the use of more technology in healthcare.
This isn’t a competition. It isn’t even a healthcare market.
Its a cabal. And it looks something like this.
So, where are Miliband and Cameron in the picture?
Dancing wildly in front of you and me.
Like this piece? Please donate to OurNHS here to help keep us producing the NHS stories that matter. Thank you.
Sideboxes Related stories: Milburn, the NHS, and Britain's 'revolving door' NHS boss Stevens and the TTIP 'trade' lobbyists who threaten our NHS Leak reveals worrying truth behind the biggest NHS privatisation yet
If Israeli human rights groups are labeled fronts for foreign interests due to their funding, what does that make Israel itself? A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on funding for human rights. العربية עברית
A few weeks ago, Israelis across the political spectrum found rare unity in fury against a macabre cartoon posted on YouTube. The cartoon ticked all the boxes of viciously anti-Semitic propaganda, featuring a hook-nosed, avaricious Jew hungrily pocketing gold coins from a foreign paymaster and manipulating the media to besmirch his country’s patriots. The cartoon even took care to revisit that vintage supporting character of anti-Semitic tropes stretching back a millennium, Judas Iscariot. Once the Jew in the cartoon exhausts his usefulness, the paymaster advises him to “take care of himself”, upon which the Jew obligingly hangs himself—a crude but faithful echo of the fate Judas meets in Matthew 27:3–10.
What compounded the outrage, however, was that Israeli Jews made the cartoon for other Israeli Jews. The Jew depicted in the cartoon, moreover, was meant to represent other Israeli Jews.
The cartoon was commissioned by the Samaria Settler Council, a non-profit enjoying considerable public funding; the Council’s chairman, Gideon Mesika, was virtually the only public figure defending the cartoon in the face of a ferocious backlash, including from some prominent settler leaders. The targets of the cartoon were anti-occupation and human rights activists receiving funds from foreign sponsors. As the Jew of the cartoon swings in the wind, the final frame displays the logos of a mishmash of funds, political movements and human rights groups, including Peace Now, B’Tselem, Yesh Din, Yesh Gvul, Rabbis for Human Rights, Breaking the Silence and the New Israel Fund.
There is much to unpack here, from the garbled metaphor (if the activists are Judas, does that make the settlers Jesus Christ?) to the paradox of conservative Zionists adopting anti-Semitic tropes to criticize Jews that disagree with them—a paradox whose regrettable history stretches back to the very first years of modern Zionism. But it also highlights, yet again, just how much of Israeli politics serve as a staging ground for a multitude foreign interests, of which human rights funding is a relatively minor part.
To begin with, the organizations comprising the Zionist movement have always relied overwhelmingly on private donations from abroad to support their state-building activities, including the acquisition of Arab-owned land. The blue collection cans emblazoned with the logo of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) feature in childhood memories of generations of Jews in the diaspora (interestingly, including several generations raised when the JNF had already refocused from acquiring land for Jewish settlement, to developing lands confiscated from Palestinian villagers expelled during the 1948 war). Nearly all public institutions in Israel, from schools through universities to hospitals, also rely heavily on foreign funding—usually by philanthropists from the Jewish diaspora.
The same is true regarding politics and the third sector. While electoral fundraising in Israel is tightly controlled—effectively barring direct campaign funding from abroad by imposing tight caps on how much money can be raised and for which purposes—foreign funding helps set the scene and delineate the limits of acceptable discourse in which actual campaigning takes place.
Demotix/Oren Rosenfeld (All rights reserved)
A billboard advertising for Benjamin Netanyahu's recent election campaign.
On the Jewish Israeli right, the most prominent vehicle for all this is Yisrael Hayom, a free daily newspaper run by Netanyahu’s main American backer, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, as well as advocacy and campaign groups such as the Samaria Settler Council and organizations specifically trying to police discourse in the media and academia, like NGO Monitor and Im Tirtzu. On the left is a cluster of advocacy and litigation organizations; some are more expressly political, like Peace Now, but most are concerned with challenging human rights violations and raising awareness of them among Israelis. Although their track record is impressive, their effect on Israeli policies is minute.
Considering they are surrounded by universities, stadiums, hospitals, schools and bridges named after foreign benefactors, most Jewish Israelis are unfazed by allegations of foreign funding, whichever side of the political map they come from. It is particularly interesting, then, to see the arguments that both right and left use when accusing each other of pandering to unaccountable foreign patrons. The left emphasizes the damage this does to Israeli democracy and—in Israel Hayom’s case—to freedom of the press. The right reaches into Jewish historical memory, trying, however clumsily, to draw a link between the European gentiles who persecuted Jews and the European gentiles who today try to meddle in the affairs of the sovereign Jewish state. The left has had moderate success, making some progress towards passing a law that would effectively shut Yisrael Hayom down. The right’s legislative success has also been fairly moderate: the bills designed to hamper the flow of foreign donations to left wing groups generated public debate and helped further scar the image of left-wing organizations. But none of these bills made it into law, either.
Ultimately, when nearly every notable organization receives some sort of foreign funds, using this particular accusation becomes laughable. In fact, most Jewish Israelis are unfazed by allegations of foreign funding, whichever side of the political map they come from. Considering they are surrounded by universities, stadiums, hospitals, schools and bridges named after foreign benefactors, this is hardly surprising. It is even less surprising considering they are constantly reminded that their very existence is propped up by a particularly generous foreign patron—the United States.
So if most Israelis don’t care about foreign funding, then why attempt to sling it as mud? The real disagreement here—and the inspiration for the cartoon—is arguably not about funding. In fact, the value of foreign funding is one thing all sides can agree upon, though publicly they never would. The real dispute begins and ends in much less tangible things than foreign influence. Traumas past and present, explicit and unarticulated grudges, fear of the other, a terror of an uncertain future, and above all, constant conflation of hegemony and survival, all drive Israeli politics. Foreign funding is an important stimulating factor, but hardly a defining one. At the moment, the left needs foreign funding more than the right, because the right connects to Israeli fears, grudges and traumas much better than the left does.
As illustrated by public outrage over derogatory comments made about right-wing Mizrahi Jews at an overwhelmingly Ashkenazi centre-left rally, the Israeli political left has yet to acknowledge that some of these grudges even exist. This is the real divide—and despite attempts to use foreign money as a type of slander, squabbles about funding sources will never be the key issue.American Jews, money and the Israel-Palestine conflict Universal values, foreign money: local human rights organizations in the Global South No shortage of international complicity with Israeli occupation Will foreign funding last for those inside Israel who defend the Palestinians? Funds and civil liberties Anti-ngo legislation in Israel: a first step toward silencing dissent Israeli rights groups don’t have to be popular to be effective
The Lightning Testimonies, an acclaimed feminist exhibition, comes to Assam, and its powerful images speak to the region's own legacies and women's often-sidelined stories.
Why do women's bodies become the site of the mad pursuit of possession of lands? When the bodies of women – and the dignity they deserve but almost always have to beg for – are mutilated to the bone, what is remembered? What is forgotten? What remains? What is submerged?
For the first time since Amar Kanwar created it in 2007, 'The Lightning Testimonies' exhibition visits Assam, the northeastern state in India. The exhibition brings back the spasms of memories of violence that the Indian subcontinent has since long been familiarised with, as it reflects upon a history of conflict in the region through experiences of sexual violence.
Every year in Assam, as with its bordering neighbours, at least one gruesome episode of violence breaks out. That the grotesque has become so mundane that it is best shrugged away, is exemplified by the fact that it took so long for this exhibit to come to this region of India.
'The Lightning Testimonies' is a set of eight synchronised video projections with sound tracks, which play in a 32-minute cycle continuously through the day. The projections lead to disparate narratives, which then converge into a single projection. The stories of women from different times and different regions unfold: of the violence they suffered and resisted, the violence that is remembered and recorded. Without a singular style, the exhibit takes the viewer through time and space, through a bombardment of facts and metaphorical images of a region wounded and its women scarred.
While the central theme of the exhibit is the violence upon women's bodies through various moments of political upheavals across a considerable time span of several decades, every situation is unique and yet so similar.
What is baffling to one who has grown up with stories of nationalism and the struggle of independence from the British, is the complete absence of the narratives of magnanimity of the scale of violence during the Partition, in school curriculum as well as in the popular media.
Even as Hollywood churns out – and the Academy recognises – at least one feature length film every year that remembers the Holocaust and World War II, the Indian subcontinent has succeeded in ripping away the pages of its own history that were inked with blood and the shrills of gagged women.
'The Lightning Testimonies' tries to undo this, by remembering the thousands of Hindu and Muslims women who were abducted during the Partition in 1947; it acknowledges the regular occurrences of Dalit women being paraded naked across India's villages. The exhibit lays bare the scars of the people of Kashmir and Manipur who have been protesting against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – a law, while granting unconditional powers to the military to contain the militancy, has led to grave human rights violations in the hands of the military. From the rape of 53 women in Kunan Poshpora in 1991, to the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama in captivity by armed personnel in 2004, the attempt to curb militancy has only perpetrated the control of women as the testimony to a sense of patriarchal triumph.
A red bloom of flowers wake up the eight screens, and slowly, as a morning train ride gives a thinning glimpse of unknown places – and their stories – one's settling vision is disturbed with different videos, which appear across the eight screens. There is not a single way to view just one story on one screen: the attempt to disturb is achieved through sounds tracks, and images that are teased with the temperature of different lights and the minimal narrative texts. The viewer is thus taken to Manipur, Nagaland, Khairlanji, Gujarat, Kashmir, the sites of Bangladesh's Liberation War, and those tracts of land that were divided into India and Pakistan during the Partition.
As the stillness of objects within the home recreate the scene of the day when Luingshimla was abducted by a captain in the Indian army, her story is conveyed by her mother who remembers the daughter by weaving a shawl with an intricate pattern, with every shape and shade of strand bearing a symbol. Yet on another screen that is darkened with the thicket of the forest, allowing only pinholes of light to seep in – as it often happens with The Truth – the story of the rape of a woman on a church pulpit in Nagaland is remembered.
On another screen with the twilight darkness in the mountains of Kashmir, names of women flash, slowly, one by one. The slow pace with which the names appear exemplifies the inability to find the answers to the nearly 8,000 people in Kashmir who have disappeared, or been killed, or sexually assaulted, over two decades. At several moments the names are interspersed with the word “unknown”. And there are many such moments. Who could the “unknown” have been? With the burning of the valley and yet its shrill cries never piercing Indian consciousness enough, one is left to wonder aloud along with the screen: “Which image can represent the ever-changing words of a testimony?” “Can a location present itself in the court?” How often we may have heard, “Inconsistencies were cited as the reason for the closure of the case.” And then, suddenly, the complainant – the one who has been violated – is silenced by being deemed a “liar”.
In places that have been visited upon by conflict regularly, there is little difference between the sky crackling illumination from lightning, and explosions. The haunting background scores juxtaposed with the fleeting traffic sounds demonstrate the everydayness of these incidents. Yet, with the morning, the flowers bloom, as the wrinkles of conflict and violence deepen into the landscape.
The words “nation”, “father”, “attacker”, “brother”, coalesce together until they are just letters of the alphabet, but soon one understands why: they merge to represent how women were traded during the Partition, marking borders over women's bodies, and the religion they did not choose to be raised as. It is estimated that 75,000 women were abducted during the Partition. The black-and-white images from that time are juxtaposed with a shot of dilapidated building that served as a recovery home for both Muslim and Hindu women. Every woman rescued was unlike the other – a family lost, a family that ostracised her, a future unknown, a future compromised. As Mridula Sarabhai rescued the largest number of women in what is now known as Pakistan, she saw how the two infant countries negotiated the exchange of “their” women. There was no room for the women's consent, and, in the recorded words of Sarabhai, “Consent could have no meaning in an atmosphere of fear.”
The massacre of four members of a Dalit family in Khairlanji in the state of Maharashtra in 2006 had been a reminder that caste continues to define one's existence in the Indian subcontinent. Priyanka Bhotmange and her mother Surekha had been paraded naked in public before being allegedly raped and murdered. As the incident is depicted through sombre drawings of a woman whose visage is fleeting, at one point the screen freezes with the passport photograph of a young Priyanka.
Within the dark exhibition area, I stare into the face of my namesake, imagining her staring back at me, reminding me that, just by their mere existence and because of other identities they may not choose for themselves, women continue to feel violated. Suddenly I realise that her identity rendered her dead while mine rendered me privileged; suddenly I realise that the her-stories of oppression allow us to recognise ourselves in each other.
The eight videos within the exhibit converge into a single screen of extreme close-up shots which do not shy away from revealing warts and wrinkles of theatre artiste Heisnam Sabitri from Manipur, as she performs “Draupadi”. Her clenched fists seem to hold tight the memories of those raped, disappeared, mutilated and killed in Manipur, allowing the painful memories to metamorphose into her stellar performance. Her sing-song wails might be in Manipuri, yet, don't we all recognise the language of rage and despair? “Draupadi”, which shows the plight of an indigenous woman who commands a military personnel to not cloth her, was censored from being performed in Manipur's state capital of Imphal for 14 years. Sabitri reveals her naked body to the personnel, showing the personal space when the games of violence are played out.
Her shocking performance on stage found its way painfully on the streets of Kangla in 2004, when women, old and young, stripped themselves before the Indian Army headquarters, screaming, “Rape us, kill us, flesh us... we are all Manorama's mothers.” This was no performance. It was wild rage and despair against the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama. Amid the fury were exasperated tears. The installation loop ends with blurred images of the women laughing by the blinding sparks of a bonfire – their laughter muted, the crackling of the fire minimal, and then a shot of a morning where a bird settles into a rubble of a wrecked house.
'The Lightning Testimonies' shocks and numbs, rewinds and reminds. Perhaps her body is mere flesh. But for the mothers of Manipur, the body becomes the instrument of resistance and protest. Their bare backs and exposed breasts, like the exhibit, reflect to us that what the Indian subcontinent is afraid to come to terms with: the patriarchal essence of the region, even as every significant victory in the women's movement still feels minuscule.Sideboxes Related stories: Salaam and Paz: the word for Peace is Women Rest in power, Assia Djebar State racism and sexism in post-war Sri Lanka We feel that we found our self after we lost it in the war Young feminists: resisting the tide of fundamentalisms Masculine violence: call of duty, or call for change? Masculinity and phallic narcissism Challenging militarized masculinities Preventing violence against women: a sluggish cascade? Claiming rights, facing fire: young feminist activists The common factor: sexual violence and the Egyptian state, 2011-2014 Building "a new Turkey": gender politics and the future of democracy Syria: stories of devastation and hope Women's voices in northern Nigeria: hearing the broader narratives Sri Lanka: women in conflict Grief and rage in India: making violence against women history? Our bodies as battlegrounds The gender wars in Turkey: a litmus test of democracy? Country or region: India Pakistan
Sex education in British schools is failing to educate children about consent and healthy relationships, or include LGBT issues and address harmful gender stereotypes. Do the government’s new plans go far enough?
I don’t remember much about my own sex education lessons, other than an overwhelming sense of dread. We were taught about the terrifying prospect of pregnancy and about numerous sexually transmitted infections, with accompanying graphic images on laminated pieces of card. I was terrified that the teacher was going to talk about same sex relationships, knowing that it would lead to shouts of ‘dyke’ and my peers putting chewing gum in my hair. I realise now, of course, that if LGBT relationships and their validity had been discussed, the nightmare of homophobic bullying I endured during high school could’ve been dealt with much more effectively.
Everyone has a different story about their experiences of sex education, but the thread that runs through all of them speaks of inadequacy. Too little, too late, too biased, too focussed on the mechanics, too weird, too awkward, too many gaps. When 40% of teenage girls have been pressured into sex, and 22% surveyed by the NSPCC said that they had been subjected to physical violence by a boyfriend, including punching, slapping, strangling and being beaten with an object, it’s pretty clear that our approach to sex education needs an immediate and far-reaching overhaul.
The NSPCC’s report also found that the UK had the highest rate of children and teens sending explicit sexual images. 40% of the girls who had sent sexual pictures to a boyfriend said that their partner had then shared the images with other people. 39% of boys admitted to watching porn regularly, and 25% were shown to harbour extremely negative attitudes about women. In order to tackle these issues, sex and relationships education urgently needs to address them. The epidemic of sexual harassment and assault on our university campuses doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If children are taught early on about the essential nature of enthusiastic consent, and about the harmful culture of victim-blaming and rape myths, I believe that the prevalence of sexual violence can be combatted effectively and young people of all genders can be mutually supportive, rather than in opposition to one another.
Grace attends a selective state school. She wishes there had been more than a very basic model of safe sex and some ‘gory’ STI photos discussed, and describes her sex education as “totally penis-centred, with the vagina barely mentioned, let alone the parts labelled”. She says “there was absolutely no talk about consent or even what consensual sex means, or mention of anything other than heterosexual couples. Consent should be the most crucial thing when teaching young people about sex and when things like foreplay aren’t even mentioned, it’s unsurprising that teenagers turn to porn to answer their questions”.
Porn is currently a point of contention in the debate over what should be taught to children and teenagers in their sex education lessons. A leading Danish sexologist is calling for pornography in be shown in classrooms as part of a healthy, well-rounded sex education curriculum, so that teenagers can be “conscientious and critical consumers” who can tell the difference between fantasy and real relationships. Although there are those who think that young people are more than capable of separating the fantasy of mainstream porn, with its false focus on spontaneity and predilection for showing women in a subordinate and submissive role, if sex education is inadequate, it’s likely that porn will be used to fill in the gaps.
Anyone who opposes the expansion of sex education in the name of protecting childhood innocence is living in a fantasy land. Unless you cut your child off from all forms of technology and contact with other children (and their laptops and smartphones), you cannot prevent children from accessing or being shown pornography.
Teenagers need to be equipped with the critical tools that will allow them to view commercial sex as exactly what it is, rather than a guide to how they should behave in the real world. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett writes in the Guardian, that “young women have told me how surprised they have been when, during sex, hands have been placed around their necks, their hair has been pulled so hard they’ve wept, their faces and breasts have been ejaculated on without consent”, citing these stories as examples of how pornography has infiltrated the relationships of teenagers.
It’s also important to consider the differences in the kind of information given at faith-based schools, as opposed to the sex education curricula taught at non-denominational, secular places of learning. Claire attended a Catholic school in the 1990s and remembers attitudes to contraception being very poor. “There was a page missing from our biology text books and when we looked in the index to find out what was missing, it was the page on contraception. Our main sex education was delivered during an event called "family day" at a nearby convent where we mainly talked about adult life, getting jobs, having a family etc. This included a very uncomfortable talk from our form tutor who talked about how God only approves of the kind of sex that can make babies... so using your mouth or hand is very bad.”
Little appears to have changed in terms of how sex education is delivered at faith-based schools. Charlotte left school five years ago, and remembers her sex education at a Catholic school as “extremely biased and confusing, particularly to people who didn’t define as heterosexual. We were shown abortion videos and given a slut-shaming talk by people who told us we had to wait until marriage to have sex”. Female oral sex was never mentioned, but Charlotte was told that “giving your husband a blowjob is the most intimate thing you can do”. The teacher described this as part of a wife’s “emotional responsibility” to her husband.
