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Serbia’s Choice: EU Membership or Eastern Promises?

30. March 2015 - 21:56

With Serbia increasingly looking towards Moscow instead of Brussels, does the EU need to rethink its strategy towards the country?

Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic. Wikimedia. Public domain.Successive Serbian governments have been working towards their country’s EU membership since October 2005, when the negotiations with Brussels for the Stabilization and Association Agreement started. Four years later, on December 22, 2009, Serbia applied for membership to the European Union.

Though uneven and plagued with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the negotiation process had inched forward and gathered pace over the past few years. Following lengthy and intense dialogue between the administrations in Belgrade and Brussels on the monitoring and implementation of the EU reform agenda, the accession process was formally initiated.

After signing the Interim Agreement on trade and trade related matters as part of the Stabilization and Association Process in 2008, a way had been paved for a June 2013 vote by the European Council (EC) to open accession negotiations with Serbia. Six months later, in December that same year, the EC adopted the negotiation framework. The convening of the first Intergovernmental Conference on January 21, 2014 had marked the formal start of Serbia’s EU membership negotiations.

What the EU wants

While the opening of negotiations provides for an optimistic view of Serbia’s future in the EU – something that Aleksandar Vučić’s government is all too happy to take credit for – there remain a myriad of serious structural, economic and political problems that need to be addressed by the administrations in Brussels and Belgrade. It should, however, be emphasized that some of those problems are not exclusive to Serbia but are an integral part of a shared legacy of authoritarianism, nationalism, and war that devastated the region in 1990s.

Even though Serbia, like its Western Balkan neighbours, has been engaging with the Europeanization model designed in Brussels for the last twenty years, it still remains a playground for a hybrid regime of a proto-democratic type. A multiparty parliamentary system with elections that often barely meet the threshold of regularity and fairness exists alongside informal networks of power, systemic corruption, a deeply polarized political environment, and a profitable union between political and business elites.

There is also the question of its citizens firmly declaring their loyalty to a specific and clearly defined political community, which was noted by analysts as the essential background condition for a successful transition to democracy. Expanding on this point, political scientist Dejan Guzina, from Wilfrid Laurier University, suggested that such a condition has neither been met in Serbia nor its neighboring states of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Kosovo.[1] They all face challenges when it comes to territorial claims as well as the loyalty of their citizens and their sense of belonging. It seems that in order to integrate these contested states, the EU administration is prepared to modify the traditional application of its transformative power and engage in old-fashion nation-state building in the Balkans.

In the case of Serbia, one could detect a combined EU strategy of applying direct political pressure on the government in Belgrade to follow the integration model set by Brussels and adjust its foreign policy objectives, and the administrative approach characterized by encouraging political, economic and social reforms in the country. Direct political pressure manifests itself by the EU insisting first that Serbia successfully concludes its negotiations with Kosovo, and second, that it distances itself from Moscow. On both issues the citizens of Serbia and their government are not of one mind, and the government is facing an uphill battle indeed. Enacting significant economic and financial reforms is an equally daunting task.

Kosovo - the unresolved issue

The government in Belgrade is struggling with a foreign policy reorientation. When it comes to continuing negotiations and resolving long standing territorial disputes with Kosovo, the situation is at a standstill, and politicians in Belgrade and Brussels are avoiding discussing the subject.

The silence of the officials with regards to Kosovo is in part the product of uncertainty amongst EU members of just how to approach the issue. Five EU member states are yet to recognize Kosovo. This despite the fact that Serbia’s recognizing the political reality of an independent Kosovo is one of central conditions of its future EU membership. With that in mind, Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo seems just a matter of time. The success of talks between Belgrade and Pristina will be assessed as part of the otherwise less significant Chapter 35, dealing with various bilateral issues. Because of Kosovo, this Chapter will be open first and most likely remain open for the duration of the negotiation. Skeptical voices within Serbia suggest that the pressure from Brussels paired with the desire of both Kosovo and Serbia to join the EU separately is the only reason why the conversation between Belgrade and Pristina is still active. As a consequence, they posit, almost all of the issues discussed have been imposed by the EU administration.

It is apparent that Germany is very keen on seeing the relations between Serbia and Kosovo enter a more stable phase. Sonja Biserko of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia is of the opinion that the most recent German-British initiative on Bosnia and Herzegovina will have an impact on Serbia’s position on Kosovo. Furthermore, she expects the EU to demand that Serbia distances itself from the Republic of Srpska para-state as well.

Russia as a resurgent partner

Aleksandar Vučić’s government is also performing the dangerous balancing act of swinging between the EU and the US on one side, and Russia and China on the other. The earlier political dictum “Both Kosovo and the EU” has been now modified into “Both Russia and the EU”. Serbia had refused to join the economic sanctions imposed by the US and the EU against Russia.

In an interview for CNN in August 2014, the Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, reiterated that his country "supports and respects the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and Crimea as a part of Ukraine." He added that at the same time, however, Serbia "did not" impose sanctions against Russia. The Serbian political elite, however, has quickly learned that the time of non-alignment and neutrality belongs to yester-years. Serbia has been reminded time and again by its Western partners of the need to make a choice, and of the fact that the New Cold War reality demands unwavering loyalty. It is also worth noting that Serbia became a member of the Partnership for Peace at the 2006 NATO Summit in Riga.

On the other hand, the government in Moscow is sending a clear message that it does not look benevolently upon Serbia’s EU aspirations. In an interview for the Serbian State Television, the Russian General Leonid Ivashov stated that Serbia in the EU and NATO would be “a catastrophe”. It is reasonable to assume that the pressure from Moscow would only increase over time.

Within the ruling party there seem to be dissonant voices on the issue of choosing between EU and Russia. The President of Serbia, Tomislav Nikolić, disagrees with the prime minister about their country’s EU and NATO integration, and favours stronger ties with Russia. Nikolić’s attempt to maintain close relations with Moscow is informed by his understanding of history and the political usability of the memory of the recent confrontation with NATO, as well as the ideology of nationalism to which he wholeheartedly subscribes. He is supported in that by the entire right-wing political block that currently commands the loyalty of a sizable portion of the electorate. President Nikolić is also aided in its pro-Russian stance by the high ranking clergy of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Some analysts, however, interpret his dissent as a tactical maneuver that portrays Prime Minister Vučić as a reform-oriented centrist determined to see Serbia become a part of the EU, and as a politician who is facing stiff opposition. The prime minister, long known as a hot-bloodied nationalist, indeed appears eager to project the image of himself as Serbia’s last chance for salvation and a victim of historical circumstances. Vučić believing in his messianic role notwithstanding, the reality is that criticisms of his policies are few and far between. His standing as the most popular politician in Serbia was built on the perception of his determined fight against deeply rooted corruption even though the results of such struggle are yet to manifest themselves in earnest. Many in Serbia say that Aleksandar Vučić had promised a lot but delivered precious little.

Economic challenges and empty promises

On the economic front, Vučić’s government is engaged in what it defines as aggressive and necessary economic restructuring. It is selling large state enterprises, which previous governments were reluctant to privatize, and justifies it by stressing the need to attract foreign investments. Aleksandar Vučić’s election campaign rested almost entirely on the political mantra of bringing in foreign partners who would revive Serbia’s fledgling economy. He spoke of many billions of euros that would be invested by wealthy individuals and companies from the United Arab Emirates.

Those funds were to be used for many projects in Serbia such as purchasing of state-owned land in Vojvodina, opening a microchip factory by the Mubadala Development Company from Abu Dhabi, a taking over of the bankrupt state-owned JAT air-carrier (later renamed Air Serbia) by the UAE’s Etihad Airways, as well as building of a mega project Belgrade on Water (Belgrade Waterfont) courtesy of the UAE investor Mohamed Allabar. Moreover, Vučić also promised the signing of a new strategic contract with Mercedes in order to revive the production line in the old FAP truck factory in Priboj.

The takeover of JAT was plagued by controversies, and the former Minister of Economy, Saša Radulović, resigned in January 2014 because he viewed the contract signed with the Etihad Airways as very unfavourable to Serbia.

The Serbian government also issued a tender for the Smederevo Steel Plant following it being abandoned by its previous owner, US Steel. This tender had failed because only one offer came in. It was an offer by an off-shore company from the Netherlands whose address is the same as that of the MNSS – the owner of the Niksic Steel Plant (Montenegro). It is worth mentioning that the MNSS has been linked with businessmen close to the Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Đukanović. By far the most significant decision Vučić’s government has made to date was to issue a tender for the privatization of a very profitable Telecom company. That was something no previous government did.

It is clear that the sale of strategically important economic enterprises to foreign investors is seen by the Serbian prime minister and his government as the central feature of their model of economic reforms. The expectations are that funds raised in such a manner would lessen the massive budget deficit that is now approaching 71% of the GDP. During the last two years of Vučić’s governing, Serbia’s budget deficit has increased by 80%. In monetary terms this increase approaches the figure of 800 million euros. Back in 2003 the deficit was 750 million euros, while in 2012 it reached the amount of 1.05 billion euros. In 2014, however, Serbia had a budget deficit of 1.8 billion euros.

While these figures might sound less than alarming when compared, for example, to the budgetary deficit of Greece, the fact remains that the Serbian economy would not be able to easily and quickly fill this financial void. Austerity measures, therefore, are a real possibility, and that could seriously destabilize the political situation in Serbia and impact negatively its government’s efforts to meet the membership criteria for the EU.

The possibility of such an outcome is a good reason for the EU to rethink its negotiation strategy and maybe design ways that would offer greater incentives for continuing reforms in view of Serbia’s membership to the EU. Such incentives, if they materialize at all, should take into consideration increasing Russian political and financial influence in the region. Failing that, we might witness another potential EU member state responding favourably to (or being intimidated by?) Eastern Promises and swinging away from Brussels and towards the so-called Eurasian union.

[1]I am grateful to Dr. Guzina for allowing me to consult his work in progress on the strategies of EU expansion in the Western Balkans.

To read more about the challenges facing specific EU candidate countries, click here.

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The Russian politics of multiculturalism

30. March 2015 - 12:00

The relationship between religion and ethnicity on the one hand, and civic assimilation on the other, is far less harmonious than Putin’s magniloquence asserts.

Much has been made in the last several years of Vladimir Putin’s close alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). With charges of corruption, laundering, and a now infamous botched wristwatch Photoshop incident tarnishing the Church’s image, few would deny that this partnership is more about political expediency than genuine piety.

But while there is an ideological consensus between the Russian Church and the state, it does not necessarily lie in ecumenical doctrine. The central point at which Putin and the ROC converge is in their rejection of 'the liberal mode of civilisation,' as Patriarch Kirill writes in his manifesto Freedom and Responsibility: A Search for Harmony, in favour of ‘national culture and religious identity.’

Russia is a vast and diverse country, and in promoting a mode of governance rooted in cultural and religious identity, Putin’s nationalist ideology extends beyond the Russian Christian Orthodox demographic base. In his discourses, Putin has worked to cultivate an image of a multi-ethnic and multi-faith Russia. While the ROC certainly maintains a spotlight in the political arena, Putin has made a rhetorical effort to step away from the Church as the be-all-and-end-all of Russian identity, insisting that Russia’s strength lies in its cultural diversity. 

A Russian brand of Islam

To accommodate a multicultural national identity – one that is positioned at the juncture of Asia and Europe – Putin has elevated Islam alongside Russian Orthodox Christianity as one of the country’s two central religions. 

Putin has elevated Islam alongside Russian Orthodox Christianity as one of the country’s two central religions.

Approximately 20m Muslims live in Russia, comprising 14% of the population, and making Russia home to the largest Muslim population in Europe.

Not only has Putin defended Islam as historically indigenous to Russian culture, he has also sided with the proposition that Orthodox Christianity is closer to Islam than to Catholicism. While Western Protestants evince their liberal values through support of abortion and homosexuality, Putin has said, Islam and the ROC are bound in their deference to a traditional value system.

Represntatives of Russia's four 'traditional' relgions, Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism on National Unity Day in 2012

As one of Russia’s four traditional religions (alongside Judaism and Buddhism), Islam does get special status. The state has lent support to various Islamic institutions, including religious schools and an Islamic TV channel. 

Those religious authorities willing to cooperate with the state, such as Talgat Tajuddin, Russia’s Chief Mufti, maintain close relations with Putin. In the past, the bond between the state and Muslim leaders has at times even eclipsed – if only momentarily – its closeness with the ROC. When anti-government protesters gathered in Bolotnaya Square in 2011, Damir Mukhetdinov, deputy head of the Russian Muslims Religious Directorate, condemned protesters while representatives of the ROC maintained a more neutral stance.

But the brand of Islam that Russia promotes is tightly circumscribed. Dating back to imperial policy, the state has worked to dissociate Russia’s Muslims from transnational Islam, creating a domestic infrastructure of Islamic administration and leadership. Putin has denounced the import of Islamic practices like the wearing of the hijab, arguing that they are foreign to traditional Russian Islam. In 2012, the President sided with a ban on girls wearing headscarves to public schools in the Stavropol region. 

But the brand of Islam that Russia promotes is tightly circumscribed.

More troubling has been the government’s policy regarding religious extremism, which has fanned public fears by alleging widespread ‘Wahhabi’ threats, often based on little evidence. In the lead up to the Sochi Olympics, authorities conducted sweeping raids in Muslim places of worship in Moscow and St Petersburg, detaining hundreds of people.

The state’s tangled and contradictory relationship with the broader Russian Muslim community can be summed up in Putin’s policy towards the North Caucasus. There, full-scale war, which provided Putin with critical political capital early on in his presidency, was succeeded by government subsidies and a wholesale redevelopment of Grozny. 

Yet despite these fraught policies, the government has nonetheless maintained a rhetorical commitment to Russia as an ethnically inclusive state, even against the backdrop of growing tides of ethnic nationalism (a trend so oft remarked that it has become a platitude in contemporary analysis of Russia). In the aftermath of ethnic riots in 2010 in Moscow’s Manezh Square and in cities across Russia, Putin condemned the rioters’ xenophobic targeting of North Caucasians. ‘We are all children of the same country,’ he declared, ‘we have a common motherland. Russia has been a multi-confessional and multi-ethnic state.’  

Religion and foreign policy

While Putin’s words can be cast off as mere tokenism, his defence of ethnic and religious diversity is clearly part of a domestic and foreign policy agenda.

In the 1990s, staking out its liminal position between the world’s major political groupings, Russia worked to develop a role as a mediator between the Muslim world and the West. Russia denounced American interventions in Iraq, pursued a ‘two track policy’ with Iran, contributing to its nuclear programme while maintaining dialogue with Washington; and engaged with Hamas leadership. More recently, in 2009, Medvedev asserted that Russia is ‘an organic part’ of the Muslim world, a sentiment that was reiterated by Putin, who argued that ‘our country is developing close and multifaceted relationships with the governments of the Muslim world.’ These declarations of unity have been borne out by Russia’s defence of the Syrian government, in which Putin has painted Russia as an apostle of international law. 

The government’s appeal to unity with the Muslim world also helps legitimise Russia’s eastward economic expansion.

The government’s appeal to unity with the Muslim world also helps legitimise Russia’s eastward economic expansion, which it has begun with the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union, a Slavic-Turkic alliance that will include Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia. ‘Eurasian integration,’ argued Putin in his speech at the 2013 Valdai International Discussion Club, ‘is a chance for the entire post-Soviet space to become an independent centre for global development, rather than remaining on the outskirts of Europe and Asia.’

In the context of westward expansion, too, the rhetoric of inclusivity has played a role. Early in his speech after the annexation of Crimea, Putin emphasised that Crimea’s ‘unique blend’ of different cultures and traditions paralleled that of ‘Russia as a whole, where not a single ethnic group has been lost over the centuries.’ (Crimea’s Tatars, who have only relatively recently returned to the region after Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of their entire population in 1944, might have been sceptical of such claims.) 


Putin’s geopolitics positions Russia as a nation between East and West. When it comes to values and morality, however, Putin’s Russia is decidedly anti-Western.  

President Vladimir Putin meets with representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church.

This contrast is premised not only on the asserted distinction between Russia’s religions and Western Christianity, but on the very basic divergence between a religious Russia and a secular West. In the same 2013 Valdai speech, Putin lamented that ‘people in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation.’ Not so in Russia, where legislation passed in 2013 has penalised the promotion of ‘gay propaganda’ to minors and criminalised acts that insult people’s religious feelings (dubbed by many as the ‘Pussy Riot’ law). 

And while European secularism stifles multiculturalism, says Putin (or, at least establishes an ‘artificial’ multiculturalism, whatever that may mean), Russia preserves a rich concentration of ethnicities and languages unparallelled even by the land of immigrants itself, the United States.

The rhetorical middle ground

Such claims to multiculturalism and multi-confessionalism may be part of Putin’s attempt to position Russia as a preeminent civilisation, re-establishing the country as a moral and political centre of gravity, but the President makes sure to couple these claims with affirmations of national unity and patriotism.  

Careful to temper his endorsement of ethnic diversity, Putin has noted that ‘it is clearly impossible to identify oneself only through one’s ethnicity or religion.’ Instead, the President argued, ‘people must develop a civic identity on the basis of shared values, a patriotic consciousness, civic responsibility and solidarity …’ To this end, Putin has fondly referenced the enthusiasm with which Soviet Muslims and other ethnic groups defended their homeland during the Second World War ‘from the Brest fortress … to Berlin itself.’ References to the Soviet government’s mass deportations of many of these groups during the war didn’t make it into his speech. 

By singling out patriotism as one of the values that all of Russia’s traditional religions share – alongside justice, truth, and industriousness – Putin has attempted to reconcile ethnic and civic identity into a singular, pro-Russian allegiance. 

In reality, though, the relationship between religion and ethnicity on the one hand, and civic assimilation on the other, is far less harmonious than Putin’s magniloquence asserts. Take, for example, Russia’s new nationalities policy of 2012, which has been criticised from both sides of the aisle. Minority rights supporters argue that the policy undermines the status and autonomy of non-Russian nationalities. Russian nationalist groups, meanwhile, decry the new policy for removing references to the ‘state-forming role of the [ethnically] Russian people.’

A superficial commitment to diversity may have a certain strategic significance in projecting a vision of Russia as a resurgent counterpart to the West, capable of allying itself with Asia and the Middle East. However, this political stance will do little to appease domestic constituencies such as nationalists and non-Russian ethnic groups, who will feel betrayed by the government’s lack of commitment in either direction. 

On the foundational question of Russian national identity – to which sphere of the world does the country belong? – Putin has time and again staked out a rhetorical middle ground. Russia, according to Putin, is neither one nor the other: it is ‘a unique civilisation connecting East and West.’ In other words, Russia doesn’t have to choose sides. It seems, however, that there is some contradiction in this equivocation. Is it possible, after all, to be both part of the West and idiosyncratically distinct from it?

Image one: RIA Novosti/Aleskei Nikolsky. All rights reserved.

Image two: Some rights reserved.

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Andargachew Tsige: Ethiopian brutality, British apathy

30. March 2015 - 10:59

A UK citizen who was a refugee from the one-party state that is Ethiopia has been spirited back into its clutches. Why is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office doing so little?

In a political black hole: Andargachew Tsige.On 23 June 2014 Andargachew Tsige was illegally detained at Sana’a airport in Yemen, while travelling from Dubai to Eritrea on his UK passport. He was swiftly handed over to the Ethiopian authorities, who had for years posted his name at the top of the regime’s ‘most wanted’ list. Since then he has been detained incommunicado at a secret location in Ethiopia. His ‘crime’ is the same as that of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others—publicly criticising the brutality of the Ethiopian ruling party.

Born in Ethiopia in 1955, Tsige arrived in Britain aged 24, as a political refugee. He is a black, working-class UK citizen, married with three children. Despite repeated efforts—including demonstrations, petitions and a legal challenge— by his family and the wider Ethiopian community, the British government has done little or nothing to secure this innocent man’s release or ensure his safe treatment in detention. The UK is the third biggest donor to Ethiopia, giving around £376m a year in aid.

