Cuba + internet = democracy (?)

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. March 2015 - 19:16

Many people think the internet holds the key to establishing a liberal capitalist democracy in Cuba. But this view is simplistic and deterministic.

The US and Cuba recently normalised relations after a 52-year embargo. Demotix/Juliette Atkinson (c)

On 17 December, Barack Obama and Raul Castro simultaneously announced the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba. The US had decided to drop its obtuse 50-year-long position and recognise the failure of the embargo with which it had tried to suffocate the Castro regime. Its new policy is based on engagement, a strategy that seeks to ease the opening of the regime doors so that Cuban citizens can see and taste ‘the benefits of the free capitalist world.’ 

The US decided to drop its obtuse 50-year-long position and recognise the failure of the embargo.

The nodal point in this strategy is the internet, as intermediary-free access to information is supposed to create new and profitable economic opportunities and at the same time give a voice to new actors – supposedly at near-zero cost.

This is why the Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer who operates almost as a spokesman for the anti-Castro elements in the US, recently insisted that ‘Washington should focus on the internet.’ It is no coincidence that the internet was already an issue in the first round of negotiations on 21-22 January, when the question of permitting US companies to operate in the island was being discussed. Chief US negotiator Roberta Jacobson herself has recognised that the internet is ‘a critical part of our strategy.’ 

The internet in Cuba

There is no denying that access to the internet will truly have a major impact in Cuba. The disruptive power of the so-called three revolutions (internet, cell phones and social networks) in everyday life is so huge that we tend to perceive only its quantitative aspects – the volume of information, consumption, and communication. But we are only just beginning to understand deeper aspects concerning its incidence on the way societies organise.

As we know, the island is significantly behind in the rest of the region in the introduction of communication technologies. Cell phones were allowed in 2008 but they are still scoring the lowest rate of penetration in Latin America. Until 2013, the internet was only accessible through satellite, which made it one of the most expensive in the world. As a result, only 5% of the population enjoys internet connection in their home. The majority – penetration is reckoned to reach only 25% of the population – uses internet cafés, internet parlors and hotels which, despite the 50% discount currently in force, still charge $3 an hour. The quality of the connection, which is only about one-fifth of the world average, makes Skype calls and watching YouTube videos practically impossible.

As a result, only 5% of the population enjoys internet connection in their home.

The reasons for this isolation are (as is any discussion on Cuba) a matter of polarised discussion. Some argue that it is the fault of the Torricelli Act (1992), while others maintain that it serves the regime’s purpose to fence itself off. However, even critics agree that the island does not have censorship cases such as Iran, China or North Korea.

The fact remains that the disruptive impact of home internet and of cell phones and mass social network use, has yet to be experienced in Cuba. It is mere speculation to guess how the Cubans will process their access to the available information, what economic opportunities will effectively open, and how all this will affect politics in the island. The commonly held view that the internet automatically leads to a liberal capitalist democracy must however be questioned. It is an ideological view, based on technological determinism, which can only lead us to hasty conclusions.

Internet means democracy

The argument that the power of the internet is so great that it can build liberal democracies came into fashion during the Arab Spring, when observers hailed the triumph of a ‘Facebook Revolution’ over Ben Ali’s and Mubarak’s autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Some renowned authors wrote pieces arguing that the Cuban regime did not fall as well under this tide simply because the islanders lacked internet access. Hence, so the reasoning went, greater access – whenever possible - would mean the inevitable fall of the Castro brothers.

The Arab Spring proved that social networks can indeed create tides, but it also showed that without a structured movement capable of actually carrying out actions on the ground, real change is very hard to achieve. In a recent article, US journalist Nathan Schneider explains how, when elections were held in Egypt after Mubarak’s fall in 2011-2012, it came as no surprise that the winner was the Muslim Brotherhood which had been organising and developing its networks for decades. And the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood’s government was overthrown in 2013 by the military demonstrated not only their tight control of the strategic areas in the country, but also that democracy does not depend on a click.

Democracy does not depend on a click.

Closer in time is the case of the Mexican movement #YoSoy132 (#IAm132) which began as opposition to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto and the Mexican media's allegedly biased coverage of the 2012 general election, drawing inspiration from the Spanish 15-M movement. It was called the ‘Mexican Spring’ by its first spokespersons and the ‘Mexican occupy movement’ in the international press. After much Twitter activity, the movement did not stop Peña Nieto, with the support of the PRI machinery and the news corporation Televisa, from being elected president of Mexico. Podemos in Spain is taking note of this experience and investing much energy in offline political construction.

In the case of Cuba, it should be borne in mind that the regime has managed to survive a 52-year embargo by the world’s biggest economy, which happens to be located a mere 145km from its coast. It has managed to stay the course during the Cold War, to resist several attempted coups, to avoid falling under the democratisation wave that swept Latin America during the 1980s and, above all, to survive the downfall of the Soviet Union and its tremendous impact on the island (Cuba’s GDP was halved and its exports fell by 95%). The opposition argues that this was only made possible thanks to the iron grip of the regime, while defenders point to the strength of the achievements of the revolution and the legitimacy of the brothers’ leadership. In any event, the fact remains that there are currently no groups on the island that can mobilise in the way some do in other countries and make use of political use of the new technologies. The Cuban opposition has more international connections - highly concentrated in the United States - than local structures capable of carrying out activities in the island. 

The regime has managed to survive a 52-year embargo by the world’s biggest economy.

Multiple voices

There is no doubt that the better the access to the Internet, the more information will be coming to and from the island, and this will have important consequences. More Cuban voices will be heard in the international arena telling their concrete experiences, and that will certainly enrich the debate on Cuba, its regime and democracy.

Arguably, cases such as Yoani Sánchez’s (the Cuban blogger who has achieved international fame and several international awards for her critical portrayal of life in Cuba) or the Damas de Blanco (Ladies In White – the opposition movement consisting of wives and other female relatives of jailed dissidents), who are currently cornered by the regime, may multiply and eventually manage to mobilise people into action. Again, this view stems from the belief that the Cuban regime is a dictatorship which holds its ground only on the basis of social control. 

What we shall perhaps find is a greater number of more nuanced voices, such as that of independent artists, students and journalists who, while deeply concerned and desiring change, do not have a radicalised, ideological perspective. Current oppositionists are very popular in the US, especially within the Cuban exiles’ communities, but they lack diversified connections in other countries, particularly neighbouring countries in Latin America. It is uncertain whether the current public figures will prevail or will be replaced by new, emerging ones.

The key factor is the information that will now be reaching the island. The US assumption is that Cubans will be able to see how other societies have daily access to material goods that are denied them, and how people in other places are enjoying greater freedom of expression and political action. They will realise more fully that it is not normal to have the same leaders for more than 50 years. And this could prompt them to organise and demand political change. 

Cubans will see how their neighbours in the Caribbean and Central America suffer from dismal inequality indexes.

But this conceals the fact that Cubans will also be able to share experiences and thus see how their neighbours in the Caribbean and Central America suffer from dismal inequality indexes, how drug trafficking is taking over their everyday lives, and how their murder rates are the highest in the world – higher than countries at war. They will also see that their country enjoys the fourth highest Human Development Index in the region; that infant mortality among black people in the United States is three times higher than in Cuba, or that the late Nelson Mandela, now held in such high esteem in the developed world, thanked Cuba before any other country for its support in difficult times. They will also be able to ascertain that the world at large does not hold such a radicalised view of the island and that the leaders of the Revolution continue to inspire young people everywhere. What is important here is that all of this will no longer be mediated by the propaganda structure of the regime and that it will not reach them only through the official party newspapers and magazines. 

Deep changes will no doubt occur in Cuba but it will not necessarily become the type of democracy some have in mind.

So, what political impact will all this exposure to the internet have? While attention should obviously be paid to other important factors such as changes in the economic structure and the indefectible finitude of the lives of the leaders of the 1959 Revolution, it is difficult to foretell the way in which any given society will adopt a particular technology and how it will put it to use. Deep changes will no doubt occur in Cuba, very probably of a democratising nature, and new voices and actors will emerge, but it will not necessarily become the type of democracy some have in mind.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Cuba: through her eyes Cuba, politics in perspective Country or region:  Cuba Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government Economics International politics Internet Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

With Ghani in Kabul, will relations with Pakistan change?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. March 2015 - 18:35

There are signs that the long-fraught relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan could improve, following the change of leadership in Kabul. Reciprocation from Islamabad will, however, be needed.

On their way out: Norwegian special forces in a gunfight with the Taliban in Kabul. Flickr / Metziker. Some rights reserved.

Since Ashraf Ghani’s ascent to power in Kabul as president—with his electoral rival, Abdullah Abdullah, as chief executive—the political climate in the region has taken a positive turn.

Ghani’s victory, after a long stand-off with Abdullah over the legitimacy of last year’s election outcome, was a positive omen for Afghanistan. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, intervened to break the deadlock between the two men, against the backdrop of the departure of US forces by the year end and the prospect of a full withdrawal of Western forces by the end of 2016.

The end to the power struggle in Kabul facilitated the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement between the US and Afghanistan, long deferred under Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai. The accord would allow a limited contingent of US-led forces to remain in the country to train their Afghan counterparts and carry out co-ordinated operations against the militants.

Most importantly, Ghani has given a clear indication of his regional priorities and alliances through visits to China and Pakistan. Since the deadly December school attack in Peshawar, Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, has also made a couple of high-profile visits to Kabul, seeking assistance and co-operation with Pakistan’s operations against fighters on the border.


These developments, surprising to many, have set a positive tone in both Kabul and Islamabad, in what seems to be a reboot of Pakistan’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan. In light of Afghanistan’s reservations about Pakistan’s alleged support of the Taliban, the civil-military leadership in Islamabad seems to have decided to shun its ‘strategic assets’ in that regard.

Afghanistan’s reservations have stemmed from the fact that Pakistan has long maintained the policy of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ Taliban, and thus hesitated in going all-out against the notorious Haqqani network, known for its militant activities in Afghanistan. But it seems that General Raheel, on his recent visit to Kabul, assured the Afghan leadership of tackling all militant outfits in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border.

Pakistan has also mediated in initiating a peace dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government, as Ghani appears to seek an end to the 14-year long bloodshed in his country since ‘9/11’. He has taken into his confidence high-profile leaders and former jihadists to formulate a mechanism and a roadmap for any possible talks.

Ghani’s proactive optimism for peace in the region, though taken seriously by Pakistan, has been severely criticised by some of his rivals, especially from the north of Afghanistan (Taliban support is concentrated in the Pashtun-dominated south). From the standpoint of women’s organisations, domestically and internationally, moreover, there is concern that the women’s rights hard-won in years since the Taliban were deposed could be sacrificed for a deal with the fundamentalists.

A significant number of Afghans also criticise Pakistan for its double standards when it comes to peace talks with the militants. While Islamabad openly supports a dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government, leading to the former’s potential re-inclusion in the state set-up, it would never allow any faction of the Taliban to take over any part of Pakistan.

Afghanistan’s reservations have stemmed from the fact that Pakistan has long maintained the policy of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ Taliban

Ghani is more of a straight talker than his predecessor. While Karzai did his best to please everyone and changed his statements with time, Ghani seems to have stuck with his peace agenda and plans to do whatever it takes for his country’s stability. Whereas Karazai used to call Pakistan ‘a brother’ when in Pakistan, and ‘an enemy’ when in Afghanistan, Ghani has been more consistent.

He also seems to have sent a clear message to the Pakistani leadership—that there is no alternative to both countries working together. With a strong background in statebuilding and economics, Ghani understands the consequences if talks with Pakistan go south. 


A common denominator bringing Afghanistan and Pakistan closer is China. Beijing’s irreplaceable partnership with Pakistan and its economic interests in Afghanistan have the potential to work wonders for the region.  

China is fighting a Muslim Uighur insurgency in its Xinjiang province, with a number of militants receiving their training in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This gives China a strong reason to take a serious interest in durable peace efforts in the region.

While this convergence of China, Pakistan and Afghanistan seems promising, excessive optimism would be premature. A true picture on the practicality of peace dialogue with the Taliban is only possible after a full pull-out of coalition forces from Afghanistan.

A lot will then depend on Pakistan in terms of ensuring the stability of its neighbour. If it fails to honour the goodwill shown by Ghani and the Afghan government, long-lasting peace could quickly be off the table, once and for all. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Between Scylla and Charybdis: life in Pakistan’s tribal frontier Negotiating with the Taliban China and the Great Game Country or region:  Afghanistan Topics:  Conflict
Categories: les flux rss

The Crimean conundrum

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. March 2015 - 17:54

One year since Crimea was annexed by Russia, polling reveals that (with the notable exception of the Tatars) the new order enjoys legitimacy among the population.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea was an illegal act under international law. It is also an act that enjoys the widespread support of the peninsula’s inhabitants, with the important exception of its Crimean Tatar population. It is now a year since the Russian seizure of the peninsula and installation of a pro-Russia local government. The hasty organisation of a referendum (illegal under Ukrainian law) held on 16 March, produced a 96.77% vote in favour of joining Russia. Russia subsequently formally annexed the peninsula on 18 March 2014.

What Crimeans really think

To grasp the conundrum that Crimea presents to the international community, we need to appreciate the disjuncture between scale and legitimacy it represents. For 100 states in the UN General Assembly, Russia’s annexation was a violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The move was contrary to the Budapest Memorandum, which Russia was a party to. For Kyiv, it was an illegal vote by an undemocratic regime installed by an occupying force.

‘Reunification’ with Russia enjoys considerable legitimacy within Crimea among most of the peninsula’s population.

Nevertheless, on the ground in Crimea, prevailing opinion at the inter-state and state level does not matter. ‘Reunification’ with Russia enjoys considerable legitimacy within Crimea among most of the peninsula’s population. It is also considered legitimate within Russia itself, where, in 2014, polls revealed rising levels of support for the annexation from 64% in March to 73% in September.

Our highlighting of the conundrum is based on the results of a public opinion survey we organised on the Crimean peninsula in December 2014. The survey was a random scientific survey of 750 respondents administered by the Levada Center, a Moscow-based polling firm with a reputation for integrity, professionalism and independence. We have worked with the Levada Center for over a decade on public opinion polling, within the Russian Federation in 2002, in the North Caucasus in 2005, and in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia in 2010.

In April 2014, the Political Science division of the US National Science Foundation awarded us a RAPID research grant to examine public opinion in response to the EuroMaidan protests, the toppling of President Yanukovych, and the subsequent annexation of Crimea. Initially, we did not propose to sample in Crimea because we did not consider a reliable survey possible. Instead, we began discussions on a survey in southeast Ukraine with the International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) and the Levada Center on Abkhazia and other ‘de facto states’.  In these discussions, we learned of the long record of cooperation between KIIS and Levada, one that stretched back to Soviet-era personal networks within the discipline of sociology.

This cooperation became significant when Russia annexed Crimea; it meant that KIIS’s interviewers could no longer work for a Kyiv-based firm. They could, however, work for the Levada Center. We thus decided to conduct an equivalent survey in both southeast Ukraine (the regions of Odessa, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Kharkiv, but not the war zones of Luhansk and Donetsk) and Crimea. This survey comprised approximately 150 questions that covered standard demographic questions and a series on identity, politics, geopolitical events, media viewing habits and problem perceptions.

The survey took on average about 45 minutes to complete and was conducted in Russian between 12 and 25 December 2014. The field report indicated no interference by Crimean authorities with the survey. But since the last Ukrainian census was 14 years ago, and we have no reliable estimates of how many have left Crimea since March, there are innate difficulties with survey research there, before we even consider the political climate. Of the sample, 63% declared their nationality as Russian, 21% as Ukrainian and 8.5% as Tatar. This last figure almost certainly under-samples this important but difficult-to-survey group, which was 12% of the population in the 2001 Ukrainian census; and possibly larger today. 28% of respondents are pensioners, an important demographic in a peninsula with many veterans and other retirees. 17% work in services and most of the rest in a broad range of professions. We discuss here four key features of the survey, the full results of which we hope to publish later.

Is Crimea moving in the right direction?

The great majority of the sample (85%) declared that Crimea was ‘moving in the right direction.’

First, the great majority of the sample (85%) declared that Crimea was ‘moving in the right direction.’  This finding is in contrast to previous polling conducted in Crimea.

Polling by the International Republican Institute found only 6% of Crimeans believed the country (Ukraine) was heading in the right direction in November 2009, 11% in October 2011, and 24% in May 2013. The May 2013 figure for how Crimea specifically was heading was 22%. We have found that this generic question about the direction of a region is a powerful predictor of political preferences, and it also encapsulates a variety of beliefs about recent economic performance and future expectations of prosperity. A remarkable difference is seen in the response of the Crimean Tatars to this key question, with only 28% agreeing that life was improving.  The disaffection of Tatars since the annexation is well documented and their political and human rights situation is increasingly precarious. Likewise, Crimeans have different perceptions about Russia moving in the right direction, with over 90% of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians believing it to be so, but only 33% of Tatars feeling that way. These results were recorded at a time when the rouble was dropping precipitously in value against Western currencies, and economic sanctions against the Putin administration were being ramped up. Compared to the opinions of Russians (reported by Levada in the most recent omnibus at 56%,) residents of Crimea are much more optimistic and demonstrate the highest positive scores on this ‘right-wrong direction’ question that we have seen in multiple surveys across territories of the former Soviet Union.

The disaffection of Tatars since the annexation is well documented

The responses to the right-wrong direction question are strongly correlated with the respondent’s own personal outlook. Only 12% of Ukrainians and Russians say that their mood could be described as either ‘stressed’, ‘angry’ or ‘anxious’, with Tatars indicating a rate that is double that of other Crimeans. These ratios, again, are very low compared to others in zones of political tension of the former Soviet Union. The responses are not motivated by material wealth, which is low and quite similar to other post-Soviet regions. In a complementary manner, over three-quarters of the non-Tatars expect to be better off in two years compared to half of the Tatars. The dramatic switch of the peninsula from Ukraine to Russia has even increased levels of optimism about future personal wealth.

Was annexation a good idea?

Consistent with and motivating positivity about Crimea’s direction, the annexation of the peninsula by Russia has the support of a strong majority of the Russian and Ukrainian ethnic groups. When asked if the annexation was a ‘wrong decision,’ ‘generally a right decision’ or ‘absolutely the right decision’, 84% of this combined group picked the third option. The Tatar response on this question is almost split evenly, with about one-third picking each of the first options and only 20% the 'absolutely correct' option. These responses indicate that had a legal referendum that met international standards been permitted in Crimea (as Scotland held in September 2014), there would likely have been a majority in favour of leaving Ukraine and joining Russia. As it was, the referendum was characterised by all manner of illegal practices and conducted in a coercive environment. The Tatars' decision to boycott, further underscored legitimacy questions.

Russians in Crimea have a very negative opinion of the EuroMaidan movement.

Pre-annexation surveys in Crimea by KIIS showed a split opinion (41% yes to joining Russia in February 2014). After the success of the revolution in Kyiv, the ratio of those who wanted to secede and join Russia undoubtedly jumped due to television-fed perceptions that ethnic Russians would become second-class citizens in Ukraine. Russians in Crimea have a very negative opinion of the EuroMaidan movement, with only 2.5% of our sample, thinking it improved conditions in Ukraine, and over 90% believing it made things worse. This ratio is not very different in the six regions in southeast Ukraine that we surveyed where only 10% believe that the EuroMaidan success improved conditions in the country). Judging that the rights of Russians in the country were under threat, a pessimistic mood reinforced by Russian television (which, our poll documents, is the main source of news, and is trusted by this majority population in Crimea), the ratios presented here reflect a profound sense of alienation from Kyiv and its pro-Western leadership, and a preference for Russia as a guarantor of ethnic Russians’ status, power and future.

The ratios presented here reflect a profound sense of alienation from Kyiv and its pro-Western leadership

Is Crimea European? 

Third, we asked Crimeans to what extent they felt European. Unlike residents of western and central Ukraine who tend to readily self-identify in these terms, the strong majority (85%) of the population of Crimea do not perceive themselves as European. Respondents in the six regions in southeast Ukraine were evenly split on this question, with 45% identifying definitely or probably yes while 45% identified as definitely or probably no. Again, Tatars show some differences on this question from other Crimeans, though it is not as dramatic as others; less than half of this Muslim minority see themselves as European. Our survey and previous surveys show considerable divisions over a European, and especially a Euro-Atlantic, orientation in southeast Ukraine. This self-perception poses a challenge for the Poroshenko government as it seeks to build closer relations with the European Union, and aspires to join NATO. The strongest self-identification in Crimea was as Crimeans, then as Russian citizens, then as Soviets (47%).

In Crimea, 89% of respondents agreed that Crimea belonged to the ‘Russian world.’

