The Armenian Genocide and the law

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 14:31

The law, in particular the Law of Abandoned Properties, became the Ottoman Empire's most important tool during the Armenian Genocide a century ago. Economic interests blinded people to the plight of their fellows who were made to disappear. 

What happened on April 24 is one of the most significant radical moments in the process of extreme violence and mass annihilation in the great tragedy that befell the Armenians.

It was on this day that the extermination of Armenians began in Dörtyol, Adana, Marash and Zeytun, lasting until March 1915, then Konya, Anatolia, before stopping in Syria.

On that same day, first in Istanbul and later in all of the provinces of Anatolia, the arrest of Armenian intellectuals began, which continued into June/July of 1915, leading to the murder of many around Çankiri, Ayas and Ankara.

Only a day later, British Imperial troops began to bombard Çanakkale from land and sea. The wrath of the Committee of Union and Progress, leaders of the Ottoman Empire, feeling pressed and their existence threatened, fell first upon the Armenian community and afterwards on all non-Muslim Ottoman subjects.

The seizure of Armenian property was not just a byproduct of the genocidal policies of the CUP, but an integral part of the murder process; reinforcing and accelerating the intended destruction. The expropriation and plunder of deported Armenians’ movable and immovable properties was an essential component of the destruction process.

As Martin Dean argues in Robbing the Jews: The Confiscation of Jewish Property in the Holocaust, 1933-1945, ethnic cleansing and genocide usually have a “powerful materialist component: seizure of property, looting of the victims, and their economic displacement are intertwined with other motives for racial and interethnic violence and intensify their devastating effects.” In the same vein, the radicalization of CUP policies against the Armenian population from 1914 onward were closely linked to a full-scale assault on their property.

Thus, the institutionalization of the elimination of the Christian-Armenian presence was basically realized, along with many other things, through the Law of Abandoned Properties. These laws are structural components of the Armenian Genocide and were the basis of the legal system in the Republic. It is for this reason that we say that the Republic has adopted this Genocide as its structural foundation. Thus, a fresh look at the relationship between the Republic as a legal system and the Armenian Genocide must be taken.

The Law of Abandoned Properties is perceived as “normal and ordinary” in Turkey. Its existence has never been questioned in connection to the Genocide, which explains why the Armenian Genocide was ignored throughout the history of the Republic.

Turkey was founded on the transformation of a presence – Christian in general, Armenian in particular – into an absence.

This picture also shows us a significant aspect of genocide, as Lemkin pointed out. Genocide is not only a process of destruction but also that of construction. By the time genocide perpetrators are destroying one group, they are also constructing another group or identity. Confiscation is an indispensable and one of the most effective mechanisms for perpetrators to realize the aforementioned process of destruction and construction.

Raphael Lemkin can be considered the founding father of genocide literature. He introduced the concept of genocide for the first time in 1944 in his book entitled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. The book consists of a compilation of 334 laws, decrees, and regulations connected with the administration of 17 different regions and states under Nazi occupation between 13 March 1938 and 13 November 1942.

As such, Lemkin did not introduce the concept of genocide together with barbaric practices like torture, oppression, burning, destruction, and mass killing observed in all genocides, but through a book quoting and analyzing legal texts. Could this be a coincidence?

Given its importance, it is necessary to stress this one more time; the year that Lemkin completed the writing of his book (1943), he already knew of all the crimes perpetrated by Nazi Germany. However, he did not present the concept of genocide in a framework elucidated by these crimes. On the contrary, he introduced it through some laws and decrees that were published on how to administer occupied territories and that perhaps, in the logic of war, might be considered “normal.”

We cannot say that this situation accords well with our present way of understanding genocide. The general perception is that genocide is the collapse of a normally functioning legal system; it is the product of the deviation of a system from the “normal” path. According to this point of view, genocide means that institutions of “civilization” are not working and are replaced by barbarism.

Lemkin, however, seems to be saying the complete opposite; that genocide is hidden in ordinary legal texts. By doing this, it is as if he is telling us not to look for the traces of genocide as barbaric manifestations that can be defined as inhuman, but to follow their trail in legal texts. Genocide as a phenomenon that fits into the legal system – this is an interesting definition.

A series of laws and decrees, known as the Law of Abandoned Properties (Emval-i Metruke Kanunları) were issued during the Ottoman and Turkish Republican periods. They were concerned with the belongings left behind by the Ottoman Armenians who were deported in 1915.

Most of the properties were distributed to Muslim refugees from the Balkans and Caucasia at the time. Central and local politicians and bureaucrats of the Union and Progress Party also took advantage of the properties, as well as hundreds of local employees, as the process of administering and selling the properties usually involved considerable administrative efforts.

Economic discrimination and plunder contributed directly to the CUP’s process of destruction in a variety of ways. At the direct level of implementation, the prospect of booty helped to motivate local collaborators in the massacres and the deportations orchestrated by the CUP security forces.

Similar to the policy of Nazi leaders with regards to the “Aryan”ization of Jewish property during the Holocaust, the CUP aimed to have complete control over the confiscation and expropriation of Armenian properties for the economic interests of the state, but could not prevent corruption. As such, the widespread participation of the local population as beneficiaries served to spread complicity and legitimacy to the CUP’s actions.

It should be emphasized that corruption was fairly rife among bureaucrats and officers of the Abandoned Properties Commissions and Liquidation Commissions, who were the responsible actors for administering and confiscating properties under the supervision and for the advantage of the state - as was the case during the “Aryan”ization of Jewish property.

A number of leading members of the Central Committee of the Union and Progress Party, as well as CUP-oriented governors and mutasarrıfs, seized a great deal of property, especially those belonging to affluent Armenians in many vilayets. According to one argument, CUP leaders also utilized Armenian property and wealth to meet the deportation expenses.

After the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1926, the Turkish Grand National Assembly passed a law. This law was promulgated and enforced on 27 June 1926. According to this law, Turkish government officers, politicians, and bureaucrats who were executed as a result of their roles in the Armenian deportations or who were murdered by Dashnaks, were declared “national heroes,” and the so-called “abandoned properties” of Armenians were given to their families. And in 1928, the Turkish Republic introduced a new regulation that granted muhacirs or Muslim refugees who were using Armenian properties the right to have the title deeds of those properties, which included houses, land, agricultural land and shops.

As such, a variety of actors and institutions seized the opportunity. Economic motivation was always present and enabled CUP central actors to carry out their ultra-nationalist ideological policies against Armenians. The process of genocide and deportation directed at the Armenians was, in fact, put into practice by local notables and provincial elites. These local actors prospered through their new acquisitions, transforming them into the new wealthy social stratum.

In this respect, the Union and Progress Party’s genocide and deportation decree on 27 May 1915 had a social basis through the practice of effective power, control, and support mechanism(s) at the local level.

The distribution of a great amount of the “abandoned property” provided a useful incentive that reinforced hatred for local Armenians. And as Lemkin noted, the participation of local people is a necessary condition to ensure the effectiveness of genocidal policies. Planned extermination of all members of a given category of people is impossible without the involvement of their neighbors - those who know who’s who in a community.

Therefore, the entire process of confiscation can be evaluated and construed as both an ideological principle and economic motivation. These two aspects cannot be separated from each other. In some instances, ideology played a more significant role than economic motivation, and in other instances economic interests came into prominence.

The essence of all the laws and regulations issued was the erasure of all traces of the Armenians from Anatolian soil. Perhaps the physical annihilation of the Armenians was necessary to achieve this goal, but it was not sufficient in and of itself. The use of the legal system was as important as, if not even more important than their physical annihilation.

The law, in particular the Law of Abandoned Properties, became the most important tool of the Ottoman Empire. Economic interests blinded people from the plight of their fellows who were made to disappear. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  The reproduction of authoritarian politics in the AKP era Turkey's presidential election candidates Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Almighty Country or region:  Turkey Topics:  Conflict Democracy and government
Categories: les flux rss

The Armenian Genocide and the law

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 14:31

The law, in particular the Law of Abandoned Properties, became the Ottoman Empire's most important tool during the Armenian Genocide a century ago. Economic interests blinded people to the plight of their fellows who were made to disappear. 

What happened on April 24 is one of the most significant radical moments in the process of extreme violence and mass annihilation in the great tragedy that befell the Armenians.

It was on this day that the extermination of Armenians began in Dörtyol, Adana, Marash and Zeytun, lasting until March 1915, then Konya, Anatolia, before stopping in Syria.

On that same day, first in Istanbul and later in all of the provinces of Anatolia, the arrest of Armenian intellectuals began, which continued into June/July of 1915, leading to the murder of many around Çankiri, Ayas and Ankara.

Only a day later, British Imperial troops began to bombard Çanakkale from land and sea. The wrath of the Committee of Union and Progress, leaders of the Ottoman Empire, feeling pressed and their existence threatened, fell first upon the Armenian community and afterwards on all non-Muslim Ottoman subjects.

The seizure of Armenian property was not just a byproduct of the genocidal policies of the CUP, but an integral part of the murder process; reinforcing and accelerating the intended destruction. The expropriation and plunder of deported Armenians’ movable and immovable properties was an essential component of the destruction process.

As Martin Dean argues in Robbing the Jews: The Confiscation of Jewish Property in the Holocaust, 1933-1945, ethnic cleansing and genocide usually have a “powerful materialist component: seizure of property, looting of the victims, and their economic displacement are intertwined with other motives for racial and interethnic violence and intensify their devastating effects.” In the same vein, the radicalization of CUP policies against the Armenian population from 1914 onward were closely linked to a full-scale assault on their property.

Thus, the institutionalization of the elimination of the Christian-Armenian presence was basically realized, along with many other things, through the Law of Abandoned Properties. These laws are structural components of the Armenian Genocide and were the basis of the legal system in the Republic. It is for this reason that we say that the Republic has adopted this Genocide as its structural foundation. Thus, a fresh look at the relationship between the Republic as a legal system and the Armenian Genocide must be taken.

The Law of Abandoned Properties is perceived as “normal and ordinary” in Turkey. Its existence has never been questioned in connection to the Genocide, which explains why the Armenian Genocide was ignored throughout the history of the Republic.

Turkey was founded on the transformation of a presence – Christian in general, Armenian in particular – into an absence.

This picture also shows us a significant aspect of genocide, as Lemkin pointed out. Genocide is not only a process of destruction but also that of construction. By the time genocide perpetrators are destroying one group, they are also constructing another group or identity. Confiscation is an indispensable and one of the most effective mechanisms for perpetrators to realize the aforementioned process of destruction and construction.

Raphael Lemkin can be considered the founding father of genocide literature. He introduced the concept of genocide for the first time in 1944 in his book entitled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. The book consists of a compilation of 334 laws, decrees, and regulations connected with the administration of 17 different regions and states under Nazi occupation between 13 March 1938 and 13 November 1942.

As such, Lemkin did not introduce the concept of genocide together with barbaric practices like torture, oppression, burning, destruction, and mass killing observed in all genocides, but through a book quoting and analyzing legal texts. Could this be a coincidence?

Given its importance, it is necessary to stress this one more time; the year that Lemkin completed the writing of his book (1943), he already knew of all the crimes perpetrated by Nazi Germany. However, he did not present the concept of genocide in a framework elucidated by these crimes. On the contrary, he introduced it through some laws and decrees that were published on how to administer occupied territories and that perhaps, in the logic of war, might be considered “normal.”

We cannot say that this situation accords well with our present way of understanding genocide. The general perception is that genocide is the collapse of a normally functioning legal system; it is the product of the deviation of a system from the “normal” path. According to this point of view, genocide means that institutions of “civilization” are not working and are replaced by barbarism.

Lemkin, however, seems to be saying the complete opposite; that genocide is hidden in ordinary legal texts. By doing this, it is as if he is telling us not to look for the traces of genocide as barbaric manifestations that can be defined as inhuman, but to follow their trail in legal texts. Genocide as a phenomenon that fits into the legal system – this is an interesting definition.

A series of laws and decrees, known as the Law of Abandoned Properties (Emval-i Metruke Kanunları) were issued during the Ottoman and Turkish Republican periods. They were concerned with the belongings left behind by the Ottoman Armenians who were deported in 1915.

Most of the properties were distributed to Muslim refugees from the Balkans and Caucasia at the time. Central and local politicians and bureaucrats of the Union and Progress Party also took advantage of the properties, as well as hundreds of local employees, as the process of administering and selling the properties usually involved considerable administrative efforts.

Economic discrimination and plunder contributed directly to the CUP’s process of destruction in a variety of ways. At the direct level of implementation, the prospect of booty helped to motivate local collaborators in the massacres and the deportations orchestrated by the CUP security forces.

Similar to the policy of Nazi leaders with regards to the “Aryan”ization of Jewish property during the Holocaust, the CUP aimed to have complete control over the confiscation and expropriation of Armenian properties for the economic interests of the state, but could not prevent corruption. As such, the widespread participation of the local population as beneficiaries served to spread complicity and legitimacy to the CUP’s actions.

It should be emphasized that corruption was fairly rife among bureaucrats and officers of the Abandoned Properties Commissions and Liquidation Commissions, who were the responsible actors for administering and confiscating properties under the supervision and for the advantage of the state - as was the case during the “Aryan”ization of Jewish property.

A number of leading members of the Central Committee of the Union and Progress Party, as well as CUP-oriented governors and mutasarrıfs, seized a great deal of property, especially those belonging to affluent Armenians in many vilayets. According to one argument, CUP leaders also utilized Armenian property and wealth to meet the deportation expenses.

After the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1926, the Turkish Grand National Assembly passed a law. This law was promulgated and enforced on 27 June 1926. According to this law, Turkish government officers, politicians, and bureaucrats who were executed as a result of their roles in the Armenian deportations or who were murdered by Dashnaks, were declared “national heroes,” and the so-called “abandoned properties” of Armenians were given to their families. And in 1928, the Turkish Republic introduced a new regulation that granted muhacirs or Muslim refugees who were using Armenian properties the right to have the title deeds of those properties, which included houses, land, agricultural land and shops.

As such, a variety of actors and institutions seized the opportunity. Economic motivation was always present and enabled CUP central actors to carry out their ultra-nationalist ideological policies against Armenians. The process of genocide and deportation directed at the Armenians was, in fact, put into practice by local notables and provincial elites. These local actors prospered through their new acquisitions, transforming them into the new wealthy social stratum.

In this respect, the Union and Progress Party’s genocide and deportation decree on 27 May 1915 had a social basis through the practice of effective power, control, and support mechanism(s) at the local level.

The distribution of a great amount of the “abandoned property” provided a useful incentive that reinforced hatred for local Armenians. And as Lemkin noted, the participation of local people is a necessary condition to ensure the effectiveness of genocidal policies. Planned extermination of all members of a given category of people is impossible without the involvement of their neighbors - those who know who’s who in a community.

Therefore, the entire process of confiscation can be evaluated and construed as both an ideological principle and economic motivation. These two aspects cannot be separated from each other. In some instances, ideology played a more significant role than economic motivation, and in other instances economic interests came into prominence.

The essence of all the laws and regulations issued was the erasure of all traces of the Armenians from Anatolian soil. Perhaps the physical annihilation of the Armenians was necessary to achieve this goal, but it was not sufficient in and of itself. The use of the legal system was as important as, if not even more important than their physical annihilation.

The law, in particular the Law of Abandoned Properties, became the most important tool of the Ottoman Empire. Economic interests blinded people from the plight of their fellows who were made to disappear. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  The reproduction of authoritarian politics in the AKP era Turkey's presidential election candidates Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Almighty Country or region:  Turkey Topics:  Conflict Democracy and government
Categories: les flux rss

Securitisation not the response to deaths at sea

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 13:35

The European Union has responded to the humanitarian crisis presented by refugee deaths in the Mediterranean—but only through the lens of border control.

Sea of humanity: supporters of Amnesty International and other NGOs marching in Brussels as the EU summiteers met. Flickr / Amnesty International. All rights reserved.

This week an EU-wide control operation to detect, detain and possibly deport irregular migrants has been taking place. Operation ‘Amberlight’ is a collaborative effort between the EU border-control agency Frontex and national police forces, aimed at collecting information and checking third-country nationals’ legal status. Non-European, undocumented migrants are the main target of these controls.  

Simultaneously, the worst tragedy yet has occurred in the Mediterranean, with more migrant deaths in the last week than in the whole of 2013—to which the EU’s response is a minimal commitment to expand search-and-rescue operations and mount more border controls. These two parallel occurrences sum up the EU’s current approach to migration: securitisation at all costs, even if it means thousands of human beings, fleeing war and desperation, dying.

During the last similar operation, ‘Mos Maiorum’, in October 2014, more than 19,000 irregular migrants were intercepted but very little was officially reported on the protection of migrants’ fundamental rights. At the time, local activists and civil-society organisations denounced the risk of arbitrary detentions, poor living conditions in detention and worrying complaints of racial profiling.

Indeed, many people reported they had been ‘stopped and searched’, based on the colour of their skin. Targeting people because they fit a particular stereotype leads to racist practices, especially when police forces use European institutions’ decisions as an instrument for discrimination.

Even if over the last three years such operations have become an established tradition, this is the first time that the Council of the European Union has allowed Frontex to also monitor sanctions imposed by the EU directive defining the ‘facilitation of illegal immigration’. It is not yet clear if the penalties will be applied only to migrants or also to those—abusive employers—exploiting their irregular status.

Shown the exit door

It is no coincidence that Amberlight has been taking place at the same time as the tragedies in the Mediterranean. With the ‘Fortress Europe’ approach of the EU’s migration agenda, it does not matter if someone is fleeing a country to demand international protection or is seeking a new home in a member state: current policies aim to ensure any kind of migrant is shown the borders’ exit door. Europe is locked.

Securitisation measures will not solve the structural issues linked to migration and asylum. In the context of Mos Maiorum alone, some 11,000 of those intercepted requested asylum then or later. People in need will always find alternative routes to reach international protection.

The reinforcement of border controls and operations co-ordinated by Frontex do not put human rights and dignity at the heart of potential solutions. In recent days, more than 1,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean but even when someone is fortunate enough to enter the EU and to request asylum or a residence status on European soil, the administrative procedures are challenging and leave many applicants in despair.

the EU’s current approach to migration: securitisation at all costs, even if it means thousands of human beings, fleeing war and desperation, dying

Two weeks ago, Belgium witnessed the suicide of two asylum-seekers who could no longer stand the long and severe residence application standards and the lack of a real, supportive integration system. And the Dutch Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum-Seekers reported that 13 asylum-seekers committed suicide in just the first half of 2014.

Such control operations continue to fight an imaginary threat. Migrants and asylum-seekers should be treated as victims, not criminals. The ten-point action plan on migration released last Monday by the joint EU Foreign and Home Affairs Council and the four priority areas for action agreed by EU leaders at the special European summit on Thursday only confirm the EU’s real intention: maintaining border surveillance through naval missions (which can again lead to push-backs at sea or at any other border), rather than putting forward concrete solutions for a collapsing migration system.

The EU’s minimalist approach (huge means and resources to declare a war on smugglers rather than focusing on saving lives) does not address the urgency of responding to migration challenges. Keeping people beyond Europe’s borders will push them to flee through other potential dangerous routes.

