Remembering, contesting and forgetting: the aftermath of the Cairo massacres

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. February 2015 - 9:18

The Egyptian Government’s anti-terrorism measures in the wake of the Rab'aa mosque massacre continue to colour people’s daily lives with the suppressed trauma and memory of these events.

Rab’aa Mosque today“The mosque evokes death, bloodshed and tangible grief.” Standing in the hot Cairo sun, looking at the everyday scene outside the Rab’aa el Adawayya mosque, my friend’s words at first strike me as incongruous. But almost immediately my mind flashes back to the same spot a year ago, where I had stood gazing with horror at the blackened facade of the burnt out shell left by the Egyptian Army’s violent clearance of the huge pro-Morsi protest camp which had grown up around the mosque - which I wrote about on openDemocracy at the time, and the sheer scale and brutality of which Human Rights Watch has since documented in detail.

Up until the August 2013 massacre, the Rab’aa mosque had been a landmark and community hub at the crossroads of two major arteries in Cairo’s sprawling northern suburb of Medinet Nasr (Victory City). Its brilliant whitewashed walls had always stood out from the drab concrete and brick of the surrounding tower blocks – and also from the ‘army standard’ ochre wash of the many military installations in the area. The throngs of locals streaming in and out of the mosque’s open, airy arches, and the gates of the hospital building within its walls, likewise contrasted sharply with the military sites’ blank, forbidding walls and guarded entry points.

Before and afterNow, a year later, the scene seems barely recognisable from the scorched battlefield I had stood in. There is barbed wire, and lines of military tanks, positioned in selected locations to ward off trouble and protect military installations. The streets surrounding the crossroads have also been given a facelift with more streetlights, large advertising billboards and plants to add a splash of colour to the location. Walls protecting military buildings, once littered with revolutionary graffiti, seem to have been hurriedly washed and waiting to be given a fresh coating of colour.

Graffito (“The crimes of the Military – Mohamed Mahmoud & Rabaa”) from a pro-Morsi protest camp cleared from the squareAn eerie silence now lingers at the major junction where the mosque stands. To make sense of the overwhelming feeling of lifeless ‘greyness’ I am experiencing, my gaze steadies on the signage with which the Military Engineers Corps have marked the completion of their ‘renovation’ of the destroyed mosque - intended, in the words of the army’s Facebook spokesman, to “restore the aesthetic and civilised image of Egypt’s streets after they were vandalised at the hands of terrorists and those who abuse its security and stability.” The mosque’s original signage had been unashamedly shaabi (working class, populist), mounted above its main entrance. My memory of how its garish ‘movie billboard’ lettering somehow remained shining through the soot of the smoked out wreckage helps me recognise its replacement as ‘military standard’ in terms of its placing (embossed directly on – not raised above - the building’s walls) and its standardised, metallic lettering. My eye is then drawn to the colours in which the mosque’s walls have been repainted, the brilliant whitewash and bright green of the original replaced with an ochre wash and brown highlighting. With a sinking heart, it dawns on me that the Rab’aa mosque has been given a new frontage uncannily similar to that of the nearby Republican Guard Officers Club (which was fiercely protected during the time of the protest occupation). It is clear that the Egyptian military has claimed the ‘protest mosque” as its trophy, and rebranded it in the same architectural uniform as all other military sites across Cairo and the length of Egypt, its gates now as firmly and forbiddingly closed as all the others.

Rebranding a community hub as a military buildingThe friend from the neighbourhood who is driving me around reflects on the locked gates and doors to the empty, silent (though previously always open and bustling) mosque:

‘It’s as if Ramadan never happened this year. It was stripped of any meaning. A void. No festive weight or substance. Listen - do you hear the call to prayer? That’s all that’s left of the Rab’aa we knew. Now you never see the neighbourhood’s residents going there for their regular prayers as before: who can live with all that grief and bloodshed? What happened is still raw - even though everyone gets on with their business as usual.’

Hassan (as I will call him) turns his thoughts to the night of the massacre, taking place in the streets under the apartment block that has been his home for fifteen years:

‘From 4.30 am on that fateful day, we heard military planes flying low. The tear gas was overpowering, we had to close the shutters and put the AC on. We didn’t want to leave Mom alone in her flat nearby, so we had to find a way to get there quickly and get her here. When we reached her, we found that one of her elderly neighbours, a woman in her 70s, had taken a bullet to her neck as she was closing her window. She’s on the 7th floor, so it must have come from one of the Army snipers who were raining down bullets. There was much panic as there were no ambulances working. Mercifully, a medical student living next door rushed to help, and she survived. It went on like that all day. When it was declared safe to venture out, the scale of destruction and the stench made me think we had been transported to Palestine, or Syria. Was this really our neighbourhood? It was the worst 24 hours of my life. ’

He goes on to reflect on what he sees as the unjustified killing of innocent victims:

‘Many reasons are given for why the violence was necessary. The most common is that protestors were armed and it could have got nasty. I’m baffled by this allegation. During the fad (the slang word by which the clearance is invariably referred to), protestors were running for their lives. Where was the arsenal we were given to believe had been hidden in secret chambers and dark tunnels under the mosque? And again, why shoot the protestors in the chest and head? This troubles me. I mean, if you shoot a man running for his life in the leg, you take him out of combat but with a decent chance of saving his life. However this kind of free-for-all shooting, where you target everything or anything that moves, has always been alien to how we see ourselves as a society. And now it won’t stop here. The massacre has been a game-changer - from now on it’s a case of il-dam il-masri rekhis (Egyptian blood is cheap). My thoughts keep coming back to this fundamental revelation.’

Driving me back to his family flat, Hassan gives thought to practicalities of clearing a protest site.

‘It’s still a valid question why other alternatives were not considered. A first step might have been using water cannons to force out the families trapped in the protest compound. Why did they not arrive with a fleet of buses ready to transport the protestors elsewhere? Why did the special forces not use the intelligence they claim they had to dig out the so-called ‘hidden arsenal’ and make arrests? Yet local eyewitnesses have told us that the special forces only allowed two exit points from the mayhem: one where you’d get arrested if you came out alive, the other straight to the morgue.’

I have known Hassan’s family for well over 15 years. Resident in Nasr City for almost 20 years, his father was a GP in the army – a job that not only allowed the family to travel and live in a range of military posts in Europe, but also provided access to the privileges attached to the well-rewarded professional ranks in the military. These include free housing, the right to buy property at subsidised rates in an array of residential compounds, access to large supermarkets and shopping arcades designated as military outlets, and also to health care and recreational facilities such as sports clubs – in short, a comprehensive welfare system for the members of Egypt’s military establishment. The range and scale of the military’s welfare provision is not only unmatched by any other state apparatus, but in the current bleak economic climate is also considered more secure, stable and ‘respectable’ than the affluent and ostentatious lifestyle choices available to the country’s newly enriched civilians.

It might be thought to follow that any Egyptian family with such connections would be robust supporters of the new military-led Government of former Field Marshal Mohamed Abd el Fatah el Sisi, and its promises for a more secure, stable and generally ‘better’ Egypt. Yet the conversation round the family lunch to which I am treated back in the safety of Hassan’s flat leaves me in no doubt that, following the ousting of the elected Muslim Brotherhood Government, their former pride in the military has turned to disillusionment.

Hassan and his younger brother Hussein, the family’s two sons, are both currently lawyers – and both are, within the wall’s of Hassan’s flat, openly critical of the reluctance of the Egyptian military to embrace a civilian and more democratic rule. Yet Hassan’s wife and mother are staunch Sisi supporters, and see Egypt’s 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ uprising as a ‘waste of life and resources’. For an ordinary Egyptian family that routinely keeps a low profile about its allegiance with the military, and refrains from expressing any political or religious preferences, a surprisingly spirited discussion develops over the generously prepared lunch table. The two pro-Sisi women face bitter opposition from other family members to the doubts they are prepared to express over the ‘authenticity’ of the events of January 25, 2011 leading to the ousting of the seemingly impregnable President Mubarak. The ambiguity unravels itself in such questions as: was 25 January (2011 – the ousting of Mubarak) a ‘real’ revolution or a staged ‘Photoshop’ (a local term to mean ‘fake’, a simulacra of a revolution funded by Western governments) revolution? Was 30 June 2013 (the day the military ousted the subsequently elected President Morsi) the start of the ‘real’ revolution - or of a military coup? Was the final 18 August clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood protest camps murder? or a necessary measure in ‘Egypt’s fight against terrorism’?

Manal, Hassan’s sister-in-law, a secondary school teacher makes clear her acceptance of the spirit of the times:

‘Hussein and Hassan were frequent participants in the milioniyya (million-strong protests) of Tahrir Square. Their engagement with protestors on Fridays following noon prayers was experienced as a kind of solidarity, a one-ness. For them Egypt was not just a geographical location we happen, by some freak coincidence, to be part of. It was a grander entity - and much larger than the bank balances or the economic power of the super-rich who parade themselves in our country. Through these crowds, the essence of what Egypt is, and what it could achieve, was more defined. No barriers could limit our horizons, or the potential and possibilities lying ahead. Those moments were transformative – we saw bare courage’.

As lawyers, Hassan and Hussein regard the high turnout in Egypt’s open and free Legislative and Presidential elections of 2012 as providing shar’iyya (legitimacy) for the new Muslim Brotherhood government, in terms not only of raw numbers and percentages of votes cast, but also of a new politics that re-invented the terms of participation at grassroots level. They saw the elections as the start of a process of civil constitutional reform, mobilising the voices from the ballot as instruments of power and leverage in the bargaining that would follow with the deeply entrenched ‘Security State’. An early indication of the likely response could be seen in the way in which Egypt’s official media manipulated the term shar’iyya, deliberately conflating its meaning with the somewhat similar-sounding shar’ia (Islamic law) in order to de-legitimise the newly elected government and highlight its sectarian aspects. These manipulations helped lay the groundwork for the 30 June ousting of the Morsi government by the army.

For many of Hassan’s family members, kinfolk and neighbours in Nasr City, the claim to shar’iyya nevertheless continued to provide an explicit political stance that epitomised the Rab’a sit-in after 30 June. As Manal continues:

‘Last year we spent time in the camp set up to protect el-shar’iyya. It was the fasting month, and most days after iftar (the sunset meal that breaks the day’s fasting) we’d join the street life in Rab’a. What had started as a protest had soon grown into a good-natured, festive jamboree. We saw nothing of what the TV and some social media were describing as lavishly-funded, venal or even criminal activities. These were just rumours accentuating the politics of envy during hard times. Many of the outsiders we befriended were just simple Egyptians who came because the food and drink was free. Others were beneficiaries attached to different Muslim Brotherhood charities. A good number of familiar faces came from our neighbourhood. Others were like us, educated and relatively comfortable, who supported il-shar’iyya and joined the protest for this reason. The spirit of the whole surrounding community resonated with the emotional generosity of the rally.’

Lunch over, we move to the salon where through sheer habit Hassan reflexively switches on the TV, talking over it while reflecting on the mood in the neighbourhood on the first anniversary of the massacre.

‘On the anniversary of the massacre conspiracy theories ran wild. There were warnings of ikhwaan (Muslim Brotherhood) movements in our area. The neighbourhood was put on red alert, with extra army tanks arriving to block connecting roads and barbed wire rolled out to control mobility, making all the shortcuts we use exceedingly difficult. On the day we were warned of ‘World War Three’ - nothing happened. Did the ghost at the feast ever make an appearance? (He laughs silently). Doesn’t that tell you something? The media systematically presents itself in the role of a well-informed and matter-of-fact advisor. But their dramatic claims are based on inconclusive facts - so that their audience, as listeners, are metamorphosed into fearless truth-seekers outwitting ‘terrorism’ – the dangerous ‘hidden powers’. And because they confirm their prejudices, these lies have to be correct.’

But there is a bigger conspiracy. This is the conspiracy of silence, and becoming complicit in the ‘anti-politics wave’ that pretends as if nothing out of the ordinary ever happened. It boils down to the internal authoritarianism endemic in our local way of thinking – what we know as centralism. It translates into siding with the more powerful for the sake of protection. If protecting one’s interests, be they economic or political, pushes us to turn a blind eye to injustices, whether small or big, who do we trust to protect our basic rights? Or are we going to live like animals – each one fighting its own corner? It is troubling.

His voice tails away as he concludes his train of thought, ending up barely audible over the chattering TV:

‘I can’t see light at the end of the tunnel right now. I once had hopes that I could see a fairer society in my lifetime or my children’s. That possibility is now remote.’

As lawyers, both brothers helped neighbours identify relatives from the city morgue where the bodies of the massacred were taken. This sobering experience of dealing with death informs their thoughts on how the cards have been dealt. Hussein explains:

‘The worst scenario we encounter as lawyers is with the dead. A martyr was once a revered body, with kisas (civil rights) and haq (religiously imbued social rights), which made accountability a necessary term of reference. But is this still the case? If you are titkhittif (‘snatched’ ie arrested without charge and held in secret) for months on end and your family frets over finding your whereabouts using its resources to track down the missing person; or if the charges are so ludicrous that they are routinely described as il-rosheta (the ‘standard prescription’); or when the authorities turn a deaf ear to any petition required to be heard in open court; or if families who visit prisons to bring necessities such as food and drink are treated like scum - who then will continue to see the struggle for shar’iyya as a worthwhile collective cause?

The state holds the families of any activist by the scruff of their necks. Corpses are not released unless the family unconditionally agrees to sign the official documentation produced by the state. What is stated is never ‘torture’ but some dubious explanation such as (said sarcastically and more loudly) ‘suicide’. The blame is transferred to the victim, who is labelled a ‘troublemaker’ or an ‘enemy of Egypt’ who deserves everything they got. And because it goes against religion not to bury one’s dead quickly, these grieving families are coerced into the trap – even while sensing deep isolation in their bereavement. The trick works. Death in a prison cell means that the victim has no voice - and the concept of ‘victim’ is made irrelevant.’

He grows more outspoken in voicing his concerns for the future:

‘In our line of work as lawyers, we witness on a day-to-day basis the implications of 30 June. People’s rights are eroded and it’s the power of might, and fear of retribution, that gets to rule. You see it in the increased bullying and violence spreading in the street and in private lives. At the same time a general consensus is enforced which insists that the environment can be freed of chaos simply by eradicating from view a government that was unpopular because of a distinct religious group called the Muslim Brotherhood. Following this logic, people become less prepared to question how this state of affairs has come about, or the probabilities of a counter-revolution and whether a counter-revolution has taken place.

Nor are they willing to reflect on how the insistence on narrow categories of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ (the military vs the Brotherhood) is tearing us all apart to consolidate conflicting interests. This is evidenced in the vocabulary that calls any form of opposition treason, and comes with ready-made labels such as the ‘fifth column’ (reserved for intellectuals, and derived from Stalinist terminology), or the ‘sleeper cells’ (reserved for Muslim Brotherhood members keeping a low profile). In the end nobody knows who is grey, black, or whiter than white. These are issues that are still causing deep friction within families in our neighbourhood. Every family will tell you that – you have even heard some of it over our lunch here - and how friends, once inseparable, have ceased to speak.

Yet despite all this, intellectuals such as Amr Hamzawy (a politically prominent Professor of Political Science) have spoken out and actually defined 30 June a coup. What excites me is that the truth is now out. It has been spoken. So if we start to connect the dots, what’s to stop us from thinking that all the chaos that followed Mubarak’s departure was not masterminded in its detailed planning? Undermining activists, shoving them in prison cells, shooting them at point blank range and setting up 30 June as the ‘true revolution’ become staging posts in the drive to keep the army’s hold on power more or less permanently.

I am impatient with offensive remarks that Egypt is not ‘ready for democracy’, or that ‘democracy is good, but for our neighbours’, or that the activists were bribed, or that US intelligence was involved, or that disadvantaged groups were scavengers living off the benefits they could get out of the uprising as if the state is an innocent or wronged bystander. Has anyone considered what created the consensus in 2011? It is because the slogan “Eish, Horreya, Adala igtima’iyya (Bread, Freedom, Justice)” resonated. Tell me, who can beat the precision of these three simple, straight-to- the-point demands?

Using the remote to flick through TV channels to see what else to watch, he summarises his thoughts:

‘There will come a tipping point to this charade. I don’t believe this grotesque imbalance is sustainable. They want an Egypt of the past where cracking the whip guarantees results. They lose sight of the limits and constraints of these tactics. Remember: even Morsi failed to deliver on his promises. That should serve as a warning.’

It is at this point that the room is abruptly plunged into silence by another of Cairo’s frequent power-cuts, expected to last for a couple of hours. Somehow the gloom feels appropriate.

This is the first of three related articles by the author. Articles exploring the effects of the subsequent security and media campaigns on the lives of those bound up in Cairo's vibrant informal service sector - whether as consumers or providers - will be published in March 2015.

Sideboxes Related stories:  From Strongman to Superman: Sisi the saviour of Egypt Report thy neighbour: policing Sisi’s Egypt Egypt: a reality too dark in which to glimpse hope? Takeovers and makeovers: using the landscape to re-write history in post-revolutionary Cairo Opportunities and pitfalls in Egypt’s roadmap Entrepreneurs of the revolution: jockeying for livelihood and security in post-Arab Spring Cairo Fear and fury: women and post-revolutionary violence Chez Morsi : palace petitioners and street entrepreneurs in post-Mubarak Egypt Country or region:  Egypt Topics:  Civil society Conflict Democracy and government
Categories: les flux rss

The international community and the crisis in Yemen

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. February 2015 - 9:07

If Hadi is to build on the popularity he gained in recent days, he needs to prove that he is the rightful heir to the 2011 revolution. That is the kind of support Hadi needs from the international community, not just kind words and drones.

Yemeni PM (right) talks to UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar, 2012.Luke Somers/Demotix. All rights reserved.This month, a series of attempts by the Huthi to create institutions, including a ‘Constitutional Statement’, failed to gain recognition for their coup. Rather the opposite. With the escape of President Hadi from house arrest on 21 February and his resumption of responsibilities, the situation in Yemen remains very problematic, and significant military confrontation is possible between the Huthis, controlling Sana’a and the far north of the country, and forces loyal to President Hadi, currently operating from Aden, while it remains to be seen what former president Saleh’s supporters will do.  At time of writing, Hadi has the support of many governors, tribes from different parts of the country  as well as most southern politicians, including those who until recently were demanding  separation and blaming him for all manner of evils. He also has strong support from the International Community, confirmed by UNSC resolution 2201 passed on February 15 and statements by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) calling on the population to support him.