There’s obviously a conflict of interests here. Some parents will inevitably choose to send their children to religious schools because they want them to receive teaching that is influenced by religious doctrine. Unfortunately, this is extremely harmful when it comes to sex education, as teenagers are often provided with information that is objectively false, that leaves out crucial material, and is inherently detrimental to young women when they are shamed for showing an interest in sex or becoming sexually active. All children and teenagers, regardless of whether they come from Catholic, Church of England, Muslim or secular backgrounds, deserve to receive unbiased information about sex and relationships, so that they are able to make their own, informed choices about their lives and bodies.
If teachers aren’t correctly trained to deliver a meaningful sex and relationships curriculum, it’s essential that schools employ outreach and youth workers who can pick up the baton in this area. Schools should be equipped to provide honest information about LGBT relationships and gender identity, so that gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual and transgender students are not excluded from sex education. Teenage years are full of exploration and are often the time when young people are discovering and coming to terms with their sexuality.
It’s important that we don’t overlook the interest teenagers have in the fundamental questions about sex and relationships. Young people need to be aware of the building blocks that will help them form healthy, mutually pleasurable relationships, including creating foundations of trust and respect. Otherwise, the myth that sex is something men should attempt to get from women (at all costs) and sex is something women should withhold from men (to prevent them being denigrated as ‘sluts’ or ‘easy’) will continue to be perpetuated.
The government’s plans to introduce the teaching of consent to children aged 11 are definitely a step in the right direction, but do they go far enough? The series of lesson plans on the meaning and importance of consent, produced by the Personal Social Heath and Economic Education Association (PSHEA), were backed by ministers but not made a compulsory part of the curriculum. This means that teaching of consent may be cursory or sporadic, and some schools may choose to ignore the lesson plans altogether.
The need for a more comprehensive sex and relationships curriculum is urgent. By providing young people with unbiased and broad-ranging information on consent, mutual respect, mutual pleasure, pornography, and the meaning of rape culture, structural problems of sexism and sexual violence can be challenged early on. It’s essential that teenagers are able to navigate sex and relationships in a safe and informed manner, so that their personal lives can be fulfilling and independent, and free from harmful misinformation and abuse.Sideboxes Related stories: Preventing abuse in the UK: a matter of education Our bodies as battlegrounds Sexual harassment in UK schools Claiming rights, facing fire: young feminist activists Not just banter: the epidemic of sexism on university campuses Will academia ever graduate from sexism? Trapped: women fleeing violence in the UK Ched Evans: football in the eye of a perfect storm Laurie Penny on Unspeakable Things British democracy and women's right to live free from violence Responding to sexual abuse in the UK: class, race and culture What will it take to end violence against women in the UK? It's time for feminists to Get In, not Lean In. The war against contraception: “Women need to be liberated from their libidos." Crime not shame: challenging the ideology of rape
Seoul continues to strengthen its anti-trafficking frameworks, but neither migrant wives nor migrant workers find the language of ‘trafficking’ helpful in addressing their concerns.
The perspectives of criminal justice and human rights offer distinct conceptual and policy frameworks for understanding and addressing trafficking, its causes, and possible solutions to the problem. At the risk of oversimplification, I will briefly outline their differences before discussing my research on ‘trafficked women’ in South Korea that shows how the human rights language has served as the “soft glove” for the “punishing fist” of the criminal justice system in anti-trafficking measures, and how most migrant workers and migrant wives avidly avoid the trafficking framework in their fight for better protection of their rights.
A criminal justice framework understands human trafficking as a problem caused by ‘bad guys’ who abuse the labour of innocent people. The criminals need to be stopped, and the state is obliged to mobilise the full strength of the law enforcement apparatus to punish the criminals. The victims need to be rescued and reintegrated into either their home or host country. If sufficient resources are invested in police, border control, and information campaigns about the dangers of falling victim to the crime, and if heavy enough penalties are imposed, then human trafficking can be controlled if not erased. Abusive and violent employers and recruiters preying on the dreams and labour of poor people are therefore the main cause of trafficking, while the state intervenes to halt such abuse and restore order. As the problem of human trafficking grows, the state needs to expand its regulatory and punitive powers accordingly. This perspective focuses on the visible violence perpetrated by clearly identifiable agents (the traffickers and their auxiliaries) on the victims. Trafficking is therefore a disruption of the normal order of things.
The human rights approach draws on international agreements and national legal provisions to go beyond the direct violations of human rights by traffickers in order to examine trafficking as a failure of states to protect and to fulfil the full spectrum of human rights—for migrants or otherwise. Human trafficking is thereby seen as rooted in global and national inequalities, regulatory regimes that make unsafe migration necessary, and the lack of adequate protections for migrants and labourers. Trafficking is thus considered a product of the current global political economic order, and the state bears partial responsibility for the range of human rights violations included within its definition.
A human rights-based approach furthermore identifies victims of trafficking as rights-bearers rather than targets of state action, and therefore have the right to be involved in decisions that directly affect them. For example, it does not render human rights protection conditional upon the victims’ cooperation with law enforcement to facilitate prosecution. Ideally, a human rights-based approach seeks to identify and empower populations who are vulnerable to human trafficking, and prevent them from engaging in unsafe migration by strengthening their capacities for claiming rights: as workers, migrants, immigrants, and citizens, for example. This is, however, what a human rights approach ideally should aspire to achieve rather than how it is practiced on the ground. Different stakeholders, including the state, deploy the language of human rights for their own interests and concerns, resulting often in a contradictory set of claims and practices that may undermine the human rights of the target population.Filipina entertainers…
As an anthropologist, my research traces how states deploy global anti-trafficking discourses in different contexts, and what these anti-trafficking efforts mean to the migrants and workers who experience abuse first-hand. One key problem is the conflation of human trafficking with trafficking into forced prostitution, popularly known as ‘sex trafficking.’ This view also presumes women’s sexual victimhood and negates the possibility of sex as work. A second problem is the privileging of a criminal justice approach over a human rights-based approach, undermining the rights and capacities of migrant men and women as well as sex workers as a result.
In 1998, I began ethnographic research on Filipina entertainers in US Military camptowns in South Korea. Catering to a US military clientele in the clubs, these migrant women filled the gap left by Korean women who found better prospects outside of the camptowns. Over the next two years of my research, Korean and international nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) came to identify these women entertainers as ‘victims of international trafficking.’ Central to these women’s definition as victims of trafficking was the performance of sexual labour by some of these women—sometimes but not always under coercive circumstances. Their intimate relationships with their customers and employers, their fear of the police and immigration, and their desire for better working conditions find no place in the ‘trafficking’ narratives that highlight their powerlessness, sometimes referring to them as ‘sex slaves.’
As alarms about the trafficking of Filipinas into forced prostitution caught international attention, both the Philippines and South Korean governments tightened control on travel and visas for ‘entertainers.’ It became more difficult for the Filipinas to leave home for these jobs. In the following years, some of the women who had returned to the Philippines and wanted to work again in South Korea had to resort to more dangerous paths and less familiar destinations, placing themselves in more precarious situations.…and South Korean anti-trafficking law
The year 2000 marked a turning point on both international and local fronts with a surge of anti-trafficking efforts, including the passage of the United Nations Protocol on trafficking and the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The US government also identified prostitution as a prevalent form of human trafficking and began to promote this view through the State Department.
In 2004, South Korea replaced the old ‘Prevention of Prostitution Act’ with the ‘Act on the Punishment of Procuring Prostitution and Associated Acts’ (Punishment Act) and the ‘Act on the Prevention of Prostitution and Protection of Victims Thereof’ (Protection Act). These laws led South Korea to be recognised by the US government in the 2005 TIP report as a country with ‘Best International Practices’ in combating trafficking—even though they were targeted only at prostitution. The expansion of resources for policing far exceeded that of welfare provisions (including livelihood support, welfare services, and vocational training for victims of prostitution). For example, in 2004, three new branches of the National Police Agency were created and 20,000 additional police officers were recruited for the crackdown on prostitution and locating missing children. Five times the amount of money was spent on policing than on welfare provision for “prostituted women.”
The new laws were launched with high-profile crackdowns and arrests of clients, brothel-owners, and sex workers. The laws continued to criminalise women who do not qualify as victims, such as independent sex workers. The heavier penalties of the new laws made sex workers reluctant to report abusive clients, while lives for the many who continued to work in prostitution became more difficult and precarious. Since 2004, seasonal and annual police raids take place as a demonstration of the government’s will to enforce the new laws.
How do the laws address the needs of foreign women forced into prostitution? Article 13 of the Punishment Act, titled ‘Special Provisions for Foreign Women,’ stipulates that those who file reports or are being investigated as victims of trafficking into forced prostitution would be temporarily exempted from deportation in order to file suits and claim damages. In effect, this turns foreign women into instruments of law enforcement without due protection of their means of livelihood. Even though the 2009 TIP report suggested that these victims are allowed employment, documents from the immigration department as well as local service-providers have indicated otherwise. Only a handful of foreign women have ever sought help in government shelters.
Do other migrants in South Korea fight for their inclusion in these anti-trafficking efforts? No. Neither migrant wives nor migrant workers find the language of ‘trafficking’ helpful in addressing their concerns. Female marriage migrants (migrant wives) have become a significant presence due to South Korea’s demographic crisis in the new millennium. By 2006, 11.9 percent of all marriages were international marriages, and close to 70 percent of them were marriages between Korean men and foreign women. The cultural and social isolation of these migrants, as well as their dependence on their Korean spouses for resident status, have made them vulnerable to a range of human rights violations.
However, activists from within the international marriage community protested against the use of ‘trafficking’ as a blanket term that erases their agency, instead demanding the protection of their rights as migrants and as individuals under the term “migrant women’s human rights.” Migrant workers have been organising to fight against the Employment Permit System that limits their right to change jobs and denies their right to challenge abusive working conditions. An IOM report detailed how migrant workers, who made up 70 percent of the agricultural sector, are excluded from the Labour Standards Act and have no channels of redress for the physical and sexual violence they experience. Migrant workers are much more concerned about fighting for rights than about their inclusion in the trafficking discourse.
To sum up, the exclusive focus of the South Korean anti-trafficking laws on criminalising prostitution fails to protect the rights of sex workers and renders irrelevant the human rights abuses of migrant workers. In addition, migrant wives and migrant workers resist or are otherwise uninterested in anti-trafficking initiatives, as they emphasise victimhood and criminalisation rather than the advancement of their rights. These observations make it necessary for activists and policy-makers to reconsider two major issues. First, is emphasising criminalisation and prosecution the best strategy for preventing the abuse of vulnerable populations? Secondly, what lessons could be learned from the resistance of migrant wives and migrant workers in South Korea to the anti-trafficking discourse, who instead favour institutional reforms to solidify and expand their rights?
This points to the urgent need to re-evaluate the current anti-trafficking paradigm that is fundamentally focused on fighting crimes and not protecting rights: the UN Protocol against trafficking is an optional protocol under the Convention on Transnational Organized Crime, and various national legislations are designed to punish the ‘bad guys’ rather than to protect the rights of workers and migrants. Anti-trafficking measures have aided in the aggrandisement of state powers and have done little to empower vulnerable populations. The experiences of sex workers, migrant wives, and migrant workers in South Korea are by no means unique and have echoes across national borders. If the protection of human rights is the goal, then we need to look beyond ‘human trafficking’ as a paradigm of intervention.Sideboxes Related stories: Anti-trafficking: whitewash for anti-immigration programmes Anti-trafficking campaigns, sex workers and the roots of damage The role of the state and law in trafficking and modern slavery
As Assemblies for Democracy meet this Spring, citizens are starting to ask what real democracy is. Democracy doesn't need heroes or heroines, but level-headed good practitioners.
Do you have things in your life that you truly love? I am sure you do, I am sure that the very question conjures their image into your mind. Though I can't guarantee it, I truly believe that those images would all be the faces of the people close to you. Do you have ideas, principles and ideals you truly love? Does that question conjure something into your mind, or does it give pause for reflection?
For myself I have to say, unlike my first question where I would confidently imagine what the question would conjure in your mind, to my second question I don't know. Many years ago, I would have said freedom, equality, friendship, civilisation, community and perhaps most certainly I would have thought one of the ideas that would be dear to your heart would be democracy. As you already know this is no comment about how I see you, it is something that causes me to reflect upon myself. I have to ask myself what has changed to change me.
I am going to share a secret. At sixteen years of age I committed a rather major felony. I stole a voting card and went off to vote in my first general election. You don't need to know the gory details of how I as an idealistic young scamp raised in Labour safe seat country decided I wanted to vote for a lady, whose name I shall keep anonymous for fear of repercussions, because she represented the end of the age of men in grey suits.
Regardless of my rather immature reasoning going to vote was an adventure. The polling station was in my old infants school, but going there on polling day was like stepping into the adults' secret cavern. An initiation process that after which I would gain insights and knowledge into how the real world worked that would blow my schoolboy mind. Racking up the felonies I, a chubby spotty young boy, impersonated the fine educated young gentleman who'd decided that voting was so passé that his vote could be lackadaisically cast aside. Brazenly presenting 'my' voting card to the registrar, I thought damn the consequences, my country needs me to act on these beautiful ideals, these visions of loveliness cast in words. These thoughts that could shape a world.
What has changed in me, what did I work out as I engaged in my pause for reflection? I worked out, I guess, how little I know. I worked out that the ideals of one person don't actually represent the unifying force that brings a nation together. That believing in something doesn't make it true. That heroines and heroes are legendary beings, that when cast into reality do the same bodily ablutions as me. That they don't know everything, that regardless of how determinedly they deliver the three repetitions rule of speech making, the sparkle and razzmatazz doesn't make for well considered wisdom. Yet the thought of living in a democratic society won't die, apathy and obliviousness won't take away the dream. But the vision needs to grow up.
Now as I think about the search for a truly democratic society I know one thing as a fact, as it stands in the context of here and now as well supported by my observations. Maybe it's a truth that will stand long past the age of humankind. Democracy is a process of doing, not an ideal. It is given meaning and form in the collective effort.
I cannot be a practitioner of democracy and stand alone. I cannot be a democratic citizen who preaches an unchanging ideology that is resistant to the views and opinions of the people around me. I cannot be a hero of democracy. Democracy doesn't need heroes or heroines, it needs level headed good practitioners. It needs people with enough cautionary doubt to motivate careful listening, enough gentleness of spirit to be good company in a heated debate and enough selfishness to pursue the best interests of themselves and the people they care about.
Democracy isn't in the leadership, therefore it isn't in the selection of leaders. The vote isn't the power of democracy. It is merely one tool for the expression of democratic will. The process of democracy is the people's exploration of the choices, that starts with their understanding of the issues they face. From that view I look at the democratic movements in history and see democracy aside from any revolutionary acts of shock and bluster. I shan't cast down the examples, it's as well for true democracy that your knowledge casts doubt upon my opinions.
However I will say that movement has been through the consciousness of the people, the decision to explore a path of governance that took responsibility upon themselves and away from a false idol. That was the real and practical force of change. The acts of violence that did happen, in my viewwere against the barriers of communication, the blockages of the process. But in many cases they were probably inefficient choices, the spilling over of grievance, the one-sided view of blame. After the people achieve a democratic consciousness, the real struggle is already won.
The mentality of a free democratic citizen is learned by doing the practice of being democratic. Listening, talking and sharing the free and honest flow of facts, views and questions. Reaching the choice to try solutions knowing that making errors of judgement is part of the process and will be tempered by those you share that process with. If bad decisions are made, taking responsibility and keeping a proper eye on the consequences, intended and unintended, should lead quickly to changing the decision and correcting it.
I think I am still naive and immature and that is a good thing to know, it makes me more willing to listen to others. I did learn to take responsibility from my youthful errors and change my mind over political ideologies. I stopped looking for heroines to end the reign of grey suits and for coal miners to smelt iron wills. But I did do one thing right as a kid, I exercised my democratic will and learnt from the experience.
This article was first published at the National Community Activists Network, NatCAN.Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox:
The Great Charter Convention – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.Related stories: Re-imagining democracy - peoples' assemblies Rights: CC by NC 3.0
In seven years of working on the graveyard shift at the Most Successful Bank in the Universe, what I saw was pretty shocking.
Bankers, says the current iconography, are greedy, amoral money grabbers.
I, too, once subscribed to that innocent belief. But the bankers I met during seven years of working on the graveyard shift at the Most Successful Bank in the Universe are nothing like as harmless as that.
What I saw during those seven seasons of midnights at the Bank was a brutal social Darwinist selection of the Fittest to Rule, an adoration of military style masculinity, and above all a cult of ‘leadership’ as an inborn trait that is supposed to make those ‘leaders’ genetically superior to the rest of us – and justifies their sadistic treatment of ‘inferiors’. Reluctantly, and over time, I began to admit to myself that there is a word for this kind of ideology although it is rarely used in this context. A word that is big and frightening. Let me take you a little further inside the Bank before I dare to voice it.
When I joined the Most Successful Bank in the Universe, I had three pounds left. I held them tight in my pocket, pressed against the flesh of my hand.
That night, together with seven other jobless humanities graduates, I entered the Building Without a Name. In the heart of the City of London, next to a medieval graveyard, I walked through the obscure little door with neither name nor logo on it, crossed the secret marble hall inside, and was taken down into the bowels of the Third Basement for Basic Training – a ‘vigorous’ test of whether I was Fit to Survive.
In my book, ‘Graveyards of the Banks’, I take the reader with me through that secret door. Through the medium of a haunting novel, you can experience what I did: squeeze through the maze of desks on the huge working floors, sit trapped in an iron chair high above the city of London creating high end graphics to illustrate the Bank’s vision for 8 hours without a break. Lose your sleep, privacy, toilet privileges and all your dignity. Surrounded by a war like atmosphere where every 4AM deadline was a crisis and we all lived in terminal fear.
Bankers often fell asleep under their closely huddled desks, covered by day-old smelly shirts and towels slowly drying in the icy aircon, clutching their briefcases like the young soldiers in the trenches of a war a hundred years ago. Every night, any of us could be fired. And then there was the annual cull that mandated a fixed percentage of ‘terminations’. I was told I would be dismissed if I voiced the slightest criticism.
Nothing in my life in the humanities had prepared me for an environment as hostile to human life as this.
Why did I stay? Why did we all stay?
I did it for the money.
Mordor in the City paid me more for this night job than I ever earned before (or after), although of course my wages (calculated on the basis of 15 minute units that were rigorously policed, and shifts that could be cut short without pay at 5AM or whenever the Bank felt like it) were risible compared to what the bankers made. My colleagues in the graphics centre were historians, scientists, clinical psychologists and even economists, one was a former headmistress. We all barely managed to make ends meet in London, even so.