Coercive measures

The Mediterranean crisis is also being exploited to put back on the table two policies which do not respect a fundamental rights approach. The first is fingerprinting of migrants and asylum-seekers. Many organisations have already reported the use of coercive measures in the collection of migrants’ digital fingerprints. The EU should ensure that this practice is undertaken without use of violence or physical force and in full respect of data-protection standards.

The second is forced returns. This is controversial and recent assessments confirm that many fundamental rights issues are not properly addressed: inhumane detention conditions, the mechanisms of entry bans (if the migrant wants to return to Europe) and how these third-country nationals are to be reintegrated into their home country. By implementing this return policy, the EU is closing its eyes to the fact that most asylum-seekers are not on the move for economic reasons but because they are fleeing regions where they face war and oppression.

EU institutions should not only improve measures for safe and legal avenues for migrants and asylum-seekers but should also provide clear guidelines for sharing responsibility for asylum-seekers among the member states. From a human-rights perspective, the EU should also better oversee the work of Frontex. A mechanism enabling individual complaints of violations of fundamental rights would demonstrate the will to improve the agency’s accountability.

The new European Migration Agenda, due to be presented in May, is an opportunity for the EU to finally act upon its values and commitment to fundamental rights. Let’s hope it won’t miss the boat this time around.

Like us on Facebook to follow the latest openSecurity articles, and tell the editors what we should publish next

Sideboxes Related stories:  Crisis in the Mediterranean: Europe must change course What the EU must do now to halt this tragedy on its shores Europe's war on migrants Migrants in the Mediterranean: mourning deaths, not saving lives Country or region:  EU Topics:  International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Securitisation not the response to deaths at sea

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 13:35

The European Union has responded to the humanitarian crisis presented by refugee deaths in the Mediterranean—but only through the lens of border control.

Sea of humanity: supporters of Amnesty International and other NGOs marching in Brussels as the EU summiteers met. Flickr / Amnesty International. All rights reserved.

This week an EU-wide control operation to detect, detain and possibly deport irregular migrants has been taking place. Operation ‘Amberlight’ is a collaborative effort between the EU border-control agency Frontex and national police forces, aimed at collecting information and checking third-country nationals’ legal status. Non-European, undocumented migrants are the main target of these controls.  

Simultaneously, the worst tragedy yet has occurred in the Mediterranean, with more migrant deaths in the last week than in the whole of 2013—to which the EU’s response is a minimal commitment to expand search-and-rescue operations and mount more border controls. These two parallel occurrences sum up the EU’s current approach to migration: securitisation at all costs, even if it means thousands of human beings, fleeing war and desperation, dying.

During the last similar operation, ‘Mos Maiorum’, in October 2014, more than 19,000 irregular migrants were intercepted but very little was officially reported on the protection of migrants’ fundamental rights. At the time, local activists and civil-society organisations denounced the risk of arbitrary detentions, poor living conditions in detention and worrying complaints of racial profiling.

Indeed, many people reported they had been ‘stopped and searched’, based on the colour of their skin. Targeting people because they fit a particular stereotype leads to racist practices, especially when police forces use European institutions’ decisions as an instrument for discrimination.

Even if over the last three years such operations have become an established tradition, this is the first time that the Council of the European Union has allowed Frontex to also monitor sanctions imposed by the EU directive defining the ‘facilitation of illegal immigration’. It is not yet clear if the penalties will be applied only to migrants or also to those—abusive employers—exploiting their irregular status.

Shown the exit door

It is no coincidence that Amberlight has been taking place at the same time as the tragedies in the Mediterranean. With the ‘Fortress Europe’ approach of the EU’s migration agenda, it does not matter if someone is fleeing a country to demand international protection or is seeking a new home in a member state: current policies aim to ensure any kind of migrant is shown the borders’ exit door. Europe is locked.

Securitisation measures will not solve the structural issues linked to migration and asylum. In the context of Mos Maiorum alone, some 11,000 of those intercepted requested asylum then or later. People in need will always find alternative routes to reach international protection.

The reinforcement of border controls and operations co-ordinated by Frontex do not put human rights and dignity at the heart of potential solutions. In recent days, more than 1,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean but even when someone is fortunate enough to enter the EU and to request asylum or a residence status on European soil, the administrative procedures are challenging and leave many applicants in despair.

the EU’s current approach to migration: securitisation at all costs, even if it means thousands of human beings, fleeing war and desperation, dying

Two weeks ago, Belgium witnessed the suicide of two asylum-seekers who could no longer stand the long and severe residence application standards and the lack of a real, supportive integration system. And the Dutch Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum-Seekers reported that 13 asylum-seekers committed suicide in just the first half of 2014.

Such control operations continue to fight an imaginary threat. Migrants and asylum-seekers should be treated as victims, not criminals. The ten-point action plan on migration released last Monday by the joint EU Foreign and Home Affairs Council and the four priority areas for action agreed by EU leaders at the special European summit on Thursday only confirm the EU’s real intention: maintaining border surveillance through naval missions (which can again lead to push-backs at sea or at any other border), rather than putting forward concrete solutions for a collapsing migration system.

The EU’s minimalist approach (huge means and resources to declare a war on smugglers rather than focusing on saving lives) does not address the urgency of responding to migration challenges. Keeping people beyond Europe’s borders will push them to flee through other potential dangerous routes.

Coercive measures

The Mediterranean crisis is also being exploited to put back on the table two policies which do not respect a fundamental rights approach. The first is fingerprinting of migrants and asylum-seekers. Many organisations have already reported the use of coercive measures in the collection of migrants’ digital fingerprints. The EU should ensure that this practice is undertaken without use of violence or physical force and in full respect of data-protection standards.

The second is forced returns. This is controversial and recent assessments confirm that many fundamental rights issues are not properly addressed: inhumane detention conditions, the mechanisms of entry bans (if the migrant wants to return to Europe) and how these third-country nationals are to be reintegrated into their home country. By implementing this return policy, the EU is closing its eyes to the fact that most asylum-seekers are not on the move for economic reasons but because they are fleeing regions where they face war and oppression.

EU institutions should not only improve measures for safe and legal avenues for migrants and asylum-seekers but should also provide clear guidelines for sharing responsibility for asylum-seekers among the member states. From a human-rights perspective, the EU should also better oversee the work of Frontex. A mechanism enabling individual complaints of violations of fundamental rights would demonstrate the will to improve the agency’s accountability.

The new European Migration Agenda, due to be presented in May, is an opportunity for the EU to finally act upon its values and commitment to fundamental rights. Let’s hope it won’t miss the boat this time around.

Like us on Facebook to follow the latest openSecurity articles, and tell the editors what we should publish next

Sideboxes Related stories:  Crisis in the Mediterranean: Europe must change course What the EU must do now to halt this tragedy on its shores Europe's war on migrants Migrants in the Mediterranean: mourning deaths, not saving lives Country or region:  EU Topics:  International politics
Categories: les flux rss

The BBC Trust: a work in progress

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 12:57

A chorus of critics is calling for the abolition of the BBC Trust. Yes, it may be flawed but this body could yet be reformed to fulfil its public service function.


Jon Zeff ex-Director of the BBC Trust who abanoned his £180k job after just nine-months. Image: public domain

Poor old BBC Trust, possibly the most beleaguered and battered public body de jour. Last week’s announcement that director Jon Zeff was fleeing before the Trust’s predicted post election nuking, was just the latest in a sorry line of assaults: The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), DCMS select committee, Chancellor George Osborne, Grant Shapps (and any number of Tories), industrialist Howard Davies, the Royal Television Society, Financial Times, Commercial Broadcasters Association, a smattering of academics - have all gone public with their condemnation of the BBC’s less-than-a-decade-old sovereign body. Even the new Chair of the Trust Rona Fairhead appeared to suggest suicide was the least bad option.

Trustees and Trust members are understandably keen to press upon anyone who will listen that while criticism of the Trust is easy, governing the UK’s biggest intervention into the media market is an altogether more tricky and nuanced task. Oh, and that not everything they’ve been blamed for is their fault.

When I published my report on the future of the BBC, Charter Renewal and PSB in February I was conscious that arguing for the retention of the Trust was both a novel and potentially foolish thing to do in the face of what appeared to be a consensus calling for its head. But I didn’t do it to court controversy, far from it. In fact, it would have been dead easy to add to the anti-Trust noise: to note the impossible task of being cheerleader and regulator; the confusion of responsibility (who do you call on in a crisis?); to record how prone to capture the Trust has proved; how all too reactive it has been when firm and proactive behaviour was called for; and so on. 

Instead, I decided that the Trust is a work in progress, flawed, in need of some new and more useful definition of its role, but nonetheless a huge improvement on what had come before, and a vital, independent, custodian of the public interest. Giving Ofcom more regulatory powers over the BBC alone does not ‘fix’ the governance issue of the BBC. Even outgoing Ofcom Chief Executive Ed Richards recognised this: 

These are different functions, which are often elided. There is a regulatory function and there is a governance function. One of the problems in this debate is that people think they are the same and I really don’t think they are, so we have to separate them out. In relation to governance, there has to be a governance model and that should not be Ofcom or anybody else. It has to be associated with and close to the BBC. The role there is to be the custodian of the licence fee on behalf of all of us and that role is going to exist whatever happens. The question is whether the trust model is effective in that regard.

Governance concerns the structures, functions, processes, and organisational traditions that have been put in place ‘to ensure that an organisation is run in such a way that it achieves its objectives in an effective and transparent manner.’ It is the ‘framework of accountability to users, stakeholders and the wider community, within which organizations take decisions, and lead and control their functions, to achieve their objectives.’ Effective governance adds value by improving the performance of the organisation through more efficient management, more strategic and equitable resource allocation and service provision, and ‘in holding the management accountable for the delivery of strategy’. This last bit is exactly what the BBC’s governing body should be doing, but has been judged not to. This is the area for reform. 

The BBC is a public institution and its governing body should therefore be demonstrably independent and accountable for its responsibilities. The idea that a public body spending upwards of £4bn a year of other people’s money can be run entirely by its board of management - even with a hawkish NAO and PAC in the background - but with no separate body to protect public interest and value is ridiculous. It’s imperative that the determination of strategy and accountability for the disposal of this funding rests with an independent, self-governing institution which itself has no interest save serving the public in the provision of public service broadcasting.

I think if you accept this then it begins to make sense to reform what we have, rather than slash, burn and re-invent. It seems perverse to me to lose all the institutional learning of the past decade, to lose the intelligence built up over that period, to destroy the relationships and the chance to learn from past mistakes. 

It’s also worth stating that a reformed Trust alone is not the whole answer to better BBC governance; wholesale reform of the BBC’s Executive function must be part of the plan too. Whereas governance is concerned with ‘doing the right thing’, management is concerned with ‘doing things right,’ and that plainly has not been the case on a number of fronts. 

So, we sort of know what doesn’t work: there is obvious confusion about who Chairs the BBC and who takes responsibility for what in a crisis. The whole of the Trust board is made up of non-execs, which leads, naturally, to questions of professional competence and capacity to implement proper corporate governance. As a former senior BBC employee once put it to me: 

The best kind of trustees are beady eyed people for whom regulation is meat and drink: university professors, economists, non-political, more independent people with substantial corporate experience who know how to get things done. The current trustees are the same kind of people who were trustees and governors before...they are variations on the great and good. They lack the necessary skills and courage. 

And then there’s the capture question. I witnessed first hand the dismissive nature with which some members of the BBC Executive treated their relationship to what is, after all, its sovereign body: poorly prepared papers, sketchy financial information, ill-preparedness for meetings, even non-appearance. 

So what works? The framework of accountability, the responsibility for ensuring that the BBC satisfies its designated public purposes and aspires to the highest standards of quality befitting its funding and status is at the heart of the Trust role. And it is right here, out of the glare of the big stuff around executive pay and digital media initiative mess ups that some of the Trust’s work has been most effective: rejecting BBC plans to close Radio 6 music because it worked for its audience and was unlike anything else on offer was the right move. Less well known, but as important, has been work on making Radio 1 and 2 more distinctive, more interesting, to serve their core audiences better. This kind of effort shows that pushing hard on quality and insisting that there need not be a trade off between distinctiveness and popularity is important work and can enhance the offer to audiences.

Pushing for television to be more distinctive has proved more difficult (outgoing Trustee David Liddiment described it as his greatest challenge) but only the Trust is positioned to do this kind of work. As David Elstein noted in an earlier post, who is holding ITV, Channel 4 and Channel Five’s feet to the fire on quality issues? No-one. Ofcom is not set up to do this kind of work. 

The Trust’s periodic reviews of impartiality - or certain aspects of output: business reporting, current affairs, coverage of the countryside etc - can and have lead to changes to individual service licences. Running public consultations to allow audiences and competitors a voice, along with impromptu reviews of individual genres, services or aspects of output add to an evidence base for judging – and, if necessary, altering – BBC service licences. BBC2, to take one example, was told to carry more international current affairs, much to the Controller’s distaste.

I would go further. One of my issues with the Trust’s work on quality of outputs is that it’s all a bit ‘after the fact’. Its reviews - by nature - report on what has gone before, rather than help shape the output in line with agreed objectives before it has been commissioned. Looked at over the past decade, not only has there been a significant reduction in the BBC’s investment in original content overall, there has also been a de-prioritisation of investment in key public service genres: music and arts, current affairs, religion and children’s programming. In the absence of a national, public conversation about the BBC’s relative prioritisation of programme genres, we should have been comforted by the knowledge that the Trust was both driving and supporting such shifts in the best interests of the licence fee payer. That cannot be said to have happened, and must therefore be judged as a failure of strategic oversight. 

The Trust should be empowered to ‘own’ the BBC strategy and should be responsible for its creation and for holding the BBC Executive Board to account for its efficient and effective implementation. The Trust should take the lead in developing and shaping the strategy for the BBC, including programme strategy, before stepping back from matters concerned simply with operational implementation (this is the task of the BBC Executive Board). 

The Trust must, however, retain sufficient independent powers of scrutiny to be able to hold the BBC Executive Board to account for the timely and appropriate implementation of agreed strategic objectives. It should hold the BBC Executive Management to proper account in establishing and maintaining a simplified and equitable strategy for programme commissioning that is based predominantly on consideration of quality. It is vital then, that the BBC Trust is fully capable of asserting its own independence from any political party, from vested interests in the commercial or other sectors, and from the interests of BBC Executives. 

The Chair of the Trust should continue to be appointed by the designated Secretary of State. But the appointments process, as for each of the Non-Executive Directors of the Trust Board, should be delegated to the civil service commission and should be open to public, impartial competition. This would create a very direct link – on a non-executive level – into the inner workings of the BBC, but would also protect the independence of the Trust Board from both political and executive interference. The job and person specification for the role should reflect their key responsibility for the governance of the Trust’s and the BBC’s affairs. Not the management of the BBC. 

The Director General of the BBC should run the day-to-day business of the BBC through the BBC Executive Board, which they would Chair. As with any other Executive Board, this Board would have powers to appoint executive and non-executive members. The Board would be responsible and accountable to the BBC Trust Board for the effective implementation of the BBC’s strategy. The Trust Board would be responsible and accountable to the Secretary of State for the overall governance of the BBC, the agreement and discharge of its PSB responsibilities, and the establishment of a coherent strategy for the BBC that ensures that this is achieved.

Both boards should be held to account for the financial affairs of the BBC through an annual independent audit undertaken by the National Audit Office. Its audit report would be a publicly available document laid before Parliament and made available to the Secretary of State. Finally, the existing governance principle of separation between the role and the activities of the BBC Trust and the BBC Executive Board (together with attendant clarity of the separation of powers, responsibilities and duties between the BBC Trust Chair and the Director General of the BBC) should be reasserted and strengthened.

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

Sideboxes Related stories:  Lose the licence fee, abolish the Trust Time to elect the BBC Trust? From service reviews to audience councils: how accountable is the BBC Trust?
Categories: les flux rss

The BBC Trust: a work in progress

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 12:57

A chorus of critics is calling for the abolition of the BBC Trust. Yes, it may be flawed but this body could yet be reformed to fulfil its public service function.


Jon Zeff ex-Director of the BBC Trust who abanoned his £180k job after just nine-months. Image: public domain

Poor old BBC Trust, possibly the most beleaguered and battered public body de jour. Last week’s announcement that director Jon Zeff was fleeing before the Trust’s predicted post election nuking, was just the latest in a sorry line of assaults: The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), DCMS select committee, Chancellor George Osborne, Grant Shapps (and any number of Tories), industrialist Howard Davies, the Royal Television Society, Financial Times, Commercial Broadcasters Association, a smattering of academics - have all gone public with their condemnation of the BBC’s less-than-a-decade-old sovereign body. Even the new Chair of the Trust Rona Fairhead appeared to suggest suicide was the least bad option.

Trustees and Trust members are understandably keen to press upon anyone who will listen that while criticism of the Trust is easy, governing the UK’s biggest intervention into the media market is an altogether more tricky and nuanced task. Oh, and that not everything they’ve been blamed for is their fault.

When I published my report on the future of the BBC, Charter Renewal and PSB in February I was conscious that arguing for the retention of the Trust was both a novel and potentially foolish thing to do in the face of what appeared to be a consensus calling for its head. But I didn’t do it to court controversy, far from it. In fact, it would have been dead easy to add to the anti-Trust noise: to note the impossible task of being cheerleader and regulator; the confusion of responsibility (who do you call on in a crisis?); to record how prone to capture the Trust has proved; how all too reactive it has been when firm and proactive behaviour was called for; and so on. 

Instead, I decided that the Trust is a work in progress, flawed, in need of some new and more useful definition of its role, but nonetheless a huge improvement on what had come before, and a vital, independent, custodian of the public interest. Giving Ofcom more regulatory powers over the BBC alone does not ‘fix’ the governance issue of the BBC. Even outgoing Ofcom Chief Executive Ed Richards recognised this: 

These are different functions, which are often elided. There is a regulatory function and there is a governance function. One of the problems in this debate is that people think they are the same and I really don’t think they are, so we have to separate them out. In relation to governance, there has to be a governance model and that should not be Ofcom or anybody else. It has to be associated with and close to the BBC. The role there is to be the custodian of the licence fee on behalf of all of us and that role is going to exist whatever happens. The question is whether the trust model is effective in that regard.

Governance concerns the structures, functions, processes, and organisational traditions that have been put in place ‘to ensure that an organisation is run in such a way that it achieves its objectives in an effective and transparent manner.’ It is the ‘framework of accountability to users, stakeholders and the wider community, within which organizations take decisions, and lead and control their functions, to achieve their objectives.’ Effective governance adds value by improving the performance of the organisation through more efficient management, more strategic and equitable resource allocation and service provision, and ‘in holding the management accountable for the delivery of strategy’. This last bit is exactly what the BBC’s governing body should be doing, but has been judged not to. This is the area for reform. 

The BBC is a public institution and its governing body should therefore be demonstrably independent and accountable for its responsibilities. The idea that a public body spending upwards of £4bn a year of other people’s money can be run entirely by its board of management - even with a hawkish NAO and PAC in the background - but with no separate body to protect public interest and value is ridiculous. It’s imperative that the determination of strategy and accountability for the disposal of this funding rests with an independent, self-governing institution which itself has no interest save serving the public in the provision of public service broadcasting.