Identification as European is, of course, strongly contextual and fluid: some Russians readily embracing this identity while some British, for example, actively reject it. The extent to which it has become a marker of a ‘civilisational divide’ in Ukraine, in opposition to a notion like the ‘Russkiy Mir’ (Russian world), is an important question. Certainly, the Kremlin has invested strongly in this notion, and more recently in the concept of separate civilisations. In Crimea, at least, the evidence suggests this is working – 89% of respondents agreed that Crimea belonged to Russkiy Mir, the mirror opposite of European feeling. In southeast Ukraine, the equivalent figure underscores the divide, with 51% strongly or mostly agreeing that their region belongs to the Russkiy Mir. However, we should not automatically assume that this is necessarily a binary choice for all respondents (there are respondents who choose both). Furthermore, and most importantly, we should not assume that those holding that their region belongs to Russkiy Mir  are supporters of Vladimir Putin. In the six southeastern regions we surveyed, only 2.8% of respondents said they definitely trust the Russian president.

Content to put up with problems … for now

Finally, our survey shows that despite the enormous support for the annexation, and the high level of optimism for the future, only one-third of respondents in Crimea believe that the annexation has been problem-free in the nine months leading up to the interviews. Tatars overwhelmingly stress the problems brought about by the change of government, with only a derisory 2% agreeing that it has been problem-free. Recent journalistic accounts have indicated the significant annexation difficulties, including ready access to the peninsula, which is now blocked on the Ukrainian side. Moreover, the expected boon in Russian tourism has not materialised; partly due to the significant financial pressures that Russian holiday-goers now face due to declining incomes. Issues of pensions, infrastructural improvements, administrative transfers from Ukrainian to Russian authorities, and reorganisation of security agencies all compound the daily difficulties provoked by the annexation. Future polling will reveal whether current frustrations wane, and whether the high support and expectations associated with annexation will remain, as recession bites within Russia.

Recent journalistic accounts have indicated the significant annexation difficulties.

Legality and legitimacy 

President Putin has never conceded that the annexation of Crimea was an illegal act. Justifying it in a speech at the Kremlin on March 18, he evoked Kosovo as ‘a precedent our Western colleagues created with their own hands in a very similar situation, when they agreed that the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia, exactly what Crimea is doing now, was legitimate and did not require any permission from the country’s central authorities.’ For Putin, revisionist geopolitics began in Europe in 1999 and 2008, not 2014. The United States, however, sees the Kosovo situation as sui generis, a unique set of circumstances. The NATO bombing and intervention that led to Kosovo’s separation from Serbia was famously characterised as ‘illegal but legitimate.’

Is the Crimean conundrum another case of an act that is ‘illegal but legitimate’?

Are we dealing with another example of an act that is ‘illegal but legitimate’ in Crimea? Understandably painful as it is for Ukraine, the question warrants debate. The Kosovo case has important lessons for the international community about the importance of ‘remedial secession’ in cases of active physical oppression of a minority population.

Kosovo is also held to have ‘earned sovereignty’ through accepting a period of international administration. By these criteria, the Kosovo case is clearly different from the Crimean case. Furthermore, Kosovo became an independent state whereas Crimea aspired to join another. Yet, at the same time, we need to recognise that while the circumstances under which Crimea became a self-determinating region, and by which its inhabitants expressed its opinion, were manifestly illegal, the majority of the current population in Crimea appears to approve of its unification with Russia.

Across the former Soviet Union, a series of regions have long held unresolved legal status: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria. Now they are joined by Crimea and Donbas. The circumstances of each are distinct but they do share familial origins and resemblance. Today, debate about these regions is in danger of being overwhelmed by homogenising legalism and geopolitical polemic. Is the ‘territorial integrity’ of the state the highest moral value irrespective of the circumstances? Are we to describe regions as ‘under Russian occupation’ when the majority of the population in these areas actively welcomes and supports the stationing of Russian troops there? We need a geopolitics that is about more than just ‘Putin and the West’, one that acknowledges past histories of sponsored settlement, forced displacement, war crimes, inept state building, and economic marginalisation in these contested spaces. We need, in short, to respect the complexity of places and the local voices of those – in situ and displaced – caught up in struggles over them.

Standfirst image: A Crimean woman casting her vote in the referendum. Image by Mikhail Voskresenskiy via Rianovosti. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  The Crimean ‘question’ Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

Using South Tyrol to solve Ukraine? Don't be stupid

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. March 2015 - 17:37

The Italian minister of foreign affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, said that Italy’s mostly German-speaking region is an example for solving ethnic disputes in Ukraine and beyond. This is a flawed and dangerous piece of advice.

A typical South Tyrolean landscape. Wikipedia/Kuebi. Public domain.Would you ever think of suggesting that the eastern half of Ukraine (Europe’s largest country), steeped in a dramatic conflict bearing serious global repercussions, should look at forty-one times smaller South Tyrol for solutions?

Chances are most of you wouldn’t. But the Italian minister of foreign affairs Paolo Gentiloni did: he told the audience gathered on 9 February at Bloomberg’s summit in New York “Italy: We are Open for Business” that the Ukrainian crisis could in his view be overcome by adopting an ethnic model akin to South Tyrol’s.

A model? Think again: Italy’s irrelevance there is now as tangible as never before

Emotionally speaking, South Tyrol is light years away from Rome; and quite understandably so. More and more South Tyroleans are in fact unlearning Italian; they just don’t need it. Italy being there is as foreign a thing as you like. Why should it be otherwise, after all?

On the other hand most local young Italians (the third- or even fourth generation born there) are kept in ethnic compounds, forced to attend a school system devised in Rome, teaching them nothing about South Tyrol, nothing about its local Germanic parlance that’s used practically at all levels, and hardly anything about getting a firm grasp of standard German, the main language of business and a successful professional life. You get a cold picture of two parallel worlds – one big, the other small – that never talk to each other.

Rome is desperately clinging onto South Tyrol: through its deeply flawed Italian-language-only school system, it is hopeful to instil an Italian identity on the future generations to come. But with no German skills and no decent jobs, there will eventually be no Italians. That will mean a fully Germanic South Tyrolean population, one that will see nothing wrong with asking for a grand referendum the Scottish way. Legitimately so.

Its legally-bound outcome could mean South Tyrol breaking away from Italy. And many would argue that’s par for the course. This isn’t a model for ethnic conflicts; it’s more a patched-up temporary solution. Mr Gentiloni is clearly unaware of such dynamics: its upshot is to politely accompany one ethnic group on its way out. An acceptable solution, in a way – dignified assisted dying, like they do at Dignitas in Switzerland.

South Tyrol is firmly part of the German-speaking world, Europe’s wealthy core

Comparing Eastern Ukraine to South Tyrol is naïve and simplistic. Russia isn’t Austria or Germany. German-speaking countries (Luxembourg included) are Europe’s powerhouse – South Tyrol is firmly part of it. The same can’t be said about undemocratic Russia, with dissidents being criminalised day in day out.

Consider this: Angela Merkel wanted Jean-Claude Juncker to head the EU Commission – both German speakers. It’s no coincidence. German is the Continent’s most spoken language at native level: the levers of power are firmly in the hands of Central Europe. Italy can’t lay any claim on South Tyrol’s success.

The last decades of unprecedented  peace and technological advancements across Europe have spontaneously propelled the Alpine region back into its natural Germanic world; the one Italy’s military arrogance tried to snatch it from (Treaty of London, 1915).

The inter-ethnic matrix – the Walschen at a junction: germanising or dying out?

What’s more is that South Tyrol is slowly yet surely becoming an ethnically homogenous region: Italians, known as die Walschen, were 33 per cent in the fifties; now that figure has dropped to 21 per cent. The trend is a firmly descending one. (Italianised immigrants are temporarily keeping their numbers steady.)

Twisted democracy, governed by sectarian policies polluting the political arena across the spectrum with only a few exceptions – as anthropologist Dr Stefano Fait explianed in Contro i miti etnici (Against ethnic myths, 2010) – does not help.

And Italians are in fact very orderly and democratically disappearing from the face of South Tyrol, their descendants having either cleverly germanised (it’s called natural assimilation) or just left; or died. But really, would you move to a new country and not learn its language? You’d be bound to leave sooner or later, as you couldn’t function without integrating – it’s as simple as that. Education has failed majorly.

South Tyrol’s ever fewer Italian-speaking families have shrunk in size anyway – their salaries are too low due to their lack of adequate German-language skills. An ethnic group is dying a painful yet inconspicuous slow death; a natural one it must be said. Future ministers won’t be able to utter claims like Mr Gentiloni’s.

Ethnic homogeneity will make for a stable environment; if that’s the outcome intended by Mr. Gentiloni, fine – but homogenising is not the same as harmonising diversity. If this is forced onto millions of people it can spark serious animosity. For Ukraine that’d mean being back to square one.

Ethnic conflicts are coming to an end – in spite of Italy’s central government

South Tyrol’s infrastructure is excellent; its landscape management is outstanding as it’s informed by the highest environmental standards. Quality of life comes from there – not from Rome’s politics and its impositions, of which the school system is one remarkable and most conspicuous example.

Italy’s ministerial claims on South Tyrol’s excellence are out of place: Rome has no merit in it. If anything the central government is in the way between South Tyrol as it is and what still remains to be done, i.e. getting rid of its obsessive talks on ethnicity: it leaves several people on the margins. Resentment ensues.

Local Italian-language schools are at the root of the problem: a sign of Rome’s attempts to meddle with the region’s natural evolution. Fortunately that’s only a few people we are talking about compared to the hypothetical war-scarred millions in a post-conflict Ukraine. South Tyrol as a model for solving ethnic animosities in much bigger regions is an ill-judged, preposterous proposition; it just sounds pretentious.

The blindness of ministers who really couldn’t care less

After the minister for constitutional reforms Maria Elena Boschi talked about stripping Italy’s autonomous regions of their hard-won status – and their right to be regarded, if anything, as beacons for a federalism that’s never seen the light of day (Italy can’t give other countries any advice on such matters, really) –, now we have to listen to yet another government functionary talking publicly in very simplistic terms.

All the above being said, it is also very clear – it can’t be stressed enough – that South Tyrol isn’t a terrible place to live in, of course. The point here is to highlight that bringing up Italy’s most peculiar autonomous region as a model for solving complex international conflicts is plain wrong.

The model Mr Gentiloni bragged about as if it’d been cleverly devised by Italy’s political establishment – if only – is very much work in progress anyway; it’s like waiting for software to be installed on your computer: 33 per cent left; and then 21 per cent; and then, eventually, 0 per cent. Done.

Zero like the ethnic Italians left in South Tyrol one day. At that point the region will be a model, having solved its residual ethnic conflicts by eradicating diversity (it never really worked out). A near-100 per cent Germanic South Tyrol could democratically separate itself from Italy via a legitimate referendum, having lost the last threadbare string attaching it to Rome.

Multiculturalism sometimes fails; not because of people; because of short-term politics and its ill-timed policies (outdated education). And because of haughty ministers as well, who were lucky enough not to experience life under ethnic grids and don’t even know it.

Sideboxes Related stories:  South Tyrol: from secessionist to European dreams Country or region:  Italy
Categories: les flux rss

The retreat from Debaltseve

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. March 2015 - 17:22

Ukrainian troops may have withdrawn from Debaltseve, but the country’s unofficial forces are planning a new offensive.


A few dozen people of various ages and in various uniforms are milling around outside the gates of Military Base No A-2730 in Artemivsk, a city in the Donetsk region. They are among the Ukrainian troops who have withdrawn from Debaltseve, the biggest flashpoint in Donbas’ brutal conflict for the last month.

The pullback operation began in the early morning of 18 February, with Ukrainian troops leaving the town in small groups and heading for Artemivsk, some 50km away. Many had to fight their way through and, according to figures released by the Ukrainian General Staff, 13 were killed, 150 were wounded and 90 were taken prisoner. Those who managed to get through are now crowding the little shops opposite the base, stocking up to celebrate their escape, and telling me how they ‘made it through.’

‘We had to go through woods riddled with tripwires.’

‘I said, “We need to go left”, but we went right and ran into separatists who shot at us.’

‘We brought food supplies in and took the dead bodies out. There was supposed to be a truce, but they were hammering us with Grad rocket fire!’ 

A Ukrainian talk damaged and abandoned in the retreat from Debaltseve. (c) RIA Novosti/Mikhail Voskresenskiy.

‘There was supposed to be a truce, but they were hammering us with Grad rocket fire!’

Many of those who got out had spent the last four months in dug-outs, defending the city limits of Debaltseve, the most important strategic point in eastern Ukraine. The Kharkiv-Rostov highway runs through the city, which also has the largest railway hub in Ukraine’s eastern rustbelt, through which coal is transported from the Donbas mines. And, even more crucially, the road linking Donetsk and Luhansk, the capitals of the two self-styled peoples’ republics, also runs through Debaltseve.

Bridgehead – or kettle?

Separatist forces made an attempt to occupy Debaltseve as far back as last May. Soon after the referendum on Crimea’s status, pro-Russian Cossacks under the command of Ataman Nikolai Kozitsyn entered the city; the municipal website explained the presence of these exotic figures in their lambskin caps as being necessary for their ‘support in maintaining law and order, preventing crime and defending the population at this time of instability in Ukraine.’ Mayor Volodymyr Protsenko held a joint press conference with the Cossack leader. This military/administrative alliance lasted until mid-July, but when Kyiv’s forces began rolling back the armies of the unrecognised republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, the Cossacks withdrew, and the mayor faked his own abduction and disappeared into hiding.

Ukrainian forces then entered the city and built solid fortifications around this important population centre. Debaltseve began to be referred to as a bridgehead from which to launch a decisive strike that would split the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic (DNR) in two and cut its main forces off from Luhansk. It would also cut them off from the Russian border, through which they were receiving reinforcements in the form of volunteers, financial support and – it is claimed – military hardware. But a successful Ukrainian advance was hampered first by vigorous resistance on the part of the DNR forces in the Snizhne area, and then by the Malaysia Airlines disaster – the Boeing 777 was shot down in an area of heavy fighting; and the global community insisted that hostilities be suspended.

In January 2015, separatist fighters once again moved on Debaltseve – Luhansk divisions on one side, Donetsk divisions on the other, with the aim of cutting off the pocket of Ukrainian-held land around the city from the surrounding area. On 11 February the unrecognised republics announced that they had completed the ‘kettling’ of Debaltseve and, lacking reinforcements, the besieged Ukrainian units were forced to withdraw.

Today, tired and fed up, the soldiers are drinking vodka opposite the Artemivsk base. They don’t want to talk to reporters: ‘You’re a journalist? Why aren’t you in Debaltseve?’

‘They conceded everything – did you see? What was it all for, us getting killed there – to make Poroshenko a billionaire?’ 

The encirclement of Debaltseve was one of the main issues at the talks in Minsk. Vladimir Putin told his Ukrainian counterpart that the Ukrainian troops would try to get out, while the separatists would try to stop them, but Poroshenko insisted that ‘there was no kettle’ ; and the two sides spent several hours arguing about it without reaching an agreement. So there was no truce in the Debaltseve area, which threatened to break up the Minsk talks themselves.

The real situation

Around Debaltseve the separatist militias, in early January, were already talking about ‘kettling’, but in Kyiv the preferred term was ‘the Debaltseve salient’, implying that it was not completely surrounded; and the most optimistic commentators were still referring to the city as the bridgehead from which the Ukrainian army would at any moment launch an offensive on the separatist-held territory.

On 11 February the main arterial road supplying the city was cut off.

For most of the time, Debaltseve was connected with the Kyiv-held area by one road, the Artimivsk-Debaltseve stretch of the Kharkiv-Rostov highway, which by late January had become known as ‘the road of life’. Along it, military hardware, troop reinforcements and humanitarian aid for the civilian population of Debaltseve passed in one direction, and emergencies ministry buses carrying refugees from the besieged city, in the other. Then, on 11 February, DNR forces seized Lohvynove, a village on the highway 8km from Debaltseve, and the main arterial road supplying the city was cut off.

‘There are also minor roads’, General Aleksandr Rozmanin, who heads the Ukrainian delegation to the Joint Russo-Ukrainian Centre for Ceasefire Monitoring, told me tersely. The deputy commander of the ‘Donbas’ battalion, codename Svat (‘matchmaker’), also said that supplies could still reach their comrades along dirt roads. Svat and his ‘Donbas’ volunteers were deployed about 20km from Debaltseve, aiding the Ukrainian army’s attempt to storm Lohvynove and wrest it back from the separatists.

Ukrainian Troops in the Debaltseve salient in February 2015. Image via YouTube.

However, according to the Ukrainian soldiers who had managed to escape from Debaltseve, the separatist militias were nearer the truth. One of them, Yury, said that he had entered the city as part of a supply convoy on 10 February. They were supposed to leave again the next day, but that was the day the road was cut off, and the separatists began to shoot at the convoy. Several trucks were put out of action and some of his fellow soldiers killed; and he spent the next eight days hiding in a trench as heavy firing continued around him.

Yury spent eight days hiding in a trench as heavy firing continued around him.

The declaration of a ‘silence regime’ didn’t have much effect either: the volleys from the multiple rocket launcher systems around the Artimivsk-Debaltseve road died away at midnight on 15 February ,but were renewed by the next morning: in the small town of Myronivsky, 20km from Debaltseve, I saw exchanges of artillery fire.

In the end, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, who at the Minsk talks had refused to recognise that Debaltseve was surrounded, ordered a withdrawal of troops under a hail of gunfire from the separatist forces. He described the retreat as a ‘planned and organised operation’ and ‘decisive proof of the combat capability of our troops and the military efficiency of their commanders.’

After his troops had withdrawn from Debaltseve, Poroshenko held a meeting of Ukraine’s security council where he proposed asking a UN peacekeeping force into the conflict zone. For the moment, however, the appearance of ‘blue helmets’ in the Donbas seems highly unlikely: their deployment requires the agreement of both sides in the conflict, and the DNR leadership has so far opposed the idea. 

Losing the battle, losing the peace

Despite the formal breach of the Minsk agreement, the Debaltseve debacle has in fact brought the Donbas closer to peace. Reports from the Donetsk and Luhansk  ‘Peoples’ Republics’ say that heavy equipment is being withdrawn. The fighting is still going on, but now it is in the area of Myronivsky and Luhanske, the small towns near Debaltseve where the effective demarcation line runs, between the two sides. Past Myronivsky, the towns of Luhanske and Soledar stand on a reservoir that could form a natural barrier between the two armies, and further along the road is some high ground, with Ukrainian army fortified zones and artillery emplacements that would require too much effort for the separatist forces to seize (and which is hardly possible given international pressure).

After Debaltseve Petro Poroshenko faces a political dilemma.

On the other hand, after Debaltseve, Petro Poroshenko faces a political dilemma. In late January, Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the notorious ultranationalist party Right Sector, declared that the commanders of Ukraine’s volunteer battalions were planning to create a ‘parallel general staff’ to replace the country’s ‘ineffective military leadership’; and after the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from Debaltseve the heads of 17 battalions signed a memorandum to this effect in Dnipropetrovsk, the home city of billionaire Ihor Kolomoiskiy (who is financing this extra-military development), and which will be home to the new general staff as well.

The creation of this parallel body has the support of not only Right Sector but also elements within the Krivbas, Sicheslav, and Aidar volunteer battalions; the Automaidan civic movement, and the ‘Dignity and Will’ organisation of Afghan War veterans. However, nine commanders of other battalions have jointly announced that they do not support the initiative.

‘This is not a military coup’, promises Donbas Battalion commander Semen Semenchenko. ‘We shall work in parallel with the official general staff, coordinating the activity of the volunteer battalions and providing an alternative source of information for the president.’ The memorandum states, however, that the new body will only work with the official general staff if Viktor Muzhenko, its commander-in-chief, is dismissed. And it also states that, ‘there will be no negotiations with the enemy, and we must win back territory with guns in our hands.’   

While the volunteer battalion commanders seize the initiative from the Ukrainian armed forces, the country’s rulers are in talks with various states around the world about the delivery of lethal technology to Ukraine – one argument against it, for those who do not agree, being that this military hardware might fall in to the hands of these ‘private armies’. But even if these talks fail, it is clear that the ‘war party’ in Kyiv is gaining strength.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The Ukrainian army is unprepared for war The red tape tied around Donbass Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

The judiciary In Argentina is a very large family

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. March 2015 - 17:15

Following a Latin American coup, the first act of the generals and commanders responsible was to remove the executive; the second was to shut down the legislative. Rarely, if ever, did they touch the judiciary. Español.

Buenos Aires rally, February 18, 2015. Javie Coltrane/Demotix. All rights reserved.Throughout the twentieth century, a number of Latin American countries suffered multiple disruptions to the democratic order and a parallel corrosion of their public institutions. Whenever this occurred the judiciary invariably sided with the conservative and authoritarian sectors that had seized power by force.

