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Updated: 2 hours 29 min ago

The presidential election and linguistic violence in Tunisia

7 hours 14 min ago

The leading presidential candidates and some of their supporters are setting a bad example with hostile, exclusionist rhetoric, fuelling a tense political atmosphere.

First round election results. Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.

One of the striking achievements of Tunisians in the post-revolution era was the adoption of a consensual democratic constitution, securing freedom of expression and free choice of the country’s rulers. The first round of the presidential election, held on 23 November 2014, was a historical opportunity to incarnate the sacrosanct principle of people’s sovereignty, an occasion for Tunisians to freely choose the most competent leader from among the 27 presidential candidates.

Heavy citizen participation in the election—62.9 percent of the total electorate—contributed to the success of Tunisia’s nascent democracy. The results revealed a sharp break with the past, with the grim days of dictatorship when one unrivalled candidate won the majority of votes.

The elections showed that Tunisians’ attitudes toward the choice of their leader have changed. Two candidates made it to the second round: Beji Kaid Essebsi (88 years old) came first with 39.46 percent of the votes, and Mohamed Moncef Marzouki (69 years old) second with 33.43 percent.

The margin between the two candidates did not exceed six percent. Such a result indicates clearly enough the integrity and the reliability of the electoral process, as well as Tunisians’ refusal to align themselves with one single person, and their faith in political pluralism as the only viable substitute for repugnant unilateralism.

However, the sense of relief felt in the hearts of Tunisians after assuming their political and electoral duties in an atmosphere of transparency and freedom did not last long. The public speeches of the two winners in the first round, along with the statements made by their respective partisans, proved to be neither reassuring nor encouraging. Both politicians and supporters went so far as to condemn the voters for choosing this or that candidate, making the voter a victim of voicing his or her political point of view.

For example, Beji Kaid Essebsi, who commented on the election results in an interview with the announcer Jean-Jacques Bordan of radio Monte Carlo, claims that those who opted for Marzouki are Salafists, Jihadists, and violent members of the League of Protection of the Revolution. Essebsi added, "unfortunately, there will be a sharp division, a sharp chasm in the texture of our society between Islamists on one level and Democrats and non-Islamists on another."

Describing the electoral behavior in such a manner can only split the electorate in a Manichean way into two groups. The first comprises the supporters of Marzouki (about one million and 92 thousand voters) who are invariably qualified as extremists and heretics. The second includes Essibsi’s supporters who are charged with being accomplices of the Ben Ali regime. Judging part of the electorate by putting them in one basket called "Salafism and extremism" is categorically exclusionist.

Essebsi forgot that there are no detailed statistical data issued by authoritative bodies in relation to the ideological affiliations of the supporters of the acting president. In fact, they come from different intellectual and cultural backgrounds. Many observers have depicted them as a mosaic of Tunisian society. Among them we find ideologues and non-ideologues, heretics and modernists, partisans and non-partisans of political parties, religious groups and secular elites, liberals and conservatives.

These voters cannot be grouped under the banner of one ideology. Moreover, the classification of voters into two categories, Islamists and democrats, is improper as it leads to the division of Tunisians on the basis of ideological allegiances. Division engenders polarisation and exclusion in a nascent democracy. Conversely, the tendency to claim that one candidate is committed heart and soul to the protection of democracy while the other is its eternal foe is undeniably illogical.

Tunisians have chosen a democratic political system, thereby electing the peaceful handover of power as a substitute for the coup d’état. This is why they walked to the polling centers to cast their votes for one candidate. Their hope is to erect the solid pillars of the civil state. Their simple dream is to safeguard political pluralism.

In a political environment pervaded by verbal violence, a university professor and a partisan of Nidaa Tounes downgraded the supporters of Marzouki as scum. The heightening of political tension has led to this escalation of linguistic violence and in turn to a state of social anger. Language has the potential and the energy to propel people into action and reaction.

Thousands of Tunisians walked to the streets in popular rallies to express their dissatisfaction with Essebsi and his biting comments, defending their freedom to vote for the man of their choice. They carried slogans picturing themselves not as terrorists but as civilians. Their chief argument is that they elected Marzouki in in the first round on the grounds that he presented a more promising electoral manifesto. He seems for them more convincing owing to their confidence in his democratic project and his achievements as a defender of human rights.

As regards Marzouki’s assets and the nature of those who elected him, Abdel Moneim Mabrouky, a Tunisian resident in Washington, comments on his Facebook page:

"I live in the heart of western modernity and cherish its values of liberty and independence. I love openness and hate fanaticism. I find much pleasure in drinking wine, and I voted for Marzouki because he is a defender of human and civil rights. He safeguards the right to difference and pluralism."

Likewise, Phaedra Motahari wrote on her Facebook page: "I chose Marzuki not because I love him, but because of his call for and commitment to the consecration of democracy, and the preservation of the gains of the revolution".

Huda Idris, a university professor, also said:

"I earned a PhD. degree and speak four languages. I studied in Tunisian universities. I love movies and travel...I'm not a Salafist, and I elected Marzouki because of my confidence in his modernist electoral project."

Against this backdrop, we can see how citizens, by electing the candidate they trust, exercise their freedom of choice, and consider the election not only a right but also a duty that cannot be confiscated and manipulated by any party.

From another angle, Mohamed Moncef Marzouki’s electoral campaign is overshadowed by a variety of abuses and linguist violence. His political discourse has provoked both his political rival and his partisans. On their Facebook pages, Marzouki’s supporters have reiterated a whole host of phrases and statements laden with epithets disparaging Beji Kaid Essebsi as an ugly “traitor,” “ a secret agent,” “a dinosaur,” “a dictator,” and “a mummy.”

Such appellations certainly fall short of providing substantive and objective evaluations of Essebsi’s electoral program and political performance. They are limited to superficial readings of his long political career, readings that revolve only around the demonisation of a presidential candidate rather than around a critical assessment of his skills and defects.

In an interview with France24 on 25 November 2014, Marzouki said: "The accomplices of the dissolved autocratic system of the Democratic Constitutional Rally supported Essebsi." No doubt, such a view requires relativisation. It is true that a significant number of those who voted for the candidate of Nida Tounes are partisans of the old regime. However, many of them are real opponents. Within their ranks, we find Liberals, Nationalists, Leftists, and Bourguibists who backed up aji Caidr Essebsi because of their dismay at the political and economic performance of the Troika coalition government in the transitional period. It follows naturally that one cannot classify all voters as partisans of the ex-regime.

Marzouki went further to proclaim, "the final victory of Beji will push the country towards the brink of political instability." Such an assertion can fall only in the category of psychological intimidation, the ultimate purpose of which is to frighten the electorate of a political rival.

It would be more beneficial for Marzouki to explain the risks that Tunisia may confront if Essebsi ultimately wins the election, including the risks linked to his age, to his complicity with old regime, and to the possibility of the country’s regression to tyranny. Instead, his public speeches were characterized by psychological intimidation that transformed Essebsi into a bogeyman and obliterated his achievements. Despite his flaws one cannot possibly forget his active contribution to the success of the watershed elections of 23 October 2011.

After the declaration of the results of the first round of the election, some of Marzouki’s supporters opted for the tactic of inciting Tunisian southerners against northerners, because the latter voted for Essebsi. But Tunisians have rejected calls to push the country toward civil strife. Currently, there exists a widespread refusal of the political rhetoric calling for revenge and the persecution of those who are nicknamed the old regime’s henchmen. Today, Tunisians know well that the mere recourse to Manichean discourse foreshadows fomenting strife, the division of the country due to regional conflicts, potential threats to social peace, and the failure of the nascent democratic experience.

The majority of Tunisians perceive the election as an assertion of existence and an act of self-expression, thereby turning the Cartesian cogito ergo sum into "I elect, therefore I am". They can no longer accept any control of their minds, any censorship of their thoughts, and any standardisation of their electoral behaviour. it will be better if politicians appropriate the kind of socio-political consciousness which citizens have gained by respecting their right to vote for the presidential candidate of their choice.

It is vital that politicians hone their awareness of what ought to be said, and when, where, and how to speak. It is crucial that they recognise that apologising to the citizens is part and parcel of decorum. It is essential that they know when language should be channelled and utilised to consolidate national union. They should take into account that political rhetoric has, inevitably, strong effects on the masses. But most of all it is quintessential that they acknowledge that that the chilly logic of exclusion and counter-exclusion can in no way boost democratic coexistence. It can only destroy national unity and facilitate the deviation of political life from the peaceful competition for power to intolerance and anarchy.

If the two presidential candidates really take into consideration the welfare of all Tunisians in their respective political agendas, they have to use language positively. They have to send clear messages reassuring Tunisians. The man who will rule Tunisia ought to appear in the image of a president who does not differentiate between people, but who brings them together under the blue sky of the same country, under the banner of freedom and the right to difference rather than under deceptive slogans of the God-leader who claims to possess the absolute truth.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The decline of political Islam in Tunisia Tunisia: elections, justice and dignity Tunisia’s forthcoming elections: transition at risk and arms sales won’t rescue Tunisia's elections: consolidating democracy Country or region:  Tunisia Topics:  Democracy and government
Categories: les flux rss

We promise you an operetta

7 hours 16 min ago

The development of Egypt's military-brand nationalism over the past year can be traced in a series of formulaic, epic 'operettas'.

Still shot from the music video of the operetta 'Benwa'dak' (We Promise You).

The turmoil of the past year has produced its own mawkish soundtrack, a genre of music rather grandiosely called “operettas” that has been the go-to format for lionizing the state. As initially exemplified by the Nasser era “El Watan El Akbar” (The Great Homeland), the operetta has travelled onwards past the corruption of that once lofty ideal towards the glorification of the individual-as-the-state, as seen with the 90’s era ode to Hosni Mubarak “Ekhtarnah” (We Chose Him).

These operettas follow a set formula, and nowadays usually feature Z-list singers/people nobody has ever heard of with a smattering of more famous faces. Usually quickly cobbled together to address a particular moment in time, it gives the impression that, aside from the time constraints, perhaps the producers were working with a limited budget, like a beef burger made out of 40 percent meat and 60 percent textured vegetable protein.

The most famous and high pedigree operetta of recent times was “Teslam El Ayyady” (Bless the Hands), a paean to the armed forces. Its video featured pop singers triumphantly warbling in a recording studio interspersed with stock footage of Egyptian army manoeuvres. (Then) Field Marshall (now President) Abdel Fattah El Sisi was the star of this show, and the song was released at the height of Sisi mania in July 2013, shortly after the removal of then President Mohamed Morsi by the army following mass popular demonstrations against him.

Teslam El Ayyady was the money shot of its era, a lurid joy explosion. Its insistent, catchy refrain assaulted Egyptians everywhere they went, spreading the good news that the country had been saved even as Egypt descended into an ever-worsening cycle of violence and bombings. Its function, like all nationalist songs, was to rally under the flag, unify and glorify, while ensuring that inconvenient nuances of truth and reality got drowned out in the fanfare, a sort of jolly historical revisionism. Because music is made to transport us, after all, and perhaps nothing does this more effectively than a woman in pink lipstick screeching about soldiers set against images of heavy artillery.

Teslam El Ayyady has given birth to a thousand mutant children, all much of a muchness and bound together by the common theme of short-changing on the truth, barrel thumping and enthusiasm about all things military. All these songs are characterised by a certain amount of fantasy and wishful thinking – in keeping with the times – as well as a presentation of the Egyptian people as a monolithic, homogenous bloc confronting a threat from a dangerous alien being that has insidiously wormed its way into the fabric of Egyptian society.

Veteran pop songstress Angham’s “Mesh Men Baladna” (Not from our Country) puts this most bluntly with its refrain, “Not from our country/he who sells security/not of our children/he who buys from the devil”. Egypt is a nation obsessed with, and terrified of, the other. As a friend puts it, “Egyptians have a unique view of individuality: it’s fine as long as we all do it together”.

In this Egypt that allows no difference, minorities – by which is meant anyone who doesn’t conform to accepted norms be they cultural, religious or otherwise – are constantly having to negotiate and justify their position within wider Egyptian society. This becomes fascinating when the minorities themselves adopt the language of the mainstream.

Have a look at this song, “Benwa'dak” (We Promise You), which appeared on a Facebook page called “A Million Brave Christians”.

The song is described on the page as “splendid…the first song from the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt dedicated to Egypt and the Egyptian army”. Adopting the operetta formula, it features the usual singing heads interspersed with horrid images of violence. The heads appear in front of a giant map of Egypt. Next to them are two cardboard cutouts of a church steeple next to a mosque dome with a cross plastered on one and the obligatory crescent on the other (Christian imagery meanwhile is largely entirely absent from mainstream Egyptian culture other than in state propaganda videos informing Egyptians that they are united and indivisible in the fantasy world discussed above, whether they like it or not).

In between the cardboard cutouts is a familiar trope in Egyptian propaganda: Egypt as a woman. This video adopts the traditional imagery of a young woman with flowing dark hair in a dress (during the Morsi era cartoonists put her in a hegab). In this case the woman’s dress is made out of the Egyptian flag, which the woman/Egypt is sadly repairing while her eye sheds a tear. She also pricks her fingers, drawing blood and in the process driving home the message in case you missed it: Egypt is in pain.

“Finally you have come back to us after an absence,” the lyrics say. “Once again we feel that you are a loving mother, when before you were a stepmother,” they continue. Nothing unusual so far, but then the next line says “That’s why Egypt, if they try to set fire to you, they won’t burn the churches, we will sacrifice ourselves for you”.

Here then is a Christian Egypt symbolised by the church. The lyrics go on to lament those that have lost their lives, “on the border or in a protest…or innocent people whose blood flowed in front of a church, martyred during a wedding or a religious celebration”.

But it is the plaintive next line of the song that reflects a latent misalignment with the status quo. “Be very kind to all your children, don’t treat them differently. Muslim or Christian, any religion, it doesn’t make any difference.” It is at this point that what started out as a celebration, and whose title promises us citizens making pledges to the state, momentarily turns into something very different: a thinly-veiled entreaty stuffed into the nationalist mix.

“Look after all the people, whether in a mosque or a monastery. Al-Azhar or the [Coptic Orthodox] cathedral, there’s not much of a difference”, the song continues. Perhaps the “loving mother” isn’t so loving after all, if an appeal like this has to be sent. While not exactly subversive, “We Promise You” is a manipulation of the Sisi-era operetta format that points a timid finger at the state even as it glorifies it.

This piece was originally published on the blog of music website Dandin on 8 December, 2014.

Sideboxes Related stories:  General El Sisi and the red sword From Strongman to Superman: Sisi the saviour of Egypt Copts in El Sisi's Egypt Egypt's liberal coup? Country or region:  Egypt Topics:  Culture
Categories: les flux rss

Blocked! How the Firewall of Britain is censoring the Internet

8 hours 24 min ago

Internet filters in Britain are blocking charities and feminist websites...

Last week the website of Chaos Computer Club, a European association of hackers who run the immense annual Chaos Communications Congress event, was blocked by parental filters on Vodafone, Virgin and Three. Although some access to CCC has been returned, if you are in the UK you still won’t have access to many sites, such as Pregnancy Sickness Support, Everlasting Flowers or, depending on who your Internet Service Provider is.

Filters in the UK are default-on for mobile phones but are opt-in on ISPS- albeit they attempt to nudge parents into accepting. They may seem like a good idea, but in reality filters block much more than they are supposed to.

CCC suggested that they were victims to extremist blocking in the UK. However, it is likely that it was the use of the word ‘hacking’, a category several Broadband providers block for under-18s, that was the cause. CCC write about computer skills and education, much of it aimed at young people; it might be edgy, but it is highly debatable that it is adult-only.

Although the ISPs were told by David Cameron to set up filters to stop the smutty, what actually gets blocked can seem all too random, especially when some services don’t tell you why a site has been blocked. Had Vodafone provided a tool that told you why they block, we wouldn’t have to speculate on what happened to Chaos Computer Club.

Britain has many levels of web blocking and online censorship. Firstly, illegal child abuse images are blocked, based on lists produced by the Internet Watch Foundation. Then there are court orders which rule that specific websites (around 100) must be blocked, usually for copyright reasons. But the filters that affected CCC are those that block legal content. Introduced as ‘one-click to safety’ by David Cameron in 2013, the Government persuaded Internet Service Providers to implement filters, which block ‘adult content’ at the network level, and once opted-in there is one level of access per household.

Although that initial announcement was sold as preventing minors accessing pornography, they inevitably included a range of other categories: from alcohol and gambling to dating and blogging. Just a few weeks ago the Government put the pressure on to expand the filters again into ‘extremist material’. He said in his announcement, "In the UK we are pushing them [ISPs] to do more, including strengthening filters" proving once again that if a censoring mechanism is set up it will be used to enforce the Government’s world view.

Filtering is more complex than just switching off access to anything mildly questionable. This is where the randomness factor sets in. It’s left to the judgement of largely foreign companies, to whom the filtering task is outsourced, as to how to categorise sites. However, human communications cannot be easily divided into the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’. The result of ambiguity is ‘over-blocking’, where sites are filtered out through key word misunderstandings, and ‘under-blocking’, where actual porn is undetected.

The problem we face here is the lack of transparency over web filtering;  there is no oversight around blocking and no review process.

CCC is in a privileged position, despite being censored. With the support of advocates like BoingBoing and the media their site was switched back on by Vodafone on the 7th December, just days after reporting the problem. But smaller sites are less lucky, especially if they don’t know that they’re blocked. Each ISP applies their filtering differently. A business owner who has Virgin on her computer doesn’t know her website is being blocked on BT. If she’s not a customer of theirs she’ll have no easy redress to get the block removed. Even if she was a customer, they often unhelpfully suggest that she adds the site to her exclusion list – which is only effective on that computer.

What Open Rights Group is doing is seeking to expose the filtering, and campaign for free speech online. This year ORG volunteers built Based on free software, the website allows you to type in a URL and check whether or not it is blocked by any of the UK’s mobile networks and most of the UK’s home broadband networks.

One particular concern was that because many charities work to respond to issues surrounding dugs, sex education, smoking, mental health and abuse, their websites would contain keywords likely to be blocked. Using Blocked we found that at least 54 registered charities in Scotland have websites that are blocked by one or more of the main UK ISPs.

These include the Say Women project in Glasgow which offers: "safe, supported accommodation and related services for young women, aged 16-25 years, who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, rape or sexual.”A Dundee equalities project called Different Visions Celebrate that works with Under 25's "who have any issues or concerns due to their sexuality or the sexuality of a family member" was also blocked. We’ve even seen a lot of sites relating to feminism blocked, and in July 2014 Three blocked a piece on maternity leave in Jezebel.

As long as filtering is pushed out by the Government we will continue to see more and more websites censored. There needs to be a legal framework, not a behind closed doors policy in which David Cameron or Theresa May can add a new type of site to be blocked in the UK every week. If you would like to get involved, please share our Blocked tool, and find out if your website is blocked in the UK.