I think if you accept this then it begins to make sense to reform what we have, rather than slash, burn and re-invent. It seems perverse to me to lose all the institutional learning of the past decade, to lose the intelligence built up over that period, to destroy the relationships and the chance to learn from past mistakes. 

It’s also worth stating that a reformed Trust alone is not the whole answer to better BBC governance; wholesale reform of the BBC’s Executive function must be part of the plan too. Whereas governance is concerned with ‘doing the right thing’, management is concerned with ‘doing things right,’ and that plainly has not been the case on a number of fronts. 

So, we sort of know what doesn’t work: there is obvious confusion about who Chairs the BBC and who takes responsibility for what in a crisis. The whole of the Trust board is made up of non-execs, which leads, naturally, to questions of professional competence and capacity to implement proper corporate governance. As a former senior BBC employee once put it to me: 

The best kind of trustees are beady eyed people for whom regulation is meat and drink: university professors, economists, non-political, more independent people with substantial corporate experience who know how to get things done. The current trustees are the same kind of people who were trustees and governors before...they are variations on the great and good. They lack the necessary skills and courage. 

And then there’s the capture question. I witnessed first hand the dismissive nature with which some members of the BBC Executive treated their relationship to what is, after all, its sovereign body: poorly prepared papers, sketchy financial information, ill-preparedness for meetings, even non-appearance. 

So what works? The framework of accountability, the responsibility for ensuring that the BBC satisfies its designated public purposes and aspires to the highest standards of quality befitting its funding and status is at the heart of the Trust role. And it is right here, out of the glare of the big stuff around executive pay and digital media initiative mess ups that some of the Trust’s work has been most effective: rejecting BBC plans to close Radio 6 music because it worked for its audience and was unlike anything else on offer was the right move. Less well known, but as important, has been work on making Radio 1 and 2 more distinctive, more interesting, to serve their core audiences better. This kind of effort shows that pushing hard on quality and insisting that there need not be a trade off between distinctiveness and popularity is important work and can enhance the offer to audiences.

Pushing for television to be more distinctive has proved more difficult (outgoing Trustee David Liddiment described it as his greatest challenge) but only the Trust is positioned to do this kind of work. As David Elstein noted in an earlier post, who is holding ITV, Channel 4 and Channel Five’s feet to the fire on quality issues? No-one. Ofcom is not set up to do this kind of work. 

The Trust’s periodic reviews of impartiality - or certain aspects of output: business reporting, current affairs, coverage of the countryside etc - can and have lead to changes to individual service licences. Running public consultations to allow audiences and competitors a voice, along with impromptu reviews of individual genres, services or aspects of output add to an evidence base for judging – and, if necessary, altering – BBC service licences. BBC2, to take one example, was told to carry more international current affairs, much to the Controller’s distaste.

I would go further. One of my issues with the Trust’s work on quality of outputs is that it’s all a bit ‘after the fact’. Its reviews - by nature - report on what has gone before, rather than help shape the output in line with agreed objectives before it has been commissioned. Looked at over the past decade, not only has there been a significant reduction in the BBC’s investment in original content overall, there has also been a de-prioritisation of investment in key public service genres: music and arts, current affairs, religion and children’s programming. In the absence of a national, public conversation about the BBC’s relative prioritisation of programme genres, we should have been comforted by the knowledge that the Trust was both driving and supporting such shifts in the best interests of the licence fee payer. That cannot be said to have happened, and must therefore be judged as a failure of strategic oversight. 

The Trust should be empowered to ‘own’ the BBC strategy and should be responsible for its creation and for holding the BBC Executive Board to account for its efficient and effective implementation. The Trust should take the lead in developing and shaping the strategy for the BBC, including programme strategy, before stepping back from matters concerned simply with operational implementation (this is the task of the BBC Executive Board). 

The Trust must, however, retain sufficient independent powers of scrutiny to be able to hold the BBC Executive Board to account for the timely and appropriate implementation of agreed strategic objectives. It should hold the BBC Executive Management to proper account in establishing and maintaining a simplified and equitable strategy for programme commissioning that is based predominantly on consideration of quality. It is vital then, that the BBC Trust is fully capable of asserting its own independence from any political party, from vested interests in the commercial or other sectors, and from the interests of BBC Executives. 

The Chair of the Trust should continue to be appointed by the designated Secretary of State. But the appointments process, as for each of the Non-Executive Directors of the Trust Board, should be delegated to the civil service commission and should be open to public, impartial competition. This would create a very direct link – on a non-executive level – into the inner workings of the BBC, but would also protect the independence of the Trust Board from both political and executive interference. The job and person specification for the role should reflect their key responsibility for the governance of the Trust’s and the BBC’s affairs. Not the management of the BBC. 

The Director General of the BBC should run the day-to-day business of the BBC through the BBC Executive Board, which they would Chair. As with any other Executive Board, this Board would have powers to appoint executive and non-executive members. The Board would be responsible and accountable to the BBC Trust Board for the effective implementation of the BBC’s strategy. The Trust Board would be responsible and accountable to the Secretary of State for the overall governance of the BBC, the agreement and discharge of its PSB responsibilities, and the establishment of a coherent strategy for the BBC that ensures that this is achieved.

Both boards should be held to account for the financial affairs of the BBC through an annual independent audit undertaken by the National Audit Office. Its audit report would be a publicly available document laid before Parliament and made available to the Secretary of State. Finally, the existing governance principle of separation between the role and the activities of the BBC Trust and the BBC Executive Board (together with attendant clarity of the separation of powers, responsibilities and duties between the BBC Trust Chair and the Director General of the BBC) should be reasserted and strengthened.

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

Sideboxes Related stories:  Lose the licence fee, abolish the Trust Time to elect the BBC Trust? From service reviews to audience councils: how accountable is the BBC Trust?
Categories: les flux rss

After Tunis. What next for the World Social Forum?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 12:20

One of the arguments is that as the crisis has hit the North, it is time for South-based activists to travel to teach their northern comrades how to deal with debt crisis and precarity.


The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

 

 

World Social Forum 2015. Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.The World Social Forum 2015 was held in Tunis during the last week of March. An atmosphere of heightened political violence both in Tunisia and in nearby regions contributed to this Forum being less festive than the previous one organized two years ago also in Tunis. WSF 2013 benefited from the optimistic spirits of the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, as a space for transnational learning and planning of campaigns, WSF 2015 was well worth the effort.

Unlike many other global meetings, the WSF does not produce any general conclusions that would aim at representing the variety of themes or movements. The lack of a final document has been a core element of the WSF open-space method since its first forum in 2001. Initial excitement with the idea that nobody can speak in the name of the WSF has gradually engendered increasing frustration among those who feel that the WSF cannot thus speak at all.

WSF may not have a united voice, but the visions of alternative futures, furious expressions of concern and calls for various kinds of action express the multitude of voices of the Forum. In Tunis, the climate justice campaigns were particularly dynamic and present in many spaces. Demands for the cancellation of illegitimate and odious debt got a new boost from the Greek situation. Even if any general expression of solidarity with the Greek government would go against the traditional WSF method, much learning and some campaign building around the Greek struggles took place.

Classic complaints about lack of convergence between different themes were often justified. Yet, the chants of “system change, not climate change” heard in the WSF venue expressed that at least in some parts of the climate campaigns, connections with capitalism, patriarchy and other seemingly separate topics were present.

According to the first estimates of the local organizing committee, there were 45,000 – 50, 000 participants, 5000 organizations and 1200 activities. The participants came from 121 countries, and as always the local and regional participation was the strongest.

Of the neighboring countries, the presence of Algerians was the most notable one. To counter the opposition-minded human rights activists, the government of Algeria had according to many sources provided financial support for over a thousand more loyal participants, often recognizable for the pro-governmental symbols of their hats and shirts. The idea was also to promote the government’s position on the Algerian shale gas reserves as well as on Western Sahara. While this was widely considered a dubious example of how governments intervene in “civil society”, at the same time it could also be seen as a sign of the regional political relevance of the WSF.

From across the Atlantic, Brazilians continued to have a relatively strong presence in the forum. Apart from many of the original initiators of the WSF process in Brazil, there were also various Afro-Brazilian activists. One of the new elements in the Brazilian context was the corruption scandal around the oil giant Petrobras. Over many years, the state controlled company has been one channel through which the Brazilian government has provided support for the WSF process. The paraphernalia of Petrobras in this forum was understandably less visible than before.

Unlike in some earlier forums, the draft program of sessions was available on the website already weeks before the event. Despite this sign of organizational efficiency, legitimate complaints and frustrations were also heard. Some had to do with the difficulties of practical organization such as lack of maps and insufficient interpretation facilities. Bad weather also played a role. Local volunteers, who did a great job in providing assistance for participants searching for events, organized a protest about not getting the food and shelter they had been promised. When it comes to various kinds of labor relations, the WSF has had continuous ongoing  problems in practicing what it preaches.

The massacre at the Bardo Museum, allegedly by Islamist gunmen, less than a week before the WSF 2015 led to a tense debate about the opening march. Local WSF organizers announced that the march would be held under the slogan “Peoples of the World United Against Terrorism”. Various foreign participants soon voiced their concern about the terminology. For many, that formulation smacked too much of the US-led “war against terror”.

Finally, the local organizers sent a message to the WSF International Council that they had devised a reformulated and much longer slogan Peoples of the World United for Freedom, Equality, Social Justice and Peace. In Solidarity with Tunisian People and all Victims of Terrorism against all Forms of Oppression. The Tunisian media, however, mostly reported on the march as if no change on the slogan had been made. The focus on the antiterrorist message was useful for the aim of making the WSF more compelling for Tunisians who fear the rise of violent forces in their country.                     

World Social Forum goes north

The International Council of the WSF met for two days in Tunis immediately after the mostly positive WSF. Where next? - was the key item of the agenda.

The most concrete proposal came from Montreal. One of the issues at stake is the identity of the WSF as a South-based initiative. All main events of the WSF have been organized in the South: Brazil, India and different parts of Africa (the polycentric format of 2006 divided the main WSF between Karachi, Caracas and Mali). Apart from the more general identity question, a key problem in organizing the WSF in Europe or North America derives from the visa difficulties many Southern activists would face.

In overall ideological terms, there has been increasing willingness among the WSF decision-makers to organize the main event in the North. One of the arguments is that as the crisis has hit the North, it is time for the South-based activists to travel to teach their Northern comrades how to deal with debt crisis, precarious labor and other issues that have traditionally been associated mostly with the South.

The decision of the International Council, sealed with a generalized applause amounting to some kind of consensus, was that the next World Social Forum would indeed be organized in Montreal, most likely in August 2016. The same decision emphasized the importance of the Thematic WSF in Porto Alegre in January 2016, as well as the seminar on social movement strategies to be organized in Greece at some point within the coming year.

It seems likely that WSF 2016 in Montreal will face problems in securing massive participation especially from the Global South. This is clearly a problem, but perhaps it will also create new incentives for finding creative solutions that might be helpful for the future of the WSF. For many years there has been talk about making more effective and politically meaningful use of the Internet in the WSF process. Apart from minor experiments of sessions with distance participation through the Internet, the WSF has not been able to dedicate sufficient energy to cyberspace. One window of opportunity the process now faces is that Montreal might provide an important step in this direction.

Is the WSF still relevant?

The idea of an open space where movements and groups identifying with an emerging global civil society could learn about globalization and each other won more interest than many expected. Much has been learned. Many have, however, become impatient and frustrated with the incapacity of the WSF to provide more effective mechanisms for changing the world.         

The emergence of left-leaning governments in Latin America and now also in Europe has made the strategy of changing the world through political parties that conquer the state more attractive to some sectors of global activism. It has also created more pressures to include parties as legitimate participants of the WSF. This could give a politicizing boost that might help the forum process become a more effective instrument of change. Then again, as many fear, it might result in corrosive fights for hegemony within the WSF. In any case, at least some of the depoliticizing pretensions of the original WSF open-space formula need to be rethought, even if the global political should not be reduced to fighting for state power.            

Apart from state-centric strategies, other forms of politicization have also been strengthened since the birth of the WSF. These include anarchist-inspired movements and other expressions of what Breno Bringel in his typology of global cycles of mobilization calls “geopolitics of global outrage”. Since the occupations of various kinds of plazas in Cairo, New York, Madrid and elsewhere in 2011, it might have seemed that the social forums have become a thing of the past. The subsequent WSF events in Tunis, attended by various occupy and Arab Spring activists, were useful in showing the compatibility between the WSF and newer expressions of activism. As many expressions of the latter have tended to be more specifically localized, the WSF has provided a transnational meeting place for at least some of them.

Conditions for communication between movements have also changed since 2001. Face-to-face meetings are still important, but especially large-scale processes such as the WSF or anything that might replace it need to find more effective ways to use communication technology to facilitate future meetings and decision-making. In this, the WSF has much to learn from the newer cycle of mobilizations.

It has become a commonplace to state that we live in a different world from the one inhabited by the Brazilians (and some others) who started organizing the first WSF fifteen years ago. Some things, such as the ones described above, have clearly changed. Yet, in terms of creating a new kind of democratic world that the WSF Charter of Principles vaguely outlines, the period has been brief and without major global transformations.

There are good reasons to believe that the social and physical limits to the expansion of capitalism, including the ecological crisis, imply that we will in this century face much greater global turbulence than the one the WSF has lived with thus far. Whatever the future of the WSF itself, we can learn from its achievements and contradictions to prepare for the tasks ahead. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Beyond the square: changing dynamics at the World Social Forum Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government Equality International politics
Categories: les flux rss

After Tunis. What next for the World Social Forum?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 12:20

One of the arguments is that as the crisis has hit the North, it is time for South-based activists to travel to teach their northern comrades how to deal with debt crisis and precarity.


The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

 

 

World Social Forum 2015. Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.The World Social Forum 2015 was held in Tunis during the last week of March. An atmosphere of heightened political violence both in Tunisia and in nearby regions contributed to this Forum being less festive than the previous one organized two years ago also in Tunis. WSF 2013 benefited from the optimistic spirits of the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, as a space for transnational learning and planning of campaigns, WSF 2015 was well worth the effort.

Unlike many other global meetings, the WSF does not produce any general conclusions that would aim at representing the variety of themes or movements. The lack of a final document has been a core element of the WSF open-space method since its first forum in 2001. Initial excitement with the idea that nobody can speak in the name of the WSF has gradually engendered increasing frustration among those who feel that the WSF cannot thus speak at all.

WSF may not have a united voice, but the visions of alternative futures, furious expressions of concern and calls for various kinds of action express the multitude of voices of the Forum. In Tunis, the climate justice campaigns were particularly dynamic and present in many spaces. Demands for the cancellation of illegitimate and odious debt got a new boost from the Greek situation. Even if any general expression of solidarity with the Greek government would go against the traditional WSF method, much learning and some campaign building around the Greek struggles took place.

Classic complaints about lack of convergence between different themes were often justified. Yet, the chants of “system change, not climate change” heard in the WSF venue expressed that at least in some parts of the climate campaigns, connections with capitalism, patriarchy and other seemingly separate topics were present.

According to the first estimates of the local organizing committee, there were 45,000 – 50, 000 participants, 5000 organizations and 1200 activities. The participants came from 121 countries, and as always the local and regional participation was the strongest.

Of the neighboring countries, the presence of Algerians was the most notable one. To counter the opposition-minded human rights activists, the government of Algeria had according to many sources provided financial support for over a thousand more loyal participants, often recognizable for the pro-governmental symbols of their hats and shirts. The idea was also to promote the government’s position on the Algerian shale gas reserves as well as on Western Sahara. While this was widely considered a dubious example of how governments intervene in “civil society”, at the same time it could also be seen as a sign of the regional political relevance of the WSF.

From across the Atlantic, Brazilians continued to have a relatively strong presence in the forum. Apart from many of the original initiators of the WSF process in Brazil, there were also various Afro-Brazilian activists. One of the new elements in the Brazilian context was the corruption scandal around the oil giant Petrobras. Over many years, the state controlled company has been one channel through which the Brazilian government has provided support for the WSF process. The paraphernalia of Petrobras in this forum was understandably less visible than before.

Unlike in some earlier forums, the draft program of sessions was available on the website already weeks before the event. Despite this sign of organizational efficiency, legitimate complaints and frustrations were also heard. Some had to do with the difficulties of practical organization such as lack of maps and insufficient interpretation facilities. Bad weather also played a role. Local volunteers, who did a great job in providing assistance for participants searching for events, organized a protest about not getting the food and shelter they had been promised. When it comes to various kinds of labor relations, the WSF has had continuous ongoing  problems in practicing what it preaches.

The massacre at the Bardo Museum, allegedly by Islamist gunmen, less than a week before the WSF 2015 led to a tense debate about the opening march. Local WSF organizers announced that the march would be held under the slogan “Peoples of the World United Against Terrorism”. Various foreign participants soon voiced their concern about the terminology. For many, that formulation smacked too much of the US-led “war against terror”.

Finally, the local organizers sent a message to the WSF International Council that they had devised a reformulated and much longer slogan Peoples of the World United for Freedom, Equality, Social Justice and Peace. In Solidarity with Tunisian People and all Victims of Terrorism against all Forms of Oppression. The Tunisian media, however, mostly reported on the march as if no change on the slogan had been made. The focus on the antiterrorist message was useful for the aim of making the WSF more compelling for Tunisians who fear the rise of violent forces in their country.                     

World Social Forum goes north

The International Council of the WSF met for two days in Tunis immediately after the mostly positive WSF. Where next? - was the key item of the agenda.

The most concrete proposal came from Montreal. One of the issues at stake is the identity of the WSF as a South-based initiative. All main events of the WSF have been organized in the South: Brazil, India and different parts of Africa (the polycentric format of 2006 divided the main WSF between Karachi, Caracas and Mali). Apart from the more general identity question, a key problem in organizing the WSF in Europe or North America derives from the visa difficulties many Southern activists would face.

In overall ideological terms, there has been increasing willingness among the WSF decision-makers to organize the main event in the North. One of the arguments is that as the crisis has hit the North, it is time for the South-based activists to travel to teach their Northern comrades how to deal with debt crisis, precarious labor and other issues that have traditionally been associated mostly with the South.

The decision of the International Council, sealed with a generalized applause amounting to some kind of consensus, was that the next World Social Forum would indeed be organized in Montreal, most likely in August 2016. The same decision emphasized the importance of the Thematic WSF in Porto Alegre in January 2016, as well as the seminar on social movement strategies to be organized in Greece at some point within the coming year.

It seems likely that WSF 2016 in Montreal will face problems in securing massive participation especially from the Global South. This is clearly a problem, but perhaps it will also create new incentives for finding creative solutions that might be helpful for the future of the WSF. For many years there has been talk about making more effective and politically meaningful use of the Internet in the WSF process. Apart from minor experiments of sessions with distance participation through the Internet, the WSF has not been able to dedicate sufficient energy to cyberspace. One window of opportunity the process now faces is that Montreal might provide an important step in this direction.

