Russian dissidents seek asylum in Kyiv

Open Democracy News Analysis - 17. Avril 2015 - 16:12

As oppression heats up in Russia, post-revolutionary Ukraine is attracting political émigrés from the Russian opposition.


From the moment the Maidan started in Ukraine, Russian authorities rushed to pass judgement on the emergent revolution, supporting President Viktor Yanukovych in any way they could. Russia’s leadership feared that the revolution could spread to Russia. Accordingly, Russian state media responded with a massive information campaign against the Maidan, convincing citizens that Ukraine had suffered an illegitimate coup and that all members of the opposition are 'fifth columnists' and 'agents of the West.'

The Russian government’s apprehensions were, in a certain sense, justified. Despite mass propaganda, some citizens in Russia began calling for a Maidan in their own country. After the change of leadership in Kyiv and the outbreak of conflict, the majority of the Russian opposition came out in favour of Ukraine in its war against separatist forces in the country’s Donbas region.

But in a country where writing a provocative Facebook post, attending a protest action or making a public declaration out of line with the government’s position are potential grounds for criminal prosecution, individuals and groups have started to make their way to Ukraine. 

Russia’s activists continue the fight in Kyiv

A certain ‘clique’ of Russian émigrés has emerged in Kyiv. Despite their ideological differences, they’re all one degree of separation or less from one another, and they gather at a certain cafe in the old city centre to discuss politics and their plans for the future of Ukraine and Russia. One wants to simply split up Russia into independent republics, another wants to make Russia part of Europe, and the third is anxious for reform.

A certain ‘clique’ of Russian émigrés has emerged in Kyiv.

But they are united, at least, by a shared dissatisfaction with Putin’s government and an inability to return to their homeland.

Take Irina Belacheu, a chemical engineer from suburban Moscow. Belacheu first travelled to Ukraine in December 2013 – first, simply as a tourist to the Maidan, but then as full participant in the proceedings. Given that Maidan protesters were perceived in Moscow as merely a disgruntled mob at the time, Belacheu organised a ‘school of resistance’ with her colleagues. Here, participants discussed the construction of a democratic state, inviting economists, lawyers, and political analysts to give lectures. The Moscow school continues, but now, after the Maidan, Belacheu decided to open a branch in Kyiv, even if she does miss home. 

Irina Belacheu, one of several Russian oppositionists now based in Kyiv.

‘I was just an activist,' Belacheu says. 'I went to protests and marches against Putin’s policies. We saw that they were leading the country towards a catastrophe. After taking part in various events, I understood that I could no longer fight the propaganda that’s infiltrated the whole of Russian society.

‘When I protested with a picket that read, “Ukrainians and Russians are brothers, no to war”, I encountered strong aggression. One man even wanted to fight me! People in the office reacted very negatively to me. In Russia, people simply do not accept the truth. And I decided to go to Kyiv and organise the School of Resistance,’ she explains.

Your average down-on-their-luck Russian dissident can quickly find a home in the centre of Kyiv. Over social media, they can make contact with other people who’ve already left Russia under a cloud. 

Your average down-on-their-luck Russian dissident can quickly find a home in the centre of Kyiv.

This is exactly what Pavel Shekhman, a blogger from Moscow, did. ‘I was against Putin from the start. Since 2007, I’ve been taking part in unsanctioned protests. That was the first time I was arrested. For me, the Maidan was the fulfilment of our dreams. What we wanted to see in Moscow had happened in Kyiv,’ Shekhman told me.

Pavel Shekhman fled Russia after facing charges of calls to violence and hatred against a social group.In Moscow, a criminal case was brought against Shekhman for a blog post, which reproduced news of the shooting of 11 Ukrainian soldiers. The post stated that the 11 soldiers had been shot for refusing to give interviews to Russian journalists, and in response Shekhman called for these journalists themselves to be killed. Shekhman was first arrested and ordered not to leave the country, then placed under house arrest. Shekhman was later accused of inciting violence and hatred of a social group. On 14 February, Shekhman managed to escape from house arrest and went straight to Kyiv.

Upon arrival in Kyiv, Shekhman was cared for by virtual – now real – friends from Ukraine, who had supported him in his journey. He was known, after all, as a Russian who opposed Putin’s government in Russia. 

Vladimir Malyshev now runs a newspaper with Pavel ShekhmanShekhman was met at the border by Vladimir Malyshev, an activist who regularly took part in marches and protest actions in Moscow and St Petersburg. Malyshev had already been in Kyiv for a year; like many others, he had travelled to the capital of neighbouring Ukraine to take part in the Maidan. He had the same logic for leaving as them: the fight wasn’t going to bear fruit in Russia, so it had to start in Ukraine.

Together, Malyshev and Shekhman decided to start a newspaper about Ukraine. They had no desire to leave Ukraine, nor to return to Russia.

'Imperialists are the real traitors in Russia'

Sitting in Kyiv, Olga Kurnosova has been involved in Russian politics for a long time. While Kurnosova was elected a local deputy in St Petersburg (specialising in science and research) during the early 1990s, in 2003 she joined Aleksandr Dugin's Eurasia party.

Later joining Garry Kasparov's United Civil Front, Kurnosova was an active participant in 2006 protests, including the Marches of the Dissenters in Russia's second city, and later the Marches of Millions in 2011-2012. Later, in 2008, Kurnosova joined the Solidarity movement, but was expelled four years later on grounds of nationalism. 

More recently, in January 2014, Kurnosova formed the Committee of Solidarity with the Maidan – a Russian anti-war movement which aims to support Ukraine in its conflict with Russia – together with other members of the opposition. 

But in October 2014, Kurnosova left Russia in the middle of the night, travelling by train across the territory of Belarus with her mobile switched off. She bought the ticket using someone else’s passport.

Olga Kurnosova in Kyiv‘My flat in Moscow had already been broken into a few times,' Kurnosova says. 'I wasn’t even living there anymore. I was living at friends’ flats. Three days after I moved to another friend’s place, the police showed up at my flat again. And it was then I understood that there was no point sticking around waiting to find out when I’d be arrested.'

Finding herself in Kyiv, Kurnosova decided to continue the fight for a democratic and European Russia. Kurnosova declined to get into details about how she has been doing this, noting that revealing her methods may hamper her desired results. 

The newly-minted émigré believes that the future of Russia depends on Ukraine and openly confesses her love for both countries. ‘In my view, as long as war rages between Ukraine and Russia, I cannot leave this place. Without a victory for Ukraine, there can be no victory for Russia.’ 

Back in 2003, Kurnosova supported Aleksandr Dugin’s Eurasia party and espoused what she now views as ‘imperialist’ talking points, which centred on the creation of the Eurasian Union in the post-Soviet space. However, she now considers 'imperialists' the main enemies of Russia, criticising the idea of a unified ‘Russian world’ (Russkii mir). 

‘It’s all a political construct created to justify the debauchery that’s currently taking place. It has no relation to the words they use for it. The “Russian world” is Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gagarin. In no way is it Putin,’ says Kurnosova. 

The “Russian world” is Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gagarin. In no way is it Putin.'

According to Kurnosova, the Eurasian Economic Union was established in order to justify an Asiatic style of governance – Russia has gotten lost and ended up in Asia, and needs to return home. And its home is Europe. For Kurnosova, though, home is St Petersburg and she wants to return, even though her work in Kyiv is more important. 

'Imperialists are the true traitors. Empire is a feature of the last century. A proper place [among countries] isn’t won by brandishing nuclear weapons, but by top-level education, advanced sciences, and cities with good roads and nice buildings. I want Russia to be a country in which people are happy. This is a lot more than empire,’ concluded Kurnosova. 

'Russia will soon split up'

The political analyst Pavel Mizerin, who specialises in Russian-Ukrainian relations, has lived in two homes since 2004. 

Mizerin has worked on election campaigns in both Russia and Ukraine, choosing primarily liberal candidates. Having returned to his hometown of St Petersburg in 2012, Mizerin admits that he could hardly recognise his own country. At that time Mizerin began to feel that democracy in Russia was under threat, while in Ukraine, the situation was, at least, more open. 

Mizerin is an activist in the Free Ingria movement, a fringe group which supports the separation from Russia of the former Novgorod Republic (territory conquered by Muscovy in the 15th century). The political analyst believes that St Petersburg and all of ‘Ingria’ should shift towards Europe and cast off ‘Moscow’s Asiatic authoritarian type of government.’

It is this very idea that first brought Mizerin to the attention of the authorities. But the FSB intervened directly for an unexpected reason – his position regarding EuroMaidan.

When the first demonstrations began in Kyiv in November 2013, Mizerin often commented on them in the media, connecting the outcome of the EuroMaidan with the future of Russia and the whole of Eastern Europe. Mizerin published a whole string of articles with his predictions on the victory of the protesters. Then the FSB invited him to come in for a chat.

The conversation with the agents was not a friendly one. A young man came in with a thick binder of documents, listing Mizerin's activities in Ukraine over the past two years. 

The meeting ended with threats directed at both him personally and his relatives.

The conversation took on increasingly dark tones. According to Mizerin, the meeting ended with threats directed at both him personally and his relatives.

‘My colleagues helped me find a lawyer. He advised me to leave the country for a while. He said that I could be issued a notice not to leave. On 8 February, I left Russia and by 9 February I was in Kyiv,’ said Mizerin. 

Mizerin ended up in Kyiv at the most critical period of Maidan and immediately got involved in the action. Breaking up cobblestones and building barricades, Mizerin simultaneously described everything he saw on social media and giving interviews to Russian opposition outlets. Two weeks after Mizerin arrived, Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. 

This activist for the secession of the northwest part of Russia is sure that the Russian Federation cannot survive without splitting up. ‘We’re looking at the agony of a state, where Tatar and Mongol political culture has been imposed on Moscow and [the city of] Vladimir’s political traditions. The result is a monster – first the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union and now modern Russia,’ Mizerin explains. 

Mizerin hopes that instead of Russia there will be a confederation of free provinces and republics, and his region – St Petersburg and Novgorod  – will become independent and join the European Union. 

Digging in

While the conflict between Russia and Ukraine drags on, Russian political émigrés see Kyiv as an island where their brave slogans are not shouted down, but amplified. Finding themselves in a Russian speaking space where the media are prepared to broadcast their ideas, they have no intention of leaving their ideological battlefield in Kyiv.

Sideboxes Related stories:  How Russia’s opposition learned to stop worrying and love Crimea Sorting out the opposition in Samara Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Catégories: les flux rss

Times of war in Russian arts and culture

Open Democracy News Analysis - 17. Avril 2015 - 14:54

In times of war, what can Russian arts and culture do to withstand interventions by the Russian state? An exhibition at Garage in Moscow could provide an answer.

The Russian state has tightened its grip on contemporary arts and culture in recent years – most notably via the June 2013 law that criminalises acts which ‘offend’ Orthodox believers. The hooliganism charges and subsequent court case brought against Pussy Riot in August 2013 exposed the extent of state intervention even further. 

Last month, a state-run theatre in Novosibirsk ran into trouble when Orthodox activists instigated a court case against the theatre's director (who later lost his job).  What was the crime? Displaying a crucifix between a woman's legs on a poster during the play. In this increasingly conservative cultural climate, there is, however, one major arts institution that seems to resist – Moscow's Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. 

Times of war

The brochure for Garage’s recent exhibition Grammar of Freedom/Five Lessons reads like a manual for insurrection. The exhibition highlights Eastern European artists' 'common struggle for artistic and individual liberties', stressing 'art's potential in making individual voices heard and in confronting or overcoming ideology, conflicts, and not least, wars'.

The brochure for Garage’s recent exhibition Grammar of Freedom/Five Lessons reads like a manual for insurrection.

Snejana Krasteva, the curator of the exhibition, states that the concept emerged in the search for a common thread to unite East European postwar avant-garde art. Artists from Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and today’s Central and Eastern Europe all face(d) similar problems in their life and work, which variously motivated them to engage with their environments artistically, impeded their artistic production, or induced them to develop strategies to deal with these problems. No matter how the curating process of the Grammar of Freedom exhibition started – with the concept behind the exhibition or with the artworks, which were supposed to be shown – given the increasingly conservative political situation in Russia, the exhibition arguably comes at a very sensitive point in time. 

Indeed, it was only in March that Nikolai Starikov, a patriotic 'AntiMaidan' activist, accused the National Centre for Contemporary Arts Nizhny Novgorod (NCCANN) branch of organising an exhibition in Krasnodar that allegedly promoted a 'Russian Maidan'. Moreover, Starikov claimed that the NCCANN not only receives state funding for its 'Western-style' exhibitions, but also impedes the 'patriotic education of citizens' – it occupies part of the old kremlin [fortress] of the city. Whether Starikov's subsequent call to relocate NCCANN, whose staff worked hard to renovate the recently opened kremlin, will be answered, remains to be seen.

Marchers in a February 'AntiMaidan' march, led by activist Nikolai Starikov. (c) RIA Novosti/Aleksei Filippov

Ilya Budraitskis, a socialist activist and curator, who gave a presentation on 'The Power of the Powerless: Artistic Strategies in Times of War' at the conference that was organised as part of the educational programme of the Garage exhibition, states that specific initiatives against ‘liberal’ cultural productions are often launched by ultra-Orthodox or self-proclaimed ‘patriotic’ individuals, while the framework for action is provided by the government’s legislation and discourse. As Rachel Donadio, arts correspondent for the New York Times, reports, cultural figures say the government is sending a clear message: 'Fall in line with the emphasis on family and religious values, or lose funding, or worse.'

And as Regina Smyth and Irina Soboleva argue, the Kremlin increasingly uses symbolic politics, stressing 'a series of masculine, historical, and religious touchstones that defined a core constituency of true Russians pitted against a radical, Westernised, and very limited opposition' in order to secure its power.

Freedom is for beginners

As stated on its website, Garage presents itself as a 'place for people, art, and ideas to create history'. And the museum’s extensive educational programme puts this participatory approach into practice.

At the exhibition opening, curators, artists, and experts reflected on the notion of ‘freedom’: it cannot exist in a vacuum, only be experienced when one is aware of its boundaries; fighting for freedom implies taking risks; and lastly, 'as a word, freedom is for beginners, as a practice, it’s more advanced'. 

But what is the grammar of freedom? The exhibition is organised around five lessons: (1) the body as a tool for liberation, (2) the transformation of systems (understood as revealing any system’s inherent structures in order to change inequities in the distribution of art and ideas), (3) the power of collaboration, (4) the practice of self-organisation and resistance and (5) uniting through adversity against a common enemy.

While some of these might not be lessons in the narrow sense of the word, they all illustrate strategies of artists in the struggle for professional and individual liberties. For example, in Blood Ties (1995), the artist Katarzyna Kozyra uses her body as a tool to express (particularly female) vulnerability in wartime Bosnia and Kosovo. In her photographs, the artist poses naked in front of a red crescent and a red cross, symbols of the humanitarian organisations that provided aid, but even more so of the religious groups that had come to fight each other in the so-called ‘fratricidal wars’ on the Balkans. 

'Blood Ties' (1995) by Katarzyna Kostyra at Garage. Image courtesy of the author.

In Triangle, a provocative 1979 performance, Sanja Iveković exposes the lunatic accuracy with which totalitarian regimes try to control even the most private aspects of their citizens’ lives. On the day of a presidential visit to the city, Iveković sits on her balcony and pretends to masturbate, expecting the security guard on the roof of the building across from her balcony, who is the only person who can see her, to notify the policeman on the street in front of the house through his walkie-talkie. Things turn out as anticipated: soon the policeman rings her doorbell and orders that 'persons and objects should be removed from the balcony'.

In another powerful work in the exhibition, the video I am Milica Tomić (1998), Milica Tomić reflects on the relationship between personal and 'state-ordered' collective identity, and the exclusionary impact the latter has on anyone who does not want to or cannot relate to the propagated identity.

As a last example, in the video Barter (2007) by the Ukrainian SOSka group, Mykola Ridniy takes off to the Ukrainian countryside to trade copies of famous contemporary paintings for produce or livestock.

'Barter' (2007) by the Ukrainian SOSka group. Image courtesy of the author.

Not all of the villagers are convinced by the paintings. Giggling next to a work by Neo Rauch, one lady wonders out loud which 'fool painted that thing' and 'which idiot would buy the original.'