Following a coup, the first act of the generals and commanders responsible was to remove the executive; the second was to shut down the legislative. Rarely, if ever, did they touch the judiciary.

Argentina is one of those countries. After more than thirty years of democracy, a number of institutions - from political parties to the army - have been overhauled and renewed. Yet this is only half true of the judiciary, many of whose currently active members held senior fiscal or judicial positions during the years of repressive government.

Judges Luis María Cabral and Ricardo Recondo, who have alternated over the last decade as president of the Association of Justices of the National Court (the judges’ union), are the archetypal embodiment of this relationship. There are many more.

Others, too young to have had any direct connection with the crimes against humanity committed between 1976 and 1983, are relatives of and share the same social circles as those who were engaged in state terrorism.

This is the case of Attorney General Ricardo Sáenz, who championed the Full Stop (1987) and Due Obedience (1988) amnesty laws aimed at guaranteeing immunity for the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. Both laws were repealed by former President Néstor Kirchner at the beginning of his term in 2003.

President Cristina Fernández, Kirchner’s wife and successor, recently referred to this when she said that many of those who historically opposed her late husband’s government, "do not forgive" him for having both repealed these laws and annulled pardons granted to assassins in order to safeguard their impunity.

In Argentina, the so-called “judicial family", a caste formed by generations of judges who share family names, retains to this day a series of privileges that are incompatible with a modern democratic society - such as not being obliged to submit their financial disclosure statements, and being exempted from a number of taxes payable by ordinary citizens.

This being a closed milieu, a judicial career is not accessible through open competition, but through family or friends.

In 2013, Cristina Fernández sent to Parliament a package of measures aimed at democratising the judiciary, promoting transparency, and giving greater legitimacy to legal proceedings. From then on, the judiciary has conducted an overt and sometimes even violent offensive against the government.

Having already blocked a number of presidential initiatives endorsed by Congress, the courts then turned their attention to the officials themselves. Suddenly, judges and attorneys whose performance had been under scrutiny in recent years decided to investigate complaints  – some of them anonymous - against both Cristina Fernández de Kirchner herself and several Kirchnerist leaders. Needless to say, although the legislation proposed by the president to democratise the judiciary was approved by Congress, the judges found legal grounds to block it.

Just as the proposed legislation to control media concentration ignited a public debate about the ownership and role of the media, a similar controversy about the judiciary has forced many judges and prosecutors who usually keep a low profile, to reveal their opposition to legislation aimed at democratising their profession.

The judges’ collective effort to challenge a democratic government plus their public exposure as a body that for decades has operated in the shadows, stood in the foreground of the political rally that took place in the streets of Buenos Aires on February 18, whose formal purpose was to pay homage to Special Prosecutor Alberto Nisman [1], who died in circumstances that remain unclear.

During the twentieth century, the coalition between segments of the elite and the army was known in Argentina as the ‘Military Party’. It worked to overthrow almost every democratically-elected government.

The ‘Military Party’ has finally ceased to exist. Damaged by popular revulsion at the crimes committed during the Dirty War (1976-1983), it was eventually disbanded after the trial and sentencing of those found most responsible for the mass killing of some 30,000 people.

Today, an alliance of big business, finance and large media companies have found, in the “judicial Party”, a new battering ram with which to destabilise a government that they have not been able to defeat at the polls.


[1] Alberto Nisman was the special prosecutor investigating the 1994 terrorist bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires. The quality of the investigation that he led was seriously questioned by groups of victims. His failure to present sufficient evidence in recent years put him at odds with the Fernández government, which had provided him substantial resources to carry out the inquiry. Paradoxically, he had also confronted many of the colleagues who now claim to be on his side.

Country or region:  Argentina Topics:  Culture Democracy and government Ideas International politics
Categories: les flux rss

IS: from a jihadist ideology to a jihadist state, Part 2

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. March 2015 - 16:09

A bizarre new Middle East is taking shape. We are now witnessing the disintegration of two countries and the rise of one ruthless caliphate. Part 1

The sign upon entry to Azaz, Syria now bears the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) logo. Demotix/Yasmin Al Tellaway. All rights reserved. 

The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) suffered great losses from 2008 onward, especially by the hand of some of its old Sunni tribal allies from the Sunni Awaking Councils in the western parts of Iraq.  With aid from US military, they fought an Islamic State that was increasingly developing a brutal colonial-style state. Many experts believed that ISI had been crippled. By the time the US withdrew its forces in November of 2011, ISI had been turned into small, isolated cells. Although some expressed fear of a surge of new terror, ISI was believed to be “certainly weaker” and unlikely to regain its “prior strength”.

The Arab Spring, especially its Syrian autumn season, supplied the ISI with new strength, recovery tools and territories. The Syrian uprising in March 2011, which took a violent turn into a bloody sectarian war only a few months later, rescued a dying group that was losing territories in Anbar and Fallujah, and had just lost its leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, along with his high ranking deputy, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, in an American raid in 2010.

In August of 2011 the new amir of ISI, Abu Baker al-Baghdadi, sent his Syrian deputy Abu Muhamad al-Golani–who were both detained sometime after 2005 in Camp Bucca, unbeknownst to each other–to Syria to establish what would later be known as Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahal-asham (the Support Front for the People of Sham). And Sham here does not mean Syria, as has been often wrongly translated. Rather it refers to the Levant, which formed a large part of Ottoman Empire. Its territory consisted of what is known today as the southern Turkish province of Hatay, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel.

In the next few months al-Golani would succeed not only in attracting hard-core jihadists from all over the world, but also in turning his Jabhat al-Nusra into the most organized and aggressive force within the Free Syrian Army (FSA), its black al-Qaeda flag flown in many liberated areas. Al-Golani did his homework and knew his mission very well; besides fighting Assad’s regime, he was repairing al-Qaeda’s long-damaged and shaky reputation. On 11 December 2012, when the US State Department designated the entity as a ‘terrorist’ group, the Syrian opposition protested Washington’s decision. Many opposition groups, including civilians and secularists, condemned the decision and called for mass demonstration. Only three days later, a special Friday protest proclaimed that “we are all Jabhat al-Nusra”, and thousands of Syrians took to the streets condemning and denouncing the designation, chanting, “there is no terrorist in Syria but Assad”.

On 9 April 2013, a highly symbolic day for the Baathists as it coincided with the tenth anniversary of the end of four decades of Baath rule in Iraq, Abu Baker al-Baghdadi expanded his Islamic State, appropriating Syria and all other Levant countries. Declaring in an audiotape that Jabhat al-Nusra is “extension of the Islamic State of Iraq and part of it”, al-Baghdadi deputized al-Golani as “one of our soldiers, and with him a group of our sons, and we pushed them from Iraq to the Levant so as to meet our cells in the Levant.” In the end of his speech al-Baghdadi declared the merger between both groups and changed the name to al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa-Sham–Da’aish, or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now more commonly known as ISIS. By adding the Levant, al-Baghdadi took the first step towards demolishing the officially recognized colonial borders of Sykes-Picot and achieving what pan-Arab nationalists, including Baathists, have dreamt of and brawled for in their loud, vicious discourses throughout the twentieth century, from Syria’s Michel Aflaq and Egypt’s Jamal Abdul Nasir to Iraq’s Saddam Hussain. al-Baghdadi’s speech played straight into the classic rhetoric of pan-Arabism and anti-imperialism that regards evil hands dividing the ummah (nation) by drawing artificial borders, and was a direct incitement of the Arab political imagination

The next day al-Golani publicly rejected the merger and the new name, pledging his elegance instead to Ayman al-Zawahri, the amir of al-Qaeda. It took some time for al-Zawahari to interfere and respond to the feud. While al-Baghdadi was in the process of paving the way to establish his caliphate, planning to demolish colonial borders, al-Zawahri sent a letter dated 23 May (and later a released audiotape) to both leaders, ruling against the merger, dissolving ISIL and asking both leaders to confine their operations to their own country: “the [seat] of the Islamic State in Iraq is Iraq” and “the [seat] of the Support Front for the People of al-Sham is in Syria.” al-Baghdadi responded saying that ISIL was here to stay and would continue removing borders set by “malignant hands between Islamic countries to restrict our movements” until it hammered “the last nail in the coffin of Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”

al-Baghdadi’s speech played straight into the classic rhetoric of pan-Arabism and anti-imperialism that regards evil hands dividing the ummah (nation) by drawing artificial borders, and was a direct incitement of the Arab political imagination, which has long dreamt and chanted of one Arab nation from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea. One year later in a stunning, well-produced and highly professional video released after capturing of Mosul and some other western Sunni Iraqi cities, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the official spokesperson of ISIL surmounts a bulldozer and, in a extremely symbolic move, demolishes the borders between Iraq and Syria on the ground, taking pride in removing “the borders of humiliations” and breaking the “idol of nationalism.”

The feud soon turned into a bloody war between jihadist brothers in Syria and resulted in a devastating blow to Jabhat al-Nusra. Many fighters, especially foreign jihadists, defected from al-Nusra to join ISIL. By early 2014 ISIL was fighting more than one front in Syria: fighting al-Nusra, other Islamist brigades such as the Islamic Armythe Kurds, the FSA and Bashar al-Assad’s regime, plus its continued fight against the Shia-led government in Iraq. 

ISIL waged a brutal war, crushing anyone who attempted to stand against it and committing horrific atrocities. One of the deadliest weapons ISIL has used since its early stages is its huge array of horrendous visual material recording its barbaric acts, with which its fighters flood social media. al-Zarqawi first pioneered the visual horror in Iraq, filming the beheading of American Nick Berg in 2004. Less than a decade later, the real visual horror–unlike imaginative post-apocalyptic Hollywood films–has been taken to the extreme by the next generation. These materials have shaped the popular public image of ISIL, and made its notorious parent, al-Qaeda, look much more moderate. 

In February 2014 al-Zawahri implemented Adam Gadahn’s 2011 recommendations by disowning ISIL and declaring that it “is not a branch of al-Qaeda, has no connections to it, and al-Qaeda is not responsible for its actions”.

The powerful resurgence: declaration of dawlat al-caliphate 

What happened on 10 June in Mosul and why Iraq’s second-largest city fell without fighting, as if the city was handed over to ISIL, remains uncertain. However, there was one clear element in the whole puzzled scene of ISIL’s blitzkrieg southern advance without any military resistance–the formation of alliances between ISIL, Sunni tribesmen and the Iraqi Baathists.    

Abandoned Iraqi vehicles and personal belongings near Bartella, Iraqi Kurdistan, 20 km from Mosul. Demotix/Romina Peñate. All rights reserved. 

The Arab Baath, especially the Sunni Iraqi branch, and the Islamic State certainly have many things in common; toppling the Shia-led government in Iraq is only one of them. They are both highly nostalgic towards the past, looking back at it with admiration and ideological attempts to revive it–Baath, or resurrection, tries to resurrect the glorious past of the Arabs. They both resent what represents modernity, especially in regard to language and terminology. They are both fascists using terror as a central political tool to control societies. And most importantly, they both use a totalitarian media in which there is a high level of demagogy and dramatization in representing the self and the ‘other’ or the ‘enemy’, where the self is always righteous and the other is aberrant and wrong, who will eventually find their way back from aberration to what is right and true.

The political and religious rejection of Shia rule, fueled by Sunni grievances of political marginalization and unjust treatment alongside the failed, sectarian government in Baghdad, was more than enough to build a strong coalition between ISIL and armed groups of former Baath party members, former Iraqi army officers and Sunni tribe leaders. Lack of a pragmatic, powerful Shia politician in Baghdad lent public strength to ISIL. The powerful rise of ISIL in both Syria and Iraq symbolizes not only the failure of two post-colonial national states but also represents a clear manifestation of fragmented social groups...which have failed to co-exist and transcend their confinement in these narrow identities

The relationship between Baathists and ISIL goes back to the early stages of insurgency. The former regime’s loyalists, especially high ranked military officers and Baathists civilians who were subject to the de-Baathification law, started joining the insurgency and later al-Qaeda in Iraq soon after the US invasion. Between 2004 and 2006 al-Qaeda managed to build an extensive network within Sunni-dominant territories. What ISIL did in June 2014 was to re-evoke and revive the early warm relationship between al-Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency that lasted passionately between early 2004 and the end of 2007. ISIL differentiates between Baathists in Syria and in Iraq; it always considered Baathists in Iraq as Sunnis who share the same religious traditions, beliefs and practices, unlike the Baath in Syria who are controlled by Alwaites, a minority Shia sect.  

These relations were never fully eliminated even when the major Sunni tribes, former allies, turned against ISI in 2007. Although there were cooling-off periods on both sides at different times, there were always shifting, temporary, and partial revivals of these networks. These relations were revived in 2014 amongst increasing anger and protests within Sunni populations, especially in Anbar province on the Syrian border, against the Iraqi government who “squandered an opportunity” when they failed to demonstrate the required pragmatism. That is, when the Sunnis came together and waged a war against ISI, cleansing most of their areas of ISI and foreign-fighter jihadists–with no help from the government. With their acute sense of exclusion in the post-Saddam Iraq, Sunnis felt they had been betrayed by Nouri al-Maliki.

ISIL stormed Mosul with the cooperation of at least seven Sunni groups: the Military Council, the Army of Men of Naqshbandi Order–known as JRTN, led by former Iraqi vice president Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri–, the Mujahedeen Army, the Council of the Tribal Revolutionaries, and other groups which had fought intermittently since 2003 alongside al-Zarqawi and then al-Qaeda, and later the umbrella of ISI. The Sunnis saw what happened as a liberation operation from a repressive sectarian Shia regime, while the Shia looked at it as a massive conspiracy against their existence. 

On 29 June al-Baghdadi declared the Caliphate State and the name changed to the Islamic State (IS). Calls were issued by the amir ul-mu’minin for ummah of Islam in the world to migrate to the dawlat al-Islam after the world had been divided into two camps: the camp of Islam and the camp of kufr (disbelievers.)

With the declaration of a Sunni Caliphate Islamic State over a great stretch of territories in Syria and Iraq, the religious and sectarian cleansing campaigns reached their highest degree of cruelty in order to purify the state from all non-Sunni citizens. Yazidis, Shia and other minorities were subjected to slaughter and mass executions, with their women being taken as sabaya (slaves)–‘spoils’ of war–and sold in Mosul. After seizing Mosul, an ultimatum was issued to Christians: pay jizya (tribute), or leave or be killed. What IS committed against all non-Sunnis was full-scale genocide. A few days after IS seized control of Speicher base in Tikrit, they released photos and videos of mass execution of Shia soldiers. Sunni soldiers were let go after declaring their repentance.

The powerful rise of this group in both Syria and Iraq symbolizes not only the failure of two post-colonial national states but also represents a clear manifestation of fragmented social groups with a strong sense of belonging to tribes, sects, religions and ethnicity, which have failed to co-exist and transcend their confinement in these narrow identities to structure a society in its modern context and form. The cancerous expansion of ISIL’s phenomena is a pure product of failed societies, of groups refusing to learn how to structure a dialogue using language, and in their terrible failure exchanging nothing but death.

International déjà vu

11 September 2014 was somehow reminiscent of 11 September 2001. After a presidential speech by Barack Obama on IS presenting his strategy of degrading and ultimately destroying it, reminiscent of former president George W. Bush’s vow of destroying al-Qaeda, the world was once again concerned by a jihadist group’s powerful comeback. And once again America busily recruited an international coalition to combat yet another jihadist-terrorist organization, this time a self-declared Islamic State.

But despite the wide coalition of more than 40 of the most powerful countries in the world, and the heavenly war waged from the skies, the caliph and his devoted soldiers seem to be determined to demolish borders, destroy colonially-made countries and expand their Islamic State.

Now the state of the Sunni caliphate controls most of northern Syria and large parts of western Iraq, and is moving towards the gates of Baghdad. Its radical army is estimated to be more than 30,000, led by well-trained generals from Saddam’s army, and is heavily engaged in its territories in Syria and Iraq with governance programs, such as implementing Shari’a law, collecting tax, distribution of aid and salaries, hudud enforcement and many other administrative and legal programs. It has an estimated USD $3m daily revenue from its own resources such as oil and gas, and it has approved its 2015 annual budget of $USD 2 billion.

The world has been introduced to one of the most violent states that operates based on a one-dimensional interpretation of debatable texts and controversial Quranic verses, and states clearly that its aim is to convert the entire world into a Sunni religion of 1400 years ago.

A bizarre new Middle East is taking shape, and we are now witnessing the disintegration of two countries. Syria and Iraq are both nearing their slow bloody end, the death of two societies which long bragged of historical co-existence and cohesion. In their places and on their ruins, one powerful Sunni caliphate is rising, like the founding father of the group, Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, dreamt of during his journey from Afghanistan to Iraq more than a decade ago. 

This is Part 2 of a shorter version of a paper presented at a public lecture at The Leiden University Center for the Study of Islam and Society LUCIS on September 11- 2014. Read Part 1 here

Sideboxes Related stories:  IS: from a jihadist ideology to a jihadist state The two big holes in the strategy against IS The Islamic State and the global Great Game Syrian wounds and Iraqi scars Country or region:  Iraq Syria
Categories: les flux rss

Immigration detention: "expensive, ineffective and unjust"

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. March 2015 - 14:54

The first ever parliamentary inquiry into the use of immigration detention in the UK has published its report today. Finding that we detain far too many people for far too long, the report calls for radical structural change to the system.  

Yesterday, during a press briefing session at Parliament, I was listening to three MPs talk about the detention inquiry’s findings to a group of journalists. 

This first ever parliamentary inquiry into the use of immigration detention has published its report today, and the briefing session was our attempt to secure some media coverage. 

While people carrying cameras and recording gear milled around, the session was held under strict embargo and those of us organising the briefing were anxious about the whole proceedings. 

To confess, I had already had several occasions to read through the report before the press briefing session. 

A pdf version of the embargoed copy of the report was sitting in my email inbox for about a week, while we nervously fretted about whether the printer could churn out the hard copies of the report on time and what they would look like.  

So although what was said was not supposed to be news to me, hearing about the inquiry’s recommendations through the voices of Sarah Teather MP, David Burrowes MP and Paul Blomfield MP still surprised me.

Human voices are powerful things.

They speak in a way that written words cannot.

Through their voices, the recommendations sounded more real and grounded. 

Their voices also confirmed that those voices which gave evidence to the panel – people with experience of detention and other experts – were indeed heard and we are now going somewhere.

These voices also made me realise that I had not fully really appreciated the significance of this report, until now. 

The most headline-friendly key recommendation from the inquiry is the introduction of a 28 day time limit on immigration detention, to bring the UK in line with other countries who are managing their immigration control system with a time limit on immigration detention. 

According to the most recently published Home Office statistics, of those who left the detention estate in 2014, almost 11,000 people did so after more than 28 days of administrative incarceration.

However, a far more profound conclusion is found in the report’s foreword, written by the panel’s Chair, Sarah Teather MP. 

“Crucially, this panel believes that little will change by tinkering with the pastoral care or improving the facilities. We believe the problems that beset our immigration detention estate occur quite simply because we detain far too many people unnecessarily and for far too long. The current system is expensive, ineffective and unjust.”

From September to December 2014, the Detention Forum and openDemocracy 50:50 explored the impact and the reality of immigration detention through our joint programme, Unlocking Detention

Over several months, we ‘visited’ each immigration detention centre in the UK, metaphorically unlocking the gates of the detention centres to hear what is indeed going on in there. 

The Detention Forum members contributed most of the articles in the series, and also ran a separate dedicated website.

Some articles where reprinted at other websites, including the Justice Gap

The series was deliberately timed to coincide with the parliamentary detention inquiry, to generate more interest in this hidden world of gross human rights abuse that no one seems to want to talk about in public. 

While the phrase “deprivation of liberty” should sound alarm bells in any thinking person’s mind, the UK has largely remained silent on the issue of over 30,000 migrants, routinely locked up indefinitely in prison-like conditions, year after year.

The inquiry panel, rightly, decided to hear from those very people who have been largely forgotten. 

This prompted many of us to start collecting evidence from people who experienced immigration detention – up and down the country, in community halls, in interview rooms, over the phone, in detention centres, in visitors’ halls. 

We started calling them “experts-by-experience” instead of “ex-detainees” or “detainees”. 

We have had enough of people being defined by their experience of state abuse.

We did as much as we could to bring the voices of people who are caught in this detention system.

I recall writing the concluding piece to Unlocking Detention, Detention knows no borders, on the train back from Bristol to London, on International Human Rights Day, genuinely wondering what the detention inquiry was going to find and how the panel was going to respond to those voices demanding change. 

When you examine specific recommendations made by the inquiry panel piece by piece, there is probably nothing new or surprising about them.