Working conditions in the Most Successful Bank in the Universe were not conducive to sustained cognitive thought. But slowly I began to adjust my perceptions. That’s when I realized: what I had been told about the banks was completely wrong.
The bankers treated us, the workers in the ‘Center of Global Excellence’ as our supervisors called it, as losers who deserved only contempt and constant verbal abuse. Those bankers were themselves (almost exclusively) young men undergoing a brutal grooming process, designed to select the rulers of tomorrow.
I discovered that this ‘Selection of the Fittest’ ideology was present in every aspect of what the Bank did – to us, and to the outside world. And this ideology is what differentiates it, in my view, from the other, more traditional, authoritarian and highly stratified systems I initially mistook it for.
The official image of banking as glamorous and performed by a meritocracy of super talents (popular before the crash but still going strong among the wannabes) was debunked immediately. There is nothing glamorous about sweating into the same suit for 20 hours and fighting over the last milk bottle in the filthy kitchen. Like us, the bankers were condemned to endless, useless repetitive tasks that did nothing but maximise mistakes in our collective output – we certainly were not maximizing shareholder value. In fact the Bank was run just as inefficiently as the much maligned public sector organisations it was trying to destroy.
But, as stated above, the iconic figure of the banker as a greedy, dirty, alcoholic toddler was also woefully incorrect. This came as a huge surprise to me. Like many humanities graduates I had no idea what to expect from finance, except money.
Well, of course , money is important, but it is by no means the highest value in the Bank.
The aggressively expressed and mercilessly implemented ideology the Bank subjected us to fulfills, to my horror, most of the criteria for the most notorious and brutal ideology of the 20th century, updated and evolved into a slick, global 21st century version. I was hesitant to name it, because it is such a terrifying word, but more and more, and although I really didn’t want to believe my tired eyes, I began to see striking parallels to elements of the ideology of fascism.
I have been warned not to use the word ‘fascism’ because, for some people, it has been devalued to the point where its meaning can no longer be understood, like a ‘coverall’ political swear word for everything we don’t like. If true, that is a real shame, and also quite dangerous. How are we going to recognize the changing forms of virulent ideologies if we can’t name them? Is the real, unspeakable F word ‘fascism’?
Another problem, in my view, is that the iconography of fascism (largely a product of British and US media) is so firmly placed in the past, all grainy films, swastikas and uniforms, and the past of only a handful of countries, that it is hard to recognize it in contemporary form. But I saw many aspects of it, alive and thriving, in the Banks.
So let me be cautious and call it proto-fascism because it is not the ideology of a nation state, only that of the most powerful institutions in the world that pack the economic punch and political influence of many nation states combined. A 21st century high tech proto-fascism that revolves, like traditional fascism, around the core idea of a master race, a group of ‘born leaders’ whose superiority to the rest of us is a biological phenomenon. Born to rule, proving themselves through war and corporate combat, and therefore deserved winners of the battle of Survival of the Fittest, while the rest of us are losers, Unfit to Live, and deserve the bad treatment we get.
This new definition of the master race as ‘leaders’ has become decoupled from race and ethnicity (though not from gender). To me it looked like a very clever update (or evolutionary adaptation...) that makes it acceptable to many who would otherwise reject it. And it can now be globally applied.
Genetic superiority is not just a justification of ruthless behaviour. Constant battle readiness is seen as further proof of exhibiting traits of ‘dominance’ which is itself perceived as an integral part of ‘natural leadership’. Dominance is also linked with the cult of warrior like masculinity which perhaps goes some way towards explaining the continued gender imbalance in Banking. It’s not that women can’t count (or get MBAs), it’s that the proto-fascist ideology sees them as naturally (ie. genetically) inferior. Submissive to male dominance, to be absolutely clear. I certainly saw that every night, reflected in the bankers’ actions, most of whom were proud possessors of a penis.
The more senior bankers sometimes shared amused glances with each other (and occasionally also with me, a ‘girl’ on the sidelines) while they watched the ‘young dogs’ fight it out, fight each other, fight to regain some modicum of emotional control, fight dehydration, fight sleep deprivation, fight but never show tears… The bankers were always, always angry (except when they collapsed from exhaustion – unlike truck drivers and pilots they had no legally enforceable rest periods, and neither did I). Anger was the only acceptable emotion at the Bank, unless you wanted to be fired for being weak.
I know (because they told me) that many senior bankers saw these conditions as proving grounds that would select the Fittest to Rule. The survivors would be those ‘natural’ leaders. Conditions that were often compared (with pride) to ‘bootcamps’ in the military, creating an elite troupe of corporate killers. Fascist regimes love to create these, too. Upper bankers fantasized about being generals in the wars of the galaxies. The junior bankers were cannon fodder. Most of them didn’t survive the first year.
The upper bankers, showing me their teeth, would say that they were the proud products of this very same selection process – successful predators to a man.
The young bankers couldn’t believe what had happened to them. Little princes who had been privileged at every stage of their careers so far, they had been told they were special and destined for greatness, and not just by their mothers. And now – cannon fodder in the trenches. Again, not unlike their counterparts a hundred years ago.
All this fighting and ruthless elimination cannot stand still, either economically or psychologically. If you see yourself as an elite corporate killer, you need something to kill. Your empire needs to dominate. Like deregulated neo-con capitalism, this ideology runs on perpetual, aggressive expansion, another core element of fascism.
The bankers are not just fighting for themselves. They are fighting for a new world order in which they are the superior species. Lloyd Blankfein’s famous 2009 quote that Goldman Sachs (his bank) was doing ‘God’s work’ was received with a lot of derision at the time but in a deeper sense it is absolutely true. The Banks are on a mission to change the world and rule it. Unfortunately, the rest of us, the genetically inferior losers, have to live in this world too.
Let me be clear: I don’t think of individual bankers as ‘evil’. I also don’t believe in conspiracy theories. What I saw is the product of a long term corporatist/neocon/proto-fascist world view that has evolved over decades, accelerated by concurrent political developments, particularly in the US and the UK.
My theory may sound a little outlandish to you. Don’t believe me sight unseen. Read my book (although it won’t take you seven years, I promise). Follow Nyla into the dark heart of capitalism and experience what life is like in these secretive institutions – not as described by bankers (with their obvious agenda), or journalists who remain outside (very few journalists have ever been inside the Building Without A Name) but by an ‘accidental’ grassroots insider who has seen more secrets in seven years that the average banker sees in a life time.
‘I did it for the money’ is volume 1 of a trilogy. Volume 2 ‘Monsters Arising’ will focus on institutionalized bullying (our own shift leaders had absolute power over us on the night shift and used it). Volume 3 ‘Slaughterhouse Morning’ will open up the vista to mass firings, large scale human experiments and a close-up of the boys on top.
Nyla Nox is the author of ‘Graveyards of the Banks – I did it for the money’, available on Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/Graveyards-Banks-Midnights-Successful-Universe-ebook/dp/B00U7HRVNK
Under the rubric of state security on the one hand and commercial openness on the other, we are being lulled into an online world of fear and control where our every move is monitored in order to more efficiently manage us. See Part 2.
This article launches a new section of the Great Charter Convention dedicated to debate and analysis of democracy, politics and freedom in the digital age. It is clear that we are at a crucial historical juncture. The issues around state power and surveillance raised by Edward Snowden’s revelations should be an important theme in the upcoming general election, while the symbolic double anniversary of Magna Carta (aged 800) and the web (aged 25) offers an opportunity for critical reflection on how to upgrade fundamental liberties in response to new threats and re-imagine how technology can serve the common good.
We are to a great extent playing catch-up. The rapidity of technological change has vastly outpaced the development of our laws, institutions and regulatory systems, along with the articulation of the ethical categories and principles with which to understand and evaluate them. Under the rubric of state security on the one hand and commercial openness on the other, we are being lulled into an online world of fear and control where our every move is monitored in order to more efficiently manage us.
It is a far cry from the utopianism of the early internet era. The open architecture of the internet still offers fantastic possibilities for human liberation. It has provided new tools with which citizens can organize to contest power and challenge official narratives.
As with any new technology however the internet was introduced into a society already marked by economic and social hierarchies. In the absence of countervailing forces, dominant groups have largely determined the direction in which the technology has developed and as a result it has reinforced the dominant neoliberal paradigm of unfettered markets and property rights buttressed by increasingly authoritarian states.
Faced with this reality, how do we protect and enhance human freedom? Is it enough to apply earlier claims of rights to new circumstances? Or does the current regime of power and surveillance demand that earlier ethical categories have to be rethought or even entirely replaced? What are the collective institutions and structures required for an internet based not solely on profit but on human flourishing?
These are the broad questions we will explore. Though it would be foolish to pretend a document drawn up by feudal barons contains the answers, the Magna Carta furnishes a rich tradition of resistance to arbitrary power to inspire and orientate contemporary struggles. It has, as Peter Linebaugh reminds us, always been a ‘work in progress’ with a symbolic vitality that animated the later democratic demands of the Levellers in the English civil war, campaigns against slavery and anti-imperial struggles in America and elsewhere. Despite appeals to self-evident and timeless truths, rights have always been a historical project, expanded from below by political struggles that radicalised the core principle of human freedom and applied it to new political subjects in new domains.
Now the inventor of the web Tim Berners Lee has challenged digital citizens to help draft a ‘Magna Carta for the web’ as part of the wider Web we Want campaign. The group hopes to mobilise global public opinion around a set of core principles of free expression, accessibility, privacy, openness and network neutrality. They are showcasing their campaign with a series of festivals at London’s South Bank (with the next one in May), adding to the excellent work of Open Rights Group, Privacy International and other established campaign for digital rights and freedoms.
The call for a new set of safeguards is the very opposite of Tory proposals for a ‘British Bill of Rights’ to replace the Human Rights Act. The ruling party’s view is based on a reactionary and minimalist view of Magna Carta as ‘enough’. This is antithetical to the document’s radical historical tradition and the role it played in shaping the modern idea of human rights, including Article 8 on the right to privacy in the European Convention on Human Rights that can be traced back to the right for respect for one’s home in English law.
The parliamentary assembly of the European Court has called the scale of GCHQ’s spying ‘stunning’ and found it in violation of rights to privacy, free expression and a fair trial. If a future Tory government carries out its plan, and withdraws from the European Convention, the UK government would be embracing pariah status; the first worldwide to introduce a new bill of rights with the aim of providing fewer rights to its citizens. If a future Tory government carries out its plan, and withdraws from the European Convention, the UK government would be embracing pariah status; the first worldwide to introduce a new bill of rights with the aim of providing fewer rights to its citizens. Without the protection of European human rights law, UK citizens will be left systematically vulnerable. Ed Miliband has at least committed to retaining the ECHR yet he has typically fudged the issue of mass surveillance and failed to take a principled line, despite initial promises he made to reverse the authoritarian inheritance of New Labour.
Naturally, any debate about state power and the role of technology cannot be divorced from wider arguments about the kind of politics and society we wish to create. The legal scholar Julie E. Cohen points out the parallels with the era of industrialisation where transformations in technology and the accompanying social upheavals brought with them new threats to human freedom. Violent processes of enclosure robbed peasants of their traditional way of life and subjected them to new humiliations and cruelties in the factories. It took years for workers to develop effective forms of organisation through trade unions and to name and diagnose the harms that underscored moral claims to limits on the working day, decent pay and conditions, and later to a social minimum from the surplus they produced. We now find ourselves in a new industrial revolution – the second machine age. It took years for workers to develop effective forms of organisation through trade unions and to name and diagnose the harms that underscored moral claims… We now find ourselves in a new industrial revolution – the second machine age.
The net offers novel threats and organisational challenges, as well as new possibilities for human flourishing. With the spying agencies and corporations pushing through a new infrastructure of social control in pursuit of state power and limitless accumulation, it is up to us, as digital citizens, to fight back and define a new regime of protections and entitlements. There are a number of themes to this debate that we aim to explore, drawing on the insight of the many excellent campaigns and experts working in these areas.
Privacy and the state
It is almost two years since Edward Snowden first exposed the fact that US and UK spying capabilities are far more sinister and advanced than anyone reasonably feared. GCHQ has ‘tapped’ the submarine fibre-optic cables transporting internet data in and out of the UK to give it blanket powers to monitor our so-called ‘meta-data’ that reveals the who, when and where of our communications and browsing history. They have behaved like a criminal gang, hacking phone companies, along with the NSA, to steal millions of records and using coercion and infiltration to bypass the encryption protections used by private internet companies. This has all been done indiscriminately in the name of fighting crime and terrorism without prior authorisation and zero transparency.
Astonishingly, we are asked to believe it does not amount to mass surveillance but in fact ‘bulk interception’, on the basis that not everything is being read by a human being. Just how much precisely is read was redacted in the recent report by parliament’s craven Intelligence and Security Committee. In any case, all our information is still stored and monitored by algorithms engineered by human beings. It is rather like someone installing CCTV cameras in your house while insisting it is not surveillance because only a small amount of footage is ever watched (and refusing to say how much). It is rather like someone installing CCTV cameras in your house while insisting it is not surveillance because only a small amount of footage is ever watched (and refusing to say how much).
The philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham had a more sophisticated (and honest) understanding of how power operates in his design for a panoptical prison to control inmates. The design features a central viewing chamber with a system of mirrors that allows a single guard to keep watch on the entire prison population in their cells. Bentham understood that the guard did not have to watch any given cell for the surveillance operation to work: the prisoners would internalise the gaze of the authorities and regulate their behaviour accordingly. Michel Foucault extrapolated from this design the logic of an entire ‘disciplinary’ society composed of submissive subjects, controlled not through force but through an idea into self-regulated ‘automatic docility’.
The government is putting in place the surveillance infrastructure of a vast open air prison. It insults human dignity because it treats us as predictable units to be managed. As the philosopher Michael Lynch puts it, privacy is closely tied to the value of individual autonomy. Without it, “I learn what reactions you will have to stimuli, why you do what you do, you will become like any other object to be manipulated. You would be, as we say, dehumanized.” Stripped of this privileged access to our inner psychology, he says, our sense of our self dies.
It also does incalculable damage to democracy. Many will now think twice about who they associate with online and what websites they visit. They will think differently about what it is ‘to be different’. The danger is that you will be branded an ‘extremist’ by the state or that you could find yourself blackmailed by one of the many thousands of personnel who can access the system without authorisation. Even members of the public whose online activities are entirely ‘innocent’ should consider the benefits they derive from living in a society in which others can exercise freedoms of speech and association in order to hold power accountable.
The threat of terrorist attacks in the UK requires a calm-headed and proportionate response. Human rights groups have made the case that there should be targeted surveillance based on suspicion and that collected data should be kept for limited periods and for the specific purposes for which it is intended. The clamour by politicians for more powers that follows every terrorist attack (no matter the facts of the case) is draconian and misguided and does nothing to address the underlying political and social conditions that explain why British citizens leave home to join groups like ISIS.
The response to Snowden in the UK has been pretty dispiriting. The media has been near silent on Snowden (apart from The Guardian who published his revelations), while Parliament has utterly failed as a watchdog. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has suggested that the issue is simply ‘too huge’ for MP’s to deal with. Although large sections of the public are concerned, there has not been the sort of anger and mobilisation necessary to halt this developing infrastructure. There is some evidence of a generational divide with younger groups less likely to rank respect for others’ privacy as an important value compared to older generations.
How can a political coalition be formed to take back our privacy? Is the existing framework of human rights law sufficient? What new legal and political protections are needed? And what powers should the security agencies have to fulfil their function? These are some of the questions we will be looking to explore.
Privacy and corporations
The openness encouraged (and required) by social media, apps and nearly every commercial website we visit perhaps explains the lack of widespread anger at state spying. People see clear benefits in divulging their information to companies, which includes convenience and free and personalised services. The net also provides a space to affirm and develop our identities. As Ian Brown, of the Oxford Internet Institute, writes, the ‘internet has given individuals greater opportunities to express and develop marginalized identities (e.g., sexuality and fringe ideologies), and to overcome social anxiety’. The worry is that people are not adequately informed about the effects of this informational transfer, and what private corporations do with their data.
Thoughts and indiscretions shared online can be monitored years later by employers, schools, universities, and insurance companies, among others. Twitter recently announced plans to sell off trillions of its users’ tweets. They maintain that anything said on Twitter is said on a ‘public platform’ and should therefore be available to specialised corporate data-miners who will assemble personalised profiles with which businesses can customise products and services. The announcement of a loved one dying is apparently a legitimate piece of public information to be exploited by companies: according to Twitter. Do its users know this is what they have signed up to! It is all very creepy.
Thoughts, attitudes, emotions, friendships - all are now ‘datafied’. Inferences will be drawn from this data, with all context removed, leaving room for distortion, embarrassment and worse. Conceivably, the information assembled will provide a window into our deepest inner world, revealing things about us that we ourselves do not know (and would want to keep private if we did). This represents a fundamental shift in the balance of power in the favour of corporations.
Mark Zuckerberg has said that each of us only has one single true identity. This crude vision underpins the infrastructure through which millions organise their social lives and online identities. It is at odds with the variety of different social roles many of us play (worker, activist, student, boss, romantic prospect) and the anxiety and disorientation that can arise when one context spills over into another and we lose all ability to order them for ourselves. These concerns will be amplified with the ‘internet of things’ that will track our physical objects and the increasing use of facial recognition software.
How should we understand privacy in the different contexts in which we live and interact online? What powers should consumers have over their data? How can the power of corporations and advertisers be reined in? Under these conditions, what will a defence of our right to manage our own affairs and our own identities look like in the future?
This article is part of the Great Charter Convention series.Sideboxes Related stories: Digital rights and freedoms: Part 2
More than rights, a set of guiding principles is needed to counterpose to the reigning ideals of ‘security’, ‘growth’ and ‘innovation’. Alternative ideals, perhaps, such as democracy, health and environmental sustainability? See Part 1.
The net has the potential to revolutionize democracy with an informed citizenry empowered to deliberate and decide on key issues. Yet current trends strengthen anti-democratic forces. In addition to concerns over privacy, there is an urgent need to address how the public realm is being hollowed out by corporate interests and advertisers. The ideal of democracy presupposes a shared public sphere in which citizens can construct, debate and decide on collective projects. This requires access to quality information and while the net has certainly increased the quantity of information available, its reliability is debatable. This is compounded by the fact a few key players, such as Facebook and Google, now act as powerful gatekeepers to who sees what.
The traditional news media is in terminal decline and the online world increasingly dominated by a few large conglomerates. Established papers, such as the Telegraph, debase their content and engage in corrupt deals to protect revenues, blurring the line between editorial and advertising. Outlets such as the MailOnline chase readers with soft porn, celebrity gossip and sensationalist stories invented or stolen (their preferred word is “aggregated”) from other sites. Large content farms specialise in ‘churnalism’, selling readers directly to advertisers on demand in real-time. There is plenty of ‘comment’, but fewer trained journalists with the skills and resources to follow stories of incompetence and corruption, most worryingly at the level of local government.