Is the WSF still relevant?

The idea of an open space where movements and groups identifying with an emerging global civil society could learn about globalization and each other won more interest than many expected. Much has been learned. Many have, however, become impatient and frustrated with the incapacity of the WSF to provide more effective mechanisms for changing the world.         

The emergence of left-leaning governments in Latin America and now also in Europe has made the strategy of changing the world through political parties that conquer the state more attractive to some sectors of global activism. It has also created more pressures to include parties as legitimate participants of the WSF. This could give a politicizing boost that might help the forum process become a more effective instrument of change. Then again, as many fear, it might result in corrosive fights for hegemony within the WSF. In any case, at least some of the depoliticizing pretensions of the original WSF open-space formula need to be rethought, even if the global political should not be reduced to fighting for state power.            

Apart from state-centric strategies, other forms of politicization have also been strengthened since the birth of the WSF. These include anarchist-inspired movements and other expressions of what Breno Bringel in his typology of global cycles of mobilization calls “geopolitics of global outrage”. Since the occupations of various kinds of plazas in Cairo, New York, Madrid and elsewhere in 2011, it might have seemed that the social forums have become a thing of the past. The subsequent WSF events in Tunis, attended by various occupy and Arab Spring activists, were useful in showing the compatibility between the WSF and newer expressions of activism. As many expressions of the latter have tended to be more specifically localized, the WSF has provided a transnational meeting place for at least some of them.

Conditions for communication between movements have also changed since 2001. Face-to-face meetings are still important, but especially large-scale processes such as the WSF or anything that might replace it need to find more effective ways to use communication technology to facilitate future meetings and decision-making. In this, the WSF has much to learn from the newer cycle of mobilizations.

It has become a commonplace to state that we live in a different world from the one inhabited by the Brazilians (and some others) who started organizing the first WSF fifteen years ago. Some things, such as the ones described above, have clearly changed. Yet, in terms of creating a new kind of democratic world that the WSF Charter of Principles vaguely outlines, the period has been brief and without major global transformations.

There are good reasons to believe that the social and physical limits to the expansion of capitalism, including the ecological crisis, imply that we will in this century face much greater global turbulence than the one the WSF has lived with thus far. Whatever the future of the WSF itself, we can learn from its achievements and contradictions to prepare for the tasks ahead. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Beyond the square: changing dynamics at the World Social Forum Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government Equality International politics
Categories: les flux rss

The irreplaceables in Central Asia

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 11:10

In Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the authorities don’t even have to stuff the ballot boxes, their presidents have done everything they can to appear irreplaceable.

In post-Soviet Central Asia, presidential elections are routine affairs. In a region where power has very seldom been transferred at the ballot box and where governments and opposition simply do not talk to one another, competitive elections have come to display some very paradoxical features.

While the multi-party appearance of Central Asia’s elections has been almost entirely fictional, their multi-candidate nature has often been farcical. There has been more than one occasion in which candidates have publicly expressed support for the incumbent leader. Take the case of Kazakhstani politician Mels Yeleusizov, who reportedly advanced an environmentalist agenda for the presidential election of April 2011: his vote – as he candidly admitted while leaving the polling station – was cast in favour of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Likewise, take a look at Uzbek presidential hopeful Abdulhafiz Jalalov, who did not hesitate to vote for incumbent leader Islam Karimov in the 2000 presidential election. Rather than respond to the electorate’s democratic rights, Central Asia’s electoral practice responds to the power preservation priorities of the regimes which emerged in the region since the early 1990s.

Electoral tricks

Holding irregular elections remains a recurrent feature of contemporary non-democratic politics: from Vladimir Putin’s inflated victory of March 2012 to the election of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in post-(counter)revolutionary Egypt, there are many ways in which electoral institutions continue to be violated across the globe. Post-Soviet Central Asia, to all intents and purposes, has elevated this authoritarian practice to another level.

In Kazakhstan – where a presidential election is scheduled for 26 April 2015 – the ruling regime engaged in a systematic strategy of early voting: the 2005 and 2011 elections, as well as the 2015 vote, have been held before the constitutional conclusion of the mandate, in order to extend Nazarbayev’s long-term presidency through ‘popular’ consensus.

The Uzbek leadership dispensed with re-electing Karimov in 1996, when a referendum extended the president’s mandate until 2000. When electoral tricks won’t do, Central Asia’s regimes resorted to constitutional amendments to prop up their leaders. In 2011, the length of Uzbekistan’s presidential term was curtailed from seven to five years. Presidential terms of different lengths are regarded in Uzbekistan as being not consecutive: the 2011 reform was therefore meant to extend Karimov’s rule for another decade. The Kazakhstani Constitution, on the other hand, allows Nazarbayev – as the state’s first post-independence leader – to be re-elected as many times as he likes, ignoring the limit of two presidential mandates that is imposed on every other eligible citizen. 

President Nazarbayev (left) and President Karimov (right) at a meeting in Astana in 2011. (c) RIA Novosti/Mikhail Klimentyev

Holding invariably irregular elections remains a recurrent feature of contemporary non-democratic politics.

In Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (as well as in other parts of Central Asia), presidential elections have been thus reduced to a ritual, sanitised mechanism, in which incumbency is systematically translated into irreplaceability. This lens is particularly appropriate if we are to make sense of the current round of elections that is shaping the region’s political landscape in early 2015.

On 29 March, Uzbekistan re-elected 77-year-old Islam Karimov for another five-year term after winning a deeply flawed election, reportedly receiving 90% of the total vote. A similar result is unanimously expected to emerge in late April from the Kazakhstani election, in which two figurehead candidates, who are currently engaged in extremely low-key campaigns, are in no position to threaten, let alone defeat, incumbent president Nazarbayev. 

Irreplaceability

Two strikingly similar regime-driven discourses of irreplaceability have been produced during the equally fictional electoral campaigns that unfolded in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in early 2015. 

In the very little campaign space they were allowed to occupy, the three regime-sanctioned candidates that ran against Karimov – and, together, garnered no more than 8% of the total votes – articulated a set of narratives that focussed on stability, implying that expert leadership is what Uzbekistan ultimately needs. Theirs, in other words, was hardly a call for change.

In Kazakhstan – where the economy is uncomfortably sitting between a never-ending monetary crisis and the daunting prospect of long-term low oil prices – the incumbent president is exorcising the spectre of future economic uncertainties by noting the paradisical lifestyle that Kazakhstan’s population is reportedly enjoying under his leadership. In this narrative, the organisation of yet another snap election is presented as a necessary step towards the implementation of Nurly Zhol [Shining Path] – the economic programme through which the regime intends to tackle the many economic challenges to come.

In both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, leadership incumbency is central to two parallel discourses of danger, in which domestic politics without Karimov and Nazarbayev looks to be unpredictable, chaotic and, ultimately, very unstable. The leaders’ irreplaceability is integral to the stability of the state in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. 

Succession

But in holding the 2015 presidential elections, the regimes in Tashkent and Astana aren't concerned with state stability. There is one more important dimension to be explored if we are to really capture the ultimate end sought by the re-election of Karimov and, eventually, Nazarbayev.

This round of presidential elections is organised during what is thought to be the political twilight of the two Central Asian leaders: Karimov, who was born in January 1938, has been ruling Uzbekistan since June 1986, while Nazarbayev, who is turning 75 in July, has also been at the helm since the late Soviet era. Two inevitable processes of political succession remain the core political issues in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. As counterintuitive as it might possibly seem, re-electing ageing leaders is currently the most viable way to eventually ensure smooth power transfers in the two political systems. 

Yet when analysed in relation to the two eventual power transitions, Kazakhstani and Uzbek politics appear to be somewhat different. 

Uzbekistan

The re-election of Islam Karimov took place against the backdrop of a protracted intra-elite struggle that involved, throughout 2013-2014, regime segments close to the president’s inner circle and the National Security Service (SNB).

The most evident outcome of this struggle was represented by the traumatic marginalisation of Gulnara Karimova – the president’s controversial and eccentric daughter – from the inner elite circle, removing her from the list of potential presidential successors. Most importantly, the 2013-14 turmoil re-calibrated how power is understood and articulated in Uzbekistan’s power corridors, which, it ought to be noted, remain rather secretive and controlled. Islam Karimov currently has to take into consideration demands and priorities of the SNB, which is now widely acknowledged as a king-maker vis-à-vis Uzbekistan’s eventual transition.

There are many uncontrolled rumours outlining the possibility of a leadership change mid-way through this presidential term, perhaps on the occasion of the president’s eightieth birthday, leaving Karimov in an honorary position of semi-retirement, with some other cadre acquiring increasing decision-making responsibilities and exerting more executive power. 

 The re-election of an ageing, and possibly sick, leader remains the best option to increase regime durability.

If there is an appointed successor – and this, due to the fragmentation of Uzbek politics, remains a big if – he (or, less likely, she) is yet to go public: in this scenario the re-election of an ageing, and possibly sick, leader remains the best option to increase regime durability.

This is not to say, however, that Karimov has been re-elected against his will or that he remains an inconsequential political leader. On the contrary, the president continues to wield substantial domestic influence: his re-election, while ensuring the short-term stability of his supporting elite, left the presidential persona at the epicentre of Uzbek politics and, crucially, allowed him to remain in control of his financial wealth.

Kazakhstan

A rather different elite is presiding over Kazakhstan’s imminent presidential election. Nursultan Nazarbayev is supported by what appears to be a somewhat more cohesive regime, from which internal opponents and critics have been appropriately purged. The presidential party – Nur Otan (Light of the Fatherland) – is emerging as a relatively major domestic force, while Nazarbayev has managed to place himself at the centre of a wide patronage network that extends to every corner of Kazakhstan's vast territory.

Kazakhstan’s strict separation between business and politics has allowed a few individuals to accumulate considerable wealth without developing any significant political ambition. The president, in this sense, appears firmly in control of every major political process that is currently taking place within Kazakhstan. What he is no position to control, however, is the inevitability of an eventual power transition. 

Proximity to the Kazakhstani president has traditionally represented an indicator of rising personal power: for this reason, a series of family members – including sons-in-law Rakhat Aliyev and Timur Kulibayev as well as presidential daughters Dariga and Dinara – have been, at different junctures, regarded as Nazarbayev’s potential successors.

Many observers considered the recent appointment of presidential grandson Nurali Aliyev to a prime position within Astana’s regional administration as an indicator of Nazarbayev’s ultimate intention to keep the presidency in the family, but there is to date insufficient evidence – even from within Kazakhstan’s notoriously indiscreet political scene – to regard Aliyev as a president-in-waiting. Nazarbayev, however, has carefully avoided publicly endorsing a successor: the 2015 election is therefore taking place under very uncertain circumstances, in which an ageing – and not entirely healthy – leader is embarking on yet another term that will see him remain at the helm until 2020. 

Dariga Nazarbayeva, daughter of the President, is occasionally mooted as his possible successor. CC Mikhail Evstafiev

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan might be dreaming of Singapore, but are actually looking at Turkmenistan.

Unlike his Uzbek counterpart, the Kazakhstani president has not hesitated to talk openly about his succession options. Specifically, Nazarbayev outlined a Singapore-style transition scenario for Kazakhstan, hinting at his eventual semi-retirement and the contextual rise of a new leader to take the helm in Astana.

As the Kazakhstani president deliberately failed to put any timeframe to this transition plan, emphasis on Singapore’s pre-arranged transition might ultimately be a purely rhetorical narrative, with Nazarbayev eager to establish a parallel between himself and the late Lee Kuan Yew – who remains a very prominent and popular figure throughout post-colonial Asia. Emphasis on pre-arranged succession, on the other hand, indicates that, in Nazarbayev’s views, power transfer is to be managed almost entirely within the elite ranks, leaving no space for what the wider Kazakhstani population might want to say about the country’s leadership and broader issues of political and economic governance.

A risky strategy

And this latter proposition finally captures what is at stake when it comes to the current round of presidential elections and future scenarios of political succession in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. There is no democratic design behind the 2015 votes: the re-elections of Karimov and Nazarbayev are entirely about the short-term stability of the ruling regimes in Tashkent and Astana.

By extending the leaders’ long-term presidencies, the supporting elites opted to postpone any decision about how and to whom power is to be transferred. The current electoral round, in other words, is a very handy tool to buy time before making longer-term succession arrangements. The leaders’ irreplaceability has in this sense become temporary, but maintaining Karimov and Nazarbayev in power is, at least currently, vital for regime preservation in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. 

Re-confirming two ageing presidents, however, is a risky strategy. Beyond pre-arranged succession, the leaders’ death while in office remains the only other plausible succession scenario in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. But will the elites in Tashkent and Astana withstand the stress of leadership transitions that are both complex and sudden? The case of Turkmenistan where in 2006-2007 the regime successfully managed, in apparently smooth fashion, an intricate (and relatively unexpected) leadership change demonstrates that Central Asia’s elites have the resilience to respond to an apparent and unplanned power vacuum. The Turkmen transition allowed for the rise of a new president (Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov), while preserving the power of a great segment of the elite that supported Saparmurat Niyazov for more than a decade.

There is virtually no doubt that, if push comes to shove, many regime members in both Tashkent and Astana would be happy to replicate the outcome of the Turkmen leadership change. And it is exactly for this reason that, when it comes to presidential successions, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan might be dreaming of Singapore, but actually looking at Turkmenistan.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Kazakhstan's reluctant leader Regime preservation in Central Asia Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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Russia is spoiling for a fight in the Middle East

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 10:02

Is the Ukraine conflict shifting Russia's Middle Eastern policy from real strategy to scoring cheap points?

 

There have been many new twists in the chain of Middle Eastern upheavals in the last year — from the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to the escalation of civil war in Yemen — but Russia has been only marginally involved in most high-intensity political manoeuvring in the region, only making a splash with the recent ‘unfreezing’ of the sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran.

This is hardly surprising given the current preoccupations of the Russian leadership: the Ukraine conflict and its expanding confrontation with the West. Yet the Middle East is the only region in the world where Russia has continued to play a key role, validating its claim as a global power despite Western efforts to isolate it. Opportunities for re-asserting this role have been few and far between, and the attempt to stage talks between Bashar al-Assad’s government and some Syrian opposition groups in Moscow in February-March 2015 failed to yield a breakthrough. The question remains, however, whether the conflict in Ukraine will encourage Russian policymaking in the Middle East (particularly regarding the civil war in Syria) to shift emphasis from opportunity-seeking to scoring cheap points as a spoiler. 

Wandering in the Syrian desert

The civil war in Syria, deadlocked yet still mutating, remains the focal point of Russia’s policy in the Middle East. For Vladimir Putin, the stakes in this debacle are higher than the mere survival of Russia’s last client-regime. In the Kremlin’s analysis, the tide of revolutions (allegedly sponsored and manipulated by the United States) constitutes a major threat to the world order; and Putin fancies himself a champion of the counter-revolutionary cause.

Since the emergence of the Euromaidan in Kiev in November 2013, Ukraine has become the main theatre of this epic struggle, but Syria, where authoritarian stability holds firm against the chaotic forces unleashed by the Arab Spring, continues to be a crucial battlefield.

The deadlocked but mutating civil war in Syria remains the key focal point of Russia’s policy in the Middle East.

The astounding success of Putin’s September 2013 initiative on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles boosted his confidence in (mis)managing the Ukraine crisis, which erupted a few months later. It appears likely that Putin took this smart tactical manoeuvre, which prevented a limited US missile strike on some of Assad’s military assets, for a major strategic achievement that established Russia’s role as an indispensable global power. Emboldened with this effective check on US interventionism and encouraged by the lack of unity in NATO and the European Union regarding Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe, the Russian leadership moved boldly ahead with derailing the EU Eastern Partnership project, and with the annexation of Crimea, a major breach of international law. 

The assumption that the Assad regime will be able to withstand the pressure of rebel attacks is as reasonable now as it was in late 2011, when Moscow opted for the risky course of giving the regime its full support. However, the interplay of overlapping conflicts in Syria has reached a level of complexity far beyond the ‘black-and-white’ version which remains prevalent in the Kremlin. The rise of ISIS and its swift advance from Raqqah in northern Syria to the suburbs of Baghdad took the Russian leadership by surprise, even more perhaps than it did US strategic planners. In a sense, ISIS confirmed the ideological thesis that revolutions generate chaos, in which violent extremism thrives, but it also confused patterns of political intrigue.

Moscow may condemn the violence in Syria and Iraq, but shies away from direct intervention. (c) Alexandro Auler / Demotix.

Russia was quick to condemn ISIS atrocities (and provide military aid to Baghdad), but it had no intention of joining the US-led coalition. Blaming Washington for fostering anti-Assad extremists, Moscow even tried to oppose US air strikes against ISIS forces in northern Syria, which has repeatedly left it in an awkward diplomatic position: even the Assad government finds it opportune to welcome the strikes.

The Russian leadership has few doubts about the reality of the threat posed by Islamic extremism and has a real stake in the fight against ISIS. Hundreds of volunteers from the North Caucasus have joined its ranks. There is already a trickle of hardened fighters returning home, and a shocking rebel attack in Grozny last December proved that terrorist threats in Russia are far from contained. However, the Russian top brass assumes that no counter-terrorist cooperation with the West is necessary to deal with this threat, while the Kremlin’s prime motivation is to prove Russia’s ability to check US interventionism and to derail Western efforts even where interests are broadly compatible. At the same time, the gravity of the ISIS threat (which as the attack on the Yarmouk refugee camp in the outskirts of Damascus has proven, remains undiminished despite sustained air strikes) gives Moscow greater leverage to pursue its ‘hybrid war’ in Ukraine.

Russia is interested in increasing its impact on developments in the Middle East. However, Putin cannot find a good way to score a low-cost, high profile political coup in the Syrian war zone, especially with the increasingly limited material resources available, for instance, for keeping the Tarsus naval facility operational. The main asset for Kremlin intrigues, then, is its ability to engage in conversation with the three main external parties increasingly attached to the internationalised Syrian conflict.

Israel

Russian diplomacy has cultivated useful communication channels with Israel, Iran, and Turkey, three states with both great stakes in the Syrian war and the capacity to impact its course. The problem with building a substantial agenda for these communications is that their respective interests in the conflict are profoundly incompatible with one another, and a poor fit with the Kremlin’s counter-revolutionary and anti-American objectives.

In the first of these three channels, discussions on Syria are remarkably frank. From the very start of this debacle, Moscow has assumed that Jerusalem was not at all keen to see the downfall of the Assad regime. Unable to rely on ties with the large Russian community in Israel (which remains wary of Putin’s authoritarian tendencies and is highly ambivalent about the Ukraine conflict), Putin has built up a rapport with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rejected joining the Western sanctions against Russia and even tried to take advantage of them to expand trade. For its part, Moscow expressed only pro forma disapproval of Israeli air strikes on Syria, including one last December that allegedly targeted Russian-delivered surface-to-air missiles and one in January that targeted Hezbollah commanders and killed an Iranian general. Russian attempts at expanding ties with Egypt, including a ‘working’ visit by Putin to Cairo in February (where not much work in progress was, in fact, registered), are also fully in tune with Israel’s preferences.