Many of us have condemned the sheer inhumanity of indefinite detention for many years. That the government thought it was okay to lock someone up without proper judicial oversight has always been hard to believe.

The problems surrounding access to legal advice or good quality health care in detention have existed for many years, with numerous reports written about them. Likewise specific problems encountered by “vulnerable” groups of individuals. 

It is understandable that those who do not study the report carefully might dismiss it ‘as yet another report about immigration detention’ or a simple shopping style list of oft-repeated recommendations. However, there are three things that are refreshingly different about this report.

The clue is in the report structure, divided into two parts, in which the first part outlines the fundamental changes that have to happen and the second part outlines issues which should not exist after the recommended changes.

And the emphasis is very much on the first part – the panel wants to see fundamental changes. 

So firstly, the report warns against the danger of just tweaking detention conditions, leaving detention’s harmful and dysfunctional aspects intact.  Instead, it calls for a radical structural change to the system, starting with the introduction of a time limit on the period anyone can be detained in immigration detention, so that far less people are detained for far shorter periods.  

Secondly, the report calls for a political commitment from whoever forms the next Government to begin the process of radical reform.

Thirdly, the report, almost for the first time in the history of UK detention advocacy, looks out of the parochial world of domestic detention practices and finds that in other countries, far more progressive discussions are taking place.

The report discusses community based alternatives to detention, by which people can stay in the community while going through the immigration control system, instead of being locked up in detention.

The panel heard extensively from UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency and International Detention Coalition, who have made it their mission to ensure that the states across the globe use less detention by investing in more humane, and let’s not forget, cheaper, models. 

The report is very carefully put together to encourage serious consideration of process change. 

It is realistic in acknowledging that there is no quick fix, pre-empting political parties from taking a “let’s stick a plaster over a gaping wound” approach. 

It is also bold in declaring that the current detention system, which detains far too many people for far too long, simply cannot go on. 

A  remarkable thing about the media briefing was its calmness and frankness.

The panel members, all coming from different political parties, simply said that they were overwhelmed by the strength of the evidence that they received and were able to agree on the key recommendations despite all their differences of opinion on immigration in general. 

Labour MP Paul Blomfield said that when he first started this inquiry, he was not particularly convinced by the idea of community-based alternatives. He went to say that after hearing from individuals and learning of other countries’ practices, he came out totally convinced by the need to reframe the debate and change the approach.

Conservative MP David Burrowes said, simply, “No one should be treated without dignity”. 

Confronted by this unusual cross-party unity over immigration matters, the journalists present at the briefing session initially fell a little quiet. One of the journalists’ main interests was, of course, how this is going to play out in the volatile political arena where the topic of immigration poisons any conversations. 

The report answers that there needs to be strong political leadership to turn the tide: 

“Given the scale of the task, we recommend that the incoming Government after the General Election should form a working group to oversee the implementation of the recommendations of this inquiry. This working group should be independently chaired and contain officials from the Home Office as well as representatives from NGOs in order to widen the thinking and approach. The working group should produce a time-plan for introducing a time limit on detention and the creation of appropriate alternatives to detention, drawing on the best practice that is already in place in other countries.”

After the briefing session, we watched the MPs and “experts-by-experience” being photographed and interviewed on camera by the journalists on College Green outside Parliament. 

It was a sunny crisp day, although the wind was chilly. 

We huddled around, rather dazed by the whole experience, guarding the open box containing copies of the report.

I glanced at my smartphone to find many emails, asking why they hadn’t received the embargoed copy of the report at the pre-arranged time of 1pm. 

My colleague, whose task it was to send out the report, was standing beside me looking exhausted and hungry; 3:30pm and still no sign of lunch.

One of the “experts-by-experience”, who had always expressed healthy scepticism about the inquiry came up to me, looking confused.

‘So, what do you think?’ I asked. 

‘I can’t believe that this is the result. This is a huge step,’ he answered squinting into the bright sunlight, holding the still embargoed copy of the report. 

After a long pause, he continued, ‘But what is going to happen next?  Is it really going to change?’

And I heard my own voice: ‘That’s now up to us, isn’t it?’

Read more about the lives of those in detention and hear their voices in our series Unlocking Detention 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Death at Yarl’s Wood: Women in mourning, women in fear #SetHerFree: a spectrum of solidarity for refugee women 'Headbutt the bitch' Serco guard, Yarl’s Wood, a UK immigration detention centre Detention knows no borders The national shame that is healthcare in UK immigration detention Detained at the UK border: mould, cat calls and barbed wire A crisis of harm in immigration detention Not a minor offence: the unlawful detention of unaccompanied children Immigration detention: a most un-British phenomenon Extraordinary things: visiting the women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre The real cost of detaining migrants Like a chicken surrounded by dogs No end to the horrors of detention Helping the Other: particular experiences, universal outlooks Life after detention Immigration detention in the media: anarchy and ambivalence Migrant vs non-migrant: two tier policing Migrant lives in the UK: the deprivation of liberty The lonely death of Jimmy Mubenga Fast track to despair Due diligence for women's human rights: transgressing conventional lines Unheard and unseen in Britain Country or region:  UK Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government
Categories: les flux rss

The BBC, the licence fee and the digital public space

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. March 2015 - 14:20

The Controller of the BBC’s archive strategy maintains the institution’s fundamental role within the media ecology and argues that the Licence Fee should safeguard a new democratic digital public space.

This is an edited version of a speech given at Royal Holloway University London (RHUL) on 10 February. 

Over the years I have had some wonderful jobs and some degree of success in being instrumental in the development of a number of interesting media products or services, a few of which have become quite well known and loved – such as The Guardian’s Guide and website, When Saturday Comes (still the best half-decent football magazine in the UK), and more recently the BBC’s Genome and RES projects and, of course the iPlayer.

However, my current day job as Controller of Archive Development at the BBC is possibly the most interesting and challenging of them all and, if the ideas we are working on are successful, it is the job that has the potential to bring about the most universally beneficial and empowering change of them all.

Originally I was invited to come along and explain a little of what is meant by this term ‘Digital Public Space’. I realise it is a difficult concept to grasp all in one go, even for those of us who are trying to make it happen, but you seem like a friendly bunch so here goes...

In a nutshell, the ‘Digital Public Space’ is intended as a secure and universally accessible public sphere through which every person, regardless of age or income, ability or disability, can gain access to an ever growing library of permanently available media and data held on behalf of the public by our enduring institutions.

Our museums and libraries; our public service broadcasters (all of them); our public archives; our government services. Every person in this country, whether adult or schoolchild, should be able to use the Digital Public Space to access... for research or for amusement, for discovery or for debate, for creative endeavour or simply for the pleasure of watching, listening or reading ... they should be able to access the priceless treasures that have recorded, reflected and shaped our shared national heritage.

Our National Abundance. Our Inheritance. Our Story.

It is our right to have this access, and it should be freely available to all.

The Digital Public Space must – by definition – be equally accessible by everyone, universally equivalent and unconditional. It must be dialogic, open and protective of the rights of all participants and contributors. It must be available at all times and in all locations, it must expect contributions from every member of our society and it must respect privacy. It must operate only in the best interests of the people that it serves; absent of overtly political or commercial interests. And it must endure.

Digital technology certainly holds out the potential for making this possible. But don’t expect it to just happen. Despite exciting our imaginations and driving up our expectations, digital technology can also be a bit of a lazy devil – quite understandable really given it is, metaphorically at least, still something close to a surly teenager.

But we must be careful when we think it will, all by itself solve the problems it creates; as Stuart Brand once said “digital solutions will last forever or for five years... whichever comes first”. I believe the engineering term for something as complicated as this proposal for a Digital Public Space is ‘Decidedly Nontrivial’ meaning requiring both real thought *and* significant engineering power.”

So, given the audience today, I thought it might be interesting if I shared with you one of the paths that I took to arrive at that seemingly impossible, or at best improbable, proposition and I’m going to argue that, despite the enormous challenges of making such an idea a reality, there is already an existing publicly funded organisation which is perfectly placed to provide the leadership - the real thought and significant engineering power – that will be needed for the development of such a public realm, because although we may not realise it, that’s exactly what they have been doing, on our behalf, for almost a century.

In my view, it is the greatest media organisation ever established in the history of the world.

It is The BBC.

But first I want to start off by asking which you think came first – the BBC or the Licence Fee.

Hands up for the BBC...
 Hands up for the Licence Fee...
 And which of you think they came into being at about the same time?...
And which of you don’t know?...

Congratulations to those of you that guessed right...

The Licence Fee actually predated the BBC by about 20 years!

Now I realise that almost nobody would stop to think about that question in the first place because when asked what the Licence Fee is for, most people say BBC programmes. It’s certainly what the majority of the money is spent on and long may it remain the case.

The BBC makes without doubt some of the greatest and most important programmes – both radio and television – anywhere in the world today. It’s hard not to get excited by Wolf Hall, The Archers, The News Quiz, The Fall and landmark sporting occasions such as our unprecedented coverage of The London Olympics.

Our Children’s programmes are truly second to none and, in aggregate, our International, National and Local News services have no peer anywhere on the planet.

In the upcoming conversations about the renewal of the BBC’s Charter, it is natural to ask the question ‘What is the BBC for?’ and an equally natural and common refrain, is that we make great TV programmes in support of our public purposes... and so, of course, the public want us to get as much of the Licence Fee ‘on screen’ as possible.

However in this talk I will argue that this is not only somewhat untrue, in as much as it is only part of the picture, it is also potentially and dangerously misleading.
 I will show that the BBC and the Licence Fee are symbiotic, certainly; but not synonymous.

Part of the reason for this is what it is currently called: ‘The Television Licence’. I think as a matter of urgency, it should be renamed.

Because as it currently stands we all only tend to compare the BBC to other ‘competitors’ in television against the quantity and quality of the programmes that *they* broadcast.

In the vast majority, if not all cases, the BBC compares favourably with this ‘competition’ but that is not the point. In fact this is simply the wrong paradigm.

How did we get here? I want to go all the way back and ask what the world looked like in February 1920.

There is no electricity as we know it. There is nothing like the choice of reading material that we have today and anyway many, many people can’t or don’t read. Most women got the vote two years earlier but some still have to wait for another eight years. The First World War ended only two years ago. We’ve only just adopted British Summer Time.

There are no traffic jams, no Times Crossword and no sliced bread.

And there is no BBC.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the thing that we now call broadcasting was starting to emerge although it wasn’t yet called ‘broadcasting’. It was called wireless telegraphy: the ability to send information through free space without a connecting electrical conductor... or ‘wires’ to you and me. This emerging technology had (and still has) a number of unique characteristics:

- It could reach every part of the UK. Even the remotest island received the same signals

- It transmitted the same version to everyone regardless of what they received it on

- It didn’t require the user to acquire any new skills (e.g. reading), just to tune in and listen - assuming you were not deaf or hard of hearing

- There was no need to travel to the venue where the event was taking place

- The radio waves were ubiquitous– almost ‘omnipresent’ – they couldn’t be ‘turned off’

- All of this at zero marginal cost of distribution and reach, to both the broadcaster and the user

It was different to any medium that had gone before. At first it was quite hard to work out what to do with it, but it soon became clear that, if it could be tamed, then we could do amazing things with it.

John Reith was soon to suggest that it would allow Nation to speak peace unto nation. It had the potential to connect the entire country, to give the best seat at the concert, to eradicate loneliness. And of course, to inform, to educate and to entertain – but not just the privileged few... everyone.

Our politicians looked around the world to see how other countries were using, as well as funding, these emerging broadcast technologies. They saw broadly two approaches:

In countries such as the US, there was what was described at the time as a free-for-all approach; a bit of a 'cacophony'. They decided that *we* didn’t want that. There was also an underlying suspicion that the potential of this new technology was rather ‘squandered’ by being used mainly for broadcasting ‘Light Entertainment’. It was felt that there was great potential to *also* use it for enlightenment and other so called ‘uplifting’ purposes.

Looking across Europe there were concerns that broadcasting risked being abused by political interests if controlled entirely by the state. The term ‘propaganda’ appears frequently in the documents of the time; although it was not used in quite the same way we have come to use it since the Second World War.

Not that either of these approaches was seen as wholly ‘bad’ – as my Italian born mother said when I told her I was joining the BBC “it wasn’t Garibaldi that unified Italy, it was radio” – it was more that they believed that there was much, much greater potential for public benefit than either of these models were likely to achieve.

In those earliest days, although it was clear that broadcasting had great power there were also real concerns. Everybody could hear everything! At this stage, this looked more like a bug than a feature; the military were specifically concerned in much the same way that the authorities are concerned about the internet today. There was a worry that it could be used to destabilise countries.

And so, to try to control, and essentially restrict, this exciting but as yet unproven technology to only those who had a bona fide reason to be using it, permission had to be sought from the General Post Office to experiment or own equipment and three types of licence were established:

- A Licence to manufacture any equipment: bearing in mind this was military grade technology

- A Licence to broadcast over the airwaves: justifying what are you broadcasting and to whom?

- A Licence to own the receiving machinery for what was known back then as ‘listening in’.

The Licence for ordinary people to be able to broadcast was abolished during the First World War and the receiving licences suspended until around 1920.

The Licence to manufacture was replaced by the formation of the British Broadcasting Company in 1922, by a pioneering group of radio manufactures who issued standards to the UK’s other, smaller manufacturers who in turn became ‘members’ of the association. It also started to broadcast radio programmes in order to give people a reason to buy radios, funded through sales of the radios themselves as well as some sponsorship – but not advertising.

The Licence to own receiving equipment – the first of which, I believe, was issued by the Post Office in 1905 – was retained. That is the one that endures today – the permit to access the airwaves – and was the method eventually chosen to fund the British Broadcasting Corporation when it was created by Royal Charter in 1927, whereby most, but not all, of the money raised by the GPO was used to fund John Reith’s BBC.

At the same time, the Government designated a part of the spectrum for the exclusive use of the public – separate from military use, whose signals needed to be encrypted. The public’s machines were designed to only ‘listen in’ to that defined public access range of frequencies.

How to make this work in practice, in the best interests of all was a significant challenge – Decidedly Nontrivial in fact, requiring real thought and significant engineering power. And so the BBC was asked to develop the technology and broadcasting services in the national interest. Its job was to push the capabilities of the medium to its limits, to develop formats and output that were interesting, useful, uplifting, empowering and delightful within those permitted frequencies.

So we have established the development of the public airwaves, the origins of the BBC and the potential of the BBC to do wonderful things. An ‘Analogue Public Space’ if you like.

This publicly owned and funded spectrum was protected from overtly commercial or political interests and intervention and over time came to be shared by a wide number of organisations, many of whom were almost entirely commercial in their operations, but all of whom benefitted from investment and innovation by the BBC.

Therefore, unknown to almost everyone, for the majority of its life, the BBC has been a world class engineering organisation pushing the boundaries on behalf of the population of the UK and the whole of the industry – from manufactures, to other ‘competing’ broadcasters in both radio and television: sharing technologies to enable broadcasting to go further and faster; introducing standards for pictures, colour, clearer sound, teletext, and HD.

Different kinds of programmes and formats were introduced to demonstrate and drive the technological innovation, sales and skills. Snooker demonstrated colour. The initial idea behind the Eurovision song contest was a worldwide collaboration to join up a network of satellites.That first programme was called ‘Our World’ and featured a new, specially written song from the Beatles: ‘All you need is love’.

Our engineering excellence drove all of this. The BBC pushed technology to its limits and, along with this, it came up with new formats and ideas to excite and delight.

It has also kept a steady and robust hand on the editorial independence and the integrity of that ‘analogue public space’. UK News and Current Affairs, and in particular BBC News and Current Affairs, enjoys the highest international acclaim and respect. I believe the role of the BBC in setting and maintaining quality and standards for the entire industry cannot be over stated. If the only motivation for covering news is commercial – then we eventually find ourselves with a news agenda reduced to gossip, sex, sport... and strange or cute animals.

But by having news coverage and agenda-setting which is led by principles of public interest, holding the authorities to account and including a full range of voices from around the world as well as at home, the BBC sets a bar which encourages other providers to follow-suit.

Together the BBC and the Licence Fee have ensured that, for the best part of a century, all you need to be part of the greatest conversation that any nation on earth has been free to enjoy, is a receiving device and a permit to ‘listen in’ or watch...

How did the Licence Fee go from all that, to being only about making television programmes? I think I can show you exactly how:

Here is an advertisement against Licence Fee avoidance from around 1974. 

There are a couple of things you may not have appreciated about this advert at first sight.
 First of all, it was made by the Home Office on behalf of the Post Office. As I said, back then it was the Post Office that issued and collected the licences and the Home Office who enforced them and decided the level of penalty for avoidance. It was never, and is never, the BBC sending people to prison.

The ad is dark and threatening but the important point you may have missed is this: they were watching Columbo! That wasn’t a BBC programme; it was shown on ITV, which is as you know fully funded by commercials. It was and remains the case that if you want the freedom to access that protected slice of spectrum that carries live transmissions, you have to obtain a licence on behalf of yourself and those in your household who also watch or listen, including those who cannot pay for themselves – in particular your children. It is worth just checking what it says in the Charter about Licence Fee Payers. It says this:

In other words, everyone in the UK is a Licence Fee Payer, whether they actually ‘pay’ the licence fee themselves or not.

The public broadcasting spectrum is as much theirs as it is the people who actually pay for it and the obligation lies with those of us who are responsible for paying it to continue to fund and maintain this precious entitlement... for everyone.

It’s not a tax. It’s a permit and the whole of our society benefits from its unique status and, in particular, from the protection it buys us from those who would see that preserved public realm removed or obstructed or turned only into a means of charging those who can afford to  - and who choose to -  to pay ever more, for ever less.

So, when does that all change?

Unfortunately, and it really pains me to say this, it all appears to change with John Cleese.

He is without doubt a genius and certainly one of the most significant individuals ever to grace our airwaves. However, in a genuine attempt to help quell the tide of resentment towards what still to many feels like an unfair charge for something we don’t always appreciate, he casts the die. 

This is a wonderful ad, clever, funny, much slicker, much more upbeat, certainly less intentionally sinister, but sadly gets the wrong end of the stick. This advert equates the Licence Fee only with the BBC’s programmes. It even ends with: ‘The BBC - Is 16 pence a day really too much to ask?’, instead of the Television Licence – etc. etc. which is what the ad is actually for.

Of course the BBC broadcasts great programmes, but it is not the only public service organisation that does. His comment at the end about there being no commercials within the services covered by the licence is entirely incorrect. In fact, he really should have included programmes and presenters from ITV and Channel 4. He should have included technological innovation, research and development.

But most of all he should have said that the Licence Fee ensures that the allocated public spectrum, through which the Public Service Broadcaster remit is safeguarded and secured, and that barriers to entry cannot be placed in the way of the general public by either politicians or commercial gatekeepers.

We need to rediscover what it is that 'only' the Licence Fee 'only' does.

The BBC is not a competing media business in the usual sense of the term. If the BBC were a bank it wouldn’t be Barclays or HSBC. It would be the Bank of England. It sits to one side of those that compete for business and safeguards the entire system itself for the benefit of all – providers and public alike. It enables plurality not competes with it. It raises the quality threshold and maintains standards. It underpins and supports the greatest media eco-system in the world.

Through the Licence Fee, the BBC defends the airwaves to allow others to innovate. A lot of that innovation was indeed commercially driven and funded by advertising but while the BBC, funded through that Licence Fee, continues to keep it secure, it guarantees that everyone has the same rights to access it all.

So what? you might say. That was then, this is now. We’ve all moved on and many of us don’t even watch live broadcasting as much as people did back then. Well, that brings me to the main point of my talk.

Because we’ve fallen asleep at the wheel. A new technology has emerged that is likely to change everything for ever: the internet. When we eventually move to a fully IP delivered world we are going to discover something altogether disturbing.

Without us really noticing it happen, the internet has started to strip away not only those original characteristics of broadcasting, but also three other, even more important, unique and priceless properties that broadcasting also gave us all; three characteristics, so it turns out, that are fundamental to the vibrant and democratic nature of our media consumption in the past, and that we will sorely miss if they were taken away. These are:

1. Total anonymity – You can watch or listen, secure in the knowledge that nobody can know what you are doing and exploit it for commercial or political ends or to your disadvantage.

2. Unmetered consumption – there was no limit to the amount of broadcasting that you could have or where you chose to access it without additional charge or fees

3. It cannot be taken away – the confidence to know that you, or other members of your family, will never be cut off from any of the public service broadcasters, not just the BBC.