After nine months of official indifference, among Tsige’s supporters trust and faith in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is giving way to cynicism and anger. Is the neglect due to his colour or his quality of ‘Britishness’, in an implicit hierarchy of citizenship? If he had been born in England, to white, middle-class parents, attended the right schools (over half the British cabinet was educated privately) and forged the right social connections, would he be languishing in an Ethiopian prison, where he is almost certainly being tortured, abused and mistreated?

Consistently ignored

Tsige is the secretary general of Ginbot 7, a peaceful campaign group which fiercely opposes the policies of the Ethiopian party-state, controlled for 24 years by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). It highlights the regime’s many and varied human-rights violations and calls for adherence to liberal ideals of justice and freedom, as enshrined in the country’s constitution—a broadly democratic piece of fiction which is consistently ignored by the ruling party (even through the EPRDF wrote it).

Political dissent inside Ethiopia has been criminalised in all but name. Freedoms of assembly, of expression and of the media are all denied; so too is affiliation to opposition parties. Aid that flows through the government is distributed on a partisan basis, as are employment opportunities and university places. The media are almost exclusively state-owned and internet access (at 2% the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa) is monitored and restricted. The government would criminalise thought if it could.

At what point, indeed, does neglect in the face of injustice and abuse become complicity?

The population lives under suffocating repression and fear; the vast bulk appears to despise the government. Human rights are ignored and acts of state violence—some of which, according to human-rights groups, constitute crimes against humanity—are commonplace. It is this stifling reality of daily suffering which drives Tsige and other members of Ginbot 7, forcing them to speak out—action that has cost him his liberty.

For challenging the EPRDF, in 2009 and 2012, he was charged under the notorious Anti-Terrorist Proclamation of 2009, tried in absentia and given the death penalty. The judiciary in Ethiopia is constitutionally and morally bound to independence but in practice it operates as an unjust arm of the EPRDF. A trial where the defendant is not present violates the second principle of natural justice, audi alteram partem (hear the other party). Again, however, the EPRDF, having dutifully signed up to all manner of international covenants, ignores them all.

The regime likes trying its detractors who live overseas (activists, journalists, political opponents) in their absence and securing outrageous judgements against them, particularly the death penalty or life imprisonment. It rules by that ancient tool of control—fear.

In relation to Tsige, or indeed anyone else in custody, little in the way of justice, compassion or fairness can thus be expected. Self-deluding and immune to criticism, the EPRDF distorts the truth and justifies violent repression and false imprisonment as safeguarding the country from ‘terrorism’—a phenomenon only evidenced by the thugs, in and out of uniform, which the party-state deploys. 

Constitutional responsibility

Tsige is a UK citizen and the UK government has a constitutional and moral responsibility to act robustly on his behalf. In February a delegation of parliamentarians, led by Jeremy Corbyn, his local MP, was due to visit Ethiopia in an effort to secure his release. But the trip was abandoned after a meeting with the Ethiopian ambassador. A member of the team, Lord Dholakia, vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Ethiopia, said it was made clear that they would not be welcome: the ambassador reportedly told them “that there was no need for them to go to Ethiopia as the case is being properly handled by the courts”.

Tsige however has yet to be formally charged, has been denied contact with his British solicitors, and consular support, and has received only one brief visit from the British ambassador, last August—a meeting controlled by the Ethiopians. The FCO has said it is “deeply concerned” about Ethiopia’s refusal to allow regular consular visits and Tsige’s lack of access to a lawyer and others seeking to visit him. But ‘do something’ is the cry from the family and the wider community.

At what point, indeed, does neglect in the face of injustice and abuse become complicity? If a government gives funds to a government, effectively the EPRDF, which is killing, raping, imprisoning and torturing its own citizens, and then does nothing, it is complicit in the crimes thus being committed. 

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Muzzling humor in the Ecuadorean Revolution

30. March 2015 - 9:00

In Ecuador, Rafael Correa’s government muzzles critique and attacks satirists in an increasingly anti-democratic environment. Español

If having to explain a joke defeats its purpose, having to correct it is a disgrace, especially if you are a professional comedian like Ecuadorian cartoonist, Bonil. And when those in power don’t have a sense of humor, jokes can be more than just embarrassing—they can be extremely expensive.

On February 9, Xavier Bonilla, otherwise known as Bonil, appeared before the Ecuadorean Information and Communications Superintendence (Supercom) due to a cartoon he published last August in the newspaper El Universo. The drawing mocked Augustín Delgado, congressman in Correa’s political camp and ex-player of the national soccer team, due to an episode of stuttering during a televised speech before the National Assembly.

This is not the first time that Supercom has come after Bonil. A year ago, it fined the cartoonist and his newspaper US$90,000 and forced him to rectify another sketch, which lampooned the office search of an opposition member (who had accused the government of corruption). According to Supercom, the cartoon was “not strictly true” and “stigmatizes the actions” of those that appear in it. But Supercom’s critique and justification for its actions included the very definition of what makes a cartoon. If the sketch had been strictly true— if it had not distorted, exaggerated, or inverted the facts— a simple photograph would have sufficed. If it did not stigmatize human conduct— if it did not question it with wit and sarcasm—nothing would differentiate it from the news.

Flickr/Agencia de Noticias ANDES (Some rights reserved)

Xavier "Bonil" Bonilla addresses supporters in Quito, Ecuador.

Without these differences, critique and humor die out. Patrick Chappatte would make The New York Times go bankrupt. John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver would spend all their time at court. The legendary late night hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno would have shutdown CBS and NBC, not because of scandals but because of government imposed censure.

These are essential differences for democracy and freedom of expression. This is why independent courts, from the European Court of Human Rights to the Inter-American Court and national supreme courts, differentiate between freedom of information (which is subject to the duty of truthfulness) and freedom of expression (which is not). They likewise grant more leeway to opinions about those holding public office as a counterweight to their power.

The Revolution’s Changing Mood

Humor can also be an important thermometer for democracy, as Rafael Correa’s administration has demonstrated. Correa’s increasing intolerance for satire has gone hand in hand with the erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law.

Correa’s increasing intolerance for satire has gone hand in hand with the erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law. The most lucid recounting I’ve heard on Ecuador’s “citizens’ revolution” was from María Paula Romo, a prominent member of Correa’s movement in the 2008 Constituent Assembly. The first stage was the progressive and democratic government that promulgated the 2008 constitution, which guaranteed civil liberties and added an exemplary catalog of economic and environmental rights. It was a proposal set on equality without eroding basic liberties, and there were more than enough reasons to admire the change.

In 2011 came a new stage, when the government shifted dramatically, stifling its critics and changing the entire mood of the citizens’ revolution. The judicial reform of this same year aligned the courts with the executive, as was documented in a report by the Due Process of Law Foundation, Dejusticia, and the Institute for Legal Defense. This reform was the first of many that weakened democratic controls, from the right to protest (limited by criminal laws about terrorism that have been used against social movements) to political rights (restricted by legal and administrative obstacles aimed at opposing political parties and social movements). This was the stage at which many Correa supporters from the democratic left, like Romo, decided to leave the government and carve out a niche in the opposition.

Out of those changes came the law that has put Bonil between a rock and a hard place. The 2013 Organic Law of Communications imposes so many harsh controls on the media and freedom of expression that some have called it the “gag law”. It creates offenses so vague  (like “media lynching” when a media outlet critically covers a public servant repeatedly) and with such invasive requirements (like media outlets’ duty to hire an advisor selected by a state-mandated procedure) that in practice it gives the government free range. According to Fundamedios, during the first year the law was in force, Supercom started 136 processes against media outlets and imposed sanctions in 42 of the cases.

For Romo and other observers, the turning point toward the current phase was the constitutional reform that would allow Correa’s indefinite reelection. This change is currently making its way through the legislature, after being approved by the Constitutional Court.

From Charlie Hebdo to Bonil

The waves of Bonil’s persecution by the government will certainly be felt beyond Ecuador. The initial accusation against the cartoonist alleged racial discrimination because the Congressman Augustín Delgado is Afro-Ecuadorean. Even though Bonil did not make any allusion to the subject’s skin color, the government and some anti-racist organizations have done so in their complaints. The artist publicly reiterated that this had not been his intention and apologized for such an interpretation of his cartoon. In the end, the charge he faced was for “socioeconomic discrimination”. In the end, Supercom ordered Bonil’s newspaper, El Universo, to publish an apology in its website’s header within 72 hours and to keep it there for a week. Criminal prosecution will soon follow.

It should come to no surprise that the Ecuadorean government decided to delay the hearing against Bonil, initially set for the 16th of January, when #JeSuisCharlie became a global sensation. Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Bonil has appeared in public holding a giant pencil, while #YoSoyBonil trends in social networks in Ecuador. The Bonil case provides an important reminder that threats against satire and freedom of expression do not only come in the form of violence.

Among all the manifestations of opinion, humor and satire are the freest, and often the most forceful. As Darío Fo, the Italian comedian, playwright, and Nobel laureate, once said: “Satire is the most efficient weapon against power: power does not tolerate humor, even so-called democratic leaders, because laughter frees man from his fears.”

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Saudi Arabia’s big mistake in Yemen

30. March 2015 - 8:42

Saudi Arabia, by committing itself to an unlimited military escalation in Yemen, has over-reached itself.

Houthis in San'aa. Luke Somers/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The recently crowned King Salman of Saudi Arabia has taken a major gamble by launching ‘Operation Decisive Storm’, a campaign of air strikes in Yemen. Bringing together a military coalition of Arab countries, Riyadh has pledged ‘to do whatever it takes in order to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling’. The elected leader of Yemen, President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, has been ousted from power by a coalition of rebels headed by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the leader of a group of Zaydi Shia tribesmen from the North of the country, and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Saudi Arabia has been quick to point a finger at Iran, claiming that Tehran’s support for their Shia allies in Yemen, the Houthi movement, is directly responsible for the collapse of the transitional government formed after the deposal of President Saleh in the region-wide Arab revolutions of 2011. Riyadh has a point: the Houthis, mistrustful after decades of perceived discrimination and war against the Yemeni military and jihadi extremists, have been the biggest spoilers of the peace plan and transition process brokered by the United Nations and the regional Gulf Cooperation Council (of which Saudi Arabia is the leading member).

The transition process, which included the election of President Hadi in 2012, was ostensibly designed to rebuild Yemen’s democratic institutions and to find a better way of representing minority interests, including those of the Zaydi Shia who supported the Houthi movement. The Houthis believed none of this – they were convinced that Hadi would become a proxy of Riyadh. Instead Abdul-Malik al-Houthi decided to seize as much territory as he could.

The Houthis took full advantage of the collapse of the Yemeni military in 2009 – its elite units initially sided with President Ali Abdullah Saleh. They made practical alliances with tribal groups in the provinces surrounding the country’s capital, Sana’a, and took the capital itself in September of last year. A demoralized, divided Yemeni military melted away or appears to have been co-opted by the Houthis. In a realist masterstroke, the Houthis forged an alliance with their former enemy, ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose enduring connections to Yemen’s military, business and tribal elites remain formidable.

Saudi Arabia, by committing itself to an unlimited military escalation in Yemen, has over-reached itself. There are several reasons for this. First, they have already lost one war against the Houthis. In 2009 the Houthis killed more than 100 Saudi soldiers after Riyadh bombed Houthi positions along the border. Chastened, the Saudis backed off. This time around, it is doubtful that Saudi Arabia has the stomach to comprehensively defeat them.

Second, President Hadi is, from a military point of view, beyond saving. He has few allies within the Yemeni military – many of the units operating in and around Aden have refused to follow his orders. His tribal allies are no match for the experienced, better organised and well-armed Houthi rebels.

Third, the other big winners out of Yemen’s collapse are al-Qaeda and Islamic State-linked jihadi extremists, who have seen their funding increase, including from private donors in the region. These extremists are a much greater threat to the Saudi government than the Houthis whose ambitions are limited to Yemen.

Al-Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia, including a 2009 failed suicide bombing against the Saudi Minister for the Interior, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, should have alerted Riyadh to the perils of over-focusing on the threat from Iran, instead of dealing with the links between extremists in Yemen and in the wider Arabian Peninsula. Those dangers still exist and the Saudis should not do anything that indirectly empowers jihadi groups along its southern border.

Finally, Saudi Arabia’s key ally, the United States, will negotiate with the Houthis; it will not negotiate with Yemen’s jihadi movements. Washington’s military actions will likely escalate against al-Qaeda and Islamic State-linked groups in Yemen, creating a confusing paradox whereby two allies are bombing different sides in a civil war. If a nuclear deal is signed with Iran in the coming months, then Saudi Arabia will come under increasing pressure to compromise with the Houthis so that the US and its allies in the Gulf can concentrate on the jihadi threat.

Saudi Arabia needs to be saved from itself in Yemen. The Houthis are a locally driven movement. They value external support from Iran but are not controlled by it. But Iran still has some useful influence with the Houthi leadership. Tehran should know that it is not in its interest to allow Yemen’s deepening sectarian conflict to become an even greater fulcrum for global jihad. A senior UN intermediary is urgently required to hold talks between the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as in Yemen, in order to negotiate a détente.

As part of an initial ceasefire, it will be necessary for the Houthis to retain, at least temporarily, some territory based on their recent military conquests. However, in the long-term the Houthis have no interest in seeing their own country, the poorest in the Arab world, slip further into deprivation and bloodshed. Ultimately, neither they nor Saudi Arabia can win by force alone.

Sideboxes Related stories:  A Saudi-Iranian grand bargain The international community and the crisis in Yemen Yemen's frail faultlines An introduction to Yemen's emergency Crisis in Yemen: what the media is getting wrong Yemen: descent into anarchy Yemen: a state born of conflict Country or region:  Yemen Saudi Arabia Topics:  Conflict Economics International politics
Categories: les flux rss

The gender wars in Turkey: a litmus test of democracy?

30. March 2015 - 7:33

The pent up fury and grief released by Özgecan Aslan’s attempted rape and gruesome murder reveal deep fault lines and simmering sources of disaffection in Turkish society.

Photo: @emekci_hareketOn a freezing cold day on the 21st of February 2015 a group of men wearing skirts marched towards the iconic Taksim square: they were protesting the brutal attempted rape and murder of Özgecan Aslan, a 20 year old student from Mersin, whose mutilated and partly burnt body was discovered in a riverbed on February 13th. This came on the heels of nation-wide demonstrations staged by women’s groups who were outraged and combative: among their striking slogans was “Özgecan is not our lament but our rebellion”. In a repetition of what has sadly become an all too common ritual in Turkey, it was women who carried her coffin to its final resting place.

Gruesome sexual assaults and murders of women are, sadly, commonplace throughout the world. These seldom lead to overtly political contestations. In Turkey, however, things rapidly escalated into full blown attacks on the current regime and its policies.

Turkish men wear skirts to protest violence against womenHow do we account for this hyper-politicization? Does the realm of gender based violence and women’s rights serve to articulate deeper layers of disaffection? What does this tell us about the state of democracy in Turkey?

It would be fair to say that this tragic event acted as a litmus test of the struggles over the soul of the polity. One set of reactions focused on how to better segregate women in order to protect them from such assaults (with proposals for women-only “pink”  buses or separate carriages on the subway system). Some politicians, like the Family and Social Policies Minister, even called for the reinstatement of the death penalty which was abolished in 2004 to meet European Union standards. An implicit admission that the pubic domain is out of bounds for women, and the simultaneous pathologizing of violent men, underlies this rather confused bundle of reactions.

A diametrically opposed reaction came from those who mounted virulent critiques of the type of society and mentality that puts women in peril unless they are segregated. We were reminded of numerous legal judgements where perpetrators of violence  against women (including murderers) got off lightly, with arbitrary references to “provocation” as an extenuating circumstance of the gang rape of a 15-year-old who was supposed to have given her “consent”, and of the many instances of threatened women seeking police protection and receiving none. This climate of impunity clearly has institutional underpinnings that were being brushed under the carpet. References to pathological men and a violent society obfuscate a systematic pattern of institutional discriminination, marginalization, intimidation and abuse of women.

The President added fuel to the fire when he stated that he condemned violence against women because “men are the custodians of women” (kadinlar erkeklerin emanetidir) and men have a duty to protect them. He claimed his views were based on Islamic sources. This triggered howls of protest from women’s rights defenders at the demeaning implications of this stance and a demand for rights, not protection.  A theologically trained women’s rights defender also weighed in and contested the purported religious grounding of such pronouncements. Clearly,  it was not only secular feminists who felt deep unease with the notion that adult women are the wards of men (a notion that prevails in some countries under shari’a based family legislation. Needless to say, this also contravenes existing legislation in Turkey which since the 2001 reform of the Civil Code and the 2004 amendments to the Criminal Code, has come into closer compliance with CEDAW requirements.

Meanwhile, the demonization of feminists reached new heights when the President reprimanded them for having “no relation to our religion and our civilization” (ya senin bizim dinimizle medeniyetimizle ilgin yok ki), resorting to a form of “othering” that morphs any opposition into treason. He bitterly resented the politicization of this murder case, apparently unaware that this might be the harvest of seeds planted under his rule.

Photo: @emekci_hareketThese debates had clearly struck a chord in the public conscience: the general mood was one of outrage and despair. On the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, television channels were not only beaming news of demonstrations and events (which included a men’s run “against violence” and a mixed sex cycling event) but an announcement by the PM Davutoğlu that he was embarking on a new 2016-19 action plan on "Fighting Violence against Women". The President delivered an address vowing to make the elimination of violence against women his personal mission. With an election looming in June 2015, broadcasting the message that women would be safe under their watch had clearly become a priority for the ruling party.

How, when and why had their credentials in this domain become so tarnished? I suggest that  the combination of the rapid unravelling of women’s rights between 2004 - 2015, and the effects of a populist discourse that puts women's conduct and propriety at the heart of AKP’s political messaging - distinguishing a virtuous “us” from an immoral “them”- accounts for both an erosion of trust,and a hyper-politicization of gender issues.

The unravelling of women’s rights: a tortuous trajectory

During the early years of the AKP regime the women’s movement in Turkey achieved significant gains in the sphere of legal reforms. Between 2002-2004 a vigorous three-year campaign led by a coalition of women’s and sexual liberties groups - The Platform for the Reform of the Turkish Penal Code – successfully pushed through the adoption of a draft law on September 26, 2004. With the earlier reform of the Civil Code in 2001, these changes represented the most progressive pieces of legislation in the republican era since the early Kemalist reforms.

Turkey’s EU membership candidacy in December 1999 and the necessity to bring its legal, political and economic system into alignment with EU standard undoubtedly provided the women’s movement with a window of opportunity to press for further demands. Like many other countries jumping on the women’s rights bandwagon for geopolitical advantage, Turkey made the most of advances in this domain during the first term of the AKP  (2002-2007). It took a lead role for the empowerment of women in the US-led Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMENA) in the context of the Democracy Assistance Dialogue (DAD). The reforms of its civil and penal codes furthered its attempts to meet the criteria for EU accession. Later, in 2009, a Parliamentary Committee on Equal Opportunities for Men and Women was established for the first time. Turkey was the first country to ratify the Council of Europe's Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (CAHVIO), the Istanbul Convention, in 2012.

Under this façade of compliance with international standard setting instruments, new political messages had started circulating. One of the first shocks came at a consultation meeting with women’s non-governmental organizations (where some 60 organizations were present) on 18 July 2010, where then Prime Minister Erdoğan declared that Turkey’s signatory status to CEDAW notwithstanding, he did not believe in the equality of men and women. Women’s principal, and preferably sole vocation, should be home making and motherhood. This accords with their distinctive and divinely ordained nature (fitrat). This has now become such an established tenet of public discourse that the period when it still had shock value seems like a distant memory.

Institutional changes followed. The General Directorate of Women’s Status and Problems, the national machinery for the promotion of gender equality, established as a requirement of the CEDAW process and created in 1990, was abolished in 2011. It was replaced by the Ministry of the Family and Social Policies. Discrimination against women was henceforth placed alongside the protection of children, the disabled, and the elderly, clearly marking it out as a social welfare issue.  Women were being cast primarily as objects of  “protection” rather than fully-fledged bearers of rights.