Putin has built up a rapport with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 

However, while Putin may be fully aware of Netanyahu’s disappointment in Obama’s policy-making in the Middle East, he ultimately cannot find a way to exploit it. The discord between leaders does not diminish Israel’s fundamental interest in greater US involvement in the region, which runs at cross-purposes to Russian intentions. Likewise, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is far from an ace in Middle Eastern affairs and often at a loss when trying to sort out the region’s puzzle of interwoven quarrels.

The Kremlin is also fully aware that closer ties with Israel increase suspicions in other quarters. Netanyahu was so upset with Putin’s decision to rush the deliveries of the S-300 missiles to Iran (his call to the Kremlin failed to make a difference) that he cancelled his visit to Moscow for attending the Victory Day celebrations.

Iran

With Iran, exchanges on Syria are obscure, at best. The central issue in Moscow’s ambivalent but prioritised relations with Tehran is the progress of the P5+1 talks in Switzerland on Iran’s nuclear programme. Russia hailed the provisional deal reached in early April (despite contributing nothing to its making), and insists on lifting sanctions as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the sharp decline in oil prices has severely impacted the hidden Syrian agenda. Falling oil prices have brought about such a contraction of petro-revenues in Russian and Iranian state budgets that neither state can provide the 2011-2014 levels of support for the Assad regime, which previously sustained the latter’s operations against various rebel groups.

P5+1 talks include the permanent members of the UN Security Council, US, Russia, France, United Kingdom and China plus Germany.

The Russian leadership is worried that Tehran is losing interest in its traditional trans-Caspian connections with Russia. Advancement in the P5+1 talks is essentially based on bilateral and non-transparent US-Iranian bargaining, which Moscow can do little to influence. Putin and Lavrov suspect that the current fighting in Iraq and Syria and the future of these states constitute elements of this bargaining, and resent being kept in the dark.

Moscow’s main hope is that Iran will overplay its hand by assuming that the Ukraine crisis works to its advantage and, instead of hammering out the final compromise, will threaten to break the sanctions regime against it with Russia’s help and China’s consent – and then will have to really go for it when the bluff is called. The rushed decision on lifting the self-enforced ban on delivering the S-300 missiles was probably aimed at encouraging this sort of behaviour. A failure of the final stage of talks would leave Iran’s nuclear programme in limbo and signify a high-profile fiasco for US efforts. Russia’s new nuclear deal with Iran (announced just two weeks prior to the November deadline in the Geneva talks, which was duly broken) cannot alter the fact that bilateral economic ties are rather weak, while their political dialogue oscillates along a rather low degree of mutual trust.

Moscow’s main hope is that Iran will overplay its hand 

Turkey

The only power in the Middle East with which Russia has developed trust-based relations is Turkey. The personal chemistry between Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan constitutes the core of this special partnership. While Putin was vague and defensive describing cooperation with Iran at a lengthy press conference in mid-December (and far from convincing when justifying the decision on the S-300 missiles at the traditional Q&A in April), he was unreservedly positive about Turkey, referring to Erdoğan as a ‘strong man’ (‘krepky muzhik’). The term was officially translated as a ‘strong character,’ which did not fully convey its inherent machismo.

Putin’s state visit to Ankara in December was useful in expanding energy links, but his assertion at the later press conference that ‘Russia and Turkey have very many—I’d like to stress this—coinciding regional interests’ was a statement too far. In Syria in particular, Russia’s sustained support for the Assad regime clashes directly with Turkey’s stance on the imperative of its removal (Turkey deems the Syrian government to be a sponsor of ‘state terror.’) In most high-level talks, this sharp disagreement is diplomatically bracketed, which means that the potentially most significant channel of communications on managing the Syrian conflict remains dysfunctional.

Eurasia's 'strong men' meet in Ankara, December 2014. (c) Kremlin.ru.

Moscow is keen to exploit the deepening conflict between Turkey and the United States, but Ankara’s insistence on placing greater priority on ‘regime change’ in Syria than on the struggle against ISIS narrows the space for such anti-American collaboration. Nonetheless, the Russian leadership recognises that Turkey has suffered a number of setbacks in its effort to play a greater role in the Middle East and deems it the perfect partner for launching a joint initiative that would serve Russia’s ambitions.

To spoil or not to spoil?

Russian diplomacy has been looking in vain for a low-cost opportunity to score another victory on a par with its September 2013 initiative in the wider Middle East and, in particular, the interconnected Lebanon-Syria-Iraq conflicts. In its opportunistic regional engagement, Moscow is exploring possibilities to act as a spoiler, in line with its consistent policy course on the Syrian civil war, which to all intents and purposes has succeeded in blocking the international effort to depose Assad. Beside a pronounced desire to demonstrate the capacity to derail US policy at the focal point of Middle Eastern geopolitics, Moscow has two more incentives for playing a cost-effective spoiler role. 

The first is the dramatic (and, for Russia, devastating) decline in oil prices, which has been caused by profound shifts in global energy markets. This trend might only be reversed rapidly by a further spike of instability in the Middle East, which would disrupt supplies coming from the Persian Gulf. The 30-40% price drop that occurred in the second half of 2014 happened while three major suppliers—Iraq, Iran, and Libya—were already performing far below capacity. It is reasonable to assume that a normalisation of production in any of them would push the benchmark price even lower. Russia may thus find it necessary to prevent progress in conflict resolution (and, hence, stabilisation in one or more of these three major producers). It could mean the difference between severe economic crisis and implosion.

Russia may thus find it necessary to prevent progress in conflict resolution

The second incentive comes from the highly uncertain transformation of the Ukraine crisis, where the spring pause has been highly unstable and generally unfavourable for Russia, which has to supply and protect the rebel-controlled territory around Donetsk and Luhansk while suffering from Western sanctions. The probable failure of the Minsk ceasefire could prompt a decision to execute an offensive operation aimed at securing a land corridor to Crimea, and then the Kremlin may very well be interested in fostering an escalation of one or several crises in the Middle East in order to divert US attention. An analogous moment is the 1956 Suez crisis, which demanded so much US involvement (not to mention interventions by France and Britain) that the Soviet military invasion that crushed the uprising in Hungary did not receive any meaningful response. 

Despite Russian inclinations to experiment with its spoiler role, at least one major restraining factor is China, which is increasingly dependent on oil supplies from the Persian Gulf (and greatly benefits from the fall in oil prices). The Ukraine crisis has effectively transformed the Russia-China strategic partnership into a patronage system, in which Moscow needs to prove its value as a junior partner not only by committing itself to supplying raw materials and hydrocarbons but also by performing certain functions on the global arena. Stirring up trouble in the Middle East would definitely meet with Beijing’s disapproval.

The Ukraine crisis has effectively transformed the Russia-China strategic partnership into a patronage system

That said, one area in which China might be interested to have Russia go rogue is the sanctions regime against Iran. Beijing is unhappy with its marginal role in the P5+1 format and with the procrastinations, which delays its plans for investing in Iran’s oil industry. Neither Russia nor China is remotely interested in Iran becoming a nuclear-armed state, but they do not trust the United States to reach a satisfactory resolution on this issue through the current back-channel negotiations. 

Another turn in the Syrian/Iraqi conflict dynamics that could enable Russia to make a difference by upsetting US policy designs is the possible breakup of Iraq, starting with the secession of Kurdistan. Agreement between Iran and Turkey would be crucial for such a development, but Moscow could grant the deal some international legitimacy, particularly if Washington were cut out of the bargaining. Russian companies (Lukoil and Gazprom-Neft) have major stakes in oil projects in southern and eastern Iraq, which provides Moscow useful entry points into local politics and gives it a slight political advantage over Beijing. While such proactive engagement would go beyond a mere spoiler role, Russia sees every setback for US policy aimed at preserving stability in the region, as a net win.

While Russia can hardly increase support for the Assad regime’s offensive operations against the moderate Syrian opposition, it can perhaps talk China into doing this, so that ISIS remains the only (and entirely unacceptable) alternative. One trigger for such a turn of events in Syria could be a failure of Saudi intervention in Yemen, which the US has hesitantly supported – and Russia has opposed. Within this stratagem might also be an option shaped by a possible Turkish decision to take on greater responsibility for containing the Syrian civil war, perhaps by establishing military control over Kurdish-populated areas in the northeast or by enforcing order around Aleppo. Russia could be a useful partner in such a risky endeavour, granting it a modicum of international legitimacy without US participation.

The remaining months of 2015 are set to be hard and extremely uncertain for Russia’s economic and political development. Putin’s leadership could face unexpected challenges, and cannot afford any decline in his unsustainably high public support. This vulnerability increases Russia’s propensity for toying with power projection, with Syria being a key focus for Kremlin experiments in the Middle East.

Image two: P5+1 talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 2015. (c) DemotixLiveNews.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The Ukraine/Crimea crisis: ramifications for the Middle East Russia in the Middle East: a well-played hand disguises fading fortunes Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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Ten ideas to transform our economy

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 9:52

As the General Election approaches, we desperately need to expand our discussion of 'the economy.' Here's a start.

We are suffering from a lack of imagination. Flickr/Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Some rights reserved.Election debates about ‘the economy’ have fixed their sights only on a few issues, like the deficit. But there are bigger questions not really being asked. The next government will have to take big decisions about what kind of economy it wants to build.

We need an economy resilient to what the 21st century is likely to throw at it – home to hundreds of thousands of new green jobs, future-proof industries and ultra-efficient businesses.  

Let’s have some vision, politicians! I think the UK should set a shining example to the rest of the world – reinventing its economic and industrial base around clean infrastructure and new, sustainable business models. That might mean standing up to powerful people who don’t like change – like the big banks, old-hat business groups and oil barons.  Tricky.  But a moment’s thought suggests there isn’t a great deal of choice in the long-run.

So, here are ten ideas for starters.

Attract investors to low-carbon, not fossil fuels

1) No more bonanzas for oil and gas companies

If we want to avoid dangerous climate change we have to leave most of the world’s known reserves of fossil fuels in the ground. But, sigh: the UK’s determined to wring ‘every drop’ from land and sea – making it illegal for any future government not to ‘maximise economic recovery’ of fossil fuel, and cutting the tax rate on profits from drilling or fracking. Tax breaks handed out to North Sea companies since 2010 have come to over £3 billion

These are the wrong signals to send to investors.  It’s not enough just to encourage some low-carbon investment – the government has to rule out high-carbon as well. Sadly, most of the main parties are still gung-ho for fracking.

2) Set out a bright future for renewable energy

The UK’s been gently slipping down the league table of the best places in the world to invest in renewable energy like solar and wind. This is in part because the government’s trying to have its cake and eat it, supporting renewables and dirty energy.

But it’s also because the future for clean energy isn’t certain. Renewable costs are tumbling but there’s a way to go yet, and they’ll need a bit of subsidy to help develop and be competitive with established technologies. 2020 isn’t very far away if you’re an investor in a major project like an offshore wind farm.  Past that date there’s a blank page – no guaranteed support framework for clean energy.

Investors need to know that the next 15 years are going to see nothing but enthusiastic support from the government, whoever they are.

We need a 2030 decarbonisation target for electricity – which some parties have pledged in their manifestos – and a stable framework to make sure that as costs fall we can continue to deploy the renewables we need to get there.

3) Spend infrastructure cash on the right stuff

Infrastructure is the arteries of the nation: our energy, transport, waste and communications systems. With only so much funding to go around, the kind of infrastructure we do and don’t build is one of any government’s biggest economic, social and environmental decisions.

We think the priority for the next parliament should be insulating the nation’s homes to a decent standard, which is the best idea in just about any area you care to mention: it’ll create tens of thousands of jobs and save the NHS upwards of a billion pounds a year in avoided health costs.  All this, and of course it’ll make a big dent in the nation’s carbon emissions.  Although two major parties have pledged to make energy efficiency an infrastructure priority, only one of them has hinted this might translate into an increase in funding.

A revolution in clean investment

4) Let the Green Investment Bank fly

The UK’s Green Investment Bank (GIB) has made some good investments with the £3.8 billion it’s been awarded by the Treasury. But the Bank’s a shadow of what it could be – it’s been banned from borrowing by the Treasury and could be so much more powerful than it is.  It’s also been required by Government to invest in some false solutions, like biomass and incineration.

In the new parliament the Bank should be reinvented – allowed to borrow and refocused only on genuinely useful technologies. It could even – like its big cousin, the German KfW – be given a ‘development’ role, so it can not just stump up cash to invest but also have a job to help get projects like community energy off the ground in the first place.  

5) Help everyone invest in a brighter future

As well as a flourishing green bank, imagine if people’s savings could be used to help fill the multi-billion clean infrastructure funding gap. We’d love to see a new ‘green ISA’ (savings account), available widely and offering the same tax-free perks as a standard ISA. It would help millions of people invest in a sustainable future by taking part in a profoundly normal activity. While the idea isn’t a new one, no party has yet put it into practice – we’d like to see it as a priority for the next parliament. 

Get smart about our economic priorities

6) Get ahead of the curve on natural resources

A populous, industrialised 21st century is going to see ever greater competition for the world’s finite natural resources, spare land and usable water. Worryingly the UK and EU are already very dependent on other countries’ resources.

It’s a win-win to start using far fewer natural resources and shrink our ‘four footprints’ of carbon, land, water and raw materials. The UK Treasury has already been asked – in vain – to conduct a review of the economic rationale for doubling down on resource efficiency. We need this review to happen now more than ever, as a precursor to the Government making the UK’s economy efficient and resilient for the pressures of the decades to come.  Great news that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are both committed to the review, but no dice from the other big parties yet.

7) Transform the Treasury

You can’t have a sustainable economy in the UK without a Treasury that’s along for the ride.  The Treasury is hugely powerful, controlling both short-term spending and long-term economic policy. At the moment it doesn’t have any kind of priority on carbon reduction, resource efficiency or improving wellbeing – but that’s a political choice for the next Chancellor.  We want to see the next Chancellor tell their top civil servants on day one that they have to start focusing on building a green, resource efficient and fair economy – and (s)he must appoint a powerful new minister to keep an eye on them. A growing number of organisations agree with us.

Make taxes fairer

8) Make big companies pay their taxes

Some of the country’s biggest companies are adept at getting round paying their fair share of tax. That’s not illegal– yet – but we think it should be. Every penny the Government misses out on from megabrands is money we can’t invest in trains, cycle routes, or protecting nature – or which forces those things to compete with schools and hospitals.  We’re proud members of the Tax Dodging Bill campaign; so far, it looks like all of the main parties have in one way or another promised to do something about tax dodging.

9) Bring in a ‘Robin Hood’ tax on the banks

It’s right that the banks pay more – after all, it was casino banking that caused the financial crisis that so hurt ordinary people. A tiny ‘Robin Hood’ tax on financial transactions like shares and derivatives would raise billions to invest in green infrastructure and helping people out of poverty. Even better, it would help slow down rampant and ‘socially useless’ trading of the kind that spiralled out of control back in 2007.

The UK Government was staunchly opposed to Robin Hood, but 11 European countries, including France and Germany, are pushing on regardless.

Don't give power away to big companies

10) Say no to the Trojan Horse Treaty - TTIP

The last thing we need right now is big business getting more of a say over whether we can regulate to protect people and the environment. But a highly controversial proposed trade partnership between the EU and the USA – the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) – would do exactly that. Even worse, it would let companies sue governments in private courts if environmental or other regulations hit their profits. Add your name to over a million people in the US and EU who think TTIP stinks.

Friends of the Earth Ltd. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Britain's dysfunctional economy cannot last - but we can fix it Osborne's "long term economic plan" is neither long term, nor a plan Transforming the Treasury: the biggest and best idea of all This is how we solve economic inequality Topics:  Equality
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How many people have to die before we start talking responsibly about immigration?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 8:35

Last week’s deaths in the Mediterranean were directly linked to xenophobic politics in Britain.  


Wrecked boats in Lampedusa. Image: Marco Molino

It’s easy to forget, when a dehumanised mass of “immigrants” is invoked in political debate, that these are people no different from you and me, our families and our friends. The Guardian cites “one survivor of a [migrant boat] sinking off Malta [who] recounted spending several days clinging to a buoyancy aid along with a teenage Egyptian whose hope was to pay for heart medicine for his father. The youth drowned before they could be saved”.

In the space of last week alone, an estimated 1,200 such people died in two separate disasters in the Mediterranean. And we need to be crystal clear about this: there is a direct line between those deaths and the increasing virulence of Britain’s anti-immigrant politics. These were not passive tragedies but the result of conscious policy choices made in an atmosphere of noxious xenophobia. 

Over recent years, millions of people have been forced to escape wars, state collapse, political repression and economic desperation across the Middle East and North Africa. The overwhelming majority have been displaced within the region, but thousands have also sought safety and refuge in Europe. Due to legal routes being systematically closed off, many have resorted to crossing the Mediterranean in dangerously flimsy or overloaded craft provided by people smugglers. Following high numbers of deaths, the Italian government put a search and rescue operation in place at the end of 2013. “Operation Mare Nostrum” is thought to have saved around 150,000 lives over the course of last year.

When Italy asked EU states for financial support for Mare Nostrum, UK Home Secretary Theresa May reportedly “played a leading role” in the decision to respond with pressure on Rome to scrap the scheme instead. “When there were signs that the Italians were reluctant to wind down Mare Nostrum, May [again demanded], along with others, that it be ended immediately”. The monstrous logic articulated by British government ministers was that saving people from drowning represented a “pull factor” that encouraged more to attempt the crossing, ignoring the horrific conditions that left migrants regarding the lethal dangers of the sea as the least bad option available to them. The search and rescue effort was thus brought to an end, despite warnings from Amnesty International that this “would put the lives of thousands of migrants and refugees at risk”.

According to the UN refugee agency, 3,500 people died last year trying to cross the Mediterranean, whereas this year, in the absence of Mare Nostrum, around 1,600 have died already. The numbers attempting the journey have not decreased because people are being pushed, not pulled, with desperation forcing them to accept the risks involved. All that has changed is that hundreds more are now dying, as Amnesty and others predicted. 

Hours before the second of last week’s disasters, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Italy, Laurens Jolles, warned that an “incredible” level of “extreme and very irresponsible” anti-immigrant rhetoric in Europe was creating the conditions in which rescue was being denied to the victims of these mass drownings. Twelve months ago, I drafted a letter that was subsequently published in the Guardian, signed by over 150 academics, writers, activists and concerned individuals, highlighting the dangers of the rise in anti-immigrant politics in Britain. The letter concluded with a warning that “if the resurgence of racism and xenophobia is not confronted now, the consequences will become uglier still”. 

This was not based on clairvoyance. Last week’s deaths were no more unpredictable than the fact that a celebrity columnist now feels able in the current climate to describe migrants as "cockroaches", "feral" and a "virus" in one of Britain's leading newspapers. Or the fact that similar language was used by guards at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, who referred to the appallingly treated female inmates as "animals", "beasties" and "b**ches". The dynamics of prejudice, dehumanisation and maltreatment are hardly without historical precedent. 