The internet - certainly when thinking about using it to access the public service broadcast networks - removes all of those things. Over and above these, access to the internet is shaped by a significant range of variables and no two people are exactly the same. There are growing concerns around:

- Who does and does not have access to the Internet in the first place;

- The speed, level and cost of access that they have or can afford;

- People’s right to privacy and to retain ownership of their activity, thoughts, comments, and creativity

- Their ability to keep up to date with hardware, software, operating systems;

- The motives of gatekeepers and service providers who stand between the public and the organisations that they wish to access;

- How often each of these will change during their lifetime and the levels of impact on them, their rights and their families

We’ve got the cacophony we previously and skilfully avoided. We are now in a situation where the commercial sector has complete control. And they are dividing up the spoils often making commercial return the only criteria for developing or maintaining our right to access our public services – including but not limited to the public service broadcasters themselves. In many cases obsolescence is built in as the operating model itself. We need to pay them, and to keep on paying, simply to keep pace – eventually we will lose the concept of free-at-the-point-of-use to all public services when they are delivered over IP.

This is a major problem. There is something particular about the media that we understood all the way back then, but have now forgotten. A fully functioning democracy demands that everybody always has the same access.

Whether it is about holding politicians to account, terrorism threats, consumer rights, health information, everybody should be involved and fully represented.

Soon even getting to the BBC will be entirely mediated by commercial operators. So will digital access to public libraries, museums, galleries, education, the NHS and the wider public sphere.

In order to watch the news in future, whether from the BBC, ITN or Reuters, you will have to pay an ISP or MNO, over and above the money that you have already paid for the news to be gathered in the first place – be that through your licence fee, subscription payment or the ever growing percentage of your weekly shopping bill that is handed over via the advertising industry – itself a truly regressive tax if ever there was one.

It will soon be impossible for journalists to protect their sources – as long as webmail service providers are ‘legally’ scanning and retaining your email – in particular those of the very people most likely to whistle-blow or refuse to be silenced.

Because there is NO safeguarded allotment of bandwidth for public access and discourse – free of political or commercial imperative or intrusion.

There is NO principle of privacy or protection of the rights of the individual to own and retain control over their contributions or creativity. The default position of many, many providers of online services and social media networks – in the words of an old internet meme is ‘All your Base Are Belong to Us’.

You cannot keep your children safe online – whether from classroom bullies, predatory adults or unrelenting marketers determined to catch them while they are still too innocent to know the difference between friendly suggestions and cynical consumer profiling and consumption grooming

The is NO guarantee of universal access or provision regardless of income or status

What would John Reith do? I can’t tell you for certain but my hunch is he’d want to put it back.

Go back to those basic values and engineering principles that underpin the entire broadcast system. We need to preserve an allocation of the internet entirely for universal access to public services, free at the point of use, for everyone.

We need to restore the right to access as much of the services we already fund as we choose or need – not just for those who can afford pay or who choose to pay, but for everyone who cannot.

We need to safeguard privacy, personal data and the right to be a part of the national debate – not only for those who have time and money to spare or the confidence to do battle with the trolls. Losing those things will only leave us poorer.

No country has ever come up with a better broadcast ecology – no matter what those who insist otherwise will have you believe. The BBC is still the envy of the world and I am yet to be shown a single example of a better way of funding something better.

So what would the ‘Digital Public Space’ look like?

It should have all the original values of the ‘Analogue Public Space’, plus some amazing new features and services that were previously impossible or unimaginable:

1. It would ensure a guarantee of access to a protected allocation of internet bandwidth for every citizen, free at the point of use, at home and in key public places – conceptually similar to frequencies within the broadcast spectrum reserved for Public Service Broadcasting

2. The Digital Public Space will offer an ever growing digital library of digitised media and assets from our publicly funded organisations: our public service broadcasters, our museums, libraries and archives, our institutions of education and our public services.

3. The Digital Public Space will offer innovative products and services that allow people to access, contribute to and communicate with the public and cultural sectors

4. Users can be safe and secure to discover, use and share without fear of loss or theft or unintended exposure of their personal data and creative endeavours

5. The Digital Public Space works through unmetered consumption, free at the point, of use for every person, regardless of status or ability. The Digital Public Space will not require a broadband subscription. It will be available anywhere across the UK, at any time, to anyone.

6. And finally: the Digital Public Space cannot be taken away. 

To get there, perhaps we may need help from the source that created the BBC in the first place – an ambitious desire for there to be an infrastructure constantly developed in the public interest. The combination of Real Thought and Significant Engineering. In fact we already have that remit written into the BBC charter. The sixth public purpose for the BBC states:

(f) in promoting its other purposes, helping to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies ...

I believe that to understand the BBC’s relevance in the 21st Century, we need to ask, not just “what is the BBC for?” but also “what is the Licence Fee for?” They are not the same thing but, inadvertently, we have allowed them to be seen as the same.

I think we should go back to first principles and consider the emerging needs of all Licence Fee Payers – not only those who actually pay the fee itself – and ensure that in the future each and every one of us has guaranteed access to the public sphere, control over their own data and identity and enduring services that they can trust and depend on.

We used to be broadcast beings. We are now internet beings. However with more and higher barriers to entry to the digital realm we must work hard to ensure that nobody is stripped of the ability to be a citizen of the future.

I believe that is, and has always been, the higher calling for both the BBC and the Licence Fee.

Topics:  Culture Democracy and government Ideas Internet Science
Categories: les flux rss

What is Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) on about?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. March 2015 - 14:14

The opportunities and temptations of a newcomer among Germany’s political parties.

Alternative for Germany supporters march in Berlin. Demotix/Theo Schneider. All rights reserved.When the decision was taken to furnish all countries of the European Union with the Euro as the only currency--at least those not explicitly insisting on retaining their monetary independence--in the 1990s, this was a momentous choice for Germany.

In political terms the Federal Republic of Germany was not a fully sovereign state after its foundation in 1949. Foreign troops remained on German soil, no longer as an official army of occupation, but still enjoying many privileges. As the Second World War had not officially ended in a peace treaty, the status of Germany among the other European states remained somewhat ambivalent. In particular it remained unclear in which way the allied powers of 1945 would use their authority and influence should the chance ever arise for a reunification of the two German states.

When this chance emerged in 1989, reunification came about surprisingly swiftly, despite Mrs. Thatcher’s furious protests and Mitterand’s secret misgivings about such a portentous change in the European balance of power. However, the man presiding over Germany’s fate at this time, Helmut Kohl, decided at the very moment of the rebirth of the German nation state to scrap the Deutschmark in favour of the Euro, thereby undermining the power of one of post-war Germany’s most important institutions, the Bundesbank, and destroying Germany’s monetary autonomy.

This is not the place to discuss the reasons for this decision in detail. But Kohl clearly felt that the Germans were not really capable of governing themselves as citizens of a fully independent nation state. They needed to be supervised and controlled by other countries as they had been up till 1989, otherwise they would again lose their way as they had done in the first half of the twentieth century and would once again become the hated odd man out, as the largest and potentially most powerful nation in Europe. Resentment against Germany stretched back through two world wars and beyond, and still formed a strong undercurrent in public opinion. (Ironically, of course, Germany is now more isolated and unpopular in Europe than ever since the end of the Second World War - for that very reason, that it appears to dominate the Eurozone and impose a harsh austerity policy on other countries – or so people say).

French pressure also played a role (Paris saw the capacity of the Bundesbank to dictate French interest rates within the monetary system replaced later by the Euro as a perpetual source of humiliation and were keen for the DM to be abolished), but Kohl’s hope was central - to create thereby a European economic system which would be the German Marktwirtschaft writ large. One should also bear in mind the fact that the great German industrial companies focused on exporting their goods saw clear advantages in a common and stable European currency which would pose a serious challenge to their competitors in Italy and France.

What however remains remarkable to this day is that there has never been any real discussion about the Euro in Germany. True to say, a number of prominent economists--perhaps the majority of the leading economists in Germany-- opposed the Euro in the 1990s. But the public at large accepted the decision to abandon the Deutschemark with supine acquiescence. They were of course, assured and repeatedly reassured for years on end that there would never, ever be any kind of bail out of other Euro-countries and that the European central bank would be guided by the same principles and ideals which had made the Bundesbank famous for its monetary rectitude. Still, questions could have been asked about the hazardous experiment of creating a common European currency without at the same time creating a European central state upholding this currency. But they remained unasked, at least in parliament and in the wider political debate.

German political culture after the war--matters are different since the advent of Merkel--was by no means always alien to acrimonious debates and conflicts. But if there was one subject which was taboo and a no go-area for political strife, it was Europe. Until 2014 there was never a European election in Germany in which the political parties asked the voters to choose between different versions of policy on Europe. Even in 2014 the new AfD was almost the only party to do so with the partial exception of Die Linke (the former communists).

Essentially, domestic German issues always dominated the European elections. As far as Brussels was concerned all parties agreed that ever more institutional power should gradually be given to the European Commission and the European parliament, as along as the power of the purse remained with the Bundestag, the federal diet. This sort of policy was of course a contradiction in terms, but as one was not really allowed to discuss these issues, this was ignored.

Europe repressed

Even at the height of the Euro-crisis during the federal election of 2013, the parties dominating German politics managed to keep all issues connected to the rescue of the Euro out of the election campaign, supported in this noble endeavour by the majority of journalists working for television or the more important national newspapers and news magazines. The economics pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine and the weekly journal Wirtschaftswoche (which however is now being brought into line by a new editor in chief, a self- acclaimed passionate supporter of the Euro) fought a lone battle against this strange complicity in silence, but such publications are not widely read as most readers find articles on economic questions too difficult to digest.

In this world of complacent consensus the Alternative für Deutschland, founded in February 2013, is the great fly in the ointment, the heretic who dares to say the unsayable, and to question the ideal of an ever closer union of European states and the Euro itself.

Protest movement

One has to admit that the AfD is at the moment still more of a protest movement uniting men and women holding quite different and sometimes contradictory convictions than a homogenous political party, but then the other minor or major parties are not that homogenous either. The advantage they have, to be sure, is that they have found ways and means to isolate the oddballs and eccentrics within their own ranks and contain conflicts through a calculated mixture of fudged compromise and patronage politics.

The AfD still has to learn how to contain internal conflicts effectively and isolate those within its own ranks who are rather too wild eyed and enthusiastic, not to mention the ‘fruitcakes’ who frequent the rank and file of UKIP supporters in Britain, for example, and are not entirely absent among AFD supporters either. Some progress has certainly been made in this regard, but a lot still needs to be done. However, there is still a danger that the party will remain a sort of institutionalised ‘Speaker’s Corner’, a place for everybody who does not belong to the political Left, but nevertheless has a grievance against the establishment and wishes to vent his or (more rarely) her anger, as the conservative and ‘patriotic’ daily Junge Freiheit has pointed out.

The years to come will show whether the party is capable of building on its initial success--it now has members of parliament in four regional diets (Brandenburg, Sachsen, Thüringen and Hamburg)--and become a force in German politics that the other parties really do have to reckon with on a daily basis.

What then do supporters of the AfD have in common? They, or most of them are convinced that the present German political class--and large sections of the media in alliance with this class--can no longer be trusted, no more really than the political nomenclatura which until recently governed Greece. Essentially, German voters were never told the truth about the Euro and the enormous risk it would pose both to the German taxpayer (and those depending for their income on the German welfare state of course) and the small savers unable to buy real estate or to play the stock market to make a profit. The majority of people in Germany do not belong to the upper middle class or live in the countryside, but dwell in rented accommodation, in great contrast to the situation in Italy or Britain, which partly explains the widespread German fear of inflation. They were not told about the risks in the 1990s when the ‘frivolous experiment’  (Wolfgang Streeck) of creating this artificial currency first got off the ground and are not told now about them, when men such as Wolfgang Schäuble, the minister of finance, still pretend that the loans granted to countries such as Greece will be paid back in due course without any losses to the German taxpayer, a proposition that nobody who has ever given any thought to this problem can believe for a single moment.  

If distrust of the entire political class constitutes ‘populism’, the AfD may well be a populist party. But then democracies from time to time do need tribunes of the people, in a manner of speaking, in particular when professional politicians have forgotten the principle that, ‘You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time’ (Lincoln).    

Populism’ and nationhood

Supporters of the AfD also share the fact that they believe in one way or another in the nation state, and that of course constitutes a major revolution in Germany. In the Federal Republic the idea of patriotism and even more so, outright nationalism, were largely discredited after 1945. Most Germans in the West (in the East attitudes were and are clearly different) would until recently have very readily accepted the idea that Germany as a state of its own should in the long run disappear and be replaced by a European federation in which Germany would be no more than one of many self-governing provinces. Many Germans still think along those lines, although in the past they used to assume that a United Europe, when it came to the rule of law or the way the economy and the welfare state was run, would somehow be quite similar to the Federal Republic of Germany.

Now, they begin to realise, albeit slowly, that this is a pipe dream and that a United Europe, should it ever come about, will in all likelihood be more a sort of giant Italy than a greater Germany. Not an attractive prospect for everybody, despite the undeniable fact that Italians are more elegant, less, shall we say, dour people than Germans, and make better espresso.

Supporters of the AfD, however, have little time for the idea of a United States of Europe anyhow. Most of them would not deny that the EU as such has a legitimate part to play in politics. Clearly in matters of foreign policy (although here the European governments rarely speak with one voice, unfortunately) or in trade negotiations with the US, to give just one example, the individual nation states in Europe have very little clout. They need to cooperate to exert any real pressure. Moreover the single European market has undoubtedly benefited Germany greatly (although exports to the Eurozone as a percentage of all trade have declined considerably over the last 15 years and do not any longer constitute more than about 36% of all German exports, as opposed to 44 % in 2001, a very significant change that shows the impact both of the European crisis and of globalisation).

But the idea of an ever closer union of European states is widely rejected by AfD supporters. They believe that political cultures (and in fact economic cultures) are far too diverse in Europe for such a superstate to function effectively. Moreover the EU has been constructed so far very much as a post-democratic political system. In a union of different states--some of them quite small--simple majority decisions are just not possible. Minorities must retain a strong right to veto decisions, unless they are to feel that they can never make their voices heard. Furthermore the European parliament is not a normal parliamentary body. There is, apart from the strange and undemocratic electoral system and the total absence of any real European as opposed to merely national parties, no interplay between opposition and government as in most national parliaments. In fact any open opposition against the process of European unification as such is seen as heretical and illegitimate and many members of the great political alliances dominating politics in Brussels would clearly like to ban such critics altogether from the floor of the house.

Finally the European Commission, although it exercises ever more considerable governmental powers--being far more than just an administrative body these days--is essentially still a body whose members are nominated by the member states of the EU as if they were mere civil servants. If democracy is about being able to kick the bums out (to bring down a government in an election) this is impossible in Brussels and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

That a man like the egregious Mr. Juncker who has presided for years on end over a taxpayers’ paradise which allowed companies from other countries to avoid paying any realistic amount of taxation at all and has governed a country which is totally dominated by the financial industry which did so much to create the crisis of 2008/09 now embodies the noble European idea is a supreme irony. Only a philosopher as completely bien pensant as Habermas could hail Juncker’s election as president of the commission in Brussels as a victory for democracy.

Our welfare in Europe

The real problem for the EU is that both the welfare state and democracy are so far closely linked to the nation state. Should there ever be a European welfare state--and it does not look very likely that this will come about any time soon--it will be much more like the very basic American system of providing limited benefits to the poor and the needy than the present much more generous system which exists in countries such as France or Germany, not to mention Scandinavia. Friedrich August von Hayek pointed out as early as 1939 in a paper entitled ‘The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism’ that in a federation of nation states the welfare state would need to be scaled down because different national governments would otherwise be unable to agree on how to finance any system of welfare at all. Hayek for this very reason welcomed interstate federalism: and some authors such as the well known sociologist Wolfgang Streeck have seen the EU and the Euro with its political and financial constraints as an attempt to put his neo-liberal ideas into practice through the back door (Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain would certainly agree with this way of looking at things).

One need not subscribe fully to such an interpretation, which does have some plausibility however, for it to be clear that the Euro has become a serious threat to democracy in Europe, because national parliaments can no longer control their own national budgets. The renewed crisis in Greece is caused inter alia by a revolt against this undemocratic regime. Germans have not yet realised what it will mean when large chunks of the annual budget of the federal government will in future have to be diverted to give support to other European countries. But the hour of truth may come sooner than people expect.

Konrad Adam, Bernd Lucke and Alexander Garland at the founding conference, April 2013. Demotix/Theo Schneider. All rights reserved.

The AfD and the CDU

European unification, via the Euro, has created such terrible chaos, while imposing enormous suffering on millions of people in Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Greece but also, to a lesser degree in the form of high unemployment in Italy and elsewhere, that it poses a serious threat to democracy itself. Thus any rational judgement would come to the conclusion that the AfD’s opposition against a process of European unification should at least be given a fair hearing. But is such an opposition against the destruction of the nation state and against the Euro enough to keep a political party going?

That has been the crucial question facing the AfD right from the beginning. Bernd Lucke, the most prominent among the three official leaders of the AfD and the other leading politicians of the party such as Konrad Adam, Frauke Petry and even more so Alexander Gauland in Brandenburg, have therefore tried to tap into the undercurrent of conservative opinion which is dissatisfied with the sea changes German politics have undergone over the last fifteen or twenty years.

In the past, the CDU (the equivalent of the Conservative Party in Germany) although it was never classically conservative like Britain’s Tory Party, always had an influential conservative wing which saw the battle against the Labour Party and the Greens as a true ideological contest. This wing has almost disappeared during Merkel’s ascendancy. As a consequence, the CDU no longer dares even to challenge the language regimes which left-leaning parties and large sections of the media try to impose on political discussion. Words such as ‘assimilation’ (in the context of debates on immigration) have been banned and if a CDU politician these days said openly that a family consisting of father, mother and children is somehow more ‘normal’ than one consisting of two fathers or two mothers and adopted children (or offspring that has been produced artifically) he would be likely to run into trouble within his own party as a homophobe. Equally the CDU is now supporting a policy of widescale affirmative action in favour of women (and very soon probably also in favour of ethnic minorities) which it would have passionately rejected fifteen or twenty years ago, while Merkel officially endorses the gospel of a multicultural society (whatever that may mean in practice) which she rejected in living memory equally vociferously.

It is easy to understand that this transformation of the CDU into a party which is more (mildly) left of centre than right of centre has left high and dry conservative voters who reject such policies, as they no longer have a party which voices their concerns. Merkel’s hope that such voters would just disappear into thin air has so far not been fulfilled.

Moreover there are voters in Germany who are similar in outlook to the ‘left behinds’ in Britain (culturally conservative lower middle class and working class voters, often middle aged or elderly men rather than women, who frequently supported the Labour party in the past) or the ‘petits blancs’ in France who abandoned the less leafy suburban housing estates of the great urban conglomerations when they came to be dominated by immigrants who do not always display much sympathy for the dwindling indigenous population, as the geographer Christophe Guilluy, for example, has chronicled.

There is undoubtedly mileage in taking up the grievances of such voters and some AfD politicians, Gauland in particular, see the main support of the AfD coming in future from these strata of the population, not from the more affluent and more open-minded middle classes.

The question of immigration and the danger of xenophobia

But there is also a high risk involved. The German version of ‘white van man’ is not necessarily a more pleasant or more rational person than his British counterpart and the step from justified concerns about unregulated mass immigration and rising religious and ethnic tensions to open xenophobia can be a very small one. German Jews have recently been advised by their own community leaders to avoid wearing insignia or clothes betraying their Jewish identity in public, on the grounds that this would endanger their safety in the presence of Muslims. So such tensions clearly are on the rise, but still there is no easy answer to the question of how best to contain them.

The language games of the Left which attempt to stifle debate in the name of political correctness are too much inspired by the spirit of a new enlightened absolutism designed to educate the backward mass of the population. They view them rather as the benighted peasants of rural Europe in the eighteenth century might once have been viewed by the enlightened officeholders and intellectuals at the time. But there are issues, and immigration is definitely one of those issues, where one should choose one’s words very carefully if one does not want to make matters even worse than they already are. It is not a good idea to light a fire next to a powder keg.

Going that extra distance

So the task the AfD faces is a difficult one. It can only be successful if it manages to offer something substantial to voters subscribing to conservative values in matters concerning education, the family and immigration, beyond a principled opposition to a centralised European state.

Some supporters of the AfD also feel that it is high time to take a critical look at the ‘friendship’ between the US and Germany, given the fact that American presidents tend to see European countries as mere pawns in a worldwide great game for power and supremacy, and no recent president more so than Barack Obama.

However, if the AfD promotes an ideal of society which owes more to the values of the 1950s than to the realities of the twenty-first century (and there are, one has to admit, small but highly active groups within the AfD which favour such a course) it can still for the time being constitute a successful protest movement. But it will fail to have any real impact on practical politics, and this is something which Bernd Lucke and other more liberal politicians within the AfD understand only too well.