This is a timely opportunity to examine the role of the international community in Yemen in recent years, focusing on four aspects in particular:

-  the role of the United Nations, primarily its political involvement in the transition process since 2011

-  the involvement of the ‘gang’ of 10 ambassadors in the transitional period and the effectiveness of its support to the transitional regime

-  the dilemmas faced by the GCC states and particularly Saudi Arabia in the face of the current situation, and

-  the involvement of foreign financiers in addressing the economic and humanitarian crisis.

International concern after the 2011 uprisings

The 2011 uprisings were a long-awaited reaction to the autocratic and kleptocratic rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh and, while completely locally based, certainly were triggered by events in Tunisia and Egypt, persuading thousands of younger people that change was possible. 

The situation stagnated for months due to the stalemate between the regime-controlled security and military forces and the peaceful revolutionaries supported by a smaller but powerful defecting military as well as the official political opposition after 18 March. 

From then onwards, anxiety over Yemen’s future spread far beyond its borders: first the GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, intervened when it became clear that the existing regime was no longer sustainable. As this was not enough to oblige Saleh to resign, the United Nations Security Council passed its first resolution in October urging Saleh to do so. Finally the GCC agreement was signed on 23 November 2011 in Riyadh in the presence of various Yemeni and international notables.  Details of this agreement have been discussed in my earlier articles.

The main point here is that the GCC agreement, supported by UNSC resolution 2014 of 2011 gave both GCC states and the UN officially recognised roles in the transition. A further group of 10 ambassadors from major countries were given a supervisory role. At the time, as the agreement was seen as the mechanism to avoid full-scale civil war, it was welcomed by many including people who normally object to what resembled a 'mandate' similar to the one imposed on the region by north Atlantic victors at the end of WW1. However, even then indicators suggested that the objectives and motives for this intervention were not entirely disinterested or primarily concerned with the livelihoods of the 25 million Yemenis:

- No GCC state, and particularly not Saudi Arabia, was likely to welcome a fully-fledged democratic state in Yemen, particularly not one which would give priority to the needs of the majority of the population over those of the minority of ‘traditional’ or other wealthy leaders.

- The interest of the US and other north Atlantic states was primarily focused on counter-terrorism against AQAP with poverty alleviation, development and humanitarian aspects taking second place.

- The UN’s record in recent years does not encourage confidence in its ability to successfully manage a complex political transition.

The UN and the National Dialogue Conference

Preparing for theNational Dialogue conference in San'aa's preseidential palace, 2012. Luke Somers/Demotix. All rights reserved.True to its traditions, the UN established offices for the Political Affairs Department in Sana’a, filled with staff and international consultants whose role was to facilitate the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) and constitutional reform. The NDC brought together 565 members whose selection was problematic, but efforts were made to be as inclusive as possible, with the participation of all political parties, civil society, youth and women. Its mandate was to solve all the country’s political problems, including the most contentious, and guide the drafting of a new constitution more representative of the nation as a whole and reflecting people’s hopes. 

Given its remit and its members’ lack of previous experience in such negotiations, strong guidance and support were essential to enable it to achieve its highly ambitious objectives, particularly given the extreme sensitivities and tensions of the political situation. While willing, enthusiastic and determined to find solutions, most of its members had none of the specific skills required to address these issues and develop a framework which would produce a constitutional pact or implementable political solutions. 

Despite having a USD 25 million trust fund specifically for this purpose the UN failed, letting the NDC drift aimlessly into general discussions. Other than ensuring that the NDC was held in the only super-luxury hotel in Sana’a (offering a view of Yemen from mostly curtained windows, and serving food many delegates regarded as unsuitable), the UN oversaw the definition of imprecise terms of reference for the 9 working groups, offered meetings ‘facilitated’ by young people who had received minimal training and made sure documents were distributed to members. It also ran a broad public relations ‘outreach’ exercise through the internet (mostly accessible for foreign media and researchers as the vast majority of Yemenis have no access to electronic media) alongside other mechanisms, which amounted to little more than the distribution of badges and showing of carefully staged videos of some events.

It failed to advise on an effective agenda or provide the technical knowledge and expertise which would have assisted the groups in focusing their discussions on clear constitutional outcomes. It failed to assist discussions to address the not unexpected problems faced by the three most contentious working groups (state building, southern and northern issues). Instead, the NDC was comprised o a form of open brainstorming with largely unstructured debates and educational seminars. While these were stimulating, and imposed equality in dialogue on individuals from different backgrounds and social groups who would otherwise never have engaged in any discussions – in the event, this contributed little to solving the country’s most urgent political problems. And while workshops were either educational or confrontational, the general sessions were a series of position statements leading nowhere.

The UN condoned or supported the ‘parallel’ direct involvement of a number of foreign states each of which were invited to ‘adopt’ a committee, holding private meetings with its key leaders, thus leading many participants and outsiders to believe that the ‘real’ decisions were being taken elsewhere and reducing confidence in the process. Given all this, it is unsurprising that the NDC finally produced a document with over 1800 recommendations, most of them well-meaning and valuable, but often repetitive and difficult to translate into a constitutional document. Or indeed that the main political problems remained unsolved.

Overall, observers had to wonder at the UN’s effectiveness and leadership, including the choice of Special Adviser: is someone whose previous experience includes political dialogue in Afghanistan and Iraq the person most likely to succeed in finding peaceful solutions in the complex Yemeni environment? Who makes such an appointment? How is it revoked? Incumbents on Assistant Secretary General pay scale are unlikely to resign unless they are highly principled. The UN and some north Atlantic states even describe as an achievement Benomar’s 34 trips to Yemen (Presumably not including the airmiles and environmental impact). To crown all this, and despite his reputation in Yemen, the latest resolution requests the Secretary General ‘to propose options for strengthening the office of the Special Adviser…’.

The international community and economic and financial crisis

While the political crisis in Yemen was to be solved through the NDC and constitutional reform, the economic and humanitarian situation had been informally handed over to the ‘Friends of Yemen’ established in 2010 after the ‘underpants bomber’ incident, and jointly chaired by the UK and Saudi Arabia, the former to provide guidance while the latter foots the bill. In 2011 the economic and humanitarian crisis had worsened dramatically as shown by the drop in GDP of 12.7%. Yemen has been suffering increasing poverty rates throughout recent decades, reaching 54% in 2012.

The country’s economy is based on oil and gas exports which dropped to 164,000 barrels/day production in 2014, due first to the exhaustion of the limited reserves, and second the frequent interruption of supply by people in the producing areas protesting at the lack of local development benefits as oil income was used to fill the coffers of kleptocrats in the capital. 

The main economic activity, agriculture (including livestock), contributes to the income of the 68% rural population, supplemented by men’s casual labour in the cities. Due to drought, expansion of export-oriented thirsty crops and a majority of farmers working very small rain fed plots either as owners, sharecroppers or even casual labourers, the rural economy has weakened to the extent that over 80% of Yemen’s poor live in rural areas. These economic issues were to be addressed with a significant influx of funds.

Foreign aid failed to support the transitional regime. With USD 8.49 billion pledged by the international community by mid-2014, little is yet visible on the ground.  Delays were explained away with excuses of lack of transparency and the low absorptive capacity of state institutions. The September 2012 Riyadh conference had agreed a ‘Mutual Accountability Framework’ which would ensure transparency from the Yemeni side and financing for the projects of the Transitional Development Plan. This was to be managed by the ‘Executive Bureau’ which only became operational in March 2014 when finally the Yemeni government and funders agreed on its management. Since then there has been some progress with 70% of all funds approved for specific projects, and 39% of the pledges have been disbursed, one third from Saudi Arabia, with an amount almost equal to the contribution of all OECD funders put together. Most approved projects finance infrastructure, some of questionable value but high cost. They fail to assist the long-term economic development which would create lasting employment and provide viable economic investments for ordinary people.

In view of the dire state of the economy, it is unsurprising that the humanitarian situation has continued to worsen and has now reached emergency proportions with about 16 million people in need of some assistance, including 10.5 million food insecure. Despite this, only 67% of the UN’s Humanitarian Strategic Response Plan for 2014 has been funded, leaving people wondering why such modest amounts by international standards could not be found. How does this reflect on the real concerns and commitments of the international community?

Yemenis will continue to interpret lack of development and humanitarian support, particularly from north Atlantic states, in favour of their single-minded focus on AQAP and the remote potential threat of terrorism in their own lands, as complete uninterest in the reality and daily problems they face -  with lack of employment, lack of water, lack of food or any of the other basics for a dignified life.

GCC perceptions of the situation:  what is to be done?

As demonstrated by financial contributions as well as involvement with the ‘solution’ to the crisis, the GCC states are the outsiders most concerned with the situation in Yemen. For the UAE, it remains a fairly distant country seeking the unlikely opening of GCC borders to its large unemployed labour force. Saudi Arabia has always seen Yemen as a threat, given their comparable population size and its regime which, since the demise of the Imamate in 1962, has been republican and manifested democratic features. Although Saudi Arabia currently has other urgent problems to address (a new king, issues of succession and power within the kingdom, the Syria and Iraq crises), Yemen remains a focus of concern. 

For the Saudis, right now, the situation in Yemen presents a series of dilemmas which are not easily solved. They don’t like the Huthis, seen as Iranian proxies, Hashemites/Sada and Shi’a, who, moreover, expelled the Salafi educational institution from its base; in addition the areas they control are along the most populated stretch of the Saudi-Yemeni border. Thus Huthis have a series of characteristics which, for Saudi Arabia, are markers of enmity.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia is totally opposed to armed Salafis incarnated in AQAP which, among other things, attempted to assassinate Mohammed bin Nayef, currently third in line to the throne and Minister of the Interior, and which considers Saudi Arabia a major target. They also dislike former president Saleh for being an unreliable upstart military man. Southern Separatists also may be mistaken for socialists, yet another dreaded bogeyman. So at this point, their main option is to support a range of tribal leaders and others who oppose all the above-mentioned forces. President Hadi’s return to his functions is welcome, and there are rumours that Saudi Arabia played a role in bringing about his escape from Sana’a.

The future

Failure of the transition and its current lack of popular support can largely be attributed not so much to its political failures but more than anything, to the fact that ordinary people’s living conditions have shown no sign of improvement in the past 4 years. If Hadi is to build on the popularity he gained in recent days, above all else he needs to prove that he is the rightful heir to the 2011 revolution. This means improving economic and social conditions and enabling the people to live in dignity, not an  easy agenda, but possible if sufficient funds are made available to address the dire humanitarian situation and finance development projects with a longterm impact on the rural and urban community level economies, ocusing on skill development, production and marketing with small useful infrastructure. That is the kind of support Hadi needs from the international community, not just kind words and drones.

Sideboxes Related stories:  An introduction to Yemen's emergency Yemen: where is the transition heading? Yemen’s priorities: feed the starving children or security? The struggle for security and against terrorism in Yemen: in whose interests? Country or region:  Yemen Topics:  Civil society Conflict Democracy and government Economics International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Lose the licence fee, abolish the Trust

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. February 2015 - 7:57

A new House of Commons report sets out the issues for the forthcoming review of the BBC Charter. It calls for the abolition of the BBC Trust and a long-term replacement for the licence fee. 

Today's publication of a report on the 'Future of the BBC' by the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee marks a major step in the process of renewing the BBC Charter. A formal review will not be officially triggered until after the election - despite the Charter only having 18 months life ahead of it at that point - but the key issues are already clearly defined.

One of the Committee’s recommendations is that, should it be determined that a properly conducted review requires more than 12 months (leaving the BBC and ministers too little time to implement any major proposals before the current Charter’s expiry), there could be a short-term extension of the ten-year Charter period, by up to two years. That seems sensible.

At the same time, it should be recognised that the Committee has done an excellent job in defining that review. The great bulk of its findings have been based on cross-party consensus. Three of the MPs (Lib Dem John Leech from a strong pro-BBC stance, Tory Philip Davies from an anti-licence fee approach, and Labour Paul Farrelly offering a re-written governance section) proposed a series of amendments to the text, but in almost every case each proved to be the only supporter of their respective positions. At the end, all three voted against the final report, though presumably in the full knowledge that doing so would not affect the outcome.

With nearly 70 recommendations, it could be argued that the Committee has actually done a great deal of the work that any Charter review would entail: at the very least, in setting out all the key debating points.

For instance, on finance, it has looked at the new funding system for YLE, the Finnish equivalent of the BBC (0.68% income tax surcharge, over-18s only, all charges below 51 euros excused, cap of 143 euros) and at the new German system (a broadcasting levy on all households, irrespective of whether any actual TV is in the household, nor how many people live there).

The Committee plumps for the German idea, even though it discriminates against single-person households and those who choose to do without a television (though there can be very few that lack even a radio, let alone a device by which video can be viewed).

That would be a short-term fix, as the Committee accepts. Beyond that, they say that the licence fee has “no long-term future”, that conditional access technology needs to be deployed, and that the BBC needs to prepare for the 2020s without any assumptions about a household tax of any kind.

The report also supports decriminalisation of the licence fee, urging that enforcement should be no different than for non-payment of council tax, even though the BBC warns its revenues might be reduced by some £200 million a year in the absence of criminal sanctions.

Given that both the Commons and the Lords have now voted for decriminalisation - whether in 2016 as preferred by the Commons, or 2017 as backed by the Lords - the BBC needs to get its thinking cap on. Although a formal review of decriminalisation will not be completed till June, this Committee’s report is likely to prevail. With encryption of the i-Player now almost a certainty, perhaps the conditional access route for all future TV sets, and plug-in modules for existing sets, is the best route to avoid a revenue meltdown.

The report also recommends that at least part of the licence fee, for however long the system lasts, be used as a contestable fund in support of public service content from a range of suppliers, particularly those offering regional and children’s programming. It takes up a proposal dating back to 2005, from the panel set up by then Secretary of State Tessa Jowell and  chaired by Lord Burns, which had called for a Public Service Broadcasting Commission, whose brief would be to address the overall need for public service content, the level of finance required, and the way it should be allocated.

The Committee tweaks the Burns formula by making its relationship with the BBC advisory rather than regulatory, but otherwise follows his urgings that the BBC Trust be replaced by a unified BBC board of non-executives (in the majority, and holding the chair) and executives, with Ofcom regulating quotas and content and competition issues, and the PSBC judging the BBC’s success in meeting its agreed public service objectives.

This would also allow S4C, as a client of the PSBC, to recover its independence of action, by no longer being beholden to the BBC. The Committee also argues for giving the National Audit Office much fuller access to BBC accounts, as a further means of reforming BBC accountability.

The report is scathing about the 2010 licence fee settlement imposed on the BBC by the coalition as part of the public spending review that October. It says the BBC Trust should have rejected the demand for all kinds of government expenditure to be absorbed by the licence fee. Arguably, say the Committee, the BBC Trust acted in breach of its duties by caving in to over £500m of costs  imposed on the BBC without any public consultation.

The Committee is also highly critical of the BBC for allowing its commercial subsidiary, BBC Worldwide, to buy the Lonely Planet business (which lost the Corporation some £100 million), and calls for a tightening up of investment criteria in the future.

On the broad issues of BBC purposes, and  scope and scale, the Committee lays down some guidelines for the formal Charter review, not least tightening up the definitions of public service “characteristics” which all BBC programmes are required to meet, in at least one of five respects. As one of those is “engagement” with the audience, and as all BBC programmes are viewed or listened to by someone, it is not surprising the report quotes the verdict in my evidence to the Committee: the definitions of success are such that “you cannot fail the test”. The test needs to be much more stringent, says the Committee.

The report rejects one of the planks in BBC management’s case for dropping BBC3: a desire to re-deploy the available spectrum to accommodate a “+1” channel for BBC1. The Committee sees no public need for such a service, and recommends that the BBC Trust turn down the proposal, if need be returning the vacated spectrum to the DCMS for disposal to another public service provider.

Other acute points the Committee have picked up include the fact that all the BBC’s attempts to move production to the North and to the nations means that the Midlands has been left providing 25% of licence fee income in exchange for 2.5% of network spending; and that BBC management has a sneaky habit of burying poor indicators of performance in a mass of verbiage, whilst trumpeting any successes. The report calls for more rigour and honesty.

The section on BBC Director General Tony Hall’s proposal to create a commercial production subsidiary within the BBC is perhaps the least fully rounded. The report can see cost advantages (and sharply notes that all the BBC’s cost-cutting so far still leaves it with £400 million of savings to find); but it feels that public service content (even if it cannot define it) might lose whatever locus it enjoys as a result of all BBC production currently being in-house.

In hedging its bets, the report argues, even if a commercial entity is created, for retaining an in-house production arm, “where its output is distinctive from the market” and “where it makes economic sense to do so”. As the latter is never going to be the case, and the former is the subject of a much wider debate addressed elsewhere in the report (please define output that is “distinctive from the market”), this chapter parks itself without properly resolving the arguments.

The Committee cites a range of expert witnesses, many with close experience of the BBC: former chairmen Gavyn Davies and Lord Grade, former D-Gs Lord Birt and Greg Dyke, Professors Barwise and Barnett, Ofcom bosses Ed Richards and Colette Bowe, and  - most impressive of the bunch – Lord Burns himself.

Where Davies worries that the BBC spends too much time thinking about reach, share and ratings, in the absence of any other currency, Burns is more incisive: the BBC’s output is too “driven to the middle ground” because distinctiveness has lost out to the claims of reach and universality. Trying to be all things to all people – because “everyone pays the licence fee so everyone is entitled to something however mediocre” – is something the BBC has to change, says the report. Do fewer things better, is the verdict.

Two small points. The report cites some of my oral evidence, including a “statistic” I corrected in written evidence: licence fee revenues rose by 25%, not 50%, as a result of the increase in the total number of households in the last 20 years (a fact always omitted by the BBC when it claims the licence fee has been flat in real terms during that period).