In a way, we have been heading towards this point ever since Tony Blair’s first administration responded to a tabloid scare campaign against asylum seekers, not by defending those vulnerable people who had come to us seeking sanctuary, but by forcing them to use a degrading and paltry system of vouchers, rather than an adequate cash allowance, to support themselves through the eternity it took to process their applications. Labour’s consistent approach from that day on has been to validate and pander to prejudice on asylum and immigration, with the xenophobic right subsequently thriving in the absence of any prominent challenge. The dynamic, and the direction of travel, has been clear enough for at least fifteen years, at least to those willing to recognise it. 

According to YouGov, 26 per cent of the public now want the government to “encourage” immigrants to leave the country, including family members like myself who were born here. Only 43 per cent of those polled disagree. Amongst UKIP supporters, the proportion favouring “encouraged” repatriation rises to 51 per cent, with only 24 per cent opposed. Yet centre-left commentators and politicians have been falling over themselves to assert that the rise of UKIP is down to “legitimate concerns” about migration, rather than prejudice about which of us counts as a proper member of society. 

It is long past time to address this. It is legitimate (to put it mildly) to be concerned about insufficient wages, lack of affordable housing, and the underfunding of public services. It is not legitimate to scapegoat foreigners. Britain is the sixth richest country in the world, and one of the most unequal countries in the Western world, where the richest 1,000 people have a combined wealth of a ludicrous half a trillion pounds. In such circumstances, you address concerns about the provision of housing and public services by democratically redistributing the national wealth to ensure those needs are met. You address concerns about wages by legislating for a living wage, and reforming Britain’s regressive union laws so employees of whatever background can work together to bargain effectively with their employer. Human beings who happen to have been born somewhere else should not become collateral damage because the right is too selfish and the Labour Party too craven to deal seriously with social injustice.

And while it is unpleasant to engage with the cold logic of the right that reduces people to their value as economic units, one cannot stand by and allow the national debate to continue on the assumption that foreigners are a drain on society. We have no choice but to point out that those coming to Britain from new EU member states – the ones UKIP blames for all Britain’s problems, and Labour has the nerve to apologise for – have been major net contributors to the British economy. The assumption that they were otherwise is nothing but prejudice. Now personally, I’m comfortable arguing that there should be a presumption in favour of human beings living wherever they like on our planet on grounds of principle rather than economics, and I welcome having that argument with those who claim they “just want to talk about immigration” but are somehow prevented by the awesome oppressive forces of political correctness. But let us at least ground that discussion in accuracy and truth, however inconvenient. 

When the politics of immigration are steeped in prejudiced views of a threatening “other”, and this discursive dynamic escalates and feeds off itself year on year, it eventually becomes possible to dismiss people as “cockroaches” and leave them to drown in the sea. The hate and hysteria of the right-wing is one aspect of this, but the other crucial component is the response of the left, because it is the two together that define the parameters of conceivable policy and debate. When Ed Miliband makes a show of being “tough” on immigration, when he makes an election issue out of the infinitesimally small number of people who don’t speak English, he is creating a situation where, left or right, “everyone knows” that immigration is a burden, a threat, and a problem to be dealt with in a tough and decisive manner. 

When a minor row erupted a few weeks ago over Labour selling a mug emblazoned with the slogan “Controls on Immigration”, the New Statesman reported that “privately, Labour strategists are relaxed about a few bruised feelings among lefty activists on Twitter”. One wonders if they are equally relaxed about contributing to a political atmosphere that results in the drowning of an Egyptian boy who only wanted to help his sick father. One wonders if they have given a moment’s serious thought to the dangerous dynamics they are feeding into, and the social cost of the games they are playing. 

Politicians and journalists like to pretend that public opinion is a static given which they simply respond to. In reality, it is varied and contested space, continually shaped and reshaped over time. The public are not passive, malleable subjects in this, but they are certainly not the ones with the power. The power to speak, to set the agenda, to frame the discussion, to entrench unspoken assumptions, or to change them, lies overwhelmingly with those who have the wealth and privilege required to create, or gain access to, a platform to speak from: be it a newspaper, or a prominent position in party politics. It is this class of people who bear primary responsibility for the mean, shrivelled, and nasty mood that now prevails on the subject of immigration, and for the ever darker consequences that are flowing from that.

Following last week’s horrific events, a simple and direct question must now arise: how many people have to die before we snap out of this? Exactly what number of drowned human beings will it take to shock us out of a discourse bounded on the one side by hatred and prejudice, and on the other by complacency and moral laziness? How many people have to die before the right develops a conscience, the centre-left develops a backbone, and Britain starts talking about the subject of immigration like a country of responsible adults?

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Sideboxes Related stories:  Crisis in the Mediterranean: Europe must change course Europe's war on migrants Can we afford to ignore what Katie Hopkins says about migrants drowning in the Med? The children of Augusta Migrants in the Mediterranean: mourning deaths, not saving lives Topics:  Civil society Conflict Equality International politics
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Small steps forward? International pressure and accountability for atrocities in Sri Lanka

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 8:30

In countries like Sri Lanka – not party to the ICC – international pressure plays an important role in keeping a focus on the issue of accountability for mass atrocities. A contribution to the openGlobalRights’ debate on the ICCEspañolFrançais

The International Criminal Court (ICC) was created to put an end to the presumption of impunity for the powerful. But in practice, the court’s ability to deliver justice free of politics has been limited, and its reach is not universal. Atrocities that occur on the territory of states that haven’t joined the ICC remain an extremely tough case for the pursuit of accountability, especially when committed by state actors.

It is a truism that perpetrators of mass atrocities don’t prosecute themselves. For states that have joined the ICC’s treaty regime, the chance of justice for international crimes, even when perpetrated by state actors, is potentially improved. The court can initiate its own prosecutions or use the threat of action to incentivize the state to act domestically. But for states that have not signed the treaty, a UN Security Council resolution referring the situation to the ICC is required to engage either of these mechanisms. And because such a resolution requires the support (or abstention) of all five veto members, referrals are rare.

If governments that have committed atrocities won’t prosecute themselves, and ICC action isn’t on the table, is impunity in these cases a foregone conclusion? Does this mean efforts to pursue justice in these cases are a lost cause? This question is not academic. While 123 states have signed on to the ICC, a significant percentage of the world’s territory remains exempt from the court’s jurisdiction. Not coincidentally, the holdouts include numerous states that have unleashed devastating violence against civilian populations. If governments that have committed atrocities won’t prosecute themselves, and ICC action isn’t on the table, is impunity in these cases a foregone conclusion? What can advocates of accountability do?  

Recent debates over post-conflict justice in Sri Lanka provide an example of what happens when international audiences push for accountability for atrocities outside of the ICC’s jurisdiction. Sri Lanka’s long civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was devastating for civilians, with serious abuses committed by both sides. Following its cataclysmic end in 2009, evidence emerged of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on a massive scale by the Sri Lankan military during the final months of the conflict. But despite increasingly insistent demands from members of the international community as well as representatives of the victim population, the government refused to investigate or prosecute the authors of these alleged atrocities.

For five years, the ruling Rajapaksa regime (itself implicated in ordering atrocities) fended off international pressure with a double-pronged strategy. On the one hand, they responded to demands from human rights advocates, international organizations, and foreign governments with hostility and flat denials of war crimes. But at the same time, they advanced an equally vehement claim that the international community must defer to domestic accountability proceedings. Whenever international pressure escalated, the regime made gestures in the direction of accountability, creating institutions tangentially linked to post-conflict justice (e.g. a commission on reconciliation, one on disappearances, and an army “court of inquiry”) deploying rhetoric about the primacy of domestic processes over international efforts. But none of these mechanisms actually addressed the question of criminal responsibility for mass atrocities, and whenever international attention waned, progress on each evaporated.

By March 2014, a critical mass of the international community was fed up with these tactics. The UN Human Rights Council requested an international investigation be undertaken by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose report was due to be presented last month in Geneva. But then things in Sri Lanka took an unexpected turn: Mahinda Rajapaksa was voted out of office in January 2015. The new government, which still includes high-ranking officials implicated in international crimes, has taken a more conciliatory approach to the international community and promised real progress on accountability. In response, the Human Rights Council agreed to a one time six-month delay in the release of the report.

It’s not yet clear how Sri Lanka will use the reprieve. Members of the new administration have stated that a domestic probe is in the works and signaled that international assistance will be welcome. And encouraging (albeit slow) steps have been taken towards releasing political prisoners and restoring military-held land in the former war zone to its rightful owners. But the fact remains that true accountability will be a tough sell domestically.

In many ways, Sri Lanka is a typical “hard case” example of a state dealing with the aftermath of mass atrocity. International crimes were committed by states forces against a vulnerable minority population in the context of a civil war. The majority ethnic group denies that these crimes occurred, making domestic investigation and prosecution politically risky. And, individuals suspected of ordering atrocities remain in high office.


Flickr/trokilinochchi (Some rights reserved)

Refugees flee from their homes in northern Sri Lanka following a 2009 military offensive.

This case therefore underscores some important issues for future efforts to pursue accountability outside of the ICC in similar contexts. First, and most obviously, without the threat of international prosecutions or other serious sanction, it is very difficult to compel domestic prosecutions. But second, all but the most intransigent governments are conscious of their international reputations and therefore sensitive to pressure. And third, international audiences can exploit this sensitivity to move governments incrementally in the direction of accountability.

It’s worth paying attention to inadequate domestic efforts at accountability, even when they are obviously disingenuous. If we think of accountability (and compliance with human rights norms more generally) as a continuum, rather than something that is either wholly present or wholly absent, we can see that international pressure can have important effects even when it doesn’t produce the desired result of criminal trials of those most responsible for atrocities.

Although Sri Lanka never faced serious risk of an international prosecution, it was nevertheless motivated to respond to international demands for accountability with the creation of a series of minimally empowered domestic institutions. The last of these, although still anemic and insufficiently independent from the executive, was explicitly tasked with investigating responsibility for international crimes. That matters, because whatever the new government chooses to do, it will have to improve upon the best efforts of the prior regime. So while prosecutions of those most responsible for the most serious crimes remain unlikely, a robust truth commission or even limited trials of lower-ranked perpetrators may now be on the table.

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Categories: les flux rss

Creating peace: a manifesto for the 21st century

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 8:03

How does an international women’s organisation with a hundred year history put Mahatma Gandhi’s famous call to action into practice in 2015? Marion Bowman reports from the centenary congress of WILPF

‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world’. .

How does an international women’s organisation with a hundred year history put Mahatma Gandhi’s famous call to action into practice in 2015? Especially one subject to the plurality of analysis of its diverse membership, which puts patriarchy or capitalism or class or nationalism or racism or other ‘dominant systems’ in the frame as the main reason for the need for change, depending on whose view prevails.

Putting these sources of oppression in competition with each other as the main problem for women or the main causes of war and conflict is as old as 20th and 21st century feminism, and many a women’s initiative has floundered in long drawn-out and failed attempts to settle the argument.

When it’s a women’s organisation promoting peace, the responsibility to strike an agreement about central principles rather than descend into self-defeating conflict is heavy. At the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, meeting in The Hague, Netherlands, for their centenary congress, 130 women from 28 countries managed to pull it off.

WILPF is the world’s oldest international women’s peace organisation whose global span encompasses 36 different countries. On the second day of their meeting, their chief concern was the shape they themselves are in: the need to renew their organisation at the start of their second century by updating and clarifying their own constitution and how they govern themselves, and the need to re-state their principles and purposes. Margrethe Tingstad, from Norway, offered a useful thought to those taking up potentially opposing positions in the long hours of discussion: ‘A different view is just a view from a room I have not yet been in,’ she said.

Democracy can be a slow, unwieldy beast. In The Hague yesterday, appropriately enough in the Academy of International Law in the Peace Palace, WILPF’s congress decided against updating their constitution, but after eight years of internal discussion, work, drafting, disagreement, compromise and creativity, the members did adopt a new manifesto for the 21st century.

The manifesto, to be published on April 28, exactly 100 years to the day since the organisation was founded in this same city, is a statement as much about the indomitability and resilience of a global movement of women as it is about how to stop war in a world where war seems to be accepted as being as inevitable as the weather. It restates the organisation’s purposes:  to bring together diverse women of a range of political beliefs and philosophies united in determination to stop current wars, and to study, make known and help abolish the root causes of war and the factors that are used to legitimate it; to campaign for total and universal disarmament and demilitarization; to advocate the outlawing of the use of coercive force to resolve conflicts; and to imagine peace, and work to bring it about.

The 15-page document was overwhelmingly passed by the delegates but not without some tricky moments. The patriarchy versus capitalism battle took centre stage with delegates arguing the relative de-merits of Beelzebub and Lucifer. Capitalism’s transformation since 1915 was key said one Spanish delegate. ‘The face of war now is the new economic order that is increasing financial freedom rather than meeting human need. But we need to make patriarchy understandable and visible because it is at the core of capitalism, of financial power and the war system. Patriarchy is part of our daily lives.’ A US delegate said the capitalism of her own country, the richest in the world, was like an octopus that was strangling the life out of the planet. ‘We need a worldwide discussion about how we are going to stop this octopus and have the world’s grandeur for everyone.’ she said. A Swedish woman said: ‘Capitalism is taking over the whole world. It is taking our labour and giving it to the banks and to rich people. We have to create a movement against it.’

Many delegates wanted more, and more diverse, radicalism. ‘The manifesto is not strong enough, it doesn’t express sufficient urgency,’ said one. A New Zealander took the point up. ‘In tandem with statements about social and economic policies that are stripping us of potential, we feel a sense of urgency about the earth.’ ‘I miss the word “fascism”,’ said a Dutch delegate. ‘It is strong and growing. What is fascism? It is a world of fear and that is what we are living in.’

Others scaled down from the planet as a whole to specific groups and issues. ‘We need more about indigenous people.’ ‘We need more on the “global south”’.  ‘The issue is exclusion. Patriarchy is a binary gender system, it excludes trans people’. ‘Men are victims of patriarchy too,’ said a Nepali delegate. ‘Women can be patriarchal too. It is about a traditional and orthodox mindset.’ ‘WILPF is being ageist in what you ask of young women.’

A small number of delegates wanted to focus on the most difficult challenge: not analysing the causes of war and the sorry state of the world, but imagining and creating peace. ‘We are not just claiming things,’ said one. ‘We have many things to offer; we are offering a vision.’ One of the most thoughtful interventions came from Dierdra McMenamin, from Northern Ireland, a woman with 20 years of creative peace work. She imagined something quite different. 'The manifesto uses the language of war and we should perhaps translate it into the language of peace,’ she said. ‘It is a male paradigm. In a way, we are doing what men do and we need to do something different. They will always be better at it than us.'

‘When you are anti-war you create a vacuum,’ she went on. Peace is not just the absence of war. ‘We need processes that create peace.’ In Northern Ireland, through an art project, McMenamin brought the men of violence into a space with children to begin an essential healing process, both for individuals and communities. ‘A lot of people who go to war eventually need to heal themselves,’ she said. Her own work is to concentrate on creation directly addressing the harm caused by destruction.

WILPF accepted that creating a manifesto that works for the common good, being themselves the change they want to see in the world, was what was at stake.

‘The world is in chaos. There are few international institutions that we can rely on that are democratic and accountable,’ said a Swedish delegate as WILPF’s manifesto reached the crucial vote, and the organisation’s own democratic habits were tested. Attention was turning to the essential acts of creation that would follow the manifesto’s adoption. ‘Agreeing this manifesto is not the end, it is the beginning,’ she said, a point echoed by WILPF’s Secretary General Madeleine Rees: ‘This is a rallying cry. We can go forward with it into the next century.’ 

Edith Ballantyne, the 92 year old doyenne of the WILPF peace women, said: ‘This is not a dream, it is who we are.’

Finally getting the ‘yes’ vote on such a major document, with no blood on the floor, was probably what Gandhi would have had in mind. 

Marion Bowman is reporting from WILPF's centenary  international civil society conference  in the Hague, 22-29 April. Read read more articles in 50.50's series Women's Power to Stop War 

 

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Categories: les flux rss

Defending the Defenders: a daunting challenge

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 7:45

Women human rights defenders are under attack. The Nobel Women's Initiative conference convenes today to deepen the understanding of the risks, and to develop strategies to strengthen efforts to defend the defenders.

Some of the people most at risk in the world are those who dare to work to promote and defend the human rights of us all. Not surprisingly, because women are always among the most vulnerable in a world that still chooses to treat us as beings with something less than an equal status with men - and because their very act of speaking up and taking action against authority is a threat to the patriarchal status quo - it is women defenders who are most frequently under threat and attack. They need and deserve our support.

Some 120 women who work to protect and promote human rights around the world are meeting in the Netherlands from April 24 to 26, at the 5th biennial conference convened by the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Many of the women coming to the conference are those we have met and worked with through Nobel Women’s Initiative delegations to the Thai/Burma border, to Palestine/Israel, to Liberia, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to the Tar Sands of Alberta, Canada, and to Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. 

The purpose of these various trips and others, in their essence, is to gather evidence and first-hand stories of the impact of escalating violence against women and their rights, assess the role and response of governments and regional bodies, and evaluate ways of supporting women who are organizing to protect themselves and their communities.  We are coming together in the Netherlands to deepen our understanding of the most recent risks for activists, and to strategize about how to strengthen efforts to defend the defenders.  It is a daunting challenge.

Human rights activists around the globe tackle a wide range of issues, from defending the right to life and human dignity, to the defense of land rights and the environment, to socio-economic justice and to disarmament and arms control. Human rights defenders promote and defend freedom of speech and association as well as denouncing torture, forced disappearances and extra-judicial executions. And these name only a few of the areas they tackle. 

With our rights under attack - either directly or by being eroded over time - women defenders are more vulnerable than ever.

When they stand up to protect and promote human rights in countries all around the world, women defenders are frequently subjected to intimidation and persecution, defamation campaigns, criminalization and illegal arrests. They endure cruel and inhumane treatment, rape, forced disappearance, murder, threats against themselves and their families, robbery and home invasion and destruction. 

Once women human rights defenders speak on behalf of others, nothing in their own lives is sacred any more - including the security of their family members.

Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, despite the high rhetoric and resolutions of the UN, governments and high-profile/powerful individuals alike - both about human rights and defending the defenders - that rhetoric rarely trickles down to meaningful action for people working on the front lines where rights are most under attack, and impunity for the violators, despite some inroads, seems virtually inviolable. 

Women everywhere are tired of hearing governments offer up new reports or new commissions or special positions created to “study” violence against women and come up with recommendations to address the problem. Women in Mexico, for example, reported that the government simulates compliance with international treaties and norms on preventing and addressing violence against women rather than make real changes.

International treaties and norms, domestic laws and new reports and recommendations are worth less than the paper they are written on if they are not enforced and implemented.

And it can be worse than that. Governments are more than willing to turn a blind eye to human rights violations if defending our rights gets in the way of either “national interest” or economic interests. In the competing arenas of government policies, economic power and money, and the human and civil rights of people around the world, our rights are almost always the first to go. And often as the erosion of human rights escalates, so does the rhetoric about their importance and/or the importance of “balancing” human rights with threats against “security.”