There is also the phenomenon of ‘filter bubbles’, which describes how tracking technologies usher us into cultural and political ghettoes by monitoring what our online preferences are and feeding us more of the same. As a result, we get lots of what we ‘like’ and little of what we need with even Google search pointing us to information that echoes back our own biases. The tendency to immediate gratification and on-demand viewing mitigates against a deliberative political culture. The accountability made possible by the net is often of the trivial, superficial sort (as with Emily Thornberry MP’s resignation from cabinet for tweeting a picture of a van), while the major deceptions (over the NHS, foreign wars, tax havens) have not resulted in anyone being held to account. At a time when the technology exists for radical new forms of decentralised democracy, the Westminster system looks even more sclerotic and indefensible.
Evgeny Morozov, one of the most interesting commentators on Silicon Valley, has warned that big data is being used to dispense with politics itself, substituting ideological conflict about law and policy with a technocratic approach based on the micro-management of individual behavior. The data-driven utopia of Silicon Valley treats free markets as a background structure beyond contestation and sees the solution to social ills in terms of the optimal distribution of relevant information and incentives (‘nudges’). ‘Algorithmic regulation’, Morozov warns, ‘will give us a political regime where technology corporations and government bureaucrats call all the shots’.
If we are to strengthen democratic control, a new approach is needed. How can we secure a deliberative political culture that empowers citizens, especially marginal voices? How can the net support positive rights of political participation? How can we integrate technology to extend popular control over decision-making into new spheres? We invite reflection on these questions.
There is a huge chasm between the utopian world of abundance and free-time that technological improvements make possible and the grinding future of scarcity and hard work that the current epoch of capitalism has prepared for us.
The explosion in automation and technological capability has taken place during a period of huge unemployment, a decline in wages and the cutting back of social provision. Artificial Intelligence, drones, driverless cars, 3D printers and other innovations have the potential to replace much of the work currently done by humans. This is either a threat or an opportunity depending on whether work is organised hierarchically for profit or in a democratic fashion to support human flourishing.
In contrast to exuberant predictions about a networked ‘knowledge‘ economy, the reality of most work in the UK is not like this. In many areas, the net has only enhanced our exploitation. Many of the jobs created in the digital age are of the dull, menial sort, whether it be assembling parts in an Apple factory or robot-like ‘picking’ in an Amazon warehouse. The net has contributed to a ‘flexible’ culture of insecurity and zero hours with the smart phone keeping us permanently tethered to the workplace. Now human resources departments hope to exploit the big data bosses have on their workers, mining calendars and inboxes to predict employee behaviour and engineer the exact routines to craft ‘high performing’ employees.
As the sociologist Will Davies notes, the earlier age of industrial production at least had a clear demarcation between rest and leisure, whereas we are now always switched on, dragged away from each moment by the urge to capture and compare it as the full-time under-labourers of advertisers. The booming industry of retreats and gurus that has arisen in response suggests we are not entirely relaxed about these developments. The practice of mindfulness is apparently popular among those at the forefront of tech-driven predatory capitalism. In Buddhism, mindfulness goes hand-in-hand with the cultivation of universal empathy and kindness and yet today it has been secularised and co-opted to help capitalism sustain its productivity.
What protections are needed against surveillance in the workplace? Do we need a right to ‘switch off’? Or perhaps automation demands a bolder vision along the lines of the ‘fully automated luxury communism’ called for by techno-utopian radicals?
The net offers opportunities to create and enjoy culture like never before, yet this openness and creativity risks being undone by corporate monopolists backed by bullying states. Alongside legislative campaigns for powers of censorship and punitive sanctions for file-sharers, corporations have sought, through Digital Rights Management, to usher us into gated worlds, selling us ‘tethered’ devices, like Kindles, and the exclusive products that go with them. They then harvest our information to market us more products.
There is a strong argument that the cultural resources made available online should be treated as a global cultural ‘commons’ that supports the self-development of the individual and the artistic and intellectual development of human society at large. As it stands, human development and creativity is being held back.
For example, much of human knowledge is locked up behind paywalls controlled by multi-national publishing conglomerates that have bought up the rights to academic journals and charge eye-watering fees for access. The majority of this research is publicly funded and relies on the free labour of academics. Society is denied the benefits of scientific and cultural discovery that would result from liberating this work. And in another sign of the tech-state nexus, law enforcement officers are acting as aggressive enforcers. In the US, the coder and activist Aaron Schwartz was harassed to the point of suicide by the federal government after he downloaded too many journals from JSTOR. In the US, the coder and activist Aaron Schwartz was harassed to the point of suicide by the federal government after he downloaded too many journals from JSTOR. The current monopoly system risks being entrenched by the new TTIP agreement between the EU and the US that would potentially allow companies to take governments to court if new laws hurt their profit lines.
There is no reason to treat earlier regimes of property rights as sacrosanct given the possibilities offered by free and open cultural access. There is no reason to treat earlier regimes of property rights as sacrosanct given the possibilities offered by free and open cultural access. An example of just how quickly earlier pieties can crumble is offered by John Naughton who discusses our predicament by analogy with a Supreme Court ruling in the US in the 1940‘s that ushered in the era of mass aviation. Landowners had complained to the Court about planes flying over their fields, appealing to a conception of property rights that said they owned all the air space above their plot of land stretching into the heavens. At one stroke, the Court made redundant this centuries-old paradigm of property on the basis of the strong interest society had in aviation without the cost and complexity of compensating every individual landowner.
Is it time for a new conception of cultural rights? So, how can we broaden access and participation, while ensuring artists, musicians, directors, academics and other cultural producers are adequately compensated for their work? How useful is the concept of a global online commons and what would it entail?
Underlying these political and legal challenges are a set of profound questions about what the internet is doing to our sense of selves, our relationships and our experience of the world. It appears to be affecting our ability to focus and process and store information, with large parts of our memory now outsourced to our devices. When it comes to friendship, we have more 'connections' but are they of more questionable quality? Under the new paradigm of advertising, you are the brand, and you and your friends are the audience. When it comes to friendship, we have more 'connections' but are they of more questionable quality? Under the new paradigm of advertising, you are the brand, and you and your friends are the audience.
The digital world is encroaching ever-more into the domains of our lives with its underlying logic of profit-seeking. We are steered to behave in routine and predictable ways the better to mould us into reliable consumers with the rise of the ‘quantifiable self’ that calculates every life experience in a cold, hard metric through devices like the Apple watch. Take the new market trend in exercise and healthy living. A run must no longer be a mere pleasurable gallivant in the fresh air, but a competitive exercise in number-crunching with distance, speed, time, calories, and other stats recorded and share online. After the run, we might be offered a new pair of trainers to buy to make us faster next time.
Perhaps our modern condition is best described as a low level gnawing discomfort like background static. It is the sense that something somewhere has to be checked and updated. The logic of this is not to enhance human connection. Indeed, there is much evidence that suggests we are becoming more anxious and alienated. The instrumentalisation of everything comes at a cost. Fundamentally, it is our desire for human connection and participation that is being exploited, but as it stands this impulse is being harnessed for the enrichment of tax-dodging tech giants. Fundamentally, it is our desire for human connection and participation that is being exploited, but as it stands this impulse is being harnessed for the enrichment of tax-dodging tech giants.
Children especially need special protection from a commercial cultural that can seriously consider a creepy new ‘eavesdropping’ Barbie that feeds children’s conversations to The Cloud. Children are more vulnerable to cyber-bullying, which reflects the wider toxic culture of sexist, racist and homophobic bullying on the internet. Perhaps we need to re-assert the concept of ‘play’, to denote a protected space for totally unregulated and spontaneous bouts of fun as an end in itself.
There are also signs of human compassion and altruism online, as with new tools that allow rapid mobilization in response to natural disasters. There are online projects that offer a compelling vision of what can be achieved when human co-operation is harnessed in a participatory fashion around non-market principles. This is the case with projects such as Wikipedia and the open source software movement, which scholars have analysed as ‘commons-based peer production’.
It is notable however that recent years have seen this open and co-operative spirit monetised, with volunteer-based networks like Couchshare, based around trust and giving, being overtaken by AirBnB – an outfit that converts its users into small-scale landlords and capitalists with the firm’s private equity owners making a killing.
There is a great deal of convenience to this new tech, but whose interests does it serve? And what type of human being is being created? What protections are needed for especially vulnerable groups, like children? What are the types of online project that deserve to be further and how can this be achieved?
Are rights the right tool?
It has been suggested that with the net we are seeing the acceleration of a new type of society based on forms of power that the traditional liberal paradigms of rights is ill-equipped to deal with. A more comprehensive view of power is needed across the field of social relations, it is argued, as found in Foucault’s account of a disciplinary society.
According to this view, the liberal idea of a rationally purposive right-holder who is sovereign over their sphere of freedom is misleading. The rights-based view is said to see power merely as an external force, arising from state institutions, to be checked and constrained. It therefore cannot account for power relations in a panoptical society in which our thoughts, feelings and actions are all closely monitored.
Here, power operates through the normalizing gaze of the prison guard: it is not a mere external restraint on our conduct but has a productive role in shaping our inner world and identity to make us obedient and manageable. Power operates through the normalizing gaze of the prison guard: it is not a mere external restraint on our conduct but has a productive role in shaping our inner world and identity to make us obedient and manageable. Under this picture, human freedom is threatened not so much by the crushing boot of 1984’s Big Brother, but the passive intoxication of a Brave New World. A set of formal legal rights against intrusion from the state may provide no more than an illusion of freedom that glosses over the pervasive relations of domination that shape our choices and identities.
Certainly, it is true that whereas the discourse of rights serves us well as a defensive language against abuses, it is less useful when it comes to imagining the kinds of institution and structure that support the technological infrastructure we want to see. Here, more than rights, a set of guiding principles is needed to counterpose to the reigning ideals of ‘security’, ‘growth’ and ‘innovation’. Alternative ideals, perhaps, such as democracy, health and environmental sustainability? This means seeing the net not as a purely private domain of sociability and consumption, to be kept free from state snooping; but rather as a terrain of political struggle with a profound impact on the character of society at large.
Here, the language of rights does not establish the content of the system. Instead, it comes to define the equal access that citizens - and eventually all human beings - have to an online world that exists to secure and promote the common good, as defined by digital citizens themselves.
What kind of principles should guide the development of the net? Is this discourse of individual rights a sufficient defence against new types of power? If not, what kind of alternative ethics is needed? These are some of the questions we will be addressing.
This article is part of the Great Charter Convention series.Sideboxes Related stories: Digital rights and freedoms: Part 1
With Serbia increasingly looking towards Moscow instead of Brussels, does the EU need to rethink its strategy towards the country?
Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic. Wikimedia. Public domain.Successive Serbian governments have been working towards their country’s EU membership since October 2005, when the negotiations with Brussels for the Stabilization and Association Agreement started. Four years later, on December 22, 2009, Serbia applied for membership to the European Union.
Though uneven and plagued with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the negotiation process had inched forward and gathered pace over the past few years. Following lengthy and intense dialogue between the administrations in Belgrade and Brussels on the monitoring and implementation of the EU reform agenda, the accession process was formally initiated.
After signing the Interim Agreement on trade and trade related matters as part of the Stabilization and Association Process in 2008, a way had been paved for a June 2013 vote by the European Council (EC) to open accession negotiations with Serbia. Six months later, in December that same year, the EC adopted the negotiation framework. The convening of the first Intergovernmental Conference on January 21, 2014 had marked the formal start of Serbia’s EU membership negotiations.What the EU wants
While the opening of negotiations provides for an optimistic view of Serbia’s future in the EU – something that Aleksandar Vučić’s government is all too happy to take credit for – there remain a myriad of serious structural, economic and political problems that need to be addressed by the administrations in Brussels and Belgrade. It should, however, be emphasized that some of those problems are not exclusive to Serbia but are an integral part of a shared legacy of authoritarianism, nationalism, and war that devastated the region in 1990s.
Even though Serbia, like its Western Balkan neighbours, has been engaging with the Europeanization model designed in Brussels for the last twenty years, it still remains a playground for a hybrid regime of a proto-democratic type. A multiparty parliamentary system with elections that often barely meet the threshold of regularity and fairness exists alongside informal networks of power, systemic corruption, a deeply polarized political environment, and a profitable union between political and business elites.
There is also the question of its citizens firmly declaring their loyalty to a specific and clearly defined political community, which was noted by analysts as the essential background condition for a successful transition to democracy. Expanding on this point, political scientist Dejan Guzina, from Wilfrid Laurier University, suggested that such a condition has neither been met in Serbia nor its neighboring states of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Kosovo. They all face challenges when it comes to territorial claims as well as the loyalty of their citizens and their sense of belonging. It seems that in order to integrate these contested states, the EU administration is prepared to modify the traditional application of its transformative power and engage in old-fashion nation-state building in the Balkans.
In the case of Serbia, one could detect a combined EU strategy of applying direct political pressure on the government in Belgrade to follow the integration model set by Brussels and adjust its foreign policy objectives, and the administrative approach characterized by encouraging political, economic and social reforms in the country. Direct political pressure manifests itself by the EU insisting first that Serbia successfully concludes its negotiations with Kosovo, and second, that it distances itself from Moscow. On both issues the citizens of Serbia and their government are not of one mind, and the government is facing an uphill battle indeed. Enacting significant economic and financial reforms is an equally daunting task.Kosovo - the unresolved issue
The government in Belgrade is struggling with a foreign policy reorientation. When it comes to continuing negotiations and resolving long standing territorial disputes with Kosovo, the situation is at a standstill, and politicians in Belgrade and Brussels are avoiding discussing the subject.
The silence of the officials with regards to Kosovo is in part the product of uncertainty amongst EU members of just how to approach the issue. Five EU member states are yet to recognize Kosovo. This despite the fact that Serbia’s recognizing the political reality of an independent Kosovo is one of central conditions of its future EU membership. With that in mind, Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo seems just a matter of time. The success of talks between Belgrade and Pristina will be assessed as part of the otherwise less significant Chapter 35, dealing with various bilateral issues. Because of Kosovo, this Chapter will be open first and most likely remain open for the duration of the negotiation. Skeptical voices within Serbia suggest that the pressure from Brussels paired with the desire of both Kosovo and Serbia to join the EU separately is the only reason why the conversation between Belgrade and Pristina is still active. As a consequence, they posit, almost all of the issues discussed have been imposed by the EU administration.
It is apparent that Germany is very keen on seeing the relations between Serbia and Kosovo enter a more stable phase. Sonja Biserko of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia is of the opinion that the most recent German-British initiative on Bosnia and Herzegovina will have an impact on Serbia’s position on Kosovo. Furthermore, she expects the EU to demand that Serbia distances itself from the Republic of Srpska para-state as well.Russia as a resurgent partner
Aleksandar Vučić’s government is also performing the dangerous balancing act of swinging between the EU and the US on one side, and Russia and China on the other. The earlier political dictum “Both Kosovo and the EU” has been now modified into “Both Russia and the EU”. Serbia had refused to join the economic sanctions imposed by the US and the EU against Russia.
In an interview for CNN in August 2014, the Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, reiterated that his country "supports and respects the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and Crimea as a part of Ukraine." He added that at the same time, however, Serbia "did not" impose sanctions against Russia. The Serbian political elite, however, has quickly learned that the time of non-alignment and neutrality belongs to yester-years. Serbia has been reminded time and again by its Western partners of the need to make a choice, and of the fact that the New Cold War reality demands unwavering loyalty. It is also worth noting that Serbia became a member of the Partnership for Peace at the 2006 NATO Summit in Riga.
On the other hand, the government in Moscow is sending a clear message that it does not look benevolently upon Serbia’s EU aspirations. In an interview for the Serbian State Television, the Russian General Leonid Ivashov stated that Serbia in the EU and NATO would be “a catastrophe”. It is reasonable to assume that the pressure from Moscow would only increase over time.
Within the ruling party there seem to be dissonant voices on the issue of choosing between EU and Russia. The President of Serbia, Tomislav Nikolić, disagrees with the prime minister about their country’s EU and NATO integration, and favours stronger ties with Russia. Nikolić’s attempt to maintain close relations with Moscow is informed by his understanding of history and the political usability of the memory of the recent confrontation with NATO, as well as the ideology of nationalism to which he wholeheartedly subscribes. He is supported in that by the entire right-wing political block that currently commands the loyalty of a sizable portion of the electorate. President Nikolić is also aided in its pro-Russian stance by the high ranking clergy of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Some analysts, however, interpret his dissent as a tactical maneuver that portrays Prime Minister Vučić as a reform-oriented centrist determined to see Serbia become a part of the EU, and as a politician who is facing stiff opposition. The prime minister, long known as a hot-bloodied nationalist, indeed appears eager to project the image of himself as Serbia’s last chance for salvation and a victim of historical circumstances. Vučić believing in his messianic role notwithstanding, the reality is that criticisms of his policies are few and far between. His standing as the most popular politician in Serbia was built on the perception of his determined fight against deeply rooted corruption even though the results of such struggle are yet to manifest themselves in earnest. Many in Serbia say that Aleksandar Vučić had promised a lot but delivered precious little.Economic challenges and empty promises
On the economic front, Vučić’s government is engaged in what it defines as aggressive and necessary economic restructuring. It is selling large state enterprises, which previous governments were reluctant to privatize, and justifies it by stressing the need to attract foreign investments. Aleksandar Vučić’s election campaign rested almost entirely on the political mantra of bringing in foreign partners who would revive Serbia’s fledgling economy. He spoke of many billions of euros that would be invested by wealthy individuals and companies from the United Arab Emirates.
Those funds were to be used for many projects in Serbia such as purchasing of state-owned land in Vojvodina, opening a microchip factory by the Mubadala Development Company from Abu Dhabi, a taking over of the bankrupt state-owned JAT air-carrier (later renamed Air Serbia) by the UAE’s Etihad Airways, as well as building of a mega project Belgrade on Water (Belgrade Waterfont) courtesy of the UAE investor Mohamed Allabar. Moreover, Vučić also promised the signing of a new strategic contract with Mercedes in order to revive the production line in the old FAP truck factory in Priboj.
The takeover of JAT was plagued by controversies, and the former Minister of Economy, Saša Radulović, resigned in January 2014 because he viewed the contract signed with the Etihad Airways as very unfavourable to Serbia.
The Serbian government also issued a tender for the Smederevo Steel Plant following it being abandoned by its previous owner, US Steel. This tender had failed because only one offer came in. It was an offer by an off-shore company from the Netherlands whose address is the same as that of the MNSS – the owner of the Niksic Steel Plant (Montenegro). It is worth mentioning that the MNSS has been linked with businessmen close to the Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Đukanović. By far the most significant decision Vučić’s government has made to date was to issue a tender for the privatization of a very profitable Telecom company. That was something no previous government did.