All in all, the works clearly show that humour and irony can be powerful tools in the struggle against unjust regimes – be they political, economic, or ideational. During the last years, this has become an established finding. In an article for Foreign Policy, Srdja Popovic and Mladen Joksic argue that 'laughtivism', a humorous form of activism, helps to break fear, builds confidence, and simply makes a protest movement seem 'cool'.

Most importantly, however, laughtivism 'confront[s] autocrats with a dilemma: the government can either crack down on those who ridicule it (making itself look even more ridiculous in the process) or ignore the acts of satire aimed against it (and risk opening the flood gates of dissent).' Only a few days ago, a Moscow court ruled that it is illegal to add celebrities’ images to internet memes that 'have nothing to do with the celebrity’s personality.' Could this be the end to shirtless Putins on birds and bears?

‘Special status’

Curator Snejana Krasteva says there were no major negative reactions to the exhibition. But while other cultural institutions struggle for their right to expression, how come no one seems to mind Grammar of Freedom being shown in the centre of Moscow? 

Though the political relevance and radicalism of some of the works is striking, most of the works shown at Grammar of Freedom comment more on dominating regimes and how they govern the visibility art has than politics per se. The exhibition hardly makes any direct references to current Russian politics and society – conclusions are to be drawn by the visitors themselves, and these certainly vary a great deal. Furthermore, while Grammar of Freedom might appeal to the liberal and the well-educated, it might founder when it comes to the majority of society, even though Garage makes a big effort to reach out to all kinds of visitors. 

Garage’s 'special status' may well have something to do with its ownership structure. A private institution, Garage is protected from direct state interference. Garage was founded by Dasha Zhukova together with her husband Roman Abramovich. In a 2012 London court case, the judge ruled that 'Mr Abramovich enjoyed very good relations with President Putin and others in power at the Kremlin' and that he 'had privileged access to President Putin, in the sense that he could arrange meetings and discuss matters with him.' For this reason, in March 2014, opposition politician Alexei Navalny called for Abramovich’s inclusion on the EU’s list of sanctioned individuals.

Famously, Vladimir Lenin once proclaimed that the best way to control the opposition is for the government to lead it itself. For all we know, Garage, one of the last major places for seemingly truly free debate, might be part of a clever governmental strategy to ‘allow’ an opposition arts and culture movement.

Aleksei Kosolapov's 'Lenin and Coca-cola'. Image courtesy of the author.

According to Holger Albrecht, who scrutinised the Egyptian opposition before the Tahrir revolution of 2011, a 'controlled opposition' can provide several functions to the state, for instance observing, channeling, and moderating societal dissent; yielding certain democratic legitimacy to the state and thereby appeasing critical individuals; and lastly, playing out several factions of society against each other, in order to keep them busy with each other, and creating an equilibrium in which the government can act as a mediator.

As Budraitskis claims, the latter is exactly what is happening in Russia: 'the regime's policy is not to build a total cultural patriotic hegemony. Its policy is to strengthen the feelings of the conservative majority, to feed these feelings, and to stress the line between “normal people” and deviants.' Indeed, one could argue that the existence of a liberal minority helps the regime to balance the two poles of the Russian opposition.  

Whether Garage is part of a government strategy or not, Snejana Krasteva reminds us that 'any system reacts to its own critique. Does that mean that there shouldn’t be an opposition?'

'The regime’s policy is to stress the line between “normal people” and deviants.'

'Without art, societies would be boring and uncritical'

In the context of Grammar of Freedom, the question remains how art and artists can contribute to more just and liberal regimes. According to Krasteva, artists have 'no obligation whatsoever to change society', but 'without art, societies would be boring and uncritical.' 

What artists can do is render objectionable political and societal developments visible. They can imagine alternatives that may or may not be taken up by the rest of society.

At the same time, Budraitskis argues that 'if there are no ideas in society, there is no inspiration for artists.' Writing in July 2014, Budraitskis asserted 'if the new war (or prewar) footing into which Russian society is sinking deeper has a point of consensus that unites different social and cultural strata, it is the smothering, eerie awareness of society’s total powerlessness in the face of interstate conflict.’ 

One hopes that irony and dark humour, two aspects which unite so many works at Garage’s Grammar of Freedom, will continue to flourish, and not wither away under difficult present conditions.

Sideboxes Related stories:  A storm in a paint pot Novosibirsk's cultural history of loss Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Catégories: les flux rss

Assyrian stories from the Caucasus

Open Democracy News Analysis - 17. Avril 2015 - 14:39

Scattered throughout Russia and the South Caucasus, Assyrians are looking for recognition of their suffering.


'We had a saying in those days. To shine shoes like an Assyrian,' begins Valery. 'There’s a reason why that profession was so popular among Assyrians – when you live dispersed, all over the world, and nobody speaks your language, you need a job where you can be mute. Where you have no voice.'

The boom of his voice echoes through his kitchen, and outside into the gardens and courtyards of the village of Arzni. Arzni, a short drive from the Armenian capital of Yerevan, greets visitors with a trilingual sign – in Armenian, Russian, and Assyrian Neo-Aramaic. This is an Assyrian village, and Valery is an ethnic Assyrian.

'Where there’s not quantity – there’s quality!'

The word 'Aturaya' (Assyrian) means many different things, and Assyrian identity stands at the centre of an intricate debate. The indigenous, Neo-Aramaic speaking Christian populations of northern Iraq, northern Syria, and southeast Turkey have long been divided along ecclesiastical lines. Recent moves to forge a common Assyrian, Aramaean or Syriac identity have made only limited progress.

Members of the Syrian Orthodox (Jacobite) Church refer to themselves as Syriac, while Chaldean Catholics identify as Chaldeans. Those of the Assyrian Church of the East – also known as the Nestorian Church – also identify as Assyrians. Most of the Assyrians who arrived in Armenia after the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchai between Persia and Russia belonged to the Nestorian Church.

A sign at the entrance to Arzni village, Kotayk Province, greets visitors in Armenian, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic and Russian

To this day, Assyrians in Armenia refer to themselves as Urmijenāye – people from Urmia – in reference to the lake district in Iran, the location of their ancestral villages. After the First World War, Assyrian refugees from across the former Ottoman Empire joined them. Assyrians across the former Soviet Union bear Russified surnames – Bit-Tumas became Tumasov, Bit-Yonan became Yonanov.

Over the following years, Assyrians migrated across the Soviet Union. Two Assyrian villages can be found in Georgia, and even one – appropriately named Urmia – in Russia’s southern Krasnodar Krai. Tens of thousands also inhabit Russia’s largest cities, the result of emigration from villages like Arzni, Dimitrov, Dvin, and Nor Artagers. 'We’re not many,' laughs one interviewee in Yerevan. 'But where there’s not quantity – there’s quality instead!'

A home to many speakers of Neo-Aramaic, Dvin is undergoing a linguistic revival.

Rediscovering faith

'Shlama, Rabi!' calls out a voice from a walnut tree; “Hello, Priest!” – words familiar to an Arabic or Hebrew speaker. Father Isaac Temris smiles at one of his congregants, harvesting the nuts for buyers at the markets in Yerevan, and the occasional priestly passer-by.

For the villagers of Verin Dvin on the Ararat Plain, subsistence farming is one way to make ends meet, though only just. Father Temris is an Assyrian from Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and has served as pastor in Verin Dvin since 2013. As Temris sees it, his role has been to help Assyrians in post-Soviet Armenia rediscover their ancestral faith. Cultural differences between Assyrians from traditional Christian communities Iraq and those raised under Soviet atheism exist, but are not insurmountable.

A native of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, Father Isaac Temris serves as the priest of Mar Toma church in Verin Dvin

A home to many speakers of Neo-Aramaic, Dvin is undergoing a modest linguistic revival. The language is now taught to local Assyrian children using the traditional Estrangela script. At Father Temris’s initiative, the Mar Toma Church – built in 1828, but converted to a warehouse during the Soviet era – was restored with generous donations from Armenia, Iraq, and Europe. Father Temris also aspires to finish a new school to replace the decrepit structure currently in use. A frame of concrete breeze-blocks stands as testament to this aspiration, with a wrought iron fence displaying letters of the Assyrian alphabet. A white, blue and red Assyrian flag has been painted on a nearby gate.

Verin Dvin’s school has dedicated a small room for Assyrian cultural events and festivals. The Patriarch of the Nestorian Church and secular Assyrian intellectuals alike stare down at the childrens’ handiwork: cardboard models of ancient Nineveh and clay cuneiform tablets.

Modern Assyrian nationalism traces its descent back to the glories of the ancient Neo-Assyrian Empire. Younger generations of Assyrians have names to match: young Sargons, Ninvehs, and Ashurs walk the streets of Verin Dvin alongside the more traditional Christian names like Thomas, Maryam, and Isaac. A gaudy painting of a lamassu – a winged lion or bull with a human head – hangs in Verin Dvin’s local administration building, flanked by Assyrian and Armenian flags. These mythical beasts have been sited as guardians at the entrances of important buildings for thousands of years. The ruins of several monumental specimens still stand in Iraq – or did until very recently, before ISIS destroyed them. Some have survived in Western museums, taken abroad in the nineteenth century by European archaeologists.

Sargon Sergeyev, a friend of Father Temris, asks me incredulously: 'You have come here to learn Assyrian history? It’s all with you – in the British Museum!' 'Verin Dvin?' snorts Edik Yunanov, a veteran community activist, over coffee. 'The name doesn't do it for me. I'd prefer an Assyrian name. Nineveh, perhaps.'

An ancient Assyrian 'Lamassu' hangs in the office of Ludmila Petrova, mayor of 'Aysori Dvin' (Assyrian Dvin)

Attendance at Mar Toma Church does not always meet Father Temris’s expectations, perhaps the result of residual anti-clericism in Soviet days, but also the emptying of the town of young people – they move aboard to work in Russia. Poor economic prospects, notes Arsen Mikhailov, Assyrian Community leader from the Atur Organization, are a major problem for everybody in Armenia, his own community are no exception.

'Unemployment,' wrote Soviet researcher Konstantin Matveev in 1979, 'is a constant scourge among the Assyrian community.' The Assyrian population of the country numbered 6,183 in 1976, and has since declined to 2,769 primarily due to emigration. Locked houses with the words 'Vadjarvum e' (For sale) are a common enough sight in Armenia’s villages, and the four Assyrian settlements are much the same. With relatives and work in large South Russian cities such as Krasnodar and Rostov, what is left to keep families in Verin Dvin?

What is left to keep families in Verin Dvin?

An era of stability

For most Assyrians, the late Soviet era was one of stability and a comfortable (if modest) life working on one of eight Assyrian-majority collective farms across the USSR. Soviet scholars such as Matveev portrayed the Assyrians of the USSR as living testimony to the hope the Soviets had to offer to the peoples of the Middle East living under European rule.

Nevertheless, some memories remained buried. Soviet Assyrians – or 'Aysors' as they became known – were largely isolated from other members of the 2-3 million strong Assyrian Diaspora. Priests were exiled, churches closed or – in the case of the church at Nor Artagers – dynamited.

Until the 1930s, the Assyrian language had to be written in a specially devised Latin alphabet: to better to isolate its speakers from their traditional religious literature. Assyrian intellectuals such as Fraidoon Atturaya (1891-1926), leader of the Assyrian Socialist Party, were executed, often accused of collaboration with the British to further their 'bourgeois nationalism'. The year 1949 saw mass deportations of Assyrians to Siberia, where many perished. In a particularly grim stroke of irony, as Assyrian journalist Ilya Vartanov noted in his 2001 memoirs, many deported Assyrians were accused of spying for Turkey.

Flags flying high

In light of the Assyrians’ history under Turkish rule, this accusation was farcical, at best. The Sayfo, as the Assyrian Genocide is known, saw the deaths of between 300,000 and 700,000 Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac people (alongside over a million Armenians) under the Young Turk leadership of the Ottoman Empire.

Pogroms continued in the newly formed states of Turkey and Iraq during the interwar era. Demonstrations in Yerevan raised the profile of the Armenian Genocide in the USSR from 1965 onwards, and over the following decades, Assyrians began to ask – what of their own genocide?

Memorial to victims of the Sayfo, or Assyrian Genocide, in central Yerevan, Republic of Armenia 
In central Yerevan, Armenian and Assyrian flags fly over a monument decorated with lamassu on Nalbandyan Street. In Armenian, Assyrian, English, and Russian, the monument commemorates the 'innocent Assyrian victims of 1915,' to whom it was dedicated in 2012. Compared to the neighbouring Armenian-Russian friendship monument, this one is easily overlooked, but is a landmark for the Assyrian community.

'The difference between the Armenian and Assyrian Genocide,' says Assyrian community activist Irina Sagradova, 'is that the Assyrian Genocide still continues.' A stark statement, but one keenly felt as the centenary of both genocides approaches with ISIS massacring and driving what is left of Syria and Iraq’s Assyrian communities into exile. The Armenian government is prepared to help Assyrian refugees – that is, if they can reach Armenia first. 
Sweden (home to a large Assyrian community) was for many years the only state to recognise the Assyrian Genocide, though others have joined it in recent months. Armenia has only just recognised the Sayfo. The country’s minorities play an important role in Armenia’s nation-building: a common understanding is that the modern Republic of Armenia is somehow the homeland for all peoples – Assyrians, Greeks and Yezidis – who perished alongside Armenians in and after 1915.

The modern Republic of Armenia is somehow the homeland for all peoples – Assyrians, Greeks and Yezidis – who perished alongside Armenians in and after 1915.

Yet a recent attempt to extend recognition to these peoples, on the initiative of Heritage Party MP Zaruhi Postanjyan was rejected in 2012, one ground being the vague wording of the draft bill, which urged the government to recognise the genocides of Assyrians, Greeks, Yezidis 'and others'. Sagradova herself submitted a bill, but to no avail, and debate dragged on among Armenian lawmakers on possible recognition.

On February 16, the Standing Committee on Foreign Relations adopted a draft statement 'on condemning the genocide of the Greeks and Assyrians perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey in 1914-1923'. On March 24, the statement – and the recognition it implies – was unanimously accepted by deputies of the Armenian Parliament.

The Gevargizov family of Dimitrov examine an Assyrian-language gravestone 
Turkish recognition – and the reparations some Assyrians believe it implies – remains a pipe dream. 'Armenia owes it to the Assyrians,' suggested one civil servant in Yerevan, 'they may have been attacked because the Turks believed them to be Armenian.' The same reasoning is suggested for why the Assyrian community of Khanlar, Azerbaijan fled as Armenia and Azerbaijan prepared for war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988-1991.

'We have lived everywhere'

Returning from Dvin and planning a visit to Dimitrov, I paid a visit to Misha Sadoyev and shared my impressions of the community. Misha was also an Assyrian – the Assyrian, in fact, in Armenia’s musical world.

Misha is a master of the duduk and the zurna, traditional woodwind instruments he carves from apricot wood. Misha's handiwork covers the kitchen: frying pans full of apricot sawdust, reeds on the stove. He plays to his guests over glasses of apricot vodka. A few Armenians are perplexed that a master craftsman of their national instruments is not 'one of their own'. 'I'm not a chauvinist,' insisted a grocer, a refugee from Baku, 'but I believe that only one ethnic group should live in each state.'

Despite a pamphlet showing a map of Iraq lying on Sadoyev's dining room table bearing the words – in Arabic, English, and Neo-Aramaic – 'State of Assyria', the Assyrians do not have a state. They have lived everywhere. Misha's ancestors arrived in 1848 as the Bit-Sado family – well before the events of 1915.

Armenia is described as a homeland for the Assyrians, who have no homeland. Misha agrees, but he is nonetheless compelled to ask: 'why am I here?'

All photographs courtesy of the author

Sideboxes Related stories:  A discourse of denial: memories of the Armenian genocide Armenian genocide, a century on Baba-Hadji, symbol of ethnic harmony Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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Our Lives: Poverty then and now in the UK

Open Democracy News Analysis - 17. Avril 2015 - 12:18

A report launched today, Our Lives: Challenging attitudes to poverty in 2015, captures the humanity of the experience of poverty and calls for change as radical as the social reform in the 1940s.

It was just over a year ago when Bob Holman -  the inspiring activist from Easterhouse on the edge of Glasgow, now retired but still active - issued a challenge in The Guardian newspaper. He called on eight named women to put a spotlight on the lives of people living in poverty in the UK now. (I was the add-on - woman no. 9 - who got roped in as well.) And the report we wrote together, Our Lives: Challenging attitudes to poverty in 2015, launched today in Newcastle, does just that (#ourlives2015).