This polarized context was inflamed further when the embarrassing Uludere incident in December 2011 (where 34 Kurdish smugglers were killed near the Iraqi border after the Turkish military mistakenly thought them to be Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants) was rather unexpectedly turned into a debate about abortion and a Turkish woman's right to choose.  Speaking to a May 26, 2012 meeting of the AKP's women's branches in Ankara, the Prime Minister told the gathered women he considered abortion as murder. He also suggested that abortion and Turkey's high rate of caesarean section births, which he claimed make it harder for a woman to give birth again, were part of a "hidden" plot to reduce Turkey's population.

It is worth noting that that no significant legal changes followed these debates. There is little need for changes on the statute books for actual practices to change on the ground.  It is now a matter of routine that public hospitals work with de facto directives that restrict access to abortions and discourage C-sections. Despite Erdoğan’s declared aim to raise “a pious generation”, overt legislative actions such as lowering the age of veiling in schools to 10 years old were sporadic. Instead, public space became saturated with messages and exhortations targeting the life worlds of citizens by monitoring their lifestyle choices such as limiting access to alcohol, proscribing displays of intimacy in public, or attempting to ban co-ed dorms for university students. It is  little wonder that youth protests (including the forms of expression in evidence during the Gezi protests of the summer of 2013) targeted the hectoring and moralistic tone of the head of state on occasions when he took on the role of the strict and scolding pater familias.  

However, policing the status and comportment of women cannot be simply put down to enforcing norms of Islamic modesty, but constitutes a key component of a more complex political landscape where two new trends are working in tandem.

The first consists of the co-optation of women’s rights issues by government-organized organizations (GONGOs) which, in collaboration with the government, aim to sideline and marginalize the women’s movement in Turkey, and to supplant its guiding principle of equality between men and women in favour of a gender ideology closely mirroring party priorities and directives.

I drew attention elsewhere to the hijacking of women’s rights platforms and organizations by ruling elites in authoritarian Arab states where the wives, daughters and close kin of heads of state or ruling dynasties headed government sponsored women’s organizations. This type of co-optation did not characterize the political landscape in Turkey, at least until recently. Although “official” women’s organizations have always collaborated with governments, and women’s branches of political parties have always acted as their auxiliaries, there was a space in civil society allowing the articulation of women’s demands (as demonstrated by the lobbying activities that led to the legal changes in 2001 and 2004, referred to above). The current onslaught on women’s rights platforms and organizations is therefore unprecedented, and reflects a broader process of capture of civil society by the state, and a more totalistic political project.

The fateful turn: from rights to conditional protection

A second diffuse but persistent tendency has been the deployment of a populist discourse where women’s conduct and propriety plays a key role in delineating the boundaries between “us” (God- fearing, Sunni, AKP voters), and a “them” consisting of all political detractors and minorities, cast as potentially treasonous and immoral. These modes of “othering” potentially expose those sections of the female citizenry - not to mention sexual minorities - who fail to conform to norms of government-decreed propriety to intimidation and harassment. Not only are these citizens not worthy of protection, but even ordinary civilians may take it upon themselves to discipline them with impunity. We may recall that even tradesmen (esnaf) have been encouraged to enforce law and order as guardians of national traditions and morality. With memories of machete wielding “tradesmen” attacking protestors during the Gezi events still fresh in the public mind, the chilling implications of this stance are crystal clear.

Yet women supporters of the ruling party (and polls suggest they may outnumber men) feel empowered by the new populist deal on offer. These are not just women of the ruling elite who are key stakeholders and powerful political players in their own right, but women of the popular classes who have become beneficiaries of new welfare entitlements ( 60% of welfare recipients are women ) and who are directly targeted for benefits, by-passing male heads of household. Supporting women in their roles as mothers and home makers goes beyond cash transfers and in-kind assistance, and extends to a range of municipal services in the areas of health, education and culture that create a new sense of citizenship through entitlement

The proof of women's loyalty does not lie in voting behaviour only, but in their demonstration that they are among the worthy who have absorbed the party's message about their God-given vocation as mothers and home makers. This is both a de facto reality for a majority of women and a world view they can easily relate to, since they are deeply familiar with a patriarchal trade-off that offers conditional protection in exchange for acquiescence and consent. Those who step out of this protective embrace and dare to demand equal rights as individuals put themselves in jeopardy. And the chasm separating those who acquiesce from those insisting on full-fledged rights is growing.

The case of Özgecan Aslan occasioned such deep revulsion and despair not only because of the gruesome nature of her murder, but because she was so blatantly “innocent”; a 20-year old commuting between home and college who fought back against her assailant and paid with her life. She was not merely seen as the victim of an individual rapist/murderer, but as the casualty of a system that was seen to have cheapened women’s lives in the process of spinning out a polarizing populist discourse targeting women. This latest episode of violence released all the pent up fury (and grief) of sections of society that were feeling trampled upon and could no longer recognize themselves in the “New Turkey” taking shape by fiat and, increasingly, through coercion.


Sideboxes Related stories:  Building "a new Turkey": gender politics and the future of democracy Decoding the “DNA of Patriarchy” in Muslim family laws Contesting patriarchy-as-governance: lessons from youth-led activism No laughing matter: Women and the new populism in Turkey The triple whammy: towards the eclipse of women’s rights Disquiet and despair: the gender sub-texts of the 'Arab spring' No more popular protests? Reflections on Turkey’s Domestic Security Bill A tangled web: the politics of gender in Turkey The short unhappy life of the “Committee on Equality of Opportunity for Women and Men” in Turkey The truth behind the "Turkish model" Turkey: what lies behind the nationwide protests? The rise of political Islam in Turkey: how the west got it wrong Vaginal obsessions in Turkey: an Islamic perspective Country or region:  Turkey Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government Equality
Categories: les flux rss

What does the Stormont House Agreement mean for women in Northern Ireland?

30. March 2015 - 7:27

The Stormont House Agreement ended a political crisis, but it brings women no closer to economic equality or equal participation in building a sustainable peace.

The Stormont House Agreement was intended to augment Northern Ireland’s earlier peace agreements, contending with unresolved issues relating to the legacy of the Troubles, as well as other sources of political contestation, including the devolution of Corporation Tax and welfare reform. The all-party talks that led to the agreement were billed as a resumption of the 2013 failed Haass-O’Sullivan talks, which had sought to deal with issues around the past as well as flags, emblems and parades. The intervening year had seen the Northern Ireland Assembly come close to collapse, so there was some relief when agreement was reached in December of last year.

As this series has sought to explore, central to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was the commitment to address gender inequalities in Northern Irish society, including women’s right to “full and equal political participation” – a commitment which has yet to be fulfilled. Yet there is nothing in the Stormont House Agreement to suggest progress towards this promise. Quite the opposite; the deal contains much that will impede such progress. It has two main elements: austerity measures and dealing with the past. The impact of both elements on women was not acknowledged, but each should be greeted with alarm by advocates of women’s rights.

UN Security Council Resolution 1325 formally acknowledges women’s right to participate in all aspects of conflict prevention and resolution, post conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding. In December 2013, at the Stormont Parliament Buildings, an ‘Inquiry into the Actions and Level of Implementation of UNSCR 1325 Women, Peace and Security for Women in Northern Ireland since the Peace Process’ was held. The inquiry took into account a broad range of issues, including the impact of the conflict on women’s continuing economic inequality in Northern Ireland; the fate of women’s groups; the level of implementation of the Good Friday Agreement’s commitment to the ‘full and equal political participation of women’, and the rights of women victims of the conflict.

In relation to each of these issues, the SHA offers no progress. Indeed, the one and only time women are mentioned in the fourteen pages of the Agreement is in relation to “outstanding commitments” where there is a passing nod towards the Bill of Rights and other equality issues, including the “advancement of women in public life”. 

Empty purses

The austerity measures contained in the first two pages of the SHA will impact on women to a disproportionate extent and will act to prevent their “full and equal political participation”. The extension of welfare reform, even with the temporary supplementary payments to ease the impact of cuts, will make many women’s lives more difficult.

One of the worrying elements of Universal Credit is the single household payment which is to go routinely to one member of the household. Even in the most equal household, this payment to one person will represent a loss of independent income for women. Universal Credit (UC) changes could mark the start of a return to a ‘male breadwinner’ model in couple households. Universal Credit aims to “make work pay” through a system of earnings disregards and a tapering of withdrawal of benefits as earnings rise. However, this help towards making work pay is available to only one person in a couple household and the income of a second low paid worker will be taxed at a very high marginal rate. While this improves the incentive for one person in a couple household to move into employment, it may be a disincentive to second earners (mainly women) entering or continuing to work. A report for the Scottish Executive warned that such second earners could lose up to 4.5% of net income. The loss is likely to be even more in Northern Ireland where childcare is the most expensive in the UK, outside London. This comes on top of the disproportionate hit that women have already taken through the years of austerity, causing women in Northern Ireland to establish the “empty purse” campaign.

But it is the cuts to benefits that are being introduced as part of welfare reform that will have the most devastating effects on women. Women manage family poverty, which means they do most of the worrying when ends simply won’t meet. And women with large families are most at risk of being in severe and persistent poverty. Yet, it appears, the SHA accepts the imposition of a benefit cap on households. While in London the cap has affected those claiming Housing Benefit, in Northern Ireland where housing costs are lower, 470 families with more than four children will be hit by the cap. So, in a region where abortion is not available and there is no childcare strategy, a woman faced with a fifth or subsequent pregnancy will know that she will not receive a brass farthing towards the upkeep of that child, should she and her partner lose their jobs. 

The Welfare Reform Bill, which had passed all but the final stages in the Assembly during February, was withdrawn suddenly after one of the government parties, Sinn Fein, withdrew support for it on 9th March. The party was concerned that they had agreed to an inadequate level of funding for the proposed system of ‘top-ups’ to help those hit hardest by welfare reform. It is unclear when the Bill will return to the Assembly but it is unlikely to be before the Westminster General Election.

Austerity and the legacy of conflict

A report for the Commission for Victims and Survivors found that four out of ten people in the region have suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of the conflict. PTSD exacerbates all forms of mental ill-health. For women who are trying to manage poverty on a day-to-day basis, such daily stress exacerbates both their PTSD and other illnesses. Yet many of those victims of the conflict, now struggling with mental illness, are likely to lose up to £5,000 a year as a result of welfare reform. This is because the Personal Independence Payment, which is to replace Disability Living Allowance, is designed to cut by one fifth the numbers who receive this benefit. Modelling by the Stormont Department that oversees welfare reform suggests that a quarter of those currently receiving DLA will not receive PIP while a further third will see their benefit reduced, with those receiving DLA for reasons of mental ill-health most likely to be cut. 

The 2013 concluding observations of the CEDAW committee recognised this in its concerns that “the austerity measures introduced by the State party have resulted in serious cuts in funding for organisations providing social services to women…[and] have had a negative impact on women with disabilities and older women.”  The Committee “is further concerned that budgetary cuts in the public sector, disproportionately affect women, due to their concentration in this sector”.

The provision in the SHA for 20,000 public sector jobs to be cut will be a big blow to young women studying today in the hope of getting a decent job in the future. While the redundancies are ‘voluntary’, the 20,000 jobs will be gone forever. Women make up 65 per cent of the public sector workforce, which provides the best quality work for women; the gender pay gap for full time employees is half that in the private sector. Family-friendly policies are more available in the public sector. Even if jobs become available in the private sector for women, it is unlikely they will match the pay and conditions of the jobs lost. This would result in a widening of the overall gender pay gap and worsening levels of female poverty.

In relation to dealing with the past, pressure from victims did lead the Stormont administration to establish an Historical Abuse Inquiry to “examine if the institutions or the state failed in their duties towards children under 18 in their residential care and if failings were systemic”. However, the Inquiry does not include examination of the abuse suffered by women of 18 and over in the Magdalene Laundries or Mother and Baby Homes. An estimated 30,000 women were confined in these institutions, run ostensibly to house what the institutions termed “fallen women”. Amnesty International has urged the Northern Ireland executive to launch a “thorough and effective investigation into allegations of abuse suffered within these institutions”, including inhumane and degrading treatment, arbitrary deprivation of liberty and forced labour.  Despite lobbying by the women’s sector, the SHA failed to deal with the abuse of women in the Inquiry. The parties were evidently unwilling to include any suggestion that the past might be gendered.

The fact that the word “women” appears only once in the Stormont House Agreement does not mean that it will not have a huge impact on the women of Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, it will be overwhelmingly a negative impact. The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day events in Belfast was “no peace without women”. The peace process had promised women full and equal participation in building a new Northern Ireland society. The Stormont House Agreement suggests this promise has been forgotten.

Sideboxes Related stories:  'Peace will bring prosperity': Northern Ireland’s big lie? Dealing with Northern Ireland’s past: a guide to the Haass-O’Sullivan talks Women in Northern Ireland should be leading peacebuilders again Women Together in the darkest days of the 'Troubles' Excluded and silenced: Women in Northern Ireland after the peace process Addressing Northern Ireland’s incomplete peace: young feminists speak out Whose recovery?: Gendered austerity in the UK Country or region:  Northern Ireland
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Damascus must be part of the solution

30. March 2015 - 7:00

John Kerry has gone from calling Bashar a dear friend to a brutal dictator to thanking him for working with America to wipe out Syria's chemical stockpile, to wanting to talk. But everything else has failed.

Bashar Al Assad, 2011. Wikicommons/Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom. All rights reserved.After four years of fighting the world has come full circle when John Kerry announced that the United States is willing to talk to Bashar al Assad. In 2011, the Syrian President Bashar al Assad, warned that if the west touched Syria the whole region would burn. Four years on these words have been prophetic.

The Middle East has not been this unstable perhaps since the Mongol invasion of Baghdad. Even the tumultuous fall of the Ottoman Empire and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 did not bring with it the levels of uncertainty and extreme violence that the Syrian war has unleashed on the whole region. Once again, exactly one hundred years on, Damascus is the key pivot on which the whole region’s stability hinges.

If only America and its allies in the so called ‘Friends of Syria’ committee had studied how Hafez was the rock on which the Arabs relied, we would not have had to wait so long for Kerry to talk about Assad as part of the solution.

Syria as the heart of the Arab world

Exactly hundred years ago the greatest prize in the Middle East was the fight for Damascus. In the epic film, Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole in the title role tells Field Marshall Allenby that the Arabs would not come for Faisal or the British or the gold, but they would come for Damascus. Of course, not for the first time, T E Lawrence was lying.  The men that Lawrence had mustered from the deserts of Arabia were mercenaries who had nothing in common with the urbane and sophisticated Damascenes, or the traders of Aleppo or the noble Arab and Armenian tribes of Deir Al-Zor. Despite all the gold and weapons with which the British supplied the Bedouins from the Arabian Peninsula under the command of Auda abu Tayi and Nasir Ibn Ali, only 560 Syrians joined the mercenary army of the British invasion of Syria.

The Damascus inhabitants and other Syrians then under Ottoman control were not convinced of the sincerity of Faisal and Lawrence. Whilst they were no fans of Ottoman control, they did not join the desert tribes of what now makes up Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the GCC. Similarly when the French were fighting Faisal after the withdrawal of the British troops from Damascus, Faisal had only 2000 men defending him for the fight:[1] the ancestors of present day Syria were in no mood to take dictation from Bedouins in the pay of the British.

A hundred years on all efforts to control the big cities of Syria have failed; the uprising in Aleppo did not begin for almost a year and a half after the Derra incident. The Arab spring reached Syria much later and when it did the cities of Damascus and Aleppo did not join in. it was mostly in the rural south and east.[2] According to American officials themselves there is no real opposition. Not unlike a hundred years ago, despite Arabian Peninsula Bedouin meddling and hundreds of billions of dollars of aid, the vast majority of Syrians did not join the Free Syrian Army or the Syrian National Council. Even the most credible leader of the opposition to date, Moaz al Khatib was of the opinion that the Syrian opposition were foreign controlled and did not have a Syrian voice. When Khatib wanted to reach out for a political solution he was vetoed by the Gulf countries and others who wanted to rule over Syria’s fate. Syrian rebels and opposition are happy earning big pay checks and living in five star hotels in Doha, Paris and DC. Rather like Lawrence’s ‘Arab revolt’ bickered with each other when they entered Syria, they bicker among themselves at every stage.

Hafez and the Americans: how Bashar learnt to deal with the United States

The next great tumult in the Levant occurred in the 1970s in the shape of the Lebanese civil war. The solution of this war was firmly in the hands of the Syrian military intelligence establishment. Hafez al Assad under an Arab League mandate intervened on behalf of the Arab world to stabilize Lebanon. Hafez was a pariah in the west from the outset because of his closeness to the Soviet Union, yet no other leader in a Soviet-aligned country had so much respect and interaction with multiple American presidents as Hafez al Assad. Once the Americans realized that they could not outdo Syria in Lebanon they worked with Syria to bring about stability in the region.

Henry Kissinger was very clear in his analysis of Lebanon and urged American policy to work with the Syrians and not against them. It was Hafez al Assad and not the Lebanese militias and the PLO that mattered. Warren Christopher recalled that Hafez al Assad would never start a diplomatic meeting if he knew his position was weak: all the meetings the Americans had with Hafez were conducted in the knowledge that Hafez felt he had the upper hand. According to Bill Clinton, Hafez was a ruthless but brilliant man who could always be trusted to deliver on his word, ‘although we had our
disagreements, he had always been straightforward with me.’[3] Jimmy Carter also singled out Hafez as the single obstacle to the Geneva Peace accords and acknowledged that without Syria there could be no ultimate peace with either the Israelis or in the wider region in the context of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.[4]

Hafez’ masterstroke in this relationship with the Americans was his backing of the American-led coalition to fight Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Whilst the Syrian military under Hafez’s orders were helping the western-backed alliance in Kuwait and Iraq, it was also fighting against French-backed General Michel Aoun in 1990, managing multiple war fronts both on the battlefield and in its diplomacy. Again in Iraq post-2003, Syrians kept a fine balance between supporting some American logistics while providing routes for insurgents against the American occupation. This meant that the Americans found it almost impossible to not take the Syrians seriously. Yet when Bush proposed to remove Assad way back in 2003 and 2004, it took Ariel Sharon to warn the Americans against such a blunder.

The good or the bad Bashar?  

Bashar al Assad had already survived three great crises before the start of the 2011 war. Bashar had seen off the 2006 war against the Israelis, the American invasion of Iraq and the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Almost no one gave Bashar a chance when his father died in 2000, or again when Hariri was killed and the Syrian Army left Lebanon. Every so-called expert said that this would be the end of Assad. Yet he went on to thrive. Bashar brought himself back into the western fold forging relationships with France, Britain and the United States. He was feted in western capitals and his economic and social reforms were heralded by western leaders. John Kerry in his extensive talks with Bashar al Assad called him a ‘generous man and someone he and America could trust.’ Hillary Clinton was also at pains to call Bashar a reformer who needed time to fix Syria.

After the American invasion of Iraq, Bashar reached out to the Islamist parties to consolidate against foreign threats.[5] Under Bashar, the Baath party also for the first time celebrated official Islamic festivals.[6] Dr Mahmoud al Agassi, an influential Islamic cleric and critic of Bashar, argued that Syria did not want an American-style democracy or a chaos similar to that holding Iraq in its thrall. Nawaf al Basheer similarly argued that Syria should change according to internal pressure and not through any externally-backed uprising.[7]

So while Syria had not become a liberal democracy or an open society, Syria was moving at its own natural pace and not at the behest of outsiders. And this is where one must temper idealism with realism. Libya, Yemen and Iraq are in ruins. Tunisia, whilst it may be a democracy, is exporting the largest number of jihadists in the whole Arab world. Not only has routine assassination of non-Muslims taken place in ‘democratic Tunisia’, but opposition leaders have been killed who do not adhere to political Islam. Tunisia as a western-backed democracy is looking the other way as it actively recruits and sends fighters to Libya and Syria. And of course we all know what Egypt under el-Sisi has done. Yet he is feted and shored up with billions from western economies.