And the Committee, in noting how the BBC developed a 'Delivering Quality First' project in 2011, ostensibly in response to the 2010 shotgun licence fee settlement, failed to remember that the BBC had foolishly published a 'Putting Quality First' document in 2009, describing how it could make internal savings of £600m a year to re-invest in content (almost precisely the amount the coalition seized in its ambush of the BBC in October 2010).

This is a must-read document for all followers of Our Beeb: although the Committee chairman, John Whittingdale does not feature in any of the voting lists (as is traditional, unless there is a tie), his deep knowledge of the issues, supported by that of advisor Ray Gallagher (warmly thanked in the report), shines through the document. This is an important ground-clearing exercise.

Categories: les flux rss

Iraq, a new war's peril

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. February 2015 - 5:33

The post-9/11 wars In Afghanistan and Iraq never really ended. But in the campaign against Islamic State, their maps are having to be redrawn.

A powerful message of Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidential election in 2008 was his intention to withdraw United States forces from Iraq. After taking office the intention was eventually fulfilled, with combat forces leaving by the end of 2011. During his path to the White House he presented Afghanistan in a different light, not least because of its stronger link with the 9/11 attacks. Eventually, in 2010, he agreed to a “surge” of 30,000 additional troops that would it was hoped constrain the Taliban and enable an orderly withdrawal in conditions where the movement could not re-establish its former dominance.

In the event, the Taliban was not constrained. Yet the Afghanistan campaign was also increasingly unpopular in the American homeland, and the Obama administration ultimately set a date of the end of 2014 to reduce US troop levels to 10,800, a tenth of the numbers in 2010, with a further reduction to 5,000 by the end of 2015.

The strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan, then, would see an end to tens of thousands of “boots on the ground”, coupled with huge caution over any future substantial troop commitments. But security by other means was by no means ruled out; in particular, the use of armed drones, special forces, privatised military, and many other forms of "remote control" would be enhanced. The expectation was that by early 2015 the United States would have finally divested itself of messy and failed involvements in two major wars stretching over fourteen years (see "Remote control, a new way of war", 18 October 2012).

The new context

The reality is very different. In Afghanistan there are serious doubts about a further drawdown. That is indicated, among other sources, by a decision to transfer the US army's 7th infantry division headquarters from the Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma in Washington state to Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan for a one-year deployment (see Adam Ashton, "Army to send headquarters group to Kandahar in first sign of revision to Afghan withdrawal plan", McClatchyDC, 24 February 2015).

The numbers involved at this stage are small, barely a hundred, and they join the 2,000 US military personnel still at Kandahar airfield. But the real significance is in the context. The 7th infantry division as a whole has six brigades with 15,000 personnel but has not previously deployed to Afghanistan. By sending this core unit on a one-year deployment, the army will be in a strong position to reinforce its presence in southern Afghanistan rapidly if circumstances demand. In short, the drawdown from Afghanistan now looks likely to be far more protracted than expected - and could well be reversed.

In Iraq, site of the other major US intervention of the post-9/11 era, a comparable process is underway (see "Afghanistan-Iraq: back to the future", 27 November 2014). There, the departure of US forces in 2011 was never as complete as it appeared, nor the conflicts sparked by the 2003 invasion ever ended. But today, a renewed war is intensifying, and at a rate far greater than is being reported in the western media.

The war is being run by US Central Command (Centcom), the unified military authority responsible for US security interests over the vast area from south Asia through the Middle East to north-east Africa. Centcom has just released details of the first six months of the air war against Islamic State and, in a separate statement, reported that an estimated 8,500 of IS's fighters had been killed. There is no way of independently verifying the figure or questioning how many were civilians, but the intensity of the airstrikes and the nature of the targeting raise many questions.

Centcom says that 4,817 targets were hit in the first six months; based on earlier analysis, these would have involved some 7,000 air- and armed-drone sorties with as many as 6,000 missiles and bombs used. This scale of attack, far larger than in recent years in Afghanistan, would mostly have had modest objectives (destroying trucks and firing positions, for example), with little directed at strategic targets. This may mainly be due to lack of intelligence as to where the latter are; but almost certainly, it stems also from the dispersal of the leadership and organisational elements of Islamic State.

What is striking about this data from Centcom is that it coincides with a report to Congress by the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency which gives a sober assessment of the progress of the war. He said that Islamic State might have suffered some reversals but predicted that it would “continue entrenching itself and consolidating gains in Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria, while fighting also for territory outside those areas” (see "Islamic State: bring on the drones", 19 February 2015).

The implication is that an intense air war is not threatening Islamic State’s survival and is set to last for many months yet. In turn this will require more concerted efforts to train Iraqi army troops, with much of the responsibility falling on special forces from western states (rather than regular troops). Indeed, special-force personnel from Canada, Germany, Australia, and Britain as well as the US are already operating in Iraq (see "Islamic State: the unknown war", 28 January 2015).

It is highly likely that Islamic State paramilitaries will now make it a priority to try and kill or capture people from these units. This threat was the main reason why the UK government reversed its plan to increase the number of regular troops engaged in training Iraqi army forces (see "Islamic State: the unknown war", 28 January 2015). But what applies to regular troops does not apply to the typically “below the radar” use of special forces, which are now well ensconced inside Iraq.

If Islamic State were to succeed in the coming weeks in this objective, and if western special-force personnel ended up facing the same appalling fate of the young Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh, it is very difficult to judge the public reaction, not least in Britain in the run-up to a general election. This is but one of the many dilemmas that current planners may be forced to confront as the war in Iraq continues to unfold.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

Department of peace studies, Bradford University

Oxford Research Group

Remote Control

Jane's Defence Weekly

Remote Control Project

Paul Rogers, Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto, 3rd edition, 2010)

Paul Rogers, Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, 2007)

Defense News

Long War Journal

Related stories:  Islamic State: the unknown war Afghanistan-Iraq: back to the future Islamic State: from the inside A war of new connections Remote control, a new way of war Islamic State: power of belief The Islamic State war: Iraq's echo Remote control: light on new war Islamic State vs its far enemy The thirty-year war, continued Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

Despite claims of progress, labor and environmental violations continue to plague Apple

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. February 2015 - 5:00

Though Apple claims that 2014 was "a year of progress," reports from labor rights groups and researchers reveal troubling labor and environmental violations continue unabated.

Annette Bernhardt/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Apple made headlines in late January 2015 when it reported the largest quarterly profit ever in corporate history: $18 billion. A record-breaking $74.6 billion quarterly revenue generated this profit, thanks in large part to the sale of 74.5 million iPhones during the same period.

For Apple, this is a great start to 2015, just as 2014 was a fantastic year for the company. Last year, they sold more than 169 million iPhones, [1] which earned them nearly $102 billion in sales. With $183 billion in total 2014 revenue, and $39.5 billion in profit, [2] Apple is the most valuable company in the world.

But for many hundreds of thousands of young Chinese toiling on Apple assembly lines, 2014 was not such a good year. Reports from China Labor Watch (CLW) and Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), and evidence gathered by researchers Jenny Chan, Mark Selden and Pun Ngai detail a litany of labor law violations at numerous factories across China. Troublingly, this evidence shows that many of the same problems reported to Apple in 2013 continued unabated through 2014. Conditions have in fact worsened at several sites.

These findings are contrary to claims made by Apple in its latest Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, released February 11, 2015. On its website, Apple refers to 2014 as "a year of progress," explaining in the report that it conducted 633 audits of 459 suppliers, at which it found 700 violations of the company's supplier code of conduct. In response, Apple claims to have put corrective action plans in place for all violations, and reports that compliance of suppliers improves with every audit. Yet, Apple provides no evidence of which suppliers were audited, what violations were found where, what specifically the company did about them and whether the problems were actually corrected.

Conversely, reports from CLW, SACOM and Chan and her colleagues provide clear evidence of a lack of corrective action from 2013 to 2014 on both the part of Apple and several of its suppliers, including Pegatron, Jabil, Catcher Electronics and Foxconn. Through undercover investigation on Apple product lines, SACOM and CLW found that violations of Chinese labor law and Apple's supplier code of conduct are commonplace. These include work hours in excess of daily and weekly limits, managerially and economically forced overtime, workplace safety hazards including locked fire exits and blocked pathways, underpayment or lack of payment of social and medical insurance for dispatch and student workers, lack of special labor protections for student workers, regular intimidation and verbal abuse, inability to take sick leave or resign with pay, and no opportunity for collective bargaining and meaningful address of worker concerns.

SACOM documented these problems at three Pegatron facilities - Maintek Computer, Cotek Electronics and Casetek Computer - all in Suzhou, China. At these sites, workers logged as much as 15 hours per day, and worked for 10 weeks without a day of rest in advance of the launch of the iPhone 6 in September 2014. These workers were responsible for 25 million units of the new device - half of Apple's 2014 inventory (Foxconn produced the rest). These conditions resulted in workers suffering crippling fatigue and numbness in limbs, fainting from the extreme heat on production lines and passing out from exhaustion during their very brief meal breaks.

Many of the same problems were documented by CLW at Catcher Electronics during a 2014 undercover investigation of a production line for iPad parts. Just as at Pegatron, the many violations of Chinese labor law and Apple's code of conduct documented by CLW had been previously reported to Apple in 2013. Yet, 16 months later, none of the reported problems had been addressed, and in fact, many more had arisen.

Blocked fire exits and lack of safety training, equipment endanger workers

In addition to the problems of excessive daily hours, limited rest, forced overtime and exhaustion documented at Pegatron, CLW also found that there was a lack of safety training and inadequate or lacking protective equipment for workers handling potentially hazardous chemicals, which resulted in workers experiencing eye irritation and itchy, swollen and peeling skin. And, in an eerie echo of the conditions that caused an explosion on an iPad production line at Foxconn in May 2011, resulting in four deaths and injury to 18 others, CLW found that the workshops are thick with flammable aluminum-magnesium alloy dust. They report:

The violations concerning worker health and safety, especially in regard to emergency preparedness, cannot be overstated. Electronics manufacturing, particularly metal cutting as is performed in Catcher, is very chemical intensive and creates significant fire hazards. To address the violations in the Catcher factory, it is imperative that workers receive safety training and protective equipment for handling hazardous substances, and that the factory has controls in place to prevent disasters. Locked safety exits and the failure to conduct fire drills, especially when working with explosive dust (which frequently fills the air), put thousands of workers lives at risk in the case of an emergency. [3]

Unregulated exposure to the chemicals used in producing iPad parts at this facility can cause serious health problems. According to the US Department of Labor'sOccupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines on metalworking fluids, "Skin and airborne exposures to [metalworking fluids] have been implicated in health problems including irritation of the skin, lungs, eyes, nose and throat. Conditions such as dermatitis, acne, asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, irritation of the upper respiratory tract, and a variety of cancers have been associated with exposure to [metalworking fluids]." In addition, those exposed to aluminum dust areat risk of developing problems with their lungs and nervous system.

CLW reported the same pattern of unaddressed and new problems during 2014 at the US-owned Jabil Circuit factory in Wuxi, China, which produces covers for the iPhone 6. Though employees work as much as 11 hours per day for six or even seven days a week during peak production periods, and accrue as much as 158 overtime hours per month (four times the legal limit), they still do not earn the average local wage in Wuxi. Just as for workers at Pegatron facilities, the low wages they are paid make the excessive overtime a forced condition, as they have no choice but to accept it in order to survive.

Workers at Jabil also reported feeling unsafe, given that some of their workshops were under construction. Ceiling tiles routinely crashed down, and the floors were slippery with oil and dirty water. On being moved to an under-construction production line, one of the undercover workers noted, "Everybody was afraid to work at this place. But even though we were worried about our safety, we did not have a choice." [4]

Apple did not respond to questions about what, if any, corrective actions it and its suppliers may have taken in response to CLW and SACOM reports of labor violations at Pegatron facilities, Catcher Electronics and Jabil Wuxi during 2013 and 2014.

Problems at Foxconn persist despite years of media scrutiny

Meanwhile, at Foxconn facilities, which received quite a bit of media attention following 18 worker suicides in 2010, research conducted by Chan and her colleaguesfound that the modest gain of slightly raised wages is routinely outweighed by increased production quotas on Apple product lines. They also found that though Foxconn promised to let workers unionize, the unions the company sanctioned are actually designed to increase surveillance of workers, with management-appointed leaders reporting worker dissent back up the chain of command.

In February 2014, Jacky Haynes, senior director of Apple's supplier responsibility program, said, "We have recently reviewed and strengthened our standards regarding freedom of association." [5] Yet, as of the publication of this article a year later, union reforms through democratic elections have not happened.

This and other problems continue at Foxconn facilities, despite Apple's partnership with the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an industry-created body that Apple paid "well into six figures" for their auditing services during 2012 and 2013. The FLA audited Foxconn facilities on Apple's behalf and released a series of reports during that time, with a final report in December 2013indicating that Apple and Foxconn had effectively addressed nearly all labor issues found across three facilities in Guanlan, Longhua and Chengdu.

However, Chan and her colleagues found that the FLA's report on the employment of student interns at Foxconn Chengdu contradicted their own investigation. FLA reported that there were no student interns at Chengdu at the same time that Chan and her colleagues documented 7,000 of them from September 2011 to January 2012 - approximately 10 percent of the labor force - by interviewing the students and their teachers.

Despite Apple's stipulation that student interns should always be engaged in work that furthers their studies and career goals, Chan and her colleagues, and CLW and SACOM, found that Apple suppliers regularly rely on the forced participation of students who gain no experience relevant to their fields of study on production lines. They simply serve as cheaper, more controllable versions of their slightly older, non-student counterparts.

Further, in February 2015, Beijing-based All-China Federation of Trade Unions legal department head Guo Jun criticized Foxconn for imposing illegal overtime of "more than ten hours every day" on workers. In fact, forced overtime was imposed on Foxconn assembly workers during the peak Apple season (September to December 2014) to the extent of 152 hours of overtime a month, far exceeding the statutory limit in Chinese law of 36 hours.

Apple's pricing policy and production schedule are to blame

Though Apple displaces responsibility for these conditions onto its suppliers, Chan and her colleagues have soundly documented across a dozen Foxconn sites in China that it is precisely Apple's pricing structure, intensely demanding production schedule and practice of pitting suppliers like Pegatron and Foxconn against each other that produces the conditions described here.

"Any supplier improving labor conditions will be in a disadvantaged position," Li Qiang, CLW's executive director, wrote in an email to Cole. [6]

CLW backs Qiang's claim with an analysis of the cost of production at Pegatron versus Foxconn, which shows that Apple shifted production to Pegatron facilities after wages were raised at Foxconn's Longhua site, following the 2010 worker suicides and subsequent protests. CLW found that at Pegatron Shanghai alone Apple saved $61 million in just one year over the cost of labor at Foxconn. [7] The cost savings come directly from lower pay for the hundreds of hours of forced overtime that workers log during peak production periods. [8]

This finding flies in the face of Apple's oft-repeated claims, in its supplier responsibility reports and in the press, that it takes the harder path of working with suppliers to improve conditions for workers, and that it hands down sanctions to suppliers who are found to be in serious violation of its code of conduct. Essentially doing the opposite of what it claims to do, Apple punished Foxconn for its modest improvement to wages by taking a significant portion of iPhone production away from the company, and rewarded Pegatron for routinely breaking numerous Chinese labor laws with those very contracts over two years' time.

”Conflict-free" yet loaded with controversy

2014 also saw continued problems in the mining operations that feed into Apple products. Apple celebrates its involvement in the Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative (CFSI), run by the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), but the EICC is an industry-operated body of only corporate members biased toward its clients.

"The EICC's reputation is not great," Julian Kirby of London-based Friends of the Earth told Truthout. Describing EICC events he has attended, Kirby said, "[They're] characterized by defensiveness, a sense of how to manage the problems, and how do you manage the appearance - the PR of the problems, rather than how do we make stuff better."

Kirby explained that EICC members will tout things like building schools and hospitals in producer communities, "rather than looking at transparency problems and people dying in mines and suppliers," and working toward "systemic changes." He concluded, "The tech sector and the EICC, the culture there is years behind other sectors. They've got a long way to go."

Kirby is also critical of the limited focus of the EICC's CFSI, which, he points out, is limited to conflict in the sense of war. As such, the CFSI overlooks devastating forms of conflict including ecological destruction, destruction of fishing and agriculture industries, pollution of water, injury and death in mines, and forced evictions.

A research team lead by Kirby documented all of this in Bangka, Indonesia, in 2012. The report called on Apple to admit that its suppliers source tin from this devastated island, and that it is culpable in the atrocities documented there. After much pressure from Friends of the Earth, Apple did admit this a year later, and spearheaded the Tin Working Group to assess and address the problems found by Friends of the Earth.

Kirby gives Apple credit for creating this group, but points out that, nearly three years later, nothing has changed for the residents of Bangka, who live on what he describes as a depleted "moonscape" surrounded by a dead coral reef, and where on average one miner dies per week in an accident. Rather than scaling back their destruction of this island community, Kirby reports that the large mining operators are now ramping up their offshore efforts, which will only further pollute the once pristine water and continue to destroy fisheries.

Change will follow real transparency and collaboration with labor rights groups

All of this evidence suggests that Apple's internally managed model of corporate social responsibility does not work. The company's slick publications, and claims in the press and on its website contribute to the value and power of its $118 billion brand, but do not foster systemic change in its troubled supply chain. That change will only come with real transparency in terms of how the company's products are made, how specifically Apple works with suppliers to fix problems and the results of those efforts.

Real change could come if Apple stuck by those suppliers that make improvements, as it claims to, rather than shoving them aside to cut costs. As CLW points out, raising wages for workers at Pegatron facilities to make them equivalent to the average local wage would compromise just 10 percent of Apple's quarterly profit. [9]

Further, SACOM and CLW urge Apple to make good on its promise to support worker unionization by providing labor rights training via independent labor rights groups, which could ensure effective workplace monitoring. At the least, companies such as Apple and Foxconn - the world's largest electronics manufacturer - should observe national labor laws and regulations.

With the kind of financial power the tech giant has - earning on average three-fifths of the profits in this sector in 2014 - Apple really could make things better in this industry, and it has a responsibility to do so. [10]

Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission. Originally published 19 Feb 2015.