Defending human rights can be life threatening for anyone taking the risk, but women fighting to defend their land and way of life in the face of huge economic interests - such as extraction industries and oil and gas interests - are increasingly vulnerable.  In mid-April, Global Witness released a new report, “How Many More?”, indicating that at least 116 environmental activists were murdered in 2014, almost double the number of journalists killed in the same period, and that indigenous communities are the hardest hit. 

While the report does not indicate how many of those 116 activists were women, it is safe to say that many were. Another report on climate justice and women’s rights notes that while there is a lot of money for work on climate and the environment, little of it goes to support women.  At the same time the report states that women environmental activists are very vulnerable because they tend to work at the grassroots community level, and the threats against them are mostly undocumented.

Widespread violence against women and women human rights defenders is a top priority not only for humanitarian reasons, but because it represents a serious violation of human rights, and clearly demonstrates governments’ non-compliance with two fundamental obligations: to guarantee the safety and rights of their citizens and to eliminate discrimination. 

Too many women human rights defenders have suffered this violence, and countless numbers who have refused to remain silent have lost their lives as a result. When governments fail to protect, we carry the collective responsibility to fight for human rights and justice. Women human rights defenders are under attack and international support and solidarity is crucial in defending the defenders, and also in pushing governments to demonstrate the political will needed to bring about real change in people’s lives. 

We must build enough public awareness and pressure to force governments to do what they should be doing anyway - and that is protecting and promoting equality and the human rights of us all.

Jody Williams and sister Nobel laureates will be speaking at the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference Defending the Defenders ! 24-26 April.  Jennifer Allsopp and Marion Bowman will be reporting from the conference on 50.50.  Read more articles by participants and speakers.

 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Hope as a survival strategy for Defensoras in Honduras Awaiting justice: Indigenous resistance in the tar sands of Canada Women human rights defenders: activism's front-line CSW: the vital need to defend women human rights defenders Jody Williams: The true path to nuclear non-proliferation Shelters without walls: women building protective infrastructures against rape Hidden women human rights defenders in the UK The distance travelled: Beijing, Hillary, and women's rights Claiming rights, facing fire: young feminist activists Iranian women human rights defenders: challenges and opportunities "It starts with us": Breaking one of Canada's best kept secrets Women human rights defenders: protecting each other Laureate Jody Williams: telling it like it is Daring to speak: militarism and women’s human rights in Burma Kenya: the women who stand to be counted Sudanese women demand justice Positive women human rights defenders At the margins of visibility: recognising women human rights defenders
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Wheels on the ground: women’s ‘peace train’ to The Hague

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 7:33

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The women who have come to the WILPF conference in the Hague from Australia and Aotearora- New Zealand, say that travelling with your feet on the ground, or at least with your wheels on the track, is the road to peace.

The peace travellers from Australia and New Zealand are greeted at Budapest Keleti station.In April 1915, when more than a thousand women gathered for an international peace congress in The Hague, Netherlands, they made long and arduous journeys by land and sea. This week, precisely a hundred years later, we are assembling again in our hundreds here in this same city, marking the centenary of that event, which gave birth to WILPF, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. And this time the great majority of us flew here, from all around the world, in a matter of hours.

But… a handful of WILPF members from the most distant countries, eight from Australia and two from Aotearoa-New Zealand, decided to travel like their predecessors, by the slow, terrestrial route. They would take a train journey for peace. The idea was reminiscent of the women’s Peace Train that travelled from Warsaw to Beijing in 1995, carrying delegates to the United Nations 4th World Conference on Women. Indeed their original intention had been no less ambitious, involving women from Japan, the Philippines, India and Lebanon too, in a train trip that would have spanned Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Time and cost however scotched this plan, and the actual outcome was more modest: ten women departed from Istanbul, the city that marks the juncture between Asia and Europe, on 13 April and arrived in The Hague on 21 April.

Listening to the travellers soon after their arrival, I began to understand that it was by no means just incidental that the motivation for the peace train came in part from Australia. Del Cuddihy told me, ‘It’s something we’ve learned from the indigenous peoples of Australia. They continually stress the importance of land, of connectedness to the land. We wanted to travel by train because we wanted to feel the land under our feet, to tread it. It’s only by walking on the others’ soil that you get to know them, have conversations, learn their culture’.

The travellers in Hagia Sofia Cathedral, Istanbul, where two world religions meet under one roof. The group stayed four days in Istanbul, and one of the stretches of land they trod was the beach at Gelibolu, the place where in April 1915 thousands of Australian soldiers landed on Turkish soil to meet their death in the debacle the world remembers now as ‘Gallipoli’. Several things during the women’s few days in Turkey caused the group to reflect on failures of communication. First, these soldiers had been mere lads from the other side of the world, ignorant and innocent, knowing nothing of the culture or terrain they were invading. And likewise the women travellers themselves felt, it has to be said, a little out of touch on arrival in Turkey, having failed to make connection in advance with local feminist antiwar organizations. The Turkish Government had apparently blanked out the WILPF International website and Facebook page in its censorship of Internet media.  

The women were also frustrated to learn that at the very start of their overland journey they were going to have to fly the first leg, for the railway line from Istanbul to Bucharest was under repair. That trusty communication technology of the 19th Century was letting them down in the 21st. Nonetheless, they reached Bucharest, then Budapest, getting a warm reception and welcoming events in both cities, before travelling on to Munich, Utrecht and eventually The Hague. And on the way they did indeed have several memorable conversations with individuals they encountered that served to ground them in the lands through which they were travelling.

One was with Emma, a young Romanian woman, a dentist, who spoke sadly about the many problems of her country. Romania had been on the winning side in the Great War. For all that, it had not become a prosperous country. And indeed, looking from the train window the travellers had noticed that, although many of the buildings they saw were historic and beautiful, everywhere seemed to be in a state of neglect and disrepair. It resembled, still, some kind of war zone. ‘No matter what we do we don’t seem able to win!’, Emma said. She spoke of the misunderstanding and disparagement Romanians feel from the ‘West’. ‘People from Romania don’t have a good reputation in the rest of Europe.’ 

Breakfast in the hotel at Bucharest, Romania, joined by supportive fellow guests.Racist differentiation like this was a theme in another memorable conversation the travelling group had – this time with a man, a ticket inspector on the train as it passed through the Netherlands. He had seen the women to be a group, engaged with each other, clearly on some kind of project. He sat down to talk with them. They were as interested in him as he was in them. He told them that his family originated in Morocco, though he himself had been born in the Netherlands. He had received a higher education and aspired to be an accounts auditor, but said he found it difficult to get the professional work for which he was qualified. Was it, he wondered, because of his beard and dark skin?

Talking among themselves, the women reflected on these stories they were hearing of negative stereotyping, how they gained authenticity from being told by the individuals experiencing it, from within their own cultures. Such encounters were confirming them in their conviction that travelling with your feet on the ground, or at least with your wheels on the track, is the road to peace. 

Del was continuing to reflect on the contrasted experiences they were having along the road of good communication and failures of communication. She had been reading a book, Great Information Disasters, edited by Forest Horton and Dennis Lewis, and in particular a chapter that told the story of the Yir Yoront, one of the Aboriginal tribes in Australia. In the first decade of the 20th century, these people were still using stone axes. These were more than tools to them, they were symbolic objects, their transfer from one person to another a complex means of communication. When white Australians introduced steel axes to the Yir Yoront, it rapidly destroyed their culture. This may well, Del said, recounting the story to me, not have been deliberate– merely a profound failure of understanding, of communication, predicated on a massive imbalance of power.

The significance of Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand as an origin of this peace train was becoming more clear to me. While there had been no Antipodean women at the first Hague Congress, by the Zurich Congress of 1919 there had been three. One was Eleanor Moore. Jane Addams, president of WILPF, had asked her at the time, ‘Do you feel it is worthwhile your travelling so far to this meeting?’ Moore had answered in the affirmative. But she had added that she was feeling a profound difference of perspective setting her apart from the European and North American women around her. Interestingly, seven years later, when WILPF first organized a Pan-Pacific Congress in Hawaii, sixteen Australian and New Zealand women had attended, Eleanor Moore among them. And here, Eleanor Moore remarked that the issues discussed were more regional, more local, more grounded. The alienating euro-centricity of 1919 was absent.

Australia’s painful history, the despising and destruction of indigenous cultures by European colonizers, has generated a much needed debate about inter-regional cultural power relations. In her book Southern Theory, a forceful critique of academic imperialism, Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell writes, ‘The enormous spectrum of human history that the sociologists took as their domain was organised by a central idea: difference between the civilisation of the metropole and other cultures whose main feature was their primitiveness…. Within the colonised world, Australia had the distinction of being the most primitive of all, illustrating the extremity of degradation or backwardness.’ It was also no accident that one of the earliest critiques of the assumption of authority by Western feminists, One World Women’s Movement, was written by an Australian, academic and writer Chilla Bulbeck.

At the WILPF Congress this week members will debate a Resolution to embrace leadership from the ‘Global South’. The text reads, ‘We can practice the fine art of learning from and being led by new ideas from cultural heritages, from acknowledging the leadership of our sisters from South and Central America, from Africa, from Asia, from the Middle East and from the Pacific’. As the League enters its second century there is a chance, then, that it may become the truly global and inclusive organization it has always aspired to be.

Cynthia Cockburn is speaking at the WILPF centenary conference in the Hague April 22 - 29.  Read read more articles in 50.50's series Women's Power to Stop War addressing feminist strategies to outlaw war and root out its causes. Marion Bowman and Jennifer Allsopp are reporting for openDemocracy 50.50.

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Turkey and the Armenian genocide: the next century

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 6:37

For the Armenian diaspora, today is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day—but not in Turkey. Perhaps members of the country’s Kurdish minority can help shake up a polarised narrative.

Dark heritage: a derelict Armenian church in Diyarbakir. All photos courtesy of the author.

Most of the coverage of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide has concentrated on the Turkish government’s continuing refusal to recognise the organised massacre of over 1m Armenians as such. The centenary has arrived and the US has once again refused to call it genocide, though Germany and many others now have. Yet, after the international media attention passes, what can be done to seek reconciliation and recognition for the suffering of those who died?

Below the din of the angry debate, many Turks, Kurds and Armenians are working together to heal the wounds of 100 years ago. I followed Ara Sarafian, an Armenian-British-Cypriot historian, who is attempting to create spaces for communities to reconcile in the towns and villages where the massacres happened.

Ara Sarafian holds a forget-me-not flower at the site of a massacre of Armenians near Batman.

“In the morning, the government ordered us to kill them, and in the evening we shared their houses, fields, lands, money. Why did our ancestors kill them? They said ‘it’s only money’.” Barzan, our Kurdish guide in Bitlis, recounted this story as he pointed to a tree outside St Alberik Armenian monastery on the remote slopes of the windy Kurdish highlands in eastern Turkey. Gold-diggers have dug all the way under the roots from one side to the other, looking for money they believed Armenians had hidden as the massacres spread out across Anatolia.

Inside the remains of the monastery, 30 or 40 people sheltered from the intemperate weather, as locals who had come with us made a fire and Armenian women from the diaspora began a hymn which made the Kurds fall silent. The smoke from the fire stung the eyes, and the scene transported me temporarily to a time when members of diverse ethnic and religious groups had lived and worked together in this rugged landscape.

Sheltering by a fire inside St Alberik monastery.

On the way down the hill, a young Kurdish man helped one of the older Armenian women down the muddy slopes. “In my life I never thought a Kurdish man would be helping an Armenian like me”, she said as the young man sang Turkish love songs.

Sarafian organised this goodwill mission to Turkey’s Kurdish region to commemorate the 1915 tragedy. He told me he wanted to be a partner for Kurds who wanted to draw reconciliation from the legacy of the genocide and he hoped the example could inspire others to visit the lands of their ancestors.

Broken bridges

With some Armenian nationalists demanding reparations in the form of lands or money, Sarafian wants clarity on why recognition of the genocide is sought. If the goal is to end the pain of denial for the descendants of the victims, then this depends on a shift in internal Turkish politics. Those who retain the deeds of their lost lands should be able to go to court and receive compensation or the return of the lands they own, but there are also important Armenian sites which continue to crumble and require conservation. The latter would benefit everyone: the local population who could gain from tourism, Armenians who would see that the state took their suffering seriously and Turkey itself, which could mend its broken bridges with the Armenian state and people.

Recognition of the genocide is still a fundamental goal, but Sarafian believes that this will come only after a process of healing within Turkey which involves Armenians, Kurds, Turks and other minorities who suffered persecution. “If we can’t influence the [Armenian] diaspora by the example of being here, to take Turkey more seriously, to think about the issues more seriously and to take on the burden of engaging with these issues and opportunities, then we’ve failed,” he said.

For those still unwilling to accept the term genocide, there is little that will convince them otherwise. But slowly a younger generation of people in Turkey is coming to a fuller understanding of what happened: 9% of Turks favour a formal apology and the admission of genocide, another 9% favour an apology without using the term and 12% favour expressing regret for the Armenians who died.

Interestingly, another 23% favour expressing regret for all those who died, including Muslims who fled from the Balkans in the late 19th century due to the rise of European nationalism. Many Turks are descended from Balkan Muslims and, while understanding the ethno-nationalist violence of the period, feel that the concentration on Armenian suffering ignores their own narrative.

Comparing the suffering of different groups feels wrong and the systematic nature of the massacres of Armenian (and Assyrians, Pontic Greeks and Chaldeans) was on a horrific scale hard to compare with the persecution of Ottoman Muslims in Europe. Remembering the terrible suffering of 1915 does not mean we don’t care about the suffering of other people; the persecution of Balkan Muslims was one of the factors which led to the genocide in the first place.

Legacy of oppression

On the way to Dudan (‘waterfall’ in Turkish), there was a reminder of the legacy of political oppression in the Kurdish region when the military police decided to stop our convoy of cars and demanded to see our passports. Luckily, we had lawyers from the Diyarbakir Bar Association with us, who managed to convince them to let us pass without incident.

Military police stop the group’s convoy en route to Dudan.

Dudan is the site of a massacre by Turkish soldiers of 10,000 women, children and elderly people in July 1915. A chasm opens there into which a stream gushes and it is impossible to see the bottom. After murdering the men and boys, the soldiers brought the remaining Armenians here and slit their throats before pushing them into the hole—some chose to jump.

The Dudan crevass, where up to 10,000 Armenians were killed by Ottoman soldiers.

Firat, a Kurd from the city of Batman, who works with Sarafian’s Gomidas Institute, told me why Kurds who lived in this area felt the need to push for recognition of the genocide within Turkey: “Now, people feel the pain that happened at that time. They tried to kill the Kurds also in this region, but they couldn’t because Kurds resisted against the state, but at that time Armenians were weaker and it was wartime. Now Kurdish people feel that pain like Armenian people. People in this region, they know the truth.”

The landscape of the Kurdish region is lush and dramatic, its people open and eager to begin a new chapter of their history after the suffering of the past half century. A common Armenian phrase is ‘we were the breakfast; you will be the lunch’. Now Kurds are fighting to stop the Islamic State dinner party ravaging the Levant; they are keen to make amends for not defending their Christian brothers and sisters in 1915.

Not all Kurds collaborated in the genocide, however. When we visited a small village near the city of Batman to pay respects at the grave of a local leader who refused to carry out the massacres ordered by the local governor in 1915, residents were touched to have so many people come to honour their ancestor. These exchanges are important, and could be the first step towards more people making a cultural pilgrimage to where their ancestors lived for millennia and died a century ago.

Political freedom

The progress made in highlighting and recognising the genocide, especially in the Kurdish region, is dependent both on the Kurdish peace process and the level of political freedom in the country generally. Ten years ago, authors like Orhan Pamuk were being prosecuted for using the word ‘genocide’; now it is commonly used by writers and politicians without any consequences.

The upcoming election is also vital to the fortunes of genocide recognition in Turkey. A party must gain 10% of the vote to win any seats at all under the electoral system , so small parties often stand candidates as independents. This time, the pro-Kurdish HDP party is gambling that it can get over the threshold.

If it succeeds, it is unlikely that the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will gain the seats he needs to install the executive presidency he craves, to cement his hold on power for another generation. But if it fails, there could be violence in the Kurdish region should people think that his Islamist AKP government used fraudulent means to shut the HDP out.

All of Turkish society wins or loses depending on the health of its political system. The authoritarian regime Erdoğan desires would put the religious conservative faction in a position of power which it would inevitably start to abuse even more than it already does.

For diaspora Armenians, there is much that can be done beyond criticising the Turkish government once a year. Diyarbakir is a beautiful city which in 20 years will probably be a major tourist destination. It has a beautiful old part and a progressive administration eager to work with Armenians to bring investment and tourism.

Sarafian’s work is calling those from the diaspora to come back to the lands of their ancestors, to see where they lived and to work with Kurds to save the Armenian cultural legacy that remains. There is so much opportunity to build a new, inclusive Armenian identity in touch with its roots, rather than carrying around the pain of the genocide and simply waiting for the Turkish government to decide one day to recognise that pain.

A lot of work remains. On the eve of the genocide anniversary, the bells of Sourp Giragos began to ring but were then cut short. Someone had told the church authorities to stop ringing their bells. Inside, hundreds of Kurds and Armenians had gathered to pay their respects. Little by little, it is becoming harder to deny what happened—but when recognition does come, it will be because Turks and Kurds have sought the truth for themselves, not because they have been forced to admit it.

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Skeletons in the Turkish closet: remembering the Armenian Genocide

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 6:27

Just like the skeletons that were discovered in Diyarbakır in 2012 nearly 100 years after they were buried, Turkey’s past is haunting its future and demanding that we remember the tragic events of the Armenian Genocide.

It was a few weeks after the New Year in 2012 when the skeletons of 38 human beings were discovered during an excavation in a restoration site in the İçkale neighborhood of Diyarbakır. The site where the remains were unearthed is the yard of the Saraykapı prison in İçkale, which was built in the 1880s during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamit II.

Saraykapı prison in İçkale was the site of horrifying forms of torture and murder of human beings in at least  three different historical instances: First of all, it was known as a place where members of the Armenian community of Diyarbakır were detained, tortured and killed in the spring of 1915. Secondly, it was used as the office of the public prosecutor as well as a detention area for holding arrested suspects after the 1980 military coup d’etat. Thirdly, the prison was used as the center for JİTEM (Jandarma İstihbarat ve Terörle Mücadele), a clandestine anti-terror organization formed within the deep state in the 1990s. The members of this organization were involved in the murder of many Kurdish activists. The prison was used as the headquarters of JİTEM where Kurdish activists were tortured and killed in the 1990s.

Following  the discovery of the skeletons, a debate emerged in the Turkish media about their identities. While some were claiming that they were the remains of the Armenians who were detained and tortured in this prison in the spring of 1915, others were almost certain that the skeletons belonged to some Kurdish victims. The list of victims who did not have a grave in their name was so long in the history of Diyarbakır that many surviving Kurdish families came forward hoping to give the remains of their loved ones a proper burial.

In an article that he wrote in Turkish in 2012, my colleague Ayhan Aktar, who was studying the massacres of Diyarbakır Armenians, suggested that it was very likely that these remains belonged to Armenians.