Categories: les flux rss

Speaking truth about the BBC and power

8 hours 24 min ago

The BBC has never championed 'speaking truth to power' and its capacity for critical journalism is weaker than ever.

In a talk at King’s College, London on 25 November 2014, a version of which was published on OurKingdom, the former BBC World Service reporter Roger Hardy reflected on the war which during his 25 years of journalism was 'by far the most difficult and the most painful': the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Over a decade has now passed, but the people of the Middle East are still living with, and dying from, the consequences of that illegal invasion. The key culprits here remain at large, but their crimes are not forgotten. For Roger Hardy—as for those British elites whose credibility was damaged by the invasion, as well as the subsequent failure to effectively colonise the country—the whole bloody episode is remembered as a monumental 'strategic blunder'. It was certainly that. But from another (parochially British) perspective, the invasion can also be seen as one of a series of scandals which exposed, and entrenched, the public's profound alienation from, and disenchantment with, the institutions of power in this country.

The news media—one such institution which would be shaken by further crises—blatantly failed to live up to its notional role as a source of accurate information and a watchdog of the powerful. This is the ultimate conclusion of Hardy's talk. Having described the difficulties faced by media organisations in covering war, and summarised the conflict between the BBC and the Blair Government that followed the invasion, Hardy concludes that 'the British and the American media were not robust enough in challenging the case for war'. The BBC, he says, 'did not do enough to speak truth to power'. Who could argue with this conclusion? After all, as Hardy notes, the New York Times has long since apologised for its failings in the run up to the invasion. What is remarkable is that this was the conclusion of Hardy's talk, rather than the starting point of a frank discussion about the roots of this failure and the possibilities for change. 

Typically for a journalist's account, Hardy's talk focuses on the media's conflict with and manipulation by the Government. This is an important aspect of any account, but it needs to be integrated into an analysis which acknowledges the extent to which powerful interests have more subtly shaped the culture of news and current affairs journalism and the institutional context within which it is practiced. The BBC, which is the focus of Hardy's talk, has in reality never embodied the sort of oppositional, interrogatory journalism which he alludes to. Accuracy has always been taken very seriously, as has the duty to inform its audience, but this has always been circumscribed by the BBC's general orientation towards elite ideas and interests.

The tenuous space the Corporation carved out for itself within the British establishment was originally based on the support of the more enlightened members of the governing elite who understood that it would serve their purposes better if the BBC were afforded formal, but still ambiguous, autonomy. This was an understanding reached during the General Strike of 1926 and it has shaped the BBC's orientation to this day. It still maintains a precarious existence dependent in the long term on the trust and affection of its audience, on whom it ultimately relies for its legitimacy, but more immediately upon the support of politicians who hold not only the 'purse strings' but also the constitutional power of life and death. It is not surprising then that 'speaking truth to power' has never been a BBC maxim. Whilst the Corporation has at times functioned as a space for critical journalism and oppositional voices, such spaces have always been marginal and such voices have always been marginalised.  Moreover, the BBC's capacity for critical journalism appears to have been weakened in recent years, not just as a result of Hutton and the institutional inertia it created, but more generally as a result of neoliberalisation, which has reshaped the BBC as well as the broader political culture.

The most celebrated period of public service broadcasting was in the 1960s when the BBC to some extent reflected the broader democratic and egalitarian spirit of the age and enjoyed a greater degree of financial autonomy, thanks in part to substantial income from colour TV licences. However, this golden age, celebrated for its creativity and irreverence, proved short lived, and the BBC took a conservative turn towards the end of that decade as a result of both reactionary political appointments and increased funding pressures. The former Conservative Minister Lord Hill, appointed BBC Chairman by Harold Wilson in 1967, strengthened the powers of the politically appointed Board of Governors and, following a review by the influential consultancy firm McKinsey and Co., imposed new managerial structures and financial controls. Hill's successor, Michael Swann, would later recall that as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s there was both a change of mood in society and a change in emphasis in the management of the BBC. Its output had become more right-wing, and this, Swann remarked, was 'as it should be'.[1]

After a decade of conservative retrenchment, the BBC in the 1980s came under ferocious attack from the Thatcher Government and its New Right allies, a period which has received far more scholarly attention than the previous decade. It survived thanks in part to the protection of less extremist figures in the Thatcher Government, and in part due to divisions amongst its enemies.[2] But survival still came at the price of ever greater accommodation with the emerging neoliberal order. The BBC's notoriously managerialist turn under the leadership of Director General John Birt in the 1990s baffled and infuriated journalists and commentators alike, but what has been rather poorly understood is that Birt's unpopular reforms represented an institutionalisation of neoliberalism at the BBC. As was the case in other parts of the public sector, workers found themselves entangled in a debilitating web of neoliberal-inspired, market-like, bureaucratic regulations and incentives. Birt's flagship managerial initiative was known as Producer Choice, a 'quasi-market' similar to that imposed on the NHS. The other side of the 'Birtist' reforms was the consolidation of editorial power. From 1988 onwards, many of the relatively autonomous spaces for critical journalism that had developed at the BBC—galvanised by sixties radicalism and strong trade unions—were first subject to vetting and then slowly brought under centralised control.

The institutional changes the BBC underwent in post-Thatcherite Britain mirrored those of the wider society: power became more centralised, professional decision making became more marketised and working conditions were made more precarious. Meanwhile, whilst most found their freedom curtailed by neoliberal bureaucracy, a largely Oxbridge educated elite retained its decision making powers and the salaries of those at the very top sky-rocketed. This is the enduring legacy of the survival strategy developed by the BBC leadership in response to the Thatcherite assault, and it long outlived the much maligned John Birt. Under his successor, Greg Dyke, the BBC became consciously more pro-business, in effect making a concerted effort to embed itself in the very networks of unaccountable power that were eroding British democracy.

If we are to understand why the BBC has failed to 'speak truth to power'—and not just in the run up to the invasion of Iraq—we need to be aware of this institutional history and be honest about the extent to which neoliberalism and the interests it represents have influenced the BBC's institutional structure and culture. Journalism after all does not take place in a social vacuum. It is shaped by professional norms, and a particular allocation of resources, factors which are in turn shaped not only by the class origins of editors and journalists, but also by wider political struggles and their broader outcomes. Without any consideration of such factors, and the central question of under what circumstances journalists are and are not able, and inclined, to 'speak truth to power', journalistic lamentations like Hardy's, however well meaning and cathartic, will get us nowhere slowly.



[1] Michael Swann, Education, the media and the quality of life: speech to the Headmasters' Association Annual Conference at St Catherine's College Cambridge, 26 March 1976.

[2] Goodwin, Peter. Television Under the Tories: Broadcasting Policy, 1979-1997 (London: BFI Publishing, 1998).  Tom O’Malley, Closedown: The BBC and Government broadcasting policy, 1979-92 (London: Pluto 1994).


This article was originally published at New Left Project

Categories: les flux rss

Response to "'Whose University?’ dislodges Cambridge University's mask of humanity"

8 hours 24 min ago

The claims of the "Whose University" campaign are ill-informed and tendentious.

King's College Chapel. Wikimedia/Christian Richardt. Some rights reserved.

The Whose University? (here, WU?) article contains so many errors, of both fact and interpretation, that it should not go unanswered. I would like to correct the more important mistakes and then offer some general remarks. My observations will concern mostly the colleges of Cambridge University, and in particular King’s College, against which many of the criticisms are directed.

An immediate error is the statement that students living in King’s are required over the Christmas vacation to “empty their rooms of themselves and all of their possessions”. That is certainly not the case for post-graduate students (whose existence WU? appears to have overlooked); nor is it the case for those undergraduates who have opted for a long-duration rental, which entitles them to keep their possessions in their room until the end of the teaching-cum-examination year, even when they have to be out of residence themselves. The requirement does apply to undergraduates who choose the short-duration option. They are required to clear their room during most of both the Christmas and the Easter vacations, in order to make space for other uses. During the Christmas vacation, on which WU? concentrates, that space is needed, not for conference business, which is not accepted at that time of year, but for the (this year, 854 strong) sixth formers who come to the college for admissions interviews, many of whom require overnight accommodation.

It is also incorrect to state that any undergraduates who need to remain in college accommodation during the vacations are required to leave. The tutorial system operated by Cambridge colleges grants permission to individual undergraduates who show a valid reason  – whether to do with finances, family situation, disability, mental health (especially those who come to university from social care services) – to remain in residence during vacations. Concerning mental health, current students registered with the University Counselling Service or NHS services can expect permission to remain in residence if they request it. It is extraordinary that the WU? group, whose members are themselves presumably students within this system, describe it as ‘not providing for their needs ... leaving them vulnerable, open to abuse, and sometimes homeless ... nowhere ... is there space for students to be human beings with human needs’. These generalisations are unsupported and invalid.  

What has not been found acceptable by King’s is an unrestricted right for all undergraduates to remain in residence, such as that apparently envisaged by WU? Permission to remain during vacations is granted only on an individual basis, to students whose academic work (e.g., a third-year dissertation) or extenuating personal circumstances make it necessary. No generalised undergraduate right to remain in residence, e.g., to pursue one’s social life while relieved of the academic demands of term time, has commanded support. 

WU? appears to be unaware that colleges such as King’s exist for a multitude of purposes. Education, religion, learning and research are stated explicitly in the King’s Statutes; to them should be added the performance of music and the handling of tourism. No particular group, including undergraduates, is entitled to claim ownership. The college has a Governing Body, constitutionally charged with reconciling these varied objectives. The student representatives who sit on it are free to seek augmented residence rights, as demanded by WU?, should they view that as a priority.

WU? errs also on the direction of change. The contemporary trend has been the liberalisation, in King’s at least, of permission to undergraduates to remain in residence – not the increased restrictiveness postulated by WU? Not so long ago, before the requirement for a final-year dissertation became general, few undergraduates received permission to stay up; nowadays, many do, particularly over the Easter vacation. Indeed, the choice between short-duration rental contracts and the long-duration ones that bring rights to residence during more of the Christmas and Easter vacations, as currently enjoyed by King’s undergraduates, was introduced relatively recently, in response to requests by student representatives.

A smaller issue, which appears to have triggered the WU? piece, concerns the message circulated recently by myself as Lay Dean to King’s undergraduates, reminding them not to let non-members of the college store belongings in their rooms over the coming vacation. The message was sent out following the issuance of invitations by some King’s students to members of an internet-based social network, which potentially includes non-members of the college, to do just that. Both practices are forbidden by college rules, for reasons that can readily be imagined: notably, the increased risk that student rooms will contain materials that are banned, dangerous or damaging when items are stored in them by non-members who may themselves be strangers, partial or total, to the host student. In any case, no disciplinary action has been taken, nor was any threatened, simply for making those offers, as is alleged by WU?

A copy of the circular message is appended below for readers who care to delve further. WU?’s characterisation of the message as ‘a paroxysm of authoritarianism’ is an exaggeration. The message was a standard reminder of the existence of an established college rule, and of the sanctions that might follow from breaking it.

Turning to the wider issues, WU? is correct to argue that the commercialisation and marketisation of British higher education should cause serious concern. The error here is to treat those forces as if they were just as powerful – behind a deceptive liberal facade – in relation to undergraduate life in Cambridge as elsewhere. In fact, Cambridge, like Oxford, is a collegiate university, in which the importance of undergraduate education, in terms both of intensive teaching in small supervision groups and of feedback on individual academic work, remains unmatched elsewhere. This teaching system is comparatively well protected by the endowments and fund-raising capabilities of both the colleges and the university. The colleges devote considerable funds to student services and student welfare. Charges for accommodation and food have indeed risen in Cambridge, alongside the rising cost of living in the city, but still compare favourably, in publicly available statistics, to those in other universities. Were a college like King’s to abandon the outside events that help finance the high cost of its educational provision, charges to undergraduates would have to be much higher than at present.

More generally, Cambridge colleges are not, nor are they likely in the foreseeable future to become, a locus for the profiteering denounced by WU? That trait does indeed disfigure other parts of higher education, particularly its growing for-profit component. WU? appears unaware, however, of how favourable is the position of its student members, and how well protected it is, compared their peers in many British universities.

The case presented by Whose University? is both ill-informed and tendentious. The piece reminds me of Mark Twain’s injunction: never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Dr Paul Ryan

Lay Dean, King’s College, Cambridge


Addendum: circular e-mail message to King’s undergraduates, 5.12.14
To King's undergraduates

It has been brought to my attention that several King's students have been offering publicly to provide storage space in their College rooms during the coming vacation to others, including students of other Cambridge colleges. 

I would like to remind you that, as stated by the Accommodation Officer in an earlier email today, whether or not you hold a long rental contract, you are not allowed to store anyone else's belongings in your room.

The reasons for the rule concern security (personal knowledge of and responsibility for possessions left over the vacation) and housekeeping (reducing the obstacles encountered while cleaning rooms).

I will take disciplinary action against any student who is found to have ignored the rule.

I will also ask Housekeeping to remove any items that clearly do not belong to the student to whom the room is assigned.

Dr Paul Ryan

Lay Dean

King’s College 

Sideboxes Related stories:  "Whose University?" dislodges Cambridge University's mask of humanity Country or region:  England City:  Cambridge
Categories: les flux rss

A second response to Meredith Tax - straw men make poor argument

8 hours 24 min ago

Tax's misleading interpretation of my arguments do little to counter the central realities - that liberals and imperialist feminists have been prominent supporters of authoritarianism and state violence.

In November we published Deepa Kumar's widely read essay, 'Imperialist Feminism and Liberalism'. In response, 5050 published an essay by Meredith Tax, 'The Antis - anti-imperialist or anti-feminist?' Deepa Kumar's response to Tax can be read here. This second response is from Saadia Toor.

Meredith Tax’s response is exactly what one would have expected it to be. It exemplifies the ‘straw man’ style of argumentation, and of necessity misrepresents our arguments, our critique and our politics. I say ‘of necessity’ because it is only through misrepresentation that Tax can get away with not actually having to address the actual substance of our critique and answer our charges against today’s imperialist feminists.

I’d like to begin by addressing some of Tax’s claims before moving on to articulating the substance of our critique of imperialist feminism.

Tax caricatures our argument when she claims that we ‘reduce the problems of women to side effects of "capitalism and imperialism"’. I have never made the absurd claim that women’s problems are either side-effects or even products of capitalism or imperialism alone. But I do hold, following in the footsteps of socialist/Marxist/materialist feminists, that to fail to pay attention to political economy when discussing gender/sexuality is to commit a huge error. Women’s ‘problems… involving the family, cultural traditions, religious institutions, and systematic institutionalized sexism’ do not simply ‘[predate] capitalism’ or imperialism, as Tax helpfully points out. They are transformed by them, even as capitalism and imperialism create new problems for women and feminist politics. It is especially important to invoke political economy when discussing women’s status and issues within the context of Pakistan specifically, and the ‘Muslim world’ generally, precisely because it tends to be absent from feminist analysis pertaining to this region. Tax’s charge of reductionism is ironic given that in fact it is liberal/imperialist feminists who tend to reduce the various issues faced by Muslim women (especially in Muslim majority countries) to ‘Islam’, and/or ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. 

Tax remarks that ‘I always thought feminists … recognized the existence of diverse patriarchal formations’. If Tax had been in the least bit familiar with my work, she would have known that I not only agree that there are ‘diverse patriarchal formations’, I have argued that their existence is precisely why studies of Muslim women in Muslim-majority countries must not begin with the premise that ‘Islam’ is the root of (all) the problems. A blinkered approach to women/gender in the context of Pakistan which only sees one explanatory variable—Islam—misses the complexity of what is actually going on, because ‘Islam’ is as often rejected as invoked in patriarchal maneuvers

The claim that we want to shut down a discussion of the Muslim right is similarly absurd. We consistently talk about the Muslim right, but do so in a way that is attentive to history and contemporary domestic and international politics. At a time when self-proclaimed “progressives” in the US and Pakistan are too often to be found either openly cheering on US and Pakistani military operations, or supporting them with pinched noses “in the last instance” as “necessary evils”, it is understandably inconvenient to have to face the historical role played by these honourable institutions in creating and nurturing the very forces they now claim to be fighting. This is especially glaring in the case of Pakistan, where the Pakistani military continues to shield its ‘good’ Taliban (not to mention the other violent extremists it has cultivated) while fighting those it designates as ‘bad’ ones – it’s worth noting that these designations fluctuate opportunistically. From the genocide in East Bengal in 1971 to the killing fields of Balochistan today, the considerable might of the Pakistani military (nurtured, historically, by the US) has been most successfully deployed against its own citizens whose only crime has been to demand their democratic rights. This is the military that the members of Pakistani ‘civil society’ gave their support to this past summer when it launched yet another military operation in North Waziristan to ‘flush out the baddies’. This operation came at the heels of relentless drone strikes that the people of North Waziristan had already been subjected to for years - drone strikes that have, to date, killed anywhere from 168-204 children alone. This latest military operation has displaced upward of a million people. This military violence is nothing less than a form of collective punishment which the people of Pakistan’s tribal regions have been subjected to since the establishment of the Pakistani state.

Tax quotes Afiya Zia as saying "Their [i.e. our] attempts to malign liberal and secular feminists and human rights activists as supporters of war, drones, and military intervention end up confirming right wing accusations of the same." This is an odd statement. It implies that the idea that liberal and secular feminists and human rights activists support war, drones and military intervention is somehow nothing more than a malicious rumour. And yet, in Pakistan (and elsewhere) this is precisely what they have done.  Repeatedly.  In Pakistan, critiquing drone strikes within liberal/secular feminist/human rights circles immediately results in one being branded a ‘Taliban apologist’. On a large (and publicly accessible) email discussion list this past summer, Ms Zia made it clear that she supported the statement put out by the Women’s Action Forum (Pakistan’s most well-known feminist organisation) endorsing the Pakistan military’s latest military operation in North Waziristan. This collusion of liberals with authoritarianism is not new, in Pakistan or elsewhere. In fact, in my book (which Tax generously mentions) I show that throughout Pakistan’s history, liberals consistently sided with, and thereby shored up, the forces of the Right (religious or secular) in opposition to the (secular) Left.