At the same time an exit from the Euro system is as difficult for Germany as it is for any southern European country. In the same way in which the cheap credit which the Euro provided has acted as a drug for countries such as Spain or Greece before 2010--a drug these countries became addicted to--the chance to export almost unlimited quantities of German goods at artificially debased prices may not have a beneficial effect on the German economy in the long run, but it does give a stimulus to the export industry. Withdraw this stimulus, this drug, too suddenly instead of gradually, it must be admitted, and you may well produce a cold turkey which will kill your patient, the German economy, altogether. It is not easy to find a solution for this problem.

So instead the AfD’s task may rather be to develop a vision of European co-operation for The Day After, for the time when the next—inevitable--implosion of the international financial system brings the Euro system crashing down and the EU has to be reconstructed on very different foundations from the present ones.

Of course the future of the German political system itself is uncertain at best. What will happen when people who as we speak still trust “Mutti” Merkel almost blindly, discover that their pension schemes and their savings have become worthless because of the policy the ECB pursues and that what remains of the German welfare state has to be radically dismantled because of the cost of defending the Euro? Will they vote for the AfD or will they take to the streets in peaceful or not so peaceful protests, as so many did recently in Dresden and Leipzig (the ‘Pegida-movement’) to the great surprise of the political class which promptly threw a tantrum, shocked by these amorphous and admittedly not very pleasant anti-immigration protests.

Or will they just keel over and silently accept their fate, having come to the conclusion that taking part in the political process in whatever form has become pointless, because all real decisions are being taken in Brussels and by the international financial markets and cannot be influenced in any significant way in democratic elections?

Only time will tell. But the last vote in the Bundestag on giving further support to Greece certainly did not bode well for the future of democracy. When around 70 - 75 % of all voters in Germany have serious misgivings about giving further help to Greece, it may not be a good sign that 95% of all MPs vote in favour of extending financial support and that there is not a single party in parliament arguing against this momentous decision.

One could well get the impression that what we see is merely a democratic façade for a political system which long ago became post-democratic. One is reminded of Ken Livingstone’s famous dictum: ‘If voting changed anything, they'd abolish it.’

The author of this article is a member of the Alternative für Deutschland but holds no office in the party and the article presents only his own personal opinion not that of the party itself. He has written this article from a partly partisan point of view, but partly also in a perspective an anthropologist might classify as ‘participant observation’.

If you enjoyed this article then please like the Can Europe Make it? facebook page and follow us on twitter @oD_Europe

Country or region:  Germany EU Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Economics International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Death at Yarl’s Wood: Women in mourning, women in fear

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. March 2015 - 10:54

Abuse at Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre is finally mainstream news. When a woman died at Yarl’s Wood in 2014, a woman who knew her inside spoke by phone to Jennifer Allsopp.


Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre. Capacity: 405

This article was first published on 31 March 2014.

JA: Can you tell me why you wanted to speak to openDemocracy 50.50?

A: [Name withheld] died here on Sunday morning and I wanted to say that we’re all so upset and we're not happy here. There are so many people in here who are unwell and not to fit to be detained and deported.

JA: Did you know her?

A: Yes. I spoke with her before she died. She’d been here about nine days. She was telling me that she was scared because she was going to be taken to the airport. She was taken there but then she was brought back here because of her solicitor. She was worried the Home Office were going to issue her with another document and send her again. To me, when I saw her, she was well. She seemed strong and was moving around.

Some people told me that two days ago someone opened the door hard and she had a shock and was very frightened. The previous day, Saturday, she asked her friend to do her hair and then she said, when she was doing it, ‘I can’t carry on, I’m feeling unwell’.

JA: This was a friend she’d met in detention.

A: Yes, a friend from detention.

JA: How have the women in Yarl’s Wood responded?

We’re very upset. Especially yesterday, nobody went to the afternoon meal, and only some people on medication went to the evening meal. We’re all remembering her, every discussion we had with her. She was really very nice. In nine days in here she was in touch with so many people. She was strong you know. When I met her she said ‘I’m going to go and get my clothes from the reception’. I told her ‘but where will you wear your clothes in here?’ and she said, ‘yes, but they are new and I am going to wear them!’

JA: So the women are in mourning?

Yes, the women are in mourning. The women are in fear. We were all just thinking, this could happen to me as well. This could happen to any of us. There are other people here who are sick and most of us are not believed when we tell them. It’s common. There are vulnerable women who will keep dying in here. There are women here now in wheel chairs...there’s a paralysed woman here.

JA: It sounds like there is an atmosphere of solidarity.

A: There’s an atmosphere of solidarity, we get to know people’s stories. We get the stories of people who’ve been here 2 years, 2 months...

JA: Have you been given much information about what has happened?

A: Now the situation is in shutdown. All they’ve told us is that they’ve tried to contact her next of kin.

JA: Can you tell me a bit about your own experience of being detained in Yarl’s Wood?

A: In Yarl’s Wood it’s like looking out of a window in the middle of nowhere. There are no houses when you look out of the window. You’re brought here in the middle of the night so you’ve no idea where you are: no idea what the gates look like or what’s outside.

There’s little peace. Every day you have a roll call, four times a day. Yesterday there were countless roll calls because of the situation. It was so, so uncomfortable. I don’t know what word to use.

If a new person comes in, at 2am, 4am it doesn’t matter, they take them into your room while you’re sleeping. They just bring them in. They don’t care if you’re asleep or not asleep. They don’t care if you don’t sleep again until morning.

JA: Can you tell me a bit more about the roll call?

A: They knock on your door and check you’re there. The guard could be male or female, they don’t really care.  You have to be dressed, that’s your responsibility. They knock and just come straight in. They’re doing one right now [there’s a loud voice in the background and a door banging.] If you’re dressing you should do it in your bathroom. They find women naked all the time.

We have cards with our name and number. You have to carry it with you all the time, even when you go to the toilet.

JA: What would you like to see change?

A: I look forward to the day Yarl’s Wood will be shut down. We’re all in here and we’re not criminals. Most of us have been in detention before we fled our countries and we thought that running away would free us from detention. We didn’t think that instead of getting help, we’d be detained again here in England.

I’m hoping that Yarl’s Wood will be closed down and asylum seekers will not be treated like animals in this country; that asylum seekers’ cases will be looked at properly; that we won’t just be bundled in here and given a ticket for three days time. It’s so unfair the way the system works. You don’t have time to appeal. Even on the outside they make you report every Monday and you know you could be taken into detention at any time. You do that for years and years with so much fear inside you. Because detention is like a prison. There's no difference as I can’t go out; I can’t breathe fresh air. There’s just a little square between the houses but it’s still an enclosed space.

I think about the people who have been here one year, two years: the need for fresh air! I feel I’m locked up in a room and there’s no door and no fresh air. It’s an uncomfortable feeling but again, this word... imagine that for one month, one year. It’s unbearable.

The name of the interviewee has been withheld at her request.

Refugee Week: Women's Voices: To mark Refugee Week, from 16-22 June openDemocracy 50.50 presents a range of articles written by refugee women authors and refugee rights' activists around the world. All articles are taken from People on the Move, 50.50's migration, gender and social justice dialogue, edited by Jennifer Allsopp.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Refugee women in the UK: fighting back from behind bars Refugee women in the UK: Pushing a stone into the sea Seeking asylum, ending destitution Seeking safety in Algeria: Syrian refugee women’s resilience Is there an alternative to locking up migrants in the UK? Detention and human rights in the UK: maintaining the presumption of liberty 'What happened to me here. . . that's what broke my spirit' Double standards: dispersal and pregnant asylum seekers in Britain Pregnant, detained, and subjected to force in the UK Conversations about home (at a deportation centre) Due diligence for women's human rights: transgressing conventional lines Sun, sand...and indefinite detention Country or region:  UK
Categories: les flux rss

Could the BBC survive without the licence fee?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. March 2015 - 9:05

If licence fees are decriminalised, the BBC could lose £200 million a year in unpaid debts. Adopting a subscription system would be fairer and free it from political control

The BBC’s director-general, Tony Hall, is a man in a hurry. As one of the oldest DGs to be appointed, and already in receipt of his BBC pension, the 64-year-old is acutely aware that the corporation’s charter has less than two years to run, and that the licence fee – the BBC’s bedrock for the 93 years of its existence – has no long-term future (according to a report from a cross-party committee of MPs published last week).

In a speech on Monday, Hall claimed that the committee had given the licence fee at least another 10 years. Actually, that was wishful thinking – the report said no such thing: only that in the 2020s, a new system would have to be in place – and the pace of events strongly suggests the beginning of the next decade is the back-stop date.

Hall set out the case for switching from the licence fee to a broadcasting levy on all households, irrespective of whether they have a television, watch or listen to BBC programmes, or want to pay for the BBC. This was one of the options canvassed by MPs, the other being the new Finnish system of a percentage surcharge on income tax, with both a floor and a ceiling.

Of course, for those who do not need to have a TV licence – the million or so homes without a television and the growing number who just watch online – the proposed switch would be unwelcome, despite Lord Hall’s attractive rhetoric about retaining the BBC as a “creative beacon” in a threatening world.

A household levy also has the disadvantage of possibly requiring primary legislation, and most likely needing the consent of the Scottish parliament, if it were to be attached to council tax collection. Given that in Germany – where the broadcast levy was recently introduced – the main beneficiaries are the regional governments and their respective broadcasters, it is hard to see an SNP administration failing to demand substantial devolutionary control of broadcasting. That would not appeal much to a thoroughly centralised BBC.

Unmentioned by Hall in his presentation was the sting in the tail of the proposed levy. This was that the proceeds should not accrue exclusively to the BBC, but be in part reserved for other broadcasters whose ideas for public-service content required a degree of public funding.

Indeed, the Commons committee, in calling for the trust to be replaced by a Public Service Broadcasting Commission (PSBC), which would allocate the levy, envisaged a situation where funding might be withdrawn from the BBC if its output failed to live up to expectations. Again, the BBC has always bitterly opposed sharing the licence fee: Hall’s silence on this point was eloquent.

Both the committee and Hall called for online consumption of content to come within the ambit of the licence fee. Oddly enough, it would seem to do so already: any device capable of receiving live broadcast television is technically subject to the rules. It is just that the BBC has not had the nerve – or resources – to seek that level of enforcement.

In any case, there is a simple solution, which is to encrypt TV content on the BBC iPlayer, as that wily bird, Lord Burns, recommended to the committee. Licence holders would be able to gain access to iPlayer by typing in their licence number. Non-holders would have to pay a fee – rather like that for Netflix or Amazon. It would take weeks, not years, to implement such a system, and require no special legislation. After all, the BBC already sells DVDs of its programmes, and is a 50 per cent shareholder in UKTV, which charges a monthly subscription for access to its content, the largest single element of which comes from the BBC.

Why is Tony Hall so adamantly opposed to something so obvious, fair and easy? It is because he sees it as the thin end of the wedge, where the licence fee as a whole might be replaced by subscription. Ostensibly, the BBC opposes voluntary subscription as a replacement for the licence on two grounds: loss of universality and loss of revenue. In reality, the argument is about two different philosophies of funding broadcasting: compulsion versus choice.

The concept of universal provision of BBC services, free at the point of use, is quite recent. Not all BBC channels have been available to all households at all times; and there would be no reduction in availability in a subscription system.

As for being “free at the point of use”, that can only apply once you have paid your licence fee: which is no different from paying a Sky, Virgin Media or Netflix subscription, where you can consume as much content as you like at the relevant level of payment.

Pros and cons of the licence fee, according to MPs

More importantly, the BBC fears a significant loss of revenue if households were given the freedom to subscribe – or not. Hall argues that a reduction in the numbers of those paying would entail either a cut in the quality of service, or an increase in the fee, or both. He may be right, though my view is that with the average viewer’s consumption of BBC TV running at 8-10 hours a week, the chances of people en masse giving up EastEnders, Casualty, Countryfile, Bake Off, Antiques Road Show, Top Gear and even Pointless, not to mention Newsnight, Panorama, and an array of documentaries, in order to save £12 a month, is minimal.

The BBC regularly reminds us that, at 40p a day, its huge array of output is a tremendous bargain. The trouble is that nothing is a bargain if you have no choice but to buy it. If the BBC really believed its own propaganda about the 40p, it would embrace subscription without a second thought. That it is so viscerally opposed to subscription – and to choice, a word rarely on the lips of BBC mandarins – is a reminder that its business model relies upon criminal sanctions to achieve success.

The hundreds of thousands of impoverished householders who are prosecuted for failure to pay the licence fee are the other side of the reputed bargain. Allowing those people the freedom to do without the BBC, is surely a small price to pay for a clear conscience.

The BBC will also argue that a major investment would be required to equip millions of Freeview TV sets with conditional access modules, in order for encryption to work. That this absence is the deliberate result of BBC policy when Freeview was launched – to frustrate any future move to subscription – does not alter the economics.

The capital cost might run as high as £500 million, but this would be spread across some 15 million households, where the cost of a module per TV set might be between £15 and £25: no different from the average cost involved in the recent upgrade from analogue to digital broadcasting. If the BBC were nervous about the rate of take-up, it could easily borrow against future revenues in order to reduce the initial cost of conversion.

Source: DCMS select committee

In any case, time is not on Tony Hall’s side. Parliament has voted to decriminalise the licence fee, either in 2016 or 2017, leaving the BBC to chase non-payment as a civil debt, with the inevitable result that hundreds of thousands of households will avoid payment. The BBC acknowledges that at least £200 million a year could be lost this way. Needless to say, at least an encryption and subscription system would prevent evaders freeloading at the expense of those who pay.

Subscription would also give the BBC effective independence from politicians, as opposed to the nominal independence the licence fee represents. In October 2010, the Coalition transferred more than £500 million a year of spending obligations from its departments to the BBC, as the price of freezing the licence fee within an overall public spending review. The Commons committee was scathing about the BBC Trust’s failure to resist this blatant abuse.

At least giving up the licence fee, and adopting subscription, would free the BBC from the constant threat of political interference in its funding. Instead, the BBC would deal directly with those who consume its services: surely not the worst of outcomes.

Many people – probably most – admire the BBC and its cheery DG. They wish both well. But a dose of courage on their part would not go amiss.

This piece was first published in The Telegraph (2 March 2015)

Categories: les flux rss

Hard times: the human face of neo-liberalism

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. March 2015 - 1:44

Successive governments have promoted policies which entrench a punitive and controlling way of managing public institutions.

Every morning I wake up on the wrong side of capitalism. Credit: Street Art Utopia, Sun Rise Above. All rights reserved.

Neo-liberalism isn’t just an economic doctrine. With its obsession with money and markets and targets and competition, it also shapes our emotional cultures. But how does it get under the skin and into the way we relate to one another in public institutions as well as private life?

It’s a sneaky and insidious process. The culture shifts, and we absorb its values without noticing as it becomes more and more difficult to think in any other way. Who has the time to really listen and respond to each other, let alone enjoy playfulness, when financial outcomes override all other considerations? As a result, the quality of relationships inevitably suffers.

These values are passed on to children through parenting practices. As society becomes increasingly unequal, parents are more stressed. And stressed parents—whether the driven, ambitious, wealthy minority or the financially struggling majority—are often less tuned in to their own feelings, and less able to respond sensitively.

Instead of drawing on empathy to guide their responses, they turn to the ‘quick fix’ of punitive practices that are based on external control of the child’s behaviour, like strict feeding or sleeping regimes. Or they resort to threats and physical punishments which are still practiced by a majority of parents in the UK and the USA. These practices tend to produce individuals who are trained to ignore feelings—what’s known in the psychology trade as “insecure avoidant attachment” behaviour.

Cumulatively, this behaviour shapes the culture of society. But I think there are signs that some of the consequences of emotional avoidance are being recognised a result of recent scandals in the UK National Health Service (NHS) and in local government. These scandals show how successive governments have promoted policies which entrench a punitive and controlling—rather than secure and supportive—way of managing public institutions.

One of the most shocking recent examples to make the headlines was at the Mid Staffordshire Hospital in the UK, where some patients were ignored for long periods of time, left to lie in their own faeces, hungry, unwashed, cold or thirsty. One even resorted to drinking water from a vase. In another incident, a nurse was so bothered by hearing a baby crying that she taped a dummy to his mouth even though he was premature and suffering from breathing difficulties. Pressure from the patients’ relatives eventually led to questions being asked, but how on earth had such behaviour been allowed to take place?

The official enquiry which investigated these incidents (the “Francis Report”) found that some of the nursing staff lacked compassion, and were dismissive of the needs of patients and their families. Unfortunately there was no further psychological reflection on the factors that may have contributed to such uncaring behaviour—such as a feeling of being overwhelmed by the demand for a fast turnover of patients,  a numbness at not having enough time to care, or a feeling of being traumatised by the emotionally demanding nature of the work itself. Neither the Report nor the hospital managers recognised such possibilities.

However, what the Report did make clear was that instead of a secure, supportive and thoughtful management that might have helped health care workers to deal with these kinds of naturally ambivalent feelings and sustain their empathy, there was an avoidant-style culture of bullying which cascaded down from the top. Managers under pressure from the Department of Health used short cuts to get staff to comply with their directions by “applying career threatening pressure.” Those who raised questions about the quality of care were harassed and threatened with legal action. 

This was not an isolated case. Other recent studies confirm the same picture. One report found that nearly half NHS staff had either witnessed or experienced bullying in the last year. This included physical bullying such as being pushed or prodded, or as one person graphically described, having a member of staff putting a hand in their face to stop them speaking. Anecdotally, there is a sense of a cultural shift to a more authoritarian way of doing things. Malcolm Alexander, a lobbyist for patients, put it this way “The thing that really strikes me as something that has changed, is that the hierarchy in hospitals seems more entrenched than ever.”

Why has the culture of the NHS moved in this direction? The key finding of the Francis Report was clear: managers were so preoccupied with cost cutting and meeting government targets on waiting times that they ignored the basics of good patient care. A “command and control” attitude was forcefully promoted by the former head of the NHS, focused on financial targets as well as the achievement of elite foundation trust status or the latest re-organisation of systems.

Managers who don’t achieve these goals face financial penalties and, one might imagine, shame. It seems that one response to such insecurity is defensive—to attempt to control and micro-manage staff—and thus anxiety gets passed on down the line. In these circumstances, compassion for patients is more difficult to sustain. As Alexander puts it, “the interaction between nurses and patients seems to have completely broken down. They are strangely distant. You rarely see them touch a patient.”  Fear of losing jobs or funding comes to dominate people’s behaviour, and trust evaporates.

It’s a similar story in local government. In both Rotherham and Doncaster in the UK, for example, there have been extreme failures by Councils and the South Yorkshire Police over many years to respond empathetically to the needs of children. Case after case has come to light where child protection has failed. Most recently in Rotherham, social workers, their managers and local politicians had all known for years that underage girls were being groomed and raped by gangs of Pakistani men, but little action was taken. 

Mirroring the behaviour of NHS managers, local councillors actively silenced and coerced those who drew attention to the problem. They intimidated a Home Office researcher and confiscated her research. One motivation seems to have been that the party in power depended on the votes of the Pakistani community, so it was willing to minimise or even deny the reality of abusive behaviour within that community even though some of the child victims had witnessed brutally violent rapes, been doused in petrol, and threatened with being set alight if they did not cooperate.

The official enquiries into these cases described a “macho and insensitive culture” that was incapable of recognising and responding to the vulnerability of children. However, this was not the only sphere in which Rotherham councillors behaved in such a way: they also used a bullying and coercive approach to their own workforce. They regularly issued ultimatums to council officers and social workers, telling them to comply or be sacked.

In psychological terms, their behaviour was typical of the ‘insecure authoritarian’ who attempts to control other people by force instead of engaging them in dialogue. Are these types of individuals attracted to such organisational sub-cultures, or are they produced by the sub-culture itself?

At present we don’t have the research to answer this question. But Susan Long, an Australian management scholar, believes that the problem has less to do with deviant individuals than with instrumental cultures. Dominated by a ‘transactional mindset,’ many organisations become so focused on particular outcomes that they lose the capacity to listen in a relational way to the whole person and their needs, or to respond to the whole situation. 

Long goes further by arguing that managerial culture has become “perverse” in psychoanalytic terms, in that it represents a culture of collective self-deception. This culture endorses the pursuit of individual gain at the expense of the wellbeing of others in order to achieve its goals, even if that means denying other people’s emotional realities. 

The behaviour of councillors and police in South Yorkshire can be seen in this light. The police overtly downplayed the harm they knew was happening to children. Perhaps because they were under pressure to meet their targets for effective prosecutions (and these cases were often hampered by unreliable witnesses), police officers did not pursue offenders. Instead they blamed the girls for being ‘out of control.’ They denied the reality of children who were being sexually abused and treated them as consenting adults—or even worse, as ‘slags.’