The problem with western labelling of Bashar al Assad has been the west’s complete confusion over what to make of him, praised as he is for the neoliberal economic policies which prompted his sale of several state-run enterprises and his encouragement of private sector reform.[8] Yet American observers knew that there was no magic wand that could get rid of old ideas and remove obstacles overnight.[9] The American invasion of Iraq had a negative effect on Syrian economic and social reforms.[10] Bashar and his economic reforms meant turning his back on his father’s old closed market structures, while encouraging a new middle class to succeed in Damascus, Latakia, Homs and Hama alongside the established mercantile families of Aleppo.[11]Liberalisation of the economy of course meant corruption, as is natural for any economy moving away from socialism. But attitudes to Syria both in the west and the region have been a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

John Kerry has gone from calling Bashar a dear friend to a brutal dictator to thanking him for working with America to wipe out its chemical stockpile, to wanting to talk. But everything else has failed for four years. Politics and talking to the Syrian government has to trump all these other ideological stances. The Syrian people continue to suffer as foreigners and Gulf Arabs try to impose their agenda on the Syrian people. The Syrian Ambassador to the UN, Bashar al Jaafari rightly pointed out at the start of this conflict that as Lawrence of Arabia had failed to impose a Bedouin and western rule on Damascus a hundred years ago, it would fail this time as well. Demonization of Damascus has led only to despair. Damascus is indeed part of the solution.

[1] Rogan, Eugene L. The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920. , 2015, pp 400-401

[2] McHugo, John. Syria: From the Great War to Civil War. , 2015, pp 221-224

[3] Clinton, Bill. My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, p 734

[4] Carter, Jimmy. Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1982, pp 285-286

[5] Ziyādah, Raḍwān. Power and Policy in Syria: Intelligence Services, Foreign Relations and Democracy in the Modern Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013, p 155

[6] McHugo, John. Syria: From the Great War to Civil War. , 2015, p 219

[7] Erlich, Reese W. Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect. , 2014, pp 79-80

[8] Erlich, Reese W. Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect. , 2014, p20

[9] Lesch, David W. Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2012, p 4

[10] Seifan, Samir. Syria on the Path to Economic Reform. Fife, Scotland: University of St. Andrews Centre for Syrian Studies, 2010, p 24

[11] McHugo, John. Syria: From the Great War to Civil War. , 2015, p 218

Sideboxes Related stories:  Pax Syriana: neither vanquished, nor all-conquering
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Anti-trafficking: whitewash for anti-immigration programmes

30. March 2015 - 5:00

Anti-trafficking programmes give a humanitarian gloss to national anti-immigration controls, but the citizenship and immigration policies of nation-states are still the biggest danger facing many migrants today.

National immigration policies and their enforcement constitute the greatest dangers to people trying to cross national borders. Moreover, the categories into which nation-states slot most migrating people—‘illegal’ or ‘temporary foreign worker’ being two of the largest—are the greatest threats to their liberty. Being categorised as ‘illegal’ or ‘temporary’ is what entraps a growing number (and proportion) of migrating people into substandard work while severely limiting their rights and mobility. In short, national immigration policies legislate the conditions that make some people ‘cheap’ or ‘disposable.’ Quite simply put: without national immigration policies, there would no ‘migrants’ to subordinate, scapegoat and abuse.

We learn none of these real-life dangers and exploitations from the ever-multiplying accounts of ‘human trafficking’ and ‘modern-day slavery.’ I’ve long been curious about why that is. I suspect it has something to do with how anti-trafficking campaigns cast nation-states as the ‘rescuers’ of ‘victims of trafficking’ instead of showing nation-states to be the source of much of their woes. For those people whose mobility is seriously imperilled by immigration and border controls; who have resorted to paying someone to help them across increasingly militarised borders; who are forced to work for poverty wages in substandard conditions; who are ever more frequently detained and deported; and for those who care about the people who have drowned at sea or died of thirst in deserts while attempting to reach somewhere else, the idea that the nation-state is a friend to ‘migrants’ is, well, galling.

Anti-trafficking policies do a great disservice to migrating people, especially the most vulnerable. By diverting our attention away from the practices of nation-states and employers, they channel our energies to support a law-and-order agenda of ‘getting tough’ with ‘traffickers.’ In this way, anti-trafficking measures are ideological: they render the plethora of immigration and border controls as unproblematic and place them outside of the bounds of politics. The reasons why it is increasingly difficult and dangerous for people to move safely or live securely in new places are brushed aside while nation states rush to criminalise ‘traffickers’ and (largely) deport ‘victims of trafficking.’

To have a useful discussion about ‘trafficking’ and ‘modern-day slavery,’ we need to take seriously how national and international governance regimes and legislation shape the experiences of people trying to exit, move across, or live and work in various nationalised societies. The United Nations estimates there were 232 million international migrants in 2013, 57 million more than there were in 2000. Today, much (but not all) of human migration is shaped by the enormous spatial disparities in prosperity, peace and power. In contrast to the “great age of mass migration” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when migration was mainly out of Europe, most cross-border migrants today originate from the ‘poor world.’ This is not a surprise given that one’s nationality is a key factor in predicting global income disparity. Branko Milanovic demonstrates in his 2005 book Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality that citizens of ‘rich world’ nation-states enjoy an enormous “citizenship premium.” For example, a citizen of the United States with “the average income of the bottom US decile is better off than 2/3 of world population” (Milanovic 2005, p. 50, emphasis added).

How have nation-states, especially in the ‘rich world,’ responded to this growth in international migration and the growth in global disparities? Not by helping people move or by making their migration routes safe but by implementing more restrictive and punitive immigration and border controls than ever. However, this has not stopped people from moving and, arguably, this is not the states’ goal. While more and more people are moving, they have access to less and less rights and entitlements. For example, in the United States, the largest category of ‘migrants’—by a ratio of about 15:1—are those denied state permission to either enter or stay in the country. In Canada, the largest group of “migrants” are categorised as “temporary foreign workers” who are not free to choose either their employer, occupation or geographical residence.

Thus, far from eliminating or even severely restricting the movement of people, what neoliberal reformulations of immigration and refugee policy have done is to prevent the vast majority of migrating people from making claims on the state (in terms of social services) or on employers (in terms of minimum wages and standards of work). That is how a ‘cheap’ and ‘disposable’ labour force is created. This is the real story of international migration in the age of neo-liberalism (late 1960s onward): the creation of a legally subordinated group of people cast as ‘migrants.’

It is precisely in this same period that the narratives of ‘modern-day slavery’ and ‘victims of trafficking’ have arisen. This is not a coincidence. Just when nation-states have made it next to impossible to legally live and work in their territories as rights-bearing persons, anti-trafficking measures have been adopted into national laws. Tales of ‘trafficking’ (or ‘smuggling’), which have led to calls for heightened state intervention at the border and more punitive measures for traffickers and/or smugglers, do the crucial work of legitimising further controls on global human mobility, all in the name of ‘helping’ victims of trafficking. By ideologically filtering their efforts through the politics of rescue, anti-trafficking campaigns provide a crucial veneer of humanitarianism to the exploitative and repressive practices of states and employers. It is because of its ideological character that anti-trafficking campaigns articulate so well with official anti-migrant agendas.

In particular, anti-trafficking measures fail to acknowledge that in the face of ever-more restrictive immigration and border controls, it is virtually impossible today for many people to move without the assistance of people ready and able to help them in one way or another. They might need forged papers (visas, passports, etc.) for travel. They might need help in navigating clandestine migration routes. They might need help in gaining paid employment. It is true that many, but certainly not all, migrants experience coercion and even abuse during their journeys. They may also experience some form of deception if the jobs, wages or working conditions they expected do not materialise. Does this mean that they are ‘victims of trafficking’ as some NGOs, almost all national governments, and the United Nations would have us believe?

They are not. Instead, most people who migrate, especially those cast as ‘illegals’ or ‘temporary foreign workers,’ are victims of the daily, banal operation of global capitalist labour markets that are governed by nation-states. These practices make migration a survival strategy. People are further victimised by border control practices and the ideologies of racism, sexism, and nationalism that render unspectacular their everyday experiences of oppression and exploitation, which are rarely considered worthy of our attention. By vilifying the ‘trafficker,’ anti-trafficking crusaders further depoliticize state immigration policies, border controls and the capitalist market.

To address the needs and desires of people who move—and to acknowledge extant global disparities in power, wealth and peace—we need to re-politicize nation-states and their immigration and border controls. This requires that we jettison the framework of anti-trafficking and its supporting legislation. Only a very small number of migrants have received temporary legal status as a result of being positioned as victims of trafficking. For the vast majority of people migrating, however, the focus on ‘traffickers’ has made people’s clandestine journeys more expensive and more dangerous, as avoiding detection and arrest has become increasingly difficult. Instead of objectifying people who migrate as ‘trafficked victims,’ we need to re-centre how state immigration and border controls have forced them into dangerous migration routes. We also need to be aware of how the intersection of criminal law and immigration law creates the conditions for the exploitation of people who need to earn a living and form new homes across borders. Doing so leads to the recognition that only by mobilising to end practices of displacement, while simultaneously ensuring that people are able to move according to their own self-determined, wilful needs and desires, will we be able to contest globally operative practices of exploitation and abuse. We need to eliminate all immigration controls and eradicate those sets of social relations organised through global capitalism and the equally global system of nation-states.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Centring the state in our critiques of trafficking The role of the state and law in trafficking and modern slavery Forced labour is big business: states and corporations are doing little to stop it
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"Our turn to talk": why we should listen to Occupy LSE

30. March 2015 - 0:11

Universities are increasingly becoming factories, churning out obedient citizens and “human capital.” It's time to fight back.

The LSE's polished brand is being challenged. Flickr/Mikhail Dubov. Some rights reserved.At the London School of Economics, many of the pamphlets and posters across the campus advertise events like “Be an entrepreneur for a day” or “How to become the next George Soros.” This may not be unique to the LSE, but it is no doubt central to its narrative: come to this institution, pay the fees, go to the recruitment fairs, and graduate with a well-paid job, perhaps in the City of London. Remember, above all, our big sales pitch: “our most recent average starting salary was £29,400 for undergraduates and £35,000 for postgraduates – well above the national averages.”

The LSE brand is powerful, and extends beyond the apparent financial success of its graduates (though the average salary figures are skewed by high-paying jobs in the City). It continues to produce impressive, often controversial research. Its Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion recently released a report on “the changing structure of inequality in the UK”, illustrating some of the deep inequities in the British labour market, while its history has been shaped by towering radical figures like Ralph Miliband and Harold Laski. 

Phil Baty, the editor of the Times Higher Education rankings, recently praised the LSE’s ability to again strengthen “its position among the 25 most prestigious universities in the world – as judged by 10,000 expert, senior academics. Given that there are around 20,000 higher education institutions in the world, this is an outstanding achievement, and puts the LSE among the elite of the elite. Such a stellar global reputation will help to ensure that the LSE continues to be a leading light – attracting global talent and investment into London and the UK!”

But it is precisely this image – “the elite of the elite” – that is currently being unmasked and challenged. There are good reasons to take this challenge seriously.

“University is not a factory!”

On March 18, I was surprised to see the usual posters on entrepreneurship and careers in finance displaced by the simple message: “Our Turn to Talk.” Hanging from the LSE old building – often the spot where we take photos with our parents, ensuring we get the school’s logo in the background – was the banner, “Occupy LSE.”

At its core, this is a movement about redefining the principles that drive our education, captured in the rallying cry “University is not a factory!” Readers of openDemocracy will be familiar with the increasing sense, not only in Britain but across the world, that education has become a commodity; degrees “marketed” on their utility in a “competitive job market”; courses “sold” on their ability to equip us for the “knowledge economy”; institutions and academics “ranked” according to their status and prestige.

How do we confront this? Tuition fees are a good place to start, and the first demand of Occupy LSE is that the university “publicly lobby for education as a public good to be funded by a progressive taxation system and to be free from tuition fees for both domestic and international students.” One of the architects of the modern tuition fee system is a Professor of Public Economics at the LSE, Nicholas Barr, who has since lamented that the plan was not well sold: “I said to Tony Blair, call it a graduate tax!”

Professor Barr’s view – that a system of tuition fees is necessary and desirable if properly explained – reflects how “progressive” minds in Britain have accepted what the sociologist Ronaldo Munck calls “necessitarianism”: the belief in the inevitability of the market’s triumph in society. This belief is the basis of modern neo-liberalism, and can be seen in the language of Will Hutton in a 2013 article for the Guardian with the title: “Britain’s intellectual powerhouses must not become the preserve of the wealthy.” “Of course graduates should pay fees for their education over 30 years of their subsequent working life”, he wrote. “Of course universities should promote ever wider access. Of course universities should do more to feed business with the lifeblood of scientific and technological knowledge.” University, in other words, is still a factory, designed to “feed business”, but we should aim to put a nicer face on it.

The Free University of London takes over the Vera Anstey Suite. Author's image.

“The epitome of the neoliberal university”

That’s essentially where the “progressive” perspective lies today, exemplified in the Labour Party’s radical alternative to the Coalition’s £9,000 annual fees: £6,000. Conservative governments may be more aggressively pursuing an American-style education system – like in my native Australia, where the Education Minister last year mulled over collecting student loans from deceased estates – but the bigger concern is the way in which former parties of the left have turned their back on free education.

Britain, nevertheless, is an outlier compared to the rest of Europe, where university education is either free or relatively affordable; not to mention Scotland, whose First Minister recently spoke at LSE and asserted “I will defend the principle of access to education being on your ability to learn, not your ability to pay as long as I’m in politics.” We may fear that we’re turning into America; the rest of Europe fears that they’re turning in to us.   

LSE certainly feels like, as student activists put it, “the epitome of the neoliberal university.” The most embarrassing evidence of this was the 2011 revelations of the school’s willingness to accept gifts from the Gaddafi family, with more recent concerns stemming from its “streamlined” new code on ethical investments. The chairman of the LSE Council and Court of Governors is Peter Sutherland, who is also chairman of Goldman Sachs International and former chairman of BP; and the “Sheikh Zayed Theatre”, in our impressive New Academic Building, is named after the former Emir of Abu Dhabi, a token of appreciation for his family's financial support.

Reclaiming the voice of students. Flickr/lusciousblopster. Some rights reserved.

Yet – as we well know – LSE is not the only university run like a business, which is why Occupy LSE’s call for divestment from “exploitative and destructive organisations, such as those involved in wars, military occupations, illegal blacklisting of workers and the destruction of the planet” has been so passionately echoed and supported.  

“Forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old”

This call for a “new society” is found in the preamble to the constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World. It has inspired the pursuit of an ambitious “pre-figurative politics” based on new forms of expression and organisation in our everyday lives, rejecting arbitrary authority and hierarchy. This is a key element of the Free University movement, with the principle of “directly democratic, non-hierarchal and universally accessible education” being actively practiced in the workshops and discussions (for details, see the Occupy LSE Facebook page) taking place within and outside the Vera Anstey Suite, normally a space reserved for the university bureaucracy, now re-named the Free University of London. The wider aim is to embed this principle of “genuine university democracy” in the LSE through greater institutional transparency and “the formation of an Independent Review Committee comprising of academic staff (1/3), non-academic staff (1/3) and students (1/3).”

Underpinning this is a call for the LSE to publicly lobby against the government’s recent Counter-Terrorism Bill, which carries eerie requirements for monitoring “radicalisation” on campuses. Anyone remotely familiar with the recent history of counter-terrorism at universities in the UK should support this demand. Just ask Mohammad Gul, a law student at Queen Mary University, whose five year prison sentence was upheld in 2012 under Section 1 of the Terrorism Act for uploading videos to YouTube of Iraqi and Afghan insurgents fighting American and British military forces; or Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir, students at the University of Nottingham, who were arrested and held for six days in May 2008 after the university’s registrar informed police that Sabir had downloaded an al-Qaeda training manual, and emailed it to his classmate (for a Security Studies class). Critical thinking and dissent, the most basic values of higher education, are under threat, and in desperate need of protection.

Stand with us

Education is not about churning out obedient citizens, ready-made for a career in an economy designed by distant corporate and political interests. In any case, such careers prove elusive for many graduates today. The reality, instead, is “overqualified and underemployed”: casual, low-paid, often unstable work – with a mountain of debt. Graduates are, in this sense, becoming part of that “dangerous new class”, the “Precariat”, sharing the experience and the consciousness of the LSE workers on zero-hours contracts, whose employment rights are a central demand of the Occupy LSE movement.

After initially taking a conciliatory stance – stating that “exchanges between the group and LSE security staff have been positive”, and even reportedly including the Occupation in the welcoming presentation on the school’s open day – the LSE now appears to be taking a harder line, vaguely promising dialogue and piecemeal compromise while considering legal action. Looking at our demands, I have already been told by students that “they will never agree to that”, “there’s no way that will work” or “no chance.”

We’ve heard such apathy before. But history, as the novelist Philip Roth noted, is about discovering how the unexpected becomes the inevitable. The pessimists should take even a cursory look at the history of political activism at LSE, and then, on some level, they might re-discover it. And this is a movement extending well beyond LSE, to the UAL students occupying the reception area of the Central St Martins College of Art and Design; the graduate students on strike at the University of Toronto; and the inspiring student occupation of the University of Amsterdam. Far from dissipating, this wave of political activity has spread, with students from King's College London and Goldsmiths the latest to begin occupations (see Occupy KCL and Occupy Goldsmiths). 

Stand with us. Or, at the very least, listen to us, because the Free University of London is not just a physical space, but an angry and passionate collective voice – one that won't be fading away.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Scotland isn't different, it's Britain that's bizarre Why we occupy: Dutch universities at the crossroads Social Science Inc "Whose University?" dislodges Cambridge University's mask of humanity City:  London Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government
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Black Minority Ethnic (BME) communities should get on the bus and vote

30. March 2015 - 0:11

BME communities in many seats are larger than the sitting MP's majority. Their votes can make a real difference but they must register.

The OBV (Operation Black Vote) eXpress bus could be coming to a town near you over the next month as part of its whistle-stop tour to get BME communities to vote in this year’s General Election.

As we get closer to that all-important May 7th deadline (that’s when the General Election takes place if you didn’t know) keep your eyes open and your ears close to the ground for any sightings of the OBV eXpress.

The OBV eXpress is set to visit towns and cities across the UK until April this year in a bid to tackle woefully low voter registration numbers within BME communities. It was launched with the help of 100 or so supporters on a blustery and rainy day last month in Brixton’s Windrush Square.

So far, after each stop, around 1,000 unregistered BME voters have been contacted by OBV eXpress staff and volunteers.

The bus is equipped with high-tech computers that enable up to 30 people to register to vote at any one time. OBV staff and volunteers will also be out on the streets as part of the UK tour with laptops at the ready so that people from BME backgrounds can register to vote. The deadline for registering to vote is April 20th.

The OBV eXpress is set to visit areas as diverse as Wolverhampton, Liverpool, Sheffield, Cardiff and Leicester as well as many inner London areas. The bus is also set to visit a number of colleges to get younger unregistered BME voters registered and involved in the political process.

Why Vote

In just under two months time (May 7th) there will be a General Election where BME communities in the UK will be able to have their say on who runs the country and which MP they want to represent them. BME communities across the country will hold the balance of power in many marginal seats at the General Election. Current polls suggest that it will be a closely fought race between Labour and the Conservatives.

Commenting on the OBV eXpress bus tour, Ashok Viswanathan, Chair of OBV, said: “Operation Black Vote is not party political we just want BME communities to vote and get their voices heard. This is the first time that we have done something like this.

“The mood amongst OBV staff and volunteers is very positive. The OBV bus team realise that there is a lot of cynicism and alienation when it comes to politics, but we are hoping that turnout for the bus registration campaign will be high.

“This campaign is about reclaiming democracy and making sure that all the political parties have a clear plan on how they will tackle race inequality, particularly in employment, education, and the criminal justice system.”

Partner organisations involved with OBV eXpress include, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), the Cabinet Office, the Electoral Commission, Operation Disability and the British Chinese Project as well as the Muslim Council of Britain.

Voting at this year’s General Election is more important than ever for BME communities when you consider the increasingly negative attitude to immigrants and people of colour in the UK. Political parties are increasingly currying favour with a disillusioned electorate by using anti-immigrant-like rhetoric as well as islamaphobic and sometimes plain racist language in reference to BME communities.