Our Lives deliberately harks back in its title to the report Bob Holman wanted us to emulate. Our Towns: A close-up was published in 1943 and written by another group of eight women - members of the Hygiene Committee of the Women’s Group on Public Welfare. They were trying to respond to the many complaints made about working class evacuees sent from the East End of London and elsewhere to safer, often richer, places. Bob Holman was himself one of those evacuated children and remembers the experience well.

The host families complained that these children often had nits or fleas; they wet the bed; they didn’t have the proper clothes; and they didn’t behave properly, either. Our Towns was an attempt, by eight women all actively involved in health visiting, teaching or voluntary work, to explain the context of these children’s lives, where they came from, and in particular the structural roots of the poverty they lived. And they spelt out clearly how much the children’s parents cared about them.

Our Towns was of its time, and a report written today is clearly not going to be the same. But Bob Holman saw it as one of the turning points in the Second World War - alongside the better-known Beveridge report - that helped lead to social reform, and in particular to the creation of the post-War welfare state.

Bob argued that there was more solidarity with those living in poverty and more understanding of their lives as a result of Our Towns. He said there was an urgent need to carry out a similar exercise now - especially in the context of the coalition government’s cuts to this post-War welfare state - and named the women who should undertake this task.

They and others (including me) accepted his challenge - and Our Lives: Challenging attitudes to poverty in 2015 is the result. It builds up a picture based on individual stories of what living in poverty is like in the UK today and calls for change as radical as in the 1940s.

This is not an academic report, or a document brimming with statistics. Others have written those. As Julia Unwin, of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, says in her Foreword, the report

“… gives a clear, unflinching account of the state of our nation, and does so in ways that illuminate, and humanise, the dry accounts of trend data. Taken together, [the stories] give a picture of life that is harsh, and difficult, perpetuating inequality, and reducing potential. And they do so in ways that underline the humanity of the experience of poverty.”

The authors of Our Lives have all admired Bob Holman for years for his unflinching commitment to working alongside people in poverty - living in Easterhouse himself for many years. We cannot aspire to be like him. And we do not pretend that we are living in poverty ourselves. In that sense, this report is not ‘the voice of the poor’. But what we have in common is a long history of living and working closely with families and communities grappling with poverty.

One of us is a community development and social policy worker (Tricia Zipfel); one is a former director of a family rights organisation (Jo Tunnard); one is a children’s writer (Josephine Feeney); one is the manager of a food bank (Audrey Flannagan); one works at a Citizens’ Advice Bureau (Loretta Gaffney); one is a social worker (Karen Postle); one works for the voluntary sector (Sally Young); and one is the General Secretary of the TUC (Frances O’Grady). I am an academic and social policy researcher, and would also see myself as an activist, as would many others I’m sure.

Between us, we know many people who are struggling to make ends meet - and doing so against the odds, and often in the face of hostile attitudes, or just incomprehension. So we invited them to tell us their stories. Some of these are about people’s struggles to survive, and about being battered by the benefits system. Some of the stories demonstrate the complexity of people’s lives, and others how families can be fragmented by domestic abuse, or even by the care system. Mental health and disability issues, as well as homelessness and insecure employment, also feature. There are examples of public services treating people in poverty badly. But there are also instances of private companies doing the same.

And, as Julia Unwin says in her Foreword, the stories ‘tell of people faced with the most difficult and disturbing circumstances continuing to care and support those they love’. There are tales of extraordinary resilience and resourcefulness - or just of the powers of daily endurance that living in poverty often entails. Of course some people make mistakes, and some make bad choices. But there are usually reasons. And the stories show that society tends to be much less forgiving when this involves people on low incomes.

So what do we want from the report? We want it to encourage people to oppose cuts that fall heavily and unfairly on those on the lowest incomes. We hope it will counter a public narrative that devalues the welfare state as we know it, and that sees ‘dependency’ instead of survival against the odds.

But this is not just a(nother) report about the coalition government’s austerity programme, either. We also want Our Lives to be a wake-up call, as Our Towns was over seventy years ago. We want it to challenge the common assumption that people in poverty are ‘scroungers and skivers’. We want it to highlight the courage and determination that are needed to cope with life on a low income day after day. And we hope it will also contribute to a wider discussion about the kind of society we want to be.


Sideboxes Related stories:  Gender and poverty in the UK: Inside the household and across the life course Whose recovery?: Gendered austerity in the UK The punitive regulation of poverty in the neoliberal age Staying alive in Britain : can the poor afford it? The vicious circle of poverty and injustice The cuts hit home: austerity in Oxford Poverty: a human rights abuse in the UK The feminisation of poverty and the myth of the 'welfare queen' Austerity and domestic violence: mapping the damage Welcome to my home, welcome to my hell When austerity sounds like backlash: gender and the economic crisis Can't find a job in the UK? You’re not trying hard enough The Handmaid's Tale of Coalition Britain How women are paying for the recession in the UK Country or region:  UK Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government Economics Equality
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Tenants in danger: the rise of eviction watches

Open Democracy News Analysis - 17. Avril 2015 - 10:59

Collective resistance to the erosion of housing rights is growing. We need to turn this into a national movement.

Aylesbury Estate, where riot police recently derailed an anti-eviction protest. Flickr/Matt Brown. Some rights reserved.

Not since 1915 has private housing tenure been so dominant. The gradual rescinding of public housing over the 20th century sees us exposed to the raw edge of the market today. We are living in the darkest time of housing commodification as this project shifts from one of aspiration to coercion. With an unprecedented growth in evictions across the UK, tenants are increasingly being removed from their properties to release the value of the land.

This rise of evictions has resulted in a wave of resistance. Protection here, rather than statutory, comes in the form of "eviction watches" organised by community campaign groups and volunteers. Local campaign groups are mobilising to protect tenants facing eviction from bailiffs, gathering outside their homes to ward off any who might try. In this piece we are, firstly, casting light upon the prevalence of eviction watches today as housing privatisation and austerity take full grip. In so doing we are, secondly, raising critical questions about the state’s role and responsibility in evictions and the disparities in power between state-sponsored bailiffs and anti-eviction campaign groups who are providing short-term protection and intervention for tenants.

Eviction watches: then and now

100 years apart, the Rent Strike and New Era estate campaigns have discomfiting echoes and revealing differences which expose the degradation of housing regulation and increased privatisation over the course of the 20th century.

In 1915, housing, provided in a deregulated market, was a source of conflict between the state and tenants. Profiteering private landlords increased working-class household rents in the hope of capitalising on the influx of munitions workers as part of the war effort. With tenants unable to pay these rising rents, eviction notices were filed by private landlords, enforced by the Sheriff Officer with police back-up. In response, thousands of tenants mobilised and went on rent strike. The victory of these strikes resulted in the Rent Restrictions Act 1915, which froze rents at pre-war levels and paved the way for the Housing and Town Planning Act 1919 and later, council housing development which long since protected tenants from the vagaries of the market.

In current recessionary times, conflict between the state and tenants has been reignited and the might of the private rented sector, reinstated. In 2014, New Era housing tenants in London mobilised and campaigned against a large transnational corporate takeover by an $11bn asset management firm, Westbrook Partners. When New Era tenants received a letter from Westbrook’s solicitors informing them that their current stable rents would be raised to “market rates”, members of the community campaigned hard and fast to stop the takeover – and won. A key difference between the rent strikers’ and New Era’s victory is that the latter’s win relates only to the estate. As such, New Era are facing new challenges as the current owners of the estate – Dolphin Square Foundation – plan to means-test new tenants in order to determine rents.

What is also different is that, unlike the housing market of 1915, landlords are transnational; London is a goldmine for global property speculators and homeownership. Despite the role the housing boom played in the financial crash in 2008, property is a highly lucrative asset in austerity Britain. Private landlords, not rent strikers, are today’s unsung housing heroes, as claimed by former housing minister Grant Schapps. Bailiffs are also having a renaissance, gathering to celebrate their success at the £4,000 a head British Credit Awards in London recently. How is business? With 42,000 repossessions a day and 115 evictions a day, business is good, very good.

We are exposed to the coercive side of housing commodification and the market as authorities across the UK, with an absence of any statutory protection against evictions. Rarely do evictions take place without police presence, including riot police, serving to criminalise tenants and anti-eviction protestors. And increasingly coercive tactics of violence and intimidation are being deployed against those resisting and protecting tenants against eviction. The power mobilised by the state in the eviction process is disproportionate compared to the support offered, resources and advocacy available for those facing eviction. This, we argue, is an act of state violence on tenants and mortgaged homeowners as police forces and private security firms are utilised to facilitate evictions, shut down protesters and aid private developers and landlords.

As such, we highlight the rise of eviction watches across the UK, drawing from the frontline work of welfare campaign groups, ReClaim* in Liverpool and E15 Focus Mothers**, London. Like the function of food banks, eviction watches are local, voluntary support, providing a stopgap and temporary buffer for those facing a point of crisis. 

Poster at ReClaim's welfare advice clinic in Liverpool.They have become a critical aspect of welfare support group’s activities given the unprecedented increase in arrears. What follows is the authors’ account and observations of these two front-line campaign groups, documenting some of their experiences of working with tenants facing eviction. This sheds light on the state’s role in evictions and the disparity in power between the state-sponsored bailiffs and the anti-evictions groups.

Tenants in Danger: Mobilising Housing Action

We visited ReClaim’s Friday afternoon welfare rights clinic, 12 days before Christmas, in 2014. A couple come in for advice on their mortgage arrears. Their house is to be repossessed in 5 days time. They are £70,000 in debt and unless they can pay £17,000 upfront they will be evicted.

Juliet, one of the welfare rights volunteers, considers their options by process of elimination. She asks them why they couldn't make the initial arrears repayment agreed by the bank and whether they can raise £17,000. The main breadwinner is a bricklayer, who is self-employed but struggles to get by being paid “by the brick”. His partner works part-time as a dinner lady on a zero hours contract. Faced with degraded and insecure job quality, repossessions disproportionately affect working-class mortgage borrowers.

Having exhausted their options with the bank’s repayment scheme, Juliet gives them two more options: one is to go down the homelessness route and live temporarily with friends and family until they find something else. The couple look disheartened; they want to be at home for Christmas. There is no statutory duty preventing repossessions which they can call upon. Although various “support for mortgage” schemes exist, people are often in denial about losing their home that many do not seek help until crisis point. The significance of this is echoed by Juliet who claims that, “quite often tenants don’t know why they’re facing eviction; they’re not informed by anybody, least of all by the social landlords. And it’s hard for anyone to come here and say ‘can you help me?’ because they’re ashamed of being of in debt and in needing help and support.”

Juliet offers the second option: “…we call round and get some ‘bodies’ in front of your house, stand in front of your house and get them off your backs until after Christmas…?” The couple look at one another tentatively. The woman puts her hand over her mouth in disbelief that ReClaim could help stall their eviction. At this point for the family, Christmas is plenty. And yet the local authorities failed to negotiate such a reprieve with the debt collectors. As promised, the advisors got to work, summoning networks, liaising across social media and mobilising a strong crowd of 40 to 60 volunteers to hold a vigil outside the couple’s home. This peaceful anti-eviction support resulted in the bailiffs, with police, being turned away. The couple were subsequently informed that the eviction notice served for that day, had been dismissed and the family had that much needed reprieve until January.

Juliet reports that they are busier than ever, due to rent arrear issues and changes in benefits. As a campaigning welfare rights collective and eviction watches form one of their many activities and caseloads are creaking. Of 50 “bedroom tax” appeals they have taken on, they have won 36 – a 72% success rate.  ReClaim are by no means alone in these activities. According to another campaigner in London, Jasmine Stone, from Focus E15 Mothers, mobilising anti-eviction support now plays a vital role in their day-to-day campaign activities.  She claims that, “we’ve never been so busy, we go to housing meetings with families who are being evicted and rally round at their houses to prevent them from being evicted – we just stand with our hands tied together so they can’t get through.”

Local residents at ReClaim's advice clinic.

In 2008, when the financial crisis unfolded, evictions amongst mortgage repossessions peaked at 142,741 in England and Wales. This followed an era of housing aspiration underpinned by Right to Buy and the availability of 100% mortgages. We are seeing similar peaks in evictions in the rented housing sector: 170,451 evictions (including private and social housing) in England and Wales in 2013, a 26% increase since 2010. In the 3rd quarter of 2014 (July-September), there were 11,100 landlord repossessions by county court bailiffs. According to the Ministry of Justice this is the highest quarterly figure since records began in 2000.

The labour power and might mobilised by the state in the eviction process is disproportionate compared to the support offered and the resources and advocacy available for those facing eviction. While previously, anti-social behaviour was the leading cause of eviction notices this has been superseded by rent arrears. Rather than working on behalf of their tenants who fall into arrears, statistics show that housing associations and local authorities – supported by housing legal experts – have resigned themselves to a very anti-social housing policy, regularly dispensing “notices seeking possession” to tenants. In 2012-2013, local authorities in England and Wales evicted 6,140 households, 81% of which were due to arrears. In 2013-2014, social landlords issued 239,381 notices seeking possession for rent arrears alone – a 22% increase from previous annual figures.  

Authorities across the UK are deploying increasingly violent and intimidating tactics against those resisting eviction. In a bid to evict sitting tenants from Chartridge House on Aylesbury estate, Southwark Council called in the riot police to derail the anti-eviction protest, resulting in the arrest of six people. Jasmine Stone confirmed that authorities are escalating levels of violence and “getting really intimidating with us and there are kids present”. She recalls when campaign members attended a public meeting at the local council offices to support a woman, with child, who was scheduled to be rehoused in Liverpool (from London). Jasmine claims that “security were really aggressive, they punched one of the mums [a campaigner] in the face…”  

And what is to become of the evicted? As the above suggests with moves from London to Liverpool, it’s a displacement merry go-round. Plus, those evicted as a result of arrears are, according to homeless and housing law, intentionally homeless and therefore disqualified from meaningful housing support. Those lucky enough to pass the homelessness test are no longer given priority access to social housing: since the Localism Act 2011 they are offloaded to the private rented sector. At best, this smacks not only of a withdrawal of state level responsibility to rehouse tenants in affordable housing, but a redistribution of wealth from the state to private landlords. At worst, local authorities breach the law and refuse to follow their legal duty in accordance with the Housing Act 1996.

Southwark Council – who recently deployed the riot police to evict tenants from Aylsebury estate and, in a separate event, were found guilty of "civil conspiracy" after unlawfully evicting a tenant, leaving them homeless – have been ordered by the High Court "to stop breaking the law by turning away homeless people who apply for housing in the borough". But let’s be clear, this foul play is not uncommon. Homeless and housing practitioners have, for years, avoided the local authority route for rehousing homeless clients due to various unlawful tactics. What is uncommon, but wholly welcomed, is that Southwark Council has been named and shamed.

From Eviction Watches to National Action

In 2015, we should expect to see a rise in tenant evictions inflicted by banks, private registered landlords and the state and more grim effects of the onslaught of welfare reforms. As such the work of welfare campaigners and advocates and their eviction watch activities become an essential local resource. Public spending cuts have negatively impacted on local support services at the same time when necessity and demand for them increases. Similar to the discussions of food banks, eviction watches should not be normalised nor be separated out as a discreet strand of inequality. The main drivers of housing inequality are welfare cuts, coupled with short term and zero hour jobs (increasing at a faster rate than permanent positions in the UK) and state regulation that promotes property development.

Today, we would do well to invoke the spirit of 1915, when rent-striking tenants recognised their exploitation and acted collectively across cities to lobby for housing equality. 100 years later we are at a similar frontier where communities and cities also recognise the erosion of housing rights. Eviction watches are not enough to assuage the harms of this deregulated housing market but these campaigns do mark the beginning, we hope, of a collective housing response of similar historical and radical significance.

* ReClaim is a welfare rights campaign group that provide advice to community members across Merseyside on welfare benefits, benefits sanctions and housing benefit advice, including bedroom tax appeals. They run a welfare rights clinic every Friday, providing face to face contact with community members on welfare benefits issues, including rent arrears and bedroom tax appeals

** Focus E15 Mothers is a housing and homelessness activist campaign group that raise social awareness surrounding housing inequalities by occupying housing estates about to be demolished and holding a weekly stall on Stratford high street, London. They provide key support and critical intervention for families facing eviction and / or making homeless applications to their local authority.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Eviction Brixton: creating housing insecurity in London Sweets Way evictions: building community in resistance A sporting chance? Topics:  Civil society Culture Democracy and government
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Meet the musicians challenging India's rising inequality and untouchability

Open Democracy News Analysis - 17. Avril 2015 - 10:40

"Our role is to counter injustice with justice and healing, war with peace, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love."