This brings us to the fact that there is a method in the madness of Tax’s response – the bluster, the mischaracterizations, the red-baiting are all designed to draw attention away from what anti-imperialist feminists find objectionable in imperialist feminist politics, and specifically those of Tax and co. I have made this case before, and will just share a couple of examples here for the benefit of the readers of openDemocracy:

1. In 2010, Tax attacked the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union for bringing a suit against the American government on behalf of Anwar al-Awlaki, the first US citizen targeted for assassination by his own state for his political ideology. A group of Algerian feminists (and CCR board member Karima Bennoune) then sent a letter to CCR in which they explicitly argued that the focus within the human rights community in the West on Muslim men as victims of the war on Terror comes at the expense of the well-being of Muslim women because it effaces the role played by Muslim men as perpetrators of violence against Muslim women. Bear in mind that this was at a time when human rights advocacy in the West on behalf of the victims of the War on Terror was fairly muted. As I argued in my essay “Imperialist Feminism Redux”,

What is important to note is that this critique of Western liberals and international human rights organizations for their misplaced and dangerous focus on Muslim men comes at a time when Muslim men qua Muslim men continue to be the explicit target of the GWoT,and an anti-Muslim racism which understands all Muslim men as dangerous intensifies in North America and Western Europe’. This critique also assumes that it is impossible to have a progressive politics that is concerned with the rights of both Muslim men and Muslim women. In fact, it posits all Muslim men as (by definition) perpetrators of violence against women. Supporting their rights (even their right to life, their right to a fair trial, their right to free speech, etc), even in the context of war, can only strengthen their ability to oppress Muslim women.

2. On its website, the Center for Secular Space (an institution with which many of those who express imperialist feminist views—from Tax to Gita Sehgal, Karima Bennoune and Afiya Zia—are associated) lament that, in Europe “‘discussions of still-existing racism have been replaced by discussions of Islamophobia’” implying that, (i) the actual problem at hand is not an increase in Islamophobia itself but increasing ‘discussions of Islamophobia’, and (ii) that these discussions distract attention away from ‘racism’, as if Islamophobia was not the pre-eminent form which racism in Europe has taken today.  The mind, as they say, simply boggles.

These are only a few examples – one can provide more. For now I leave it up to the good readers of openDemocracy to judge for themselves whose politics shores up the existing structures of power today - Tax & co., or those of us who are working hard to fight the metastasizing, anti-people (and deeply misogynist) national security states across the world. I would love to see a refutation of these specific charges from Tax rather than the sound and fury that she conjures up to distract attention away from inconvenient truths.

Our own position vis a vis the GWoT and ‘Islamic extremism’ and our critique of imperialist feminism should not need to be repeated, having been made in several places and several forms over time. However, in the face of Tax’s mischaracterization, I’ll state it loud and clear once again:

Despite Tax’s attempt to engage in what Hamid Dabashi has called “politically expedited historical amnesia”, this latest imperialist war (the ‘GWoT’) had strong liberal support in its early stages, fueled in no small part by ‘concern’ for Afghan women. This liberal support seemed to dissipate after the attack on Iraq, but as the deflation of the anti-war movement after the election of Barack Obama clarified, liberal opinion continued to remain in favour of the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan. War and other actions of Empire require legitimation. It is not enough—especially as the war in question drags on endlessly and spreads to large parts of the globe—to secure the consent of the far-right, neoliberals, and hawks, especially when a Democrat is in power.  Legitimacy is thus needed and sought from across the political spectrum. For obvious reasons, Islamophobia has played a very important role in securing consent for the war, both domestically within the US (and Canada/UK/Europe) and abroad, again across the political spectrum. This is the context in which the sort of imperialist feminism exemplified by Tax & co.—an international conglomeration of feminists with left-liberal credentials—emerged and the reason why it demands intense scrutiny.


This article is part of the Gender and Race strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.

Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London

Categories: les flux rss

DevoMix Christmas special: LocalismWatch’s seasonal update on devolution

8 hours 24 min ago

We now know what the Smith Commission’s proposing for Scotland, and William Hague’s options on English votes for English laws.  But how does devolution tie up with localism? A Santa-stic overview of news, comment and (dis)information.


Following the referendum ‘no’ vote, David Cameron commissioned Lord Smith of Kelvin to identify greater devolved powers for the Scottish Parliament.  On 27 November, with the agreement of Scotland’s 5 main political parties, the Smith Commission published its outline recommendations.

These set out the case for a Scottish Parliament that will be:

  • - Stronger within the UK
  • - More accountable and responsible
  • - More autonomous – notably, in tax-raising powers
  • - Better in its dealings with Westminster
  • - Giving greater devolution to communities within Scotland and
  • - Building greater public understanding of its role

Lord Smith has certainly delivered on schedule – though, as with all constitutional projects, the devil is ever in the detail. Representatives of Scotland’s most remote island communities welcomed the Commission’s proposals to transfer powers over Crown Estates assets, Air Passenger Duty and energy efficiency schemes. But three SNP councillors in Renfrewshire were less impressed.  They videoed themselves burning the Smith report and were promptly suspended by their new leader, Nicola Sturgeon.

At the same time, Labour’s own new chief, Jim Murphy, has outlined his ideas for city deals in Scotland – something that he believes would help close the economic gap with their English equivalents. This intervention might well be timely, as business leaders in Dundee have argued that the referendum has slowed business start-ups in their city.

But the boundaries of economic catchments are more ‘fuzzy’ and ‘porous’ than many commentators realise. The Smith Report’s suggested concessions for Scottish airports have not gone down well in North East England. Newcastle airport stands to lose vital revenue as a result

England: the National Picture:

On 16 December, William Hague, tasked by David Cameron to design the roadmap for ‘English votes for English laws’, published a Command Paper, containing three possible options. These range from barring Scottish MPs from voting on measures affecting the rest of the UK to giving English MPs veto powers over laws applying solely to England. In that instance, an English-only committee would scrutinise legislation which would then be voted on by the full House of Commons.

If Cameron’s response was geared to appease his backbenchers, Hague’s proposals have not quelled their mutinous murmurings.  John Redwood told the Daily Telegraph: “I can't understand why they are wasting time with these watered down versions. Britain has been gravely damaged by Labour's lopsided devolution. It's time to even things up.” He warned that the measures fell short of “what the majority of Tory backbenchers and the public want”, and called for Scottish MPs to be barred from voting on any English matters. Lord Prescott, who as Deputy Prime Minister unsuccessfully spearheaded Labour’s attempts at regional devolution a decade ago, described Hague’s efforts as “a stitch-up” and “centralisation”.

The Prime Minister intends to put Hague’s proposals to his backbenchers ahead of a Commons vote early next year. But lacking unanimity in his own camp, let alone a Commons majority, it is hard to see how he can push a sustainable set of England-wide devolution proposals through Parliament before the General Election.

The process of securing local devolution packages for England’s cities and regions has been tortuous, despite – or maybe, due to – the intervention of political heavyweights. Lord Heseltine is a good example.  Speaking to the Institute of Economic Development, he described the devolution process as ‘unstoppable’. But like many in the Westminster village, his idea of devolution centres on high level powers and and top-table players, not people at the grassroots. “Without spending any more public money you can galvanise large amounts of private money,” Heseltine told his audience. “It's amazing how much additional growth you can get.” He argued that combined authorities such as that recently created in Greater Manchester, could work well in areas outside the major cities.  Given “a magic wand”, he would create unitary county councils across the country.

The All Party Urban Development Group (APUDG) of MPs and peers have issued a report called Going for Growth. This says that if councils were given more varied powers, including infrastructure improvements and increasing housing availability, the next government could build on the success of the Coalition’s growth initiatives. The report considers how Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) have stimulated development, and invites the incoming administration to retain a focus on growth.  Devolving further powers to cities and regions and working closely with them would enhance understanding of local challenges, the report says. It should, however, be noted that this outpouring of cross-party consensus has been produced with money and technical support from the British Property Federation and Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners.

Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, has lent his weight to the devolution fray. He has attacked George Osborne’s insistence that new combined authorities must be headed by elected ‘metro mayors’ – a formula that (as we shall read later) has stalled devolution talks in several English conurbations.  Balls has advised local councils to bide their time, promising a much better devolution package if Labour wins next year’s election: “George Osborne is saying ‘my door is open as long as you agree to my blueprint’ – which is counter-productive, obstinate and foolish.”  Southampton Council’s Conservative opposition leader demurs: “At least George Osborne’s door is open. Ed Balls’ door is open and there is nothing there.”

Who’s driving the devolution bus?

Stagecoach magnate Brian Souter helped bankroll Alex Salmond’s ‘yes’ campaign in September’s referendum. But Martin Griffiths, the bus company’s CEO, has come out against the proposed devolution of strategic transport powers to English city regions.  To him, these amount to ‘a confiscation of assets’: they would, in effect make the buses state-controlled.

The government’s chief planner has no plans for plans – in city regions, at least

However city regions are governed in the future, Steve Quartermain, the head planner in the Civil Service, says that the government won’t be encouraging the preparation of city-region spatial plans.  This is despite the fact that the Greater London Authority has a statutory London Plan and the incoming Greater Manchester authority wants one too. Quartermain said: "You can have greater-than-local planning but you don’t necessarily have to produce a document to carry that forward.”

A devo-tour round England’s regions

The North West

Referring to the current bookies’ craze for a ‘celebrity mayor’ in his native city, Noel Gallagher has suggested becoming Duke of Manchester, should Russell Brand’s much-publicised ‘revolution’ ever take place. Sir Richard Leese, Manchester City Council’s long-time leader, sees no problem with ceremonially up-titling the ex-Oasis frontman, but points out that “running large authorities actually does require some skills.” Local politicians were initially unhappy with an elected mayor being non-negotiable in Manchester’s devolution deal, but Leese revealed that, in the end, “pragmatism won out”. When the metro-mayor takes office in 2017, s/he will also serve as Greater Manchester’s Police and Crime Commissioner. Asked by BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg whether the elected mayor role had his name on it, Leese said: “If I said I hadn’t thought about it, you’d say I was a liar and you’d be right.”  

Jennifer Williams, social affairs editor at the Manchester Evening News, said that for councils, the offer of new powers is hard to resist, although austerity means that expectations won't be matched by resources. “George Osborne may be handing over big ticket devolution, but he continues to take money out of the day-to-day spending of the town halls,” she added. “There will be scepticism. Manchester is looking at £60m in cuts in 2015 and a further £30m the year after.” Lollipop patrols, mental health care, free swimming and youth services are likely to be first in the firing line

In an innovative slant to localism that no legislator, surely, ever intended, the Manchester Evening News is empowering its readers to exercise digital judgements of Solomon, through an interactive tool that lets them slim down the council’s budget, line by line. So although Manchester is the trendsetter for English devolution, it begs the question of what will actually be available to devolve, once the full programme of cuts implied in the Autumn Statement has taken effect.

Merseyside’s leaders have now consented to talks about talks on devolution – but only after pressure from those twin champions of centralisation, Lords Heseltine and Adonis. Here too, the question of an elected mayor has been the sticking point: only Liverpool and Sefton councils were originally in favour, the rest only acceding when the day-tripping lords revealed that additional powers and funding would not otherwise be forthcoming. Wirral Council leader Phil Davis said that Merseyside would seek “the kind of rapid progress towards devolution that we have seen in Manchester”. So far, so good: but there’s also the minor consideration of who will be Merseyside’s elected mayor. As readers know, Liverpool’s Joe Anderson has his eyes on that role.

Elsewhere in the North West, Lancashire’s 14 district councils, plus the unitaries of Blackburn and Blackpool, are working to secure a combined authority. While encouraging in principle, the reasons for coming together are less so. All the councils face severe cuts, but with far lower local tax bases than their powerful neighbours. Then there’s the challenge of resolving Lancashire’s complex geography of local rivalries – something that Westminster’s ‘localist’ drive consistently ignores.

The North East

George Osborne preached the metro-mayor gospel on his recent visit Newcastle, saying that if local councils were to merit greater control over functions and funding, their representatives must be more accountable: “Great cities like New York and London have one figure the public can pinpoint,” he said.  “If you want to have the full suite of powers that are normally associated with an elected mayor in almost any city in the world, then that is the model of government.” 

But although Osborne denied imposing an identikit model, local councillors contradicted him. South Tyneside leader Iain Malcolm responded: “It is disingenuous of George Osborne to say unless we have a mayor we cannot be held to account, rather than saying ‘these are the responsibilities the region will get’, and allow us to have the tools to get on and do the job. I just think he is trying to divert the devolution agenda to be about some sort of civic pride issue in the North East.”

Newcastle Council chief Nick Forbes added: “Where I do agree with Mr Osborne is that cities offer the greatest growth potential for UK plc and places like Newcastle are where the next generation of jobs will be created.  We are simply asking for the tools to get on with the job that needs to be done rather than be set political hoops to jump through.” Durham County Council’s leader Simon Henig commented, however, that an elected mayor for the entire North East would be a “show stopper”, and that decisions on future governance should not focus on Newcastle alone

Councils in the Tees Valley have taken the first steps in forming a combined authority: this could be operational by winter 2015. It is intended that the proposed new body, which already has strong business backing, will meet jointly with the area’s Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). Public consultations began on 10 December and will continue until 31 January 2015.


Lord Heseltine has engaged in ‘intense devolution negotiations’ about two ‘conurbations’ - West Yorkshire and the City of York, and of South Yorkshire. Both currently have ‘loose’ area partnerships, but there is considerable high-profile opposition to having elected mayors. 

Opinion in Bradford is particularly divided on the issue.  The council is strongly against, with its leader, David Green commenting: “Discussions are still going on, but the councils in West Yorkshire are adamant that a mayor can’t be imposed. The combined authority is (already) working well.” Two of the city’s MPs, however, support the package. George Galloway, representing Bradford West, said that West Yorkshire could reap the same benefits brought about through the “strong leadership” of London’s mayors, “both of them bigger-than-life figures, who have clearly made a difference” to the capital

South Yorkshire’s leaders have not completely ruled out elected mayors, although - unlike their counterparts elsewhere - they have been assured that any deal currently on the table won’t bind them to adopt that arrangement. Any suggestion that they’re being forced to have elected mayors in return for devolution would be hugely damaging to Deputy PM Nick Clegg, a Sheffield MP, who has publicly promised local people that there’s no compulsion. More embarrassing, however, Sheffield council leader Julie Dore told a local democracy campaigner that there wasn’t sufficient time for public consultations on proceeding with a devolution deal on the Chancellor’ terms prior to his 3 December Autumn Statement.

As it turned out, no devolution agreements were secured anywhere in Yorkshire in advance of the Autumn Statement, which contained no references to England’s largest county. But ‘sources close to Nick Clegg’ were adamant that ‘a generational hand over of powers and finance’ was just weeks away. This was borne out when a Sheffield city deal was finalised on 16 December.

Hull City Council has been arranging business briefings to promote a devolution deal for Humberside, despite opposition and a ‘refusal to talk’ by the neighbouring three councils. Darryl Stephenson, Hull’s Chief Executive, said that if Humberside’s four authorities “cannot get their act together now, in ten years’ time they will not be forgiven.” Tim Rix, who chairs Hull's City Leadership Board, said: “Devolution seems to be the only game.  I really struggle to see how the other local authorities fail to see the benefits of this.”

But neighbouring East Riding leader Stephen Parnaby commented: “There is no pressure on this council or on our neighbours to form a combined authority. More importantly, we have not missed out, nor are we in danger of missing out, on any grants, funding opportunities or otherwise.”  Parnaby cited the halving of Humber Bridge tolls, new Enterprise Zones and a strong record in securing government funding. He also noted that the Humberside LEP had called for devolution talks to be deferred until after the general election: “By then, hopefully, there will be more clarity and more certainty as to what, if anything, we need to do.” Hull City Council have remained bullish, issuing a ‘stark warning’ to its neighbours that they were putting jobs and investment at risk by not seizing the moment and becoming part of the Chancellor’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

The West Midlands

Treasury officials have been negotiating a possible West Midlands devolution deal, along similar lines to Greater Manchester. George Osborne has insisted that devolved powers there depend on local acceptance of an elected mayor. Speaking to the Birmingham Post, he said: “I am willing to work across party lines to get what is right for Birmingham and the West Midlands.  What happened in Greater Manchester followed the creation of the combined authority and the effective working of that combined authority. That has not happened to the same extent in Birmingham and the West Midlands.  But there is now real progress on that front, which we are engaging with.”

Our readers will recall that Coventry City Council has resolved to join Birmingham and the Black Country in the combined authority. Its leader, Ann Lucas, has launched a charm offensive, inviting councils in Warwickshire to join too. But the Coventry Telegraph reports that around half of Lucas’ own Labour colleagues in Coventry are against joining Birmingham and want a Warwickshire-based alliance. Coventry’s Tory group agree. And the city’s UKIP representatives are unhappy with what they see as ‘secret talks’ over Coventry’s future, saying the local electorate should have a vote on the matter.

Lucas refutes any notion that the new body would be a ‘super council’. “If Coventry does become a member of a Combined Authority – whether it’s with Birmingham or Warwickshire – this does not mean that Coventry or Coventry City Council will disappear,” she said. “While I am Leader I promise you that Coventry will not become part of Birmingham – greater or otherwise. I can also promise you that Coventry will not have a mayor running business for us from Birmingham. I promise you that decisions about Coventry services will continue to be made in Coventry by Coventry councillors.”

In the West Midlands, old traditions die hard.  Warwick District Council’s leader has an open mind about the talks, saying: “this isn’t about handing powers over to Birmingham.” But Stratford-upon-Avon Council, which proudly struts its own corner of the world’s stage, says that it will be keeping its options open – and that these might not necessarily include Birmingham, or indeed, the rest of Warwickshire.

Elsewhere, councils such as Walsall and Staffordshire have been courting local businesses to gauge support for a combined authority. Indeed, it has recently been announced that a new regional LEP will be created to ‘sit alongside’ a West Midlands Combined Authority, with the region’s existing ‘area’ LEPs remaining in situ. How this arrangement would operate in practice remains unclear.

And yet, despite all these machinations, the West Midlands devolution process could be derailed due to concerns about its lead partner. Following a damning review of Birmingham City Council by the Civil Service’s ex-head, Sir Bob Kerslake, England’s biggest local authority could be taken over by central government if its performance doesn’t improve within 12 months. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles is contemplating appointing commissioners to take over its departments. He may, indeed, decide to break Birmingham into two or three smaller councils.

The review was prompted by Birmingham’s financial woes, the failings of the city’s children's services and what the government saw as the council's poor response to radical Islamic ‘Trojan Horse’ influences in some local schools.  Sir Bob said that these inadequacies had caused poverty, unemployment and low skills in the city, adding: “The overwhelming consensus of those . . . spoken to is that the council cannot carry on any longer as it is.”  A panel selected by Pickles will monitor Birmingham’s progress over the next year, before reaching a final decision.

The East Midlands

Derbyshire’s city, county and 8 district councils are set to form a joint organisation.  This is the first ‘non-metropolitan’ area in England to reach such an agreement.  Of the 10 councils, 7 are Labour and 3 are Conservative-controlled. County council leader Anne Western said that both parties had put their differences aside: “It's not been a straight path. Everyone around the table has needed to know what they're committing themselves to – but it's been done with a lot of good will.”

But a joint authority in neighbouring Nottinghamshire remains some way off.  On 28 November, local council leaders agreed to work towards the government-imposed deadline of February 2015.  Graham Chapman, deputy leader of Nottingham City Council, said: “There was a surprising amount of consensus, but we've still got some way to go and a lot of terms and conditions.” 