Aktar based his argument on a report penned by Thomas Mugerditchian who worked as a translator at the British Consulate in Diyarbakır. This report -titled The Diyarbekir Massacres and Kurdish Atrocities- was originally written and published in Armenian in 1919 (English translation published by the Gomidas Institute in 2013). Mugerditchian’s report is based on the recollections  of two surviving witnesses from Diyarbakır. Accordingly, it is claimed that in mid-April 1915, deserters from the Ottoman military were gathered from the Armenian neighborhood, and instead of being returned to their barracks they were placed in the prison in İçkale. In a couple of days, Armenian political leaders were also placed in prison. Soon, all the educated Armenians, namely doctors, lawyers, engineers, tradesmen, shop owners, civil servants, judges, and priests were gathered in the prison. It was in the yard of this prison that the human remains were unearthed. The debate about the identity of the human remains was eventually resolved by the report of the Institute of Forensic Medicine: the skeletons were at least 100 years old!

When I first heard  about the discovery of these skeletons in the site of the Saraykapı prison in İçkale, I was immediately reminded of a novel that I  read a few years ago. The novel authored by Edgar Hilsenrath titled Das Märchen vom letzten Gedanken (The Story of the Last Thought) is the story of the Armenians in the village Yedi Su in the province of Bakir before and after the 1915 deportations and death marches. This novel is distinguished by its author, Hilsenrath, who is a survivor of the Holocaust and therefore in an extraordinary position of being both an insider and an outsider to the phenomenon of the Armenian Genocide. In the novel, Armenians are portrayed by the Vali (Governor) of Bakir as people who are just waiting “to stick a dagger in our back,” an expression which was similarly used for the Jews in Nazi Germany (Dolchtosslegende).

The İçkale prison in Diyarbakır in the spring of 1915 is also described in the memoirs of Fâ’iz El-Ghusein (1917). El-Ghusein was a government administrator in Mamouret-el-Aziz in the 1910s. According to his account, he was later denounced as an Arab nationalist, tried and acquitted, but was dispatched to Erzurum accompanied by guards. When he reached Diyarbakır he was detained in prison for 22 days. It is possible to read about the torture that Armenian inmates endured in El-Ghusein’s memoirs.  It is also possible to read about the torture in this prison in Hilsenrath’s novel. My discovery of the overlap  between Hilsenrath’s novel and El-Ghussein’s memoirs was an amazing experience. I could see how the narration in novels and memoirs complemented one another, and helped one to visualize what had actually happened in a more detailed way. While inquiring into the atrocities committed in 1915 in this prison, El-Ghussein’s memoirs and Hilsenrath’s novel were filling the gaps in my imagination.

Barhana or Berhâne

Growing up in Turkey, I did not know about the Armenian Genocide until moving to Chicago, and later Boston, for graduate studies. My father is from Arapgir, a province of the city of Malatya. Lately, we had been having conversations about the Armenians that he had known during his childhood. He was born in 1929 and lived in Arapgir during his early childhood. My father’s childhood memories are filled with female Armenian acquaintances of the family who worked on the weaving loom, producing the famous Manusa fabric of Arapgir. One women (my father refers to her as Marisa Hanım) mended the broken arm of my father when he was a young boy by smearing a special mixture that contained pressed grape juice, and then wrapping it in a bandage. My father, a medical doctor who is well-known among his peers as a masterful surgeon, to this day remembers in amazement how this magical mixture had fixed his broken arm leaving no visible traces or pain in his later life.

One day, in the midst of our conversations, my father uttered the word “barhana.” He used the word in referring to a female Armenian acquaintance of the family called Eugenie who had arrived to Arapgir from Erzincan. Eugenie lived alone, and was responsible for spinning a thread bobbin. My father said that Eugenie arrived in  Arapgir during barhana. He was using it as the “turning point” for the region in reference to the deportation of the Armenians. He was not sure about the meaning of the word, but he knew that it had a negative connotation. A quick search led me to find out that the word means a procession of people in caravans, in Turkish. Barhana meant the deportation of Armenians. A more advanced search revealed that the word barhana means “to augment” in Urdu. An even more detailed search led me to find out that barhana also means “naked” or “bare” in Urdu. It was obvious that barhana was a word that my father had heard in his childhood, an expression used for the Armenian Genocide. My colleague and dear friend Ayhan Aktar told me that his mother used a similar word. He suggested that the correct spelling of the word could be “berhâne” rather than barhana and it is used to refer to a ruined and desolate house, or a mansion in Ottoman Turkish. There is no doubt that both ways of spelling seem to refer to people who are left either naked, bare, or with a ruined house. 

A strange cultural dilemma in Turkey: pride coupled with low self-esteem

The history books that I remember from my primary and secondary school years were filled with heroic stories of national figures. You were expected to derive a sense of pride in them. At some point in my adult life, I realized that many people in Turkey had developed a sense of pride in their national history thanks to the national education system. Nevertheless, they did not think very highly of themselves. I believe that such a sense of pride, coupled with a low sense of self-esteem, is one of the significant cultural dilemmas in Turkey. While on the one hand there is a sense of pride in ancestors and/or the national flag, there is at the same time a low sense of self -esteem. I always wondered about the origins of this paradox. Could it be that people knew and did not talk about the atrocities on this land? Could it be that they knew what happened was wrong but were channeled not to reflect about it? Could it be that they were encouraged to forget what cannot be forgotten? Could it be that the land itself kept whispering words about past atrocities, while the history books were boisterously claiming national victories?

Today, we know that the history of no land can be hidden under its soil. It is unearthed sooner or later, just like the skeletons that were discovered in Diyarbakır about 100 years after they were buried.

In 2015, some of us are grieving and commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in an effort to put an end to one hundred years of denial, as well as justification of these atrocities in this country. Throughout Republican history, these atrocities were either absent from history books, or were justified as mutual casualties of war.

Recent academic efforts towards remembering the past in Turkey

In the course of the past decade there has been a significant rise of academic activities in Turkey that opt for acknowledging and remembering these atrocities. On September 23-25, 2005, three universities in Turkey - Bilgi University, Boğaziçi University and Sabancı University - jointly organized a pioneer conference on the theme of Ottoman Armenians During the Decline of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy. This was a historically important conference; a turning point changing the nature of the historical studies in Turkey. Those who were present at that conference still remember vividly Hrant Dink’s moving remarks. He was assassinated 16 months later. I have referred to his remarks in a piece that I wrote after his assassination.

After the assassination of Hrant Dink on January 19, 2007, the number of studies and conferences on Ottoman Armenians began to multiply in Turkey. In the course of the past couple of years, the Hrant Dink Foundation has been organizing pivotal conferences in specific cities such as Diyarbakır in 2011, and Mardin in 2012. There was a conference on Islamized Armenians held at Boğaziçi University in 2013, and a conference on Sealed Gate: Prospects of the Turkey-Armenia Border in 2014 held at Ankara University - both organized by the Hrant Dink Foundation. Many institutions, including Boğaziçi University and Sabancı University faculty members, have been organizing Hrant Dink Memorial lectures and workshops.

The conferences held in Turkey portray the unwavering effort on the part of some scholars to remember and come to grips with past atrocities in Turkey. In 2015, it is all the more important to learn about the lost and wounded lives during the Armenian Genocide, and understand that their loss had left Turkey impoverished and barren. It is also important to learn about the misdeeds of those who were the perpetrators of this genocide, and to put an end to the celebration of these perpetrators as heroes by giving their names to main streets and schools in major Turkish cities.

Why remember?

In the course of such academic attempts to remember and come to grips with the past you often hear some people say: “what good does it do to remember such atrocities; it all happened a long time ago; why can’t we just move on and look to the future instead?”  Therefore, many scholars find themselves having to explain why it is important to remember the past and the merits of a critical approach to history. There could be several answers to such questions:

First of all, it is important to remember in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Georges Santayana provided this insight in 1905 to all of those who eventually found themselves in a position to come to grips with the unprecedented atrocities of the twentieth century. In  The Life of Reason or the Phases of Human Progress (1905: 82, vol.1) Santayana wrote: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Following the footsteps of Santayana, it is then possible to say that it is important to remember in order to retain knowledge, which in turn gives one the ability to move from infancy to maturity.

Secondly, it is important to remember in order to envision the future. In a brief article in Psychology Today (June 17, 2013), Ira Hyman uses the expression “remembering the future.”  He maintains that: “Constructing the future relies on the same memory capabilities. We use information from past events and general knowledge, stir that information into new forms, and construct a memory for a future event…Imagining the future, for example, involves many of the same brain areas as remembering the past….Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to live without imagining the future.” Therefore, it is possible to say that it is important to remember the past in order to be able to envision the future.

In the conclusion of her book Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (2009: 169), Margaret MacMillan reflects on the role that history can play for the present. She says: “Humility is the most useful lesson that the past can provide the present…If the study of history does nothing more than teach us humility, skepticism, and awareness of ourselves, then it has done something useful.” The prospect of humility as a more widespread human attribute, instead of feelings of national grandeur, is definitely another argument in support of efforts to remember past atrocities. It may lead to the replacement of an overbearing national pride and arrogance with a decent sense of  self-esteem.

This article stems from the Campagna-Kerven Lecture delivered by Ayşe Kadıoğlu at Boston University in April 2014.

 

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Bigger than the World Cup: state-sponsored human trafficking in the Gulf states

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 4:00

Recent attention to the plight of migrant workers in Qatar is welcome, but the problems of trafficking and forced labour in the Middle East are endemic.

Migrant construction workers in Dubai lay rebar in 2009. Static146/Flickr. Creative Commons.

The 2022 World Cup has brought the abuses of migrant workers in the Gulf states into the global spotlight. Hiding behind the glittery skyline they have constructed over the past thirty years, migrant workers comprise nearly two-thirds of the GCC’s labour force, totalling nearly 22 million migrant workers across the six GCC states of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). At least 600,000 of these are currently subjected to forced labour. This is a reality that, from my first hand research into these issues, I know most consumers in this hub of luxury never see.

The slave-like treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is not limited to the World Cup, nor is it a new phenomenon. State-sponsored trafficking and forced labour has been part of GCC state development strategies ever since many of them ceased to be part of the British protectorate in 1971. The history of slavery and forced labour in the Gulf of course goes back much longer than this—as it does elsewhere—however my research shows the space for its modern incarnation is created through the interplay of modern immigration and labour laws . Central here is the kafala system (translated as the sponsorship system), introduced in the early 1930s. The term is intended to capture the Arabian notion of hospitality, however this system effectively allows GCC nationals and companies to traffic workers into the GCC for the purposes of labour exploitation.

Media accounts—such as recent stories about the World Cup—often describe ‘labour violations’ taking place in the region, however such characterisations bely the scale of the problem and the state sanction of the exploitation. As I have argued in my research, migrant workers in the GCC should be considered victims of human trafficking because they meet three key elements of the definition of trafficking in the Palermo protocol, which all GCC states are either signatories to or have ratified. They are (1) recruited by (2) means of fraud and deception and abuse of power by someone in control for the (3) purposes of exploitation. The legal curtailing of migrant workers’ protections and rights means that exploitation frequently includes forced labour, slavery or practices similar to slavery. Because the dynamics surrounding migrant workers meet the threshold of trafficking in international law, their denial of basic labour rights can be understood as constituting a state-sanctioned manifestation of human trafficking. The GCC countries have thus legally enshrined a form of human trafficking that is unique to this region, but which also has important parallels to capitalism’s ‘unfree global workforce’ in other parts of the world.

The exploitation of migrant workers in the GCC is systemic. It occurs in broad daylight, is sanctioned through a range of state policies, and is categorically not a result of individual, ‘bad apple’ employers. Once in the GCC states, migrant workers (typically from East Asia, the Global South and sub-Saharan Africa) are no longer covered under labour protection laws, and their fundamental rights and freedoms are denied.

To begin with, migrants are required to sign a labour contract agreeing to these conditions only in Arabic, a problem for those with no knowledge of the language. Other examples of problematic policies entail: the requirement of surrendering passports to employers for the duration of stay; the absence of a required minimum wage; the absence of maximum allowable percentages employers can charge for the migration process (resulting in debt bondage); the criminalisation of collective bargaining and the freedom to associate; the denial of rights to vacation time; and the absence of the right to transfer employment to a third party. In limiting workers’ freedom in these ways, GCC states introduce and legitimate widespread labour exploitation and forced labour within their borders.

These legislated restrictions often lead to gross human rights violations. As my research and as well as large-scale investigations by the International Labour Organisation and other organisations have documented, these violations include emotional, physical and sexual abuse, debt bondage, the withholding of wages, the denial of vacation time, detainment for escaping abusive situations and at times deportation.

The existing dynamics of the GCC economy drive the continued use of forced labour and exploitation in the region. GCC countries have significant interests in regional and international trade in oil and natural gas, resulting in a collective gross domestic product (GDP) of approximately US$1.60 trillion and a GDP per capita of USD$33,300. Far from sitting on their money, the GCC states have used it to build and develop a luxury paradise for the wealthy and global elite. At the same time, very few GCC nationals participate in the labour force. The high GDP, lack of nationals in the workforce and a desire for development and expansion has created a heavy reliance on a migrant labour force. Indeed, the estimates for some GCC states put the proportion of migrant workers as high as 90% of the private sector. Migrant workers labour across every sector of the economy, from bars and clubs to the food sector, domestic care, agriculture, construction (with nearly US$418 billion worth of projects in the UAE alone), sex work, hospitality and tourism.

As a result of mounting pressure by the international community, the GCC has made some recent incremental improvements. These include the acknowledgement of a rampant problem in labour practices vis-à-vis the kafala system, as well as gradual reforms. Although these reforms are a promising start, there is a need for much wider policy change as well as enforcement of policy changes before an improved future can be imagined.

What can be done to reform labour rights in one of the wealthiest economic blocs in the world? If the problem is bigger than the World Cup, so too must be the solutions. So long as the GCC states refuse to adhere to the international laws they have ratified, including the Palermo Protocol, meaningful reforms to the region, are unlikely. The abolishment of the kafala system would be a good start, however, as would a re-evaluation of the current hybrid legal system that perpetuates these problems. Such a re-evaluation would first call for the clarification of Islamic law, which prohibits the enslavement of free persons and emphasises the universality of the presumption of freedom, as a basic fundamental right given to all persons. Secondly, a re-evaluation would need to ask how rights could be afforded to migrant workers, while at the same time, preserving the economic integrity of the GCC from a trading vantage point. These reforms are not only in the best interest of migrant workers, but are in fact essential to the sustainability of trading interests and economic prosperity in the Gulf region.

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To stop the age of extinction, nature needs a new pronoun

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. April 2015 - 0:00

Calling the natural world ‘it’ absolves us of moral responsibility and opens the door to exploitation. 

Credit: Shutterstock. All rights reserved.

Singing whales, talking trees, dancing bees, birds who make art, fish who navigate, plants who learn and remember. We are surrounded by intelligences other than our own, by feathered people and people with leaves. But we’ve forgotten. There are many forces arrayed to help us forget—even the language we speak.

I’m a beginning student of my native Anishinaabe language, trying to reclaim what was washed from the mouths of children in the Indian Boarding Schools. Children like my grandfather. So I’m paying a lot of attention to grammar lately. Grammar is how we chart relationships through language, including our relationship with the Earth.

Imagine your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and someone says, “Look, it is making soup. It has gray hair.” We might snicker at such a mistake; at the same time we recoil. In English, we never refer to a person as “it.” Such a grammatical error would be a profound act of disrespect. “It” robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a thing.

And yet in English, we speak of our beloved Grandmother Earth in exactly that way: as “it.” The language allows no form of respect for the more-than-human beings with whom we share the Earth. In English, a being is either a human or an “it.”

Objectification of the natural world reinforces the notion that our species is somehow more deserving of the gifts of the world than the other 8.7 million species with whom we share the planet. Using “it” absolves us of moral responsibility and opens the door to exploitation. When Sugar Maple is an “it” we give ourselves permission to pick up the saw. “It” means it doesn’t matter.

But in Anishinaabe and many other indigenous languages, it’s impossible to speak of Sugar Maple as “it.” We use the same words to address all living beings as we do our family. Because they are our family.

What would it feel like to be part of a family that includes birches and beavers and butterflies? We’d be less lonely. We’d feel like we belonged. We’d be smarter.

In indigenous ways of knowing, other species are recognized not only as persons, but also as teachers who can inspire how we might live. We can learn a new solar economy from plants, medicines from mycelia, and architecture from the ants. By learning from other species, we might even learn humility.

Colonization, we know, attempts to replace indigenous cultures with the culture of the settler. One of its tools is linguistic imperialism, or the overwriting of language and names. Among the many examples of linguistic imperialism, perhaps none is more pernicious than the replacement of the language of nature as subject with the language of nature as object. We can see the consequences all around us as we enter an age of extinction precipitated by how we think and how we live.

Let me make here a modest proposal for the transformation of the English language, a kind of reverse linguistic imperialism, a shift in worldview through the humble work of the pronoun. Might the path to sustainability be marked by grammar?

Language has always been changeable and adaptive. We lose words we don’t need anymore and invent the ones we need. We don’t need a worldview of Earth beings as objects anymore. That thinking has led us to the precipice of climate chaos and mass extinction. We need a new language that reflects the life-affirming world we want. A new language, with its roots in an ancient way of thinking.

If sharing is to happen, it has to be done right, with mutual respect. So, I talked to my elders. I was pointedly reminded that our language carries no responsibility to heal the society that systematically sought to exterminate it. At the same time, others counsel that “the reason we have held on to our traditional teachings is because one day, the whole world will need them.” I think that both are true.

English is a secular language, to which words are added at will. But Anishinaabe is different. Fluent speaker and spiritual teacher Stewart King reminds us that the language is sacred, a gift to the People to care for one another and for the Creation. It grows and adapts too, but through a careful protocol that respects the sanctity of the language.

He suggested that the proper Anishinaabe word for beings of the living earth would be Bemaadiziiaaki. I wanted to run through the woods calling it out, so grateful that this word exists. But I also recognized that this beautiful word would not easily find its way to take the place of “it.” We need a simple new English word to carry the meaning offered by the indigenous one. Inspired by the grammar of animacy and with full recognition of its Anishinaabe roots, might we hear the new pronoun at the end of Bemaadiziiaaki, nestled in the part of the word that means land?

“Ki” to signify a being of the living earth. Not “he” or “she,” but “ki.” So that when we speak of Sugar Maple, we say, “Oh, that beautiful tree, ki is giving us sap again this spring.” And we’ll need a plural pronoun, too, for those Earth beings. Let’s make that new pronoun “kin.” So we can now refer to birds and trees not as things, but as our earthly relatives. On a crisp October morning we can look up at the geese and say, “Look, kin are flying south for the winter. Come back soon.”

Language can be a tool for cultural transformation. Make no mistake: “Ki” and “kin” are revolutionary pronouns. Words have power to shape our thoughts and our actions. On behalf of the living world, let us learn the grammar of animacy. We can keep “it” to speak of bulldozers and paperclips, but every time we say “ki,” let our words reaffirm our respect and kinship with the more-than-human world. Let us speak of the beings of Earth as the “kin” they are.

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

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