International civil rights icon, Rev Al Sharpton, was one of a number of key speakers at the launch of OBV’s national campaign event in January to get BME communities to vote at this year’s General Election. He was joined on the podium during the event at Westminster University by Simon Woolley, Director of OBV, Dianne Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Lee Jasper, race relations activist and Dr. Muhammad Bari, former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain. At the event, Rev Al Sharpton, reminded the mostly BME audience that they could easily decide this year’s General Election and urged BME communities not to be hood-winked into not voting.  Here is a snippet of what he said: (1:09 mins in length)

BME vote can make a difference

Al Shapton’s comments are backed up by an OBV report entitled ‘Power of the black vote in 2015 – The changing face of England & Wales’.

In the report OBV used the 2011 population census in England and Wales to calculate BME populations in each constituency (data for Scotland wasn’t available at the time). Critically, the report shows that the BME electorate is larger than the majority of the sitting MP in over 160 marginal seats and could easily decide the next government. The current coalition government (Conservative/Lib Democrats) currently governs the UK with a working majority of just 83 seats.

Marginal seats are defined as those that have a majority of 6,000 or less or have shown a propensity to swing between different parties from one election to the next. Most political commentators believe that between 100 and 130 seats will determine the outcome of the 2015 general election, reinforcing OBV’s claim that the BME vote will have a major impact on the result. There are also a large proportion of ‘safe’ seats (where the MP’s majority is over 6,000) that are only ‘safe’ because of support from the BME electorate.

But worryingly for those who want to see all the mainstream political parties make a pledge to tackle race inequality in their manifesto’s, 18% of BME citizens are not registered to vote. This compares unfavourably to white citizens at seven per cent.

“The dynamics of racism are such that we are locking ourselves out of using our power,” Simon Woolley, Director of OBV, said at the launch of OBV’s General Election campaign. “We feel so powerless that we say there is no point in voting. But our vote should decide who wins and who loses this election. We can be the change we want to see.”

The last study by OBV before the 2010 General Election, found 99 marginal seats with a BME electorate larger than the MP’s majority. But for this year’s election the figure has almost doubled, partly due to the significant increase in the BME electorate and because the 2010 General Election was closer than the 2005 General Election, thus producing more marginal seats.

 “People went to their graves so you could vote,” Rev Al Sharpton said as part of his speech at the OBV General Election campaign launch. "You can be the balance of power.

“You may never lead a march but you can strike a blow for freedom in May and help change the destiny of this country. Your strength will not come from Downing Street down but from your street up.”

For more information on registering to vote please visit:

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Is secularism bad for women?

30. March 2015 - 0:00

Gender equality should not be pitted against religious freedom, so what kind of political arrangements could guarantee religious women’s rights and full social inclusion? 

Protests against the French veil ban. Credit: All rights reserved.

The 1970s feminist movement asked ‘Is religion bad for women?’ In the 1990s, political theorist Susan Moller Okin asked ‘Is multiculturalism bad for women?’ To both questions, many people answered ‘yes.’

Feminist activists argued that religion was irrevocably oppressive to women by divinely sanctioning male dominance, imposing a ‘stained-glass ceiling’ on women’s leadership, restricting women to motherhood and domesticity, and denigrating their bodies as impure or purely sexual.

Many also concurred that multiculturalism was at fault—a political approach adopted from the 1970s in countries including Canada, Britain, Germany, Australia and Sweden to celebrate ethnic and religious diversity. Multiculturalism encouraged the celebration of ethnic and religious differences and turned a blind eye to cases where these ‘cultural practices’ disadvantaged women by, for example, banning abortion and allowing polygamy or female genital mutilation. 

These arguments were welcome, and in many ways correct. But they don’t tell the whole story. For one thing, they don’t appreciate the diversity of religion, nor the complex ways in which women—feminists included—have gained power through religion or spirituality, including positions of spiritual authority and leadership. Feminists and critics of multiculturalism have also found it hard to accept that women sometimes choose to participate in groups that see human agency or freedom not as rational, autonomous individualism, but as ‘relational’—located in the collective and often expressed through religious practices and communities.

It’s true that religion has not historically been on the side of women’s rights and equality, but neither has secularism. The historian Joan Scott argues that the history of secular democracy was profoundly gender-unequal, in which both women and religion were pushed to the private sphere in order to make way for masculine rationality. It was only in the 20th century that women’s challenge to patriarchal secularism succeeded in winning for them suffrage and eventual entry into political institutions.

So it’s useful to reverse the order of the question by asking whether ‘secularism is bad for women?’  This question allows us to think afresh about how societies can best secure the freedom and flourishing of all women, whether religious or not, at a time when migration and displacement are making many countries increasingly diverse in terms of religion.

This entails asking what secularism means. ‘Secularism’ has three main connotations. First, political secularism refers to the political project of separation between religion and the state, which has taken many different forms. In French laïcité, the state can intervene in religion but not vice versa. In American secularism, neither the state nor religion can intervene in each other’s domains. In India, the state keeps a ‘principled distance’ from religious institutions but supports and respects religious diversity, at least in theory.

Second, secularism refers to social phenomena, particularly the purported declining influence of religious groups on the public sphere. Third, secularism can focus on the transformation of religious practices and beliefs, as when people are less influenced by religion and religion becomes increasingly individualized.

Because secularism means different things and looks different in different places,  the question is not whether secularism is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for women in the abstract, but which forms of secularism, in which places, and in which ways? Take the contrasting cases of France and England.

As Maurice Barbier observes, there’s no consistent understanding of secularism in France, but the different strands are all ‘defined by the negation of religion within the state and its exclusion from the public sphere.’ French laïcité means that the state does not support or fund any religious organisations, though there are some religious associations to whom it grants legal recognition and limited tax exemption. From 2015 a ‘National Secularity Day’ will be instituted on which schools will lead pupils in affirming support for France’s ‘secular values.’ For France, secularism bonds its citizens together, and encourages migrants to assimilate.  

But this also means that French secularism is ill-equipped to deal with the rise of Islam or other religious configurations domestically. France doesn’t even collect statistics on religious affiliation, so it’s hard to know exactly how many Muslims there are in the country.

However, it’s clear that France’s 2004 ‘visible religious symbol’ ban in public schools and its 2011 ‘face veil’ ban in public have imposed significant restrictions on Muslim girls and women. Six hundred women have already been fined for flouting the ruling. The bans have made it difficult for Muslim women who wear the veil to participate in paid employment, since veils are illegal in public sector workplaces and frowned on in private ones. Those who are persuaded by religious teachings that wearing such coverings constitutes a religious duty feel they cannot compromise their religion for the secular state.

Legal cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights have met with a range of responses, but a 2014 judgement in the SAS vs France case  upheld the face veil ban, saying that it did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights. The court concluded that “respect for the minimum requirements of life in society” legitimized the ban.

However, from the viewpoint of human rights, the idea that ‘living together’ requires assimilation is concerning, because it prioritises the presumed needs of French society over the individual rights of women. “What little remained of the right to manifest religion may just have been eroded” wrote legal scholar Stephanie Berry at the time.

These bans demonstrate that at least in this respect, French secularism is bad for women who wear the veil. Moreover, in France, 80 per cent of Islamophobic attacks are against Muslim women. These attacks rose sharply in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders. French secularism may also bear some responsibility for the comparatively high numbers of Syrian-bound extremists who have left its borders.

The harassment of women over religious dress is also an issue elsewhere in Europe. According to the Pew Research Center, women were harassed for wearing religious dress or for violations of religious dress codes in 19 out of 45 countries in Europe—roughly the same proportion of countries as in the Middle East and North Africa but double the global rate.

In contrast to France, England is not an officially secular society. Instead it espouses what the sociologist Veit Bader calls “weak establishment”, involving “constitutional or legal establishment of one state-church”—the Church of England—“that has to be compatible with de jure and de facto religious freedoms and religious pluralism.” England has had legislation prohibiting discrimination at work or in the provision of goods and services on grounds of religion since 2003. Since 2001 it has also collected statistics on religion in order to monitor whether this legislation is working.

Under successive Labour and Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition governments, England has sought to accommodate the demands of religious groups as much as possible. Schools and welfare providers run by faith groups have been embraced and generously funded to provide services previously delivered by the state. For women who prefer to use faith-based services this is welcome. But not all do.

This faith-friendly approach has been criticised for obstructing gender equality, and there have been high profile debates about enforced gender segregation in some faith schools and the transfer of funding from secular women’s organisations that provide domestic violence services to faith-based groups. Concerns have also been raised that public officials at times fail to intervene when girls and women are subject to sexual violence or female genital mutilation because they fear being accused of racial or religious discrimination.

These concerns have led to attempts to curtail the power of religious groups to determine women’s fortunes. In 2011, life peer Baroness Caroline Cox, supported by a coalition of women’s groups (including some representing Muslim women) and the National Secular Society, introduced the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, a private members bill to make it a punishable offence for religious arbitration panels to falsely claim that religious rulings are legally binding.

This bill, which is now languishing due to lack of support from the House of Lords, is important because it would limit the powers of UK-based ‘sharia’ (Islamic) and ‘Beth Din’ (Jewish) courts to rule on family law in a gender-discriminatory way—for example by permitting multiple religious marriages for men and restricting women’s rights to divorce.

As these examples from France and England illustrate, the key question is how to promote both gender equality and religious freedom. What kind of political arrangements can guarantee religious women’s rights and full social inclusion? If both secular and faith-friendly approaches fail to deliver this goal for religious women, how can a better, democratically-negotiated balance be achieved?

Gender equality should not be pitted against religious freedom. Societies should not have to choose whether to grant the wishes of either religious groups or of women, especially since at least half of those who are religious are women, and more than half of all women across the world are also religious.

If asking whether secularism is bad for women helps to ensure the freedom and equality of women who are religious, then it will be another step forward in the global women’s movement.  

Sideboxes Related stories:  Can religious groups help to prevent violent conflict? Christianity was liberation for you—for me it was slavery: a tale of two kingdoms Is liberal Islam the answer? The best kept secret of the Catholic Church—its social teachings Put away the scriptures and follow justice
Categories: les flux rss

After Syriza: What’s next for Spain?

29. March 2015 - 21:06

Although Podemos are unlikely to win an outright majority in the general election, they have galvanised the opposition to the conservative government, while simultaneously challenging the parties of the old left.

Pablo Iglesias. Demotix/Hugo Ortuno. Some rights reserved.The significance of Syriza’s electoral victory for anti-austerity parties and politics across Europe is slowly, but steadily sinking in. The next showdown will be in Spain where local and regional elections are due on 24 May, and a general election will be held before the end of the year. An electoral victory of Podemos will signal that the hard line neo-liberal block opposing anti-austerity policies in the Eurozone has not succeeded in silencing the voices of the people. Even without an electoral victory though, Podemos have won: they have already changed the political terrain in Spain and beyond.

Europe has been divided along an invisible, transnational frontier. Two camps, for and against austerity, rally their forces across national borders. Before, during and after the recent Greek elections, Spanish politicians went to Greece to rally support for their friends there, in the hope that this would in return help their own electoral prospects at home. The Spanish Prime Minister, the conservative Mariano Rajoy, went to Athens in support of his conservative counterpart, the now former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. It is no coincidence that, after the Greek elections and during the negotiations with the Eurogroup, Rajoy and the Portuguese PM, Pedro Passos Coelho, have both tried their best to block any favourable agreement for Greece.

The same gathering of forces is taking place on the opposite camp. Both the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, and the leader of Izquierda Unida, Cayo Lara, took the trip to Athens in support of Syriza before the election. Although they all agreed that ‘Spain is different’, they also tried to articulate the Greek election in a way that would play into their own hands at home.

After the Greek elections, Pablo Iglesias did not waste the opportunity to remind Rajoy that the clock is ticking down towards the end of his government: ‘Tick, tock, tick, tock’. Given the size of the country, a Podemos victory in Spain would have a much bigger impact on the future of the EU than Syriza’s victory in Greece.

The latest opinion poll from the CIS research centre shows Podemos at 24%, only three points behind the ruling conservative party, PP, and two points ahead of PSOE. In the latest Metroscopia opinion poll, published in El País, Podemmos and PSOE are tied at a little over 20%, with PP and the new kid on the block, the centre-right Ciudadanos, a few points behind. The results of the local and regional elections depend more on local particularities. Podemos will not run candidates everywhere, and, in some cases, a separate electoral alliance connected with Podemos, called Ganemos, will attempt to challenge the duopoly of PP and PSOE. The peculiarities of local elections were last witnessed in the regional election in Andalusia on 22 March were PSOE did relatively well (Andalusia is an old PSOE stronghold) and Podemos scored only 15%.

If we are to believe the opinion polls, it is clear that the anti-establishment politics of Podemos might well win the elections. Although they are unlikely to win an outright majority, they have galvanised the opposition to the conservative government, while simultaneously challenging the parties of the old left.

Although they have not yet fallen to the same depths, PSOE is in a situation similar to that of PASOK in Greece a few years ago. The party changed leader after the EU elections last May, but the position of the new leader, Pedro Sánchez, is precarious, and the person to watch is Susana Díaz, the head of the regional government in Andalusia, a PSOE stronghold. A poor showing in the local and regional elections on 24 May, and Sánchez is likely to be able to call himself ex-leader.

PSOE is caught in a catch-22, damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. Through many years in government and collaborating with PP, they have come to be seen as part of the system – the caste, in Podemos’s discourse. The only way for PSOE to save themselves from the fate of PASOK is to stop being PSOE. But when trying a more populist appeal, they just reinforce the impression that Podemos is the real thing, and that they – PSOE – are merely a poor imitation. This is best exemplified when Sánchez took to sporting an open shirt and a small rucksack, and spent his first months as leader doing the rounds on the TV talk shows – while criticising Podemos for being populist.

PSOE is trying to catch up, and their position after the general election is not going to be easy. They can enter into a grand coalition with PP, and risk electoral suicide. Or they can enter into a broad leftish front with Podemos, and risk being swallowed up by it.

Similarly, Podemos have forced Izquierda Unida to rethink its role within the new political reconfiguration. Initially, Izquierda Unida picked up disaffected PSOE voters after the indignados protests in 2011, but they have been unable to respond to the success of Podemos. In the discourse of Podemos, Izquierda Unida are part of the old system, and local Izquierda Unida politicians have not done their party a favour by being involved in corruption cases. The party is in the middle of changing leaders, from the old-style Cayo Lara to the young Alberto Garzón. But the party is divided between purists, who insist on the importance of talking about class and capitalism, and those who, like Garzón, believe that it is necessary to build a broader front and appeal beyond the traditional Izquierda Unida voters. Pursuing the first strategy, Izquierda Unida risks oblivion; pursuing the second strategy, they risk being swallowed up in a popular front led by Podemos.

Podemos’s populist left politics are similar to those of Syriza and a tried recipe for electoral success: creating a broad popular front by articulating an antagonistic frontier between the people and the system. In the case of Spain, the system is ‘the caste’, both political and economic elites, and Podemos present themselves as the only true medium of the voice of the people. Podemos have combined the ruthless top-down management of the party with the mass mobilisation of voters. The party has been centralised to such an extent that it is now run by Iglesias and a small circle around him. They appeal directly to voters via mainstream and alternative media, and they repeatedly articulate the discontent with the system, and the antagonistic frontier between the people and the caste. Without this, they would no longer be needed. Most recently, on 31 January, they arranged a big demonstration in Madrid. It is this sort of mobilisation of the masses that keeps alive the spirit of the indignados: the feeling among the population that things could indeed be different.

Podemos differ from Syriza in one important respect though: they shun the label ‘leftist’. While both parties want to be the party for everyone – the whole people – Syriza still wear its leftish credentials on the sleeve. This makes Syriza closer to Izquierda Unida, which also started as a coalition of small radical left parties. The main thing dividing IU and Syriza, and uniting Podemos and Syriza, is a populist strategy leading to electoral success.

Whatever the differences between Syriza and Podemos, and irrespective of the electoral results, Podemos has been the driving force behind the new alignment of the Spanish left. And this is already a great victory.

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Sideboxes Related stories:  The Podemos wave Country or region:  Spain
Categories: les flux rss

A day of reckoning, 39 years later...

29. March 2015 - 20:16

On this Land Day, while world powers have recognised the danger of the religion-centric Islamic State (IS), it is ironic that some of the same governments are urging Palestinians to accept Lieberman's "axe"-wielding Jewish version of IS.

If you are like me, I am sure you are tired of reading about the results of the last Israeli election. Or on Benjamin Netanyahu's Hebrew pledge running up to the election and his flip-flopped English version after winning the election.

I want instead to highlight the native Palestinian Israeli citizens who ran on a united list for the first time since they started to participate in the election. These Palestinians were the sons and daughters of approximately 150,000 who remained in their original homes, or became internal refugees when their villages were among the 500 that were destroyed by Israel in 1948. 

Tomorrow, these Palestinians will mark the 39th anniversary of Land Day. It is an annual event commemorating the day when on March 30, 1976 they confronted Israeli government plans to expropriate approximately 20,000 dunams to build new Jewish-only colonies in the northern Galilee region.

Soon after it came into existence in 1948, Israel established two systems of government: one for Jews and another for the non-Jewish Israeli citizens. Jews enjoyed life under civilian law while Palestinians - supposedly equal under the law - lived under special military administration and were ruled by an appointed Jewish military governor.

This system of inequality which was in effect for 18 years was used to stop internal refugees from going back to their original villages. This is while Israel built new exclusive Jewish colonies for new immigrants, in many instances in the very homes and within eyesight of the non-Jewish "Israeli citizens" internal refugees.

In addition to official government and municipal policies to hinder the development of non-Jewish villages, Israel established physical barriers to curb the expansion of Palestinian towns by building highways at the villages' boundaries or surrounded them with a ring of Jewish-only colonies.

On March 29, 1976 Israel issued orders to confiscate more land from the non-Jewish citizens and imposed curfew on several of their villages. After 28 years of suppressing their Palestinian identity, local leaders responded to the Israeli order by calling for a general strike and mass protests on March 30. 

The general strike against Israel's Jewish-centric policies was overwhelming from Galilee in the north to Negev in the south. Israeli army reinforced by more than 4,000 police officers attacked the civil demonstrators killing four, three were women, injuring more than 100 and arresting several hundreds.

At large, Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and in refugee camps in Lebanon stood in unison in solidarity with their brothers who for 28 years remained in the forefront of the fight to unmask Israeli racism.

Today, as we observe Land Day 39 years later, Israeli policymakers have introduced the Prawer plan targeting thousands more non-Jewish Israeli citizens, but now in the Negev desert.

The new Israeli plan calls for demolishing 35 Bedouin villages and to remove their inhabitants from their ancestral homes. According to the UN human rights chief, the new Jewish Prawer plan will force thousands "... to give up their homes, denying them their rights to land ownership, and decimating their traditional cultural and social life..."

Last week, Israeli electorates chose again the proponents of the ethno-centric Jewish State (JS) who promised to undermine the US vision of two states for two people and ended all hopes for a negotiated peaceful settlement.

"Whoever is with us should get everything; but whoever is against us...We have to lift up an axe and remove his head." This was not a quote from Al Baghdadi of the Islamic State (IS), but was what JS leader Avigdor Lieberman pledged at a campaign rally before his re-election.

On this Land Day, while world powers have recognised the danger of the religion-centric Islamic State (IS), it is ironic that some of the same governments are urging Palestinians to accept Lieberman's 'axe'-wielding Jewish version of IS.


This article was first published by the Gulf Daily News newspaper on 29 March 2015.

Country or region:  Israel Palestine Topics:  Conflict Democracy and government Equality
Categories: les flux rss

The last of the Papandreous?

29. March 2015 - 16:36

During elections for change - and the first Greek Parliament for 92 years without a Papandreou in it - Adam Ramsay spoke with former scion of the Greek ruling class, George Papandreou.