The South West

George Ferguson, Bristol’s elected mayor, is still working to get neighbouring councils’ agreement to a joint authority. In his annual state-of-the-city address, he mentioned the additional funding that Manchester had secured through its devolution package.  Referring to “the historical reluctance” for neighbouring councils to pool resources, Ferguson said: “The only reason for not accepting this change is political sensitivity. The Government has created a window. This is not a Bristol takeover and the new departments would not necessarily be run from Bristol. Other combined authorities have shared out the responsibilities.” Ferguson also criticised the region's current ‘West of England’ title: “For location and clarity, I prefer the title of Bristol City Region.  Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds are creating Northern powerhouses. Bristol needs to be the south west equivalent.” 

North Somerset’s leader, George Ashton, responded that neighbouring councils were already pooling resources, without losing their individuality. He added: “Constantly quoting . . . Manchester misses the point. We are not Manchester, and what works for them should not be mandatory for everywhere else. We talk of localism and devolution and then try to impose another layer of government further away from our communities, without even asking our residents. We are always keen to talk to Government about opportunities to secure the devolution of funding and powers, where it can bring clear benefits to local people but no one has demonstrated any real benefit and we have been told that there would be no new money. Some people confuse the need for government to give local authorities the power to get on with their existing responsibilities, with the need to create another authority. Apparently we would also have a Metro Mayor.  George says he supports devolved powers but then seeks to centralise it.”A similar state of affairs prevails in Gloucestershire, where councils prefer joint working to unification. 

The South East

Essex is home to several popular dramas, the most iconic of which depicts what the Guardian once described as “real people in modified situations, saying unscripted lines but in a structured way.”  The latest concerns Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock Borough Councils, who wish to re-focus the Thames Gateway South Essex Partnership (TGSEP). Essex County Council recently said it would be leaving the partnership to concentrate on its county-wide role. Other South Essex authorities are being invited to re-subscribe to the TGSEP, which will be formally re-launched on 1 April 2015.  Southend leader Ron Woodey regretted the county’s withdrawal, as this would “weaken the profile of Southend-on-Sea and South Essex . . . and lead to delays both getting funding for and delivering future projects.” 

The prospect of a new Solent combined authority, linking Portsmouth, Southampton and surrounding areas, has raised concerns in Winchester. Although Winchester's future allegiances remain undecided, fears exist that the current district council area would be split in two, if towns and villages in the south chose to join the combined authority


Although the capital already has an elected mayor and an Assembly, this has not stopped some London boroughs from joining the devolution circus. LB Croydon is pushing for new powers to collect locally-generated taxes on all developments. The council claims that if these focussed on a town-centre “growth zone”, these would funnel £5.25bn into the local economy by 2031, creating 8,300 new homes and 23,600 new jobs.  Croydon North’s Labour MP Steve Reid said: “This is not just a bid for Croydon, it stretches all the way . . . to the south coast.” He added that he and Croydon Central’s Conservative MP, Gavin Barwell, were completely united on this. “Scotland has got devo-max, we have just seen Manchester get devo-manc and now it is time to see devo-croy.”

Such devo-tion to Croydon’s cause must have impressed George Osborne.  Whereas Yorkshire deals were absent from his Autumn Statement, the Chancellor said he would consider approving a new Croydon “growth zone”, “subject to value for money”.  Although this fell short of an explicit commitment, LB Croydon leader Councillor Tony Newman said: “A growth zone . . . will bring huge benefits . . . and transform Croydon into a modern, European city.  For Croydon to be named in the Autumn Statement shows the huge importance of Croydon and the significance that it holds to London and the wider region.”

South London’s devolution bandwagon rolls on.  On 8 December, Croydon announced that it was forming a joint committee of boroughs “which will put Croydon in prime position to benefit from any devolution of power from Whitehall.” This group, also including Kingston, Merton, Richmond and Sutton, would decide on regional growth, delegated funding from the Mayor of London and local investment. It would also lobby the government “to devolve powers . . . such as . . . getting people back into work, boosting skills and ensuring economic growth.”

So what’s English devolution really about, then?

As readers of Localism Watch will know, we work our cotton socks off to bring together a digital smorgasbord of mainstream and – quite frequently - obscure resources to help folk at the grassroots make sense of localism, Coalition-style. What we’ve digested so far - not just in this issue - draws us to a surreal yet inescapable conclusion: the national debate about localism is, bizarrely, being led by those whose motivations are centralist to the core. 

We’re not alone in that view.  Writing in New Start, Daniel Boyle tries looking forward to localism in 2015. But he says that, unlike Scotland, Wales, and most of our European neighbours, the talent in the English regions has “either been sucked out or quietly ignored.” He highlights fundamental flaws in the emerging city region structures. They’re based on rhetoric, legislation and administrative procedures, not reasoned, locally-led arguments. Boyle questions the proposed new authorities’ true capacity to exercise their devolved powers  Many of their brightest and best have long since departed to live and work in the capital. He makes a plea for re-establishing credible, locally-based financial institutions across England if Osborne’s ‘powerhouses’ are to develop into something more than a tongue-in-cheek catchphrase.

For all the Autumn Statement’s bluster, the Coalition’s package of austerity and privatisation has failed spectacularly to curb the deficit - if, indeed, that was ever its true objective.  Even the right-leaning Spectator admits that the Chancellor will have borrowed more in his 5 year tenure than Labour did over 13 years. Whoever picks up the poisoned chalice of power after next May’s election will have to make more savage public service cuts than those projected in 2010. The combined authorities and metro-mayors spawned from the government’s current ‘rough wooing’ of English councils will take the brunt of those cuts. As it stands, the packages now being offered contain no new money. To quote the jibe once levelled at Osborne’s hapless predecessor Norman Lamont, the new bodies will find themselves ‘in office, but not in power’, as they are compelled to run down, privatise and close vital public services.  And they, not Westminster, will bear legal responsibility for what ensures.

To LocalismWatch, it’s clear that what the government’s really devolving isn’t power, but blame.

Categories: les flux rss

Water in the UK - public versus private

8 hours 24 min ago

Like the East Coast mainline, the differing setups within the UK offer a useful insight into claims by Britain's governing parties that privatised water is in any way superior to publicly owned. But it does offer some enormous profits.

Flickr/Patrick Brosset. Some rights reserved.

Of all the privatisations of the Thatcher government, perhaps the most controversial was the privatisation of water. Most countries in the developed world run their water on a municipal basis. In some countries, citizens don’t receive water bills but simply pay for it as part of their rates. In the UK, however, we now have a patchwork of different ways of delivering our water.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, water is delivered by the public sector. Northern Ireland Water is a government owned corporation, accountable to the Northern Ireland Utility Regulator. Scotland has a truly public water supply. Scottish Water is a statutory organization, accountable to Scottish Parliament. In Wales a non-profit organization, set up after the failure of a private concern, supplies the water. In England ten wholly private companies provide water and waste management in ten regions. Once again, this puts England at the forefront of the privatisation drive within the UK.

Water is the very stuff of life, so it is understandable that its privatisation during the Thatcher years was controversial. So why do it? The big argument for privatisation used to be that it was cheaper. However as this turned out not to be the case—or somewhat disingenuous, depending on how you want to look at it—the new argument is that it’s more ‘effective’. We are told that, whilst private utilities may be more expensive, they are also more efficient. It turns out this might be a bit questionable.

In 2014, the Public Services Research Unit conducted a review looking at the difference in efficiency between the public and private sectors. They concluded: “The results are remarkably consistent across all sectors and all forms of privatisation: there is no empirical evidence that the private sector is intrinsically more efficient.” This finding is echoed by a whole host of studies into privatisation in both developing and developed nations, which show that the idea of greater efficiency in the private sector is a myth. This applies to water, but also equally to other utilities. A review of the experience in privatizing electricity in Norway, Canada (Alberta) and the USA (California), as well as the UK, concluded that markets did not deliver lower prices and higher efficiency because small groups of producers abuse market power. (Woo et al, 2003).

The UK’s water supply would seem particularly informative to study, due to the diversity of supply methods within one nation. At the same time this very complexity—and the information available—means the industry is very opaque and difficult to scrutinize. In a report for the New Policy Institute, the authors refer to the way the industry, particularly within England, is organised as 'very odd'.

Despite the complexities of the English water industry and its ownership model, certain trends are evident. Firstly, as recent media headlines suggest, household bills in England are increasing. Secondly, there is the clearly changing ownership profile of the privatised water companies, and the increasing presence of private equity in the mix. Thirdly, high profits and dividends for shareholders have also generated headlines. Fourthly, an increasing amount of debt is being carried by the English water companies. And finally, a run of problems and issues have faced the English water companies, including leaks and unsafe water, along with waste water incidents. Taken together these issues seem to challenge the claim by Thatcher’s government that a privatised water industry would be more efficient and less costly to run.

In England annual water bills had risen from £120 per year in 89, to £204 by 2006. If you take into account inflation, you’ve still got a rise of 39% over and above inflation.

And bills continue to rise, despite stagnating wages and a sluggish economy.

To counter the anger at climbing bills, privatisation supporters argue that the English water companies have invested more than state run entities would have. A study by Greenwich University shows that this isn’t true. Their research concluded that at least half the investment made by the water companies since privatisation was due to EU directives and regulations. That is, the companies made the investment because they had to. They didn’t do so happily either. In fact, the UK government tried to exempt the private water companies from having to make the improvements but the European Commission denied the bid.

During the early noughties Scottish Water and Northern Ireland water also had higher bills. But during this time Scottish Water invested £1.8 billion into the system, the biggest investment into the water infrastructure in Scotland ever made. Once this period of investment into a decaying water network was finished, Scottish Water began to reduce bills. Whilst Northern Ireland doesn’t currently charge domestic customers for water, it has had higher notional bills than some of the English regions. However it has, in the last few years, had the least increase to bills of all the water suppliers.

These days the difference in bills between the English water companies and Scottish Water are stark. Last year Scottish Water customers paid less than customers of all the private English and Welsh water companies. Prices across the ten English water companies vary greatly. Offwat’s estimated average bills for 2013/2014 are as follows:

South West                 £499

Wessex                        £478

Southern                      £449

Anglian                       £434

Dwr Cymru                 £434

United Utilities           £406

Yorkshire                    £368

Northumbrian              £359

Thames                        £354

Severn Trent                £335

In contrast the cost for Scottish Water customers was £334. In England, the least expensive is Severn Trent, and the most costly for households is South West water, whose average bill for 2013/2014 was an astronomical £499. So high are South West’s bills that the government pays for a £50 reduction for each household! This raises the question, if the private industry needs to rely on government help for its customers – shouldn’t the government simply take over and run the concern directly?

This isn’t the only instance of the industry asking the government to help. Thames Water has long argued that they need to build a new sewer in London to update the Victorian system – a so called ‘super sewer’. The only problem is that, as Thames Water is owned by a private equity consortia and has a high ratio of debt, it can’t finance this itself. The ownership group of Thames Water includes Macquarie Infrastructure Fund (Australia). The China Investment Corporation, and Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. The result of the situation is that the British state has to come to the rescue once again as Thames Water has asked the government to guarantee the risk. This is because Thames water has run up debt since privatisation and now owes around £8 billion. All this despite being able to pay out approximately £1.4bn in dividends between 2006 and 2012. This example brings us to two of the most pressing issues facing the English water companies, the increasing amount of private equity ownership, and increasing debt profiles.

The ownership profile matters for a variety of reasons. Stock exchange listed parent companies would be subject to UK tax. Private equity companies are not open to the same scrutiny, or the same tax regime if based outside the UK. Furthermore, they do not have to comply with any of the disciplines of the UK equity market.

The water companies that are private equity owned seem to be the ones with higher debt ratios. In fact, the privatised industry as a whole now has high debt levels. You can measure a company’s debt levels by looking at what is called the gearing ratio. This is a way of looking at how highly leveraged a company is. It is measured in percentages, and it is traditionally argued that a business that has a gearing ratio of higher than 50% is highly geared, or, highly leveraged, which could be unsustainable. The average level for the water companies has risen dramatically since privatisation and stood at 70% by 2010.

Whilst higher ratios aren’t always a cause for alarm—financing through debt can be cheap—the figures for some of the water companies are worryingly high. It also matters what the money is being used for. If the money is being borrowed purely for capital investment it is different than borrowing to keep paying high dividends, which some believe utilities in general are doing. It is argued by some analysts that organisations which have to borrow to pay dividends are basically self-cannibalising.

Thames water in particular has been accused of using borrowed money to fund too high dividends for over a decade.

This need for high dividends can cause companies to experience trouble with their credit ratings. Indeed, Sir Ian Byatt, formerly of Offwat, himself makes the link between high dividends, high debt, and trouble getting finance. He states: “In practice, many companies, especially the private equity infrastructure funds, have paid out excessive dividends to their owners. In the case of Thames Water, this has damaged its credit rating, leading to requests to Government for guarantees.”

Some analysts believe the most highly leveraged water companies could be in danger of going bust if asked to pay back a significant proportion of that debt. In this sense, English households are now, often unknowingly, part of the somewhat risky financialisation of water.

Another reason for the high debt structure of these companies may be more dubious than simply wanting to finance investment cheaply. There are increasing allegations that the water companies are using debt to lower their tax obligations. Tory MP, Charlie Elphicke, claims that the water companies have used debt interest to avoid tax adding up to over a billion pounds lost to the Exchequer in just three years. He terms the avoidance “staggering”. He singled out Yorkshire Water as a particularly bad example.

Simon Hughes MP gave figures showing just how much tax Yorkshire Water has managed to avoid by using debt to offset payments. He wrote to the Public Accounts Committee back in 2012 stating: “Yorkshire Water…has seen its tax liability decline from £70m in 2009 to a tax credit of £18.9m this year after it took out £1bn from a group of finance companies it owns in the Cayman Islands."

The ownership profile of Water Yorkshire includes Deutsche Asset & Wealth Management, GIC an investment fund backed by the Singaporean government, along with Citi Infrastructure Investors (US based). So yet again we have a complex group of international finance organisations, owning a UK utility that is highly leveraged and pays little UK tax.

In sharp contrast to the complex over indebted structure of much of the English water companies. Welsh water is a non-profit organisation, under which “assets and capital investment are financed by bonds and retained financial surpluses. Financing efficiency savings to date have largely been used to build up reserves to insulate Welsh Water and its customers from any unexpected costs and also to improve credit quality so that Welsh Water’s cost of finance can be kept as low as possible in the years ahead.”

Scottish Water is a publicly owned utility, directly answerable to the Scottish Parliament. It can borrow more cheaply than the English water companies, as government debt is considered safer than private debt. It has invested record amounts of money in recent years into the infrastructure, and once the investment is finished it quickly reduced bills to levels lower than all the English companies.

Whilst analysing UK water provision is an extremely complex task, it is clear that the privatised English water companies are operating in a highly financialised environment in many instances. They stand accused of running up high debts to maintain dividends, and in some cases, such as Thames Water, this has arguably helped damaged their credit rating. They appear to be run in the interests of shareholders and not customers. Not only are English customers paying the highest bills, they also are most at risk from utility companies whose business practices may mean that when it comes to future investment the state has to step in. Indeed, it is this highly leveraged structure, and the increasing amounts of foreign ownership that are most troublesome when examining the water providers.

Water should not be a vehicle for huge, international consortia to get rich. We have two alternative examples of healthier ways to run water companies within the UK. The non-profit organisation set up in Wales, or better yet, a return to full public ownership. The case of Scottish Water shows that this would be the best outcome for English customers.

This article is part of the Modernise: de-privatise series.

Categories: les flux rss

Random friends or asymmetric ‘Trojan horses’? An analysis of the far right in Central and Southeast Europe.

18. December 2014 - 17:38

What has orientated parties such as Jobbik and Golden Dawn towards Moscow, and what are the implications for Russian foreign policy in the EU-peripheries of Central and Southeast Europe?   

Members of Jobbik at a rally in Budapest. Demotix/David Ferenczy. Some rights reserved.

The latest developments in Ukraine indicate Russia’s motive to solidify its status within the post-Soviet space. Meanwhile, Kremlin has gained sympathizers among the far right parties in the ‘old’ (e.g. Golden Dawn in Greece) as well as the ‘new’ (e.g. Jobbik in Hungary, Ataka in Bulgaria) EU member-states in Central and Southeast Europe.

This acquires greater importance if one considers the successful performance of populist and far right parties in the latest European elections. Due to the limitations of this piece, I mostly concentrate on the cases of Jobbik and Golden Dawn with a broader overview of the Greek and Hungarian political landscapes. Of greater importance it is to concentrate on the alignment of these parties with Kremlin: What, in particular, has orientated parties such as Jobbik and Golden Dawn towards Moscow? What are the implications for Russian foreign policy in the EU-peripheries of Central and Southeast Europe?   

Why the appeal to the far right in Central and Southeast Europe? The cases of Jobbik and Golden Dawn

The leaders of Jobbik (Gábor Vona) and Golden Dawn (Nikolaos Michaloliakos) have been insisting that Hungary and Greece must extend their bilateral cooperation with Russia. Márton Gyöngyösi and other Jobbik MPs had participated in the ‘independent’ electoral commission during the recent referendum in Crimea. Even more emphatically, Ilias Kasidiaris (Golden Dawn’s second-in-charge) has stated that ‘a crucial task for the nationalist government must be to render Greece a strategic ally for Russia in the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean’. However, why these pro-Kremlin sentiments among parties such as Jobbik and Golden Dawn?

Anti-liberalism makes up an essential component of Golden Dawn’s as well as Jobbik’s engagement into politics. A series of articles in Golden Dawn’s website have been denouncing Liberalism as an ideology that may ultimately turn human societies into herd-like aggregates of individuals without any awareness of collective belonging. On the other hand, Jobbik’s political programme (2010), pledges to reverse the ‘…intentional Liberal destruction of Hungarian national consciousness and protect all symbols of national identity’.

Indeed, the prospective erosion of the collective bonds which, allegedly, constitute human societies (e.g. family, religion and cultural traditions) features as one of the greatest fears among the European far right. Meanwhile, the same political actors tend to regard Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a ‘healthier’ political model in comparison to the mainstream patterns of politics in the West (e.g. a leader-centred and strong government, the promotion of national values, and the safeguarding of the ‘naturally ascribed’ gender-roles).

The second factor is hard Euroscepticism. Jobbik and Golden Dawn reject the EU as a bureaucratic construct that promotes the interests of the powerful states to the detriment of the peripheral ones. The two parties have condemned the EU as a feeble entity within which the Franco-German axis and the post-industrial states of Northwestern Europe maximize their national interests over the EU peripheries.