Footnotes
  1. See p. 30 in Apple's Form 10-K filed with the SEC on October 27, 2014.
  2. Ibid. p. 48
  3. See p. 7-8 in "Two Year's of Broken Promises" by CLW, September 4, 2014.
  4. See p. 13 in "iExploitation" by CLW, September 25, 2014.
  5. Email communique to Chan, Selden, and Pun, February 18, 2014.
  6. Email communique to Cole, February 11, 2015.
  7. See p. 2 in "Analyzing Labor Conditions of Pegatron and Foxconn," by CLW, February 2015.
  8. Ibid. p. 8
  9. Ibid. p. 23.
  10. Ibid. p. 25.
Sideboxes Related stories:  Free to stitch, or starve: capitalism and unfreedom in the global garment industry Food retailers, market concentration and forced labour Still slaving over sugar Capitalism’s unfree global workforce
Categories: les flux rss

Four options for configuring the UK

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. February 2015 - 0:11

Unitary state, devolution, federalism or confederation? Andrew Blick discusses four options for configuring the UK.

Inbuilt within the United Kingdom is the potential for instability. It is a multi-nation state, like Belgium, Canada, Spain and – some would say – the European Union. At present, it consists of three nations – Wales, Scotland and England; and a fourth territory, Northern Ireland, the status of which is complicated and controversial. This internal differentiation is not necessarily a weakness. But it has at times been a source of problematic tension. Pressure for more autonomy, or even secession, has come from within some of the national groups incorporated into the UK. Early in the history of the state, during the eighteenth century, Scottish Jacobite rebellions took place. The place of Ireland within the UK has often been a source of discord, with both Unionists and Irish Nationalist at times perpetrating acts of violence to further their respective causes. Early in the 1920s, most of Ireland split from the UK to form the Republic. Under the terms of the Belfast or ‘Good Friday’ Agreement of 1998, the six counties of Northern Ireland too may one day leave the UK and rejoin with the South.

An emergent issue in recent decades has been the rise of political nationalism and independence movements in other parts of the UK, including in Wales and most prominently in Scotland. The Scottish National Party has held office at devolved level since 2007; and the surprisingly close result in the referendum of September 2014 has given its cause added momentum. A break up of the union of England (including Wales) and Scotland that took place in 1706-7, inaugurating the UK as a state, is now as plausible as it has ever been. Unlike in earlier eras, it could take place peacefully, with the consent of both sides.

Consequently, if we are to seek to answer the question ‘what is the future of the UK constitution’, the answer may be that it does not have one, at least in its current form. The SNP wants to leave; while those who wish the UK to survive are altering its internal arrangements to accommodate a more autonomous Scotland within it. But what are the different options for configuring the constitution?

Option one is a unitary state. Under this centralised model, ultimate power resides at the centre, with the UK Parliament in Westminster and the UK executive in Whitehall. Often in the past observers have used the term ‘unitary’ to describe our arrangements. In some senses they are correct. Our doctrine of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and the tendency to override local government from London fit with this approach. But the UK has always included within it some official allowances for national diversity, such as different arrangements for religion and language, and multiple legal systems. Northern Ireland even had its own legislature and executive from the 1920s to the 1970s. It is better, therefore, to describe the UK as having been a ‘union state’ from the outset.

Option two is devolution. Under this system, the centre provides for a tier of elected regional or national authorities, transferring some power downwards to them, but without fully surrendering ultimate control. In the late 1990s, devolution was introduced to Wales, Scotland and arguably Greater London, and re-introduced to Northern Ireland. But despite its many successes, this system has not prevented – and may have encouraged – the rise of nationalism in Scotland, threatening the integrity of the UK. Moreover, it is asymmetrical. Outside Greater London, England has yet to share in the benefits of devolution.

Option three is a federal system. Under an arrangement of this type, ‘sovereignty’ is shared between different tiers of government, each with its own respective spheres of operation. Typically, the rules are set out in a written constitution, with a supreme court responsible for enforcement. Arguably the UK has been moving, through its adoption of devolution and other reforms, in practice increasingly in a federal direction. Some hope that federalism could provide Scotland with a degree of self-government sufficient to induce it to remain within the UK.

However, the full adoption of federalism would entail the end of the notion of Parliament as a ‘sovereign’ body, since it – like all other institutions – would be subject to the constitution, as interpreted by the UK Supreme Court. There is cultural resistance to this change. Furthermore, a practical problem involves how to incorporate England into a federal UK. If England were included as a single unit, since it accounts for more than 80 per cent of the population, federalism might create instability worse than that which it sought to correct. Another approach could be for England to participate in a federation in a series of more manageably-sized regions. Yet it is not clear how to demarcate these territories, and whether they would command sufficient popular attachment to make the federal project politically viable. Nonetheless, a federal UK may become the most plausible means of preserving the UK, necessitating a resolution to this English dilemma.

Option four is some kind of confederation or even federacy, that is a looser arrangement still than a federation. In some senses, the UK is moving in this direction. It already has – as a ‘union state’ – more diversity in certain respects than might be found even in a federation, for instance through the existence of three different legal systems (in Scotland, Northern Ireland and England), with a fourth possibly coming in Wales. The extensions in Scottish devolution presently contemplated, in the fiscal and other fields, are substantial. Other parts of the UK, such as Wales, are likely to seek at least some of these new powers for themselves. At the centre, there are demands to exclude Westminster MPs from voting on matters that are devolved in the particular areas they represent. The implication of this idea – though it may not come about – could be a reduced role for Scottish MPs in UK level decision-making.

When Scotland and England were negotiating the union in 1706, the opening position of the team of Scottish commissioners was to call for a ‘federal union’, by which they meant a loose attachment between the two nations, with a single monarchy and external policy, but retaining their existing parliaments. At the time, this model was not on offer from the English, who had the stronger bargaining position. But it may be that the objectives some from Scotland sought in 1706 are belatedly coming about. The position of Scotland under this arrangement may not differ greatly from the independent Scotland envisaged by the SNP.

 

This article was originally pubslihed at the LSE British Politics and Policy blog.

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.

Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

A theatre of narrative

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. February 2015 - 0:11

The performance of stories in various fringe venues has gathered enough momentum to present the possibility of a Theatre of Narrative where the art of storytelling is as vital as other performing arts.

Flickr/Bahman Farzad. Some rights reserved.

Some literature is not written to be read but to be spoken. Shakespeare is an obvious example. The works of Homer were not even written but were memorized and spoken from generation to generation. Dickens prepared [and performed] oral versions of his fiction. Bob Dylan’s poetry is written to be sung. Poets are invited to read their work to audiences in recordings or live performance. Engagement by direct communication always has been integral to the idea of literature. The solitary reader is a necessary part of literature, but it is only a part of a wider experience that is within society. Of necessity the act of writing is in part solitary because it is personal. The act of reading may require concentration and silence. The reception, even in a social space, is an individual, personal experience. Yet we have reading groups with members sharing their interests. The need is for the personal to find its way into society because we recognize and value literature as integral to society.

A recent development extends this idea of sociability further by the performance of fiction as drama is performed – by actors on a platform before an audience. This contrast with the received image of the isolated reader taking the bound volume from bookshop or library home where it can be read in a quiet sitting room. Some texts do require a level of concentration that depend on a measure of isolation. As autonomous beings we require some personal space for the part of us that is ours alone. As social beings we find the need and the pleasure in communicating that which we are. Without those feelings there would be no literature that extended and codified conversation.

The growth of organisations like Are You Sitting Comfortably? and Liars’ League and White Rabbit testify to the creative opportunities within the experience of performed literature. The generative capacity of the experience is not yet fully realized. The writer of fiction is certain to be stimulated by the social exchange which is performance. Where once the only direct contact may have been the brief banalities of the book signing, today we no longer rely on the book to contain our fiction – it is there in the reading and the subsequent podcast and Youtube broadcast. The story may be published also, and perhaps it should be, as a permanent record in a literate culture. But the primary communication of that literature is oral. Will anyone turn up to a fringe venue midweek to hear stories? You bet they will. The frisson both of expectation and acceptance can be electrifying.

Fiction as a performance art takes place within a breaking of forms. There is a fluidity of bounds that challenges the orthodoxies. The traditional categories of genre no longer apply. Theatre is no longer primarily a text with dialogue between two or more characters. The essence of theatre is in performance, but the definitions are flexible. On the one hand there is physical theatre. It has a long history of acrobatics, mime and music. Street theatre shapes the performance according to the immediacy of the moment. Street theatre is an invaluable apprenticeship in performance skills. Nowhere than the square or park is more illustrative of Peter Brook’s dictum that the theatre is an empty space. Stripped of the proscenium/auditorium dichotomy, stripped of the social formalities of courtly entertainment, theatre returns to its roots in rituals sacred and profane.

The challenge to a theatre of words is profound. The dialogue play will not, and should not, disappear. But it must be seen as one convention among others. This is far less of an aesthetic challenge than it may seem. Change is a negotiation with history, a looking back as well as forward. Stoppard’s masterly New Found Land, an inspiration to his younger contemporaries, is exemplary. The monologue has been a preferred form for Beckett and Brian Friel. Popular successes like Shirley Valentine, Spoonface Steinberg and The Vagina Monologues testify to the capacities of narrative drama. There is a long history of narrative drama, not always for one voice alone. Charles Laughton, with Tyrone Power, was creating such performance for radio and stage in the Nineteen Forties. The ambition was to create a Theatre of Narrative, although the conditions for such a project were not there.

Today the conditions are gathering coherence. A literary theatre of a performed fiction has grown in part from a frustration with an orthodoxy that demands that theatre be one form, or another. To propose conflict between the theatre of words and the theatre of sound and gesture is divisive and obstructive. Against the orthodoxy of separation is the radical spirit seeking the infinite permutations to be found within the cross-fertilization of forms. Harmony is the blending of parts, not a single note of unity. Poor Johnny One-Note is left at the stage door, or perhaps some shadowy corner of the Garrick. Beneath his feet, almost literally so, the spells of enchantment are being cast.

Where words matter, where the text takes precedence, the search is for a writer’s theatre. The Royal Court has a long history of being such a theatre. But other places may be so described in other terms. Mike Leigh as writer/director (in the spirit of Joan Littlewood) improvises collectively with the company of actors. The text is not a precious artefact but a working part of the whole. This approach does not conflict with the idea of writers’ theatre. It complements it. To work in this collaborative way is a refreshing engagement with literature as a social exchange. It is how Shakespeare and Sheridan and Shaw worked.

It was said in the Fifties that theatre was the natural home for writers. The famous explosion of new writing lends credence to this view. But a closer look at the writers’ personal statements testifies to an age-old truth: writers explore all the available media before concentrating on the one where they find success. Resisting quasi-mystical notions of the medium finding the writer, it is a question of practicalities. Radio, it is said, is a writers’ medium because it is language-based. There is a demanding concentration of form that betrays any indifference to literary quality. Underwritten scripts cannot be saved by visual effects. In radio every cliché clunks where elsewhere it may pass unnoticed as the eye gazes on the scene.

A stumbling block to the advancement of radio as a writers’ medium has been the hierarchic structure of broadcasting within a hierarchic society. Liberal pieties mouthed as a litany do not alleviate this problem. New media, and a new spirit among a network of engaged writers, have circumvented the obstructions.

A significant development as I write is that the BBC is alert to the new theatre of narrative. It is seeking accommodation. It is a timely sign of acceptance. The possibilities for such a development have hovered round BBC radio drama for years. In certain respects it is a return to a tradition abandoned so recklessly in the populist orthodoxy that swept over all our culture as a counter-revolution with a vengeance. For a time it seemed irresistible. And, if you wanted to hold on to your job, it was. But there prevail the everyday acts of resistance that good writing is.

To speak of victory is the language of conflict. The language of harmony speaks of acceptance. After the BBC will come the National Theatre’s Season of Narratives, let us call it, with Michael Billington’s considered appraisal. Glastonbury will follow, returning to its roots circa 1978 when Heathcote Williams was the headliner. There even may be an actual Theatre of Narrative. Who knows? Scepticism will be swept aside. Something may be lost other than obstructive cynicism. A sense of intimate space will be possible no longer. Other possibilities will emerge. A sense of engagement with things that are seen to matter is the basic narrative that must not be lost.

Categories: les flux rss

The Saatchi Bill is not about 'innovation' but 'improvisation'

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. February 2015 - 0:11

We already have a sound structure for innovation. What this Bill will deliver is medical improvisation with virtually non-existent patient safeguards.

Flickr/Zaldylmg. Some rights reserved.

In this essay I would like to address two new issues that have not yet been adequately aired. First I would like to consider the likely motivations of those who sponsored or have supported the “Saatchi” bill (MIB) and then look again at the false premise upon which so much time has been spent in Westminster, the news media, blogosphere and the twitter-sphere. In starting out on the motivations behind the MIB I will not touch on potential conflict of interests, firstly as it is something of a distraction and secondly because I think it is unjust to all those sponsors and supporters, who like me, have lost a loved one to a terrible disease with inadequate palliative care.

What are the genuine motivations of the supporters of the MIB?

Someone who has lost a loved one to a terrible disease, who had to endure a cruel death, goes through a roller coaster ride of emotional responses. Eventually most come to terms with the tragedy and the mourning period is in due course replaced by an acceptance of the loss and a slow return to normal life. In some the mourning period lasts a lifetime almost like a pathological obsession as well illustrated by Queen Victoria. Yet others have a different response where mourning is replaced by anger and a search for others to blame. I have nothing but deep sympathy for these people as I have been in that “bad place” myself whilst standing by, helplessly watching my dear mother die prematurely, in uncontrolled pain from skeletal metastases from carcinoma of the breast. To add insult to injury, the primitive chemotherapy regimen she endured, added nothing to her life except nausea, vomiting and alopecia. She had always prided herself on her long and glossy black hair that she wore as a chignon but that was replaced by a paisley scarf that kept slipping to reveal her baldness. I will describe how I dealt with this at the end of this piece.

A second motivation, commonplace amongst the scientifically illiterate, is the idea that their loved one might have been saved by a miracle cure. This is often seen amongst the well off who have always been in the position of affording anything their heart desired. They are easy fodder for the snake oil salesmen.[1] Related to this is the popular myth or fairy story about a medical maverick who discovers a cure for cancer in the Amazonian jungle only to be frustrated in his humanistic and self sacrificing endeavor by Big Pharma, who feel threatened by the discovery of a cheap and “natural” alternative to their hugely expensive market leaders. A good example of this genre is the film “The Medicine Man”.[2] I have less sympathy with such people as there is a well-proven cure for scientific illiteracy and that is known as an all rounded education that combines both science and the humanities. If their education failed to cover the two pillars of wisdom that supports our culture, then there’s a fault in our system.

Innovation vs improvisation

The daily practice of medicine can be looked upon in three ways: “standard care”, “improvisation” and “innovation”. My dictionary defines Innovation as “a new idea, device or process that can be viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements or existing problems”. In medical research we have a pattern of governance in place that protects patients as well as doctors during episodes of innovation. All clinical research has to negotiate two hurdles before the study can be launched. First of all any meaningful project needs resources and that means satisfying the grants committee that the study is rational and organized with robust methodology sufficient to produce a reliable result, that might either support or refute the underlying hypothetical conjectures. Secondly the clinical scientist has to satisfy an independent committee of the ethical probity of the work and that the patient provides informed consent. This committee would normally reject a proposal that fell at the first hurdle on the principle that flawed science is an unethical abuse of human subjects.

If we choose to define the legal principles of the “Bolam” and “Bolitho” tests, as meaning that a judge will be satisfied that bodies of expert opinion would accept the new treatment as 'logically defensible’, then in effect the doctor enjoys prospective protection from litigation already, whilst the patient has been protected by the ethical scrutiny of the independent expert committee. Perhaps this is why there are no recorded examples of litigation by patients in a research program under current governance unless the clinician was negligent in his delivery of one or other of the treatments being compared.

Improvisation is defined as “the process of devising a solution to a requirement by making-do, in the absence of resources that might be expected to produce a solution”.

In real life practice of medicine and surgery this is commonplace. As a surgeon I often had to face a crisis mid operation, where there were no textbook guides on how to proceed so I had to improvise to save the patient’s life or limb. To an extent the recent high profile cases of Ebola might be the equivalent of emergency medical improvisation in practice. We act in good faith and if things go wrong then we have to face the Bolam and Bolitho tests with expert witnesses advising the courts.

All along we’ve allowed ourselves to think we are discussing a medical innovation bill when in fact we’ve been discussing a medical improvisation bill, with the latter prospectively protecting the doctor from litigation whilst removing the patient’s rights of redress.

How do we cope with the fact that we all suffer from an incurable disease?

All of us, including the proponents and opponents of the bill, know someone they held dear, who died of an incurable disease and all of us face that inevitable outcome.

The best we can hope for our loved ones and ourselves is that our passing will be dignified, with adequate symptom control and ideally in the comfort of our own homes.

When I held vigil together with other members of the family on the night my mother died, I was plagued by a complex set of emotions. I felt guilty, because as a young doctor I had insufficient knowledge to deal with her suffering. I felt angry with her doctors, allowing such uncontrolled suffering and I felt angry at some amorphous embodiment of “cancer the killer”. After her death I entered a natural period of mourning but unlike most people I had the “advantage” of coping with my anger by trying to avenge my mother’s death by chasing the demon responsible. Her experience galvanized me to try and discover more effective and less toxic options for the disease that carried her away, and I can claim some modest success in this field. However the last point I want to make is that everyone can join this crusade by identifying the real villain and sharing my “advantage”. This can be done in a number of ways. Firstly cure your own scientific illiteracy by studying the rudiments of the philosophy of science. This is easy, as you don’t have to learn facts but simply learn a new way of thinking.

Secondly, if you feel motivated and wish to campaign, then campaign first and foremost for a merciful death for us all.

Finally, if you are rich and powerful, then work with us clinical scientists to deal with the real obstacles to progress and support the medical charities that are searching for prolongation of a good quality of life for all those “incurable” diseases that we all will face when our time comes for that visit of the grim reaper.