This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

Kabir Kala Manch’s first performance at a Songs of Protest event in Bangalore in September 2013. Credit: WNV/Puspha Achanta.

In early April 2015, three courageous and revolutionary musicians from Kabir Kala Manch — Sachin Mali, Ramesh Gaichor and Sagar Gorkhe — will have completed two years of unjust incarceration in Maharashtra, a western-Indian state.

Kabir Kala Manch, which means Kabir Arts Forum, is a young cultural troupe whose songs and plays often critique the state. They were among the performers at Horata, a cultural resistance festival that the media and arts collective Maraa organized in Bangalore in October and November 2014. But the Bangalore police expressed concerns about the participation of the Kabir Kala Manch, accusing them of being involved in “anti-national” activities. The location of their show had to be changed to a venue that could accommodate police presence.

“Since December 2014 and even earlier, there have been assaults on the freedom of expression — a constitutional guarantee — of writers and singers like me,” said Sarath Naliganti, a young Dalit political activist, who also sang during Horata. “But the Indian government is hardly curbing the rising frequency of such unacceptable actions.”

For the last 30 years, Sambhaji Bhagat, a frequent co-performer with Kabir Kala Manch, has been singing at various protests against the increasing indifference of the state and society towards the socio-economically marginalized. His songs highlight the violence faced by Dalits, who are considered to be outside India’s caste hierarchy and even treated as untouchable in India. Bhagat pens verses about the excesses of the corrupt in the government and the few people who enjoy privileges at the expense of the majority.

“We are cultural politicians,” Bhagat said. “Our role is to counter injustice with justice and healing, war with peace, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love. The medium and methods used to convey the message are important as they could determine if the communication is correct and complete.”

Bhagat strives to ensure that the study of the history of Dalit struggles and their past cultural and political icons are included in the school curriculum. This proven to be a crucial task due to the increased misrepresentation or exclusion of indigenous people and Muslims — under the pressure of Hindu fundamentalists — from academic discourse.

Simple yet powerful

Since its inception, members of Kabir Kala Manch, a 13-year-old group of around 10 young musicians belonging to socially and financially marginalized households from Pune, a city near Mumbai, have been writing and performing meaningful songs and plays. They fearlessly urge listeners to oppose government policies promoting privatization and economic liberalization that perpetuate India’s vast socio-economic divide. Combining pain with satire, they have stirred the conscience of many about the adverse impact of globalization.

The Kabir Kala Manch is also considered a symbol of peaceful resistance, as it performs regularly across the country in slums, university auditoriums and theater venues. However, a couple of its recent shows were nearly cancelled or interrupted by people who believe the group threatens national security because it openly critiques the state.

Different members of the Kabir Kala Manch have been imprisoned since 2011 on exaggerated charges of political extremism under the draconian 1967 Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Apart from Gaichor, Gorkhe and Mali, the imprisoned include Sheetal Sathe — Gorkhe’s cousin and Mali’s wife, who is a Dalit — and Deepak Dhengle, a 39-year old Adivasi, who belongs to an indigenous tribe. Sathe and Dhengle were released in July and January 2013, respectively.

“Deepak, who co-founded the group in 2002, is a self-taught playwright, singer and drummer,” said Rupali Jadhav, Gorkhe’s wife and a member of Kabir Kala Manch. “Actually, none of us ever trained in music or the performing arts.”

As a girl raised in an economically backward neighborhood called basti in HindiJadhav faced opposition from her parents and brother when she wanted to study economics, as none of them pursued higher education and college would be expensive. Consequently, she started a part-time job to fund her education. After she met Gorkhe and they decided to marry, they left their respective families, who criticized their ideologies and relationship.

Jyoti Jagtap is another Kabir Kala Manch member and is Gaichor’s wife. She was inspired to join the group eight years ago, after watching the troupe perform at a cultural event as an undergraduate student. “As we all rely on the support of our spectators, most of us in the Manch do various jobs,” Jagtap said. “A few of us work with non-profit organizations educating and assisting socio-economically disadvantaged communities in availing basic rights and entitlements.”

Personal and public liberation

Another performer at Horata was 29-year-old Aruldass Vijaya, a Dalit singer, drummer, painter and performer in Bangalore. Growing up in a low-income neighborhood, he has protested slum demolitions, street vendor evictions and water privatization in Bangalore through his songs and plays in Kannada and Tamil for over a decade. Vijaya also trains socio-economically oppressed youth in theater and music and counsels them against petty crimes, substance abuse and quitting school.

“By learning and practicing various art forms, many youth and I have avoided robbery, street fights, chemical abuse and idling and increased our self-worth,” Vijaya said. “Music and acting allow the young to express their struggles and aspirations and also relate to others on a different plane.”

Naliganti leads the Dalit Bahuj Cultural Association, a four-year old forum involving a few hundred youth. They join from local colleges and organize literary and theater events focusing on former and current Dalit, Islamic and female political and social icons. The association features Naliganti’s unique and stirring music in its popular efforts to build interfaith and inter-caste harmony and hosts public festivals promoting Dalit culture and food — like beef, which is affordable and eaten by many Dalits, Muslims and Christians, but avoided by some Hindus who worship the cow.

“I hail from a family of musicians who earned their living from hard daily-wage labor,” Naliganti said. “Since my teenage years, I have been highlighting the challenges and successes of Dalits, Muslims, women and transgendered people through my compositions.”

Among the other performers at the Horata festival in Bangalore were Meera and Kaladas Deheriya, a Dalit singer and poet couple whose songs portray the harsh realities of contract laborers and urge them to demand their rights.

“Being from a caste with an extreme socio-economic disadvantage, I have survived in utter poverty,” remarked Kaladas Deheriya. “As a contract worker in the municipality of Raipur [Chattisgarh’s capital] and at other factories, I have faced grave exploitation with minimal pay for maximum work.

The couple, who now sing with their teenaged son Geet Kumar, have been active in various social movements nationally and in Chhattisgarh, a central Indian state, over the last 15 years.

“Instead of remaining silent,” Kaladas Deheriya explained, “Meera and I have been organizing women and male workers by meeting them outside factories through the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, a federation of mine, cement, agricultural and other workers unions with hundreds of members that was launched in 1982.”

Meera Deheriya also supports women workers in fighting specific issues such as sexual harassment and gender discrimination at the workplace. “We have been enlightening laborers about fundamental human and labor rights, and social entitlements through regular discussions, songs and street theater,” she said. “This has helped the workers pressure employers for better wages and address labor law violations with some success. However, we must intensify our campaigns, as India’s labor laws are becoming employer-friendly at the expense of the lowest worker.”

Sideboxes Related stories:  Zen and the art of social movement maintenance How music can shift the conversation on climate change The world should be watching India’s coup of common people Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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Against ad hocery: we need a more democratic approach to UK devolution

Open Democracy News Analysis - 17. Avril 2015 - 9:40

We need a process for determining devolution that is more considered, democratic and which tackles devolution in the context of the wider failings of the UK state.

Image: Flickr Captain Roger Fenton

The newly published report on the Future of Devolution after the Scottish Referendum is a worthy attempt to bring some order to an often confusing and conflicting debate concerning where devolution goes after the election. Strikingly, the Committee notes that since the September 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, rapid developments have been made in bilateral ways which pay little attention to the overall nature of the Union.

What the Committee has identified is the extent to which devolution is happening in the UK in an ostensibly ad hoc way. The sizeable body of evidence underpinning the Report highlights the extent to which the process so far has been piecemeal, rushed and segmented; all deterring from a reflexive and joined-up approach. Its recommendations include calling for a commission to review proposals for further devolution, a Convention for England to ensure representation of the public view and greater oversight of the intergovernmental machinery.

For historians of constitutional reform, such ad hocery comes as no surprise - it bears the hallmark of the British way of doing things.  The absence of strategic thinking is explained away as a manifestation of the flexible British constitution, of whiggish-like adaption to new circumstances, seeking out pragmatic ways that take account of the different requirements of the four parts of the Union. We would suggest that this approach to devolution is highly problematic for three reasons:

The first is the elite nature of the process. The process of devolution that has occurred since the Scottish Referendum is one we would argue has ostensibly been a top down exercise based on political calculation. Here it should be remembered that in the September referendum, the majority voted against Scottish Independence and there was no devo-max option. In the days prior to the vote, devo-max was promised by the leaders of the three main Westminster parties, as a panicked attempt to shore-up the ‘No’ vote. It was tactical and not based on any democratic process – [further symbolized by the paucity of widespread, grass-roots consultation of the subsequent and brief Smith Commission] – and without proper debate. In many ways it could be argued that the process was highly unconstitutional with none of the pro-Union party leaders having any mandate or legitimacy for making the promises they did.

Since September, the devolution process in England has been even more elite-driven. Essentially, devolution packages have been agreed with cities on a case by case basis with the minimum of public discussion. Beyond those involved in negotiating devolution, there is considerable lack of clarity concerning the process or the powers that have been devolved to cities. It is essentially Whitehall devolving powers, where it believes cities have earned the rights to exercise certain responsibilities. It has the potential to create a patchwork system of devolution based on Whitehall concessions and not democratic rights. But the whole process and indeed the wider debate it has triggered, pays little heed to considering the rights of the citizen. The fundamental assumption is that power, in zero-sum terms, belongs to Whitehall and it may release some to a local elite if they are deemed to be responsible and can demonstrate they will behave well (i.e. not make too much fuss about the scale of cuts in local government spending).

The elite driven nature of the process speaks directly to the second problem: the lack of consideration of goals and objectives of devolution. What is the aim of devolution? Is it about accountability or efficiency? Is it to maintain the Union? Is it to increase democracy and the control over central government? Is it to improve economic efficiency? Is it about giving people control over their own lives and a response to political enchantment? As this Select Committee report reveals, these issues have not been properly debated.

Again, the process has been tactical and not strategic and no one knows what the end point is. How many powers are to be devolved from Whitehall? Is asymmetric devolution to be translated into infinite models in England, of variable, localised scales of civic participation and engagement? In the case of devolution to UK cities, the key focus seems to be on devolution as a mechanism of economic regeneration? Yet, this raises many questions that have not been discussed. What happens to Cities outside of the hub of a City/Region? What happens if devolution does not produce economic growth? In other words, we are on the way to some form of devolution, but none of the fundamental questions about what it is meant to achieve have been properly debated.

Third, the lack of clear goals is indicative of a much wider and fundamental issue: how do processes of devolution fit into the wider constitutional and political framework of the UK? What the debate has yet really to grapple with is that we are about to go through an election that is going to illustrate some major problems with the British political system. Hansard’s most recent Audit of Political Engagement reveals that only 49 per cent of the population are certain to vote in the May General Election, only 30 per cent of the population feel a strong attachment to a political party and only 20 per cent feel that they have any influence over local decisions. The 2015 election could well-produce situations where, for example, the SNP has a pivotal vote or one of English Votes for English Laws [EVEL] in which Labour supporters are disenfranchised in the way the Scottish electorate has been in the past. 

It is a distinct possibility that the outcome of this General Election is going to see very little relationship between votes and seats and produce a new government elected by a very small proportion of the electorate. The outcome is likely to illustrate the inability of the electoral system to reflect the desires of the voters or produce a clear electoral outcome (in other words the main argument for FPTP seems to be going out the window). All of which creates the possibility of a further delegitimation of the system and more alienation of the voters. Hence, in the context of political disillusionment and the emergence of an age of anti-politics, it is hard to abstract the discussion of devolution from wider constitutional questions. The fundamental issue is how are people to be re-engaged in politics and what role do constitutional changes play in re-energizing the political process. Yet, this has not formed the centre-piece for the current discussions on devolution.

We have both long been staunch critics of what Brian Barry used to call Britain’s ‘power-hoarding’ model of governance, often euphemistically referred to as ‘the man in Whitehall knows best’. We advocate a more bottom-up, devolved and participatory democratic settlement. But any lasting settlement can only be secured through what can be referred to as the ‘3Cs’ – consultation, consensus and consideration - of the whole political framework. Discussion of the devolution process should come with a debate around the electoral systems, the role of the civil service, the power of Whitehall and Westminster and fundamentally what sort of democracy does Britain want to have in the twenty-first century. The scale of the potential political crisis looming is such that it is going to need more than a Westminster-led process of devolution to sort it out.

This article was first published at Manchester Policy Blogs.

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Related stories:  Devolution in the North of England: time to bring the people into the debate? The making of the Greater Manchester mayor - what next? Democracy exists by the act of doing it: a meeting with Podemos in Manchester A mayor for all seasons? Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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From Utah to the ‘darkest corners of the world’: the militarisation of raid and rescue

Open Democracy News Analysis - 17. Avril 2015 - 4:00

The evocative imagery used in militant activism fails to address the historical underpinnings of trafficking and slavery while reinforcing neo-colonial representations of the ‘saviour’ and the ‘saved.’

Utah based Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) has attracted a great deal of attention since it was first endorsed by Glenn Beck, an American conservative political pundit, in 2013. This new addition to the already crowded field of anti-trafficking organisations “us[es] cutting-edge computer technology and human intelligence [to] go into the darkest corners of the world to help local law enforcement liberate enslaved children and dismantle the criminal networks.” It is this type of language that identifies OUR as yet another disturbing example of a ‘raid-and-rescue’ organisation. As Kamala Kempadoo has demonstrated, these interventions represent the latest version of the ‘white man’s burden’, with a ‘civilised’ West offering salvation and protection to ‘the rest’. While such sentiments are common, OUR takes things one step further by sending, essentially, gun-toting vigilantes to foreign countries in the pursuit of ‘hope and freedom’ for enslaved children.

A cursory assessment of OUR’s website shows that the organisation is able to capture the public’s attention by exploiting the stereotype of the ‘saviour’ and the ‘saved’. The site’s main page features Tim Ballard, an ex-CIA agent and CEO of OUR, paternalistically stroking the head of a black child. Next to the image is a link to The Ride to Freedom, a five-minute vignette discussing the process of posing as child traffickers to free child slaves and arrest the perpetrators. The “Promise” page likewise presents a photograph of a young girl who may or may not have once been a slave—though her complexion and clothing suggests she is from a ‘third world country’, and hence, vulnerable to enslavement.

OUR CEO Tim Ballard holding a 'liberated slave' in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Screenshot from

The OUR method is marked by armed infiltration and an autonomy of action that comes from not being tied to a government agency. The organisation’s YouTube channel gives viewers an inside look at rescue operations and those who are being ‘saved’. The ‘Rescue’ page features a first-person image of an armed OUR member infiltrating an open-air market and forcing everyone to the ground. Highlighting the practical application of OUR supporters’ donations has been a particularly effective tool in garnering financial support. By donating ‘a Lincoln’ ($5), one can ‘help save a slave’. One particular video features a TV actress appealing for donations to ‘join the Jump Team’ and ‘free children’.


Operation Underground Railroad has also taken advantage of the public’s interest in topics that are ‘trending’ among celebrities and public figures. On 16 March 2015, OUR officially announced its merger with the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, to ‘combine efforts in the fight against human trafficking’. Smart, a Utah native kidnapped at the age of fourteen and missing for nine months, has been at the forefront of anti-trafficking activism in the state for several years, making regular presentations at schools, concerts, and conferences. Smart’s support for OUR has been a marketing and PR dream for the organisation, as it connects local activism against human trafficking to their established international portfolio. It gives legitimacy and credibility to a business model that might otherwise have attracted more critical analysis.

YOURrescue, the sister site of OURrescue, offers a particularly shocking outlet for ‘kickstarter’ campaigns aimed at funding rescue missions. A quick glance at the on-going campaigns elicits such quaint phrases as ‘rescue their innocence’, ‘liberate the captive’, and even ‘rescuing 40 child slaves for Katie’s 40th’ (see below). These campaigns not only perpetuate the image of the slave (who is almost always non-Caucasian) as ‘Other’, but they also satiate the public’s appetite to ‘get something done’. This in turn reinforces the delusion that all it takes to save the world from slavery is money and guns.