Nevertheless, whereas Golden Dawn has spoken explicitly of the necessity to align Greek national interests with Russian foreign policy, Jobbik has refrained from calls to turn Hungary into a ‘satellite-state’ of Russia. Despite the intensive networking between Gábor Vona and Kremlin, Jobbik’s party-programme still advocates for ‘an independent and sovereign foreign policy doctrine that will maintain an equal distance from East (e.g. Russia, China) and West (e.g. EU, the US)’.

The third factor is anti-capitalism and Russia’s image as an ‘economic alternative’. Jobbik, as well as Golden Dawn, have frequently condemned the EU as a ‘pseudo-union built upon cultural Marxism and relentless capitalism’. In their political platforms, these parties often blend elements from the traditional political culture of nationalism in their countries with an artificial ‘anti-capitalism’. Within this context, and taking into account that Greece and Hungary are two countries that have been hit particularly hard by the economic crisis, both parties have been considering alternative partnerships for economic cooperation.

Panos Kammenos and other deputies from the populist Independent Greeks had been urging Greece to borrow money from Russia (with, allegedly, more favourable interest-rates) in order to repay the country’s foreign debt. Rumours about Russia’s economic success had flooded the Greek web-sphere and Golden Dawn was quick on its feet to call for ‘Greece’s closer alignment with Moscow and tighter cooperation in military as well as economic affairs’. The threatening spectre of the economy’s collapse in Russia may dispel quite a few of these rumours. However, the political impact of Russia’s image as a self-sufficient power and an economic alternative to the EU still persists among certain segments of Greek society.      

The fourth factor is the interaction between identity-politics and foreign policy. Jobbik, Golden Dawn and other far right parties have been very sceptical of the ways that globalization may allegedly result in ‘worldwide acculturation’. Along these lines, ideological trends such as (neo)Eurasianism coincide with Jobbik’s calls to reconnect Hungary with the Asian part of its cultural ancestry. Although it subscribes to Hungary’s ‘historical’ image as a hegemonic power inside the Carpathian Basin, the Jobbik leadership equally acknowledges the Eurasian origins of the Hungarian ethno-genesis (i.e. the references to the Ancient Magyars and Huns). Gábor Vona and other high-rank members of Jobbik have been quick on their feet to dispel any Eurocentric or Orientalist outlooks and emphasize Hungary’s role as a bridge between East and West.

This aspect of Jobbik’s foreign policy doctrine has come to legitimize Vona’s campaign in emerging regional actors such as Turkey, Kazakhstan or, in this case, Russia. It is the shared belief in cultural exceptionalism and the conviction that neither the Russian nor the Hungarian culture can confine within the narrow limits of ‘Europe’ or ‘Asia’ that provides a common ground between the Russian Eurasianists’ (Alexander Dugin, in particular) and Vona’s understandings of Eurasian identity. This common ground has helped bypass the obstacle of ‘traditional’ Russoscepticism among Hungarian nationalists.

Implications for the future

By contrast to the bipolarity of the ‘80s and the unipolarity of the ‘90s, we are currently witnessing the emergence of a multipolar international system. The European economic crisis revealed not only the feeble foundations of monetary unification but also the conflict among various models of governance and financial management inside the EU. Meanwhile, Russia has reasserted its ambition to evolve into a potent global actor. The two parties that have been discussed operate in EU peripheries marred by economic stagnation and political instability.

As far as Russia’s foreign policy is concerned, one might argue that Kremlin does not endorse concrete ideological prerogatives. Instead, one might detect a pattern of situational adaptation. Russian nationalism, an abstract Eurasian identity and, even, the Soviet heritage have been occasionally invoked in order to legitimize Russia’s foreign policy in the ‘near abroad’. During the recent crisis in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Kremlin’s spokespersons and pro-Kremlin media outlets, rushed to portray the conflict as a war between neo-Fascists and anti-Fascists.

Through linking the recent developments to the Soviet heritage and Ukraine’s home-grown tradition of Fascism (e.g. Stepan Bandera and the OUN), the coordinated endeavour of the abovementioned actors succeeded in making certain leftist parties rather sympathetic to Russian foreign policy. Germany’s Die Linke, for instance, has interpreted the developments in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine as a justified response to the ‘EU-sponsored, Fascist government in Kyiv’.

Meanwhile, this did not prevent Kremlin from utilizing representatives of far right parties in an ‘independent’ electoral commission during the recent referendum in Crimea. On the one hand, Kremlin has managed to capitalize on grievances that do not confine in the cases of Jobbik and Golden Dawn but resonate with a considerable chunk of the European far right (e.g. Euroscepticism and anti-liberalism). On the other hand, the Great Patriotic War against Fascism and its symbolism form a major component of nationalist imagery in contemporary Russia.

Nevertheless, instead of being national in shape and Socialist in content, the image of the Great Patriotic War has been given a distinctly national (Russian) content. In this light, Russia is being portrayed as an anti-fascist force not on ideological but, mainly, on national grounds through references to the Russian nation’s war-effort against Nazi Germany. It is this reappropriation of the Great Patriotic War’s imagery that has provided an, even by default, common ground between certain parties of the broader left and Kremlin. Furthermore, it is this ‘ideological void’ that has enabled Kremlin to network with a variety of, occasionally conflicting, political actors and juggle with their resentment towards mainstream politics within the EU.                  

With specific regard to the European far right, it might be an exaggeration to argue that Kremlin employs far right parties in such a coordinated manner that the Comintern had utilized Communist parties during the interwar era. Moreover, the map of the far right is too diverse and multifaceted to form a coherent whole. For instance, Jobbik’s increasing popularity is an additional factor that has spurred a more decisive turn towards the right on the part of the ruling FIDESZ. At the same time, Golden Dawn’s extremism has resulted in the conviction of the party’s leading figures and this opens up new prospects (although the results of the European elections demonstrated that Golden Dawn has managed to maintain its electoral base).     

However, depending on the evolution of the balance of power between Russia and the EU, one should not dismiss the possibility for such political actors to function as (asymmetric) ‘Trojan horses’ inside the framework of Russian foreign policy. In all of this, it should be borne in mind that the role envisioned for the sympathetic ‘Trojan horses’ from Central and Southeast Europe within the EU bears a qualitative difference from the role reserved for certain parties from the ‘core’ of Western Europe.

In the former case, the focus is cast on systemic transformation, or a radical shift in the foreign policy agenda, that would bring the states in question within Russia’s sphere of influence. In the case of Greece, the drastic realignment of the party-system and the state of turbulence between 2010 and 2011 revealed the fragile foundations of political institutions. Moreover, the current prospect of new elections and the possibility that the leftist SYRIZA may win them generates further anxieties in regards with the consolidation of the new government. In the case of Hungary, the state of friction between Budapest and Brussels over the management of the economic crisis has been a driving force behind the readjustment of this state’s foreign policy towards Moscow.

By contrast, the polities of Western Europe are characterized by greater stability and their democratic institutions have been established as result of a long process. Therefore, the prospects for systemic transformations with groundbreaking repercussions are rather weak. Within the West European context, then, Kremlin’s focus is cast on a more gradualist strategy. This may consist in an attempt to employ sympathetic parties from Western Europe as a bulwark with the aim to counter the impact of the US and the EU upon the foreign policy agenda(s) in these states. So far, a variety of political parties, as diverse as the National Front in France and the UKIP in the United Kingdom, seem to endorse Russian foreign policy. The growing popularity of these parties signals the shape of things to come.  

Sideboxes Related stories:  Russia's Trojan Horse
Categories: les flux rss

Talking about the rouble, President Putin makes a few phone calls

18. December 2014 - 15:50

Even as the Russian rouble responds to Central Bank intervention, people are taking to the streets in search of imported goods. Meanwhile, President Putin makes a few phone calls.


Overnight, on 15-16 December, the Central Bank of Russia re-examined its key interest rate, raising it to 17% trying to stabilise the rouble. However, the next day (already called ‘Black Tuesday’), the exchange rate reached 121 roubles to the pound. The Central Bank hopes that the Russian people’s experience of previous crises will help them, and businesses, weather the storm.

A perfect storm

‘The situation is critical. A year ago, even our worst nightmares didn’t stretch to what’s happening right now,’ says Deputy Chairman of the Russian Central Bank, Sergei Shevtsov. But the signs had been there for a while. The devaluation of the rouble had actually started at the end of August when several negative factors all hit at once — inflation, a falling oil price, sanctions, and the stagnating Russian economy.

While the Central Bank’s measures on 15-16 December (including making non-guaranteed credit more difficult to receive) were designed to stabilise the rouble, economists and representatives of the relevant ministries admit that the rate should have been raised far earlier. At the opening of trade on Tuesday, the rouble strengthened (94 roubles to the pound, down from 102). Yet by 1500 UTC, people were panicking; and Black Tuesday saw the rouble break the psychological barrier of 100 roubles to the euro, and 80 to the dollar.

Representatives of business have reacted negatively to the Central Bank’s base rate hike. Boris Titov, a government business ombudsman, says that ‘It doesn’t make sense to shore up the rouble at the expense of the development of the economy. The Central Bank’s raising of the key interest rate means that when commercial banks come to refinance, it will cost 17% interest. As a result, business plans are changing under the pressure of thinking about production costs and profitability.

‘It doesn’t make sense to shore up the rouble at the expense of the development of the economy.’

‘Each year, you’ll have to give 17% of your investment resources to the banks. Even more, given that the banks need to cover their own margins. That is, the real rate today is more than 20%. Therefore, any project should be 20% more competitive than the proposals of foreign competitors.’

Alexander Elinson, a member of the business association Business Russia, agrees:

‘I have only emotions at the moment. The Central Bank’s measures will lead to only one thing — ruining Russian businesses. I am afraid that you cannot stop people panicking about the currency. When the rouble loses 10% of its value in one day, it’s already too late to stop people panicking.’

Consumer panic

The falling rouble has taken its toll on the traditional consumer boom in the run-up to New Year. People have panicked, lining up in front of ATMs and shops in order to invest their devaluing currency in something tangible: food or household appliances.

One person was carrying out a refrigerator and a washing machine

By Tuesday evening, people were already sharing pictures of supermarket queues on social media. As one eyewitness described the situation in Moscow to the radio station Kommersant-FM, ‘The queue for the M-Video shop on Sadovo-Kudrinskaya street covered the whole store. One person was carrying out a refrigerator and a washing machine. Words cannot describe what was happening in the road that runs past the car park: several lanes were at a standstill with cars waiting to park. The IKEA at Belaya Dacha [one of Europe’s largest shopping malls] was a real sight. People just swept everything off the shelves. There were enormous queues for appliances, kitchens, sofas — up to 30 people for each.

‘It was the same in the warehouse. The queues started at the entrance to the warehouse. There were about 70 people in each queue. And this is all connected to the rouble. This is what people are saying.’

The return of 2008

Experts have begun to talk of a financial crisis, drawing analogies with the events of 1998 and 2008. As Deputy Chairman of the Central Bank Sergei Shevtsov warns, the situation is comparable to the darkest period of 2008. Indeed, the Central Bank’s November forecast calls the potential scenario whereby the oil price hits $60 a barrel ‘stressful.’ In this scenario, Russian GDP falls by 4 percentage points in 2015. Former rector of the New Economics School in Moscow, Sergei Guriev, says that Russia has already entered this scenario. Guriev stated on the independent internet TV channel Dozhd’: ‘We are already beyond the forecasted mild recession. I think we are in serious trouble. The main problem is not the rouble, but the decline in revenues, rising prices and unemployment.’

‘We are already beyond the forecasted mild recession. I think we are in serious trouble.’

During the emergency cabinet meeting on Monday, the government decided to increase the supply of foreign currency in the market, thus reducing demand for it, as well as replacing foreign currency with ‘exchangeable liquid assets in roubles.’ Minister of Economic Development, Alexei Ulyukayev, stated that the regulator and the government had agreed to support reliable and high-quality borrowers. Legislative changes are now on the cards in order to provide banks with greater amounts of capital. However, Ulyukaev ruled out the possibility of introducing foreign exchange controls.

Resolving the difficult economic situation depends on how quickly and efficiently the authorities react to negative signals in the market. While sanctions close off opportunities for refinancing external debt, Russian counter-sanctions continue to feed inflation; and the government cannot rely on a significant increase in the oil price. Given how politicised economic decisions are in Russia, and that Russia’s leading financial institutions depend on the political will of the country, solving the crisis will be no easy task.

Putin’s response

At the annual press conference on 18 November, while President Putin seemed to offer little in the way of concrete actions to be taken in response to the financial situation, he did talk of combatting speculators by telephone.

Grigory Dubovitsky (RIA Novosti): Vladimir Vladimirovich, the situation on the currency market is developing by the day. Many experts, including yourself have said that this is partially the result of actions taken by currency speculators. Who are they, could you give us their names? Are they Russians or foreigners? And why can’t we face up to them? Are we so weak, or are they so strong?

Vladimir Putin: This is what our Ukrainian partners did. That is, force businesses, exporters, to sell. But it’s ineffective. The Central Bank is not planning to limit our exports judging by the current figures. This does not mean that the government cannot influence the situation via its representatives in boards of directors. But we are not planning to make any direct instructions.

As to the speculators, they can be foreigners, different funds, or companies. And on the whole, this is part of the market economy. Speculators always appear when there’s an opportunity to make money — creating a favourable situation for oneself in the market. The Central Bank has stopped its currency interventions. It’s another question of whether that could have been done earlier and more stridently. But that’s a question of taste.

‘Speculators always appear when there’s an opportunity to make money’

As to who exactly these people are, I had a chat with some of them on the telephone yesterday — in a friendly manner. I asked one of them, “could you hold off?” He thinks for a minute, and says: “Well, we’ve got to keep up with our credit payments.” I ask him, “But can you have a go?” He says: “Well, in general, we have three billion stashed away.” Three billion dollars! Do you understand what kind of money this is? This isn’t 30 kopeks. And this is only the reserve fund of one company. So if we take this as an average, you know, we’d be looking at not 30, but 300 billion dollars. We need to regulate that somehow, we have to talk, come to some agreement.’

Sideboxes Related stories:  The rouble crisis in Siberia Putin's new foreign policy rulebook Review: Peter Pomerantsev, ‘Nothing is true and everything is possible’ Country or region:  Russia Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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Reflections on intervention in the 21st century

18. December 2014 - 15:40

Where stands now the ‘responsibility to protect’? Recent egregious intervention failures require simplistic nostra to be replaced by a more complex understanding.

Intervention in perspective: children displaced by the post-war chaos in Iraq, supported by the UN in Iraqi Kurdistan. Flickr / United Nations Photo. Some rights reserved.

Drones, controlled remotely from many miles away, routinely circle the skies above large swathes of Iraq. This is the latest iteration of intervention in the region—now targeting the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). Such operations have become the embodiment of US ‘counter-terrorism’ policy but the landscape of this intervention, like all others, is unique.

Over the last seven months IS has waged a war of brutality and repression across Syria and large parts of Iraq. The group also pursues a propaganda campaign unabashedly celebrating and promoting the war crimes it commits. The international response was slow from the start, remains limited and is decidedly tentative about troop deployments. Meanwhile, the atrocities continue.

The debate today about military intervention, humanitarian or otherwise, is at least as acute and urgent as at any time in recent decades. But this debate is highly complex and wrought with competing understandings of core concepts.


The legality of intervention is a crucial concern. It is typically understood as specified by chapters I (article 2) and VII (article 51) of the Charter of the United Nations, which firmly defend the sovereign equality of member states, while sanctioning war only in the respective cases of self-defence and threats to international peace and security. Additionally, intervention may be initiated by a regional organisation under chapter VIII, and can be considered legal so long as subsequent Security Council authorisation is obtained. Gareth Evans strongly argues that the UN Charter “is the only possible source of authority” for any and all interventions.

Yet broader interpretations of legal intervention, relying on customary law, have sometimes been proffered. Current actions against IS, as with Kosovo in 1999, may well fall into this category—humanitarian need is undeniable and crimes against humanity evident. Given the state of affairs in the Middle East and prevailing intervention strategies under the Obama administration, the customary-law justification appears to be the most common for action outside of the UN Charter framework. While this may avoid the pitfalls of a gridlocked Security Council, it runs the risk of creating more confusion in the realm of legality— particularly when the case for intervention is shrouded in controversy.

In 2001 the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), chaired by Evans, developed the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) doctrine, attempting to recast sovereignty as contingent upon a state’s willingness and ability to protect its citizens—to uphold their fundamental human rights. The doctrine posits that when states fail to meet this obligation the responsibility to protect individuals falls on the international community.

R2P has gradually transformed the discourse surrounding intervention and is seen by some as providing clear-cut guidance on when military force may be utilised in pressing humanitarian situations. R2P principles were adopted by the General Assembly in 2005 but the doctrine remains non-binding and does not confer legal rights; nor does it impose binding restrictions pertaining to intervention. Notably, R2P does not amend the criteria for intervention in the UN Charter—it supplements them by filling a hole and providing a further justification for intervention (still under the charter).

Thomas Weiss suggests that we ought to call the UN’s endorsement of the doctrine “R2P lite” because, unlike the original ICISS recommendations, the September 2005 summit made Security Council approval a sine qua non rather than merely highly desirable. Its invocation in Security Council resolutions has brought controversy and mounting criticism.

Charles Kupchan analyses this in relation to the NATO intervention in Libya, arguing that the operation “initially enjoyed legitimacy and legality” but, because of NATO’s over-stretching of the mandate and perceived mission overreach, it “ended up on contested ground”. As long as R2P intersects with the geopolitical interests of powerful states, the question of whether it can ever be applied systematically and impartially remains in doubt.

That R2P has been endorsed in the General Assembly, invoked by the Security Council and become ubiquitous in debates about intervention may signal a significant change in the understanding of legality and the legitimate grounds for mobilising military forces, so long as issues of impartiality can be resolved in the further articulation and entrenchment of the doctrine. This would require a more coherent and substantive account of who can and should take decisions to implement R2P, under what conditions, with what means and with what appropriate assurances of accountability. That remains some way off.


A second dominant theme in debates about intervention is the issue of legitimacy. Whilst legal authorisation may create legitimacy in some instances, the two are not synonymous. Rather, legitimacy connotes whether an intervention is regarded as acceptable and/or ‘right’—be it morally or otherwise justified. Legitimacy is perhaps the most difficult concept to make sense of, yet it carries significant weight in the way one understands global order. This is a judgment that can be made by both those in positions of power and also by the many people who are affected by an intervention, ranging from the citizens of intervening states who fund intervention (in)directly to the citizens of states where interventions are made, affecting in profound ways their life chances.

Thomas Risse offers a very interesting contribution to the discussion by distinguishing between two forms of legitimacy: normative legitimacy, which addresses the “question of whether or not a particular political action can be considered legitimate according to some moral or ethical standard”; but also empirical legitimacy, which is the “factual belief by those being ruled (or being intervened in this case) that the ruling authorities (or the interveners) are justified to claim followership”. Pointedly, he argues that there is “a clear relationship between the support of external interveners by local rulers and/or populations, on the one hand, and the effectiveness of the intervention in terms of keeping or restoring the peace on the ground, on the other hand”.