In such an instrumental culture, where the primary goal is to achieve shorter waiting lists or higher grades or successful prosecutions, how can people make a place for listening and relating sensitively to others as individuals?

Maybe the political economy of neo-liberalism requires insecure and aggressive people, instead of secure individuals who are more likely to be open and empathetic?  If so, is this what we want? If not, we have to address everything that shapes the neo-liberal culture, from parenting practices to the design of health and education systems to the incentives that run through economic policies.


Sideboxes Related stories:  Is cruelty the key to prosperity? Does value for money help or hinder the search for social transformation? Facing up to the capitalist within
Categories: les flux rss

3 police officers forcibly strip a vulnerable child without calling her mum. Is that all right?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. March 2015 - 0:00

More and more children are being stripped or strip-searched in state custody in England and Wales. Children’s charities welcome a recent court judgement that clarifies the law.

PD was a 14-year-old girl, with a history of mental illness, who had been a victim of sexual abuse. She was arrested in 2010, after being drunk and abusive outside a kebab shop, then taken in handcuffs to Wirral police station where she was forcibly stripped of all her clothes by three female officers. No one called her mother until after PD had been stripped.

The police say they stripped PD to prevent her harming herself, but CCTV footage of her after she had been stripped and put in a cell on her own, show her in acute distress, banging her head and pulling out chunks of hair. No officer appears to have tried to stop her hurting herself in this way.

Last week, PD lost her claim for damages from the police on a point of law. However the appeal court judges expressed their “concern that it should have been thought appropriate immediately to remove the clothes of a distressed and vulnerable 14 year old girl without thought for alternative and less invasive measures to protect her from herself”.  The police claimed she had to be stripped because they were worried she might use her underwear as a ligature and hang herself.

PD’s is not an isolated case. Charities such as ours — Just for Kids Law and Children's Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) — are alarmed at the doubling in the number of children being stripped by police over recent years, both for their own protection and to search for weapons or drugs.

Because of this, we acted as ‘interveners’ in PD’s case, which means that, although we weren’t acting for her directly, we were able to put expert evidence before the court to highlight the importance of children’s welfare and best interests being at the heart of any contact with police. In their judgment, the appeal judges wrote that they concurred “with the submissions made on behalf of the interveners that children in custody are vulnerable and that special care is required to protect their interests and well being”.

It seems that little special care was shown in this case.

Police lawyers had tried to argue that because PD was so vulnerable, she needed to be stripped for her own protection, and she was not entitled to the safeguards that are given to children who are stripped to search for evidence.

They argued that because she was not technically being strip searched (merely stripped), the protections that apply to strip searching didn’t apply. They argued that she was not, therefore, entitled to have her mother or another ‘appropriate adult’ with her, to reassure or support PD. 

The rules around strip searching are contained in what is known as PACE Code C, which specifies that where someone is strip searched by the police, the strip should be conducted by an officer of the same gender and in private. If is it a child, they are entitled to have a parent or other appropriate adult with them.

In PD’s case, the first court to look at the issue agreed with the police: it was a strip, not a strip search, so she wasn’t entitled to have her mum with her. Thankfully, the Court of Appeal disagreed, and said there is no distinction between a strip and a strip search. The same protections must apply to both.

Although this was an important point of principle to establish, and will be welcomed by children’s campaigners, it was a fairly hollow victory for PD herself. The appeal court added the rider that there is an exception to the need for a parent or other adult to be present “in cases of urgency, where there is a risk of harm to the detainee or to others” – which is what the police successfully argued in PD’s case. 

On the broader issue the decision in PD is a positive one. Human rights laws demand that the police, and other public bodies, can interfere with a person’s privacy (in this case by removing a child’s clothes), only if it is a proportionate response to the risk – that is, if there is no other less intrusive measures they could have taken to achieve their objective.

Even the most well balanced adult would be traumatised to be held down and stripped by three strangers. Imagine how much worse it must be for a child who already has mental health issues, who has previously been sexually abused. 

Just for Kids Law and Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) believe that the police should only ever strip children as a last resort, when there is no other alternative to keep them safe, and that all necessary protections should be in place to minimise the trauma involved.

This doesn’t appear to be happening in practice. Statistics recently gathered by CRAE via a freedom of information request for their State of Children’s Rights in England report show that the strip searching of children by the police doubled between 2008 and 2013. CRAE’s statistics also show that in 45 per cent of those strip searches there was no appropriate adult present. The court’s decision in PD gives welcome clarification that the police can strip a child without an appropriate adult present only where there is an immediate risk of harm.

Both CRAE and Just for Kids Law recently wrote to the government asking for an urgent review of police strip-searching of children, but we know ministers are already aware of the problems. The Home Office is due to publish two reports later this month by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, which are expected to include recommendations over the use of strip searching on children and other vulnerable people by police.

In 2013, the Ministry of Justice reviewed the use of strip search on children in prison or other secure accommodation. As a consequence of that review the Ministry of Justice issued guidance stating that children must only be strip searched as a proportionate response to a real risk. Furthermore, the Ministry of Justice now collects data showing when strip search is used. It is essential that the Home Office, which is responsible for policing, follows the example set by the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for prisons, and conducts a review of how and when children are being stripped by the police. 

Shauneen Lambe is a barrister and director of Just for Kids Law; Paola Uccellari is director of Children’s Rights Alliance for England.

Think this piece matters? Please donate to OurKingdom here to help keep us producing independent journalism. Thank you.


1. Felicity Williams of Garden Court Chambers acted for JfK and CRAE in the case pro bono.

2. Under PACE Code C any one under 18 being strip searched by police should have the following safeguards: the strip be conducted by an officer of the same gender; the strip should be conducted in private; they should have a parent or other appropriate adult with them.

3. In January, 23 leading children's rights and youth justice experts, including the Children's Commissioner for England and Deputy Children's Commissioner for England, called for stripping of children in police stations only to be used as a last resort

Sideboxes Related stories:  Strip-searched in Derbyshire Many thousands of children stripped naked in custody. Ignites memories of being raped
Categories: les flux rss

Global supply chains: the role of law? A role for law!

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. March 2015 - 22:07

International law lacks stringent mechanisms for ensuring worker protection in global supply chains. It is the responsibility of the wealthy nations which are home to major corporations to fill this legal gap.

Forced labour is a common feature of global supply chains. In June 2014, reports about the use of slave labour in the Thai fishing industry dramatically reminded the British public about the labour practices of many supply chains. This followed recurrent reports about the use of slave labour by suppliers in the textile industry, particularly in Bangladesh. These kinds of human rights abuses occur in a range of industries where production has been outsourced to suppliers in the developing world.

No binding international human rights law on companies

Anyone reading these reports will usually wonder if there is no international law on those issues. The answer is a bit tricky. Yes, international law addresses slave labour in treaties, conventions and declarations. For example, Article 4 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that ‘no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.’ However, the difficulty with forced labour in global supply chains is that traditional legal concepts and globalisation do not easily fit together. The transnational nature of global supply chains poses a challenge for law as it cuts across territorial borders.

The main reasons why law has so far struggled to adequately address human rights abuses in global supply chains are clear. First, law is very much a territorial concept and it is therefore primarily states that regulate forced labour. Many countries where the use of force labour in production is prevalent have bound themselves by international treaties to eliminate these issues. However, the problem in many jurisdictions of the developing world is that either the written law does not address those issues or the law enforcement mechanisms are weak. Moreover, international law is traditionally law between states. This means that it is the duty of those states that are signatories to international treaties against slavery to implement their commitments. Companies are not directly bound by international human rights law. 

Corporate law, corporate groups and supply chains

The use of forced labour constitutes both a crime and a tort. A crime is an unlawful act that is punishable by states. A tort, on the other hand, is a civil wrong that unfairly causes someone else to suffer loss or harm, for example, an injury due to negligence. The person who commits the tortious act is liable to the tort victim, who can recover damages for the loss or harm. Generally speaking, there is no vicarious liability (imposing responsibility in law on a superior person for the failure of a subordinate person) in criminal law. However, this concept is used in tort cases, for example the responsibility of an employer for the negligent acts of their employees in the course of their employment. It could, in theory, therefore also be used in order to hold multinational enterprises liable.

However, the idea of holding multinational companies liable for the human rights violations occurring in their global supply chains faces  challenges in company law. Companies are generally considered as entities separate from their owners. This means that an overseas subsidiary company, which is owned by a multinational company, is a separate entity in law even if it is wholly owned by its multinational parent. In English law, parent companies are not held legally responsible for the illegal acts (torts) of their subsidiaries—only the subsidiaries themselves are liable for their wrongdoing. This approach limits the responsibility of multinational enterprises as they can hide behind their subsidiaries. The increasing use of suppliers further exacerbates this issue, as these companies are not even owned by the Western multinational enterprises.

Private corporate social responsibility regimes

Against the background of this legal vacuum, human rights abuses such as the use of forced labour have become a widespread feature in global supply chains. However, due to reputational concerns about negative publicity, most multinational companies have started to ‘voluntarily’ adopt corporate social responsibility (CSR) standards for their supply chain. Unfortunately, after more than a decade of such private CSR systems it is evident that not much has changed in practice. This situation raises serious questions about the effectiveness of this private CSR regime.

The main weakness of such private CSR regimes is that they lack publicly enforced sanctions in case of noncompliance. Although many multinational companies incorporate these CSR commitments into their contracts with their direct (first-tier) suppliers, this does not mean that the use of forced labour stops. As western buyers are responsible for not only the incorporation of these commitments into supply contracts, but also for their subsequent monitoring and enforcement, everything hinges on the vigour with which individual buyers carry out these tasks. Moreover, even if multinationals did their utmost to ensure compliance among their first-tier suppliers, with which they have direct contracts, evidence shows that most human rights abuses usually occur far below the first-tier suppliers. In other words, most human rights abuses are several degrees removed from the western buyers. They take place within the many layers of sub-contractors comprising global supply chains today.

Criminal liability as part of a more effective CSR regime

The inability of the existing system to curb human rights abuses in global supply chains raises the question of whether there is anything that could be done through law in the home state of multinational enterprises. One stringent proposal is to make it a criminal offence for forced labour to exist anywhere in the supply chains of multinational enterprises. This idea was suggested in the UK during the drafting stage of the Modern Slavery Bill, but rejected by the government. Instead, the government is now introducing new duties on companies to report on what they are doing to prevent forced labour in their supply chains. The danger is that the reporting will remain a box-ticking activity as it lacks the threat of liability of a criminal offence.

Such an offence would apply English criminal law extraterritorially. The UK Bribery Act 2010 shows that such an extraterritorial criminal liability for corporations is possible. Section 7 of that Act criminalises the failure to prevent bribery by a person associated with it irrespective of where the bribery was committed. An associated person could also be a supplier. As this offence applies both to UK companies and overseas companies that carry out business in the UK, the only way that companies could avoid this liability would be by exiting the UK market entirely.

A similar offence for the use of forced labour could be modelled on Section 7 of this Act. It is likely that this would induce multinational enterprises to do more than at present to ensure that their suppliers and sub-suppliers do not use forced labour. The reasons are twofold. Most obviously, eliminating instances of forced labour would reduce the chances of being hauled before the courts. If that happens, however, proof that a company has instituted adequate due diligence mechanisms to prevent forced labour by its business partners constitutes a valid defence. Therefore, corporate criminal law could therefore improve the compliance with private CSR standards.

Admittedly, law alone will not be able to eradicate the use of forced labour in global supply chains. It does, however, have the potential to make an important contribution. The home states of multinational enterprises cannot be silent on those issues. In the absence of a binding international human rights framework imposed on companies, and in light of the weak law and/or law enforcement mechanisms in many countries of the developing world, it is time for the home states of multinational enterprises to lead the fight against forced labour in supply chains.


Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 








Related stories:  Harsh labour: bedrock of global capitalism Free to stitch, or starve: capitalism and unfreedom in the global garment industry Capitalism’s unfree global workforce
Categories: les flux rss

Climate-chaos migrants set to face increasingly closed borders

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. March 2015 - 15:11

Climate change is set to trigger dangerously soaring temperatures this century, forcing many of humankind’s most vulnerable to migrate to survive. Yet the growing global obsession with border security will stifle their safe movement.

A protest at the Rafah border checkpoint. Flickr / Steve Rhodes. Some rights reserved.

Anthropogenic climate change is heating the earth ten times faster than natural changes over the last 65m years. Scientists concur that our current path could lead us to a 4C rise by the end of the century, which would be cataclysmic for humanity. Even avoiding such a global doomsday with a 1.5-2C rise, a widely accepted international aspiration, would still bring widespread catastrophes and a Day of Reckoning for many.

Amid environmental instability and threats, people migrate, as evident throughout human history. Due to current climatic changes, many are already silently migrating—from the Andes, the Himalayas, the Sahara. With a 2, 3, 4C rise or more, large-scale population shifts will be unavoidable, to find basic necessities to survive and to escape dangerous environmental threats. And yet still there are no effective or widespread mechanisms to safeguard the masses forced to move.

On the contrary, we are entering an equally unparalleled era of border securitisation, and thus restricted cross-border movement. When they picture heightened border security, most people think of Europe, alongside America. But the trend is global: there are five times more border walls than 25 years ago—from the UK to Ukraine to Uzbekistan to Pakistan to China to Malaysia, and much beyond. In the context of extreme and rapid climatic changes, this denial of human movement could prove disastrous.

Narratives in collision

West and north Africa are primes examples of this collision of narratives. Straddling the Sahara and pocketed with other smaller deserts, such as the Libyan and the Nubian, this region is one of the hottest in the world. Native peoples, such as the Tuareg, Amazigh and Fula, have over thousands of years learned to exist in this most hostile of environments, often through the wanderings of nomadic lifestyles.

The Sahara is already showing signs of warming and is predicted to warm considerably more quickly than the global average, as well as suffering from reduced and more erratic rain. This will push people’s ability to survive over the edge—indeed there is strong evidence to suggest it is already happening.

At the same time, due to intra-regional tensions and external political pressures, various states have been barricading their borders in recent years. The 1,559km border between Algeria and Morocco is permanently closed and a sandstone barrier divides Morocco and the Western Sahara territory. A few years ago Libya bought a contract to securitise all its borders and the EU is working bilaterally with states across the region to tighten controls.

Climate change is expected to affect the world’s most vulnerable first. That usually means those living in countries with weak governance whose finances, resources and infrastructure are meagre or poorly managed—as is true of much of north and west Africa. And from Egypt to the Gambia, climate change is already threatening people’s livelihoods, homes, water and food supplies. Adaptation may prove beyond the capabilities of many but increasingly impermeable borders also imply that safe passage into less threatening lands will become increasingly implausible.

Ancient landscapes

Similar developments are taking place in the Middle East—across the Levant, the Arabian peninsula and Mesopotamia, to the far east of Iran. This ancient and vast landscape is becoming increasingly adorned with man-made border structures, carving up swathes of arid and semi-arid lands to smother free movement.

Border walls and fences divide states across the western part of the Fertile Crescent, including at the borders of Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Syria. Highly secured barriers are being built between Oman and the United Arab Emirates and between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In 2009 Saudi Arabia also bought a contract to secure all its borders—a 9,000km security system.

Across an arc of conflict riddled with complex social and political tensions, conjured demons of drug smuggling, oil theft, terrorism and illegal migration instil mistrust and fear in many leaders, and so border-security initiatives proliferate. However, the global climate obeys no border.

In the Middle East, water scarcity is likely to befall many states, such as the severe drought in 2010 which affected Jordan, Israel, Syria, Iraq and Turkey, devastating livestock and crops and displacing millions. This drying trend, along with other environmental problems such as the diminution of the great Jordan river due to political recklessness, looks set to intensify this century. Water and food insecurity, as well as economic impacts and conflicts rooted in or exacerbated by climate, are highly likely in this volatile region.


Border-security choices made by political elites, often fuelled by nationalist self-righteousness, could lead to unfathomable and disastrous situations for those most vulnerable to climate change. And they are evident from rich to poor regions—from Fortress Europe to impoverished areas in South Asia—and from landlocked nations to isolated islands:  Central Asia to the UK.

Tuvalu looks exotic but life on the island is threatened by rising sea levels. Flickr / Tomoaki Inaba. Some rights reserved.

Take the prevalent attitude to immigration in the largest and wealthiest island in Oceania, Australia, a potent example of how exclusion can be deadly. The island is in close proximity to poor and underdeveloped islands, many of which are highly vulnerable to climate change. Floating in settings of serene allure, for several of these low-lying states which barely peak over the ocean’s surface—Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands—cyclones, extreme flooding and rising sea-levels present the terrifying prospect of complete submergence.

Yet Australia, the obvious destination for many due to its wealth and ample land, has a severe anti-immigration stance, with robust maritime surveillance of ‘infiltration’ of its waters, agencies which intercept ‘boat people’ and a thorough deportation system. This political decision to fortify shores and deny undocumented migrants refuge paints a desperate future for many in the Pacific who will seek safety from climate change.


Securitisation has become the buzzword, the quick fix and obsession of a growing number of rulers. And so today Earth is riddled with more fortified borders than at any previous point in history. At the same time, human activities are warming the planet at an unprecedented rate, likely to ignite critically dangerous situations for mankind’s ability to survive across the globe.

In such aberrant circumstances, it is essential that we provide assurance of free movement to safer and more habitable lands. States need urgently to readdress their concepts of borders, security and ‘self-determination’, recognising human mobility, humanitarianism and altruism towards their fellow man and neighbour—to allow for a more transient world and safe passage away from the threatening and violent impacts of climate change.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Climate summit, climate justice Trapped by borders, a global flotsam and jetsam
Categories: les flux rss

Boris Nemtsov: murder in an atmosphere of hate

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. March 2015 - 15:06

The death of Boris Nemtsov, in the shadow of the Kremlin, is rooted in the atmosphere of hate that has been building for the past year. And Nemtsov was quite unlike the man often portrayed.

Boris Nemtsov, 55-year-old co-chair of the People’s Freedom Party (PNR-PARNAS), was strolling in the centre of Moscow with a friend, Anna Duritskaya, a Ukrainian model, when a car braked in front of the pair as they crossed a bridge over the Moskva River. Six shots were fired at Nemtsov. The politician died at the scene. The car sped away. According to information released by Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s main federal investigating authority, Nemtsova and Duritskaya were making their way to Nemtsov’s flat. The car’s licence plate is known to the police, but the car’s whereabouts are yet to be confirmed.

The murder was committed on Friday evening, ahead of a planned anti-crisis march on Sunday – the first such march to be permitted by the city authorities since last autumn. The march’s organisers had published their demands beforehand: reduce state expenditure on military and policing in favour of healthcare and education, end Russia’s involvement in the war in Donbas, and curtail the country’s isolation from the rest of the world.

Frenzied propaganda

Russian state television has been pushing frenzied propaganda for more than a year. Its targets: America, Ukraine and the Russian opposition. In March 2014, Vladimir Putin described leading opposition figures as ‘national traitors.’ And as the economic crisis set in, hysteria has only continued to grow.

As the economic crisis set in, hysteria has only continued to grow.

In recent months, the most virulent pro-Putin groups have united in forming the AntiMaidan movement, which has declared its support – to the point of violence – for the government. The scale of AntiMaidan’s public hate for its opponents would suggest a conflict on the cusp of civil war. AntiMaidan participants have been involved in several attacks on opposition demonstrations. Nothing good was ever going to come from the fanatical supporters of the regime, but the shooting of Boris Nemtsov was unexpected, nevertheless.

Leonid Gozman, a former leader of the Union of Right Forces party, however, thinks there is something else. ‘The authorities found Nemtsov annoying. He went for the holiest of holies – property. His numerous reports – on the Sochi Olympics, on Putin’s palaces – hit them where it hurt. But I’m not saying that they’re behind the murder,’ muses Gozman, who used to lead the opposition party together with Nemtsov.

Indeed, the scenario that Nemtsov ‘was killed on the orders of Putin’ seems unlikely. A new terrorist group acting independently – for example, one formed by veterans of the conflict in ‘Novorossiya’ – appears far more credible. The target of Nemtsov makes sense for this kind of attack. Since the late 1990s, Nemtsov has been the focus of placards, caricatures, and threatening anti-liberal newspaper articles by pro-Kremlin activists. These groups frequently caricatured Nemtsov as an ‘agent of America.’

In a press release on Saturday, the Investigative Committee confirmed the possibility of such a scenario: ‘A chain of events connected to the situation in Ukraine is under investigation. It is no secret that, on both sides of the conflict, there are radical individuals beyond the control of any authorities.’

The scenario that Nemtsov ‘was killed on the orders of Putin’ seems unlikely.