It is clear that the sale of strategically important economic enterprises to foreign investors is seen by the Serbian prime minister and his government as the central feature of their model of economic reforms. The expectations are that funds raised in such a manner would lessen the massive budget deficit that is now approaching 71% of the GDP. During the last two years of Vučić’s governing, Serbia’s budget deficit has increased by 80%. In monetary terms this increase approaches the figure of 800 million euros. Back in 2003 the deficit was 750 million euros, while in 2012 it reached the amount of 1.05 billion euros. In 2014, however, Serbia had a budget deficit of 1.8 billion euros.
While these figures might sound less than alarming when compared, for example, to the budgetary deficit of Greece, the fact remains that the Serbian economy would not be able to easily and quickly fill this financial void. Austerity measures, therefore, are a real possibility, and that could seriously destabilize the political situation in Serbia and impact negatively its government’s efforts to meet the membership criteria for the EU.
The possibility of such an outcome is a good reason for the EU to rethink its negotiation strategy and maybe design ways that would offer greater incentives for continuing reforms in view of Serbia’s membership to the EU. Such incentives, if they materialize at all, should take into consideration increasing Russian political and financial influence in the region. Failing that, we might witness another potential EU member state responding favourably to (or being intimidated by?) Eastern Promises and swinging away from Brussels and towards the so-called Eurasian union.
I am grateful to Dr. Guzina for allowing me to consult his work in progress on the strategies of EU expansion in the Western Balkans.
To read more about the challenges facing specific EU candidate countries, click here.Montenegro and the EU: living on the frontline Country or region: Serbia
Tradition, corruption and political negligence continue to stigmatise mental illness, but the new generation is transforming old taboos.
“I’m bipolar”, Mohamad announces in a matter-of-fact tone. In his close-knit Lebanese community, admitting having a mental health disorder could prejudice his chances of getting married and finding a job, but Mohamad proudly insists he has freed himself from “all that shit”.
comes from a Muslim family with a long history of mental issues, yet
this has never been openly discussed. When he was 15, in the first
attempt to understand the origins of his condition, he sought the
help of a Sheikh. “He would only do like this”, Mohamad says,
raising his hand to mimic a benediction, “and I would supposedly be
healed”. Now he is 27 and, after years taking medications to numb
the emotional roller-coaster, he feels ready to fight his demons
without pills – or religion.
Lebanon's young generation is challenging longstanding cultural taboos around mental health. They are helped by a growing number of NGOs and support groups., including The Institute for Development, Research, Advocacy and Applied Care (IDRAAC), a local non-profit organisation dedicated to raising awareness around mental health issues. The IDRAAC recently launched a multimedia campaign featuring five celebrities and the slogan “Wellbeing is a matter of mind. Think about it”.
Embrace, a support and awareness network, have created a YouTube video mocking typical Lebanese ways of cloaking mental health issues. Taking on statements like “he had a complicated life”, or “she lives on another planet”, they invite viewers to figuratively untie “the knot”, or the tangled perception the Lebanese society has of mental health. In recent years, movies such as Ghadi, where a child with Downs syndrome is worshipped as an angel, have raised awareness around psychiatric issues.
But while Lebanese society is starting to break free of taboos around mental health, they still face obstacles. Spending on health care is largely out of pocket: not even private insurance companies cover admissions for psychiatric illnesses. The fee for a psychiatric visit ranges between $50 and $150. So young people have to be financially independent in order to gain psychiatric help, while their families often linger between denial and superstition.
The system also relies on the private sector, namely NGOs and three religiously affiliated mental hospitals, which the government subcontracts. Even patients with the right to government aid still have to pay themselves then wait for a refund – a slow process.
What's more, private practitioners are often more concerned with boosting the number of visits rather than giving a thoughtful diagnosis. “My visits lasted an average of five minutes, where I listed my symptoms and I was prescribed more pills”, Mohammad remembers. “I then went home and researched the medicines, as I was not even told what they were and why I was taking them”.
Lina Al Khouri, a mental health councillor for an NGO that helps drug addicts, argues the combination between the carelessness with which practitioners increase dosages and the pharmacies’ laxity in selling drugs is blurring the boundaries between mental illness and drug addiction. “As there is no supervision, private practitioners aim at maximising the number of visits to boost profits”, she says. “To make it quick, patients are prescribed a higher dosage if they still show symptoms, which often results in them spiralling into drug abuse”.
Despite all this, the stigma surrounding mental health issues is being challenged by the new generation, through NGO work, social networks and the media. They are challenging the gaps in the provision of mental health that are holding back a much-needed transformative process.
Changing the legislation
Lebanese legislation still lags far behind international human rights standards in protecting the rights of people with mental health disorders. The absence of a clear legal definition of mental disorder leaves room for interpretation based on social beliefs and cultural norms.
One of most severe abuses stemming from the lack of a legal framework is forced institutionalisation. Involuntary admissions are not monitored by a judicial third party but are left in the hands of psychiatrists and families. Experts have denounced episodes of corruption, in which family members pay practitioners to lock away a relative over inheritance disputes, for example. As the patient has no power over their own release, this can result in a life sentence.
In 2012 IDRAAC tried to end this by drafting a new bill, currently under discussion – in which the 1983 definition of mental health illness is replaced by a more explicit one. Elie Karam, president of IDRAAC and co-author of the first national study on mental health disorders, is confident the new legal framework will grant greater protection against abuse. Critics, however, dispute its clarity, claiming it fails to prescribe appropriate periods of treatment and make sure institutionalisation takes place in the least restrictive environment.
Regardless of its limits, the new proposal opens a public debate which some say the government is trying to prevent. According to NGO The Legal Agenda, the new bill has skipped several stages of parliamentary scrutiny for no apparent reason, a move that has reduced media coverage and limited opportunity to make amendments. The dubiousness of this fast tracking procedure and the near silence of mainstream media suggest a political unwillingness to limit the authority of the psychiatric profession, as well as a reluctance to discuss mental health.
Traditionally, psychological disorders were – and still partly are - perceived as “problems with the mood” that have to be confined to the private sphere. The first mental institution, the Catholic Deir-el-Salib, served as a place of seclusion for those experiencing mental illnesses. Patients were subjected to disputable procedures such as ice baths and electroconvulsive therapy (ETC). ETC is still in use today – in Lebanon and other countries – but anaesthetics are now administered to sooth the pain of broken bones resulting from the electrically induced seizures.
According to Mohamad, public acceptance is growing, but this can be a double-edged sword. “Kids are prescribed psychotropic drugs because they are perceived as socially inadequate” he remarks, pointing out that nonconformist behaviours are being treated as symptoms of mental illnesses. “What we should focus on is not changing the way we look at mental issues, but our society’s concept of ‘normality’”.
Breaking away from the myth of the Phoenix
Statistics are sketchy in a country that saw its last official census in 1932, but studies estimate one in four Lebanese people has experienced a mental health disorder, according to the World Health Organisation’s definition. Despite decades of vicious sectarian wars, the rate of mental health disorders is lower than that of the United States and lies within the range observed in the UK.
Yet in Lebanon there is a much higher percentage of people not receiving treatment. While in the UK around two thirds of people do not have access to aid, this reaches a staggering 90% in Lebanon.
But according to Elie Karam, the strong social ties still existent within Lebanon keep health disorders at bay – an idea he summarises with the word “resilience”, meaning the ability of a society to readapt to stress and hardships. “In Lebanon we suffered from organised violence, but here we feel safer in our own neighbourhoods than people in Western countries”, he says.
Lebanon has been described as the incarnation of the myth of the Phoenix, due to its never-ending cycle of destruction and rebirth. Studies have confirmed the importance of strong community ties in coping with clinical and sub clinical levels of psychological stress, due to the permanent anticipation of violent conflict. This is particularly so in a context where access to mental health aid is severely limited.
However, anthropologist Filippo Marranconi warns that drawing an automatic connection between mental health in Lebanon and war-related events carries the risk of falling into a self-fulfilling prophecy. He warns against “studies intending to spot PTSD...that do not take into account the complexity of a person's experience.”
Such an approach might end up reinforcing the cliché of the war-torn country – a sexy topic especially for foreign NGOs working in Lebanon - while ignoring more nuanced social dynamics.
If awareness is the first step toward change, Lebanon's young generation are starting a brave journey. The mobilization of local NGOs and support groups, and the beginning of a public discourse on legal reform indicate that – under a more traditional political and social crust – a major shift is taking place.Sideboxes Related stories: From Gaza to the UK: mental health isn't just a medical problem, it's political Lea's story: my days as a mad girl What’s normal? The politics of psychiatric labeling Politics as therapy: they want us to be just sick enough not to fight back Rights: CC by NC 3.0
The relationship between religion and ethnicity on the one hand, and civic assimilation on the other, is far less harmonious than Putin’s magniloquence asserts.
Much has been made in the last several years of Vladimir Putin’s close alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). With charges of corruption, laundering, and a now infamous botched wristwatch Photoshop incident tarnishing the Church’s image, few would deny that this partnership is more about political expediency than genuine piety.
But while there is an ideological consensus between the Russian Church and the state, it does not necessarily lie in ecumenical doctrine. The central point at which Putin and the ROC converge is in their rejection of 'the liberal mode of civilisation,' as Patriarch Kirill writes in his manifesto Freedom and Responsibility: A Search for Harmony, in favour of ‘national culture and religious identity.’
Russia is a vast and diverse country, and in promoting a mode of governance rooted in cultural and religious identity, Putin’s nationalist ideology extends beyond the Russian Christian Orthodox demographic base. In his discourses, Putin has worked to cultivate an image of a multi-ethnic and multi-faith Russia. While the ROC certainly maintains a spotlight in the political arena, Putin has made a rhetorical effort to step away from the Church as the be-all-and-end-all of Russian identity, insisting that Russia’s strength lies in its cultural diversity.A Russian brand of Islam
To accommodate a multicultural national identity – one that is positioned at the juncture of Asia and Europe – Putin has elevated Islam alongside Russian Orthodox Christianity as one of the country’s two central religions.
Putin has elevated Islam alongside Russian Orthodox Christianity as one of the country’s two central religions.
Approximately 20m Muslims live in Russia, comprising 14% of the population, and making Russia home to the largest Muslim population in Europe.
Not only has Putin defended Islam as historically indigenous to Russian culture, he has also sided with the proposition that Orthodox Christianity is closer to Islam than to Catholicism. While Western Protestants evince their liberal values through support of abortion and homosexuality, Putin has said, Islam and the ROC are bound in their deference to a traditional value system.
As one of Russia’s four traditional religions (alongside Judaism and Buddhism), Islam does get special status. The state has lent support to various Islamic institutions, including religious schools and an Islamic TV channel.
Those religious authorities willing to cooperate with the state, such as Talgat Tajuddin, Russia’s Chief Mufti, maintain close relations with Putin. In the past, the bond between the state and Muslim leaders has at times even eclipsed – if only momentarily – its closeness with the ROC. When anti-government protesters gathered in Bolotnaya Square in 2011, Damir Mukhetdinov, deputy head of the Russian Muslims Religious Directorate, condemned protesters while representatives of the ROC maintained a more neutral stance.
But the brand of Islam that Russia promotes is tightly circumscribed. Dating back to imperial policy, the state has worked to dissociate Russia’s Muslims from transnational Islam, creating a domestic infrastructure of Islamic administration and leadership. Putin has denounced the import of Islamic practices like the wearing of the hijab, arguing that they are foreign to traditional Russian Islam. In 2012, the President sided with a ban on girls wearing headscarves to public schools in the Stavropol region.
But the brand of Islam that Russia promotes is tightly circumscribed.
More troubling has been the government’s policy regarding religious extremism, which has fanned public fears by alleging widespread ‘Wahhabi’ threats, often based on little evidence. In the lead up to the Sochi Olympics, authorities conducted sweeping raids in Muslim places of worship in Moscow and St Petersburg, detaining hundreds of people.
The state’s tangled and contradictory relationship with the broader Russian Muslim community can be summed up in Putin’s policy towards the North Caucasus. There, full-scale war, which provided Putin with critical political capital early on in his presidency, was succeeded by government subsidies and a wholesale redevelopment of Grozny.
Yet despite these fraught policies, the government has nonetheless maintained a rhetorical commitment to Russia as an ethnically inclusive state, even against the backdrop of growing tides of ethnic nationalism (a trend so oft remarked that it has become a platitude in contemporary analysis of Russia). In the aftermath of ethnic riots in 2010 in Moscow’s Manezh Square and in cities across Russia, Putin condemned the rioters’ xenophobic targeting of North Caucasians. ‘We are all children of the same country,’ he declared, ‘we have a common motherland. Russia has been a multi-confessional and multi-ethnic state.’Religion and foreign policy
While Putin’s words can be cast off as mere tokenism, his defence of ethnic and religious diversity is clearly part of a domestic and foreign policy agenda.
In the 1990s, staking out its liminal position between the world’s major political groupings, Russia worked to develop a role as a mediator between the Muslim world and the West. Russia denounced American interventions in Iraq, pursued a ‘two track policy’ with Iran, contributing to its nuclear programme while maintaining dialogue with Washington; and engaged with Hamas leadership. More recently, in 2009, Medvedev asserted that Russia is ‘an organic part’ of the Muslim world, a sentiment that was reiterated by Putin, who argued that ‘our country is developing close and multifaceted relationships with the governments of the Muslim world.’ These declarations of unity have been borne out by Russia’s defence of the Syrian government, in which Putin has painted Russia as an apostle of international law.
The government’s appeal to unity with the Muslim world also helps legitimise Russia’s eastward economic expansion.
The government’s appeal to unity with the Muslim world also helps legitimise Russia’s eastward economic expansion, which it has begun with the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union, a Slavic-Turkic alliance that will include Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia. ‘Eurasian integration,’ argued Putin in his speech at the 2013 Valdai International Discussion Club, ‘is a chance for the entire post-Soviet space to become an independent centre for global development, rather than remaining on the outskirts of Europe and Asia.’
In the context of westward expansion, too, the rhetoric of inclusivity has played a role. Early in his speech after the annexation of Crimea, Putin emphasised that Crimea’s ‘unique blend’ of different cultures and traditions paralleled that of ‘Russia as a whole, where not a single ethnic group has been lost over the centuries.’ (Crimea’s Tatars, who have only relatively recently returned to the region after Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of their entire population in 1944, might have been sceptical of such claims.)Anti-Western
Putin’s geopolitics positions Russia as a nation between East and West. When it comes to values and morality, however, Putin’s Russia is decidedly anti-Western.
This contrast is premised not only on the asserted distinction between Russia’s religions and Western Christianity, but on the very basic divergence between a religious Russia and a secular West. In the same 2013 Valdai speech, Putin lamented that ‘people in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation.’ Not so in Russia, where legislation passed in 2013 has penalised the promotion of ‘gay propaganda’ to minors and criminalised acts that insult people’s religious feelings (dubbed by many as the ‘Pussy Riot’ law).
And while European secularism stifles multiculturalism, says Putin (or, at least establishes an ‘artificial’ multiculturalism, whatever that may mean), Russia preserves a rich concentration of ethnicities and languages unparallelled even by the land of immigrants itself, the United States.The rhetorical middle ground
Such claims to multiculturalism and multi-confessionalism may be part of Putin’s attempt to position Russia as a preeminent civilisation, re-establishing the country as a moral and political centre of gravity, but the President makes sure to couple these claims with affirmations of national unity and patriotism.
Careful to temper his endorsement of ethnic diversity, Putin has noted that ‘it is clearly impossible to identify oneself only through one’s ethnicity or religion.’ Instead, the President argued, ‘people must develop a civic identity on the basis of shared values, a patriotic consciousness, civic responsibility and solidarity …’ To this end, Putin has fondly referenced the enthusiasm with which Soviet Muslims and other ethnic groups defended their homeland during the Second World War ‘from the Brest fortress … to Berlin itself.’ References to the Soviet government’s mass deportations of many of these groups during the war didn’t make it into his speech.
By singling out patriotism as one of the values that all of Russia’s traditional religions share – alongside justice, truth, and industriousness – Putin has attempted to reconcile ethnic and civic identity into a singular, pro-Russian allegiance.
In reality, though, the relationship between religion and ethnicity on the one hand, and civic assimilation on the other, is far less harmonious than Putin’s magniloquence asserts. Take, for example, Russia’s new nationalities policy of 2012, which has been criticised from both sides of the aisle. Minority rights supporters argue that the policy undermines the status and autonomy of non-Russian nationalities. Russian nationalist groups, meanwhile, decry the new policy for removing references to the ‘state-forming role of the [ethnically] Russian people.’
A superficial commitment to diversity may have a certain strategic significance in projecting a vision of Russia as a resurgent counterpart to the West, capable of allying itself with Asia and the Middle East. However, this political stance will do little to appease domestic constituencies such as nationalists and non-Russian ethnic groups, who will feel betrayed by the government’s lack of commitment in either direction.
On the foundational question of Russian national identity – to which sphere of the world does the country belong? – Putin has time and again staked out a rhetorical middle ground. Russia, according to Putin, is neither one nor the other: it is ‘a unique civilisation connecting East and West.’ In other words, Russia doesn’t have to choose sides. It seems, however, that there is some contradiction in this equivocation. Is it possible, after all, to be both part of the West and idiosyncratically distinct from it?
Image one: RIA Novosti/Aleskei Nikolsky. All rights reserved.
Image two: Kremlin.ru. Some rights reserved.Sideboxes Related stories: Teaching orthodoxy in Russian schools Russia’s spinning moral compass Rights: CC by NC 3.0
A UK citizen who was a refugee from the one-party state that is Ethiopia has been spirited back into its clutches. Why is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office doing so little?
In a political black hole: Andargachew Tsige.On 23 June 2014 Andargachew Tsige was illegally detained at Sana’a airport in Yemen, while travelling from Dubai to Eritrea on his UK passport. He was swiftly handed over to the Ethiopian authorities, who had for years posted his name at the top of the regime’s ‘most wanted’ list. Since then he has been detained incommunicado at a secret location in Ethiopia. His ‘crime’ is the same as that of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others—publicly criticising the brutality of the Ethiopian ruling party.
Born in Ethiopia in 1955, Tsige arrived in Britain aged 24, as a political refugee. He is a black, working-class UK citizen, married with three children. Despite repeated efforts—including demonstrations, petitions and a legal challenge— by his family and the wider Ethiopian community, the British government has done little or nothing to secure this innocent man’s release or ensure his safe treatment in detention. The UK is the third biggest donor to Ethiopia, giving around £376m a year in aid.
After nine months of official indifference, among Tsige’s supporters trust and faith in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is giving way to cynicism and anger. Is the neglect due to his colour or his quality of ‘Britishness’, in an implicit hierarchy of citizenship? If he had been born in England, to white, middle-class parents, attended the right schools (over half the British cabinet was educated privately) and forged the right social connections, would he be languishing in an Ethiopian prison, where he is almost certainly being tortured, abused and mistreated?Consistently ignored
Tsige is the secretary general of Ginbot 7, a peaceful campaign group which fiercely opposes the policies of the Ethiopian party-state, controlled for 24 years by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). It highlights the regime’s many and varied human-rights violations and calls for adherence to liberal ideals of justice and freedom, as enshrined in the country’s constitution—a broadly democratic piece of fiction which is consistently ignored by the ruling party (even through the EPRDF wrote it).