Flickr/parti socialiste. Some rights reserved.It's now two months ago since I sat down in Athens with George Papandreou. If I'm honest, I didn't know what to make of him. I sent my write up around various friends and colleagues - people who have more of anunderstanding of Greek politics and of the man than I do. The feedback I got was utterly contradictory. Some felt that the below is an attempt from him to justify himself, and that there was little value in publishing. Others thought it raised some useful questions. Life drifted by. In the end, Rosemary Bechler, oD's editor, made the most convincing case - publish, and let readers decide what to make of it all. So, here you go... 

My week in Greece started in Exarchia and Perama and ended with the Parthenon, Poseidon's Temple and George Papandreou. If the former, both areas of Athens, represent the rise of Syriza, then the latter are all stepping stones in history: remnants of Greece's once great dynasties.

Exarchia is the anarchist corner of Greece's capital – beautified by political graffiti and populated with young graduate types who hang out in smoke filled cafes. Perama is a crumbling port city in the greater Athenian metropolis where people walk at a pace implying mass-unemployment. Together, they represent the backbone of the coalition – radicalised graduates and dispossessed labourers – that swept Europe's first radical left government since WW2 to power.

But they represent something else too. When I arrived in Exarchia, late the night before the election, I was surprised to see a guard of police officers in terrifying riot-gear and armed with semi-automatic rifles standing watch over the building next door. This, it later turned out, was the office of PASOK – Greece's 'socialist' party born in the radical quarter of Athens. It's fair to say that it's no longer welcomed by the locals.

The party has, in fact, been rejected even by the family that founded it. Established originally by Andreas Papandreou in the 1970s, his son, George, former leader and Prime Minister of Greece, left it briefly before the election to run with his own party, the Movement for Democratic Socialists. They won 2.5%, meaning, as people repeatedly told me, that this was the first Greek Parliament for 92 years without a Papandreou in it.

For many, this seemed almost as exciting in itself as the election of Syriza, and when I told Greeks I was going to interview the former PM, latest and last of the famous dynasty, they almost all responded sarcastically. He was deposed by the powers that be when he insisted that the Troika's (the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank) austerity measures be put to referendum rather than adopted unquestioningly. But he seems to be blamed for what came next. More damagingly, he seems to be seen as utterly out of touch: a classic comment was “lucky you – his English is better than his Greek”.

I don't know if that's true, but it certainly is the case that his English is native – born in Minnesota while his father was in exile from the dictatorship, he speaks with a gentle American accent, and has the kind charm of an old family friend. I started by asking him to talk me through the point after the Greek economy collapsed, when the forces of the world came to Athens, and he responded with what felt like a well trodden line: “The crisis in Greece actually began before 2009 when I took over.” 

“We had the wider financial crisis of course, coming from Wall Street, which affected everyone, but Greece was a weak link, I would say, in this whole crisis, where the sovereign debt, the debt of our country and then government went up, and that was very much a badly managed policy from the previous government. When I took over, we had a budget deficit of 15.6%, an almost doubling of our debt, and the markets were very worried about Greece, and also the Eurozone, and how the Eurozone would deal with a very new situation in a country which has had difficulty financing itself on the markets.

“So, what happens was that the market pressures were huge, to the point that we reached almost a tipping point of going bankrupt. What that means is that basically, we couldn't go out on the markets and borrow money. So that's when we needed to create a so called mechanism – it's called the ESM today, in the European Union, and we had to use it. Now, I think I wouldn't have used it had the European Union been more clear and more forceful with the markets, by saying we stand by Greece, we guarantee Greece's debts and bonds, or created something like a Eurobond and Greece can borrow, and so on. But they didn't do that. And I think one of the problems was that they saw that this was simply a Greek problem, not a wider Eurozone problem.”

“So what happened is that I had to use this mechanism and ask for help. And the terms were, initially, quite punitive. We'd negotiated changes over the year that came, the following year, 2010 and 2011. I didn't have much of a choice. I had two choices. One was to let the country go bankrupt, which would have led to a lot of suffering, much more suffering. Or, to follow the terms of the bail-out, which was difficult, but less austere than bankruptcy.”

With hindsight, as Paul Krugman has pointed out, the predictions that the Troika made about their plans for the Greek economy were entirely wrong. The Standby Agreement, which demanded mass austerity, predicted two years of recession. Five years later, Greece's depression has only technically ended now if you ignore deflation. Far from reducing Greece's debt, austerity has led the country to a higher debt: GDP ratio. Even if you ignore the huge human cost, on its own terms, the plan to which the Greek government signed up has utterly failed. In retrospect, does Mr Papandreou feel there is anything else he could have done to resist it?

“I think that you're right... the so called Troika obviously did make wrong predictions as to how this would go, for a number of reasons. One is that I think, again, had there been strong backing of Greece, we would have been much less insecure. Just getting money to pay off our loans is not enough to keep the markets calm and for people to feel safe. And so, even when and despite the fact that we had this massive programme of loans to Greece, the sense in Europe was 'maybe Greece will leave the Euro, maybe the banks will collapse'.

“Well, if you live in a country where these rumours are being circulated, and circulated by official mouths in the European Union, what would you do? I mean, you would say “yeah, well, maybe I have to take my money out of Greece, maybe I won't invest”. Foreign investment wasn't coming in; “maybe I won't consume”. Banks won't lend. So we had basically a paucity of economic activity for two or three years. That was massively wrong for the European Union to not have made a very clear statement and closed the door on this option – of a Grexit. That's one reason why I asked for a referendum, so that we could have a clear decision by the Greek people, and that would be also be a clear sign to the markets, and to the Greek people that “we're in, we've got this programme” or “we're out” - but we would make a decisions and it's clear - so we don't have this continual sense of insecurity.”

He was beginning to talk about clientelism in Greece – but we'll come back to that. First, I'm keen to talk about something else that fascinates me about the way that austerity was imposed on Greece: there were prominent figures at the time, including Gordon Brown and Barack Obama, who argued that cutting public spending during a crisis was going to be disastrous, that the figures the Troika were presenting were based on fantasy – the idea that you can cut public spending and not have a massive drop in employment and a collapse in the tax base is an economic absurdity. And yet somehow this consensus was forced on Greece, despite the fact that there is no workable precedent for this, and no major economist who predicted the crash supported it. How did this consensus come out of economic la-la-land and end up being forced on the people of Greece?

“We (Gordon Brown and I) were together on the council for a few months until the elections in the UK, and I did have his support. He was a very positive voice in trying to get a different view on things. Of course, the UK is not in the Eurozone, so it had less of a say on these issues, but the austerity mythology is around and live and running around in Europe still very strongly, there's a very strong dogma on austerity, that this is the way to deal with the sickness of a crisis, and I said that from the very beginning.

“Now I do need to make a qualification here. Greece did have a huge budget deficit – 15.6%. And actually, in 2009, when that budget deficit was 15.6%, we were in recession. So simply throwing money at the problem is not enough. And particularly in a global market and in a Eurozone market where money can move around – throwing money at Greece could simply have meant consuming more cars from Germany, which would not really help the problem. So what we really needed was good governance again – targeted investment in areas which will support our own comparative advantages. And that was my proposal, that we target areas such as high quality tourism; we reorganise our agriculture, because we have a brand name that's known around the world, that's called the Mediterranean or Cretan diet, very good for your health; fisheries; alternative energy:  sun, wind, and geothermal; we have a lot of that – and that's great potential. We also have a very great workforce: young people, very well educated, highly trained, and so on.

“So these are just some of the areas we could capitalise on. Austerity was missing that. It's sort of like taking a company which is producing a product which people just don't want to buy and, because it's overdrawn, the banks say “just cut” and that's not going to mean that people are going to buy your products. You have to reorganise, you have to innovate, you have to see what are your strengths, you have to train, you have to look at your infrastructure, and this is what Greece needed.

“So, yes, I would say the austerity dogma has failed. And in Greece, what we needed was a slower pace of cuts, which would have meant more money, of course, because when you have continued deficits, you have to get your money from somewhere. That's why I supported the Eurobond, rather than having this bilateral aid basically which we have from Eurozone countries, but that was not accepted. Secondly, what we needed was to make the changes in Greece – both in restructuring our economy, and also in restructuring our state and the way that it's run, the way that it's working.”

Of course, in a sense, what he wanted was moot. Because he wasn't allowed to remain in power. In one of the most extraordinary moments in recent European history, George Papandreou told the EU that he would only implement their austerity with the consent of the people. And so he proposed a referendum. A few days later, he was out of a job. The person elected by the people of Greece was replaced by a technocrat. Had the EU orchestrated this coup from behind the scenes? I put it to him that this isn't how politics should work in a democracy. His answer is surprisingly calm: “you're right”.

What happened? How did he feel? At the time, I was spitting with rage. Surely he must still be angry about it? His answer is surprisingly methodical:

“I think if I have a regret it is that I wasn't able to push through the referendum. I thought it was a very key moment for democracy first of all, but also for ownership of the programme by the Greek people. And it is this lack of ownership I believe that has created a lot of frustration and has not allowed real reforms to move forward. When something's imposed on you, even if it's good for you, you usually react. And if you feel that you own it, it's part of your own decision, I think that's very different. That's part of democracy. That's what democracy is.

“And we are facing a wider problem. My experience was quite traumatic for Greece, I think. But it's traumatic for democracy. We're facing a wider problem where the established powers in this global capitalist world are much more powerful than governments and we are often forced to take decisions under pressure, which undermines a sense of democracy and participation.

“We could deal with that if we worked together – if we in the European Union worked together and supported each other more in dealing with these waves, winds of globalisation. We could then protect some of the basic democratic rights of our peoples. So the exegesis of global capitalism and globalisation which can be a huge inequality, global capital amassing huge amounts of money in the hands of few, the capture of the media through that, the capture of politics itself sometimes, through the huge inequalities of power which has amassed. On the issue of immigration, rather than be xenophobic, we could find solutions for people who migrate for whatever reason, be they refugees or simply looking for a job.”

Which was, I remember, his masters thesis.

“You're right, I did study migration studies, and I was a migrant myself, I was a refugee myself from the dictatorship, and one of the first laws I passed in Greece was to give citizenship to second generation migrants who live here. Unfortunately that was repealed two years later by the High Court... I very much regret that we did that, because I think that was very important for integrating our migrants here. And these are the types of issues – or climate change – these are the types of issues we are facing and, if we don't work together, countries on our own are very weak.

“And so when I came up with the idea of a referendum, basically I was saying “we want to have a voice” and, unluckily, some of the leaders in the European Union said “well, the markets are going to be crazy about this” and I said, particularly to Mr Sarkosy, I said “listen, without the trust of the people, you'll never have the markets happy either. So first, you need to have the trust of the people, and, we would have had the markets worried for maybe a month. But had Europe said “hold on, let the Greek people do what they need to do, and make a decision”, I think we could have tamed these fears.

“And, anyway, the whole way Europe reacted, even though they did finally agree, but the way they agreed, that undermined me in my own party and I didn't have the majority to push through this whole proposal of a referendum. And so I think that was a defeat for democracy there, and not just for Greek democracy, or mine personally, but a very important lesson for how we deal with crises around the world and in Europe.”

This is all very interesting, but it's surprisingly abstract. He was the democratically elected leader. He was deposed. I suppose I'd expected him to be more angry about it, not to talk about the winds of globalisation. So I ask him again: what role did the EU play in getting rid of him? What actually happened? 

“I have read a number of newspapers. Amongst them, the Financial Times has written up a long piece on the details of what happened in Cannes – that was the G20 meeting where I was called to discuss the whole issue of the referendum, and I cannot validate these, because these are issues which, if they were done, they were done behind my back. But if they were done, they obviously were shocking as to how Europe works. But you don't need to go very far to actually see that the problem of how Europe works today is that many of the decisions are taken behind closed doors but, more than that, I would say by very few people without real consultation and deliberation and democratic procedures.”

“And I can understand that many people reacting to this don't want the European Union, they want a return to some sort of nation state, “let's go back to our tribes”. I would say we need the opposite of that – we need more Europe, but more democratic Europe. So let's see how we can find democracy, how we can democratise the European Union, how we can take it from an elite project to a peoples' project or to a citizens' project. How can we, for example, have a president elected by the people of Europe, have a president of the commission elected directly?”

This is a theme Papandreou has returned to frequently over the years, but he's dismissive of the way that each of the European parties had their campaigns headed up by candidates in the 2014 elections: “there was this sort of mock election, but there was no real direct election” - and his proposals for EU reforms go further:

“Let's have some forms of referenda which can be Europe-wide. Switzerland has a system where 51% of the citizens and 51% of the cantons have to accept something if they want some major change, so we need to have something like that in Europe. Let's have more online deliberation. Let's use new tools of technology for more participatory democracy. We need to bring in more democracy in Europe... If we don't have that, and people feel that these are decisions made behind closed doors and particularly by the stronger or the more powerful, or certain bureaucracies, people will be alienated more and more by the idea of Europe, and that would be a shame.”

This discussion of international politics highlights a perhaps surprising fact about the former Greek Prime Minister – he's the president of the Socialist International – the federation which includes Germany's Social Democrats, France and Spain's Socialists, and to which the British Labour Party is an observer. In Greece, its member organisation is not his new party, The Movement for Democratic Socialists, but rather his old one, PASOK (the Panhellenic Socialist Movement).

In the UK – and, in fact, across Europe, there has been some discussion recently of the phenomenon “Pasokofocation” - whereby traditional parties of the centre left have been hollowed out, and collapsed in on themselves. Examples stretch from the German Social Democrats to Spain's Socialists to the Scottish (and perhaps British) Labour party and Northern Ireland's SDLP. In fact, a careful examination of the figures in Greece's election reveals that New Democracy's vote didn't particularly collapse, but rather PASOK's support transferred wholesale to SYRIZA.

I tell Mr Papandreou about the introduction of “Pasokification” into the English language. He laughs. In this context, and with his perspective, does he have any advice for Ed Miliband? And for his partners around the world?

He's keen to emphasise, in his reply, a differentiation between Europe and the rest of the world. “The Socialist International has about 160 members around the world. If you look at Latin America, if you look at Africa, if you look in the Arab World wherever there is some semblance of democracy, there is a flourishing of progressive parties, social democratic parties, socialist parties, and so on. And, quite a few in government.

“Europe, I think, is faced with a difficulty. Because what Europe has not done is being able to deal with... the pressures of globalisation. Because what Europe had was a basic bargain, what they call a social contract between the social partners: Labour, capital and the state. Now, capital flew away... to other opportunities, and... to other havens. So, you can't tax capital, because you've got tax havens or tax competition. You have huge inequalities and you also have the degradation of standards, pushing labour into these ultra-flexible forms of labour, non-secure, simply because of competition with the emerging markets.

“Now, are those the kind of economies that we want? Where it's a race to the bottom. Other economies in these emerging markets... may do well for certain portions of their population, and bravo to them. But they still have huge inequalities. They have no labour standards, they have no environmental standards, sometimes, no human rights, no pension systems, no welfare systems. That is not the model we need to emulate. However, since we are as nations not very strong against this global capitalist system... we social democrats look helpless, unless we work together.”

“Not to quote somebody, but I think we can't have social democracy in one country. We have to work together. And I think if Europe does not become a social democratic project, where we mitigate the impact of globalisation, where we humanise globalisation...

“Europe can do it if we do it together. We've talked about the financial transaction tax, we've talked about CO2 taxes. We've talked about how we deal with climate change. We've talked about how we invest in human capital, in infrastructure. So we could have a Europe-wide stimulus and we should. Even now, when we're discussing with the US on the Transatlantic pact, the trade pact, we need to be very strong on standards, whether its labour standards, whether its food standards, whether its consumer standards, whether its data-protection standards. These are issues (in) which Europe really could play a role. If we do this alone, whether it's Ed Miliband, whether it's Francois Hollande, whether it's Mr Renzi, we won't have enough clout vis a vis these market and conservative forces. And that's just going to push us into more nationalism,more xenophobia, more rampant stereotyping of each other, which is going to create more and more splintering in our societies, and therefore not the strength to be able to deal with these issues. And this is the conundrum we now have.

“Our institutions are national: our problems are global. If we don't work together, and Europe is an experiment which could work. So I'm saying, we need all social democrats, all Labour parties in Europe, to work more in developing a radical, but progressive change – modernising our societies, yes, but ensuring that in these times of major change, we are able to protect our citizens and their rights.”

This account of Pasokification all seems very plausible – the failure of the centre left to have a strategy in the face of globalisation. But it doesn't seem to me to be a sufficient explanation. On my home turf, the Scottish Labour Party, utterly dominant only a decade ago, is facing a wipe-out in May at the hands of the SNP. From Germany to Spain, many of the traditional parties of the centre left in Europe are floundering. Is there an argument that these parties have lost their connections with the movements they existed to represent? That they no longer have enough of a connection to their respective bases?

Given that the official nickname for Papandreou's new party is “the movement”, I thought he might be keen to talk about this aspect of the collapse of the party his father built. But no:

“I would say that as people see that the socialists or the progressive parties have difficulty in dealing with these globalising forces, the reaction is going to be nationalism – back into your own tribe. Let's go where you feel safe. Let's move back into – it could be our religion, it could be our ethnicity, it could be our nation.”

But that's not Podemos or Syriza, I challenge him. They can't be accused of turning inwards, surely?:

“I would say, look at Syriza's rhetoric, and look at its coalition right now. It is much more... anti-European – of course anti-austerity (too), but... it's in coalition with an ultra-rightist party which basically is a highly nationalist, populist, racist, anti-semitic, Islamophobic party. I mean, the rhetoric which Syriza is using is... 'we don't want these outsiders telling us what to do, let's kick them out... this is an occupation'. So the basic instinct is not a platform for global change and dealing with international forces in a different way. It's, let's move back into our little corner and get rid of all these negative things.

“What I'm basically saying is something simple: if we don't work together and deal with these globalising forces, these global forces, these changes around the world, people are just going to move into their little tribes. And that's what's happening in Europe. It's happening in the Arab world. It's happening in Syria – you're seeing people moving into basically their own sects, whether it's the Sunnis or the Shias or, whether it's one ethnicity or the other – the Kurds, the Iraqis, and so on. And these are basically instinctive reactions to the fact that we feel powerless in this world that's globalising.

“How do we gain power? How to we empower citizens? Well, I think that's what our social democratic movement has to deal with. And it's basically much more radical democracy, much more participation, much more regulation, which will mitigate some of the problems, but also guide global capital into making a more fair and just society which addresses inequality, and climate change, and so on.”

It's a compelling case, I tell him. But what I see isn't a descent into nationalism. What I see is people moving to the left.

“But look at France”...

“and to the right – polarising, both ways”, I concede.

“We're seeing a polarisation, to extremism, and, underneath that, is a belief that we can deal with these problems if each 'I go back' to our tribes. That's what I'm seeing. And, it can be a left party that's populist or a right party that's populist... I'm not saying they're the same. What we're seeing as a trend is not a leftist revolution or a leftist change – which is what I would want to see. I think we need to work together for this.”

I'm not convinced. Just because people are anti-globalisation, that doesn't make them nationalists. Outside a polling station in Perama on the day of the election, I had been introduced to a Syriza activist called Petras. He said two things: “We have the exit polls. We've got 38%”. And then, without pausing to smile “we're going to need international partners”. When Tsipras gave his victory speech, just up the road from Papandreou's office, the people in the square were from all over Europe. Perhaps 20% were from outside Greece. The flags weren't the blue and white of the Hellenic Republic, but the reds and greens of the European left celebrating a late Christmas.

“I'm not against that” insists the former PM. “I very much hope that the European left, and if I talk in a wider sense, progressive forces from the politically liberal, using the American term of liberal – human rights, democracy and so on – the Greens, and the wider leftist forces, whether they're social democratic, or even further to the left, and so on, where we need to create coalitions, work together, and break down these national barriers which the right is trying to use through stereotyping – the austere Germans, the lazy Southerners, and so on: these are the kinds of things that just play into the hands of these right wing populists. So I'd be very much in favour of that. But if we don't work together, we will allow this trend, the rhetoric which will be developed, with some exceptions, will be a rhetoric that will be much more of nationalism and tribalism.

“Basically what I'm saying is that we need, as social democrats and socialists and lefts in a wider sense, the progressives of Europe need to get together and work together in making Europe a progressive project.”