 

References

[1] http://www.naturalnews.com/032998_Burzynski_cancer_cures.html

[2] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104839/

Sideboxes Related stories:  Saatchi's 'Medical Innovation Bill' will benefit lawyers and charlatans, not patients The Saatchi Bill is internally inconsistent and must be scrutinised in the Commons Maurice Saatchi, his Medical Innovation Bill, and the booming ‘orphan drugs’ market Lord Saatchi and the medical anecdote PR machine
Categories: les flux rss

Four options for configuring the UK

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. February 2015 - 0:11

Unitary state, devolution, federalism or confederation? Andrew Blick discusses four options for configuring the UK.

Inbuilt within the United Kingdom is the potential for instability. It is a multi-nation state, like Belgium, Canada, Spain and – some would say – the European Union. At present, it consists of three nations – Wales, Scotland and England; and a fourth territory, Northern Ireland, the status of which is complicated and controversial. This internal differentiation is not necessarily a weakness. But it has at times been a source of problematic tension. Pressure for more autonomy, or even secession, has come from within some of the national groups incorporated into the UK. Early in the history of the state, during the eighteenth century, Scottish Jacobite rebellions took place. The place of Ireland within the UK has often been a source of discord, with both Unionists and Irish Nationalist at times perpetrating acts of violence to further their respective causes. Early in the 1920s, most of Ireland split from the UK to form the Republic. Under the terms of the Belfast or ‘Good Friday’ Agreement of 1998, the six counties of Northern Ireland too may one day leave the UK and rejoin with the South.

An emergent issue in recent decades has been the rise of political nationalism and independence movements in other parts of the UK, including in Wales and most prominently in Scotland. The Scottish National Party has held office at devolved level since 2007; and the surprisingly close result in the referendum of September 2014 has given its cause added momentum. A break up of the union of England (including Wales) and Scotland that took place in 1706-7, inaugurating the UK as a state, is now as plausible as it has ever been. Unlike in earlier eras, it could take place peacefully, with the consent of both sides.

Consequently, if we are to seek to answer the question ‘what is the future of the UK constitution’, the answer may be that it does not have one, at least in its current form. The SNP wants to leave; while those who wish the UK to survive are altering its internal arrangements to accommodate a more autonomous Scotland within it. But what are the different options for configuring the constitution?

Option one is a unitary state. Under this centralised model, ultimate power resides at the centre, with the UK Parliament in Westminster and the UK executive in Whitehall. Often in the past observers have used the term ‘unitary’ to describe our arrangements. In some senses they are correct. Our doctrine of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and the tendency to override local government from London fit with this approach. But the UK has always included within it some official allowances for national diversity, such as different arrangements for religion and language, and multiple legal systems. Northern Ireland even had its own legislature and executive from the 1920s to the 1970s. It is better, therefore, to describe the UK as having been a ‘union state’ from the outset.

Option two is devolution. Under this system, the centre provides for a tier of elected regional or national authorities, transferring some power downwards to them, but without fully surrendering ultimate control. In the late 1990s, devolution was introduced to Wales, Scotland and arguably Greater London, and re-introduced to Northern Ireland. But despite its many successes, this system has not prevented – and may have encouraged – the rise of nationalism in Scotland, threatening the integrity of the UK. Moreover, it is asymmetrical. Outside Greater London, England has yet to share in the benefits of devolution.

Option three is a federal system. Under an arrangement of this type, ‘sovereignty’ is shared between different tiers of government, each with its own respective spheres of operation. Typically, the rules are set out in a written constitution, with a supreme court responsible for enforcement. Arguably the UK has been moving, through its adoption of devolution and other reforms, in practice increasingly in a federal direction. Some hope that federalism could provide Scotland with a degree of self-government sufficient to induce it to remain within the UK.

However, the full adoption of federalism would entail the end of the notion of Parliament as a ‘sovereign’ body, since it – like all other institutions – would be subject to the constitution, as interpreted by the UK Supreme Court. There is cultural resistance to this change. Furthermore, a practical problem involves how to incorporate England into a federal UK. If England were included as a single unit, since it accounts for more than 80 per cent of the population, federalism might create instability worse than that which it sought to correct. Another approach could be for England to participate in a federation in a series of more manageably-sized regions. Yet it is not clear how to demarcate these territories, and whether they would command sufficient popular attachment to make the federal project politically viable. Nonetheless, a federal UK may become the most plausible means of preserving the UK, necessitating a resolution to this English dilemma.

Option four is some kind of confederation or even federacy, that is a looser arrangement still than a federation. In some senses, the UK is moving in this direction. It already has – as a ‘union state’ – more diversity in certain respects than might be found even in a federation, for instance through the existence of three different legal systems (in Scotland, Northern Ireland and England), with a fourth possibly coming in Wales. The extensions in Scottish devolution presently contemplated, in the fiscal and other fields, are substantial. Other parts of the UK, such as Wales, are likely to seek at least some of these new powers for themselves. At the centre, there are demands to exclude Westminster MPs from voting on matters that are devolved in the particular areas they represent. The implication of this idea – though it may not come about – could be a reduced role for Scottish MPs in UK level decision-making.

When Scotland and England were negotiating the union in 1706, the opening position of the team of Scottish commissioners was to call for a ‘federal union’, by which they meant a loose attachment between the two nations, with a single monarchy and external policy, but retaining their existing parliaments. At the time, this model was not on offer from the English, who had the stronger bargaining position. But it may be that the objectives some from Scotland sought in 1706 are belatedly coming about. The position of Scotland under this arrangement may not differ greatly from the independent Scotland envisaged by the SNP.

 

This article was originally pubslihed at the LSE British Politics and Policy blog.

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.

Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

A theatre of narrative

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. February 2015 - 0:11

The performance of stories in various fringe venues has gathered enough momentum to present the possibility of a Theatre of Narrative where the art of storytelling is as vital as other performing arts.

Flickr/Bahman Farzad. Some rights reserved.

Some literature is not written to be read but to be spoken. Shakespeare is an obvious example. The works of Homer were not even written but were memorized and spoken from generation to generation. Dickens prepared [and performed] oral versions of his fiction. Bob Dylan’s poetry is written to be sung. Poets are invited to read their work to audiences in recordings or live performance. Engagement by direct communication always has been integral to the idea of literature. The solitary reader is a necessary part of literature, but it is only a part of a wider experience that is within society. Of necessity the act of writing is in part solitary because it is personal. The act of reading may require concentration and silence. The reception, even in a social space, is an individual, personal experience. Yet we have reading groups with members sharing their interests. The need is for the personal to find its way into society because we recognize and value literature as integral to society.

A recent development extends this idea of sociability further by the performance of fiction as drama is performed – by actors on a platform before an audience. This contrast with the received image of the isolated reader taking the bound volume from bookshop or library home where it can be read in a quiet sitting room. Some texts do require a level of concentration that depend on a measure of isolation. As autonomous beings we require some personal space for the part of us that is ours alone. As social beings we find the need and the pleasure in communicating that which we are. Without those feelings there would be no literature that extended and codified conversation.

The growth of organisations like Are You Sitting Comfortably? and Liars’ League and White Rabbit testify to the creative opportunities within the experience of performed literature. The generative capacity of the experience is not yet fully realized. The writer of fiction is certain to be stimulated by the social exchange which is performance. Where once the only direct contact may have been the brief banalities of the book signing, today we no longer rely on the book to contain our fiction – it is there in the reading and the subsequent podcast and Youtube broadcast. The story may be published also, and perhaps it should be, as a permanent record in a literate culture. But the primary communication of that literature is oral. Will anyone turn up to a fringe venue midweek to hear stories? You bet they will. The frisson both of expectation and acceptance can be electrifying.

Fiction as a performance art takes place within a breaking of forms. There is a fluidity of bounds that challenges the orthodoxies. The traditional categories of genre no longer apply. Theatre is no longer primarily a text with dialogue between two or more characters. The essence of theatre is in performance, but the definitions are flexible. On the one hand there is physical theatre. It has a long history of acrobatics, mime and music. Street theatre shapes the performance according to the immediacy of the moment. Street theatre is an invaluable apprenticeship in performance skills. Nowhere than the square or park is more illustrative of Peter Brook’s dictum that the theatre is an empty space. Stripped of the proscenium/auditorium dichotomy, stripped of the social formalities of courtly entertainment, theatre returns to its roots in rituals sacred and profane.

The challenge to a theatre of words is profound. The dialogue play will not, and should not, disappear. But it must be seen as one convention among others. This is far less of an aesthetic challenge than it may seem. Change is a negotiation with history, a looking back as well as forward. Stoppard’s masterly New Found Land, an inspiration to his younger contemporaries, is exemplary. The monologue has been a preferred form for Beckett and Brian Friel. Popular successes like Shirley Valentine, Spoonface Steinberg and The Vagina Monologues testify to the capacities of narrative drama. There is a long history of narrative drama, not always for one voice alone. Charles Laughton, with Tyrone Power, was creating such performance for radio and stage in the Nineteen Forties. The ambition was to create a Theatre of Narrative, although the conditions for such a project were not there.

Today the conditions are gathering coherence. A literary theatre of a performed fiction has grown in part from a frustration with an orthodoxy that demands that theatre be one form, or another. To propose conflict between the theatre of words and the theatre of sound and gesture is divisive and obstructive. Against the orthodoxy of separation is the radical spirit seeking the infinite permutations to be found within the cross-fertilization of forms. Harmony is the blending of parts, not a single note of unity. Poor Johnny One-Note is left at the stage door, or perhaps some shadowy corner of the Garrick. Beneath his feet, almost literally so, the spells of enchantment are being cast.

Where words matter, where the text takes precedence, the search is for a writer’s theatre. The Royal Court has a long history of being such a theatre. But other places may be so described in other terms. Mike Leigh as writer/director (in the spirit of Joan Littlewood) improvises collectively with the company of actors. The text is not a precious artefact but a working part of the whole. This approach does not conflict with the idea of writers’ theatre. It complements it. To work in this collaborative way is a refreshing engagement with literature as a social exchange. It is how Shakespeare and Sheridan and Shaw worked.

It was said in the Fifties that theatre was the natural home for writers. The famous explosion of new writing lends credence to this view. But a closer look at the writers’ personal statements testifies to an age-old truth: writers explore all the available media before concentrating on the one where they find success. Resisting quasi-mystical notions of the medium finding the writer, it is a question of practicalities. Radio, it is said, is a writers’ medium because it is language-based. There is a demanding concentration of form that betrays any indifference to literary quality. Underwritten scripts cannot be saved by visual effects. In radio every cliché clunks where elsewhere it may pass unnoticed as the eye gazes on the scene.

A stumbling block to the advancement of radio as a writers’ medium has been the hierarchic structure of broadcasting within a hierarchic society. Liberal pieties mouthed as a litany do not alleviate this problem. New media, and a new spirit among a network of engaged writers, have circumvented the obstructions.

A significant development as I write is that the BBC is alert to the new theatre of narrative. It is seeking accommodation. It is a timely sign of acceptance. The possibilities for such a development have hovered round BBC radio drama for years. In certain respects it is a return to a tradition abandoned so recklessly in the populist orthodoxy that swept over all our culture as a counter-revolution with a vengeance. For a time it seemed irresistible. And, if you wanted to hold on to your job, it was. But there prevail the everyday acts of resistance that good writing is.

To speak of victory is the language of conflict. The language of harmony speaks of acceptance. After the BBC will come the National Theatre’s Season of Narratives, let us call it, with Michael Billington’s considered appraisal. Glastonbury will follow, returning to its roots circa 1978 when Heathcote Williams was the headliner. There even may be an actual Theatre of Narrative. Who knows? Scepticism will be swept aside. Something may be lost other than obstructive cynicism. A sense of intimate space will be possible no longer. Other possibilities will emerge. A sense of engagement with things that are seen to matter is the basic narrative that must not be lost.

Categories: les flux rss

The Saatchi Bill is not about 'innovation' but 'improvisation'

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. February 2015 - 0:11

We already have a sound structure for innovation. What this Bill will deliver is medical improvisation with virtually non-existent patient safeguards.

Flickr/Zaldylmg. Some rights reserved.

In this essay I would like to address two new issues that have not yet been adequately aired. First I would like to consider the likely motivations of those who sponsored or have supported the “Saatchi” bill (MIB) and then look again at the false premise upon which so much time has been spent in Westminster, the news media, blogosphere and the twitter-sphere. In starting out on the motivations behind the MIB I will not touch on potential conflict of interests, firstly as it is something of a distraction and secondly because I think it is unjust to all those sponsors and supporters, who like me, have lost a loved one to a terrible disease with inadequate palliative care.

What are the genuine motivations of the supporters of the MIB?

Someone who has lost a loved one to a terrible disease, who had to endure a cruel death, goes through a roller coaster ride of emotional responses. Eventually most come to terms with the tragedy and the mourning period is in due course replaced by an acceptance of the loss and a slow return to normal life. In some the mourning period lasts a lifetime almost like a pathological obsession as well illustrated by Queen Victoria. Yet others have a different response where mourning is replaced by anger and a search for others to blame. I have nothing but deep sympathy for these people as I have been in that “bad place” myself whilst standing by, helplessly watching my dear mother die prematurely, in uncontrolled pain from skeletal metastases from carcinoma of the breast. To add insult to injury, the primitive chemotherapy regimen she endured, added nothing to her life except nausea, vomiting and alopecia. She had always prided herself on her long and glossy black hair that she wore as a chignon but that was replaced by a paisley scarf that kept slipping to reveal her baldness. I will describe how I dealt with this at the end of this piece.

A second motivation, commonplace amongst the scientifically illiterate, is the idea that their loved one might have been saved by a miracle cure. This is often seen amongst the well off who have always been in the position of affording anything their heart desired. They are easy fodder for the snake oil salesmen.[1] Related to this is the popular myth or fairy story about a medical maverick who discovers a cure for cancer in the Amazonian jungle only to be frustrated in his humanistic and self sacrificing endeavor by Big Pharma, who feel threatened by the discovery of a cheap and “natural” alternative to their hugely expensive market leaders. A good example of this genre is the film “The Medicine Man”.[2] I have less sympathy with such people as there is a well-proven cure for scientific illiteracy and that is known as an all rounded education that combines both science and the humanities. If their education failed to cover the two pillars of wisdom that supports our culture, then there’s a fault in our system.

Innovation vs improvisation

The daily practice of medicine can be looked upon in three ways: “standard care”, “improvisation” and “innovation”. My dictionary defines Innovation as “a new idea, device or process that can be viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements or existing problems”. In medical research we have a pattern of governance in place that protects patients as well as doctors during episodes of innovation. All clinical research has to negotiate two hurdles before the study can be launched. First of all any meaningful project needs resources and that means satisfying the grants committee that the study is rational and organized with robust methodology sufficient to produce a reliable result, that might either support or refute the underlying hypothetical conjectures. Secondly the clinical scientist has to satisfy an independent committee of the ethical probity of the work and that the patient provides informed consent. This committee would normally reject a proposal that fell at the first hurdle on the principle that flawed science is an unethical abuse of human subjects.

If we choose to define the legal principles of the “Bolam” and “Bolitho” tests, as meaning that a judge will be satisfied that bodies of expert opinion would accept the new treatment as 'logically defensible’, then in effect the doctor enjoys prospective protection from litigation already, whilst the patient has been protected by the ethical scrutiny of the independent expert committee. Perhaps this is why there are no recorded examples of litigation by patients in a research program under current governance unless the clinician was negligent in his delivery of one or other of the treatments being compared.

Improvisation is defined as “the process of devising a solution to a requirement by making-do, in the absence of resources that might be expected to produce a solution”.

In real life practice of medicine and surgery this is commonplace. As a surgeon I often had to face a crisis mid operation, where there were no textbook guides on how to proceed so I had to improvise to save the patient’s life or limb. To an extent the recent high profile cases of Ebola might be the equivalent of emergency medical improvisation in practice. We act in good faith and if things go wrong then we have to face the Bolam and Bolitho tests with expert witnesses advising the courts.

All along we’ve allowed ourselves to think we are discussing a medical innovation bill when in fact we’ve been discussing a medical improvisation bill, with the latter prospectively protecting the doctor from litigation whilst removing the patient’s rights of redress.

How do we cope with the fact that we all suffer from an incurable disease?

All of us, including the proponents and opponents of the bill, know someone they held dear, who died of an incurable disease and all of us face that inevitable outcome.

The best we can hope for our loved ones and ourselves is that our passing will be dignified, with adequate symptom control and ideally in the comfort of our own homes.

When I held vigil together with other members of the family on the night my mother died, I was plagued by a complex set of emotions. I felt guilty, because as a young doctor I had insufficient knowledge to deal with her suffering. I felt angry with her doctors, allowing such uncontrolled suffering and I felt angry at some amorphous embodiment of “cancer the killer”. After her death I entered a natural period of mourning but unlike most people I had the “advantage” of coping with my anger by trying to avenge my mother’s death by chasing the demon responsible. Her experience galvanized me to try and discover more effective and less toxic options for the disease that carried her away, and I can claim some modest success in this field. However the last point I want to make is that everyone can join this crusade by identifying the real villain and sharing my “advantage”. This can be done in a number of ways. Firstly cure your own scientific illiteracy by studying the rudiments of the philosophy of science. This is easy, as you don’t have to learn facts but simply learn a new way of thinking.

Secondly, if you feel motivated and wish to campaign, then campaign first and foremost for a merciful death for us all.

Finally, if you are rich and powerful, then work with us clinical scientists to deal with the real obstacles to progress and support the medical charities that are searching for prolongation of a good quality of life for all those “incurable” diseases that we all will face when our time comes for that visit of the grim reaper.

 

References

[1] http://www.naturalnews.com/032998_Burzynski_cancer_cures.html

[2] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104839/

Sideboxes Related stories:  Saatchi's 'Medical Innovation Bill' will benefit lawyers and charlatans, not patients The Saatchi Bill is internally inconsistent and must be scrutinised in the Commons Maurice Saatchi, his Medical Innovation Bill, and the booming ‘orphan drugs’ market Lord Saatchi and the medical anecdote PR machine
Categories: les flux rss

Referendum on the academic boycott of Israel at SOAS

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. February 2015 - 23:14

London's School of Oriental and African Studies is holding a referendum on whether to cut ties with universities in Israel—an experience which will be transformative in more ways than one.