YOURrescue campaign. Screenshot from

The popular appeal of OUR and its humanitarian visage needs to be examined further. The organisation’s ‘on the ground’ team consists of mostly ex-military personnel, while the office staff focuses on business, marketing, and international relations. Given that Operation Underground Railroad gets its name from the nineteenth-century effort to assist slaves in the American South fleeing to the north, one would expect this organisation to place more interest on the historical, political, and economic context in which various forms of unfreedom thrive today. Indeed, the website’s ‘Become an Abolitionist’ page features images of Abraham Lincoln with a caption describing the president as the ‘original abolitionist’, disregarding any anti-slavery efforts pre-dating Lincoln. Such misconceptions place American—or, more broadly, Western—ideals at the forefront of international humanitarian efforts.

Operation Underground Railroad has taken the model of ‘raid and rescue’ to its logical conclusion, with ex-CIA agents engaging in covert operations and militarised interventions. OUR shares very little in common with historical abolitionists, but instead forms part of a larger trend where militarised ‘solutions’ have been applied to an ever increasing range of cases. Militant activism disregards a variety of domestic and international political and social concerns, particularly regarding sovereignty and personhood.  As NGOs such as OUR vie for power and influence with governments and local authorities both home and abroad, we need to encourage a broader public discussion of these ‘raid and rescue’ groups and their destructive repercussions.

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'The American Rescue Industry: Toward an Anti-Trafficking Paramilitary', by Anne Elizabeth Moore.

Related stories:  Anti-trafficking: whitewash for anti-immigration programmes The politics of numbers: the Global Slavery Index and the marketplace of activism The white man’s burden revisited
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Servitude: the way we work now

Open Democracy News Analysis - 16. Avril 2015 - 23:11

Exploitative work contracts have become the norm. Casual, ill-paid or unpaid work creates servitude. In such a climate actual slavery, though illegal, flourishes.

Flickr/derpunk. Some rights reserved.

A contingent of labourers climbed down from the lorry to begin work on some road repairs. The foremen hurried them up gruffly, contemptuously. I was surprised none of the men responded in kind. Why did they take it? And I looked again at the men. They were not used to labouring. They had the look of clerks. They were office workers who had lost their jobs in one of the repeated waves of recession. This one was the early Eighties when industry was vanishing. The effects on an industrial town were traumatic. I was discovering this reality teaching in a Midlands college. And what I saw was a group of proud men humiliated on some back-to-work scheme. Nobody should consider ordinary work beneath them. I certainly haven’t. But this was awful. Far from being sympathetic, the foreman was more like a gang master. The men were not in chains. The foreman had no whip. But emotionally that was how it looked.

These men had rights, but they were limited. Refusal to work meant loss of benefits. So they accepted the taunts of a rough-tongued supervisor. I saw in that man how slavery works. Cultures that accept slavery have no difficulty finding overseers with whips. Regimes that use torture easily recruit torturers. There is no question that human nature (something we all share) contains its potential element of cruelty. In certain conditions we can all display selfishness and spite for their own sake. We can take pleasure in hurting others who have done us no harm.

The justification is that it has to be done. We are dealing with lesser beings, beasts that respond only to the whip. We are taking savages from their barbarity and offering them the chance of civilisation. Or we are meting out punishment to those who deserve it. Or we are doing it from economic necessity, for the greater good of society. The great engine of civilisation needs its machines. There are those whose destiny is to be a machine.

To justify the condition of the slave you must take away the slave’s humanity. I remember talking to some (supremacist) white West Indians who could not accept that some slaves in the Americas were white. It was to have been the fate of David Balfour in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. That was fiction with a basis in reality. But no, slaves were African. Most were, but the point is that some were European. That brings the condition of slavery closer to home. It becomes more imaginable. They are no longer the anonymous other, but people like ourselves. Not everyone can accept that.

That slavery is beyond the moral boundary is now universally accepted. No legal system in the world accepts slavery. That is an advance. But a moral precept is not a description of reality. Slavery exists in the world. One does not need to travel to remoter parts of the world to find it. There are several thousand slaves in our country now. It is a fact well reported but not absorbed into the general feeling. People are aware of the incidence of forced labour on remote farms. Popular police dramas like Scott and Bailey do good work in this regard. But forced labour is not a rare occurrence in out of the way places. There are slaves in the cities. They are not chained, nor are they free.

Perhaps you have passed them in the street. One sign of their servitude is the lack of English. They have no easy means of association with society at large. Some are here legally, but only to work for a particular employer. They cannot withdraw from their contracts. Others are here illegally. They have been trafficked across international borders. Without the correct documentation to reside and/or work in Britain their rights are limited or non-existent. They do not appear in official statistics. They do not exist. They work, often as prostitutes, but also in domestic drudgery and heavy labour for survival rations and basic shelter alone. There are an estimated 13,000 such people in Britain today. 

It occurs to me that some slaves may not understand their actual condition. ‘Rescued’ from dire poverty and squalor in their home country, in Britain they are fed and clothed. A cold attic is better than a hot tin shack. Some, of course, will be hopelessly demoralised. Prostitutes, punished for being pretty, punished for being poor, may be too ashamed to escape. They may be too frightened with a well-founded fear. Where do they go for help? How do they know they can trust uniformed officials in a foreign city whose language they barely speak, in a country where they have no right to be? I have seen passport control suspicious and contemptuous of ethnic minority fellow citizens, British-born. What trust can you place in uniforms, especially if you come not from a Western democracy but from chaos and violence?

Fear is perhaps at the core of the problem. How many of us know what real fear is? The woman in hiding from a violent husband is fearful of all men, and petrified that her husband is going to find her. Fear distorts perceptions and magnifies problems. It isolates the individual. In your cell you wait for the interrogator. You are utterly alone. ‘They have abandoned you,’ is the interrogator’s taunt. The runaway slave, yes even in Britain 2015, is truly afraid, afraid that there is no refuge, no rescue.

Slavery is more than a means of exploitation, of labour at minimal cost. It is a means of controlling human beings. Reducing a person to a machine is a crudely effective method of manipulating social relations. The slave in the modern world is outside of society, yet somewhere hidden within its web. The condition of slavery is informal, the presence of slavery invisible, yet it is acknowledged as undeniable without being legitimate. There is no slavery as an institution, though in practice there are slaves.

This has been fully reported in prominent journalism (BBC News and The Guardian, for example). It has received government attention. Theresa May’s outrage and determination has been forthright and clearly sincere. Forced labour without remuneration has been outlawed in the United Kingdom since the 18th century.

And yet in that same century the Chevalier Johnstone, a leading Jacobite, noted how the miners of Northumberland would have joined the Bonnie Prince had the Jacobite army taken an eastern route down. It was no great concern for the Stuart cause, but, the Chevalier observed, it was a means of “escaping their slavery”. That word. In theory they were free men, but in actuality they were bound by poverty and ignorance to a life of unremitting toil. Or, as a character in Lee Hall’s ‘The Pitmen Painters’ says, “Why, man, this is Siberia.”

The slaves who move among us like ghosts are barely visible because the condition of many workers is unsatisfactory. People who in law are free are bound by economic necessity to work for less than the living wage (‘apprenticeships’), no pay (‘internships’), or in uncertain conditions (‘zero-hours’ contracts). They are free to leave if they wish. Like Okies in the Dust Bowl they can load up the truck. They at least had Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie. Who speaks for the zero people? 

A few commentators, notably Polly Toynbee, speak up. But the problem has yet to enter the general consciousness. When popular dramas fully take note then we’ll be getting somewhere. But can people believe that smartly-dressed, well-qualified office workers are exploited? We think of sickly, half-starved wretches in rags, not middle-class graduates.

I saw those unemployed clerks being roughly treated. It is less easy to see the office manager refusing sick leave, demanding unpaid overtime, exaggerating trivial errors, threatening by look and gesture, and reacting to legitimate challenges as ‘gross misconduct’. All this for little or no pay. Workers may not be slaves, but the difference between service and servitude is of decreasing interest and value in the labour market. Unemployment is permanently high, even after all the massaging of the figures. Unions have so little influence they are barely remembered. This is how things are. How could it be other? Helotry has returned, a word so rare now that my computer doesn’t recognise it. But it exists.

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Closed in and crowded out: urbanising against the city

Open Democracy News Analysis - 16. Avril 2015 - 17:08

European institutions were designed to direct flows of global capital. In doing so, they’ve become less accountable to people. But in this gap between people and their institutions, citizens are rising up to reclaim the commons.

The ubiquity of social unrest and economic conflict in Europe tells us that we are living in times of intense contradictions.

Where streets have not filled up with massive protests calling for a more direct, participatory and meaningful democratic culture, ballot boxes are increasingly filling up with votes for post-fascist parties like the National Front or UKIP, whose voices are in turn amplified and over-represented by consistently high voter abstention rates.

Though many are looking to the rise of new parties like Syriza and Podemos for signs of hope, the gap between the idea of Europe as a common, borderless space of emancipatory potential and the threat of a Europe characterised by nationalist entrenchment remains a daunting reality.

Over the last few years, the Doc Next Network has been researching, documenting and playing in this gap, and building an archive of short, socially conscious documentaries and independent films in the process. During the first phase, called Remapping Europe, we explored the contours of Europe’s borders, whether these were internal between member states, external to the common area or inherent in the very idea of Europe. We learned that borders are something we carry with us; they continuously shape the structure and texture of our surroundings by imposing and reproducing relationships of exclusion and exploitation.

As the political and social theorists Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson point out, they are not mere obstructions of global flows of capital. Rather, they are the essential devices through which these flows are articulated, mediating social relationships and access to the most basic resources required to satisfy human needs, such as land, labor, money and knowledge, often referred to as “the commons”. 

This insight led to the project’s next phase, called Radical Democracy: Reclaiming the Commons, which looks at how borders operate at a more local level to enclose the commons and how those enclosures are being confronted and overcome. In this series of posts, we will present some of our results along with content from our Media Collection. By doing so, we will explore the challenges faced by ordinary people who are working together to produce an emancipatory horizon of self-organised and self-managed commons, free from the mediation of both the state and the market.

The challenges faced by these movements are many. The enclosure of the commons is not limited to the privatisation of public resources, though this is certainly one of the forms in which it takes place. Enclosure goes beyond the transfer of resources to produce two major tendencies: closing in and crowding out.

Think of the internet. Ostensibly, it is conceived to allow any user to connect with any other user or set of users anywhere in the world to exchange information in real-time. Many of us still remember how, around the turn of the century, several notable and enthusiastic intellectuals referred to an obliteration of the tension between time and space that would eventually lead to radically horizontal social relations. Of course, the reality of the internet is more complex than that.

In a recent essay, net artist and co-founder of the Geocities Research Institute Olia Lialina describes how the field of User Experience (UX) has changed the way people use the internet over the years. Premised around “scripting the user”, UX directs what information we consume, what users we relate to and how, eliminating clicks by relegating more and more processes to the back-end of websites and applications (where they run automatically) and directing those we do make through a streamlined, visually attractive front-end.

If we think of a company such as Facebook, the tendency towards enclosure becomes even clearer. In addition to information about the people we interact with, Facebook’s algorithms are constantly collecting data on our behavioural patterns, preferences and tastes. The algorithms, in turn, determine what stories we see in our feeds and what is marketed to us.

Each click determines the next several, reproducing and reinforcing our previously existing interests and shielding us from the influence of those whose interests diverge from our own. In this way, we are closed into increasingly specific interest groups and crowded out of a forum for interaction with a much more varied multitude. Meanwhile, people all over the world are coming to believe that Facebook actually is the internet, and more and more companies and institutions are submitting an increasing share of their social activity to the logic of a single company. 

Urbanisation has remarkably similar effects, and that is because its goals are not much different than those of Facebook. Ultimately, the goal of urban planning is to direct social relations so that they are predictable enough to guarantee security, maximise profits and minimise conflict for flows of capital. The social ecologist Murray Bookchin realised this, and in The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, he proposed that urbanisation was ultimately at war against the historical notion of the city:

City space, with its human propinquity, distinctive neighbourhoods and humanly scaled politicslike rural space, with its closeness to nature, its high sense of mutual aid and its strong family relationshipsis being absorbed by urbanisation, with its smothering traits of anonymity, homogenisation, and institutional gigantism.

The overwhelming scale of the process can even lead people to enclose themselves, as he went on to point out:

The result is that the ego itself tends to become passive, disembodied, and introverted in the face of a technological and bureaucratic gigantism unprecedented, indeed unimaginable, in earlier human history. Public life, already buffeted by techniques for engineering public consent, tends to dissolve into private life, a form of mere survivalism that can easily take highly sinister forms.

Bookchin also linked the emergence of a market economy, freedom of trade and industrial innovation in Europe to the development of roads, rivers and canals. Tellingly, while the latter were systematically homogenised, redirected and, in the case of the rivers, polluted, the former are precisely the elements that were prioritised throughout the development of the European Union, beginning with its roots in the European Coal and Steel Community. 

While there is much to be said about his idealisation of rural communities and pre-capitalist society in general, reading The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship today is an illuminating experience. His agenda for community-based, libertarian municipal politics matches the demands of the radical democratic movements that took center stage in post-2011 Europe, while the Troika imposed austerity through the sheer force of its own “institutional gigantism”.

And his critique of urbanisation resonates with the pathological geographies of the housing and construction bust of countries like Spain and Ireland. NONCITY, an independent film by Nuno Pessoa and Andrea Fernández, captures Bookchin’s critique of urbanisation at the expense of the city as it follows two visitors wandering through Arroyo de la Encomienda, a Spanish ghost town on the outskirts of Valladolid left behind by speculative town planning and corruption. Its mayor resigned a year after being charged with bribery and obstruction, once he had been sentenced to three years of prison.

We are beginning to see the cracks in the pavement. Seemingly small gestures can provoke widespread revolt, whether it is cutting down a tree in Istanbul or evicting a squat in Hamburg or Barcelona. Mainstream publications like The Guardian are beginning to run articles on the commons, heralding “a wave of disruption” that will challenge neoliberalism.

And the politics of urbanisation now generates considerable interest, with prominent blogs and web magazines dedicating considerable space to polemics on Richard Florida’s creative-class oriented approach to “urban renewal” or Neil Smith and David Harvey’s critique of gentrification and city branding. We are also seeing the rise of what I’d argue has become a sub-genre of internet literature, namely, the pseudo-Marxist think-piece on hipsters and gentrification.

Most importantly, we are seeing more and more attempts by ordinary citizens to take back what is rightfully theirs, what is rightfully everyone’s. Over the next several weeks, we will tell some of those stories. It’s true that we are not going  to change the world with one or two urban gardens. But when we care for the seeds planted in the gaps of a hollow system, we are choosing to cultivate the living city and leave the dead weight of urbanisation behind. And who knows what may tremble beneath the cobblestones?

European cities for the commons is an editorial partnership supported by Radical Democracy: Reclaiming the Commons, a Doc Next Network project.

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

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Italy: search for stability or authoritarian drift?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 16. Avril 2015 - 15:30

Italy has a recent history which tends to make it resistant to the very concept of “stability”, and the idea of a politically stable apparatus. This inevitably raises the spectre of a possible authoritarian drift.

Matteo Renzi. Flickr/Valerio Ianci. All rights reserved.For the past few months the European political scene has been dominated by Ukraine, Greece and the issue of terrorism. As an inevitable result, attention has moved away from Italy and its apparently fruitless search for political stability.

The current trends in the Italian political scene need to be viewed in light of the fact that the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, although never elected to the Italian Parliament, has led his party to an astounding 41% of the vote in last May’s European elections, and that, according to recent opinion polls, his rate of approval, though dropping, is still over 35%.

No political party or leader in the history of the Republic has ever enjoyed such a position of voter confidence since the early fifties and even that master vote-getter, Silvio Berlusconi, who held sway over Italian politics for the past two decades, never got much past the 30% mark.

Renzi, whose ideological position can, at best, be described as nebulous, is an example of Italy’s new generation of Roman Catholic politicians. Even if he is constantly being compared to Berlusconi, far from boasting of his amorous conquests, he frequently speaks of his past as a boy scout. His one claim to fame before he went into politics and becoming the “youngest ever” Mayor of Florence, was his appearance on a nationally televised quiz-show.

For this personable youngster, the event marked a fundamental turning point. The show’s MC, late Italian-American showman Mike Buongiorno, who introduced the concept of quiz shows to Italian Television and was also close to the Roman Catholic political hierarchy (two sins for which, it can only be hoped, he is being called to account in his after-life), took the young Matteo Renzi under his protective wing, thus directing his steps toward a political career.