Papandreou's new party didn't get any seats in the election. But, I ask him, if he had made it into Parliament, is it fair to assume that Syriza might have had a different coalition partner right now? Would he have given Tsipras the votes he needed to form a government?

He's keen to get another point in first: “we had a start up movement that had just 25 days to create a party and then run, so even the 2.5% was quite a good start, but we still have a lot to do”. This may be true, though, given he's a former Prime Minister and from the most famous family in Greek politics, that achievement is perhaps less remarkable than it sounds: everyone in Greece has an opinion on George Papandreou, and the fact that so few of them voted for him can't be dismissed as the result of obscurity.

But his answer to the question is clear: “Had we reached the 3% barrier and been in parliament, I always said, yes, we could work with Syriza on two bases. One is to make major reforms in Greece. And when I say reforms, that's a word which is often interpreted in different ways. I'm not talking simply about the labour reforms which the Troika was pushing. I'm talking about further transparency, making a tax system which is just, being able to fight tax evasion, a justice system which is transparent and efficient, an education system which is open to the world and not clientelistic, politics which is not clientelistic, waste, fight corruption and so on. And then we could take this to a referendum, and... in exchange, for the European Union to cut our debt, or at least to take much of the weight off, because we are now creating surpluses, but we are using them mostly to pay back the debt. So let's do it in a way where we can use these surpluses to kickstart our economy again. I see that that idea, that basic idea that I proposed and pushed during the election period, a number of people in Syriza are accepting as the possible way forward. So, yes, there would have been a chance, had that been accepted, to work with them and have a different type of coalition.

The clientelism he refers to is a recurrent theme of pretty much every conversation about Greek politics. Papandreou has in the past complained that he didn't have enough time to solve these problems. Why did he fail? Will Syriza have any more success?

“One of the problems with Greece, and this is not only Greece, but, we have very entrenched interests in this clientelist system which go from the sort of oligarchies down to the smaller but very strong interests – corporate interests, or, basically, living off the state, getting a job, getting a procurement, getting a TV licence, this is all done in a very opaque and clientelist way. But this does not create a very productive economy. It's a question of time on the one hand. It's a question of will. But it's also a question of getting the Greek people behind you when you're doing this, because the Greek people do want change. And that was my mandate in 2009. My slogan was “either we change or we sink”: and we're sinking.

“So I started bringing in changes – putting everything online: all expenditures online, making sure we had complete meritocracy in hiring people in Greece, so (so politicians couldn't buy votes by hiring people). Even at the top level we had this open-gov process of choosing people through announcements on a meritocratic basis, so even top political positions were not done through the party, but a different way. Fighting corruption, for example, with e-prescriptions we cut down 30% of the cost of medicine, where doctors were getting kickbacks from big pharmaceutical companies, this is what I began. But the resistance to these changes... of course was huge, and the types of changes are not simply passing a law. If you have for example a tax system or a tax agency which is inefficient, which has pockets of corruption, and you simply say “I'm going to pass a law and change that” but you have the same people there, and the same organisation - it's not going to change overnight.

“So we needed time, and we needed the backing for this. But we didn't have the backing from the European Union, because they were more on cuts, cuts, cuts, rather than reforms, reforms, reforms, and we did have the backing of the Greek people, but I think a referendum would have given us the strength to stand up to these forces that didn't want to change. That's where I think democracy can really help in these areas.”

This is all very well, but, while the message might be reasonable, there's a problem with the messenger. If anything symbolises nepotism in Greek politics, it's that three generations of the same family have all provided prominent Greek Prime Ministers – most recently, George himself. Can he really square that circle?

He's certainly willing to try: “I think that's a false view of what our tradition is. Of course every personality is a separate one, but if there is one tradition that goes through my family, it's the fight for change. My grandfather fought for change all his life and that's why he went to exile or jail six times. He was head of the government in exile in Cairo during the Nazi occupation. He may have been in politics a lot but once he was prime minister in exile, and, the second two times he was elected, he was overthrown by the right wing and there was a dictatorship.”

“My father was in exile twice in his life but when he was in power he made some major changes, bringing in the welfare state. I think my criticism there would be that he didn't make the necessary reforms in the state. It kept on being clientelistic, but it wasn't he who brought in the clientelist system, though he did make changes bringing in constitutional changes for meritocracy and so on. So I came in on a very strong platform of change and, I have a record too, which shows this.

“When I said 'put everything online', that was a major change in Greece, because it hit a lot of corruption. But people may not have felt that that was the biggest change in their life when they were being hit by austerity and cuts, so unluckily, during my time, I had to do the painful thing of cutting the deficit. And all of the other reforms were there, we were making, but they didn't show up until years later how important they had been. For example now, it's very difficult for any government to stop what we call transparency online – everything online. The previous government tried a couple of times to change the law, and there was a major reaction.”

“So I think that, yes, we were reforming, and what I have been saying in this campaign is that, it's not simply a question of austerity. It's a question of “do we make this government efficient, do we have good governance?” - basically a democratic question, a question of how our democracy is run. Do we have a country where interests are capturing our democracy, or do we have a country run efficiently, where people actually have a say and the public good is served?

And what about him? Is his time in politics over?

“I said when I built this party that, whatever the result would be, I wanted a new start for the socialists and the democrats in Greece. Because I felt that it was true that the old party, Pasok, had been subsumed into a right wing politics. But I would say, again, it had become a part of this established clientelist system. And so even when I was head of the party, I had to fight against that. I was a reformer even inside my party. When I left, I hoped this reform would be kept up, but I think it just collapsed under the weight of being part of this clientelist system. And I believe that if we don't make this voice heard, Greece will maybe be out of the crisis for a little while, but we'll be back into the crisis. If Syriza does move forward with real, major reforms, I will support that. If they don't, our voice will be more important all the time, by making sure that we carry this through.

“So, grassroots working throughout Greece, training people, helping people to understand what the real problems in Greece are, because it was very easy to say that the real problem is the Troika, the real problems are the Germans, or maybe the Russians will come to help us and give us money. So we had a lot of mythology around this, which even Syriza has created. The memorandum, the bail out programme, was a medicine, it may not have been the right, or the best medicine, or it may have been very bitter, but it wasn't the cause of our problems. And that's again which I'm trying to get back to the real issues that we need to face up to – creating a modern, functioning transparent democracy in our society.”

And who is it that he's trying to train? Who is the supposed 'movement' his party is hoping to represent?

“We have a large number of young people who have come to this. I would say that many of them saw the efforts we made for reforms and my government in 2 years passed 222 laws. Most of them were major reform laws and major changes that no previous government had made. And that inspired a large number of young people to say “this is what we need in our country”. So I'll be investing in them and also I think that a lot of people that would have voted for my party basically were voting against the Samaras/Venizelos government. They were voting a protest vote just to make sure that we have a change in policy and therefore voted for Tsipras. But I believe that a lot of them very much agree with my points about what sorts of things need to be changed in Greece.

“So I'm investing in a younger generation for the next decade, where we can bring up politicians, activists, groups around Greece where we can really look and see how we make Greece a better place, and not simply try to scapegoat who are the bad guys out there and who's going to come and save us.”

Is it fair to say, then, that he's trying to build a social democratic party, slightly less radical than Syriza but still on the left of politics?

“Yes, that's true... I think I'm more radical than Syriza”

But less “old fashioned socialist?” I put to him.

“Yes, that's right, it's not simply a party that will manage capitalism. I think radical democracy, more participation, a real change in our state. I'm not a statist kind of a socialist... a state isn't necessarily good. You can have a good state and a bad state – I lived through a dictatorship and I know what bad states are like – as I don't believe that markets are inherently bad, but if you don't regulate them they do become bad and they don't serve the public good. So I think what we need is good regulation for markets, and good governance. And that basically democracy must prevail, the will of the people, the public good must prevail on decisions, and that's what I want to build up.

I tell him I have three final questions, but his young assistant jumps in – apparently the BBC will be arriving any moment. He asks me to give him all three, so I do – what are his thoughts on what's going to happen over the next few weeks, what advice does he have for Syriza and for Tsipras, and how does he want to be remembered – what's his legacy?

“I would like to see this government realise that there's not much time to waste because of the sense of insecurity and unluckily outside Greece, the lack of credibility on the markets. And so on. So I would want to see them begin to open negotiations with the European Union. I believe that if they put down a package of major reforms, that could be a change in policy where we don't need the troika, where we create more space to use our budget surpluses for investment in Greek society whether it's in the poor, whether it's in infrastructure, whether it's in education, and in our areas of competitive advantage. So we need that. And that means some form of debt relief. Some renegotiating of the whole debt problem.

“On the other hand, we promise to our partners that they won't have to be sustaining us every once in a while by saying “we want to make reforms”  - a Greek plan, one that we will decide on. We will deliberate on and decide on through a referendum. That would be my suggestion. And if they stick to sort of highly populist but very popular things, they're just going to not pay the debt and so on, we may be in a situation where we will become much more insecure and much worse for Greek society. Even though this debt is very heavy. We have to find some way of negotiating with our partners because I think we do need their help in getting through this period – their help. But they must also understand that it's not austerity, austerity, austerity: it's more reform, reform, reform. And I think after 5 years, they're starting to realise this. That's my advice and that's what I would hope.

“My legacy is that I would simply continue to be seen as a fighter for democracy in Greece and for the public good and for being able to invest in a younger generation that will be able to carry on the major changes that Greece needs. Greece is a beautiful country. It's got great people and great capacity and having lived around the world, I don't feel that we need to be jealous of anybody. But what we do need is to make sure that we can start working together in a system that is transparent, effective, more democratic, and not captured by clientelist interests – more team work, more co-operation, and to get that, I think we need to have more and more, much more participation of citizens in daily activities. Trying to get our citizens to be more active, civil society, an open democracy if you like, using the web but not only, continuing education for civil activity and participation. These are the kinds of thing I've been working on all my life and will continue to do so.”

Sat in his office, the case Papandreou made for himself was all perfectly plausible – a thinking man, blown away by what he called the winds of globalisation, doing his best in an impossible situation. There is a sense in which all of this is true. But on reflection, there's something else too. Papandreou clearly has an excellent grasp on the shifting currents of history, but it feels a little like his understanding makes him too quick to bow before them, too willing to cast his country to the winds of inevitability. Politics may be dictated by powerful historical forces, but it's not the weather. The world can be bent a little to the will of those who are willing to look it in the eye. At a time when Greece needed a stubborn leader, they had a thoughtful academic, a man who gave up the fight too fast because he saw no way to win.

How will history see him? The night after our meeting, a couple of friends and I came across an image of George Papandreou's familiar face, spray-painted onto a wall in central Athens. It was captioned with an adulterated Greek nursery rhyme. I'm told it wasn't polite about the former PM.

If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? on Facebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe

Sideboxes Related stories:  The troika saved banks and creditors – not Greece Country or region:  Greece
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Chasing the Scream, the talk

28. March 2015 - 18:20

The last days of the war on drugs - and how to bring them to pass. The video of the London open book event.

Billie Holiday, Harry Anslinger and race hysteria in drug criminalisation

Leigh Maddox, police woman from the frontline who changed her mind

Mexican drug cartels & the story of Rosalio Retta. What we're doing to people on supply routes

Jose Mujica's reaction to the threat of Uruguay becoming a narco-state

Rat Park & addiciton

What would being tough on the causes of addiction mean?

Female chain-gangs in Arizona

Nictoine, chemical theory of addiction, patches

John Marks and the Merseyside experiment

Is opium the opiate of the masses? Is legalisation a middle class indulgence?

The Portuguese decriminalisation

What is a strategy for change? Not top-down ...

Grassroots change in Vancouver, Downtown East-Side, Bud Osborne

Is anything going to change? The political elites are waiting for our permission

An ex-addict speaks about prescription drug substitution

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

The talk was based on Johann Hari's new book, ‘Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs’ (available  here on Amazon). It tells the story of the journey Hari went on to discover what's known about about addiction - and much more. Find out more at


With thanks to Katharine Hibbert, Tony Curzon Price and TheatreDeli for putting the event together, and to Bruna Martini and Graham Thomas for filming and editing

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Dying for Justice: black and minority ethnic deaths in custody

28. March 2015 - 0:28

509 suspicious deaths of people from BME, migrant and asylum seeker communities in state custody over 23 years. Five prosecutions. Not one single conviction. A chilling report from the Institute of Race Relations.

Twenty-six years it has taken the families of the 96 killed at Hillsborough to force out the confession from police chief inspector David Duckenfield that he had lied about procedures on that fateful day in 1989 and was in fact responsible for the  crowd surge which ultimately killed so many.

On 23 March in the House of Lords, Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett, holding back her tears, told a meeting how she was still having to fight twenty-two years after the death of her twin brother Leon Patterson in Manchester to find out how he died and make the authorities take responsibility.

She was there to support the launch of a report from the Institute of Race Relations on 509 suspicious deaths of people from BME, migrant and asylum seeker communities in police, prison custody and the detention estate between 1991 and 2014, which have resulted in just five prosecutions and not one conviction in a quarter of a decade – so stacked is the system in favour of our custodians. Hundreds of confused, bereaved, and frustrated families are all still, in the report’s title, dying for justice.

The research shows that the majority of deaths, 348, took place in prison, 137 in police custody and twenty-four in the immigration detention estate. One in three of the total deaths were as a result of self-harm and in sixty-four cases the person was known to have mental health problems. Medical neglect was a contributory factor in forty-nine cases and in forty-eight the use of force appears to have contributed to a person’s death.

It is ironic that in the same week that former Equality and Human Rights Commission boss Trevor Phillips  comforted the nation on his Channel 4 TV programme (‘The thing we won’t say about race that are true’) that it was fine to speak in ethnic stereotype, such a  damning a report  should be published.

For it reveals how, on occasion, young men of Caribbean descent acting erratically or even asking for help, are stereotyped first and foremost as bad, mad, and, being black, likely to be involved in drugs and/or violent – so they are met with violence. (According to INQUEST of 54 people killed in police shootings since 1990, nine were from BME communities.)

Force (including restraints, sprays, batons, guns) was involved in forty-eight  deaths examined in this report. And the stereotype has being extended to other deprived communities who are being prejudged as ‘up to no good’ or simply of no account, not deserving of courtesy or care – Joy Gardner (an overstayer), Ibrahima Say (a Gambian asylum seeker), Zahid Mubarek (a British Asian teenager in a young offenders’ institute for a petty theft), Jimmy Mubenga (a foreign national prisoner).

The culture, aided and abetted by politicians and the mass media, has, over the last thirty years, been impregnated with views which encourage suspicion and contempt for whole groups of people who are surplus to requirements of, or antithetical to, the neoliberal project. Asylum seekers, Muslims, the young never-employed (who may eke out a dubious living) are not just demonised daily in the tabloids as terrorist, shirkers and scroungers, but set apart from society. They are not part of us – in fact they are undermining ‘usness’.

But what compounds the ‘us and them’ of the system is the impunity enjoyed by the police, prison and immigration/detention officers. Despite twelve verdicts of unlawful killing from inquest juries recently, there have been just a handful of prosecutions and never a conviction. For, invariably, the officer is deemed to have used force proportionate to the threat he felt he was under. His fear will always be subjective, unmeasurable, and the ultimate self-defence. Note that the Independent Police Complaints Commission has just cleared the police in the case of Mark Duggan (who was shot dead in Tottenham in August 2011) of any wrongdoing since it was likely they thought he was throwing away a handgun.

One of the most vexed issues to emerge from the research is that of accountability. Though there have been verdicts of unlawful killing, these are often contested at a higher court and sometimes reversed, or simply not followed up by prosecution, and inevitably no one is found guilty of any wrongdoing. Internal discipline or punishment is either non-existent or fleeting and mild, implicated officers retire or resign before procedures have taken their course. And the privatisation of detention services has diminished accountability yet further. The chain of command is long, the responsibility for the well- or ill-being of an inmate is sub-contracted.

One of the recent changes, and which is reflected in the spike of deaths in 2007, for example, is the detention of asylum seekers, unwanted migrant workers and foreign national prisoners whose prison terms are spent. Detention centres (now termed removal centres) are part of a growth industry, now largely sub-contracted to the private sector (as are an increasing number of prisons) where huge multinational companies such as G4S, Serco, GEO, Mitie order the lives of prisoners and waiting deportees. In this parallel system of detention where frightened anxious detainees often self-harm, medical care is not required  to be of the standard supplied by the NHS. The private companies have simple targets: to make sure the deportee is fit to travel.

These are closed worlds in which, after a death, officers inevitably close rank and the authorities hold all the cards – including access to information and money for legal representation. But still they learn little from inquiries into deaths, reports, narrative verdicts at inquests and new guidelines, though  families and friends of the bereaved do. And, as the report reveals, the tenacity of groups campaigning against conditions for those in immigration detention and of bereaved families fighting through networks such as the United Families and Friends Campaign, and INQUEST has begun to have a public impact and taken the struggle into the heart of the system.

The IRR's report, Dying for Justice, by Harmit Athwal and Jenny Bourne, can be accessed here. Main image: Sujata Aurora. Jacket image: Vigil for Mikey Powell, September 2012. (© Ken Fero/Migrant Media) 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Many thousands of children stripped naked in custody. Ignites memories of being raped The racist texts. What the Mubenga trial jury was not told Black and dangerous? Listening to patients’ experiences of mental health services in London Neglect and indifference kill American man in UK immigration detention UK immigration detention: the truth is out 'Headbutt the bitch' Serco guard, Yarl’s Wood, a UK immigration detention centre When Irish Travellers die in British prisons Coroner finds Capita detainee died of natural causes at Manchester immigration lock-up Justice blindfolded? The case of Jimmy Mubenga
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Treating kids in trouble like adults isn’t justice

28. March 2015 - 0:00

In youth justice, time and again, adults let children down, says Just for Kids Law.

James was 12 years old when his mother was informed he was wanted by the police for a suspected burglary.

This is the ‘crime’ the police were investigating: James had wanted to show his friend his old primary school which was open at the weekend for external clubs. Once inside the school they found a cleaner’s pass and used it to explore staff-only areas, such as the kitchen, something many curious children might do. Nothing was stolen or damaged.

After the weekend the school watched the CCTV. Recognising James as a former pupil, but not his friend, the school called the police, and so the wheels of the criminal justice system were set in motion.

When James discovered the police wanted to question him he became so anxious he was unable to sleep, his mother had to take him into her bed.

He was taken to the police station and interviewed on suspicion of burglary under caution. His mum says that he did not understand one word of the police caution, they “may as well have been speaking Latin”. After the formal interview at the police station the police decided not to proceed with criminalising James further, the process was over but the impact of the process will not go away so quickly.

Lately Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) published a report which concluded that vulnerable children in contact with the police need care not custody.

This is no surprise to those of us who work with children caught up in the criminal justice system, but has often been a point of contention between organisations like mine, Just for Kids Law, and government agencies.

The report found that in encounters between children and the police, “Some police officers did not regard all children as vulnerable. They saw the offence first and the fact that a child was involved as secondary.” This is often entrenched position, as exemplified by what happened with James and one that we believe needs to be reversed.

The HMIC report highlighted various areas of serious concern in relation to how children are treated in police custody, for example shockingly, the HMIC reported that according to data in the areas that they were inspecting, not a single child was transferred from the police station to a local authority bed in the 12 months prior to the 2014 inspection, despite requests being made by the police.

This means that in every case where data was collected a child was kept overnight at the police station, in a police cell, in breach of the law which says that children who are not granted bail must be transferred to child safe accommodation.

One child told the inspectors:

“When you’re sitting in that [...] freezing cold cell for, well like just short of 23 hours, you know what I mean? It’s a long time to sit in that cell, in them four walls….I just start going crazy ‘cause I think about me mum and that all the time and it just makes me go really mad. I just end up punching all the cell wall and that and breaking all me hands and [stuff] like that.”

One of the young people we work with said of the cells:

“When I was taken into the cell – I felt like I was alone, a little boy left alone in grown up world. I was being left in a place where they hold people who kill people. I felt as if I had been thrown in there and left to die. I had no idea how long I would be in there. No one brought me any food or water I was completely left in there being treated like I had killed someone.”