Wikimedia Commons/Colin Smith. Some rights reserved.

On 29 January, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) held its Union General Meeting (UGM), where everyone was welcome to participate. The most contentious item on the meeting agenda was the proposed referendum on the academic boycott of Israel, which is taking place between 23 and 27 February.

The referendum will be school-wide and will call on every member of the SOAS community, including academics, students, cleaners, and all other staff members to cast a vote on whether SOAS should suspend all institutional ties with Israel.

The question of academic freedom is crucial in a context where it is constantly exploited as a smokescreen behind which settler-colonialism is fed both discourse and weaponry. Israeli academia enjoys colonial privilege, not academic freedom.

The academic boycott of Israel, itself part of the growing BDS movement, targets this privilege based on a fundamental understanding of academic freedom as one that is inherently political. In the Israeli settler-colonial context, this privilege means that Israeli academic institutions directly enable and perpetuate colonial violence.

Israeli universities are inseparable from the Israeli state. They are knowledge-production apparatuses that are necessary for the violent development of its colonial army and accompanying imperial expansion of the state. 

Presently, SOAS has ties with the Hebrew University, which unapologetically joined the “war effort” last summer when the Israeli colonial machine murdered over 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza. In fact, in October 2014, the US weapons-producer Lockheed Martin announced that a cooperation agreement had been signed with Yissum, a technology firm that belongs to the Hebrew University.

These links cannot be framed as isolated incidents; like the Hebrew University, the Haifa-based Institute of Technology (Technion) has a strong affiliation with Israel’s arms industry and the development of bulldozers specifically designed to demolish Palestinian homes.

Even on the individual—but no less horrifying—level, we find academics like Dr Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University, who shamelessly but tellingly claimed, “The only thing that deters a suicide bomber is the knowledge that if he pulls the trigger or blows himself up, his sister will be raped.”

The university did not condemn Kedar’s despicable statement, and no Israeli feminist movements—should such movements be separable from colonial feminism in the first place—spoke up against it. It is nonsensical, therefore, to pontificate that freeing Israeli academic institutions from accountability fosters academic freedom.

The academic boycott referendum at SOAS is a first step in the direction of placing Israeli universities in the right context—as war labs. The lead-up to the referendum has highlighted the intersectional capacity of student activism and movement-building on campus. The SOAS Palestine Society has been campaigning for a YES vote for months now, mobilising students and academics, and holding various events and lectures on the subject.

The society has also been collaborating with other movements on campus, participating in debates on anti-Zionism and LGBTQ politics, and researching connections between corporate exploitation of working-class staff members such as the cleaners, and Israeli settler-colonialism.

The call for the academic boycott of Israel has subsequently received the formal endorsement of some of the biggest and most influential groups on campus, including the Justice for Cleaners campaign, the LGBTQIA+ Society, the Kashmir Solidarity Movement, Tamil Society, and the SOAS Student Union itself.

The YES campaign brought forth an important dynamic by politicising the classroom and directly involving academics in the campaign. Academics aligned with the Palestinian struggle for liberation have been outspoken in their support for the academic boycott of Israel, holding lectures in student spaces, such as the Junior Common Room (JCR) where students normally have lunch and hang out between classes, solidifying the link between academic discourse and political struggles on the ground.

Anthropology professors, for example, provided critiques of the discipline’s active involvement in colonial politics in the past, while urging their students to radicalise the discipline so that it aligns itself with anti-colonial movements. On the student level, the YES campaigners are disrupting the normal flow of classes by incorporating BDS into their class presentations and even lobbying for academic boycott at the beginning of their lectures.

The SOAS campaign for academic boycott, led and organised by students from various national, racial, and religious backgrounds, is undermining the boundary between academics and students on the one hand, and challenging the dominant neoliberal perception of the classroom as a politically “neutral” space on the other.

It is precisely these dynamics, together with the Palestine Society’s uncompromising stance on all political struggles, which has won the campaign the endorsement and public support of various groups and individuals at SOAS.

The referendum, however, is taking place in a highly critical environment, where many students are asking what a majority vote in favour of cutting ties with Israeli institutions would mean in practical terms.

A majority vote in favour of academic boycott will enable the Student Union, which already has a pro-BDS policy, to pressure the SOAS management into severing all ties with the Hebrew University. This partly means cancelling study-abroad programmes for Hebrew-language students until the University withdraws all forms of investment in settler-colonialism, and ends the silencing of critical, particularly Arab, voices on campus.

Students will still be able to learn Hebrew wherever they wish—Palestinian universities in the West Bank also provide Hebrew-language programmes. But SOAS should not be formally responsible, as it is currently, for programmes that materially support a war lab. The consequences of the vote have been made clear by the Palestine Society, which has been participating in debates and answering questions through flyers, stalls, rallies, and online platforms.

Whether the majority will vote in favour of boycotting Israeli institutions remains to be seen. The result of the referendum will be announced in the evening of Friday 27 February. On the day, the SOAS bar will remain open until 2:00am should students decide to celebrate the results.

Even more exciting than the vote itself, however, is the extent to which the campaign has been able to mobilise groups and individuals and to challenge and deconstruct the long-standing boundaries that have come to define academic spaces in Europe.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Is a boycott of Israel inconsistent? Yes and No BDS and the politics of ‘radical’ gestures Critique of the boycott divestment sanctions movement, from a Jewish supporter of the Palestinian cause On Israel-Palestine and BDS Boycotting Israel: the situation has changed and I have changed my mind too Tear down the walls: international solidarity march for Palestine, sanctions for Israel US counterproductive over cultural boycott of Israel Topics:  Ideas International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Referendum on the academic boycott of Israel at SOAS

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. February 2015 - 23:14

London's School of Oriental and African Studies is holding a referendum on whether to cut ties with universities in Israel—an experience which will be transformative in more ways than one.

Wikimedia Commons/Colin Smith. Some rights reserved.

On 29 January, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) held its Union General Meeting (UGM), where everyone was welcome to participate. The most contentious item on the meeting agenda was the proposed referendum on the academic boycott of Israel, which is taking place between 23 and 27 February.

The referendum will be school-wide and will call on every member of the SOAS community, including academics, students, cleaners, and all other staff members to cast a vote on whether SOAS should suspend all institutional ties with Israel.

The question of academic freedom is crucial in a context where it is constantly exploited as a smokescreen behind which settler-colonialism is fed both discourse and weaponry. Israeli academia enjoys colonial privilege, not academic freedom.

The academic boycott of Israel, itself part of the growing BDS movement, targets this privilege based on a fundamental understanding of academic freedom as one that is inherently political. In the Israeli settler-colonial context, this privilege means that Israeli academic institutions directly enable and perpetuate colonial violence.

Israeli universities are inseparable from the Israeli state. They are knowledge-production apparatuses that are necessary for the violent development of its colonial army and accompanying imperial expansion of the state. 

Presently, SOAS has ties with the Hebrew University, which unapologetically joined the “war effort” last summer when the Israeli colonial machine murdered over 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza. In fact, in October 2014, the US weapons-producer Lockheed Martin announced that a cooperation agreement had been signed with Yissum, a technology firm that belongs to the Hebrew University.

These links cannot be framed as isolated incidents; like the Hebrew University, the Haifa-based Institute of Technology (Technion) has a strong affiliation with Israel’s arms industry and the development of bulldozers specifically designed to demolish Palestinian homes.

Even on the individual—but no less horrifying—level, we find academics like Dr Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University, who shamelessly but tellingly claimed, “The only thing that deters a suicide bomber is the knowledge that if he pulls the trigger or blows himself up, his sister will be raped.”

The university did not condemn Kedar’s despicable statement, and no Israeli feminist movements—should such movements be separable from colonial feminism in the first place—spoke up against it. It is nonsensical, therefore, to pontificate that freeing Israeli academic institutions from accountability fosters academic freedom.

The academic boycott referendum at SOAS is a first step in the direction of placing Israeli universities in the right context—as war labs. The lead-up to the referendum has highlighted the intersectional capacity of student activism and movement-building on campus. The SOAS Palestine Society has been campaigning for a YES vote for months now, mobilising students and academics, and holding various events and lectures on the subject.

The society has also been collaborating with other movements on campus, participating in debates on anti-Zionism and LGBTQ politics, and researching connections between corporate exploitation of working-class staff members such as the cleaners, and Israeli settler-colonialism.

The call for the academic boycott of Israel has subsequently received the formal endorsement of some of the biggest and most influential groups on campus, including the Justice for Cleaners campaign, the LGBTQIA+ Society, the Kashmir Solidarity Movement, Tamil Society, and the SOAS Student Union itself.

The YES campaign brought forth an important dynamic by politicising the classroom and directly involving academics in the campaign. Academics aligned with the Palestinian struggle for liberation have been outspoken in their support for the academic boycott of Israel, holding lectures in student spaces, such as the Junior Common Room (JCR) where students normally have lunch and hang out between classes, solidifying the link between academic discourse and political struggles on the ground.

Anthropology professors, for example, provided critiques of the discipline’s active involvement in colonial politics in the past, while urging their students to radicalise the discipline so that it aligns itself with anti-colonial movements. On the student level, the YES campaigners are disrupting the normal flow of classes by incorporating BDS into their class presentations and even lobbying for academic boycott at the beginning of their lectures.

The SOAS campaign for academic boycott, led and organised by students from various national, racial, and religious backgrounds, is undermining the boundary between academics and students on the one hand, and challenging the dominant neoliberal perception of the classroom as a politically “neutral” space on the other.

It is precisely these dynamics, together with the Palestine Society’s uncompromising stance on all political struggles, which has won the campaign the endorsement and public support of various groups and individuals at SOAS.

The referendum, however, is taking place in a highly critical environment, where many students are asking what a majority vote in favour of cutting ties with Israeli institutions would mean in practical terms.

A majority vote in favour of academic boycott will enable the Student Union, which already has a pro-BDS policy, to pressure the SOAS management into severing all ties with the Hebrew University. This partly means cancelling study-abroad programmes for Hebrew-language students until the University withdraws all forms of investment in settler-colonialism, and ends the silencing of critical, particularly Arab, voices on campus.

Students will still be able to learn Hebrew wherever they wish—Palestinian universities in the West Bank also provide Hebrew-language programmes. But SOAS should not be formally responsible, as it is currently, for programmes that materially support a war lab. The consequences of the vote have been made clear by the Palestine Society, which has been participating in debates and answering questions through flyers, stalls, rallies, and online platforms.

Whether the majority will vote in favour of boycotting Israeli institutions remains to be seen. The result of the referendum will be announced in the evening of Friday 27 February. On the day, the SOAS bar will remain open until 2:00am should students decide to celebrate the results.

Even more exciting than the vote itself, however, is the extent to which the campaign has been able to mobilise groups and individuals and to challenge and deconstruct the long-standing boundaries that have come to define academic spaces in Europe.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Is a boycott of Israel inconsistent? Yes and No BDS and the politics of ‘radical’ gestures Critique of the boycott divestment sanctions movement, from a Jewish supporter of the Palestinian cause On Israel-Palestine and BDS Boycotting Israel: the situation has changed and I have changed my mind too Tear down the walls: international solidarity march for Palestine, sanctions for Israel US counterproductive over cultural boycott of Israel Topics:  Ideas International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Resetting Palestine's political system

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. February 2015 - 23:02

Repairing the Palestinian political system cannot wait any longer.

Separation wall in Bethany. Mahmoud illean/Demotix, All rights reservedToday, Palestinian political strategy is being driven in the total absence of a functioning political system. Israel’s forced fragmentation of our geographic reality mixed with internal political party divisions, disgust, despair and incompetence, the status quo tears apart Palestine’s societal fabric. If it remains on its current course, the train of national liberation is bound to derail, resulting in serious, if not permanent, damage to our bid for freedom and independence 

Repairing the Palestinian political system cannot wait any longer.

Almost every week in Palestine a political personality or think tank invites a group of thinkers to hash out what can be done to halt the imminent crash of our political project. Efforts to bring us together when so many powers are trying to keep us in permanent disarray are of course welcome.

However, unlike many of those who take joy in merely being in the presence of leadership, I have been walking away from these never-ending discussions with serious concerns. Given the years of experience and high caliber of those sitting around the table, I’d be surprised if any of them was unaware of any piece of insight shared in the discussions. The thought that these meetings really launch any kind of strategic process to reverse the political deterioration is rather far-fetched.

Priorities for a real strategic track

Here are a few priorities we need to get us on a strategic track that is worthy of the time and effort being exerted. They relate directly to the need to repair the Palestinian political system as well as our national liberation movement.

Applying accountability – It is no longer acceptable that those responsible, politically or otherwise, for our current state of affairs should still be put forward as our saviors. Until the public sees more than a public relations effort to expose failed or criminal elements in our society, then whatever political strategy is chosen will have little legitimacy.

Addressing governance – This is the issue everyone speaks about but no one addresses. How can we seriously move forward with no political system in place? The gatherings organized every week by well-meaning community catalysts may have their place, but they cannot be a substitute for a functioning political system. The successful round of municipal elections that were held in the West Bank were a baby step forward and they must continue, where possible, until all municipal governments are not only elected, but also respect their terms in office. 

However, municipal level government is not the arena where political strategy emerges. Every Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) level of leadership, every PLO organ, every Palestinian Authority governing unit must regain its credibility before the people, inside Palestine and abroad.

Elections may serve a purpose, but they are not a silver bullet. To drive this point home, I urge all Palestinians to watch a TED talk by the venture capitalist and political scientist, Eric X Li, who argues that China will “morally challenge” the universality claim of western democratic systems. The point is that there are many ways to reach collective leadership at every level of governance; what are we waiting for?

Building capacity for the UN battle – Entering the International Criminal Court (ICC) was a bold and long overdue step, but this is bound to be a long and hard process. The real impact of the new state tools available to us is how to bring the challenge to occupation down to an operational level in strategically chosen international venues. For that to happen, we need dedicated, trained and committed human resources. The quality of our current diplomatic corps leaves much to be desired. The public threat to enter 500+ international treaties and organizations rings hollow to those who know the current state of our human resources. This is a dangerous illusion. Let us take statehood seriously and mobilize human resources to rise to the occasion.

Only when we work on the three imperatives outlined above will we really be prepared to enter into a strategic planning exercise to chart our path to freedom and independence. 

In the meantime, why do we waste time in dwelling on the need to choose forms of resistance? Can we not at least agree that all internationally and morally accepted forms of resistance should be supported? These include diplomatic efforts, economic resistance, civil disobedience, the ICC, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), etc. These are all tactics, not a political strategy. Once the political strategic direction is defined, then the intensity of any or all of these tactics can be revisited. But until a political strategy is defined, who is to say which tactic of resistance is valid or invalid?

The basics for a political strategy 

We must go back to basics, and ask the political parties as well as the PLO leadership a few questions to be used as starting points for a new political program. For example, in 2015, do we: 

  1. Accept international law and UN resolutions as our political frame of reference?
  2. Recognize the State of Israel? Not the undefinable ‘Jewish’ state, but rather the state that sits in the UN?
  3. Recognize the new State of Palestine (it’s unfortunate that we did not call it new in the UN bid for statehood, so the political distinction would be clear)? Not the State of Palestine of 1948, the state in our hearts and poetry, but rather the political state that has sat in the UN as a non-member observer state since November 29, 2012?

Seeing the answer to these and other questions, in writing, from the PLO and all the political parties would speak volumes. It would at the very least let the Palestinian people know where we are.

In addition, there are some practical steps that could immediately help restart our national liberation movement.

First, President Abbas must travel to Gaza and stay there until the reconciliation agreement is implemented. Before he goes, it is imperative that he appoint a Vice President. The issue of appointing a deputy is long overdue, but to understand the urgent need for this I urge all to read the article written by Atty. Haytham Zubi that was published in Al-Quds Newspaper on July 20, 2013 “Calm Constitutional Advice to the President” (مشورة دستورية هادئة الى سيادة الرئيس الفلسطيني).

Secondly, a PLO decision and Presidential decree must broaden the scope of the Central Elections Commission to allow them to begin the long and tedious process of registering Palestinians worldwide. It is unacceptable that there has been no serious effort to create a Population Registry of all Palestinians, not only those under occupation.

Third, a PLO decision and Presidential decree must activate a new and progressive Political Party Law to allow new political groupings to come together and legitimately enter the Palestinian political stage. We are deluding ourselves when we continue to speak of the traditional political parties as if they are all alive and well, or even exist in any meaningful way today. If political thought is not permitted to legitimately assemble and become part of Palestinians’ political tapestry, one can only expect the excluded to tear the tapestry apart.

We have all spent far too much time massaging a reality that we all see and acknowledge as strategically troubling, indeed catastrophic. Repairing the Palestinian political system cannot wait any longer. The most just cause in modern history is at stake.

Sam Bahour serves as a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network. He blogs at ePalestine.com.

Country or region:  Israel Palestine Topics:  Civil society Conflict Democracy and government Economics International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Resetting Palestine's political system

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. February 2015 - 23:02

Repairing the Palestinian political system cannot wait any longer.

Separation wall in Bethany. Mahmoud illean/Demotix, All rights reservedToday, Palestinian political strategy is being driven in the total absence of a functioning political system. Israel’s forced fragmentation of our geographic reality mixed with internal political party divisions, disgust, despair and incompetence, the status quo tears apart Palestine’s societal fabric. If it remains on its current course, the train of national liberation is bound to derail, resulting in serious, if not permanent, damage to our bid for freedom and independence 

Repairing the Palestinian political system cannot wait any longer.

Almost every week in Palestine a political personality or think tank invites a group of thinkers to hash out what can be done to halt the imminent crash of our political project. Efforts to bring us together when so many powers are trying to keep us in permanent disarray are of course welcome.

However, unlike many of those who take joy in merely being in the presence of leadership, I have been walking away from these never-ending discussions with serious concerns. Given the years of experience and high caliber of those sitting around the table, I’d be surprised if any of them was unaware of any piece of insight shared in the discussions. The thought that these meetings really launch any kind of strategic process to reverse the political deterioration is rather far-fetched.