In attempting to understand the Italian political scene, it would seem essential, first of all, to answer a fundamental question: “who is Matteo Renzi?”.

The meteoric rise to national fame and finally to political power - he is both Prime Minister and Secretary of the majority Democratic Party - of an unelected, and virtually unknown individual, in the face of furious, often disloyal opposition, mostly from within his own party, certainly indicates a strong and ruthlessly determined personality who does not seem destined to be a ‘flash in the pan’ phenomenon.

He also appears to possess that innate touch of showmanship which, until the arrival of Berlusconi in 1994, was sorely lacking in Italian politicians and which, as yet, does not seem to be fully appreciated by the majority of the old guard, some of whom don’t seem to realise that they are probably confronted by a political juggernaut against which traditional means of resistance are futile.

Seen in a positive light, all of this could imply that, after two particularly disastrous decades, Italy is finally headed for political stability. A sharp contrast to the volatility which has beset Italian Governments (about sixty of them, one of which lasted about seven days) ever since the foundation of the Republic in 1948.

Italy, however, has a recent history which tends to make it resistant to the very concept of “stability”, and the idea of a politically stable governmental apparatus. This inevitably raises the spectre of a possible authoritarian drift. It is somewhat ironic that the alarm was raised by none other than Silvio Berlusconi, whose declared ambition, while in Government, was precisely aimed at the attainment of greater power.

Alarm is caused by the two most relevant of the many “reforms” that Renzi is attempting to introduce – with considerable likelihood of success – through a Parliament which seems mesmerised by his dynamic approach and terrified at the very idea of having to face a General Election.

The first of these reforms concerns the elimination of one of the two branches of Parliament, the Senate, which would be replaced by a rather ill-defined body loosely modelled on the German Bundesrat. In a society such as Italy, this opens up likely vistas of “unpaid” nominees, selected through the murky processes so typical of this country’s political scene, yielding considerable occult influence and remaining accountable only to the governing powers and not to a non-existent electorate.

The second “reform”, which critics fear could pave the way for an authoritarian deviation, is centred on the electoral law, which needs to be changed by order of the Constitutional Court. The current electoral law does not allow the elector to express a choice on the name of the elected parliamentarians, who are, instead, chosen arbitrarily by the party leaders and are therefore accountable only to them should they wish to seek re-election.

The current projected law is, according to critics, even more restrictive. Not only are candidates chosen and submitted to the electorate by the party leaders, but the party which achieves the relative majority in an election obtains a significant “premium” in parliamentary seats. Thus rules Parliament with an absolute, unassailable majority for the duration of the Legislature.

In the days of the  so-called “First Republic”, Italian elections were held according to a proportional system. This was thought to be the primary cause of instability and was subsequently subjected to modifications tending towards  “majority” or “first past the post” rules. All of these systems presented defects and caused problems, but maintained a direct link between the electorate and the elected, which has now almost ceased to exist and which will become even weaker through the new proposed electoral law.

The preceding systems also made the Government accountable to Parliament, which could cause its own dissolution and the need for new elections by denying its vote of confidence. This is unlikely to happen if the Parliamentarians’ re-election depends exclusively on the will of the party leaders. It is, in fact, scarcely credible that Parliamentarians, elected to their well-paid  positions through the benevolence of their party leader (who will also be Prime Minister), will cause the downfall of the Government, thus ensuring their leader’s hostility and virtually certain exclusion from future electoral lists. 

This, of course, will contribute to greater “stability”, but risks also greatly to weaken – indeed, almost eliminate – the system of “checks and balances” which is at the heart of any truly democratic form of government.

This alone could suffice as a warning.The situation is further aggravated, however, by the perennially sycophantic attitudes of the Italian media (electronic and printed), which is imbued with an instinct for hagiography in favour of those who appear to have a firm grip on power for the foreseeable future. This certainly does nothing to allay the fears currently being raised by the Renzi Government’s lust for  Constitutional “reforms”.

The Italian mainstream media, – if one makes exceptions for smaller, minority newspapers or radio stations on the extreme left or right, appears reluctant to express critical views on a personality with a firm long-term grip on power. One never, for example, reads even the slightest hint of critical appraisal of the Pope or the President of the Republic (elected for a seven year mandate).

On the contrary, these personalities are treated with an obsequious reverence which perhaps goes beyond their own wishes.

Since there is no Constitutional provision limiting the number of consecutive mandates an elected Prime Minister can seek, it will be in the interest of those who manage the mainstream media to instil a favourable attitude in the electorate, thus ensuring the longest possible run for a Prime Minister who will become more and more beholden to the good will and support of the media and the economic and political powers behind it.

This will most probably bring about a period of “stability”, but in Italy the concentration of power in the hands of a single leader over a long period could be dangerous, and the risks appear to outweigh any possible benefits.

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Sideboxes Related stories:  Matteo Renzi: Italy’s fake revolution Country or region:  Italy
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Book review: Bill Browder, 'Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s No. 1 Enemy'

Open Democracy News Analysis - 16. Avril 2015 - 15:22

What they don't teach you at business school: how to go from being the grandson of the leader of the Communist Party of America, to a multi-millionaire in ex-Communist Russia. And back again…


For a hedge fund manager, Bill Browder writes an engaging and interesting story. His judgement only failed him at the end, when he wrote as this book’s subtitle ‘How I Became Putin’s No. 1 Enemy.’ This may or may not be true. But the book’s subtitle should have been ‘The Education of Bill Browder’. For this is what the book really is about, even if it starts in November 2005 when, on a routine flight into Moscow, he was stopped, held overnight, and then deported back to London, where he was living at the time with his second wife. All this is told in the present tense, before switching into the past tense to describe the events leading up to the book’s writing in 2014. Those events are described in an autobiographical way and recount the author’s education, fascination with the post-Communist world in Eastern Europe, his subsequent disillusionment, and transformation into a lobbyist for travel and foreign asset restrictions on Russian officials involved in human rights abuses.

It is a story of material success and then some, written in a racy style, with dialogue and short chapters, starting with the author’s climb to the pinnacle of high finance, his first gatecrashing of Davos in 1996 to his acceptance there; then come the first puzzling, unsettling incidents of corporate financial skulduggery, leading to the murder at the climax of the book, which reveals that doing business in Russia can have fatal consequences. 

Earl Browder

What adds a certain piquancy to Bill Browder’s story is his family background, as the grandson of Earl Browder (1891-1973), the Secretary General of the Communist Party of the United States of America (of whom more below). The older Browder’s family paid the consequences of his politics in the anti-Communist fervour of the mid-20th century. But, true to their Marxist inspiration, they excelled academically. Only the grandson Bill rejected his family’s socialism, and determined early on to become a capitalist. However, without capital this is not really practicable. The nearest substitute is to go to a prestigious business school and make one’s way up the bureaucracies that manage big business and big finance. In a counter-intuitive calculation, Bill Browder added his grandfather’s name to give distinction to his application to Stanford Business School, and got in. 

The fall of Communism opened up what seemed to be huge new possibilities for capitalism in Eastern Europe. Bill Browder recalls his excitement at these new possibilities, only to end up in Sanok in a relatively isolated part of South-Eastern Poland, in October 1990, advising on the rescue of the Autosan bus plant. Production had stopped there, when the Polish Finance Minister, Leszek Balcerowicz, a fanatical devotee of fiscal austerity and the kind of trade and corporate liberalisation that the International Monetary Fund inflicts on weak governments that use its services, cancelled government orders for its buses. At a loss to know what to recommend by way of industrial rescue, an older colleague at Boston Consulting advised him on the options as follows: ‘They don’t have any fucking options. They have to fire everybody.’ (p. 36).

Disheartened, Browder moves on to working for the toxic print magnate Robert Maxwell, before finding the one capitalist activity in which he will not need to behave brutishly, or suffer brutes – fund management. With privatisation all the rage in Eastern Europe, and anyone with cash able to buy ‘assets’ (industrial, corporate, even fictional) for next to nothing, and then re-sell as more familiar corporate balance sheets, for good money, Browder persuaded the Lebanese banker Edmond Safra to put up the money for Browder’s Hermitage Capital fund.

‘They don’t have any fucking options. They have to fire everybody.’

The fund was successful, despite setbacks in a spat with a Russian oligarch, Vladimir Potanin, and later the 1998 Russian crisis, in which, luckily, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank came to the rescue of the Russian economy. This part of Browder’s story could be no more than the hubristic biography of any successful fund manager attributing the levitation in the market value of his assets to his own unique insight. But this is not the usual success story. 

Along the way Browder’s first marriage broke up. Then came some strange, rather excessive, tax demands; then that deportation. Browder managed to get the fund’s money out of the country. But Browder’s tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky had discovered that the identity of investment vehicles used by Hermitage had been stolen and used to obtain tax refunds by people he was able to identify. 


The differences with the way in which financial business is conducted in the United States were emerging. In the US, finance buys government, and corporations settle their differences in the law courts. In Russia (as indeed in most countries) governments buy finance, and corporations settle their differences using more traditional, political, even police instruments.

The horrifying climax of the book is an account of the murder of Magnitsky in police custody in Moscow, in 2009. This shocked Browder into a determination to secure justice for Magnitsky. Lobbying in Washington finally secured in 2012 the passing by the US Congress of the ‘Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act’, banning the granting of US visas and freezing the US assets of the officials involved in the death of Magnitsky. Browder now considers himself a human rights activist, an activity not known to please the Russian authorities. The ‘Red Notice’ of the book’s title is a reference to the warrant for Browder’s arrest that the Russian Government issued to Interpol in May 2013. Interpol officially rejected it within days of receiving it.

There is no doubt that Browder’s indignation at the brutal treatment of Magnitsky, for carrying out his work with integrity and professionalism, is both heartfelt and fully justified. But Browder’s anger at the opaque relationship between the Russian state and its new capitalist oligarchs comes across in this account as more than a little naïve, as if, as a distinguished alumnus, he was explaining to the most recent class of graduates at Stanford Business School the horrors of doing business in exotic parts of the world where business disputes are settled using gangsters rather than law courts. It is this that leads him to his conclusion that the Russian state under Vladimir Putin is essentially a kleptocracy. 

But government structures in all countries whose history and society are poorly known are bound to appear enigmatic. In this sense Russia, of which most people know only that it is vast, has mineral resources and nuclear weapons, and was ‘freed’ from Communism in 1991, is no different to other countries. Its brutal internal politics then appear enigmatic, or a throwback to Stalinism, so that events arouse more speculation than understanding. The recent killing of one of Browder’s Russian supporters, the liberal politician Boris Nemtsov, is a case in point. The official version (murder by Islamist rebels from the Caucasus) is patently too crude a fabrication to be believable. Speculation then rests on the identity of factions in the Russian state, most commonly the siloviki [power structures] of the security agencies and the Ministry of the Interior, who like to solve problems in the old ways or, in Bill Browder’s version, operate the state as a giant protection racket. Against them are supposed to be civilian factions based in the media, finance and business, that prefer less brutal ways of handling matters.

But the Russian state is not a kleptocracy, and Putin is not on the same scale as Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko.

But the Russian state is not a kleptocracy, and Putin is not on the same scale as Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko. This much is obvious from Putin’s actions in the Ukraine and his diplomacy in the Middle East, which suggest that nationalism and security are also important priorities alongside exacting tribute from Western financiers.

Browder’s Russian difficulties concern the economic and financial significance of the Russian state. To grasp that significance it is necessary to understand Russian history, geography, and society. It is helpful too to read the literature on the role of the absolutist state in the transition to capitalism, Alexander Gerschenkron on Russian finance, Rosa Luxemburg on the development of Russia, John A. Hobson and Thorstein Veblen on the cultured discretion of haute finance, roaming the world for the highest return, and shuddering at the practices of appropriation that it finds there. The enigma of the weak development of commercial and human rights law is as much a puzzle of its development in Western Europe and North America, as it is of its underdevelopment in Russia – an underdevelopment apparent not only in Russia, but also in China and India, the latter in particular showing how such law cannot just be legislated to be effective.

As I write this review, I have next to me a book by Bill Browder’s grandfather Earl Browder Marx and America (London: Victor Gollancz 1959) based on lectures he gave at Rutgers University New Jersey, and at the New School for Social Research in New York. The dust jacket on the book proclaims that its author was expelled from the American Communist Party in 1945, which must have appealed to Isaac Deutscher, from whose library I have this book. Deutscher’s annotations indicate that he did not think much of Browder’s attempt to prove that capitalism would not make American workers worse off. But the book does at least engage with American economic development and its peculiarities such as the presence of slavery and the availability of ‘free’ land for settlement. It is this kind of broad understanding of Russian social, political and economic development that is necessary to understand the Russian state as it is today. But they don’t teach you that at Business School.

Bill Browder's 'Red Notice: How I became Putin's No. 1 Enemy' is published by Bantam Books

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Why £8bn is a zombie figure that won't save the NHS

Open Democracy News Analysis - 16. Avril 2015 - 11:58

As the former boss of the NHS slams politicians for not addressing the financial 'black hole', will the pledged £8bn merely be used to pump prime further privatisation and cuts? The introduction to a series examining the parties' NHS manifesto pledges.

The NHS electioneering has so far been dominated by arguments about whether the Tories 'unfunded' £8bn pledge is better than Labour's 'funded' £2bn pledge.

But this morning David Nicholson – the old boss of the NHS – weighed into the argument with a bombshell.

He told the BBC that in any case £8bn won’t be nearly enough to save the NHS from entering a period of “managed decline” with ever-lengthening waiting lists.

Nicholson is not alone – the Health Foundation said much the same earlier this month.

But Nicholson has gone further, criticising politicians who were making election pledges of a 24/7 NHS (Tories) and more staff (Labour), saying they were “talking about extra services” but refusing to talk about the “financial hole”.

Nicholson calls for politicians to be more honest with the public about what “big decisions” might be in the pipeline (of which more in a moment). But he himself is only pointing out the basic arithmetic. Most experts – including the NHS’s new boss, Simon Stevens – have said the projected NHS funding shortfall is more like £30bn a year by 2020. So even £8bn of new money leaves £22bn a year still to be found from somewhere.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that getting the expensive market out of the NHS could save a large chunk - maybe even all - of this cash.

But that's not on Simon Stevens' agenda. 

Stevens pledged last year that he could instead make £22bn of “efficiency savings” – a commitment hailed by politicians from all sides.

Nicholson today pours doubt on whether our already squeezed NHS could really deliver such huge “savings” without cutting services substantially, calling it a “big ask”.

It’s time to examine the Stevens’ £22bn savings pledge in a bit more detail. What kind of ‘tough decisions’ might the unelected heads of the NHS have up their sleeves ready for politicians to rubber stamp?

The old boss, Nicholson, suggests we’ll need “emergency action” of recruitment freezes – which certainly sits ill with promises from all sides of more staff, longer hours – not to mention the need for safer staffing levels in hospitals

The new boss, Stevens - who used to work for United Health, biggest healthcare corporation in the world – has some different ideas, though you need to dig deep behind the jargon of his ‘Five Year Plan’, and listen closely to his other pronouncements, to identify them.

For starters, he has suggested that possibly as much as £7.5bn will be “saved” by selling off many more hospitals and clinics to property developers, he told the Independent last month, adding “this is obviously just the beginning”.

Quite how this will solve waiting list crises, when we have lost already half our hospital beds in the last 30 years, is unclear. We now have amongst the lowest level of beds in Europe.

But there are worrying signs that many more closures and sell-offs are planned for after the election, with a law passed in the dying days of this parliament that will help sell-offs of NHS buildings including those currently in use.

Stevens says this will lead to “fundamental changes” in how the NHS is delivered, though is always keen to tell us that these will be ‘local decisions’ – that favourite politician’s trick.

Already, ‘local plans’ almost inevitably turn out to be written by the same narrow cohort of management consultants who have close working relationships with private healthcare, insurance, pharma and technology companies.

You’ve probably got at least one such plan in your area, though if it is explicit about bed, hospital and ward closures, you may, like the citizens of Staffordshire, struggle to see it before the election.

The public facing plans typically use Stevens’ language of “right care, right place, right time”, heavy on appealing talk of “care closer to home” and in particular more “self-care” and “demand management”.