Children tell us that they are given nothing at all to do in the hours that they are kept in the cells. One boy said he was

“staring at the walls, it was completely blank cell it is like the most boring thing in the world multiplied by 100 there were no colours, nothing to look at.”

Another shocking finding of the HMIC report is the levels of strip search being used on children, and especially on children who are from black and ethnic minorities. Research by Children’s Rights Alliance England shows that numbers of strip search has doubled in the years between 2008 – 2013; alarmingly 45 per cent of the children stripped by the police have their clothes removed without their appropriate adult present or even being made aware.

The fact that strip searches are being used disproportionately against black and ethnic minority children makes it even more galling. A graph from the HMIC report emphasises the point — not only are African-Caribbean people more likely to end up in custody, but also: “BAME groups were significantly more likely than their white counterparts to die following the use of restraint.”

As those who had been detained pointed out to the HMIC Inspectors, strip searches are, by their very nature, “undignified and degrading”.

The UNCRC requires that children in trouble with the law are “treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child’s sense of dignity and worth.”  The HMIC report found: “In light of the research information available to us coupled with the lack of authoritative police data, we consider that police forces are at considerable risk of discriminatory strip-searching practices.”

The 1999 Macpherson report, following the death of Stephen Lawrence, suggested measures to tackle institutional police racism. It is disheartening that still, 16 years later, there is persistent evidence that BAME people in contact with the police are at risk of discriminatory treatment.

In the last year the Home Secretary has ackowledged the discriminatory and ineffective use of stop and search. The same must now  be recognised about strip-searches.  We believe  they must be used only as a last resort and regulatory practices and data collection must ensure that even then they are used  in an even-handed way.

In a further depressing finding the HMIC report found that examples of good practices of treatment of young and vulnerable people by the police seemed to depend only on individual officers’ own experiences, “rather than being able to refer to official training or guidance”.

The report stated:

“A significant finding from this inspection is that police officers are trying to respond to children and those suffering from mental health crises in an environment and with policing tools, skills and knowledge that are wholly unsuited to the task.”

In light of investigations such as the one in Rotherham, it is frightening to think that, despite all child protection rules, despite local safeguarding boards and all other protection that are in place to ensure children’s welfare is at the forefront of any interaction with a child, some police officers are still treating children as if they were adult criminals.

The HMIC report stresses that “children who were charged with a crime did not always fully understand the nature of the alleged offence due to the technical language used by officers”. This chimes with our experience of children in the criminal justice system.

HMIC found that many of those detained were uncertain of their rights and entitlements and this caused “anxiety and stress for participants who were entering custody for the first time. It also inhibited some children from asking for entitlements, such as a blanket, while detained.”

One of my greatest concerns as a lawyer for children is seeing the number of children who don’t exercise their right to legal advice at the police station: the young people we work with say that often the police actively discourage them from having a solicitor, telling them it will only delay their getting out of the police station.

At Just for Kids Law, we provide not only legal representation but we try to look at the whole person and providing support, advice and representation to children in every area of their life that may be difficult. When we see systemic failures in the system we lobby and fight for changes in the law.

The mainstream media portrays children in trouble with law as threat, menace, and evil. What we mostly see is a vulnerable child trying to navigate their way through an often unjust and baffling adult world.

As responsible adults, we must remember and accept that we all embarked on a journey to become responsible, considered human beings, we weren’t born considered or mature. We are constraining the development of those who are trying to become adult human beings if we do not recognize that they too are on that journey. We cannot expect children and young people to be mature until they grow into it – just as most of us believe in evolution not creationism.

I find it frightening that children are not allowed to be children and are expected to comply with the rules of adult society despite not having the biological, emotional or neurological development to make the responsible, mature, considered choices.

I remember a discussion with a right wing think tank who wanted the UK to lower the age of criminal responsibility. At that time my son aged 3 was going through a “biting phase”. My son definitely knew what it was wrong to bite – the standard that some argue for setting  criminal responsibility-  but if we were to hold a 3 year old to the same account that we would hold an adult who bit strangers accountable for his actions, he would have been not only criminalised but perhaps even incarcerated for his ‘assault’ of another person.

We believe that bad behaviour by children, while not being condoned, should belong in a special category – different from the system that is used to criminalise mature adults. It has always made economic sense to respond to the welfare and needs of children rather than to pursue criminal retribution, but the economic argument has never held much import.

The same week that HMIC published its depressing report Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation reported that at  the other end of the criminal justice system, release from custody that the “re-offending outcomes” for many children  were ‘poor’.

The inspectors wrote: “very often the support to help these children to successfully stop offending and start new law abiding lives had not been good enough.”

Reoffending rates for children who have been in custody remain stubbornly close to 70 per cent while the cost of detaining these children is at least double the cost of the UK’s most exclusive  private boarding schools.

If the system is failing children in trouble at every point, perhaps it is time for a new system. We need to find an approach which can see them as children first and show them the compassion that they deserve and that any of us would want for our own children.

Two reports

The welfare of vulnerable people in police custody, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, March 2015, is here.  

Joint thematic inspection of resettlement services to children by Youth Offending Teams and partner agencies reflects the findings of HM Inspectorate of Probation, the Care Quality Commission and Ofsted, 12 March 2015, can be accessed here.

The cartoon is from the Just for Kids Law stop & search video.


Sideboxes Related stories:  3 police officers forcibly strip a vulnerable child without calling her mum. Is that all right? Our youth justice system's fatal flaw: it is harming children Many thousands of children stripped naked in custody. Ignites memories of being raped Who is speaking for Britain's children and young people?: a challenge to the children’s sector Politicians are failing our children on a grand scale Strip-searched in Derbyshire Criminalised, vulnerable, and likely to re-offend: Will this government help young offenders in England and Wales? Pregnant teenager imprisoned for failing to keep appointments with her supervisor We in the UK punish girls for being vulnerable ‘We changed the law to save children’s lives’
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openDemocracy writers longlisted for Orwell Prize

28. March 2015 - 0:00

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi and Clare Sambrook are among 15 writers in contention for one of journalism’s highest honours.

George Orwell

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi, who has exposed the impact of government policy on ordinary lives, has been longlisted for the Orwell Prize for political journalism.

Also longlisted is Clare Sambrook, who edits openDemocracy’s Shine a Light project, exposing injustice, challenging official lying, and providing intelligence and ammunition to people working for policy change.

Rebecca Omonira-OyekanmiOmonira-Oyekanmi’s prize submission gives voice to single parents struggling to survive in Austerity Britain and to women incarcerated at Yarl’s Wood detention centre. The work investigates the mistreatment of insecure tenants and the prevalence of institutional racism within the mental health service.

Published online and in print, Omonira-Oyekanmi’s work appears in openDemocracy, Lacuna, the New Statesman, The Friend and Socialist Lawyer, with original illustrations by Patrick Koduah and Lottie Stoddart.

Clare Sambrook’s scoop “Nice work: G4S wins $118 million Guantánamo contract” was followed by The Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, and the Daily Mail, and provoked a complaint from Reprieve to the UK government.

Among other articles in Sambrook’s Orwell submission Fail and prosper: how privatisation really works exposes waste, greed and dishonesty in the privatisation of public services and the PFI fiasco.

Clare SambrookThe racist texts; What the Mubenga trial jury was not told presents some of the violent racist material found in possession of two of the three G4S guards who were cleared of the manslaughter of Jimmy Mubenga.

From hundreds of entries, the Orwell judges selected 12 books, 15 journalists, and 14 pieces of social reporting to be considered for three Orwell Prizes. All three longlists follow below. 

Lara Pawson, who explored Britain’s relationship with Angola on openDemocracy after Jimmy Mubenga’s unlawful killing, is longlisted for the Orwell book prize for: In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre.

Shortlists will be announced on Tuesday 21 April.

A new Orwell Youth Prize remains open to entries until Thursday 30 April 2015. Anyone aged 14 to 18 who is at school or college, from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales may apply.

The theme is: Exposing a lie. Young writers may be guided by George Orwell’s words from Why I Write:

When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”



Orwell Prize Longlists: Book Prize:
  • Jamie Bartlett, THE DARK NET (William Heinemann)
  • John Campbell, ROY JENKINS (Jonathan Cape)
  • Rana Dasgupta, CAPITAL: THE ERUPTION OF DELHI (Canongate)
  • Nick Davies, HACK ATTACK (Chatto & Windus)
  • Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, REVOLT ON THE RIGHT (Routledge)
  • Zia Haider Rahman, IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT WE KNOW (Pan Macmillan)
  • David Kynaston, MODERNITY BRITAIN (Bloomsbury)
  • Louisa Lim, THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF AMNESIA (Oxford University Press)
  • David Marquand, MAMMON’S KINGDOM: AN ESSAY ON BRITAIN, NOW (Penguin)


Journalism Prize:
  • Ian Birrell, Mail On Sunday, The Guardian
  • Rosie Blau, The Economist
  • Martin Chulov, The Guardian
  • David Gardner, The Financial Times
  • Anthony Loyd, The Times
  • James Meek, London Review of Books
  • Suzanne Moore, The Guardian
  • Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi,, Lacuna, New Statesman
  • Melanie Phillips, The Times, The Spectator
  • David Pilling, Financial Times
  • Steve Richards, The Independent
  • Mary Riddell, The Daily Telegraph
  • Peter Ross, Scotland on Sunday
  • Clare Sambrook,
  • Kim Sengupta, The Independent


Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils:
  • George Arbuthnott, Slaves in peril on the sea
  • Lucy Bannerman, FGM: Child abuse that’s gone mainstream
  • Michael Buchanan and Andy McNicoll, Mental health crisis
  • Aditya Chakrabortty and Guardian team, London’s housing crisis
  • Steve Connor, The lost girls
  • Edward Docx, Walking with Karl
  • Alison Holt, Care of the elderly and vulnerable
  • Nick Mathiason, A great British housing crisis
  • Lindsay Pantry, Loneliness: The hidden epidemic
  • Lindsay Poulton and Guardian team, The shirt on your backs
  • Randeep Ramesh, Casino-style gambling
  • Louise Tickle, Domestic abuse: How victims are failed by society and the state
  • Times team, Secrets of Britain’s teen terror trade uncovered
  • Mark Townsend, Serco: A hunt for the truth inside Yarl’s Wood
Sideboxes Related stories:  Black and dangerous? Listening to patients’ experiences of mental health services in London Lampedusa: Never again Down the rabbit hole: Single parenthood in austerity Britain Rats in the lunchbox, mould in the mattress: living in squalor in London Refugee women in the UK: fighting back from behind bars The racist texts. What the Mubenga trial jury was not told Fail and prosper: how privatisation really works Nice work: G4S wins $118 million Guantánamo contract Gove's own Operation Trojan Horse: the privatisation of our schools Man, 84, dies handcuffed in hospital: UK border control by the GEO Group One Man, Two Guvnors: the conflict at the heart of British justice One life in investigative journalism
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The good, the bad and the ugly: when SYRIZA meets Europe

27. March 2015 - 21:29

The EU has shown three simultaneous faces to Greece: ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’, to use a cinematic metaphor, all of them with the same message but with a different delivery package

Logo of the movie, 1966. Wikicommons/MGM.Some rights reserved.Symbolism is an essential part of politics and it often matters more than reality. The key for political elites is to send the right message at the right time and that gains them support and popularity.

In Greece, SYRIZA took the first position in the January 2014 elections on the promise of “dignity and hope”, irrespective of whether the government had a realistic plan to handle one of the most difficult crises of modern Greece.  As such, one of the pre-electoral promises of SYRIZA was to end the Troika in Greece. 

Once in power, one of the first actions of the new government was renaming the “Troika” as “institutions”, a rather sensationalist way of removing a charged term from the Greek crisis vocabulary; this was indeed hugely symbolic for the majority of Greeks because the Troika has been associated with a perceived “colonial” presence of creditors’ techno(auto)crats, regularly monitoring and subsequently demanding more austerity measures and sacrifices by the Greek people.

“But it is not pure symbolism” SYRIZA would swiftly respond: renaming the creditors resulted in different rules of engagement, dealing with them separately and changing the locations of meetings in Athens. Moreover, renaming the Troika was thought to be a ‘Greek’ way of deconstructing the forceful Triumvirate of auditors representing the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF who, since 2010, have been carrying out regular checks to see if Greece is sticking to its commitments under the bailout agreements.

While the change of labelling has been accepted by the creditors, this has not changed the reality of regular checks and the full expectation that the new government has to respect its obligations to them, irrespective. And what clearly unites all institutions is deep distrust towards what they see as a government which fails to convince on its will to proceed with reforms and stick to its agreements.

Since the election of the new government, it has become evident, in the various levels of bilateral and multilateral interaction, that Greece fights a lonely war against the three institutions - a solitary struggle vis a vis the rest of the Eurozone members, and it would appear vis a vis the members of the EU. So much so that even Greece’s ‘comrades’ in the hard-hit Eurozone periphery, have become, for their own domestic purposes, the most vociferous opponents of SYRIZA’s new claims.

Moreover, the revised and more promising forecasts for Europe’s economies are alienating Greece further from the wider European mainstream. They magnify the symbolism of ‘Greek exceptionalism’ and resurrect the rhetoric used in 2009 and 2012,  when Greece was seen as a unique case of economic malaise threatening to spread its infection across Europe. Now, the creditors point to Spain’s export-led recovery, Portugal’s exit from the bailout, Ireland’s promising economic growth and Cyprus’ disciplined stance. This leaves Greece as the odd one out, the pariah country, the lonely ‘resistance fighter’ and the whole debate of a “Grexit” or “Graccident” returns with a vengeance. Greece has ‘partners’ in the EU, but not ‘allies’.

Looming Graccident

Yet, how united is the European bloc against Greece in this critical moment of looming Graccident? One of the unintended consequences of the unilateral abolition of the Troika, and its replacement by the institutions, is that in some ways it threatens to expose potential differences between the institutions. And while there is a generic unity among them on the grounds that Greece has to respect previous agreements and that it cannot get free funding, at the same time there are some subtle differences as to how to address the Greek problem. During the first difficult months of negotiations between Greece and the EU, the latter has shown three simultaneous faces to Greece: ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’, to use a cinematic metaphor, all of them with the same message but with a different delivery package.

The ‘good face of Europe’ is that of the European Commission - a traditional ally of the weaker and smaller states, but which during recent, more difficult years has placed itself in the back seat of the German car. The new President of the European Commission is trying to change this image of a weak Commission and aims at clawing power back to Brussels with a louder and more independent message in European and world politics. The fact that the President was elected by the European Parliament gives further legitimacy to his goals and his authority.

On the Greek crisis, President Juncker showed from the beginning his philhellenic face, receiving Prime Minister Tsipras in Brussels as a friend, and regularly expressing his determination that Greece stays in the Eurozone. He would certainly not like to go down in history as the leader of the Commission who presided over the disintegration of the Eurozone. Moreover, Juncker wants to show that he appreciates the severity of the humanitarian crisis, and has earmarked 2 billion in EU cash to address this grave social matter.

The ‘bad face of Europe’ is presented by those who decide how to disburse the funds - the European Central Bank and the Eurogroup - both of whom are adopting a hard stance vis a vis Greece. The leader of the ECB, Mario Draghi, refused to extend more credit to Greece without a programme, while the head of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, has hinted that Greece might have to impose controls on the movement of capital, which is what happened with Cyprus in 2013 and what induced them to sign their bailout agreement. The image of the ‘bad’ comes from those who take decisions on Greece’s liquidity and cash flow aimed at squeezing and blackmailing Greeks to stick to their programme. It also reflects a growing anger with Greeks for being unruly and wanting to get cash without strings attached.

The ‘ugly face of Europe’ is projected by those who do not fear a “Grexit” and are even considering this as a possibility. They are represented by Germany’s Economy Minister Schauble, a politician who speaks bluntly, who makes inflammatory and intrusive political statements and who has adopted a moralising discourse vis a vis Greece’s spendthrift past. Schauble represents those who are fed up with Greece’s shenanigans. Not moved by the social and humanitarian implications of Greece’s economic depression, he is convinced that austerity and reform is the ideal strategy for Greek recovery and is not moved by the outcomes of democratic elections, especially when these result in proposed amendments to the agreements. While no one doubts that he is a man of principle and European credentials, many criticise his obstinacy and ideological rigidity. The ugly face of Europe believes that the European economy is perfectly prepared to survive a “Grexit” and if it happens it will be Greece that will come off the worst from it.

These three narratives send three mixed messages of contained compassion, blackmail and outright negativity and come from a European Union which is itself struggling to find a common position on Greece, a struggle which only results in further cacophony and ambiguity.

The Greek version

The Greek government uses these three images for its internal consumption and public rhetoric. On the one hand, it refers to Juncker’s benign solicitude as the guarantee that Europeans would never allow Greece to exit from the Eurozone. Then, the Greek government refers to the ECB’s ‘bad’ narrative as a heartless strategy which is wringing the life out of Greece in its moment of need; Greece is, according to this, a victim of European blackmail. As for the ‘ugly’, it evokes patriotic and heroic reflexes, bringing back memories of the Nazi occupation and debts that were never paid by the Germans. To the good, bad and the ugly, SYRIZA is staging a threefold response - Europeanised with the Commission, victimised with the European Central Bank and adversarial and patriotic vis a vis Schauble’s Germany. Greek leaders are trapped between these three discourses, sending confusing messages, speaking multiple languages and addressing rather different audiences.

But the Greek government is not simply reacting to these three narratives. The SYRIZA-ANEL coalition reproduces them as a mirror image of Europe, used partially for internal consumption and at the same time as a strategy abroad. The ‘good face’ of the government is represented by those within SYRIZA who are committed europeanists: they seek a compromise and hold a more pragmatic approach to Greece’s ability to negotiate from a weak, even desperate, position. This stance is represented by such politicians as Deputy Prime Minister Yannis Dragasakis or Minister of Development Giorgos Stathakis, who avoid confrontational remarks and represent the moderate faction of SYRIZA. The ‘bad face’ of the Greek government is represented by the more rigid politicians within SYRIZA, the hardliners who are ideologically commited to their left wing roots, some of them even daring to speak of a plan B, exit from the euro and the return to the drachma. Finally, the ‘ugly face’ of the Greek government is borne by those who have adopted what they see as a heroic and ultra-patriotic discourse, represented by the leader of ANEL and Minister of Defence Panos Kamenos. They make incendiary statements against Germany, threatening that Greece will enter the Russian camp as a plan B, and that Greece will flood Germany with immigrants and Islamist Jihadists.

Muddling image

Each of these three discourses resonate with the various domestic audiences, but taken together they become incomprehensible to external audiences. Because these narratives come from both sides of the spectrum, Europe and Greece, they only contribute to further cacophony and ambiguity, either of a constructive or destructive nature. It is not clear which.

For there are three outcomes in this fight between Greece and the EU, three scenarios that can happen: one good, one bad and one ugly. The good scenario is that somehow Greece, through its reform list, will reassure the world that it has honourable and credible intentions and this will lead to a compromise that could be acceptable to both sides, allowing the Greek government to get the funding that it so desperately needs, and the creditors to claim that the Greek government has shown its will to cooperate.

The bad scenario is the one that brings Greece to the brink of economic asphyxia, a capital control a la Cyprus and a humiliating defeat for the Greek government, which could have longer term repercussions on the government’s external credibility and internal legitimacy. This is a bad scenario because it alienates Greece from its partners and the partners from Greece and paves the way for many bitter feelings in the future.

The ugly scenario is the one of “Grexit”, where Greece will have to manage a forced exit from the Eurozone leaving the Greek economy years behind and leading to political instability; this could also have wider repercussions for the coherence of Europe and the Eurozone. And this is neither the right moment, nor the right place for such an ugly turn of events. Let us hope in the often ugly real world of populism and antagonisms that the good scenario prevails, and that the ‘good guys’ from either side win the day. Let us hope that the bad guys are turned around and the ugly voices marginalised and disappeared. This would indeed bring back the symbolism of hope and dignity based on credible narratives for a country, its economy and its society, that deserves to be back on track.

Country or region:  Greece EU
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