The Investigative Committee is also considering the possibility that Nemtsov was killed by radical Islamists – the politician made a public expression of sympathy for the journalists at Charlie Hebdo after the mass shooting in January. Although, it should be said, the Committee is also looking into the involvement of ‘external forces’, attempting to de-stabilise the situation in Russia. Pro-Kremlin activists have already discussed this scenario more openly: ‘Nemtsov was killed by his American controllers – a dead Nemtsov is more useful when it comes to manipulating the situation in the country.’

Political biography

Nemtsov came to politics in 1990. Previously a physicist, with more than 60 articles and several inventions to his name, Nemtsov had a potential scientific career before him.

‘At the 1990 elections, Nemtsov was supported by the Democratic Russia movement, which I helped create,’ remembers rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, a former aide to Andrei Sakharov, and who remains involved in opposition politics today. ‘He became known in Nizhny Novgorod after collecting signatures against the construction of a nuclear power station. He became a deputy [in the Congress of People’s Deputies] as a result.’

Nevertheless, Ponomaryov is certain that Nemtsov would have become a politician without the planned nuclear power station – by virtue of his temperament.

During the 1990s, Nemtsov was a deputy in the Russian parliament, a governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region, and first deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin.

‘Nemtsov was a far more serious, systematic and thoughtful person than he portrayed himself,’ says Leonid Gozman, who worked with Nemtsov both in (since disbanded) Union of Right Forces and in government.

‘He prepared for all meetings very seriously – no half-measures when it came to solving problems. Though he behaved very differently: ‘Guys, I’ve been scratching my head – here’s a thought.’ But beyond that easy patter, he was seriously thinking things through.’

‘There was a time when Boris Yeltsin said in public that he wanted Nemtsov to take over after he left office. But that was in the first half of the 1990s. By the end of the decade, when Yeltsin wasn’t even really in charge anymore, the FSB managed to put Vladimir Putin in place,’ remarks Ponomaryov.

There was a time when Boris Yeltsin said in public that he wanted Nemtsov to take over after he left office.

The human rights activist tells me that the Union of Right Forces, a right-wing liberal party, which Nemtsov led in the 1990s and at the beginning of the 2000s, supported Putin as a presidential candidate – even though Nemtsov and several other influential members voted against this policy in an internal party meeting. From 2003 onwards, Nemtsov’s political activities were almost solely directed towards criticising Putin. Ponomaryov goes as far as to posit that Nemtsov felt a kind of ‘responsibility’ for Putin’s rise to power. The Union of Right Forces fell into increasing obscurity over the next few years, eventually losing all representation in the Duma in the 2003 elections. Nemtsov resigned from the party, which disbanded in 2008 after its new leader, Nikita Belykh, took up President Dimtry Medvedev’s offer to become governor of the Kirov Region

Until 2003, Nemtsov was a deputy in the Duma, and then started in business after losing his seat, moving into street protests in opposition to the Russian authorities. He financed many opposition events from his business earnings; and could be seen handing out leaflets on the streets. He was arrested on many occasions and spent several periods on short sentences in jail.

‘I once complimented him,’ remembers the political scientist and commentator Andrei Piontkovsky, who was a member of the anti-Putin political movement ‘Solidarity’ (formed in 2008) together with Nemtsov. The movement had been formed as a ‘big-tent’ protest group combining critics of United Russia from both the left and right. ‘I said: “I know all the leaders of the Russian opposition. You are the only one who one can disagree with, say something unpleasant to, but which won’t ruin your personal relationship.” This really was true. And he answered: “I don’t have any illusions about myself.”

‘For Nemtsov, political life was a second life – one where he was already successful. If he hadn’t gotten involved in politics, he could’ve continued a successful scientific career.’

His own man

While Alexei Navalny’s Progress Party is attempting to register, under resistance from the authorities, Nemtsov’s  PNR-PARNAS remains independent and liberal. Other opposition parties, such as liberal party Yabloko (founded in 1995) and Civic Platform, the party of Mikhail Prokhorov, a wealthy businessman, show themselves to be increasingly reticent when it comes to criticising the Kremlin.

Just a few years ago, PNR-PARNAS’s party registration was an important fact for the Russian opposition. For instance, thanks to the existence of PNR-PARNAS, Nemtsov became a deputy in the Yaroslavl’ regional parliament; and anti-corruption activist and opposition figure Alexei Navalny ran in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election.

But following fresh restrictions on party registration, as well as changes to the electoral procedures for city council elections, PNR-PARNAS, as a recently registered party, can participate in only a limited number of elections.

In spite of all this, Nemtsov was always at the core of Russia’s opposition; and he always would have been. 

Standfirst image: Boris Nemtsov by Ilya Schurov via Wikipedia. All rights reserved.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The tale of Boris and Vlad Who was Mister Putin? An Interview with Boris Nemtsov Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

Monday 2 March 2015

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. March 2015 - 11:07
OD Show on Front Page:  Not Shown on Front Page Right Image Why Britain won’t talk about crucial elements of Jihadi John’s story Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? Libya, containing the danger Iraq: the assault on minorities Has being gay influenced my view of the war on drugs? Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? Putin still has plenty of friends in London Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? Why does Germany insist on a failed programme for Greece? Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? We feel that we found our self after we lost it in the war Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ?

My home Syria is a beautiful place, but war took it from us. As refugees in Amman, performing Euripides’ The Trojan Women gave us a way to explain our new lives, and what we have lost. 

Why we occupy: Dutch universities at the crossroads Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ?

Twin pressures of authoritarianism from above and neoliberalism from below mean we must develop the democratic alternative put forward by the movement for a new university.

Detaining the president’s daughter Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ?

A year on from her disappearance from public life, what does the treatment of Gulnara Karimova reveal about Uzbekistan’s rights crisis?

Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ?
Categories: les flux rss

‘Headbutt the bitch’ Serco guard, Yarl’s Wood, a UK immigration detention centre

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. March 2015 - 11:00

For years women locked up inside Yarl’s Wood, a UK government lock-up in Bedfordshire, have complained of racist abuse, sexual abuse and shoddy medical treatment. Now there is video evidence. WATCH ‘INSIDE YARL’S WOOD’ CHANNEL 4 NEWS, TONIGHT 7PM

Yarl’s Wood, which holds nearly 400 detainees, is the UK’s most secretive immigration detention centre. It has been plagued by damning accusations about the behaviour of guards since it opened in 2001.

Cameras have never been allowed inside. Even the United Nations special rapporteur for violence against women was barred entry.

Tonight Channel 4 News will reveal footage shot undercover inside the facility over a period of months. Our investigation reveals:

  • Numerous incidents of self-harm
  • Questions over standards of healthcare
  • Guards showing contempt for detainees 

The management of Yarl’s Wood has been outsourced to Serco since 2007. The company has always robustly rebutted allegations of sexual abuse and degrading treatment that have emerged from behind the facility's high fences and barbed wire.

Serco says its focus is ‘decency and respect’ for the ‘residents’ of Yarl’s Wood. The Channel 4 News investigation suggests a different reality for the mostly female detainees. Most of them are failed asylum seekers who have committed no crime.

As a result of the allegations, the Home Office has ordered “thorough and immediate investigations into all matters raised by this programme” and told Channel 4 News that they “will not hesitate to take whatever action we think appropriate in response”.

Serco have also said that former barrister Kate Lampard will “carry out an independent review into our work at Yarl's Wood” in response to the investigation. (Lampard was the NHS and Department of Health’s choice to provide independent oversight on the Jimmy Savile investigation).  

“We will not tolerate poor conduct or disrespect and will take disciplinary action wherever appropriate”, Serco said.

“They’re all animals”

Staff at Yarl’s Wood are filmed referring to the detention centre’s inmates as “animals”, “beasties” and “bitches”.

“Headbutt the bitch,” one guard says. “I’d beat her up.”

A guard is also filmed saying: “They’re animals. They’re beasties. They’re all animals. Caged animals. Take a stick with you and beat them up. Right?”

Guidance from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) says staff at detention facilities must “promote a respectful and safe environment”.

HMIP says a healthy detention facility is one where: “Staff address women using their preferred name or title and never use insulting nicknames or derogatory or impersonal terms.”

The strain on the staff could increase further as a result of government cuts, as 68 guards will be made redundant at Yarl’s Wood. 

Channel 4 News put this to Serco, who said: “the new structure that we are putting in place will provide sufficient operational staff to cater fully for the needs of residents.”

Health care at Yarl’s Wood

Standards of health care at the immigration detention centre are also brought into the spotlight.

Holding pregnant women is one of the most controversial aspects of the government’s detention policy: pregnant women are supposed to be detained only if their removal is imminent.

The investigation heard about a pregnant woman who had collapsed in the facility’s dining hall and was taken to hospital. 

A still image from the Channel 4 News investigation

“They said she was bleeding,” one officer says. Later in the conversation another adds: “The technical thing is no concerns were raised.”

Channel 4 News learnt that the woman went back to the hospital the next day and was told she had miscarried her baby. She was sent back to the detention centre. 

Early the next morning the woman returned to the Yarl’s Wood healthcare suite, which is sub-contracted to another private company, G4S. She was bleeding, highly distressed and desperate to be sent back to hospital.

Serco documents seen by Channel 4 News say the woman was “spoken to” because she was “refusing to wait her turn” and tried to ring the ambulance service.

G4S told Channel 4 News the woman was offered pain killers and told to come back two hours later to see the doctor. But they could not confirm that appointment took place.

Eventually four hours later, just before midday, she was seen by a visiting midwife, who called an ambulance.

G4S told Channel 4 News: “While this resident's miscarriage was understandably a deeply distressing experience for her personally, she received an excellent standard of clinical care from both G4S medical staff and the pregnancy unit at the local NHS hospital.”

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons guidance says detention facilities must make sure: “pregnant women and those caring for children in prison are fully supported throughout their time at the prison by appropriately trained staff.” 

On health care it states the aim that: “Women are cared for by a health service that assesses and meets their health needs while in prison and which promotes continuity of health and social care on release.”

And: “The standard of health service provided is equivalent to that which women could expect to receive elsewhere in the community.”

“Attention seeking”

On February 24 of this year the Home Office Minister Lord Bates told Parliament that there had been no serious incidents of self-harm at Yarl’s Wood in the past two years.

When asked how many “suicides or serious attempts at self-harm” there had been in the centre in the past two years, he said: “the answer is, fortunately, none.”

However, Channel 4 News has obtained figures through the Freedom of Information Act that show there were 74 separate incidents of self-harm requiring medical treatment in 2013 alone.

Above: a still image from the Channel 4 News investigation

The details of these incidents have never been disclosed, but an officer is recorded saying: “They are all slashing their wrists apparently. Let them slash their wrists.”

Another officer asks why the women would self-harm. The first officer responds: “It’s attention seeking.”

Inmates are also reported to have jumped from a stairwell in the detention centre — with one breaking her back. 

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons says prisons should provide: “a safe and secure environment which reduces the risk of self-harm and suicide.”

It says detention facilities should ensure that: “vulnerable women are identified at an early stage and given the necessary support.”

“Then I jumped”

Channel 4 News interviewed Esther Izigwe who was released from Yarl's Wood at the end of January.

She had suffered years of sexual violence as a teenager in Ghana before fleeing to the UK. Already struggling with depression, she says her mental health deteriorated badly in detention. When guards said they were about to remove her by force to send her home she was desperate. 

She says: “I started running then they started chasing me then she was like ‘Esther, please, we need to go’ and I was like ‘I'm not going, I don't want to go’. Then she said ‘you need to go’ and then I stood by the stairs. I said ‘if you come near me I will jump’. And then she still came and then I said ‘one more step I will jump’ and then she still tried to come in and then I jumped.”

“We take all incidents extremely seriously”

In response to the investigation's findings on self-harm in Yarl’s Wood, Serco said: “We work hard to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all the vulnerable people in our care and last year the number of incidents of self-harm decreased. All incidents of self-harm are treated extremely seriously and any resident who self-harms is seen by a nurse, regardless of the severity of the act.”

Serco went on:

“In the last eight years, there have been three occasions when residents attempted to self-harm on stairs. We take all such incidents extremely seriously and on each occasion a thorough review was undertaken and actions taken with the individuals to prevent them repeating attempts at self-harm. As part of these reviews the option of placing nets or barriers was considered but rejected as they would not be effective in preventing acts of self-harm.”

In response to the Channel 4 News claim that there was a lack of empathy among guards for detainees who self-harmed, Serco said: “We expect the highest standards of behaviour from all our staff at all times.The vast majority of our employees consistently meet these standards and I am proud of the work that they do. Nevertheless, we recognise that there are rare occasions when those standards have not been met by a few individuals. This is always unacceptable and when it is proven to have happened we take swift and appropriate disciplinary action.”

Official response:

In response to the Channel 4 News findings, a Home Office Spokesman said:

“The dignity and welfare of all those in our care is of the utmost importance — we will accept nothing but the highest standards from companies employed to manage the detention estate.

“Last month, the Home Secretary commissioned an independent review of detainees’ welfare to be conducted by former prisons ombudsman Stephen Shaw, but these are clearly very serious and disturbing allegations which merit immediate scrutiny.

“Serco has already suspended one member of staff. We expect Serco and G4S to conduct thorough and immediate investigations into all matters raised by this programme, and we will not hesitate to take whatever action we think appropriate in response.

“All of our detention centres are part of a regular and rigorous inspection regime operated by Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons. Lapses in standards, when they are identified, are dealt with swiftly and effectively. 

“A sense of fairness must always be at the heart of our immigration system — including for those we are removing from the UK.”

In response to the investigation as a whole, Serco said: “We will not tolerate poor conduct or disrespect and will take disciplinary action wherever appropriate.

“We work hard to ensure that the highest standards of conduct are maintained at Yarl’s Wood and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons has found the Centre to be a safe and respectful place.

“We are conscious that we are working in a particularly challenging environment at Yarl's Wood, looking after 300 women detained during the final stages of their removal proceedings.

“The public will want to be confident that Yarl's Wood is doing its difficult task with professionalism, care and humanity.

“Accordingly, we have asked Kate Lampard, who has immense experience and credibility, to carry out an independent review into our work at Yarl's Wood.”

Full details of the investigation will be released on Channel 4 News on Monday at 7pm. 
The investigation was undertaken by Channel 4 News and producer Lee Sorrell. This report, republished by permission, first appeared on the Channel 4 News site, headlined, "Yarl's Wood: undercover in the secretive immigration centre".

Sideboxes Related stories:  Child locked up ‘by mistake’ for 62 days at adult immigration jail Coroner finds Capita detainee died of natural causes at Manchester immigration lock-up Justice blindfolded? The case of Jimmy Mubenga The racist texts. What the Mubenga trial jury was not told Neglect and indifference kill American man in UK immigration detention Extraordinary things: visiting the women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre The national shame that is healthcare in UK immigration detention
Categories: les flux rss

New trend, old roots: “internationalization” in Amnesty’s history

Open Democracy News Analysis - 2. March 2015 - 10:00

For Amnesty International, the growing trend of “internationalization” has very old roots. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, Internationalizing human rights NGOs: why, how, and at what cost?  Español

Amnesty International’s decision to experiment with new activist structures in the global South and disperse many of the functions of its London-based International Secretariat to hubs around the world has sparked lively discussion within and beyond the organization. The multi-year organizational project is in progress, and its results can’t be immediately assessed. But one thing is certain: “internationalizing” is not a new goal for Amnesty. The recent undertaking is on a larger scale, more ambitious and more dramatic than previous ventures, but it would be a mistake to view the “Closer to the Ground” project as discontinuous with efforts and commitments marking the organization for decades.

AI’s formal commitment to a worldwide presence dates to 1989, when delegates to AI’s International Council (the organization’s ultimate decision-making body) declared membership development an organizational super-priority. By the early 1990s AI was spending nearly 10% of its international budget to expand and support its federated membership structures beyond Europe and North America. Despite concerted effort over an extended period, however, results were disappointing. During the 1990s AI welcomed about a dozen new sections, including South Korea, Algeria, Nepal, Benin, Taiwan and Slovenia, but ultimately it had to close several sections in which it had invested heavily. Part of the problem was that demands placed on AI sections weren’t reasonable for a small pool of volunteers, in any country—especially without support of a locally based field organizer.

Another inherent limitation was that AI’s program was geared mainly toward abuses in other countries, a hard sell to volunteers who wanted to address pressing problems at home. Activists attracted to AI as a politically impartial international organization with a reputation for effective action gladly joined the global thematic campaigns, but they often found onerous the work of maintaining a volunteer governing board, raising funds and participating in AI’s internal policy discussions. The burden was even greater when these organizational tasks required translation to and from a local language. Growth tended to increase demands, expenses, and expectations, and local leadership in some sections openly resisted pressures to increase their numbers.

For the organization as a whole, that was not a satisfying response. Amnesty’s volunteer leadership and senior managers in the International Secretariat were committed to expanding the organization and helping to grow a local human rights presence around the world. The motivations were, and are, complex—a nuanced but important point in the current context. As a starting point, the notion of solidarity is deeply embedded in AI’s ethos and organizational culture. Amnesty was founded on a vision of human rights as a collective good, and for more than fifty years, its members have found meaning and motivation in the idea that ordinary individuals, wherever they live, share a stake in speaking out against human rights abuses, wherever they occur. From the beginning, AI’s members sought to be part of an international movement, and the original rule restricting work on one’s own country was one of the means by which the solidarity norm was reinforced.

Flickr/Amnesty International (Some rights reserved)

A 2009 Amnesty International demonstration in Bangladesh in support of global solidarity day for Iran. Amnesty International has promoted global solidarity as an essential tool in the continuous struggle for human rights since its inception.

As the organization grew, Amnesty members in different countries sought ways to engage more directly with each other, across national divides and cultural constraints. AI was eager to enhance its diversity internally, electing members from around the world to its international governing board, flattening the voting structure to weight the representation of small structures, mandating a minimum level of spending to support small AI sections, setting up translation units, and making travel support and other resources available to ensure that AI members from smaller structures had opportunity to influence the organization’s strategic plan and program of work.

While the proportion of members from non-industrialized countries remained slight, the organization’s extensive consultations and efforts to integrate the concerns of AI activists worldwide had a palpable impact on the nature and focus of its work. AI members from the global South thus helped the organization find its way to work on women’s rights, impunity, HIV-AIDS, and economic social rights, among other issues. As a poignant anecdote, I recall a debate at AI’s 1995 International Council meeting, where delegates from Africa made impassioned arguments that a failure to take up work on female genital mutilation would consign Amnesty to irrelevance in their societies.

By the time of the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, AI understood that building up a global human rights movement was not just a reflection of cosmopolitan values. It had become a strategic imperative. By the time of the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, AI understood that building up a global human rights movement was not just a reflection of cosmopolitan values. It had become a strategic imperative. The most convincing way to make the case for universality was to demonstrate support for universal human rights principles, all across the globe. The Paris Human Rights Defenders Summit that Amnesty and the FIDH co-sponsored in 1998 was thus intended to promote networking among local human rights organizations from all over the world, many of whom were only beginning to work with digital technology. Since that time there have been numerous opportunities to appreciate the strategic value of coordinated campaigning on issues as diverse as the International Criminal Court, the Arms Trade treaty, and the Millennium Development Goals. It has also become apparent that today’s struggles for human rights are better waged on home turf than from foreign capitals.

This, then, is the backdrop against which the current conversations unfold. Over the years AI has tried many strategies to expand its organizational footprint and encourage the spread of human rights activism. It has alternatively subsidized membership structures and promoted self-sufficiency with fundraising loans. It has invested in extensive training programs for member-leaders, developed comprehensive performance indicators and deployed diagnostic tools for organizational audits. For nearly a decade it experimented with singling out a few national structures for prioritized attention, and in the late 1990s it began to build up small-scale offices outside London.

All of these efforts have yielded results that are positive but not commensurate with the hopes and expectations. Over the past several years AI’s leadership has determined that nothing short of a radical overhaul will position the organization to meet challenges ahead. The costs have been high, particularly in terms of staff turnover. But just as there is more than one reason for an INGO like Amnesty International to “internationalize”, there is more than one way to assess costs.

An earlier generation of human rights advocates demanded “Human Rights Now!” and persuaded each other that human rights protection was something that could be secured once and for all. We now understand the quest for human rights to be a continuous struggle. The challenge is to find, and ever renew, appropriate means to carry it forward.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 


Related stories:  Moving Amnesty closer to the ground is necessary, not simple How do we solve structural inequality in global networks? Coming together, or falling apart? Convergence towards the global middle: an emerging architecture for the international human rights movement To truly internationalize human rights, funding must make sense Don’t ditch the “local” when scrambling to “go global” Multiple boomerangs: new models of global human rights advocacy Transnational rights violations call for new forms of cooperation Human rights diversity goes beyond North-South relations A time for change? The future of INGOs in international human rights
Categories: les flux rss