The respected Health Services Journal calls such talk “Messiah concepts” and “magical thinking”. The  Nuffield Trust says that to suggest we’ll get “better services outside hospital that can either prevent the need for hospital admission or offer the same care but in different settings…is a common theme in initiatives…But there is little evidence that this can be achieved”.

Local scrutiny of these re-organisation and closure plans has been blunted in many cases as councillors are tempted by the prospect of nabbing a bit of NHS cash to fill the gaping hole in their social care budgets, under the familiar rhetoric of ‘integration’. To see this prospect writ large, see Manchester’s ‘DevoManc’ plans, breezily waved through by George Osborne just before the start of election purdah, even as Manchester’s smaller hospitals face an uncertain future.

And there’s more up Stevens’ sleeve. He used his first speech as NHS boss to announce a huge roll-out of personal healthcare budgets, to cover the 5 million most sick people in the NHS over the next 3 years. The roll-out of the scheme is already underway, with people receiving a capped ‘entitlement’ for planned (though not emergency) healthcare. If your needs change and you need a bit more healthcare, NHS England have admitted patients will have to individually ‘negotiate’ that with bureaucrats. This is hardly a reassuring prospect – social care users with personal budgets have already found they face delays of up to 6 months for such renegotiations, which are not always successful.

The plan sounds suspiciously like the old Thatcherite ‘vouchers’ plan. Effectively state subsidised insurance, topped up from your own pocket if you want more than the bare minimum of healthcare – just as we already have in social care. 

Vouchers were favoured (but never delivered) by the Thatcherites as a key way of funnelling state subsidy (and increasingly, personal contribution) to private health firms.

We should never forget that Stevens – in his pre-United Health role as health advisor to Tony Blair and Alan Milburn – was described by the Financial Times as the “key architect…of the reforms that for the first time broke up the NHS monolith, introducing privately run treatment centres”.

And he’s still at it. His Five Year Plan said we need more “new provider networks” from the private sector, though – as usual - this was disguised in lots of talk of partnership and ‘GP leadership’.

It’s another politician’s trick from the unelected head of the NHS. The Health & Social Care Act was sold to us as ‘GP leadership’ too. But the reality has been a few entrepreneurial GPs providing political cover to service cuts, whilst the majority of GPs are left struggling to get on with the job – or leaving. Many areas now have fewer than half the GPs they need, says the Royal College of GPs.

Stevens’ 5 year plan is vague on any commitment to patients being able to access sufficient skilled healthcare professionals in a timely fashion – surely the bedrock of what a health service should be about. Instead it is full of hints that in future an increasing number of services will be delivered, not by face to face contact with doctors and nurses, but by telephone and internet contact, mobile phone apps and “remote monitoring” gadgets. “Innovators from the UK and internationally will be able to bid to have their proposed discovery or innovation deployed and tested”, we are told. There will also be “an expanding set of NHS accredited health apps that patients will be able to use to organise and manage their own health and care and the development of partnerships with the voluntary sector and industry”.

There’ll be no shortage of bidders – PWC says the ‘mhealth’ (mobile health) market will be worth $23bn by 2017, and whilst the UK is at the vanguard of developing such 'apps' to replace doctors, the opportunities for roll out to expanding economies like India are huge. 

Noting that it takes a long time to train medical staff, Stevens also suggests greater reliance on privatised care home staff to provide ‘shared models’ of medical care, and lauds the increasing reliance on volunteers and non-medically qualified staff nudging us towards more ‘self-care’ (whilst not, of course, addressing the structural issues of poverty that make poor lifestyle choices the easiest choice for many).

Stevens has also suggested that a good model for primary care might be ‘Michael Gove-style free schools’ (ie cheaper, unqualified teachers) – something he refused to rule out when challenged in 2014.

Staff make up over 70% of NHS costs – so fewer, cheaper, less skilled staff is the main way that the increasingly involved private sector cuts corners to make their profits.  

As both insurance companies and providers in America know, the really fat profits aren’t in providing health care, as much as in purchasing it – and somehow weeding out those people, and treatments, it isn’t profitable to provide for. The kind of thing that Kaiser Permanente does in the US – a model cited approvingly in Stevens report.

Alarmingly, a subsidiary of United Health, Optum Health, has just won (alongside Capita) the contract to control £5bn of NHS ‘purchasing decisions’. Already we see attempts to weed out undesirable patients – whilst the ‘local decision’ in Devon to refuse all routine surgery to smokers and obese people was overturned after an outcry, there are currently no legal obstacles to cash strapped local health bosses taking the same decision elsewhere in future.

Stevens 5 Year Plan even hints at the plans announced this week by the Tories - to cut the benefits of those who don’t consent to unspecified ‘treatment’ by saying “we will seek to test a win-win opportunity of improving access to NHS services for at-risk individuals while saving ‘downstream’ costs at the Department for Work and Pensions, if money can be reinvested across programmes”.

So that’s what the new boss – and the old boss – have up their sleeve.

And where are the parties on these plans? Over the next week OurNHS will examine the extent to which the major parties have signed up to Stevens’ carefully crafted consensus in favour of service cuts, hospital closures, self-care and conditionality – and whether any of them have committed to taking the truly bold decision, to get the hugely expensive market out of the NHS altogether, to plug the funding gap that we know still looms.

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Universal Credit: the fantasy of a tidy world

Open Democracy News Analysis - 16. Avril 2015 - 9:47

The coalition presents its benefit reforms as fair, rational and efficient. For many, however, the world is not as ordered as those in power seem to imagine.  

‘Army trained’ Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Image: Steve Punter

Universal Credit is not reaching my area until later this year. So I've no practical knowledge yet, only what I've picked up from reading and calculating. On that basis, however, I've found three obvious health warnings to claimants. People with more experience may well have others to offer. All are welcome.

Unfortunately, many people may find it hard to benefit from the warnings by 'tidying' their lives. UC was created for a better-controlled world than many of us inhabit. That is a difficulty.

These, then, are my three health warnings.

1. Make sure you have the right kind of partner.

This is rather fundamental. The right partner may always be an important feature of life, but never more so than when making benefit claims. There are two obvious reasons.

a. Making a claim: now and under UC

Your partner will be involved in your claim. Just as in the 'legacy' system, couples must usually make joint claims and attend initial interviews at JobCentre Plus.

The legacy system, though, allows reduced payments of JSA/ESA/IS if your partner doesn't attend the interview. Under UC, save in a very few cases you'll be paid nothing by way of means-tested benefits until you and your partner have been to JobCentre Plus and signed Claimant Commitments.

This 'nothing', for once, almost means what it says. It involves much more than under the legacy system.

Universal Credit includes not only the old JSA/ESA/IS income-replacements, but also housing costs for rented and mortgaged homes and the equivalents of the old Child and Working Tax Credits. Of the means-tested benefits only Council Tax Reduction remains (administered by Local Authorities). Child Benefit is sort-of-means-tested, and it too survives (run by HMRC).

Apart from those two, all the eggs are in one basket. If your partner won't cooperate, your claim will not go live.

This may seem reasonable, but it's also problematic. Recently we struggled at our Citizens Advice Bureau to find ways forward for a woman (call her Alice) whose 'self-employed' partner ('Rob') had done no work for a year. They have children aged eighteen months and seven. I'm fictionalising this, but the implications are accurate.

Rob refuses to sign on for JobSeekers Allowance. Alice is working 8-12 hours per week (usually nearer 12) just above the minimum wage. They are getting all the benefits they can, but their Housing Benefit falls well short of their private sector rent. It almost never covers the full amount in our high-rent area. Nor does the Council Tax Reduction cover the full sum, being capped for everyone but pensioners, carers and disabled people.

Alice and Rob have gas and electricity meters so they can't run into debt and risk being cut off, but that also means they're paying over the odds. They need a car to get Alice to work. Buses run, unlike many local villages, but not at times that help shift workers.

Under the legacy system, since she's part-time, Alice can't claim Working Tax Credit but can theoretically sign on for JobSeekers Allowance. Depending on how much she earns each week, she might get a few pounds. But if, as is most likely, her entitlement were reduced because of Rob's non-cooperation, she wouldn't get anything.

Anyway, the gain would be wiped out by petrol for the 21-mile round trip for fortnightly visits to the JobCentre Plus to sign on, as well as the time taken by daily online job-searches plus other meetings at JCPlus and the certainty of payments starting and stopping and muddles emerging. Mercifully, Alice and Rob are on broadband, otherwise they'd have to book a computer at the public library. At least they have a nearby library; that's a further cost for people without broadband who have to travel in from the villages.

What Alice needs, of course, (apart from Rob's rebirth) is more work. But she's on a 'key time' contract giving her a guaranteed eight hours per week plus possible extra hours, on a rota including weekends and weekdays. It's hard to find work that fits around that. And it's hard to take on more anyway. She isn't entitled to help with childcare even if she could find some flexible enough to match the job, and she can't leave the children long with Rob.

So Rob's non-cooperation creates difficulties. (Incidentally, the Office for National Statistics reports that domestic abuse is more than three times likelier in the poorest households than in wealthier ones.) Money is tight. The debts are mounting, and Alice is slipping into the perilous habit of prioritising heating, food, children's shoes and high-interest lenders over rent. The landlord can give them two months' notice any time. As assured shorthold tenants they'll have no defence against eviction. If they're in rent arrears, they'll probably be deemed 'intentionally homeless', so the Local Authority has no obligation to rehouse them. We can help Alice challenge that decision, but the LA won't be readily sympathetic if they haven't been claiming all possible benefits.

It's not a particularly unusual situation. The man is refusing in this case, but that's not always so (though our CAB statistics show that far more women than men come in with benefit problems. Men tend to avoid involvement as far as possible.)

It's tough. Our money adviser hasn't yet been able to help Alice balance her income and expenditure. On average, the overall cost of raising a child has risen by about 63% since 2003, by far the most expensive time being from first birthday to starting school. Costs are higher in London, the South East, Northern Ireland and the East of England, balanced (ideally) by higher wages. Alice's situation is not ideal.

At least she is getting benefit help with her council tax and rent as well as Child Benefit, to eke out her wages. They are in debt but not starving. Under Universal Credit, crisis will come faster. Nothing for rent. Only Child Benefit for the children. Rob will have to accept that claimant commitment. Since the younger child is over one and under five, that means attending not only the initial interview but also satisfying whatever further 'work-focused interview requirement' is laid on him by JobCentre Plus. It's not clear how she'll persuade him.

Our culture is alert to anything smacking of 'something for nothing' when it comes to people in poverty. In those terms, this requirement seems fair enough. A primary purpose of the welfare system is, after all, to reduce welfare dependency.

Unfortunately, in Alice's case the system isn't helping her into work. She'd go there herself fast enough if she only could. It's pushing her and the children through the safety net and out the other side, becoming less benefit-dependent only because there's less benefit to depend on. It will do so faster under UC.

b. Access to benefit income

Another reason to choose your partner with care. Under the old system, benefits can be divided, some being paid to each partner. It arrives at intervals through the month depending on the claim dates and frequency of payment.

It's a crazy system, error-prone, expensive, nightmarish to live with. Now advisers (and those claimants aware of what's impending) dread its departure, for the tidiness of Iain Duncan Smith's new system lands all the money in one bank account, monthly in arrears. People need to be sure that if it's paid to their partner, they can trust her/him to manage it responsibly.

Monthly payments are meant to accustom people to the world of work where such frequency is, allegedly, the norm. Only it isn't the norm for people on hourly rates and paid weekly. Nor for people with several jobs, whose payments are dotted all over the place. And some are paid four-weekly. For many workers struggling near the bottom, monthly payments are alien.

The obvious picture is of a partner spending the rent down the Offie. That's not the only peril, though. Alice finds it hard to avoid spending the rent money even though it is paid separately from Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit. At least she has only a small trickle of money at any time; she can never splash out on two pairs of children's shoes or on paying off the whole payday loan, however tough the pressure on her.

She will be able to under UC.

And another point about these payments. When you first claim, there will be at least a month's wait before the first payment. If you can prove your household particularly vulnerable, you might be lent some money in advance, to be repaid in future months. Otherwise, as you head towards having to claim UC, make sure you squirrel away enough to survive on for the month. It might be difficult.  

2. Make sure you have the right employer.

UC is calculated monthly in arrears using 'real-time information' (RTI) from employers to HMRC. According to the Department for Work & Pension's (DWP's) glowing vision in the FAQs for employers, 'HMRC sends relevant data relating to Universal Credit claimants to DWP on a daily basis (four times a day). So the data employers send to HMRC will be with DWP on the same day or at the latest the next day.' Iain Duncan Smith was army-trained. I'm sure the Forces will perform with this degree of precision. But pubs, clubs and small corner shops? The computer system, already in its second generation though it hasn't been seriously tested on claimants,

In an almost endearing understatement, the UC guidance to employers says: 'It is important that you report your employees’ PAYE information on time; that is on or before the time you pay them, so that we can make the correct Universal Credit payments.' One would like to think they mean 'important' to the claimant. I don't know if late information will mislead the computer into increasing UC as if there were no wages, with a knock-on reduction when two lots of pay appear the next month or, more probably, that the claim will stop. Time will tell. Such a reduction in payment must occasionally happen for four-weekly wage earners, since their payments will not align with monthly ones. Twelve times four is 48 not 52 weeks.

So pick an employer able and willing to provide that real-time information, one with an efficient payroll system. Employers who haven't moved on to RTI can't do it. 'If your employer does not use this RTI system you will need to report your earnings to Universal Credit yourself every time you're paid. If you and/or your partner fail to report your work or earnings your Universal Credit may be suspended and your payment delayed' says the UC website. There is no mention of delays by JCPlus in processing this non-RTI information, but given the record of the old system, everyone confidently expected them. The experience of areas already under UC have justified our belief.

If your employer is on RTI but you can't rely on him/her, I'm not sure what you do. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Much better to have the right kind of employer, the kind Iain Duncan Smith has in mind.

3. If you have a mortgage, only take a well-paid job.

This is a tricky suggestion since under UC, as for JobSeekers Allowance, if you refuse a reasonable offer of work you're likely to be sanctioned, losing a chunk of income for 13+ weeks. For the initial 13 weeks you can negotiate to apply only for jobs commensurate with your last rate of pay and seniority, but not thereafter.

The problem is that UC has a 'zero earnings limit' for support for mortgage interest (SMI). If you have a mortgage, as soon as you earn even at the minimum wage for one hour per week, you lose all your SMI (payable after a waiting period of 13 weeks on the claim). I'll explore this further in another article; here I'll just give the health warning.

How far, if at all, this reduces your UC depends on your wage level and household make-up. People with children are protected (a bit). If they don't get help with housing costs (rent or mortgage interest), they are allowed keep more of their wages before their UC payments start being 'tapered' away. If they're on higher incomes, this balances the loss of SMI.

But if you have a very low wage that's little or no help. The only thing that hits you is the loss of SMI. I've played around with various scenarios. A singleton or couple getting help with SMI loses catastrophically if they take a micro-job of a few hours on minimum wage. Especially if they're childless, their earnings have to rise significantly before they exceed what UC without wages had been.

So, if you have a mortgage: either avoid getting a job (magically avoiding a sanction meanwhile), or wave an alternative magic wand and find a well-paid one.

The problem

I've heard Iain Duncan Smith speak. Universal Credit in his words glows with rationality, promising greater fairness for taxpayers and opening prospects for claimants.

If terms and conditions of work were designed to take account of human lives as well as employers' bottom lines, if the realities of daily life allowed people to organise themselves with military precision, if income bore some relationship to outgoings, and if benefit regulations were comprehensible to ordinary minds, his vision might be nearer truth.

As it is, people carry on coping, somehow, because they have no choice.

Universal Credit inhabits fantasy-land. But it's not just UC that needs rewriting, of course, it's the economic system of which it's part.

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Violence compared: rape in Turkey and India

Open Democracy News Analysis - 16. Avril 2015 - 8:45

There are striking similarities in the responses to rape and murder cases of women in India and Turkey: a predilection for punitive measures without addressing the root causes of violence.

The attempted rape and murder Özgecan Aslan in February 2015 prompted widespread outrage in Turkey. Resisting an attempted rape on a bus, the 20-year old was murdered by the bus driver, his friend, and the driver’s father later colluded in hiding the evidence. A countrywide string of public protests followed in which thousands took to the streets. The protests included a social media campaign allowing women to share their stories of harassment with the hashtags #sendeanlat (you speak up as well) and #OzgecanAslan. The hashtags quickly began trending on Twitter with as many as 3 million tweets after only a few days. Furthermore, Turkish men wore miniskirts in Taksim, Istanbul to protest the stereotype that women who wear miniskirts provoke rape.