Priorities for a real strategic track

Here are a few priorities we need to get us on a strategic track that is worthy of the time and effort being exerted. They relate directly to the need to repair the Palestinian political system as well as our national liberation movement.

Applying accountability – It is no longer acceptable that those responsible, politically or otherwise, for our current state of affairs should still be put forward as our saviors. Until the public sees more than a public relations effort to expose failed or criminal elements in our society, then whatever political strategy is chosen will have little legitimacy.

Addressing governance – This is the issue everyone speaks about but no one addresses. How can we seriously move forward with no political system in place? The gatherings organized every week by well-meaning community catalysts may have their place, but they cannot be a substitute for a functioning political system. The successful round of municipal elections that were held in the West Bank were a baby step forward and they must continue, where possible, until all municipal governments are not only elected, but also respect their terms in office. 

However, municipal level government is not the arena where political strategy emerges. Every Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) level of leadership, every PLO organ, every Palestinian Authority governing unit must regain its credibility before the people, inside Palestine and abroad.

Elections may serve a purpose, but they are not a silver bullet. To drive this point home, I urge all Palestinians to watch a TED talk by the venture capitalist and political scientist, Eric X Li, who argues that China will “morally challenge” the universality claim of western democratic systems. The point is that there are many ways to reach collective leadership at every level of governance; what are we waiting for?

Building capacity for the UN battle – Entering the International Criminal Court (ICC) was a bold and long overdue step, but this is bound to be a long and hard process. The real impact of the new state tools available to us is how to bring the challenge to occupation down to an operational level in strategically chosen international venues. For that to happen, we need dedicated, trained and committed human resources. The quality of our current diplomatic corps leaves much to be desired. The public threat to enter 500+ international treaties and organizations rings hollow to those who know the current state of our human resources. This is a dangerous illusion. Let us take statehood seriously and mobilize human resources to rise to the occasion.

Only when we work on the three imperatives outlined above will we really be prepared to enter into a strategic planning exercise to chart our path to freedom and independence. 

In the meantime, why do we waste time in dwelling on the need to choose forms of resistance? Can we not at least agree that all internationally and morally accepted forms of resistance should be supported? These include diplomatic efforts, economic resistance, civil disobedience, the ICC, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), etc. These are all tactics, not a political strategy. Once the political strategic direction is defined, then the intensity of any or all of these tactics can be revisited. But until a political strategy is defined, who is to say which tactic of resistance is valid or invalid?

The basics for a political strategy 

We must go back to basics, and ask the political parties as well as the PLO leadership a few questions to be used as starting points for a new political program. For example, in 2015, do we: 

  1. Accept international law and UN resolutions as our political frame of reference?
  2. Recognize the State of Israel? Not the undefinable ‘Jewish’ state, but rather the state that sits in the UN?
  3. Recognize the new State of Palestine (it’s unfortunate that we did not call it new in the UN bid for statehood, so the political distinction would be clear)? Not the State of Palestine of 1948, the state in our hearts and poetry, but rather the political state that has sat in the UN as a non-member observer state since November 29, 2012?

Seeing the answer to these and other questions, in writing, from the PLO and all the political parties would speak volumes. It would at the very least let the Palestinian people know where we are.

In addition, there are some practical steps that could immediately help restart our national liberation movement.

First, President Abbas must travel to Gaza and stay there until the reconciliation agreement is implemented. Before he goes, it is imperative that he appoint a Vice President. The issue of appointing a deputy is long overdue, but to understand the urgent need for this I urge all to read the article written by Atty. Haytham Zubi that was published in Al-Quds Newspaper on July 20, 2013 “Calm Constitutional Advice to the President” (مشورة دستورية هادئة الى سيادة الرئيس الفلسطيني).

Secondly, a PLO decision and Presidential decree must broaden the scope of the Central Elections Commission to allow them to begin the long and tedious process of registering Palestinians worldwide. It is unacceptable that there has been no serious effort to create a Population Registry of all Palestinians, not only those under occupation.

Third, a PLO decision and Presidential decree must activate a new and progressive Political Party Law to allow new political groupings to come together and legitimately enter the Palestinian political stage. We are deluding ourselves when we continue to speak of the traditional political parties as if they are all alive and well, or even exist in any meaningful way today. If political thought is not permitted to legitimately assemble and become part of Palestinians’ political tapestry, one can only expect the excluded to tear the tapestry apart.

We have all spent far too much time massaging a reality that we all see and acknowledge as strategically troubling, indeed catastrophic. Repairing the Palestinian political system cannot wait any longer. The most just cause in modern history is at stake.

Sam Bahour serves as a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network. He blogs at ePalestine.com.

Country or region:  Israel Palestine Topics:  Civil society Conflict Democracy and government Economics International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Britain and Austria: clashing on EU state aid

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. February 2015 - 21:47

Britain's application for £17.6bn in EU subsidies for the construction of the brand new Hinkley Point nuclear power station has drawn the ire of Austria's government, who say that such a subsidy is illegitimate and unethical.

The power station is set to join Hinkley Point B (above) in the Bristol channel. Geograph.org/Rick Crowley. Some rights reserved

The UK applied for £17.6bn in EU subsidies for the construction of the brand new nuclear power station, Hinkley Point C in Somerset. The request of help received the green light last year, much to the surprise of other EU members. Some others also frowned, particularly within the renewables industry.

In fact Germany had been denied state aid help to support its epochal Energiewende (energy transition), which consists in eventually closing down all nuclear reactors for good in an effort to replace them with sources of renewable energy. ‘This is double-standards’, is what many ought to have thought.

Austria’s going full tilt

Austria has decided to appeal against the state aid granted to the British government: building a nuclear power station should involve no EU help whatsoever. The ministry of agriculture, forestry, environment and water – also known as the Ministry for an Austria that’s worth living in – has published a statement, where it spells out its stance on the matter very clearly. The Alpine government is undoubtedly having a right go at the UK and its apparently dubious financial demands from Europe.

Despite the heavy bureaucratic jargon, this ten-page document literally and unmistakably says at some point: “Austria’s view is that the granting of aid for nuclear power plants is illegitimate both under the general EU state aid criteria and according to the principles of Article 107, Chapter II of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union (TFEU). This is true in general and in this specific case [Hinkley’s] as well.”

A headline by Vienna’s financial daily Wirtschaftsblatt from last week brilliantly captured the disgruntled mood at 10 Downing Street over the arisen controversy originally unveiled by The Guardian: “London [ministers] say they’ll take every opportunity to sue Austria’”.

Austrian diplomats told the Foreign Office that their country was not challenging the UK’s right to choose its energy mix; instead it’s questioning compatibility between Britain’s scheme on Contracts for Difference (CfD) and Brussels’ policy on state aid.

The openly shown willingness to sue or damage in any way comes across as a strong statement of intent; nearly a declaration of war of sorts. Two EU partners here have adopted very assertive stances, indeed almost aggressive ones as the directedness of their language suggests – the temperature is going up and up. Will it reach boiling point?

Causing a stir

Eva Glawischnig, the national spokesperson for the Austrian Greens, is playing a pivotal role in this story. A member of the Austrian parliament’s lower house since 1999, Glawischnig obtained in that same year her PhD in law.

In her dissertation at the Karl-Franzens University in Graz, she dealt with the issue of a border nuclear power plant in Slovakia. She then put the knowledge she gathered in a lawsuit against the controversial Mochovce nuclear power station which highlighted the cover up of excessive radioactive emissions.

The action against Slovak Power Plants was dismissed on appeal before the regional court for civil matters in Vienna in July 2005. This represented the initial training ground providing Glawischnig with the relevant experience, stamina and self-assurance she needed to take on the Brits on the Hinkley Point C case.

At a press conference held in Vienna on 11th February, Glawischnig claimed that Austria shouldn’t feel intimidated by the British government’s threats; she also added that putting forward a valid point against wrongly-awarded EU aid is of paramount importance for the EU citizenry as a whole.

In other words, the Austrian MP seems to suggest that somebody had to step in against the rather strange procedure implemented by London. ‘The process around the construction of Hinkley Point C should not “constitute a precedent”’, said Glawischnig; she warned against a kind of ‘banking package for nuclear energy’. ‘Such subsidies for nuclear power are tantamount to pillaging taxpayers’ pockets’, was her conclusion.

The UK government argues that nuclear energy is entitled to subventions from Brussels because no private sector investment of this scale would come through until 2030. The European Commission agrees both on this and on the fact that EDF – the French company building Hinkley Point C – would not get any additional advantages through the state aid in question.

What the Austrian ministry is also saying

A crucial passage in the abovementioned ministerial statement says: “The subsidization of a nuclear power plant [is an attempt to rectify] a market failure, but in so doing it becomes incompatible with Article 107. The effects on competition are restrictive. This is an industry whose technology is still uncompetitive after decades spent promoting it artificially through subsidies, which have kept it afloat to the detriment of more sustainable and innovative technologies that are being pushed out of the market.”

Plucky as they are, the Austrian authorities are unlikely to cause great damage to the UK nuclear project, as this has practically the full backing of the EU Commission anyway. According to the Austrian Greens’ website, Slovakian diplomat Maroš Šefčovič – current vice-president of the European Commission’s Energy Union – has produced documents suggesting that Hinkley Point C is just the beginning of a whole plan aimed at financially supporting nuclear power stations with huge sums. “They [the British government] are not going to intimidate us. And the nuclear lobby won’t be able to either”, are Glawischnig’s final words for the moment.

Things will be considerably delayed, though; and that’s what’s bugging 10 Downing Street. What’s more, the involvement of a senior Slovakian politician is worth noting here: it’s not preposterous to imagine there would be an element of wanting to play down any accusations from Austria as a way of vindicating the trouble originated from the attack on Mochovce’s nuclear power plant just over a decade ago.

Countervailing political disengagement: perhaps the public needs more of this

Whilst on the one hand this story is showing us that the whole Brexit issue is just a pantomime – such is effectively the level of UK interdependency and involvement with the EU –, on the other it’s now blatantly obvious there’s an ever growing gulf between the EU’s official rhetoric (see the benign EU Charter of fundamental rights) and its actual, hard-nosed dealings with Big Business. The imminent TTIP agreement is just a confirmation of all this.

The lesson from the ballsy and daredevil Austrian ministry is: a dissenting spanner in the works of gluttonous transnational corporate interests can come about not only from highly-organized grassroots activism, but oddly enough from the margins of Establishment too. And that’s inspiring new stuff, the kind of thing that can help the public engage more with politics – perhaps one’s vote is actually worth the paper it’s written on.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Would the United Kingdom survive an exit from the EU? Country or region:  UK Austria
Categories: les flux rss

Britain and Austria: clashing on EU state aid

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. February 2015 - 21:47

Britain's application for £17.6bn in EU subsidies for the construction of the brand new Hinkley Point nuclear power station has drawn the ire of Austria's government, who say that such a subsidy is illegitimate and unethical.

The power station is set to join Hinkley Point B (above) in the Bristol channel. Geograph.org/Rick Crowley. Some rights reserved

The UK applied for £17.6bn in EU subsidies for the construction of the brand new nuclear power station, Hinkley Point C in Somerset. The request of help received the green light last year, much to the surprise of other EU members. Some others also frowned, particularly within the renewables industry.

In fact Germany had been denied state aid help to support its epochal Energiewende (energy transition), which consists in eventually closing down all nuclear reactors for good in an effort to replace them with sources of renewable energy. ‘This is double-standards’, is what many ought to have thought.

Austria’s going full tilt

Austria has decided to appeal against the state aid granted to the British government: building a nuclear power station should involve no EU help whatsoever. The ministry of agriculture, forestry, environment and water – also known as the Ministry for an Austria that’s worth living in – has published a statement, where it spells out its stance on the matter very clearly. The Alpine government is undoubtedly having a right go at the UK and its apparently dubious financial demands from Europe.

Despite the heavy bureaucratic jargon, this ten-page document literally and unmistakably says at some point: “Austria’s view is that the granting of aid for nuclear power plants is illegitimate both under the general EU state aid criteria and according to the principles of Article 107, Chapter II of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union (TFEU). This is true in general and in this specific case [Hinkley’s] as well.”

A headline by Vienna’s financial daily Wirtschaftsblatt from last week brilliantly captured the disgruntled mood at 10 Downing Street over the arisen controversy originally unveiled by The Guardian: “London [ministers] say they’ll take every opportunity to sue Austria’”.

Austrian diplomats told the Foreign Office that their country was not challenging the UK’s right to choose its energy mix; instead it’s questioning compatibility between Britain’s scheme on Contracts for Difference (CfD) and Brussels’ policy on state aid.

The openly shown willingness to sue or damage in any way comes across as a strong statement of intent; nearly a declaration of war of sorts. Two EU partners here have adopted very assertive stances, indeed almost aggressive ones as the directedness of their language suggests – the temperature is going up and up. Will it reach boiling point?

Causing a stir

Eva Glawischnig, the national spokesperson for the Austrian Greens, is playing a pivotal role in this story. A member of the Austrian parliament’s lower house since 1999, Glawischnig obtained in that same year her PhD in law.

In her dissertation at the Karl-Franzens University in Graz, she dealt with the issue of a border nuclear power plant in Slovakia. She then put the knowledge she gathered in a lawsuit against the controversial Mochovce nuclear power station which highlighted the cover up of excessive radioactive emissions.

The action against Slovak Power Plants was dismissed on appeal before the regional court for civil matters in Vienna in July 2005. This represented the initial training ground providing Glawischnig with the relevant experience, stamina and self-assurance she needed to take on the Brits on the Hinkley Point C case.

At a press conference held in Vienna on 11th February, Glawischnig claimed that Austria shouldn’t feel intimidated by the British government’s threats; she also added that putting forward a valid point against wrongly-awarded EU aid is of paramount importance for the EU citizenry as a whole.

In other words, the Austrian MP seems to suggest that somebody had to step in against the rather strange procedure implemented by London. ‘The process around the construction of Hinkley Point C should not “constitute a precedent”’, said Glawischnig; she warned against a kind of ‘banking package for nuclear energy’. ‘Such subsidies for nuclear power are tantamount to pillaging taxpayers’ pockets’, was her conclusion.

The UK government argues that nuclear energy is entitled to subventions from Brussels because no private sector investment of this scale would come through until 2030. The European Commission agrees both on this and on the fact that EDF – the French company building Hinkley Point C – would not get any additional advantages through the state aid in question.

What the Austrian ministry is also saying

A crucial passage in the abovementioned ministerial statement says: “The subsidization of a nuclear power plant [is an attempt to rectify] a market failure, but in so doing it becomes incompatible with Article 107. The effects on competition are restrictive. This is an industry whose technology is still uncompetitive after decades spent promoting it artificially through subsidies, which have kept it afloat to the detriment of more sustainable and innovative technologies that are being pushed out of the market.”

Plucky as they are, the Austrian authorities are unlikely to cause great damage to the UK nuclear project, as this has practically the full backing of the EU Commission anyway. According to the Austrian Greens’ website, Slovakian diplomat Maroš Šefčovič – current vice-president of the European Commission’s Energy Union – has produced documents suggesting that Hinkley Point C is just the beginning of a whole plan aimed at financially supporting nuclear power stations with huge sums. “They [the British government] are not going to intimidate us. And the nuclear lobby won’t be able to either”, are Glawischnig’s final words for the moment.

Things will be considerably delayed, though; and that’s what’s bugging 10 Downing Street. What’s more, the involvement of a senior Slovakian politician is worth noting here: it’s not preposterous to imagine there would be an element of wanting to play down any accusations from Austria as a way of vindicating the trouble originated from the attack on Mochovce’s nuclear power plant just over a decade ago.

Countervailing political disengagement: perhaps the public needs more of this

Whilst on the one hand this story is showing us that the whole Brexit issue is just a pantomime – such is effectively the level of UK interdependency and involvement with the EU –, on the other it’s now blatantly obvious there’s an ever growing gulf between the EU’s official rhetoric (see the benign EU Charter of fundamental rights) and its actual, hard-nosed dealings with Big Business. The imminent TTIP agreement is just a confirmation of all this.

The lesson from the ballsy and daredevil Austrian ministry is: a dissenting spanner in the works of gluttonous transnational corporate interests can come about not only from highly-organized grassroots activism, but oddly enough from the margins of Establishment too. And that’s inspiring new stuff, the kind of thing that can help the public engage more with politics – perhaps one’s vote is actually worth the paper it’s written on.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Would the United Kingdom survive an exit from the EU? Country or region:  UK Austria
Categories: les flux rss

Obama's human-rights lacuna in struggle against ‘extremism’

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. February 2015 - 15:31

The US president went on the front foot against fundamentalist violence in the Middle East at a summit in Washington. But he was hobbled by his failure to place human rights in the region front and centre.

Limited appeal? Obama's pitch would have been stronger if human rights had been a focus. Demotix Live News. All rights reserved.

Barack Obama’s call last week for a global effort to combat “violent extremism” appeared to signal a shift in US foreign policy towards the Middle East. As many experts have suggested, the president sought to distance himself from the discourse of his predecessor, George W. Bush, avoiding terms like ‘Islamic terrorism’ in speaking out against al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). But merely altering the official rhetoric, so that the US is no longer “at war with Islam”, addresses neither the phenomenon of non-state violence nor its determinants.

Obama did urge countries to “break the cycles of conflict” and address its root causes. But only if the US shows it is in earnest about human rights in addressing authoritarian governments in the region, as well as political and economic concerns, will his new paradigm of global security take shape.

Criticised

Obama is conventionally criticised from the right, domestically and internationally, for refusing to adopt an ‘iron fist’ policy or to label the IS threat as radical Islam. But it is his silence on many rights infringements in recent months which many human-rights activists have questioned.

In his speech at the United Nations General Assembly last autumn, he urged governments and communities across the Muslim world to provide more opportunities for young people who might be attracted to violent organisations. He sustained this line of argument at last week’s summit and went on to insist that “when people are oppressed and human rights are denied and when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism”.

Indeed, recent reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International indicate human rights are sharply deteriorating all over the Middle East.