Political dissent inside Ethiopia has been criminalised in all but name. Freedoms of assembly, of expression and of the media are all denied; so too is affiliation to opposition parties. Aid that flows through the government is distributed on a partisan basis, as are employment opportunities and university places. The media are almost exclusively state-owned and internet access (at 2% the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa) is monitored and restricted. The government would criminalise thought if it could.
At what point, indeed, does neglect in the face of injustice and abuse become complicity?
The population lives under suffocating repression and fear; the vast bulk appears to despise the government. Human rights are ignored and acts of state violence—some of which, according to human-rights groups, constitute crimes against humanity—are commonplace. It is this stifling reality of daily suffering which drives Tsige and other members of Ginbot 7, forcing them to speak out—action that has cost him his liberty.
For challenging the EPRDF, in 2009 and 2012, he was charged under the notorious Anti-Terrorist Proclamation of 2009, tried in absentia and given the death penalty. The judiciary in Ethiopia is constitutionally and morally bound to independence but in practice it operates as an unjust arm of the EPRDF. A trial where the defendant is not present violates the second principle of natural justice, audi alteram partem (hear the other party). Again, however, the EPRDF, having dutifully signed up to all manner of international covenants, ignores them all.
The regime likes trying its detractors who live overseas (activists, journalists, political opponents) in their absence and securing outrageous judgements against them, particularly the death penalty or life imprisonment. It rules by that ancient tool of control—fear.
In relation to Tsige, or indeed anyone else in custody, little in the way of justice, compassion or fairness can thus be expected. Self-deluding and immune to criticism, the EPRDF distorts the truth and justifies violent repression and false imprisonment as safeguarding the country from ‘terrorism’—a phenomenon only evidenced by the thugs, in and out of uniform, which the party-state deploys.Constitutional responsibility
Tsige is a UK citizen and the UK government has a constitutional and moral responsibility to act robustly on his behalf. In February a delegation of parliamentarians, led by Jeremy Corbyn, his local MP, was due to visit Ethiopia in an effort to secure his release. But the trip was abandoned after a meeting with the Ethiopian ambassador. A member of the team, Lord Dholakia, vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Ethiopia, said it was made clear that they would not be welcome: the ambassador reportedly told them “that there was no need for them to go to Ethiopia as the case is being properly handled by the courts”.
Tsige however has yet to be formally charged, has been denied contact with his British solicitors, and consular support, and has received only one brief visit from the British ambassador, last August—a meeting controlled by the Ethiopians. The FCO has said it is “deeply concerned” about Ethiopia’s refusal to allow regular consular visits and Tsige’s lack of access to a lawyer and others seeking to visit him. But ‘do something’ is the cry from the family and the wider community.
At what point, indeed, does neglect in the face of injustice and abuse become complicity? If a government gives funds to a government, effectively the EPRDF, which is killing, raping, imprisoning and torturing its own citizens, and then does nothing, it is complicit in the crimes thus being committed.Sideboxes Related stories: Ethiopia's electoral manoeuvres Ethiopia : a leadership in disarray Country or region: Ethiopia
In Ecuador, Rafael Correa’s government muzzles critique and attacks satirists in an increasingly anti-democratic environment. Español
If having to explain a joke defeats its purpose, having to correct it is a disgrace, especially if you are a professional comedian like Ecuadorian cartoonist, Bonil. And when those in power don’t have a sense of humor, jokes can be more than just embarrassing—they can be extremely expensive.
On February 9, Xavier Bonilla, otherwise known as Bonil, appeared before the Ecuadorean Information and Communications Superintendence (Supercom) due to a cartoon he published last August in the newspaper El Universo. The drawing mocked Augustín Delgado, congressman in Correa’s political camp and ex-player of the national soccer team, due to an episode of stuttering during a televised speech before the National Assembly.
This is not the first time that Supercom has come after Bonil. A year ago, it fined the cartoonist and his newspaper US$90,000 and forced him to rectify another sketch, which lampooned the office search of an opposition member (who had accused the government of corruption). According to Supercom, the cartoon was “not strictly true” and “stigmatizes the actions” of those that appear in it. But Supercom’s critique and justification for its actions included the very definition of what makes a cartoon. If the sketch had been strictly true— if it had not distorted, exaggerated, or inverted the facts— a simple photograph would have sufficed. If it did not stigmatize human conduct— if it did not question it with wit and sarcasm—nothing would differentiate it from the news.
Flickr/Agencia de Noticias ANDES (Some rights reserved)
Xavier "Bonil" Bonilla addresses supporters in Quito, Ecuador.
Without these differences, critique and humor die out. Patrick Chappatte would make The New York Times go bankrupt. John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver would spend all their time at court. The legendary late night hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno would have shutdown CBS and NBC, not because of scandals but because of government imposed censure.
These are essential differences for democracy and freedom of expression. This is why independent courts, from the European Court of Human Rights to the Inter-American Court and national supreme courts, differentiate between freedom of information (which is subject to the duty of truthfulness) and freedom of expression (which is not). They likewise grant more leeway to opinions about those holding public office as a counterweight to their power.The Revolution’s Changing Mood
Humor can also be an important thermometer for democracy, as Rafael Correa’s administration has demonstrated. Correa’s increasing intolerance for satire has gone hand in hand with the erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law.
Correa’s increasing intolerance for satire has gone hand in hand with the erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law. The most lucid recounting I’ve heard on Ecuador’s “citizens’ revolution” was from María Paula Romo, a prominent member of Correa’s movement in the 2008 Constituent Assembly. The first stage was the progressive and democratic government that promulgated the 2008 constitution, which guaranteed civil liberties and added an exemplary catalog of economic and environmental rights. It was a proposal set on equality without eroding basic liberties, and there were more than enough reasons to admire the change.
In 2011 came a new stage, when the government shifted dramatically, stifling its critics and changing the entire mood of the citizens’ revolution. The judicial reform of this same year aligned the courts with the executive, as was documented in a report by the Due Process of Law Foundation, Dejusticia, and the Institute for Legal Defense. This reform was the first of many that weakened democratic controls, from the right to protest (limited by criminal laws about terrorism that have been used against social movements) to political rights (restricted by legal and administrative obstacles aimed at opposing political parties and social movements). This was the stage at which many Correa supporters from the democratic left, like Romo, decided to leave the government and carve out a niche in the opposition.
Out of those changes came the law that has put Bonil between a rock and a hard place. The 2013 Organic Law of Communications imposes so many harsh controls on the media and freedom of expression that some have called it the “gag law”. It creates offenses so vague (like “media lynching” when a media outlet critically covers a public servant repeatedly) and with such invasive requirements (like media outlets’ duty to hire an advisor selected by a state-mandated procedure) that in practice it gives the government free range. According to Fundamedios, during the first year the law was in force, Supercom started 136 processes against media outlets and imposed sanctions in 42 of the cases.
For Romo and other observers, the turning point toward the current phase was the constitutional reform that would allow Correa’s indefinite reelection. This change is currently making its way through the legislature, after being approved by the Constitutional Court.From Charlie Hebdo to Bonil
The waves of Bonil’s persecution by the government will certainly be felt beyond Ecuador. The initial accusation against the cartoonist alleged racial discrimination because the Congressman Augustín Delgado is Afro-Ecuadorean. Even though Bonil did not make any allusion to the subject’s skin color, the government and some anti-racist organizations have done so in their complaints. The artist publicly reiterated that this had not been his intention and apologized for such an interpretation of his cartoon. In the end, the charge he faced was for “socioeconomic discrimination”. In the end, Supercom ordered Bonil’s newspaper, El Universo, to publish an apology in its website’s header within 72 hours and to keep it there for a week. Criminal prosecution will soon follow.
It should come to no surprise that the Ecuadorean government decided to delay the hearing against Bonil, initially set for the 16th of January, when #JeSuisCharlie became a global sensation. Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Bonil has appeared in public holding a giant pencil, while #YoSoyBonil trends in social networks in Ecuador. The Bonil case provides an important reminder that threats against satire and freedom of expression do not only come in the form of violence.
Among all the manifestations of opinion, humor and satire are the freest, and often the most forceful. As Darío Fo, the Italian comedian, playwright, and Nobel laureate, once said: “Satire is the most efficient weapon against power: power does not tolerate humor, even so-called democratic leaders, because laughter frees man from his fears.”In Latin America, authoritarian “leftists” create new Berlin Walls Where’s the evidence? Moving from ideology to data in economic and social rights Legalizing economic and social rights won’t help the poor Does social justice work against human rights? Beyond the courts – protecting economic and social rights Yes, economic and social rights really are human rights Legal mobilization: a critical first step to addressing economic and social rights Can legal interventions really tackle the root causes of poverty? Open budgets, open politics?
Saudi Arabia, by committing itself to an unlimited military escalation in Yemen, has over-reached itself.
The recently crowned King Salman of Saudi Arabia has taken a major gamble by launching ‘Operation Decisive Storm’, a campaign of air strikes in Yemen. Bringing together a military coalition of Arab countries, Riyadh has pledged ‘to do whatever it takes in order to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling’. The elected leader of Yemen, President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, has been ousted from power by a coalition of rebels headed by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the leader of a group of Zaydi Shia tribesmen from the North of the country, and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saudi Arabia has been quick to point a finger at Iran, claiming that Tehran’s support for their Shia allies in Yemen, the Houthi movement, is directly responsible for the collapse of the transitional government formed after the deposal of President Saleh in the region-wide Arab revolutions of 2011. Riyadh has a point: the Houthis, mistrustful after decades of perceived discrimination and war against the Yemeni military and jihadi extremists, have been the biggest spoilers of the peace plan and transition process brokered by the United Nations and the regional Gulf Cooperation Council (of which Saudi Arabia is the leading member).
The transition process, which included the election of President Hadi in 2012, was ostensibly designed to rebuild Yemen’s democratic institutions and to find a better way of representing minority interests, including those of the Zaydi Shia who supported the Houthi movement. The Houthis believed none of this – they were convinced that Hadi would become a proxy of Riyadh. Instead Abdul-Malik al-Houthi decided to seize as much territory as he could.
The Houthis took full advantage of the collapse of the Yemeni military in 2009 – its elite units initially sided with President Ali Abdullah Saleh. They made practical alliances with tribal groups in the provinces surrounding the country’s capital, Sana’a, and took the capital itself in September of last year. A demoralized, divided Yemeni military melted away or appears to have been co-opted by the Houthis. In a realist masterstroke, the Houthis forged an alliance with their former enemy, ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose enduring connections to Yemen’s military, business and tribal elites remain formidable.
Saudi Arabia, by committing itself to an unlimited military escalation in Yemen, has over-reached itself. There are several reasons for this. First, they have already lost one war against the Houthis. In 2009 the Houthis killed more than 100 Saudi soldiers after Riyadh bombed Houthi positions along the border. Chastened, the Saudis backed off. This time around, it is doubtful that Saudi Arabia has the stomach to comprehensively defeat them.
Second, President Hadi is, from a military point of view, beyond saving. He has few allies within the Yemeni military – many of the units operating in and around Aden have refused to follow his orders. His tribal allies are no match for the experienced, better organised and well-armed Houthi rebels.
Third, the other big winners out of Yemen’s collapse are al-Qaeda and Islamic State-linked jihadi extremists, who have seen their funding increase, including from private donors in the region. These extremists are a much greater threat to the Saudi government than the Houthis whose ambitions are limited to Yemen.
Al-Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia, including a 2009 failed suicide bombing against the Saudi Minister for the Interior, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, should have alerted Riyadh to the perils of over-focusing on the threat from Iran, instead of dealing with the links between extremists in Yemen and in the wider Arabian Peninsula. Those dangers still exist and the Saudis should not do anything that indirectly empowers jihadi groups along its southern border.
Finally, Saudi Arabia’s key ally, the United States, will negotiate with the Houthis; it will not negotiate with Yemen’s jihadi movements. Washington’s military actions will likely escalate against al-Qaeda and Islamic State-linked groups in Yemen, creating a confusing paradox whereby two allies are bombing different sides in a civil war. If a nuclear deal is signed with Iran in the coming months, then Saudi Arabia will come under increasing pressure to compromise with the Houthis so that the US and its allies in the Gulf can concentrate on the jihadi threat.
Saudi Arabia needs to be saved from itself in Yemen. The Houthis are a locally driven movement. They value external support from Iran but are not controlled by it. But Iran still has some useful influence with the Houthi leadership. Tehran should know that it is not in its interest to allow Yemen’s deepening sectarian conflict to become an even greater fulcrum for global jihad. A senior UN intermediary is urgently required to hold talks between the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as in Yemen, in order to negotiate a détente.
As part of an initial ceasefire, it will be necessary for the Houthis to retain, at least temporarily, some territory based on their recent military conquests. However, in the long-term the Houthis have no interest in seeing their own country, the poorest in the Arab world, slip further into deprivation and bloodshed. Ultimately, neither they nor Saudi Arabia can win by force alone.Sideboxes Related stories: A Saudi-Iranian grand bargain The international community and the crisis in Yemen Yemen's frail faultlines An introduction to Yemen's emergency Crisis in Yemen: what the media is getting wrong Yemen: descent into anarchy Yemen: a state born of conflict Country or region: Yemen Saudi Arabia Topics: Conflict Economics International politics
The pent up fury and grief released by Özgecan Aslan’s attempted rape and gruesome murder reveal deep fault lines and simmering sources of disaffection in Turkish society.
Photo: @emekci_hareketOn a freezing cold day on the 21st of February 2015 a group of men wearing skirts marched towards the iconic Taksim square: they were protesting the brutal attempted rape and murder of Özgecan Aslan, a 20 year old student from Mersin, whose mutilated and partly burnt body was discovered in a riverbed on February 13th. This came on the heels of nation-wide demonstrations staged by women’s groups who were outraged and combative: among their striking slogans was “Özgecan is not our lament but our rebellion”. In a repetition of what has sadly become an all too common ritual in Turkey, it was women who carried her coffin to its final resting place.
Gruesome sexual assaults and murders of women are, sadly, commonplace throughout the world. These seldom lead to overtly political contestations. In Turkey, however, things rapidly escalated into full blown attacks on the current regime and its policies.
Turkish men wear skirts to protest violence against womenHow do we account for this hyper-politicization? Does the realm of gender based violence and women’s rights serve to articulate deeper layers of disaffection? What does this tell us about the state of democracy in Turkey?
It would be fair to say that this tragic event acted as a litmus test of the struggles over the soul of the polity. One set of reactions focused on how to better segregate women in order to protect them from such assaults (with proposals for women-only “pink” buses or separate carriages on the subway system). Some politicians, like the Family and Social Policies Minister, even called for the reinstatement of the death penalty which was abolished in 2004 to meet European Union standards. An implicit admission that the pubic domain is out of bounds for women, and the simultaneous pathologizing of violent men, underlies this rather confused bundle of reactions.
A diametrically opposed reaction came from those who mounted virulent critiques of the type of society and mentality that puts women in peril unless they are segregated. We were reminded of numerous legal judgements where perpetrators of violence against women (including murderers) got off lightly, with arbitrary references to “provocation” as an extenuating circumstance of the gang rape of a 15-year-old who was supposed to have given her “consent”, and of the many instances of threatened women seeking police protection and receiving none. This climate of impunity clearly has institutional underpinnings that were being brushed under the carpet. References to pathological men and a violent society obfuscate a systematic pattern of institutional discriminination, marginalization, intimidation and abuse of women.
The President added fuel to the fire when he stated that he condemned violence against women because “men are the custodians of women” (kadinlar erkeklerin emanetidir) and men have a duty to protect them. He claimed his views were based on Islamic sources. This triggered howls of protest from women’s rights defenders at the demeaning implications of this stance and a demand for rights, not protection. A theologically trained women’s rights defender also weighed in and contested the purported religious grounding of such pronouncements. Clearly, it was not only secular feminists who felt deep unease with the notion that adult women are the wards of men (a notion that prevails in some countries under shari’a based family legislation. Needless to say, this also contravenes existing legislation in Turkey which since the 2001 reform of the Civil Code and the 2004 amendments to the Criminal Code, has come into closer compliance with CEDAW requirements.
Meanwhile, the demonization of feminists reached new heights when the President reprimanded them for having “no relation to our religion and our civilization” (ya senin bizim dinimizle medeniyetimizle ilgin yok ki), resorting to a form of “othering” that morphs any opposition into treason. He bitterly resented the politicization of this murder case, apparently unaware that this might be the harvest of seeds planted under his rule.
Photo: @emekci_hareketThese debates had clearly struck a chord in the public conscience: the general mood was one of outrage and despair. On the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, television channels were not only beaming news of demonstrations and events (which included a men’s run “against violence” and a mixed sex cycling event) but an announcement by the PM Davutoğlu that he was embarking on a new 2016-19 action plan on "Fighting Violence against Women". The President delivered an address vowing to make the elimination of violence against women his personal mission. With an election looming in June 2015, broadcasting the message that women would be safe under their watch had clearly become a priority for the ruling party.
How, when and why had their credentials in this domain
become so tarnished? I suggest that the
combination of the rapid unravelling of women’s rights between 2004 - 2015, and
the effects of a populist discourse that puts women's conduct and propriety at the heart of AKP’s political messaging -
distinguishing a virtuous “us” from an immoral “them”- accounts for both an erosion of trust,and a hyper-politicization of gender issues.
unravelling of women’s rights: a tortuous trajectory
During the early years of the AKP regime the women’s movement in Turkey achieved significant gains in the sphere of legal reforms. Between 2002-2004 a vigorous three-year campaign led by a coalition of women’s and sexual liberties groups - The Platform for the Reform of the Turkish Penal Code – successfully pushed through the adoption of a draft law on September 26, 2004. With the earlier reform of the Civil Code in 2001, these changes represented the most progressive pieces of legislation in the republican era since the early Kemalist reforms.
Turkey’s EU membership candidacy in December 1999 and the necessity to bring its legal, political and economic system into alignment with EU standard undoubtedly provided the women’s movement with a window of opportunity to press for further demands. Like many other countries jumping on the women’s rights bandwagon for geopolitical advantage, Turkey made the most of advances in this domain during the first term of the AKP (2002-2007). It took a lead role for the empowerment of women in the US-led Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMENA) in the context of the Democracy Assistance Dialogue (DAD). The reforms of its civil and penal codes furthered its attempts to meet the criteria for EU accession. Later, in 2009, a Parliamentary Committee on Equal Opportunities for Men and Women was established for the first time. Turkey was the first country to ratify the Council of Europe's Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (CAHVIO), the Istanbul Convention, in 2012.
Under this façade of compliance with international standard setting instruments, new political messages had started circulating. One of the first shocks came at a consultation meeting with women’s non-governmental organizations (where some 60 organizations were present) on 18 July 2010, where then Prime Minister Erdoğan declared that Turkey’s signatory status to CEDAW notwithstanding, he did not believe in the equality of men and women. Women’s principal, and preferably sole vocation, should be home making and motherhood. This accords with their distinctive and divinely ordained nature (fitrat). This has now become such an established tenet of public discourse that the period when it still had shock value seems like a distant memory.