This is a crucial contribution to the debate about both legitimacy and feasibility. Simply put, Risse contends that “successful” intervention requires empirical legitimacy. Yet, such arguments by no means command agreement. In this regard, Anne Orford makes an interesting point. She argues that the “turn to legitimacy” is part of an attack on legalism that can be used by powerful states to carve out space needed for interventions, whilst also maintaining a status quo in the international order. Thus, legitimacy can be hijacked by powerful interests to claim the rightful nature of an action, even if it is blatantly illegal under international law.

Legitimacy is a concept we cannot do without, yet it remains contested at its core. If one considers legitimacy in isolation from questions of legality and feasibility, an approach such as Risse’s might draw the debate closer to a common understanding. In particular, the benefit of employing an ‘empirical’ account of legitimacy is that it comes close to introducing some kind of objective measure that interventions can be considered against. However, as Orford points out, the matter is more complex when considered in relation to legality and global power structures. In this instance, legitimacy, and its pursuit, may sometimes serve to undermine the international legal code.


A third dimension is feasibility. While this may seem a straightforward concept it remains deeply problematic, especially in the context of the complex patterns of conflict and intervention in the 21st century.

Feasibility is, at its core, about judging the means required to achieve a particular end: the protection of civilians, the eradication of a despotic regime, providing relief to populations under severe threat. Is the use of force effective? Does it generate ‘collateral damage’ which undermines the core mission? Does it leave a legacy of violence as the norm of managing conflictual relationships? Does it undermine human-rights standards and the capacity for self-determination? Do the means destroy the end?

Michael Doyle and Camille Strauss-Kahn identify one of the many drivers of liberal interventionism as the push for democracy—and argue that the results have not been promising. Apart from the very different circumstances of the aftermath of the second world war, few Western-led interventions have issued in stable democracies.

Indeed, a strong case can be made that many have made things worse—much worse—in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya (see Held and Ulrichsen). The reach of the Afghanistan government has been virtually reduced to Kabul plus a few metres on either side of major highways. Iraq is in further turmoil, creating a vacuum in which armed groups can expand. And Libya has become a failed state in practically every sense.

Feasibility is not only about the effectiveness of an action. Will it be implemented at all? And, if so, how, by whom and for how long? Strong UN mandates are increasingly sparse and rarely associated with the capacity to deliver successful intervention. Action can be blocked by permanent members of the Security Council, as when China has vetoed resolutions aimed at putting more pressure on Sudan on Darfur or, more recently, Russia and China have vetoed intervention in the Syrian civil war amid acute human suffering.

Anne-Marie Slaughter argues that while agreement on political and military feasibility may be difficult to reach within government, “it is magnified ten or a hundred fold” when the only way to put together a legal intervention is to involve 14 other governments, “each of which has their own political, military, and humanitarian calculations”. In short, the more state and non-state actors involved in an intervention, the more it is likely to show strains generated by multipolarity and complexity (see Hale, Held and Young, 2013).

Feasibility should not be considered in isolation from the other factors in this debate. Legality and legitimacy may be directly related to it—but in an inverse way. Exploring Yemen, Steven Zyck argues that it is those “projects which operate in a legal grey zone” that are the most feasible, as they face fewer obstacles to implementation and regulation. So feasibility may increase with the weakness of states and the ambiguity of legal context—which is not encouraging, of course, for a rule-based global order.


The diversity of views on these three core aspects of intervention suggests that scholars, politicians and practitioners may be talking past one another—each bringing their own idea of what legality, legitimacy or feasibility may mean. This may be inevitable to some degree but it does make coherent debate difficult to achieve. And how to proceed remains in many cases unresolved: vis-à-vis IS, Boko Haram, despotic and repressive states, as well as a multitude of militias which reign in whatever capacity they can, with civilians frequently caught in the crossfire.

These uncertainties are clearly manifest in the struggles by the US president, Barack Obama, to address IS. There appears a clear legal mandate under chapter VIII for intervention, if the UNSC were to give backing beyond the limited sanctions and condemnations set out this year. IS is clearly committing crimes against humanity: rape, pillage, slaughter, torture and so on.

On legitimacy, the terrain is complex—straightforward, perhaps, for Western advocates of intervention or affected Shia populations but certainly not for certain Sunni communities throughout Syria and Iraq. Feasibility is wrought with even greater complexity. Obama has sought a two-pronged strategy of drone warfare and arming local resistance. This is a long way from the tank columns of the ‘coalition of the willing’ landing in Basra and pushing up towards Baghdad.

So far the results, however, seem unfortunately similar. Finding answers to these questions is as difficult as it is necessary.

Andrew Linklater highlights the underlying tension between the ostensibly benevolent motives driving decisions to intervene and the moral and practical complexities of interventions themselves. On one hand, intervention can be shaped by a quest for realistic understandings of war-torn societies and pragmatic approaches. On the other, discourses of intervention can be found to be interpolated with “colonial imaginaries”, a hierarchy of societies constituted on racist assumptions.

The future of intervention is likely to reflect these complex forces, all too often evoking positions on legality, legitimacy and feasibility to suit the geopolitical interests of the time. Yet these concepts are not infinitely malleable, and they carry clear institutional and philosophical content which needs to be understood.

The weight of failure in many recent cases of intervention, with overwhelming death and destruction, makes this debate of paramount significance. Without clarity on these core issues politicians are likely to continue launching violent interventions which cause more harm than good, while undermining a rule-based global order.

This essay is based on the most recent Global Policy e-book, Lessons from Intervention in the 21st Century: Legality, Legitimacy and Feasibility, edited by the authors, to be released in the coming weeks. Join the debate on Twitter #GPintervention.

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Fairytale of New Addington

18. December 2014 - 14:02

This Croydon neighbourhood has been maligned by the tabloids as home of work-shy, cultureless Chavs. The sociologist Les Back, who grew up there, reports on an annual celebration of community.

It is the last Sunday in November.  Hundreds of people gather on the corner of Homestead Way and King Henry’s Drive in New Addington, south London. We have come to see the switching on the Hopkinsons’ Christmas lights. This family home is fabled for its electric Technicolor decorations —10,000 lights, luminous reindeer, choirboys and Father Christmas himself. Every December since the eighties this house has been lit up, a giant beacon of festivity. 

By sundown at 4.30pm there must be 500 local residents with their children whose expectation is getting increasingly unruly. “If you step into the road again I am going to take you home,” a mother snaps at her little boy. There are so many people in the street that the buses can barely get past.  As it happens, the person responsible for this incredible show — Alex Hopkinson —  has worked as a bus driver in south London for ten years. As 5 pm approaches the master of ceremonies leads the children in a count down and as the lights are switched on fireworks fly from the Hopkingsons’ back garden, exploding over the heads of the crowd. A snow machine blasts fake festive flakes into the air. Kids toss snowballs at each other. 

All this is done for free and without any official coordination. Alex has spent £300 from his own pocket on the fireworks, last year the electricity along was an extra £150 and the total cost was £1,500, no small sum for a man supporting a family on a bus driver’s salary. 

In the front garden, Santa Claus in his sleigh hands out bags of sweets to the children. This year the proceeds from the sale of teas and coffees and donations will go to the Royal Marsden Hospital and Combat Stress.  When the last fireworks have exploded there is applause and a voice from the back of the crowd shouts: “Well done, Alex!”

Alex Hopkinson, now in his thirties, explains how it all started. His father Derek Hopkinson who grew up in Hoxton, East London and as a boy worked in the east London markets, picking up the markets’ patter and brogue. “My father was a real showman. Everyone that met him loved him. He was like a magnet, he never turned anyone away.” In the middle of the technicolor light display there’s a huge picture of Derek Hopkinson mounted on the front of the house.

When I left home over thirty years ago almost no-one outside Croydon had heard of New Addington. Then in November 2011 Addington resident Emma West shouted racist abuse on a tram bound for Addington. Her rant was filmed on a mobile phone. The video went viral, watched by over 11 million people on YouTube. Championed by the BNP and the English Defense League, West became a political symbol. 

It transpired that she had been suffering with mental health problems and had taken 100mg of the antidepressant Citalopram, more than twice the recommended limit. According to her barrister David Martin-Sperry Emma West was “deeply depressed” by the far right’s support, and under pressure from the trial she attempted to take her own life on three occasions.  In July 2013 West was bound over and sentenced to a 24 month community order. The anti-fascist magazine Searchlight concluded that the Crown Prosecution Service had exacerbated the situation by failing to take West’s mental health into account. 

In the summer of 2012 New Addington was again in the headlines following the murder of 12 year old Tia Sharp by her grandmother’s boyfriend. The Daily Mail described Tia as a “victim of the moral decay that now prevails in parts of Britain. The names may change, they may come from different parts of the country, but all are casualties of the same underclass whose ‘values’ — subsidised in the most part by benefits — are being passed down from generation to generation.” In the media New Addington became a tag for the work-shy underclass, benefit scroungers and cultureless ‘Chavs’.

In November 2013 The Croydon Advertiser published ‘well-being scores' for the borough and the New Addington and Fieldway estates came bottom: the worst places to live in Croydon.

For many working people the estate offered a first real stable home, an escape from slum clearance and post-war austerity.  During the seventies home ownership was very low, confined mainly to the oldest part of the estate built in the thirties and named after Charles Boot who envisioned Addington as a ‘garden village’. Thatcherism changed this and the level of home ownership during the eighties increased rapidly, as residents took up the ‘right to buy’ their homes.  Families like my own and the Hopkinsons bought their council homes.

I asked Alex whether he thought there was something unique about working-class men of his Dad’s generation. “There is, yeah…” Alex replied. “Oh yeah, enjoying themselves.  It’s all lost now, people are too busy now, doing their own stuff now — not caring about no-one else.” Derek Hopkinson died in St Christopher’s Hospice, Sydenham in 2004. In 2013 Alex wanted to rekindle the tradition in his Dad’s memory to mark the tenth anniversary of his passing. This year’s Christmas lights opening marks the continuation of the tradition. 

The Hopkinsons were not the only family to celebrate Christmas in this way.  By the nineties lots of homes on the estate were decorated in lavish colour, with glowing snowmen and Father Christmases shining out of the pitch darkness at night.  Sukhdev Sandhu writes that houses that stick out from timid suburban conformity appear both “heroic and lonely”. Christmas kitsch in ‘Addo‘ has that kind of exceptional boldness. Driving around this year there are fewer illuminated houses than in previous Decembers. Austerity is biting like the cold North Downs’ wind.  In recent years two Pawn shops have opened on the estate’s main shopping area, Central Parade. One resident told me, “I was up there last week and I saw someone take their laptop. They offered her £20 and she took it.”

The estate is much more socially differentiated than outsiders would have it.  Home ownership on the estate is 38 per cent in Fieldway (known locally as the ‘New Estate’), and 55 per cent for the older ‘red brick houses’ in New Addington ward.  This is relatively low when compared with 69 per cent for Croydon as a whole. The homes decorated extravagantly at Christmas are often, although not exclusively, the red-brick ones. The festive illumination of these homes does not simply reflect their economic status or spending power, rather the Christmas lights are a seasonal gift to the estate as a whole. 

“You can do a class analysis of London with Christmas lights,” writes China Miéville. In poorer homes “the season is celebrated with chromatic surplus”, while the rich and middle-class “strive to distinguish themselves with White-lit Christmas trees”. A drive to New Addington supports Miéville thesis. In affluent Beckenham, homes are bathed in subtle white light sometimes with a luminous electric stag grazing on the lawn. “Ah good taste, as Picasso may or may not have said, what a dreadful thing,” writes Miéville. He might enjoy New Addington where entire houses are illuminated with multi-coloured electric excess.

I ask Alex if there is a relationship between social class and Christmas decorations.  He nods: “I think it’s people who have never had nothin’ who like to give back to people.  You always find people who are poor always give and people that are rich don’t… and that’s the reason they stay rich for.” We laugh. “When you think about it a lot of the rich people they sort of don’t give to people and that is the reason why they’ve got money.”  Is that why they’ve got their classy white lights?” I ask?  “Exactly” he says.

At the heart of this story is an ordinary miracle. In contrast to the glitzy consumerism of the supermarkets and shopping centres that profit from Christmas, this is a spectacle of community — a gift given for free in hard times by a family to the estate.  You can see it reflected in the faces of the children, in their laughter and excitement, and come to admire the glowing colours of the Christmas lights.  There is no better tribute to Derek’s memory, one of New Addington’s best-loved characters. 

A young mother took her kids up to see the Hopkinsons’ Christmas lights. Her story is emblematic of the new situation. She was evicted from her council flat earlier in 2013 for not paying her rent, but it was not just that times were hard financially.  Eviction was her way out of the abusive relationship she was in where she had repeatedly been the victim of domestic violence.   The council simply viewed her as a bad debtor and issued an eviction notice.  A local housing office told me: “There’s not a lot of sympathy out there… if you get evicted then the legislation says you are intentionally homeless. People don’t come back.” 

This is how new class divisions work through distinguishing between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. She now lives with her Nan who, like the Hopkinsons, bought her council house in the 1980s. The atmosphere of class cruelty and widening housing inequalities creates new forms of family, where — as in this case — the old are in need of everyday care and at the same time provide a roof for the young in need of a home.

As a child Kirsty MacColl lived close to New Addington. In her famous collaboration with the Pogues, Fairy Tale of New York – the greatest Christmas song of all time – she sings with Shane MacGowan “And the bells are ringing out. For Christmas Day.”  For me, the Hopkinsons’ festive decorations recall that stirring refrain.




Data Blog: Where is the best place to live in Croydon, Croydon Advertiser,

Sukhdev Sandhu Night Haunts: A Journey Through the London Night (Verso & Artangel, 2007) p. 22.  

Strategic Partnership Croydon Fieldway Ward Profile (Strategic Partnership, 2009) and Strategic Partnership Croydon New Addington Ward Profile (Strategic Partnership, 2009)

China Miéville London’s Overthrow (The Westbourne Press, 2012) p. 29

Les Back ‘Flame Immune to Wind: The Songs of Kirsty MacColl, City, 7 (1), 2003 pp. 107-111. 

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Justice blindfolded? The case of Jimmy Mubenga

18. December 2014 - 12:44

Following the acquittal on 16 December of the G4S guards charged with the manslaughter of Jimmy Mubenga, barrister Frances Webber, chair of the Institute of Race Relations, focuses on the judge’s decision to rule inadmissible evidence pointing to endemic racism within G4S.

Jimmy Mubenga with his youngest child

After the acquittal of the guards charged with Jimmy Mubenga’s manslaughter, the judge told the jurors not to be concerned if they later read about evidence excluded from the trial. What should we make of this advice?

On 16 December three G4S guards were acquitted of the manslaughter of Jimmy Mubenga, who died on 12 October 2010 under restraint on a plane during his deportation to Angola. Terrence Hughes, Colin Kaler and Stuart Tribelnig had been on trial at the Old Bailey for manslaughter by gross negligence, on the basis that they disregarded their duty of care by keeping Mubenga in a compressed position in his seat for over half an hour, ignoring his cries that he could not breathe.

Should we be surprised at the verdicts? No. In all the dozens of deaths in custody involving undue force researched by the IRR over the last twenty-five years,[1] no one has ever been convicted of homicide. And where an inquest jury, after seeing and hearing incontrovertible evidence, has brought in a verdict of unlawful killing (which has happened at least nine times), heaven and earth are moved to reverse the verdict and/or to ensure that the CPS does not bring a prosecution of those involved.

On this occasion, following the inquest verdict of unlawful killing, the CPS did decide to prosecute the three men, in a reversal of its previous position that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to prosecute anyone involved – the CPS’ default position when it comes to deaths in custody.

Inconsistent verdicts

Jimmy Mubenga died in an aircraft seat, surrounded by passengers on a British Airways plane. The prosecution case was that, handcuffed behind his back and with his head pushed down for over half an hour, Mubenga was held in a position which impeded his breathing. The guards denied pushing him down, and claimed that he put himself into that position, bent over in his seat. Passengers heard him calling out in distress, crying for help, saying ‘I can’t breathe’. The guards denied hearing any such cries. Three eminent medical specialists agreed at the inquest that the cause of death was cardio-respiratory failure caused by restraint.

The inquest jury were directed by the coroner that they had to be sure ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ before bringing in a verdict of unlawful killing.  Given the very high standard of proof needed to sustain an unlawful killing verdict – the same standard of proof needed to bring in guilty verdicts at trial – the failure of the prosecution, highlighting as it does the disparity between the conclusions of the two juries and leaving no one accountable for Mubenga’s death, cannot but bring the justice system into disrepute. The inquest conclusions, the medical evidence, the sheer length of time he was restrained – all were indications that a prosecution could succeed. To some, it looked like an open and shut case. But the prosecution was pursued without zeal, and was stymied by a decision of the judge to exclude significant evidence which the men’s lawyers deemed prejudicial.

Inadmissible evidence?

Following the acquittal, the judge told the jury that they were not to be concerned if they later read about material that was ruled inadmissible at the trial. At the very beginning of the trial, reporting restrictions had been imposed which prevented any media reporting of the unlawful killing verdict, the coroner’s report or the virulently racist tweets and other evidence of racism on the part of the security guards, pending legal argument as to whether the jury could be allowed to hear this evidence or not.  Later in the trial, the judge ruled that the jury should not hear any of this evidence. Hearing about the huge volume of horrible racist tweets and jokes received and re-sent by Terrence Hughes, and the small number by Tribelnig (none were on Kaler’s phone), would, defence lawyers argued, ‘release an unpredictable cloud of prejudice’ in the jury, preventing a fair trial. The judge acceded to the argument – so the jury reached its verdict in ignorance both of the previous jury’s conclusions and of the evidence of racist attitudes held by one or more of the men tasked with restraining Mubenga on the plane.

The law allows evidence of ‘reprehensible conduct’ to be admitted in a criminal trial if it is important explanatory evidence which helps the jury understand the evidence as a whole. The judge agreed that the racist messages were reprehensible, but rejected the prosecutor’s argument that they were relevant to the facts or would help the jury understand what had happened. The defence argued that since there was also homophobia, misogyny and anti-Liverpudlian prejudice mixed in with the racism, they might offend any gays or women or Liverpudlians on the jury and prevent them from reaching a fair verdict.

In a ‘Rule 43’ report (now known as a Preventing Further Deaths, PFD report) issued after the inquest, the coroner had said of these racist messages, ‘It seems unlikely that endemic racism would not impact at all on service provision’. She referred to:

"[T]he possibility that such racism might find reflection in race-based antipathy towards detainees and deportees and that in turn might manifest itself in inappropriate treatment of them. As it was put by one witness, the potential impact on detainees of a racist culture is that detainees and deportees are not “personalised”.This may, self-evidently, result in a lack of empathy and respect for their dignity and humanity potentially putting their safety at risk, especially if force is used against them."