Yet what is striking is the passive and negligent policy of the White House towards human-rights issues among its regional allies. Many of these regimes are considered the most oppressive by international human-rights agencies and the UN. While, in other words, Obama implicitly rejected Bush’s legacy and called on all nations to “put an end to the cycle of hate”, he failed to step out on the path of pursuing human rights in the administration’s dialogues with the governments in the region.

One barrier is that among not only western politicians but also Middle Eastern rulers there remains profound disagreement as to whether the best way to counter fundamentalist violence is indeed through human rights and civil society or rather by military action. If he is to map out his policy shift from Bush’s ‘war on terror’ and attain a global security, Obama must prioritise human rights in what will be a long and profound discussion with Middle Eastern governments.

Another blurring of the issues was the president’s assertion that Muslim clerics and their governments had a “responsibility” to push back on “twisted interpretations of Islam”—as if all religions did not contain the potential for fundamentalism and as if violence in its name should be treated as other than crimes against the rule of law. Among the hundreds of foreign officials so addressed in the conference were those from countries with what was thus only passingly referred to as a “spotty record” on human rights and democracy—like Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Egypt. 

Association

Obama urged religious, civic and political leaders to stop feeding the notion that the US was the “cause of every ill in the Middle East”. But it cannot dispel this association while it fails to press authoritarian governments in the region to tolerate political opponents and provide basic rights for members of minorities.

Indeed, recent reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International indicate human rights are sharply deteriorating all over the Middle East. The HRW World Report 2015 highlights, for instance, how Saudi authorities have sentenced several leading human-rights activists and other reform advocates to long jail terms for their peaceful activism, while some minority leaders have been tortured while others are on death row. In Egypt, meanwhile, the president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, recently announced that the struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood would be “long-lasting” and two weeks ago a court sentenced 183 supporters of the outlawed brotherhood to death—in a process which Amnesty said took less than an hour. In January  in Iran at least 70 executions were reported and at least 11 activists and seven journalists arrested. And in general the climate facing human-rights activists and moderate political opponents among US allies in the region, such as Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE, has worsened in the past few months.    

In short, while the main disagreement among some US political figures, like the Republican senators Ted Cruz and Lindsay Graham—and even a few Democrats, such as Tulsi Gabbard—is with Obama’s “careful language” and his refusal to accept that terrorist groups “somehow represent Islam”, urging world leaders and governments in the region to confront the ideologies of groups like IS and al-Qaeda demands that the White House take human rights seriously. Only if Obama recognises the connection between human-rights violators and the ideologies of non-state violent groups can a genuine policy shift be effected.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The two big holes in the strategy against IS Obama's dysfunctional coalition of the unwilling Obama and the Middle East: the lessons of Iraq? Topics:  Conflict International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Obama's human-rights lacuna in struggle against ‘extremism’

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. February 2015 - 15:31

The US president went on the front foot against fundamentalist violence in the Middle East at a summit in Washington. But he was hobbled by his failure to place human rights in the region front and centre.

Limited appeal? Obama's pitch would have been stronger if human rights had been a focus. Demotix Live News. All rights reserved.

Barack Obama’s call last week for a global effort to combat “violent extremism” appeared to signal a shift in US foreign policy towards the Middle East. As many experts have suggested, the president sought to distance himself from the discourse of his predecessor, George W. Bush, avoiding terms like ‘Islamic terrorism’ in speaking out against al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). But merely altering the official rhetoric, so that the US is no longer “at war with Islam”, addresses neither the phenomenon of non-state violence nor its determinants.

Obama did urge countries to “break the cycles of conflict” and address its root causes. But only if the US shows it is in earnest about human rights in addressing authoritarian governments in the region, as well as political and economic concerns, will his new paradigm of global security take shape.

Criticised

Obama is conventionally criticised from the right, domestically and internationally, for refusing to adopt an ‘iron fist’ policy or to label the IS threat as radical Islam. But it is his silence on many rights infringements in recent months which many human-rights activists have questioned.

In his speech at the United Nations General Assembly last autumn, he urged governments and communities across the Muslim world to provide more opportunities for young people who might be attracted to violent organisations. He sustained this line of argument at last week’s summit and went on to insist that “when people are oppressed and human rights are denied and when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism”.

Indeed, recent reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International indicate human rights are sharply deteriorating all over the Middle East.

Yet what is striking is the passive and negligent policy of the White House towards human-rights issues among its regional allies. Many of these regimes are considered the most oppressive by international human-rights agencies and the UN. While, in other words, Obama implicitly rejected Bush’s legacy and called on all nations to “put an end to the cycle of hate”, he failed to step out on the path of pursuing human rights in the administration’s dialogues with the governments in the region.

One barrier is that among not only western politicians but also Middle Eastern rulers there remains profound disagreement as to whether the best way to counter fundamentalist violence is indeed through human rights and civil society or rather by military action. If he is to map out his policy shift from Bush’s ‘war on terror’ and attain a global security, Obama must prioritise human rights in what will be a long and profound discussion with Middle Eastern governments.

Another blurring of the issues was the president’s assertion that Muslim clerics and their governments had a “responsibility” to push back on “twisted interpretations of Islam”—as if all religions did not contain the potential for fundamentalism and as if violence in its name should be treated as other than crimes against the rule of law. Among the hundreds of foreign officials so addressed in the conference were those from countries with what was thus only passingly referred to as a “spotty record” on human rights and democracy—like Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Egypt. 

Association

Obama urged religious, civic and political leaders to stop feeding the notion that the US was the “cause of every ill in the Middle East”. But it cannot dispel this association while it fails to press authoritarian governments in the region to tolerate political opponents and provide basic rights for members of minorities.

Indeed, recent reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International indicate human rights are sharply deteriorating all over the Middle East. The HRW World Report 2015 highlights, for instance, how Saudi authorities have sentenced several leading human-rights activists and other reform advocates to long jail terms for their peaceful activism, while some minority leaders have been tortured while others are on death row. In Egypt, meanwhile, the president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, recently announced that the struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood would be “long-lasting” and two weeks ago a court sentenced 183 supporters of the outlawed brotherhood to death—in a process which Amnesty said took less than an hour. In January  in Iran at least 70 executions were reported and at least 11 activists and seven journalists arrested. And in general the climate facing human-rights activists and moderate political opponents among US allies in the region, such as Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE, has worsened in the past few months.    

In short, while the main disagreement among some US political figures, like the Republican senators Ted Cruz and Lindsay Graham—and even a few Democrats, such as Tulsi Gabbard—is with Obama’s “careful language” and his refusal to accept that terrorist groups “somehow represent Islam”, urging world leaders and governments in the region to confront the ideologies of groups like IS and al-Qaeda demands that the White House take human rights seriously. Only if Obama recognises the connection between human-rights violators and the ideologies of non-state violent groups can a genuine policy shift be effected.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The two big holes in the strategy against IS Obama's dysfunctional coalition of the unwilling Obama and the Middle East: the lessons of Iraq? Topics:  Conflict International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Where has all the wildlife gone in Siberia?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. February 2015 - 15:28

Poaching is drastically reducing numbers of many wildlife species in Siberia, and government at national and regional level doesn’t seem to care.

Last year, environmental campaigners from the Siberian city of Tomsk made regular trips along the Ob river, looking at the levels of poaching in the surrounding forest; and produced a report on its effects in different localities. 

Top of the table was the small town of Krasny Yar. There used to be an enormous logging plant here, and the local shops stocked red caviar even at times of dire shortage elsewhere (the locals fished for the black variety themselves – the Ob was full of starlet and sturgeon then). Krasny Yar is only 80km from Tomsk as the crow flies – but it has to fly over impassable swamps. By road it’s more like 300km. In winter the journey involves a half-hour drive over the frozen Ob; the bus disgorges its passengers so that it can drive safely on the ice. In the summer there’s a ferry, but in spring and autumn the town is only connected to the outside world by occasional flights in ‘cropduster’ planes.

The locals liked it this way – everyone knew everyone else; very few strangers ever came. It was here that I first held a shotgun in my hands. My father, a teacher and keen hunter, decided that at 15 I was old enough, and we would shoot grouse and muskrats all year round; shooting seasons meant nothing to us then. At school I would spend breaks with the boys, all of us boasting about our catches. And a year and a half later it was poachers like us that felled first an elk and then a new forest ranger, the father of one of my classmates. We kept quiet about it, but not for long: nobody saw anything wrong in poaching, as long as you didn’t get caught, so we could see how it could have happened. The crime remained unsolved; nobody tried very hard to solve it.

Nobody saw anything wrong in poaching, as long as you didn’t get caught.

Paradise lost

Thirty years later, the logging plant has fallen into ruins, and the population has halved from its then 14,000 – people have left in search of a better life. But the amount of illegal hunting has not fallen in the area, or anywhere else in Siberia for that matter. The difference is that then we shot animals for fun, whereas now it’s for food and to earn a living. The situation is so serious that Sergei Zhvachkin, the governor of Tomsk, decided a few months ago to create a special flying squad to combat poaching and its concealment, recruiting people from various law enforcement bodies, including even the FSB. According to the website of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, 50,000 illegal hunting incidents take place annually, but even the Minister, Sergei Donskoi, admits that this figure represents a mere 10% of the real scale of the problem; and regards poaching as on a level with the drug and arms trades. Ecologists meanwhile consider killing wildlife for food even more serious than doing it for money, as it is ubiquitous and extremely methodical.

The Mouflon, one of many species of megafauna in Siberia. CC Jörg Hempel

But now there is yet another problem in the form of organised trips for VIPs, where animals are hunted from helicopters. A court case over the wounding of a businessman during one of these jollies (organised by a deputy governor) came to nothing. In 2011, Anatoly Bannykh, the deputy prime minister of the Altai region; Boris Belinsky, CEO of the Ineko investment group, and Nikolai Kapranov, deputy director of the Moscow Institute of Economics and Law were acquitted by a court on charges of killing mouflon – wild sheep protected by law in Russia. The helicopter carrying these VIPs and their rifles crashed, killing seven people including Aleksandr Kosopkin, the Presidential Envoy to the Duma. Interestingly, after this incident the press stopped reporting on the exploits of ‘fun-loving’ officials, apart from such flagrant examples as the refusal of the courts to charge United Russia Duma deputy Nikolai Baluyev with illegal hunting of bears, ducks and beavers. So have the ‘big shots’ really laid down their arms?

Helicopters are out of fashion now, but now poachers have the latest and fastest snowmobiles.

‘No, they haven’t,’ says Andrei Badanov, a Novosibirsk forest ranger who testified at the ‘mouflon trial’. ‘Vehicles are used in 80% of poaching activities, but it’s less obvious. Helicopters are out of fashion, but now they have the latest and fastest snowmobiles, whereas mine is ancient, and my bosses won’t even give me enough diesel for my 20-year-old 4x4. But you don’t need a helicopter to kill elk and roe deer. You don’t even need a gun. The herds always migrate along the same routes, and in temperatures of minus 30%, which are common enough here, they try to move as little as they can. They forage on woody shrubs, and need large quantities of this to keep alive, so they find a patch of undergrowth and eat through it systematically, hardly moving about. If you startle them they’ll run off, but that uses up a lot of energy. Last year, for example, two poachers knifed nine roe deer that they had just followed on skis. And they lay wire across known elk routes and then chase them down on snowmobiles.’

The scale of the killing

Poaching has become a real disaster for Siberia; and nobody believes the official figures on illegal hunting. ‘I have been looking closely at the situation with a number of animal species, to discover how much the statistics are being falsified’, says Boris Kassal, an Omsk veterinary specialist and professor at the Russian Academy of Natural History. ‘I’ve discovered, for example, that the published figures for beaver poaching represent just 1.5% of the real total – that’s not even the 10% the minister talks about. I also know that the number of bears in the Omsk Region was reduced in the figures from the real 1000 to just 300, to lower the hunting quota, allowing many more to be slaughtered unofficially, without any documentation. And it’s all because people can get away with it: if they were sent to prison for poaching there would be a lot less of it going on.’

The Siberian roe deer is another popular target for poachers. CC Kun530

There is a grey area in the law, so defendants with a good lawyer are usually let off with a fine.

According to lawyer Mikhail Zavyalov, there is a grey area in the law relating to illegal hunting, between a minor infringement and a criminal case, so defendants with a good lawyer are usually let off with a fine, and nobody is actually sent to jail for poaching – a handy loophole for anyone with money.

‘Almost all of Siberia’s large animals and birds have gone’, Boris Kassal tells me. ‘When we hear about sightings of rare and protected types of duck and goose it almost always turns out that they have been shot. And it’s not just duck: a black vulture, also on the national protected species list, was shot in the Omsk Region in 2011. The forest rangers and game managers knew the culprits, but nobody reported them to the police. Most of Europe has already banned the shooting of waterfowl in spring. Spring is when ducks pair off; the females sit on the nest while the drakes protect the area around it, only flying off to moult and change their plumage when the eggs are laid. But a spring hunting season allows drakes to be shot. For me, that’s like a killer sitting opposite a registry office and shooting bridegrooms. We know that ducks can separate from their mates, but without a permanent mate they can’t breed properly. And with geese it’s even worse – they mate for life.’

The official response

At the end of 2014, the hunting of elk, roe deer, wood grouse and waterfowl was banned in 12 areas of the Novosibirsk Region. Members of its wildlife conservation department have complained that they also tried to reach an agreement with neighbouring regions – animals, after all, don’t respect administrative boundaries – but without success. The fauna of Western Siberia has been little studied in general. The best-researched region is Tyumen, which has oil and therefore money for science. In Omsk and Tomsk, cities built at the time of the Second World War as military-industrial centres, nature study is only for geeks and enthusiasts. The services that regulate and manage hunting and shooting, collect information on wildlife populations but there is no one to collate it. Things are a bit better in places, such as Novosibirsk, where there are academic institutions, but even there, there is more interest in birds than animals, and it is more commercial and works in conjunction with game managers.

Another problem is that according to Vladimir Kashin, a member of the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, there are now 25 times fewer forest rangers than there were in 1990. Each ranger is responsible for 3 square kilometres of forest, with clapped-out equipment and a laughably low salary that is below average even for this remote area. Any assessment of renewable resources, including wildlife, is pure guesswork.

‘Almost all our large mammals and birds are on the brink of extinction.’

‘If you can’t mobilise an army of rangers and stamp out poaching, then you can’t run licensed hunting; instead, you need to start by taking on people to feed the animals to increase their fertility’, says Boris Kassal. ‘It could mean thinning out aspen wood, spreading branches and twigs on the forest floor, deliberately leaving root vegetables in fields. Almost all our large mammals and birds are on the brink of extinction. Wild boars, for example, were hunted down since the time of Yermak [a Cossack who led the Russian conquest of Siberia in the reign of Ivan the Terrible, 450 years ago]. Before the Russians came they lived in peace; the local Muslim and pagan population didn’t eat pork. Then of course they were quickly hunted to extinction, and all that remains of them are a few names of lakes and villages. In the early 1980s they began re-introducing boars of unknown provenance from game farms around Moscow, and they started breeding again, but then African swine fever arrived in European Russia and the Caucasus, and now they are simply exterminating them there to avoid the infection of other animals. The only reason it didn’t spread here is that our extreme climate hampers the spread of disease. Also their main source of food was historically semi-aquatic plants, but in Soviet times that changed to vegetables grown on local farms. Now the planted area is much smaller, so their numbers have dropped steeply.

The elk situation is even worse. Archaeological finds show that these animals lived in Siberia up to the 18th century, but the local Turkic princes hunted them down for sport, and they died out very fast. In the 1970s they began to be re-introduced from the Altai, and they escaped from the game farms and spread throughout the area. Those that came to Novosibirsk were placed on the regional protected species list, but in Omsk this didn’t happen and as their status has still not been finally decided, a few head can be still killed each year.’

No wildlife conservation strategy

Despite this parlous state of affairs, hunting is actively promoted as a sport; masses of publications are devoted to it, both at regional and national level. Psychologist Yulia Lashchinskaya sees this as proof that humans are still animals underneath: hunters may differ in their motivation and behaviour, but what they all have in common is a desire for pleasure at the killing of a living creature.

But young people have little or no environmental awareness. Protected species lists are published throughout the regions and distributed to schools, and... ‘And it all stops there’, says Professor Fyodor Novikov of the Russian Academy of Natural History, one of the central figures in the children’s hiking movement in Siberia. ‘It’s only local environmental enthusiasts that talk to children about protecting wildlife; environmental issues have no place in the curriculum even at regional level. Children have little enough experience of nature as it is; many of them no longer have grannies living in villages, especially as the villages themselves are an endangered species.'

Environmental issues have no place in the school curriculum

‘You can only fall in love with what you have seen for yourself, touched with your hands, measured with your feet… In the 1970s we managed to get a walking enthusiast into every school and every local children’s club, but nobody cares about that sort of thing now; teachers know nothing about it and don’t want to take children off to walk in the forests. So young people coming to study natural history at university are only interested in getting a degree, not conserving nature. And environmental initiatives by ministries and other official bodies have nothing to do with educating the public, preferring to set up photo opportunities such as planting seedlings – that then usually die.'

Putin has made conservation a priority, but not all species enjoy the same legal protections as the Amur tiger. via Kremlin.ru

‘Nothing has changed in 30 years. The government should have set up a wildlife conservation strategy long ago, such as those that exist to protect the Siberian tiger and the Amur leopard, or the recovery programmes for the European bison and Przewalski's horse. These are endangered species, but why should we wait until elks, roe deer and bears also start to die out? And it was a matter of luck that those other animals were given protection – they got stroked by the president, so the officials sat up and paid attention to them.’

‘The government should have set up a wildlife conservation strategy long ago’

‘Unfortunately, professional incompetence has become endemic at all levels of government in Russia’, says Professor Boris Kassal. ‘Salaries are a good indicator of how people are valued, and what they show is that our rulers don’t need scientists, environmental specialists or forest rangers, but just bureaucrats, who are totally unproductive both materially and morally. Our bureaucrats have neither the knowledge nor the desire to protect our natural heritage. If we can’t change, we will end up killing all our wildlife and end up with just those species that can adapt to anything – rats, cockroaches, pigeons and crows.’

Standfirst image: Mouflon ram. CC Hajotthu.      

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