Institutional changes followed. The General Directorate of Women’s Status and Problems, the national machinery for the promotion of gender equality, established as a requirement of the CEDAW process and created in 1990, was abolished in 2011. It was replaced by the Ministry of the Family and Social Policies. Discrimination against women was henceforth placed alongside the protection of children, the disabled, and the elderly, clearly marking it out as a social welfare issue. Women were being cast primarily as objects of “protection” rather than fully-fledged bearers of rights.
This polarized context was inflamed further when the embarrassing Uludere incident in December 2011 (where 34 Kurdish smugglers were killed near the Iraqi border after the Turkish military mistakenly thought them to be Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants) was rather unexpectedly turned into a debate about abortion and a Turkish woman's right to choose. Speaking to a May 26, 2012 meeting of the AKP's women's branches in Ankara, the Prime Minister told the gathered women he considered abortion as murder. He also suggested that abortion and Turkey's high rate of caesarean section births, which he claimed make it harder for a woman to give birth again, were part of a "hidden" plot to reduce Turkey's population.
It is worth noting that that no significant legal changes followed these debates. There is little need for changes on the statute books for actual practices to change on the ground. It is now a matter of routine that public hospitals work with de facto directives that restrict access to abortions and discourage C-sections. Despite Erdoğan’s declared aim to raise “a pious generation”, overt legislative actions such as lowering the age of veiling in schools to 10 years old were sporadic. Instead, public space became saturated with messages and exhortations targeting the life worlds of citizens by monitoring their lifestyle choices such as limiting access to alcohol, proscribing displays of intimacy in public, or attempting to ban co-ed dorms for university students. It is little wonder that youth protests (including the forms of expression in evidence during the Gezi protests of the summer of 2013) targeted the hectoring and moralistic tone of the head of state on occasions when he took on the role of the strict and scolding pater familias.
However, policing the status and comportment of women cannot be simply put down to enforcing norms of Islamic modesty, but constitutes a key component of a more complex political landscape where two new trends are working in tandem.
The first consists of the co-optation of women’s rights issues by government-organized organizations (GONGOs) which, in collaboration with the government, aim to sideline and marginalize the women’s movement in Turkey, and to supplant its guiding principle of equality between men and women in favour of a gender ideology closely mirroring party priorities and directives.
I drew attention elsewhere to the hijacking of women’s rights platforms and organizations by ruling elites in authoritarian Arab states where the wives, daughters and close kin of heads of state or ruling dynasties headed government sponsored women’s organizations. This type of co-optation did not characterize the political landscape in Turkey, at least until recently. Although “official” women’s organizations have always collaborated with governments, and women’s branches of political parties have always acted as their auxiliaries, there was a space in civil society allowing the articulation of women’s demands (as demonstrated by the lobbying activities that led to the legal changes in 2001 and 2004, referred to above). The current onslaught on women’s rights platforms and organizations is therefore unprecedented, and reflects a broader process of capture of civil society by the state, and a more totalistic political project.
The fateful turn: from rights to conditional protection
A second diffuse but persistent tendency has been the deployment of a populist discourse where women’s conduct and propriety plays a key role in delineating the boundaries between “us” (God- fearing, Sunni, AKP voters), and a “them” consisting of all political detractors and minorities, cast as potentially treasonous and immoral. These modes of “othering” potentially expose those sections of the female citizenry - not to mention sexual minorities - who fail to conform to norms of government-decreed propriety to intimidation and harassment. Not only are these citizens not worthy of protection, but even ordinary civilians may take it upon themselves to discipline them with impunity. We may recall that even tradesmen (esnaf) have been encouraged to enforce law and order as guardians of national traditions and morality. With memories of machete wielding “tradesmen” attacking protestors during the Gezi events still fresh in the public mind, the chilling implications of this stance are crystal clear.
Yet women supporters of the ruling party (and polls suggest they may outnumber men) feel empowered by the new populist deal on offer. These are not just women of the ruling elite who are key stakeholders and powerful political players in their own right, but women of the popular classes who have become beneficiaries of new welfare entitlements ( 60% of welfare recipients are women ) and who are directly targeted for benefits, by-passing male heads of household. Supporting women in their roles as mothers and home makers goes beyond cash transfers and in-kind assistance, and extends to a range of municipal services in the areas of health, education and culture that create a new sense of citizenship through entitlement
The proof of women's loyalty does not lie in voting behaviour only, but in their demonstration that they are among the worthy who have absorbed the party's message about their God-given vocation as mothers and home makers. This is both a de facto reality for a majority of women and a world view they can easily relate to, since they are deeply familiar with a patriarchal trade-off that offers conditional protection in exchange for acquiescence and consent. Those who step out of this protective embrace and dare to demand equal rights as individuals put themselves in jeopardy. And the chasm separating those who acquiesce from those insisting on full-fledged rights is growing.
The case of Özgecan Aslan occasioned such deep revulsion and despair not only because of the gruesome nature of her murder, but because she was so blatantly “innocent”; a 20-year old commuting between home and college who fought back against her assailant and paid with her life. She was not merely seen as the victim of an individual rapist/murderer, but as the casualty of a system that was seen to have cheapened women’s lives in the process of spinning out a polarizing populist discourse targeting women. This latest episode of violence released all the pent up fury (and grief) of sections of society that were feeling trampled upon and could no longer recognize themselves in the “New Turkey” taking shape by fiat and, increasingly, through coercion.
Sideboxes Related stories: Building "a new Turkey": gender politics and the future of democracy Decoding the “DNA of Patriarchy” in Muslim family laws Contesting patriarchy-as-governance: lessons from youth-led activism No laughing matter: Women and the new populism in Turkey The triple whammy: towards the eclipse of women’s rights Disquiet and despair: the gender sub-texts of the 'Arab spring' No more popular protests? Reflections on Turkey’s Domestic Security Bill A tangled web: the politics of gender in Turkey The short unhappy life of the “Committee on Equality of Opportunity for Women and Men” in Turkey The truth behind the "Turkish model" Turkey: what lies behind the nationwide protests? The rise of political Islam in Turkey: how the west got it wrong Vaginal obsessions in Turkey: an Islamic perspective Country or region: Turkey Topics: Civil society Democracy and government Equality
The Stormont House Agreement ended a political crisis, but it brings women no closer to economic equality or equal participation in building a sustainable peace.
The Stormont House Agreement was intended to augment Northern Ireland’s earlier peace agreements, contending with unresolved issues relating to the legacy of the Troubles, as well as other sources of political contestation, including the devolution of Corporation Tax and welfare reform. The all-party talks that led to the agreement were billed as a resumption of the 2013 failed Haass-O’Sullivan talks, which had sought to deal with issues around the past as well as flags, emblems and parades. The intervening year had seen the Northern Ireland Assembly come close to collapse, so there was some relief when agreement was reached in December of last year.
As this series has sought to explore, central to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was the commitment to address gender inequalities in Northern Irish society, including women’s right to “full and equal political participation” – a commitment which has yet to be fulfilled. Yet there is nothing in the Stormont House Agreement to suggest progress towards this promise. Quite the opposite; the deal contains much that will impede such progress. It has two main elements: austerity measures and dealing with the past. The impact of both elements on women was not acknowledged, but each should be greeted with alarm by advocates of women’s rights.
UN Security Council Resolution 1325 formally acknowledges women’s right to participate in all aspects of conflict prevention and resolution, post conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding. In December 2013, at the Stormont Parliament Buildings, an ‘Inquiry into the Actions and Level of Implementation of UNSCR 1325 Women, Peace and Security for Women in Northern Ireland since the Peace Process’ was held. The inquiry took into account a broad range of issues, including the impact of the conflict on women’s continuing economic inequality in Northern Ireland; the fate of women’s groups; the level of implementation of the Good Friday Agreement’s commitment to the ‘full and equal political participation of women’, and the rights of women victims of the conflict.
In relation to each of these issues, the SHA offers no progress. Indeed, the one and only time women are mentioned in the fourteen pages of the Agreement is in relation to “outstanding commitments” where there is a passing nod towards the Bill of Rights and other equality issues, including the “advancement of women in public life”.
The austerity measures contained in the first two pages of the SHA will impact on women to a disproportionate extent and will act to prevent their “full and equal political participation”. The extension of welfare reform, even with the temporary supplementary payments to ease the impact of cuts, will make many women’s lives more difficult.
One of the worrying elements of Universal Credit is the single household payment which is to go routinely to one member of the household. Even in the most equal household, this payment to one person will represent a loss of independent income for women. Universal Credit (UC) changes could mark the start of a return to a ‘male breadwinner’ model in couple households. Universal Credit aims to “make work pay” through a system of earnings disregards and a tapering of withdrawal of benefits as earnings rise. However, this help towards making work pay is available to only one person in a couple household and the income of a second low paid worker will be taxed at a very high marginal rate. While this improves the incentive for one person in a couple household to move into employment, it may be a disincentive to second earners (mainly women) entering or continuing to work. A report for the Scottish Executive warned that such second earners could lose up to 4.5% of net income. The loss is likely to be even more in Northern Ireland where childcare is the most expensive in the UK, outside London. This comes on top of the disproportionate hit that women have already taken through the years of austerity, causing women in Northern Ireland to establish the “empty purse” campaign.
But it is the cuts to benefits that are being introduced as part of welfare reform that will have the most devastating effects on women. Women manage family poverty, which means they do most of the worrying when ends simply won’t meet. And women with large families are most at risk of being in severe and persistent poverty. Yet, it appears, the SHA accepts the imposition of a benefit cap on households. While in London the cap has affected those claiming Housing Benefit, in Northern Ireland where housing costs are lower, 470 families with more than four children will be hit by the cap. So, in a region where abortion is not available and there is no childcare strategy, a woman faced with a fifth or subsequent pregnancy will know that she will not receive a brass farthing towards the upkeep of that child, should she and her partner lose their jobs.
The Welfare Reform Bill, which had passed all but the final stages in the Assembly during February, was withdrawn suddenly after one of the government parties, Sinn Fein, withdrew support for it on 9th March. The party was concerned that they had agreed to an inadequate level of funding for the proposed system of ‘top-ups’ to help those hit hardest by welfare reform. It is unclear when the Bill will return to the Assembly but it is unlikely to be before the Westminster General Election.
Austerity and the legacy of conflict
A report for the Commission for Victims and Survivors found that four out of ten people in the region have suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of the conflict. PTSD exacerbates all forms of mental ill-health. For women who are trying to manage poverty on a day-to-day basis, such daily stress exacerbates both their PTSD and other illnesses. Yet many of those victims of the conflict, now struggling with mental illness, are likely to lose up to £5,000 a year as a result of welfare reform. This is because the Personal Independence Payment, which is to replace Disability Living Allowance, is designed to cut by one fifth the numbers who receive this benefit. Modelling by the Stormont Department that oversees welfare reform suggests that a quarter of those currently receiving DLA will not receive PIP while a further third will see their benefit reduced, with those receiving DLA for reasons of mental ill-health most likely to be cut.
The 2013 concluding observations of the CEDAW committee recognised this in its concerns that “the austerity measures introduced by the State party have resulted in serious cuts in funding for organisations providing social services to women…[and] have had a negative impact on women with disabilities and older women.” The Committee “is further concerned that budgetary cuts in the public sector, disproportionately affect women, due to their concentration in this sector”.
The provision in the SHA for 20,000 public sector jobs to be cut will be a big blow to young women studying today in the hope of getting a decent job in the future. While the redundancies are ‘voluntary’, the 20,000 jobs will be gone forever. Women make up 65 per cent of the public sector workforce, which provides the best quality work for women; the gender pay gap for full time employees is half that in the private sector. Family-friendly policies are more available in the public sector. Even if jobs become available in the private sector for women, it is unlikely they will match the pay and conditions of the jobs lost. This would result in a widening of the overall gender pay gap and worsening levels of female poverty.
In relation to dealing with the past, pressure from victims did lead the Stormont administration to establish an Historical Abuse Inquiry to “examine if the institutions or the state failed in their duties towards children under 18 in their residential care and if failings were systemic”. However, the Inquiry does not include examination of the abuse suffered by women of 18 and over in the Magdalene Laundries or Mother and Baby Homes. An estimated 30,000 women were confined in these institutions, run ostensibly to house what the institutions termed “fallen women”. Amnesty International has urged the Northern Ireland executive to launch a “thorough and effective investigation into allegations of abuse suffered within these institutions”, including inhumane and degrading treatment, arbitrary deprivation of liberty and forced labour. Despite lobbying by the women’s sector, the SHA failed to deal with the abuse of women in the Inquiry. The parties were evidently unwilling to include any suggestion that the past might be gendered.
The fact that the word “women” appears only once in the Stormont House Agreement does not mean that it will not have a huge impact on the women of Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, it will be overwhelmingly a negative impact. The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day events in Belfast was “no peace without women”. The peace process had promised women full and equal participation in building a new Northern Ireland society. The Stormont House Agreement suggests this promise has been forgotten.Sideboxes Related stories: 'Peace will bring prosperity': Northern Ireland’s big lie? Dealing with Northern Ireland’s past: a guide to the Haass-O’Sullivan talks Women in Northern Ireland should be leading peacebuilders again Women Together in the darkest days of the 'Troubles' Excluded and silenced: Women in Northern Ireland after the peace process Addressing Northern Ireland’s incomplete peace: young feminists speak out Whose recovery?: Gendered austerity in the UK Country or region: Northern Ireland
John Kerry has gone from calling Bashar a dear friend to a brutal dictator to thanking him for working with America to wipe out Syria's chemical stockpile, to wanting to talk. But everything else has failed.
Bashar Al Assad, 2011. Wikicommons/Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom. All rights reserved.After four years of fighting the world has come full circle when John Kerry announced that the United States is willing to talk to Bashar al Assad. In 2011, the Syrian President Bashar al Assad, warned that if the west touched Syria the whole region would burn. Four years on these words have been prophetic.
The Middle East has not been this unstable perhaps since the Mongol invasion of Baghdad. Even the tumultuous fall of the Ottoman Empire and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 did not bring with it the levels of uncertainty and extreme violence that the Syrian war has unleashed on the whole region. Once again, exactly one hundred years on, Damascus is the key pivot on which the whole region’s stability hinges.
If only America and its allies in the so called ‘Friends of Syria’ committee had studied how Hafez was the rock on which the Arabs relied, we would not have had to wait so long for Kerry to talk about Assad as part of the solution.Syria as the heart of the Arab world
Exactly hundred years ago the greatest prize in the Middle East was the fight for Damascus. In the epic film, Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole in the title role tells Field Marshall Allenby that the Arabs would not come for Faisal or the British or the gold, but they would come for Damascus. Of course, not for the first time, T E Lawrence was lying. The men that Lawrence had mustered from the deserts of Arabia were mercenaries who had nothing in common with the urbane and sophisticated Damascenes, or the traders of Aleppo or the noble Arab and Armenian tribes of Deir Al-Zor. Despite all the gold and weapons with which the British supplied the Bedouins from the Arabian Peninsula under the command of Auda abu Tayi and Nasir Ibn Ali, only 560 Syrians joined the mercenary army of the British invasion of Syria.
The Damascus inhabitants and other Syrians then under Ottoman control were not convinced of the sincerity of Faisal and Lawrence. Whilst they were no fans of Ottoman control, they did not join the desert tribes of what now makes up Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the GCC. Similarly when the French were fighting Faisal after the withdrawal of the British troops from Damascus, Faisal had only 2000 men defending him for the fight: the ancestors of present day Syria were in no mood to take dictation from Bedouins in the pay of the British.
A hundred years on all efforts to control the big cities of Syria have failed; the uprising in Aleppo did not begin for almost a year and a half after the Derra incident. The Arab spring reached Syria much later and when it did the cities of Damascus and Aleppo did not join in. it was mostly in the rural south and east. According to American officials themselves there is no real opposition. Not unlike a hundred years ago, despite Arabian Peninsula Bedouin meddling and hundreds of billions of dollars of aid, the vast majority of Syrians did not join the Free Syrian Army or the Syrian National Council. Even the most credible leader of the opposition to date, Moaz al Khatib was of the opinion that the Syrian opposition were foreign controlled and did not have a Syrian voice. When Khatib wanted to reach out for a political solution he was vetoed by the Gulf countries and others who wanted to rule over Syria’s fate. Syrian rebels and opposition are happy earning big pay checks and living in five star hotels in Doha, Paris and DC. Rather like Lawrence’s ‘Arab revolt’ bickered with each other when they entered Syria, they bicker among themselves at every stage.Hafez and the Americans: how Bashar learnt to deal with the United States
The next great tumult in the Levant occurred in the 1970s in the shape of the Lebanese civil war. The solution of this war was firmly in the hands of the Syrian military intelligence establishment. Hafez al Assad under an Arab League mandate intervened on behalf of the Arab world to stabilize Lebanon. Hafez was a pariah in the west from the outset because of his closeness to the Soviet Union, yet no other leader in a Soviet-aligned country had so much respect and interaction with multiple American presidents as Hafez al Assad. Once the Americans realized that they could not outdo Syria in Lebanon they worked with Syria to bring about stability in the region.
Kissinger was very clear in his analysis of Lebanon and urged American policy
to work with the Syrians and not against them. It was Hafez al Assad and not
the Lebanese militias and the PLO that mattered. Warren Christopher recalled
that Hafez al Assad would never start a diplomatic meeting if he knew his
position was weak: all the meetings the Americans had with Hafez were conducted
in the knowledge that Hafez felt he had the upper hand. According to Bill
Clinton, Hafez was a ruthless but brilliant man who could always be trusted to
deliver on his word, ‘although we had our
disagreements, he had always been straightforward with me.’ Jimmy Carter also singled out Hafez as the single obstacle to the Geneva Peace accords and acknowledged that without Syria there could be no ultimate peace with either the Israelis or in the wider region in the context of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Hafez’ masterstroke in this relationship with the Americans was his backing of the American-led coalition to fight Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Whilst the Syrian military under Hafez’s orders were helping the western-backed alliance in Kuwait and Iraq, it was also fighting against French-backed General Michel Aoun in 1990, managing multiple war fronts both on the battlefield and in its diplomacy. Again in Iraq post-2003, Syrians kept a fine balance between supporting some American logistics while providing routes for insurgents against the American occupation. This meant that the Americans found it almost impossible to not take the Syrians seriously. Yet when Bush proposed to remove Assad way back in 2003 and 2004, it took Ariel Sharon to warn the Americans against such a blunder.The good or the bad Bashar?