The judge’s decision to exclude the evidence ignored this insight (and of course the jury were not permitted to see this report). Although he accepted that the racist messages were ‘reprehensible conduct’ which would allow admission of the evidence, his decision was to prevent the jury from contextualising or properly weighing the evidence the guards gave of their respectful, professional treatment of Mubenga. It contrasted sharply with the decision of the judge in the Stephen Lawrence case to admit evidence of Gary Dobson and Steven Norris’ racist attitudes, as evidenced in covert surveillance material.

Of course, in the Lawrence case, given the length of time the family had fought for justice, which had been so manifestly denied for so many years, it was imperative for the prosecution to succeed from the point of view of the prosecutor; the case had attained such a high profile as to have become a litmus test for the capacity of the legal system to deliver justice for a victim of a racist attack.

No such imperative existed in this case, which from the point of view of the authorities concerned an attempted lawful deportation. Not only was this action carried out on behalf of the state, albeit by private contractors, it was also clearly (from the official point of view) in the public interest – despite Mubenga’s seventeen years in the UK and his five children born here. Mubenga was a foreign national offender, convicted of an assault in a club – someone as far down the social pecking order as it is possible to be. For it is not just racist tweets which dehumanise: foreign national offenders are a group perhaps more demonised than any other by politicians and media. This context of official action stacked the odds further against a successful prosecution. For, from the prosecutorial perspective, the fact of a prosecution was enough to ward off accusations of institutional injustice; it was unnecessary for such a prosecution to succeed.

The exclusion of relevant evidence meant that the case actually lacked part of its context, and the defence suggestions that Mubenga was indeed too big, strong and vociferous and helped to bring about his own demise, won the day. And although the guards denied any unlawful or dangerous restraint, the sub-text was that if they did do anything untoward it was because of a lack of training and therefore outside of their individual culpability.

Support for the suggestion of institutional – or rather corporate – culpability came in  early 2011, when G4S whistle-blowers told the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee that concerns had been raised with senior management over the use of dangerous restraints on deportees several times before the death – in particular over the practice of forcing a detainee’s head down, known as ‘carpet karaoke’, implicated in Mubenga’s death.[2] After hearing evidence from G4S and Home Office officials, the committee concluded that it was ‘not at all convinced’ that contractors were providing adequate training or supervision to avoid excessive force or dangerous restraint methods. But no charges were brought against G4S, the guards’ employer, either under corporate manslaughter or health and safety legislation – so Mrs Mubenga and the couple’s five children end up with no justice, and no peace.



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Who is accountable for Gaza reconstruction?

18. December 2014 - 11:07

The latest war in Gaza brought not only vast human suffering but devastation to its already pummelled built environment. Yet UN-sponsored reconstruction is proving agonisingly slow.

A Palestinian student inspects the damage to a UN school in Jabalia refugee camp hit by an Israeli attack on 30 July, killing at least 16 civilians. Flickr / United Nations Photo. Some rights reserved.

For weeks, the growing din of criticism, media coverage and protest surrounding the United Nations’ failure to get the rebuilding of Gaza off the ground has met a resounding silence.

Palestinians have been left without details or timelines, while the UN special co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry, tweaks the mechanism for reconstruction he agreed with Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in mid-October. On 11 December Serry promised delivery of materials to repair one-fifth of the estimated 100,000 homes destroyed or damaged in the summer war—yet without addressing the role of Israel in the delays of the preceding two months.

Closer scrutiny reveals that the design and handling of the arrangement itself fall short of fundamental principles of good governance. Key to this failure is dependence on Israel to operate “in good faith”, despite the blockade of Gaza remaining in place.

In an attempt to work around Israel’s barriers to reconstruction, the Serry mechanism effectively subcontracts enforcement of the blockade to the UN. Complicated procedures and technically involved monitoring mechanisms contribute to delays, while Israel retains the right to approve or reject applications case-by-case. It took a month and a half after the agreement was reached for the second shipment of building materials for the private sector to arrive in Gaza.

Standards of good governance, embedded in international agreements such as the Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda and the Fragile States Principles, should help remove obstacles to effective aid placed by powerful spoilers. In Gaza, the UN and Israel are the two most powerful actors administering reconstruction. Hamas and the PA, mired in squabbles over the formation of a consensus government, have little capacity to meet Israeli demands.

Four principles failed

The Serry mechanism, intended to overcome these obstacles in order to start rebuilding before winter, has so far failed the following four principles of good governance:—

Transparency: Those affected by the mechanism should have access to information on the specifics of the arrangement, as well as the status of its implementation. But details of the mechanism were only leaked following a closed, high-level briefing on 14 October. Moreover, Palestinians lack information on the UN’s proposed course of action in response to the mechanism’s evident failure—and have been left waiting in suspense as to when they can secure building materials.

Accountability: No means are apparent to ensure Israel fulfils its responsibilities under the UN arrangement; nor did the agreement require it to accelerate the entry of building materials into Gaza. The donor agencies utilising the Serry mechanism have not complained about their resources getting mired in the black box of Israel’s security concerns. This passive stance permits reconstruction activities to be held hostage by one party—overwhelmingly the stronger—to the conflict.

Responsiveness: Aid should be responsive to need, rather than identity or affiliation; priority should be placed on helping the most vulnerable. But heavy surveillance of supplicants and the requirement to provide detailed personal information may deter individuals (and their families) who have been detained by the Israelis at any point in the past or are affiliated with Hamas. Further, Israel is permitted to deny access to building materials on the basis of its own political criteria.

Effectiveness: If the Serry mechanism were effective, it would facilitate rebuilding with a minimum of delays, ideally improving on previous systems. Donors have past experience with the obstacles imposed by Israel’s strategy of reserving the right to make decisions case-by-case and at the last minute. Unfortunately, the new mechanism relies on the flawed assumption that there exists a will to co-operate on Israel’s part. In point of fact, it has manipulated the arrangement to advance its own end of increased control over Gaza.

Dire consequences

Delays and bureaucratic red tape have dire consequences for Palestinians facing winter without adequate shelter, leading to an emergency situation in Gaza. The UN mechanism’s lack of transparency aggravates the situation, contributing to a tense political environment.

From the ground, a return to conflict may appear to be the only alternative. The UN urgently needs to rethink its strategy—from one of co-operation with the blockade to holding Israel accountable for the crisis in Gaza.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Gaza reconstruction package: should taxpayers be concerned? Country or region:  Palestine Topics:  Conflict
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For young refugees from Syria, education equals hope

18. December 2014 - 10:06

Young Syrian refugees have shown extradordinary resilience, but hope for their short and long-term futures hinges on better educational opportunities.

Syrian refugee children in a makeshift shelter. Demotix/Matthew Aslett. All rights reserved.

A young Syrian woman took centre stage in a recent Refugee Studies Centre workshop in Jordan, eloquently describing her determination to continue to study to become a doctor. Through the help of an innovative refugee training programme in Amman she was on her way.

Yet her case is not the norm; supply of education, vocational training, apprenticeship schemes and psychosocial support for young refugees from Syria is severely lacking. Local and international efforts are failing to meet the needs and educational aspirations of Syria’s young population.

The young woman was speaking during a workshop in Amman involving education practitioners, UN agencies, refugee youth and government actors to discuss the educational status of refugees from Syria aged 12-25 years. This arose from research conducted in Jordan, Lebanon, Northern Iraq / Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Turkey this summer. The research team, some of whom are refugees themselves, came from these respective countries as well as Syria, Palestine and the UK.

The final report, Ensuring Quality Education for Young Refugees from Syria (also Arabic translation and related Policy Note), maps out the educational supply and demand, gaps and good practice for refugee youth from Syria in the region, involving 118 young people and 79 practitioners in the process. It details how education systems are under immense strain and often unable to meet educational demands from refugee youth in the respective contexts. It also highlights the good practice and advocates scaling up quality education services for young refugees in the region.

From listening to the young woman’s aspirations and achievements, the research findings and workshop discussions, it is clear that innovation, leadership and resilience are common characteristics among displaced young people. Yet, at secondary level in particular, demand far outweighs supply, leaving the majority of refugee youth excluded from quality education.

Social factors such as economic deprivation and linguistic difference also prevent access to education. The need to earn money to support the family or inability to afford travel to schools or training centres hinders access for many. Educational exclusion can lead to despondency, social withdrawal and a sense of hopelessness among refugee youth, which can result in young people reverting to violence in Syria in a bid to find solutions, having no prospects in the host community.

Unless educational opportunities are increased, Syria’s future, as well as that of the region and global community, is in jeopardy. It is critical to tap into the strengths and capture the tremendous potential of young people from Syria. The number of refugees from Syria is currently held at over three million, half of whom are children and youth. Given these alarming rates and the complexity of the conflict, long-term solutions are needed.

An integral part of protection in a protracted refugee situation is education and training. Attending school, learning skills or being an apprentice not only gives children and young people life opportunities, but also a sense of stability, purposefulness and hope; components critical to wellbeing.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Education and flags: seminal for winning the hearts and minds of Syria’s new generation? Syrian civil society in Lebanon: challenges and opportunities Social networks in Syria: between mediation and mobilisation Country or region:  Syria Topics:  Conflict
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Religion and human rights - partnership with a dose of pragmatism

18. December 2014 - 10:00

Religion and human rights need not be completely divorced, or work hand-in-hand all the time. A case-by-case approach, taking into account the realities on the ground, is the more sensible thing to do. Français

The present discussion on the potential collaboration between religion and human rights has attracted some interesting articles on how religion and religious actors can complement, or undermine, human rights causes.

Larry Cox has written how religious ideals of social justice provided an impetus and legitimacy to human rights causes, while Nida Kirmani wrote about how religion provided inspiration and legitimacy to gross violations of human rights. Advocates of collaboration tend to focus on the behavior and actions of some religious leaders or religion-inspired human rights, while skeptics focus on the potential dangers of the collaboration to vulnerable groups, such as women, minority groups and the LGBT community.

While religion and human rights may converge on boarder principles, their application in specific circumstances can and do diverge. These differences call for a selective and limited use of religion in the human rights movement. While religion and human rights may converge on boarder principles, their application in specific circumstances can and do diverge. A good example is the reproductive rights of women or the rights of sexual minorities. These differences call for a selective and limited use of religion in the human rights movement. Where there is a common ground on certain issues, human rights activists must work with religious leaders, and use their acceptance and credibility to advance those causes. On the other hand, when religious leaders promote ideas and practices that contradict essential elements of human rights, activists must confront and challenge the narratives and arguments of such leaders. Activists may even work with moderate religious leaders to undermine the views and actions of regressive religious leaders.

An approach that does not absolutely preclude religion, or blindly endorse religion as a matter of principle, is preferable. The value and utility of the partnership should be assessed on a case-by-case and pragmatic basis. Just like many human rights activists work with traditional communities and their leaders, they must work with religious communities to advance the cause of human rights. To ignore such an influential and resourceful notion as religion is unwise.  

In many countries, especially countries with dominant Muslim populations, one has to recognize the influence of religion and religious law. However, the articles published here do not sufficiently explore how a state can balance the demands for official recognition of religion with the demands of human rights. They do not talk about how in some countries political leaders try to accommodate the demands of religion within the notion of human rights.

Given the social, cultural and religious reality in some states, excluding religion and religious law is not only unwise but also impractical. However, states should be pragmatic in recognizing certain aspects of religious law. They will need to recognize the broad principles and objects of a particular religion, or religions, and at the same time find a way to guarantee fundamental human rights.

For instance, the 2014 Constitution of Tunisia and the 2012 Provisional Constitution of Somalia expressly recognize Islam as a state religion and its potential role in shaping laws and state action. Nevertheless, the constitutions do not allow religious leaders to invalidate laws based on real or perceived incompatibilities with Islam. Moreover, the constitutions recognize a number of rights and establish procedures and institutions to enforce such rights. In both countries, the extent to which religious ideals and principles will influence (both positively and negatively) the recognition of human rights depends on the political realities of the time and the views of the dominant political forces. Nevertheless, the establishment of clear procedures for the enforcement of rights is likely to ensure that human rights have a certain level of protection.

Demotix/Mohamed Krit (All rights reserved)

Members of the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia celebrate the passage of their country's new constitution.

Furthermore, the recognition of the application of religious law may counter-intuitively advance human rights, as it gives the state the opportunity to set up constraints and control mechanisms within the system.

For instance, the constitutions of some states, such as the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, establish or allow Muslims to establish Shari’ah courts that resolve disputes between Muslims, provided all parties to the case have consented to the jurisdiction of the court. This ensures that only those people who agree to the system will be subject to the law. In the absence of such recognition, women and other vulnerable groups are likely to be socially forced to be subject to the system. Ignoring Muslim personal law does not necessarily mean religious law will not regulate behavior anymore. It only means the system will operate outside the framework of the state, which makes it difficult to tell whether women and other vulnerable groups are being treated well and deprives the state the opportunity to correct at least the most egregious consequences of the application of religious law.

While principles are an important consideration in forging a partnership between religion and human rights, the diversity and contradictions on the ground require a more practical approach. In fact, a number of grassroots human rights organizations already actively collaborate and work with religions establishments and leaders. A sensible approach would be to assess the partnership on a case-by-case basis.

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La religion et les droits de l’homme : un partenariat avec une dose de pragmatisme

18. December 2014 - 10:00

La religion et les droits de l’homme n’ont pas besoin d’être totalement séparés ou de travailler constamment main dans la main. Une approche au cas par cas, prenant en compte la réalité du terrain, est la solution la plus raisonnable. English

La discussion actuelle sur la collaboration potentielle entre la religion et les droits de l’homme a généré des articles intéressants sur la manière dont la religion et les acteurs religieux peuvent nuire à la cause des droits de l’homme ou l’enrichir.

Larry Cox a écrit sur la manière dont les idéaux religieux de justice sociale ont donné un élan et une légitimité aux droits de l’homme, alors que Nida Kirmani écrivait sur la manière dont la religion inspirait et légitimait les violations outrancières des droits de l’homme. Les partisans d’une collaboration ont tendance à mettre l’accent sur le comportement et les actions de certains chefs religieux ou d’inspiration religieuse dans le domaine des droits de l’homme, alors que les sceptiques insistent sur les dangers potentiels de la collaboration pour les groupes vulnérables, tels que les femmes, les minorités et les LGBT.

Alors que la religion et les droits de l’homme peuvent converger sur les grands principes, leur application dans des circonstances spécifiques peut diverger et c’est ce qui se passe. Ces différences appellent à une utilisation sélective et limitée de la religion dans les mouvements de défense des droits de l’homme. Alors que la religion et les droits de l’homme peuvent converger sur les grands principes, leur application dans des circonstances spécifiques peut diverger et c’est ce qui se passe. Les droits des femmes en matière de reproduction ou les droits des minorités sexuelles sont de bons exemples. Ces différences appellent à une utilisation sélective et limitée de la religion dans les mouvements de défense des droits de l’homme. Lorsque des convergences existent sur certaines problématiques, les militants des droits de l’homme doivent travailler avec les chefs religieux, et utiliser leur crédit et leur crédibilité pour faire avancer ces causes. D’un autre côté, quand les chefs religieux font la promotion d’idées et de pratiques qui sont en contradiction avec les éléments essentiels des droits de l’homme, les militants doivent confronter et remettre en question leur discours et leurs arguments. Les militants peuvent même travailler avec les chefs religieux modérés pour contrer les opinions et les actions des chefs religieux rétrogrades.

Une approche qui n’exclut pas totalement la religion, ou qui n’approuve pas aveuglément la religion par principe, est préférable. La valeur et l’utilité du partenariat devraient être évaluées au cas par cas et de manière pragmatique. Tout comme les militants des droits de l’homme travaillent avec les communautés traditionnelles et leurs dirigeants, ils doivent travailler avec les communautés religieuses pour faire progresser la cause des droits de l’homme. Ignorer l’influence et l’utilité de la religion est peu judicieux.

Dans de nombreux pays, et en particulier dans les pays avec une population à dominante musulmane, il faut reconnaître l’influence de la religion et du droit religieux. Cependant, les articles publiés ici n’explorent pas suffisamment la manière dont un État peut trouver un équilibre entre la demande de reconnaissance officielle de la religion et les exigences liées aux droits de l’homme. Ils ne parlent pas de la manière dont certains dirigeants politiques essayent de tenir compte des revendications religieuses dans le cadre des droits de l’homme.

Au vu de la réalité sociale, culturelle et religieuse de certains États, exclure la religion et le droit religieux n’est pas seulement peu judicieux mais également irréalisable. Cependant, les États devraient être pragmatiques dans la reconnaissance de certains aspects du droit religieux. Ils ont besoin de reconnaître les grands principes et les finalités d’une religion spécifique ou des religions dans leur ensemble, tout en trouvant une manière de garantir les droits de l’homme fondamentaux.

Par exemple, la Constitution tunisienne de 2014 et la Constitution provisoire somalienne de 2012 reconnaissent expressément l’islam comme une religion d’État ainsi que son rôle potentiel dans l’élaboration des lois et dans l’action de l’État. Néanmoins, les constitutions ne permettent pas aux chefs religieux d’invalider les lois sur la base d’incompatibilités réelles ou perçues avec l’islam. De plus, les constitutions reconnaissent un certain nombre de droits et établissent des procédures et des institutions pour les faire appliquer. Dans les deux pays, la mesure dans laquelle les idéaux et principes religieux vont influencer (tant positivement que négativement) la reconnaissance des droits de l’homme, dépend des réalités politiques du moment et des opinions des forces politiques dominantes. Néanmoins, l’établissement de procédures claires pour assurer les droits est susceptible de garantir un certain niveau de protection aux droits de l’homme.

Demotix/Mohamed Krit (All rights reserved)

Members of the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia celebrate the passage of their country's new constitution.

De plus, la reconnaissance de l’application du droit religieux peut faire progresser contre toute attente les droits de l’homme en donnant à l’État l’opportunité de définir des contraintes et des mécanismes de contrôle.

Par exemple, les constitutions de certains États, comme la Constitution de la République fédérale démocratique d'Ethiopie, établissent ou permettent aux musulmans d’établir des tribunaux de la charia qui résolvent les litiges entre les musulmans, à condition que toutes les parties concernées aient reconnu la compétence du tribunal. Ceci permet d’assurer que seules les personnes qui acceptent le système seront soumises à la loi. En l’absence de cette approbation, les femmes et les autres groupes vulnérables seraient probablement forcés de se soumettre à ce droit. Ignorer  les lois personnelles musulmanes ne signifie pas nécessairement que le droit religieux ne va plus réglementer les comportements. Cela signifie uniquement que le système va opérer en dehors du cadre étatique, ce qui rend difficile de dire si les femmes et les autres groupes vulnérables sont bien traités et prive l’État de l’opportunité de corriger au moins les conséquences les plus néfastes de l’application du droit religieux.