Bashar al Assad had already survived three great crises before the start of the 2011 war. Bashar had seen off the 2006 war against the Israelis, the American invasion of Iraq and the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Almost no one gave Bashar a chance when his father died in 2000, or again when Hariri was killed and the Syrian Army left Lebanon. Every so-called expert said that this would be the end of Assad. Yet he went on to thrive. Bashar brought himself back into the western fold forging relationships with France, Britain and the United States. He was feted in western capitals and his economic and social reforms were heralded by western leaders. John Kerry in his extensive talks with Bashar al Assad called him a ‘generous man and someone he and America could trust.’ Hillary Clinton was also at pains to call Bashar a reformer who needed time to fix Syria.
After the American invasion of Iraq, Bashar reached out to the Islamist parties to consolidate against foreign threats. Under Bashar, the Baath party also for the first time celebrated official Islamic festivals. Dr Mahmoud al Agassi, an influential Islamic cleric and critic of Bashar, argued that Syria did not want an American-style democracy or a chaos similar to that holding Iraq in its thrall. Nawaf al Basheer similarly argued that Syria should change according to internal pressure and not through any externally-backed uprising.
So while Syria had not become a liberal democracy or an open society, Syria was moving at its own natural pace and not at the behest of outsiders. And this is where one must temper idealism with realism. Libya, Yemen and Iraq are in ruins. Tunisia, whilst it may be a democracy, is exporting the largest number of jihadists in the whole Arab world. Not only has routine assassination of non-Muslims taken place in ‘democratic Tunisia’, but opposition leaders have been killed who do not adhere to political Islam. Tunisia as a western-backed democracy is looking the other way as it actively recruits and sends fighters to Libya and Syria. And of course we all know what Egypt under el-Sisi has done. Yet he is feted and shored up with billions from western economies.
The problem with western labelling of Bashar al Assad has been the west’s complete confusion over what to make of him, praised as he is for the neoliberal economic policies which prompted his sale of several state-run enterprises and his encouragement of private sector reform. Yet American observers knew that there was no magic wand that could get rid of old ideas and remove obstacles overnight. The American invasion of Iraq had a negative effect on Syrian economic and social reforms. Bashar and his economic reforms meant turning his back on his father’s old closed market structures, while encouraging a new middle class to succeed in Damascus, Latakia, Homs and Hama alongside the established mercantile families of Aleppo.Liberalisation of the economy of course meant corruption, as is natural for any economy moving away from socialism. But attitudes to Syria both in the west and the region have been a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
John Kerry has gone from calling Bashar a dear friend to a brutal dictator to thanking him for working with America to wipe out its chemical stockpile, to wanting to talk. But everything else has failed for four years. Politics and talking to the Syrian government has to trump all these other ideological stances. The Syrian people continue to suffer as foreigners and Gulf Arabs try to impose their agenda on the Syrian people. The Syrian Ambassador to the UN, Bashar al Jaafari rightly pointed out at the start of this conflict that as Lawrence of Arabia had failed to impose a Bedouin and western rule on Damascus a hundred years ago, it would fail this time as well. Demonization of Damascus has led only to despair. Damascus is indeed part of the solution.
 Rogan, Eugene L. The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920. , 2015, pp 400-401
 McHugo, John. Syria: From the Great War to Civil War. , 2015, pp 221-224
 Clinton, Bill. My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, p 734
 Carter, Jimmy. Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1982, pp 285-286
 Ziyādah, Raḍwān. Power and Policy in Syria: Intelligence Services, Foreign Relations and Democracy in the Modern Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013, p 155
 McHugo, John. Syria: From the Great War to Civil War. , 2015, p 219
 Erlich, Reese W. Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect. , 2014, pp 79-80
 Erlich, Reese W. Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect. , 2014, p20
 Lesch, David W. Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2012, p 4
 Seifan, Samir. Syria on the Path to Economic Reform. Fife, Scotland: University of St. Andrews Centre for Syrian Studies, 2010, p 24
 McHugo, John. Syria: From the Great War to Civil War. , 2015, p 218Sideboxes Related stories: Pax Syriana: neither vanquished, nor all-conquering
Anti-trafficking programmes give a humanitarian gloss to national anti-immigration controls, but the citizenship and immigration policies of nation-states are still the biggest danger facing many migrants today.
National immigration policies and their enforcement constitute the greatest dangers to people trying to cross national borders. Moreover, the categories into which nation-states slot most migrating people—‘illegal’ or ‘temporary foreign worker’ being two of the largest—are the greatest threats to their liberty. Being categorised as ‘illegal’ or ‘temporary’ is what entraps a growing number (and proportion) of migrating people into substandard work while severely limiting their rights and mobility. In short, national immigration policies legislate the conditions that make some people ‘cheap’ or ‘disposable.’ Quite simply put: without national immigration policies, there would no ‘migrants’ to subordinate, scapegoat and abuse.
We learn none of these real-life dangers and exploitations from the ever-multiplying accounts of ‘human trafficking’ and ‘modern-day slavery.’ I’ve long been curious about why that is. I suspect it has something to do with how anti-trafficking campaigns cast nation-states as the ‘rescuers’ of ‘victims of trafficking’ instead of showing nation-states to be the source of much of their woes. For those people whose mobility is seriously imperilled by immigration and border controls; who have resorted to paying someone to help them across increasingly militarised borders; who are forced to work for poverty wages in substandard conditions; who are ever more frequently detained and deported; and for those who care about the people who have drowned at sea or died of thirst in deserts while attempting to reach somewhere else, the idea that the nation-state is a friend to ‘migrants’ is, well, galling.
Anti-trafficking policies do a great disservice to migrating people, especially the most vulnerable. By diverting our attention away from the practices of nation-states and employers, they channel our energies to support a law-and-order agenda of ‘getting tough’ with ‘traffickers.’ In this way, anti-trafficking measures are ideological: they render the plethora of immigration and border controls as unproblematic and place them outside of the bounds of politics. The reasons why it is increasingly difficult and dangerous for people to move safely or live securely in new places are brushed aside while nation states rush to criminalise ‘traffickers’ and (largely) deport ‘victims of trafficking.’
To have a useful discussion about ‘trafficking’ and ‘modern-day slavery,’ we need to take seriously how national and international governance regimes and legislation shape the experiences of people trying to exit, move across, or live and work in various nationalised societies. The United Nations estimates there were 232 million international migrants in 2013, 57 million more than there were in 2000. Today, much (but not all) of human migration is shaped by the enormous spatial disparities in prosperity, peace and power. In contrast to the “great age of mass migration” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when migration was mainly out of Europe, most cross-border migrants today originate from the ‘poor world.’ This is not a surprise given that one’s nationality is a key factor in predicting global income disparity. Branko Milanovic demonstrates in his 2005 book Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality that citizens of ‘rich world’ nation-states enjoy an enormous “citizenship premium.” For example, a citizen of the United States with “the average income of the bottom US decile is better off than 2/3 of world population” (Milanovic 2005, p. 50, emphasis added).
How have nation-states, especially in the ‘rich world,’ responded to this growth in international migration and the growth in global disparities? Not by helping people move or by making their migration routes safe but by implementing more restrictive and punitive immigration and border controls than ever. However, this has not stopped people from moving and, arguably, this is not the states’ goal. While more and more people are moving, they have access to less and less rights and entitlements. For example, in the United States, the largest category of ‘migrants’—by a ratio of about 15:1—are those denied state permission to either enter or stay in the country. In Canada, the largest group of “migrants” are categorised as “temporary foreign workers” who are not free to choose either their employer, occupation or geographical residence.
Thus, far from eliminating or even severely restricting the movement of people, what neoliberal reformulations of immigration and refugee policy have done is to prevent the vast majority of migrating people from making claims on the state (in terms of social services) or on employers (in terms of minimum wages and standards of work). That is how a ‘cheap’ and ‘disposable’ labour force is created. This is the real story of international migration in the age of neo-liberalism (late 1960s onward): the creation of a legally subordinated group of people cast as ‘migrants.’
It is precisely in this same period that the narratives of ‘modern-day slavery’ and ‘victims of trafficking’ have arisen. This is not a coincidence. Just when nation-states have made it next to impossible to legally live and work in their territories as rights-bearing persons, anti-trafficking measures have been adopted into national laws. Tales of ‘trafficking’ (or ‘smuggling’), which have led to calls for heightened state intervention at the border and more punitive measures for traffickers and/or smugglers, do the crucial work of legitimising further controls on global human mobility, all in the name of ‘helping’ victims of trafficking. By ideologically filtering their efforts through the politics of rescue, anti-trafficking campaigns provide a crucial veneer of humanitarianism to the exploitative and repressive practices of states and employers. It is because of its ideological character that anti-trafficking campaigns articulate so well with official anti-migrant agendas.
In particular, anti-trafficking measures fail to acknowledge that in the face of ever-more restrictive immigration and border controls, it is virtually impossible today for many people to move without the assistance of people ready and able to help them in one way or another. They might need forged papers (visas, passports, etc.) for travel. They might need help in navigating clandestine migration routes. They might need help in gaining paid employment. It is true that many, but certainly not all, migrants experience coercion and even abuse during their journeys. They may also experience some form of deception if the jobs, wages or working conditions they expected do not materialise. Does this mean that they are ‘victims of trafficking’ as some NGOs, almost all national governments, and the United Nations would have us believe?
They are not. Instead, most people who migrate, especially those cast as ‘illegals’ or ‘temporary foreign workers,’ are victims of the daily, banal operation of global capitalist labour markets that are governed by nation-states. These practices make migration a survival strategy. People are further victimised by border control practices and the ideologies of racism, sexism, and nationalism that render unspectacular their everyday experiences of oppression and exploitation, which are rarely considered worthy of our attention. By vilifying the ‘trafficker,’ anti-trafficking crusaders further depoliticize state immigration policies, border controls and the capitalist market.
To address the needs and desires of people who move—and to acknowledge extant global disparities in power, wealth and peace—we need to re-politicize nation-states and their immigration and border controls. This requires that we jettison the framework of anti-trafficking and its supporting legislation. Only a very small number of migrants have received temporary legal status as a result of being positioned as victims of trafficking. For the vast majority of people migrating, however, the focus on ‘traffickers’ has made people’s clandestine journeys more expensive and more dangerous, as avoiding detection and arrest has become increasingly difficult. Instead of objectifying people who migrate as ‘trafficked victims,’ we need to re-centre how state immigration and border controls have forced them into dangerous migration routes. We also need to be aware of how the intersection of criminal law and immigration law creates the conditions for the exploitation of people who need to earn a living and form new homes across borders. Doing so leads to the recognition that only by mobilising to end practices of displacement, while simultaneously ensuring that people are able to move according to their own self-determined, wilful needs and desires, will we be able to contest globally operative practices of exploitation and abuse. We need to eliminate all immigration controls and eradicate those sets of social relations organised through global capitalism and the equally global system of nation-states.Sideboxes Related stories: Centring the state in our critiques of trafficking The role of the state and law in trafficking and modern slavery Forced labour is big business: states and corporations are doing little to stop it
Universities are increasingly becoming factories, churning out obedient citizens and “human capital.” It's time to fight back.
The LSE's polished brand is being challenged. Flickr/Mikhail Dubov. Some rights reserved.At the London School of Economics, many of the pamphlets and posters across the campus advertise events like “Be an entrepreneur for a day” or “How to become the next George Soros.” This may not be unique to the LSE, but it is no doubt central to its narrative: come to this institution, pay the fees, go to the recruitment fairs, and graduate with a well-paid job, perhaps in the City of London. Remember, above all, our big sales pitch: “our most recent average starting salary was £29,400 for undergraduates and £35,000 for postgraduates – well above the national averages.”
The LSE brand is powerful, and extends beyond the apparent financial success of its graduates (though the average salary figures are skewed by high-paying jobs in the City). It continues to produce impressive, often controversial research. Its Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion recently released a report on “the changing structure of inequality in the UK”, illustrating some of the deep inequities in the British labour market, while its history has been shaped by towering radical figures like Ralph Miliband and Harold Laski.
Phil Baty, the editor of the Times Higher Education rankings, recently praised the LSE’s ability to again strengthen “its position among the 25 most prestigious universities in the world – as judged by 10,000 expert, senior academics. Given that there are around 20,000 higher education institutions in the world, this is an outstanding achievement, and puts the LSE among the elite of the elite. Such a stellar global reputation will help to ensure that the LSE continues to be a leading light – attracting global talent and investment into London and the UK!”
But it is precisely this image – “the elite of the elite” – that is currently being unmasked and challenged. There are good reasons to take this challenge seriously.“University is not a factory!”
On March 18, I was surprised to see the usual posters on entrepreneurship and careers in finance displaced by the simple message: “Our Turn to Talk.” Hanging from the LSE old building – often the spot where we take photos with our parents, ensuring we get the school’s logo in the background – was the banner, “Occupy LSE.”
At its core, this is a movement about redefining the principles that drive our education, captured in the rallying cry “University is not a factory!” Readers of openDemocracy will be familiar with the increasing sense, not only in Britain but across the world, that education has become a commodity; degrees “marketed” on their utility in a “competitive job market”; courses “sold” on their ability to equip us for the “knowledge economy”; institutions and academics “ranked” according to their status and prestige.
How do we confront this? Tuition fees are a good place to start, and the first demand of Occupy LSE is that the university “publicly lobby for education as a public good to be funded by a progressive taxation system and to be free from tuition fees for both domestic and international students.” One of the architects of the modern tuition fee system is a Professor of Public Economics at the LSE, Nicholas Barr, who has since lamented that the plan was not well sold: “I said to Tony Blair, call it a graduate tax!”
Professor Barr’s view – that a system of tuition fees is necessary and desirable if properly explained – reflects how “progressive” minds in Britain have accepted what the sociologist Ronaldo Munck calls “necessitarianism”: the belief in the inevitability of the market’s triumph in society. This belief is the basis of modern neo-liberalism, and can be seen in the language of Will Hutton in a 2013 article for the Guardian with the title: “Britain’s intellectual powerhouses must not become the preserve of the wealthy.” “Of course graduates should pay fees for their education over 30 years of their subsequent working life”, he wrote. “Of course universities should promote ever wider access. Of course universities should do more to feed business with the lifeblood of scientific and technological knowledge.” University, in other words, is still a factory, designed to “feed business”, but we should aim to put a nicer face on it.
The Free University of London takes over the Vera Anstey Suite. Author's image.“The epitome of the neoliberal university”
That’s essentially where the “progressive” perspective lies today, exemplified in the Labour Party’s radical alternative to the Coalition’s £9,000 annual fees: £6,000. Conservative governments may be more aggressively pursuing an American-style education system – like in my native Australia, where the Education Minister last year mulled over collecting student loans from deceased estates – but the bigger concern is the way in which former parties of the left have turned their back on free education.
Britain, nevertheless, is an outlier compared to the rest of Europe, where university education is either free or relatively affordable; not to mention Scotland, whose First Minister recently spoke at LSE and asserted “I will defend the principle of access to education being on your ability to learn, not your ability to pay as long as I’m in politics.” We may fear that we’re turning into America; the rest of Europe fears that they’re turning in to us.
LSE certainly feels like, as student activists put it, “the epitome of the neoliberal university.” The most embarrassing evidence of this was the 2011 revelations of the school’s willingness to accept gifts from the Gaddafi family, with more recent concerns stemming from its “streamlined” new code on ethical investments. The chairman of the LSE Council and Court of Governors is Peter Sutherland, who is also chairman of Goldman Sachs International and former chairman of BP; and the “Sheikh Zayed Theatre”, in our impressive New Academic Building, is named after the former Emir of Abu Dhabi, a token of appreciation for his family's financial support.
Reclaiming the voice of students. Flickr/lusciousblopster. Some rights reserved.
Yet – as we well know – LSE is not the only university run like a business, which is why Occupy LSE’s call for divestment from “exploitative and destructive organisations, such as those involved in wars, military occupations, illegal blacklisting of workers and the destruction of the planet” has been so passionately echoed and supported.“Forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old”
This call for a “new society” is found in the preamble to the constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World. It has inspired the pursuit of an ambitious “pre-figurative politics” based on new forms of expression and organisation in our everyday lives, rejecting arbitrary authority and hierarchy. This is a key element of the Free University movement, with the principle of “directly democratic, non-hierarchal and universally accessible education” being actively practiced in the workshops and discussions (for details, see the Occupy LSE Facebook page) taking place within and outside the Vera Anstey Suite, normally a space reserved for the university bureaucracy, now re-named the Free University of London. The wider aim is to embed this principle of “genuine university democracy” in the LSE through greater institutional transparency and “the formation of an Independent Review Committee comprising of academic staff (1/3), non-academic staff (1/3) and students (1/3).”
Underpinning this is a call for the LSE to publicly lobby against the government’s recent Counter-Terrorism Bill, which carries eerie requirements for monitoring “radicalisation” on campuses. Anyone remotely familiar with the recent history of counter-terrorism at universities in the UK should support this demand. Just ask Mohammad Gul, a law student at Queen Mary University, whose five year prison sentence was upheld in 2012 under Section 1 of the Terrorism Act for uploading videos to YouTube of Iraqi and Afghan insurgents fighting American and British military forces; or Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir, students at the University of Nottingham, who were arrested and held for six days in May 2008 after the university’s registrar informed police that Sabir had downloaded an al-Qaeda training manual, and emailed it to his classmate (for a Security Studies class). Critical thinking and dissent, the most basic values of higher education, are under threat, and in desperate need of protection.Stand with us
Education is not about churning out obedient citizens, ready-made for a career in an economy designed by distant corporate and political interests. In any case, such careers prove elusive for many graduates today. The reality, instead, is “overqualified and underemployed”: casual, low-paid, often unstable work – with a mountain of debt. Graduates are, in this sense, becoming part of that “dangerous new class”, the “Precariat”, sharing the experience and the consciousness of the LSE workers on zero-hours contracts, whose employment rights are a central demand of the Occupy LSE movement.
After initially taking a conciliatory stance – stating that “exchanges between the group and LSE security staff have been positive”, and even reportedly including the Occupation in the welcoming presentation on the school’s open day – the LSE now appears to be taking a harder line, vaguely promising dialogue and piecemeal compromise while considering legal action. Looking at our demands, I have already been told by students that “they will never agree to that”, “there’s no way that will work” or “no chance.”
We’ve heard such apathy before. But history, as the novelist Philip Roth noted, is about discovering how the unexpected becomes the inevitable. The pessimists should take even a cursory look at the history of political activism at LSE, and then, on some level, they might re-discover it. And this is a movement extending well beyond LSE, to the UAL students occupying the reception area of the Central St Martins College of Art and Design; the graduate students on strike at the University of Toronto; and the inspiring student occupation of the University of Amsterdam. Far from dissipating, this wave of political activity has spread, with students from King's College London and Goldsmiths the latest to begin occupations (see Occupy KCL and Occupy Goldsmiths).
Stand with us. Or, at the very least, listen to us, because the Free University of London is not just a physical space, but an angry and passionate collective voice – one that won't be fading away.Sideboxes Related stories: Scotland isn't different, it's Britain that's bizarre Why we occupy: Dutch universities at the crossroads Social Science Inc "Whose University?" dislodges Cambridge University's mask of humanity City: London Topics: Civil society Democracy and government