Alors que la prise en considération des principes est importante pour forger un partenariat entre la religion et les droits de l’homme, la diversité et les contradictions sur le terrain exigent une approche plus pragmatique. En fait, un certain nombre d’organisations communautaires de défense des droits de l’homme collaborent et travaillent déjà activement avec les responsables religieux. Une approche raisonnable consisterait à évaluer les partenariats au cas par cas.

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Existence is resistance

18. December 2014 - 8:48

Even with an explicitly discriminatory policy in place, designed to force Palestinians to break the rules or leave the country, nearly all continue to apply for permits, paying the extortionate fees, using the system rather than fighting against it.

My experiences in Palestine offered up a lot of opportunities for writing on resistance to state crime. Every day Palestinians struggle against discriminatory policies and threats to their livelihoods by both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli state. There is no end to the impunity and barbarity with which these are executed and they remain an integral part of the structure and grounds on which the State of Israel is currently built.

The recent passing of the Jewish State Bill by Benjamin Netanyahu defines Israel as ‘the nation state of the Jewish people’, which if successfully enshrined in Israeli law will once and for all determine all non-Jews as second class citizens, and potentially further excuse all actions taken by the state that perpetrate this already popular view. The little protection that Palestinians are currently afforded by the Israeli justice system will be eradicated and there will be infinite scope for a gratuitous interpretation of the idea of a state built exclusively for a single religious group. This highly controversial bill has caused significant rifts within the Israeli parliament and among Israeli academics as it serves to completely deny Palestinians living in Israel even the pretence of equal rights.

From within the complex combination of civil and military rule that exists in Israel and the West Bank, where one people fall under one authority and another fall under a different authority, all within a tiny area of land, emerge impressively advanced and skilled forms of resistance that provide an incredible insight into how a population with 60 years of practice continues to resist crimes committed by a powerful and hostile state.

In the West Bank, where the proximity of settlements to Palestinian towns is unnerving, there is a heavy Israeli military presence. In Hebron particularly there are four military personnel to each settler and consequently considerably more violence, arrests and incursions against the Palestinian population in the city and surrounding area.

Palestinians continue to resist crimes against their humanity, freedom and right to equality before the law, all of which are aimed at pushing them out of the country or alternatively segregating them into impoverished and powerless communities. This is clear simply from looking at historical and current maps of the region that show the strategic building of settlements over the years. Resistance to these crimes must then take the form of perpetuating their existence as a united people whilst also maintaining ‘normal life’ without normalising the occupation. Speaking to Palestinians living in both the West Bank and Israel I discovered how difficult this was in the circumstances; to stay united against so many opposing ideals and to continue resisting without losing the little freedom you have.

Crimes committed by the state of Israel are plenty, but one that arises constantly is the theft of land and housing and the policies surrounding Palestinian permits and demolition. Israel recently brought back the policy of punitive house demolitions that was previously abandoned due to its ineffectiveness at preventing ‘acts of terror’. Punitive acts by the state without trial are crimes in themselves and this is just the icing on the cake for most inhabitants of rural Palestine and Jerusalem, some of whom have had their entire communities destroyed over 70 times without the return of such a policy.

Needless to say, the effort at rebuilding entire villages is striking. Each time a village or house is destroyed, it is rebuilt, again and again and again, peacefully declaring that they  will not be bullied out of their homes or off their land and demonstrating the absolute steadfastness present in so much Palestinian resistance. Israeli forces use chemical sprays to destroy farmland and bulldozers to destroy structures and revoke or deny permits for houses that have been lived in for decades by the same family, making legal residence impossible. The state has also made it almost impossible to attain permits to build and they are incredibly expensive to apply for, often taking years of appeals and tens of thousands of shekels. It is common in many areas to be left with 10 minutes to retrieve your possessions and leave your home to a waiting bulldozer, and it is particularly disturbing to witness the ensuing Israeli settlement or road that is built on the seized land. It is also often used as a tactic that is designed to make life intolerable and encourage emigration away from the area altogether. The permit system itself is legally flawed, however, the acts of violence and destruction aimed at civilians and committed by the military violate both human rights and the Geneva conventions.

Even with this explicitly discriminatory policy in place that is designed to force Palestinians to break the rules or leave the country, nearly all continue to apply for permits, paying the extortionate fees, using the system rather than fighting against it. This has the desired effect of ensuring Israel has no defence for what it does, even within its own discriminatory system, and simultaneously shows the process for what it really is; a tool for mass displacement. If Israel is breaking its own rules, and if following the rules leads to the same outcome as fighting against them, then there is a fault with the system and only Israel is to blame for that.

My time in Palestine taught me a lot, particularly the importance of how Palestinians feel they are seen by the international community. It is unsurprising with Israel’s global propaganda machine at work, that Palestinians feel the need to disseminate their side of the story and eradicate the harmful effects of decades of twisted rhetoric. Therefore, if Israel is recognised as to blame for something they have done, then part of the battle is already won.

The Right of Return is still high on the list of nearly all Palestinian organisations fighting against the occupation. It is a key demand of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement, which was started in Palestine a few years ago, and the refusal of which continues to be a violation of international law. There are 355,000 internal refugees in Palestine and millions more around the world, yet none have been granted the right of return which is enshrined in international law. Although Palestine has no army and no trade with the outside world that could enable the civilian population to arm themselves on any large scale, Israel insists that it is at war with terrorists in the West Bank, and after 40 years is still implementing a state of emergency-like situation. It is almost impossible for West Bank residents to travel into Israel and the Palestinian Authority complies with Israel’s security forces without question. This makes it impossible to justify the refusal of the right of return on the basis that there is still a conflict, although this would be the only legal reason why it might not be implemented. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of refugees still live in impoverished camps on the edge of the largest cities, suffering intense military presence and high levels of arrest and violence. Young men are often involved in violently resisting the military incursions and arrests of their friends and family, and there is a strong sense that there is nothing to lose in protecting their communities in this way.

I was extremely surprised, when I visited Aida Camp on the edge of Bethlehem, to find that it was a short walk from the idyllic architecture of the city. Not only that but it had a large, impressive entrance adorned with a key that had travelled the world and returned with thousands of signatures of support. It was not a slum as I was expecting, though clearly very poor, but instead more like a gated town. I found the same with the camps on the edge of Ramallah. They appeared to be part of the city, yet always with large entrances advertising the status of those inside.

The denial of a human right by a state that is not your own is a personal and vindictive act, and it is clear that no matter how many generations are born into the camps and how many have never visited their original homes, the residents in them will never integrate into the cities they border and will never stop demanding their right of return. Even though refugees in the West Bank suffer harsher retribution and higher levels of military violence and arrest, there is no desire to give up their status as refugees. Palestinians have lived under Israeli occupation for generations. They know how beneficial it is for Israel that they disappear and relieve them of this burden, but they also know that as long as they remain visible, Israel and the international community cannot forget their existence and may one day allow them their right to go home. This steadfastness and determination is partly fed by the fact that the home carries a lot more weight for Palestinians than it does in western culture. Land and home are a family’s roots and belong absolutely to their owners, not only as a possession, but as their connection to the entire land.

Crimes committed by the Israeli state are not only strategic, they are also vindictive and reactionary, especially on ground level. This often means the common arrest of children, administrative detention that can extend to years, brutal violence and murder. This often erratic and unprovoked behaviour leads smaller communities to protest on a weekly basis, which leads in turn to violent repression and violent resistance. Communities are dwindling in size and in some almost all the young men are in prison or dead. However, it is not surprising to see such injustice answered with anger and the throwing of stones by an emasculated and fatherless youth. Palestinians have no desire to fight the third strongest army in the world with stones. It is simply a means of expressing anger at the injustice surrounding them, and should be taken as such. However, there are conscious acts of resistance happening in these same communities: the documentation of military and settler violence.

Although they were not the first, Youth Against Settlements began filming soldiers in Hebron in order to publicise their criminal acts, and the effectiveness of such tactics has caused the trend to spread. Not only does a camera give the international community a window into the truth, it also causes the perpetrator to feel apprehensive and therefore more reserved in his actions. Israeli soldiers are mostly very young and have not had to judge their individual behaviour for a global audience before. It is also the case that Palestinians cannot prevent the IDF from doing what they come to do as they are mostly children and completely unarmed. However, Palestinians have learnt more than anyone that the international community is key in its struggle against occupation, and documentation serves that purpose perfectly.

Many locals have taken up this role during protests and incursions and the amount of documentation of the crimes committed by soldiers and the impunity with which they operate is astounding. Even though it is dangerous to point a camera at hostile armed youths - many have been arrested without charge, beaten and even killed - they continue to resist on a weekly basis, making the IDF’s work as uncomfortable as possible.

Although the residue of impunity has already begun to trickle down, so that soldiers fear less now they see that there are no consequences to their actions, even when they are filmed - the effect of a camera in your face while you commit a violent crime against another person will have a psychological effect on such young soldiers.   

Palestinian resistance is almost exclusively non-violent. There is no benefit to giving a hostile state a reason to commit its crimes and this knowledge governs almost all forms of organised and individual resistance in Palestine. My experiences there taught me that, to a certain extent, it is possible to achieve a kind of normality under occupation. But whether or not this is attained, Palestinians continue to effectively resist crimes committed by Israel, having more of an effect on Israeli policy and strategy and the impunity with which it behaves than any member of the international community or the UN. As long as Palestinians continue to resist complete eradication and maintain support from states around the world, they are successfully resisting the unlawful objectives of the Israeli State.

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CEDAW and the quest of Iranian women for gender equality

18. December 2014 - 8:33

A basic right for Iranian women could be guaranteed within an Islamic framework of governance provided those in government were inclined to interpret the faith in the spirit of equality, says Shirin Ebadi.

Iran's moderate president Hassan Rouhani has a chance to enact one of his campaign promises to promote women’s right by signing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW urges its signatories to address laws, practices and customs that discriminate against women.

Today, 18 December, CEDAW turns 35. Since its adoption by the UN General Assembly in 1979 it has been ratified by188 countries. This global majority includes 51 Muslim countries that are party to the Convention.

Today gender equality is considered a universal norm and is easy for governments to accept. Nevertheless CEDAW and its internationally-accepted understanding of equality remain controversial in some parts of the Muslim world. This is especially true in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

 In Iran, conservative politicians and religious figures reject the universal approach for gender equality in CEDAW and instead propose their own “Islamic” alternative. Indeed, according to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, it was the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that elevated women to their rightful place in Iran.  He has said, “Islam introduces Fatima [the daughter of the Prophet Mohammad] the outstanding and distinguished celestial being—as a model and an ideal for Muslim women.” Using Fatima as the role model, Iran’s Leader and other members of the conservative religious establishment promoted the idea that women and men are equal parts of God’s creation but that the two genders have manifestly different social roles and duties.

This view results in a host of blatantly discriminatory practices that affect women in their public and private lives. For example, in courts the monetary damages for causing the death of a women is half that of a man’s. A women’s testimony is also worth half of that of a man’s and women are barred from being judges. Women should cover themselves with hijab. Within the family, husbands have the legal power to control whether their wives can hold a job or obtain a passport and travel out of the country. Iranian woman cannot pass their nationality onto her child if their father is not Iranian. Men are granted automatic guardianship to children.

To some religious leaders and conservative politicians these laws reflect social roles where women, while spiritually equal to men, are not charged with the same level of social, economic, and political responsibility, and thus are not given agency in these fields. So for them, CEDAW’s notion of equality in all areas of life is at odds with Islam.

But these views are not as clear cut in Iran as some want us to believe. Indeed women’s rights have always been seen as a challenge to the ruling ideology. Iran’s governmental institutions are supposed to be grounded in Shi’ite Islam. Doctrinally, however, Shi’ite Islam is supposed to allow for different interpretations. Grand Ayatollahs can and do offer variant interpretations on Islam and women’s rights, including ones that support the framework of ideas found in CEDAW. As the Nobel Peace laureate and women's rights activist, Shirin Ebadi, says, "a basic right for women could be guaranteed within an Islamic framework of governance provided those in government were inclined to interpret the faith in the spirit of equality."  

And it is not insignificant that nearly every Muslim country worldwide has ratified CEDAW.  Perhaps the real reason Iran has not ratified the Convention has less to do with religion, and more to do with the fact that women’s rights are in conflict with the interests of the predominantly male political elite.

Ratification of CEDAW will give advocates of women’s rights a framework that they can invoke when pushing for better policies and laws. Moreover, with ratification the State will submitted itself to review by UN bodies. This process has led to substantial legal reforms in Muslim countries, like Morocco and Egypt, which have improved the status of women.

To be fair, Iranian officials have discussed ratifying CEDAW during two distinct periods in Iran. First, between1995–1997, toward the end of the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, For Rafsanjani however, the economic and social reconstruction of the country after the Iran-Iraq War took priority over women’s rights, and ratification never gained much momentum.

CEDAW remerged between 1999–2003 during the “reform era,” born out of the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. Reformists pledged then to advance civil and political rights within an Islamic framework. As part of a series of progressive legislative measures, the reformist-dominated Sixth Parliament actually ratified CEDAW. However, the Guardian Council, which is charged with vetting and approving all legalisation to ensure compatibility with Iran’s Constitution and Islamic precepts, rejected the bill. The Council cited supposed religious objections, but never actually specified what those objections were.

Last year, the victory of Rouhani, a moderate cleric, renewed some hope. Rouhani’s campaign promised to determine why CEDAW was rejected and eventually ratify it. In fact, in his first press conference as president, Rouhani stressed that the goal of women should be to remove all “primitive behaviour” which inhibits greater participation by women in public life and just ensures the appointment of “token” female ministers. While this was in part a defence of the lack of women in his cabinet, Rouhani’s echoing of CEDAW’s broad challenge to legal and customary gender discrimination is grounds for guarded optimism.

For now, however, the large conservative majority in the current Parliament is a clear obstacle to movement on the Convention. However, if moderate and reformist politicians regain the majority in the 2016 Parliamentary elections, then there could be a new push for Iran to ratify CEDAW. The Parliament will, nonetheless, be subject to oversight by the Guardian Council, which will not only vet any bill to ratify CEDAW, it will vet the Parliamentary candidates before they can even be allowed to run for office. In turn the conservative religious establishment will continue to maintain considerable power within the political sphere.

These political challenges are why the President must start to develop the legal and religious ground work for CEDAW ratification now. If he honours his promises and the country joins CEDAW we will be on the road to significant changes in the legal status of women in Iran.


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In Israel and the occupied territories, discrimination is enshrined in the law

18. December 2014 - 8:10

Under the two legal systems, an Israeli settler and a Palestinian, accused of the same crime, will be treated, and sentenced, very differently.

One of many separation walls dividing Israel and Palestine. Flickr/In November five Israelis were killed and eight wounded when two Palestinians attacked a synagogue in West Jerusalem. Israeli police shot the attackers dead at the scene and Benjamin Netanyahu ordered that the assailant’s houses be demolished.

The family of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the young Palestinian teenager who was kidnapped and burnt to death in July, have also called for the homes of the Israelis who killed Mohammed to be demolished, though it is highly unlikely they will be. Such is the nature of Israel’s unequal application of the law.

News that Israel discriminates between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians is nothing new. Just last month the Israeli government voted to make all ratified Israeli civilian law passed through the Knesset apply to settlers. Most of the legislation on criminal law, tax law and military conscription already does, despite the international consensus that settlements are illegal. Around 350,000 settlers currently reside in the occupied West Bank yet for what it’s worth article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states: "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."

Knesset member Orit Struck, who drafted the bill, lives in one of these illegal settlements in the West Bank city of Hebron. Critics of Struck’s bill have said that applying civilian law to the West Bank would be a solid step towards the annexation of the occupied territories adding that it “legalises occupation”. Presumably, this is Struck’s intention.

In order to justify the bill, senior right-wing MKs have argued that the current split system – that Israelis in Israel are governed by different laws than Israelis in the West Bank - is “unacceptable from a democratic point of view” and have said it leads to discrimination against Israelis living in the occupied territories.

But what about Palestinians living in the West Bank? Article 66 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel has adopted, states that non-political military courts can be established for residents in the occupied territory. Palestinians in the West Bank are therefore subject to Israeli military law. Under the two legal systems, an Israeli settler and a Palestinian, accused of the same crime, will be treated, and sentenced, very differently.

Palestinian children, shackled and accused of throwing stones, have also been brought before these courts. The Palestinian Prisoners Center for Studies says that some 308,000 Palestinians have been detained within Israeli jails since the First Intifada in 1987.

Under military law Palestinians are threatened with arbitrary arrest, detention and are denied freedom of movement. As American-Israeli lawyer Emil Schaeffer points out, whilst an Israeli settler must be brought before a judge in less than 24 hours a Palestinian may be interrogated for up to eight days before he or she sees a judge.

In a military court Palestinians may be denied access to a lawyer for up to 90 days, yet within the Israeli legal system a meeting with a lawyer must be granted immediately. Within the military courts there is little internal supervision and consequently little public scrutiny.

The list continues, as does the system of legalised separation, discrimination and ultimately the guarantee of rights based on nationality. This segregated system goes far beyond the occupied territories of the West Bank.

On the other side of the concrete separation barrier that has sectioned off the West Bank, Palestinians living in Israel face a raft of laws that discriminate against them. According to Adalah, there are 50 laws in place that discriminate against Palestinians citizens of Israel from access to land to state budget resources.

Perhaps the most obvious of these is the Law of Return, which grants Jewish people across the world the right to live in Israel and gain citizenship. In the drive to bump up the numbers, free flights have been offered, as have financial benefits and tax breaks. On arrival accommodation is sometimes offered in annexed East Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, the seven million Palestinian refugees across the world are not only denied the right to return to their land, but also Palestinian citizens of Israel are not allowed to bring their husbands and wives from the occupied territories to live with them. So one group is actively encouraged, whilst the other is denied their basic rights.

In recent weeks a proposed law, which defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, has whipped up much controversy thanks to the controversial nature of the bill, part of which would mean the dropping of Arabic as a second language.

Like the bill that seeks to apply Israeli civilian law wholeheartedly to settlers in the West Bank, the Jewish nation-state bill is part of an ongoing system of discrimination against Palestinians, which has long rendered them second-class citizens. Little by little it is being enshrined in the law, which ultimately means discriminatory treatment towards Palestinians can continue.

Israel’s system of formal and informal discrimination reaches into all aspects of Palestinian’s lives, from separate housing in the West Bank to separate roads, schools and hospitals. It even infiltrates personal lives.

Whilst Israel regularly passes discriminatory laws, they clearly have little regard for international law - or at least, the parts of it that don’t suit them. As a signatory to some of the most important human rights and humanitarian law statutes, they should be held accountable for their discriminatory policies; which undoubtedly constitute grave breeches.

Country or region:  Israel Palestine Topics:  Conflict Democracy and government Equality International politics
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