The Özgecan Aslan case bears considerable resemblance to the Delhi Gang Rape that occurred on December 16, 2012, when a 23-year-old paramedic, Jyoti Singh, was raped and murdered by a bus driver and five passengers. India saw scores of people filling the streets in protest. The protests continued over months leading to an excellent report by Justice Verma Committee that resulted in the introduction of Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013. In the recent Delhi elections in February 2015, the security of women was one of the issues on the agenda of every political party.

Neither of the cases was the first of its kind.  In both Turkey and India, violence against women varies from verbal harassment to rape and honour crimes. In many of the cases, victims are blamed for provoking and inviting violence through “indecent” acts such as leering, overdressing or staying out late. The crux of the matter is why, amid so many similar cases, did the cases of Özgecan Aslan and the Delhi Gang Rape create such uproar in Turkey and India?

Some analysts claim these cases marked tipping points. Others argue that the patriarchal mentality that has always placed the blame on women was unable, on these occasions, to come up with any excuses to legitimize the murders.

In Turkey, Özgecan Aslan was described by former Turkish Minister of Family and Social Policies Fatma Şahin as having an innocent face, or by the leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as an immaculate youngster. A Turkish imam, Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü, contended that she had become a martyr, because she died while “protecting her chastity.” Similarly, in India, Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj referred to Jyoti Singh as zinda laash (living dead) while she was battling for her life in the hospital.

A third kind of debate revolves around the class dimension. In both cases, the victims were young, independent, modern women from middle class backgrounds who were on their way home from shopping malls. They were indeed the faces of every young, aspiring woman in the neoliberal system. In a way, many urban women were reminded that this could have easily happened to any of them, which helped mobilize large number of people to protest.  This was again reflected in the recent outburst witnessed in India about the documentary India’s Daughter.

During the protests in India, several organizations and groups came forward to protest against the heinous incident, and demands were raised such as the death penalty and castration for the accused. While women’s groups demanded spaces to assert women’s sexual autonomy, fundamentalist groups proposed protectionist methods to keep women away from these spaces, presumably for their own protection. Civil society actors demanded more accountability from the state to make spaces safer for women. There were demands for safer roads, more infrastructural facilities such as streetlights and CCTV cameras and better legislation.  These measures only helped to reproduce and reinforce the societal understanding that women are helpless victims who need to be “monitored” and “protected.” They hinge on the protectionist approach of patriarchy towards women and further reinforce the image of women as weak and passive.

Similar demands were made in Turkey. While Nurullah Ardıç, a professor at Şehir University, proposed pink buses for women, former Turkish Minister of Family and Social Policies Fatma Şahin suggested castration for offenders, and Minister of Economy Nihat Zeybekçi recommended the death penalty.

In Turkey, capital punishment was banned in 2004 following the signing of European Convention on Human Rights  in line with the EU accession process. Prior to that, capital punishment had only been used for political crimes. In fact, there has not been a single case of rape resulting in capital punishment in the entire history of the Turkish Republic. This record suggests that bringing back capital punishment would only serve the growing authoritarianism in Turkey, not women.

Interestingly, one of the recent occasions when capital punishment was used in India was for a rape case in 2004 . Despite its application in the Delhi case as well, rape continues to be a bleeding wound in the country.  There seems to be no research or evidence based study to support the deterrence effect of capital punishment. Such harsh measures may even  serve to motivate perpetrators to ensure that they disposed of all evidence after a crime. Moreover, such measures place the focus on the perpetrator of the crime and ignore the societal context in which it takes place.

Despite a few positive outcomes such as the increased visibility of the issue of women’s rights and gender-related sensitivity in the media, two years down the line, this approach has had little impact on the lives of women in India. The new Criminal Amendment Act, in spite of its noble intentions, has not been able to reduce or deter crimes against women. The law still continues to act as the post crime intervention which has not affected the way women are perceived or treated in society.

The protectionist approach takes women back to their traditional roles, takes the responsibility away from state machineries to provide safe access to public spaces and restricts the movement of women under the guise of offering them safety. Feminist movements’ reliance on criminal jurisprudence makes women hostages of the definitions created by law. This has also provided the state with increased power to reinforce the protectionist approach and play out the role of a patriarch. This political stance has been evident in the election manifestos of major political parties in India which had women’s safety as one of their priorities. Various economic schemes floated by the Indian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to improve the condition in the various rural settings have been within the family sphere to encourage women to value their role as daughters and wives.

In Turkey, the Özgecan Aslan incident has also been turned into a political contest as a result of the upcoming parliamentary elections in June 2015. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promised to “personally follow the case so that they (perpetrators) will be given the heaviest penalty”, and accused the women who danced for the international One Billion Rising event of  dishonouring Özgecan Aslan’s death. Meanwhile, Erdoğan reiterated that men and women are not equal and women should have at least three children, birth control is treason and women’s defined position is motherhood.

Other politicians lined up to propose the most severe punishment to perpetrators of violence against women. However, their reactions were short-lived since most were absent during the massive International Women’s Day parades that took place across Istanbul on March 8, 2015. The vacuum was instead filled by the left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP) known for its Kurdish affiliation and support for minority rights.

The cases of Jyoti Singh and Özgecan Aslan proved once again that violence against women does not have any borders. As evident, mainstream politics still prefers to handle these issues on a case by case basis rather than coming up with comprehensive solutions that target the gender-related problems permeating society as a whole.

What women need is not protection but the normalization of their presence in public spaces.






Sideboxes Related stories:  The gender wars in Turkey: a litmus test of democracy? India: The BJP, rape, and the status of women When scarred female bodies demarcate the Indian subcontinent's polity A tangled web: the politics of gender in Turkey Grief and rage in India: making violence against women history? Country or region:  Turkey India Topics:  Civil society Culture Equality
Catégories: les flux rss

Eliminating female genital mutilation by 2030

Open Democracy News Analysis - 16. Avril 2015 - 8:30

The UN’s proposed new development goals include a target to end harmful traditional practices like FGM by 2030. We now know the key steps needed to get there. Françaisالعربية

A poem by the Somali writer Dahabo Ali Muse expresses the pain caused by female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice endured by more than 140 million girls and women in the world:

It is what my grandmother called the three feminine sorrows. She said the day of circumcision; the wedding night and the birth of a baby are the triple feminine sorrows.

FGM, the first of the three feminine sorrows, refers to all procedures involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The practice is life-threatening both during the procedure and throughout the course of a girl’s life. It is also a reproductive rights violation, as it violates the right to health and bodily integrity and is a form of violence against women and girls.

Most countries have committed themselves to protecting the rights of women and girls by ratifying a number of international and regional treaties. In December 2014, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on ‘Intensifying global efforts to eliminate female genital mutilations’, reiterating the international community’s commitment to eliminate FGM.

In the coming months, world leaders will agree on a new set of Sustainable Development Goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals. One of the proposals is to include a target on eliminating all harmful practices, such as FGM, by 2030.

Despite global and national actions to eliminate the practice, FGM remains widespread. Can this be done? The task seems daunting. Despite global and national actions to eliminate the practice, FGM remains widespread. It is most common in 29 countries in Africa; in some countries in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America; and among migrants from these areas settling in Western countries. Prevalence of FGM varies across countries, from 96.7 per cent among girls aged 15 to 19 in Somalia to 0.4 per cent in Cameroon. Although FGM prevalence has dropped in many countries, the rate of decline is far below what is needed. If the current trend continues, UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, estimates that 86 million girls born from 2010-2015 will be at risk of being cut by 2030.

But this trend can be reversed. We need to learn from our experiences and design and scale up programmes that have a real impact in the lives of women and girls. That is why UNFPA and UNICEF are leading the largest global programme to accelerate the abandonment of FGM, which is currently active in 17 countries. So, what have we learnt so far? What works?

Creating a movement to eliminate FGM There is a need to reach out to the girls and women whose rights are violated by FGM, while engaging governments and other parties that have the responsibility to eliminate it.  It is important, in particular, to sensitize political leaders on FGM, to cultivate networks of supporters and activists and to disseminate information about local, regional and global developments.Translating Legislation into Action

States must ensure adequate national provisions to stop FGM, including through criminalization, appropriate enforcement and prosecution. Countries are reporting varying degrees of law enforcement, and many stakeholders say the existence of anti-FGM laws provides them with leverage and legitimization for their advocacy work. Similarly, the process of informing the population about a new law offers opportunities to publicly discuss FGM, thereby raising awareness. Media coverage of prosecutions and court public hearings can also further inform people about legislation.

Engaging health workers in the elimination of FGM

Health workers, fully aware of the considerable consequences of FGM on sexual and reproductive health, are increasingly standing up against the practice. Their advanced skills in the prevention and provision of care to girls and women who have been subjected to FGM are also complementing community behaviour change processes.

Flickr/DFID UK Department for International Development (Some rights reserved)

A traditional Burkinabé midwife educates women on FMG and its effects on child birth.

Reframing concepts and traditions and empowering Girls

FGM is deeply rooted in tradition and persists as a social norm upheld by underlying gender structures and power relations. Reframing concepts and traditions related to FGM, rather than seeking to discredit long-held traditions, is essential to accelerate abandonment. The creation of new social norms has had encouraging results in countries like Sudan, where a positive term for uncut women and girls was created, Saleema, to replace negative concepts used for such girls. Similarly, in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, an alternative rite of passage has been introduced, accompanied by community education sessions. Girls are educated on a wide range of topics, including positive traditional values and life skills, as well as human rights. This prepares them to become mentors and role models. Educational activities and community dialogue create a non-threatening space where community members can re-evaluate their own beliefs and values regarding FGM.

The value of public declarations

Facilitating public declarations of FGM abandonment makes the change in a community’s attitudes more visible and encourages others to embrace the new social norm. A public commitment, especially if made by traditional or religious leaders, produces a social pressure that makes it difficult for community members to return to prior practices and contradict a pledge.

Amplifying change through the media

Given the complicated nature of FGM and frequent misinformation about it, building the capacity of media professionals remains a priority. Involving national and local media, including at the community level, is instrumental to spreading information, raising the visibility of communities that have abandoned FGM and promoting positive behavior change.

Advancing coordination and strengthening capacities National committees chaired by the government and composed of key stakeholders are being set up in several countries to address FGM. Improved collaboration among stakeholders has proven to strengthen the individual and collective capacities to eliminate the practice.

The linkages between legislation, human rights and positive social change resulting in the abandonment of FGM are complex. Much progress has been made, but the prevalence of FGM remains at an unacceptably high level. Human rights can help to accelerate abandonment and to achieve gender equality, but they must not only exist on paper. Human rights must become a reality in the lives of women and girls.

Let us pay heed to what the Somali poem quoted above says on how we should treat girls:  ‘Initiate them to the world of love, not to the world of feminine sorrow!!

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 


Related stories:  Faith and health care in Africa: a complex reality Women’s rights in the developing world: Build it and it will come? Tradition should defer to human rights, not the other way around Tackling Egypt’s gender-based violence with crowdsourcing One step forward, two back? Dalit women’s rights under economic globalisation Human rights are also about social justice Fleeing FGM: Bodies on the frontline Women’s rights in Tunisia: promising future or religio-political game? What do Muslim women want? Finding women’s rights in Islam
Catégories: les flux rss

Writing poetry in Russia is a dangerous profession

Open Democracy News Analysis - 16. Avril 2015 - 8:15

Aleksandr Byvshev, a schoolteacher from Russia’s Oryol region, is on trial for writing a poem opposing the annexation of Crimea.



On 30 March 2015, Aleksandr Byvshev, a schoolteacher from Russia’s Oryol region, went on trial, accused of ‘extremism’ for writing a poem opposing the annexation of Crimea one year ago.

If Byvshev is found guilty, he could face a four year prison sentence. But that is not his only problem. After a denunciation on national TV by the chair of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, Byshev has not only been pilloried in the press, but has even received a death threat in the mail. Indeed, as the propaganda machine whips up accusations of conspiracy and treachery, Byvshev has acquired all the hallmarks of a pariah. But as Byvshev's trial goes ahead (with significantly less press coverage) in a small town just south of Oryol, there's room for hope – and despair – when it comes to justice in Russia.

‘Sabotage against Russia’

Aleksandr Byvshev lives in the village of Kromy (pop. 6,838) in the region of Oryol, in the southwest of European Russia. If you believe Wikipedia, Byvshev, the author of three published poetry collections, is the only famous person ever to be born there.

A year ago, Byvshev taught German in the local school – again, the only person in the village qualified to do so. This academic year, pupils are no longer able to study German: Byvshev was sacked in August 2014 for writing the lines: ‘Not an inch of Crimea to Putin’s goons’/ Tolls the tocsin in wounded hearts’.

Aleksandr Byvshev. Courtesy of the author.

‘I was taught not to lie as a child’, Aleksandr tells me. ‘If Russia seizes Crimea from Ukraine, then we have to use the word “seized”, not euphemisms about “historic reunification” and lies about Stepan Bandera followers planning to come and massacre the entire population.’

On 1 March 2014, at the height of the annexation campaign, a poem written in Ukrainian and entitled ‘To Ukrainian Patriots’ appeared on Byvshev’s VKontakte social media page. It read as follows:

An unknown special forces guy appeared there.

(Not a squeak from the Kremlin about ‘secret aliens’).

‘Not an inch of Crimea to Putin’s goons’,

Tolls the tocsin in wounded hearts.

As you meet the Muscovite thugs,

Answer them as Bandera did:

‘Let the invaders choke in their blood!’

The only way to deal with the scum.

Greet the foe as your forefathers did,

Don’t let an alien boot on your soil.

Make them eat lead porridge,

And God keep you in your deadly fight!

It’s early to put your bullets away,

Russia threatens a battle march.

May Shukhevych’s spirit live on in you!

And let the Lord lead you on!

On 14 April 2014, a local Kromy newspaper printed an article about Byvshev under the headline: ‘Russia has no room for patriots like this!’

‘In an unquiet time’, the article reads, ‘when our external enemies have bared their teeth and have hunkered down, ready for a deadly attack, there are people ready to undermine our country from the inside. One of these people is Aleksandr Byvshev ... This poem, written by a Russian, expresses full support for Ukraine’s desire to make advances to Europe. The horrors of fascism – Katyn, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Babii Yar – have evidently been forgotten by our fellow countryman. So deftly the Western media manipulates people’s minds, presenting Russia as an invader to the eyes of the world’.

‘Print Screen’

Although Russia’s Criminal Code prohibits a case being brought against an individual on the basis of an anonymous statement, Byvshev was nevertheless charged under Article 282 (‘Incitement to Hatred or Enmity’).

No one at the regional police headquarters would comment on this infringement of the law. ‘We sent complaints about the charge to the district and regional courts’, Byvshev’s lawyer Vladimir Suchkov tells me, ‘but they were both ignored’.

The regional officers of Centre E (the special police department charged with conducting the ‘war on extremism’) began their investigation of the school teacher on 1 April 2014. Here are a few extracts from the report made by the Centre’s chief, Sergei Stebletsov, a man obviously not lacking a sense of humour:

In Room No.173, Police Captain S.N. Stebletsov of the Oryol Regional “Centre E”, with the assistance of Ye.V. Polyakov, a staff member of the Oryol Regional “Centre E”, completed an operational-investigative exercise, ‘observing’ the personal VKontakte social media page of the individual using the nickname “Aleksandr Byvshev”.

The observation took place by means of an office computer plugged into the Internet.

The observation took place in natural daylight and in cloudy weather. [What effect the weather could have had on the operational-investigative exercise is not clear – I.Zh]

The observation consisted of the following actions:

On the computer desk we create a text file entitled ‘Screenshots’, in which we shall keep the ‘screenshots’ taken in the course of the operational-investigative exercise, with the aid of the ‘Print Screen’ key on the keyboard.

We opened the ‘Google Chrome’ browser on the computer’s monitor and then the ‘Yandex’ search engine and enter ‘Vkontakte’ in the search box.

On the right hand side of the opened page we see the news stream of the user “Aleksandr Byvshev”, which includes a post containing a poem in a language resembling Ukrainian and entitled ‘To Ukrainian Patriots’. ‘

The officers sent the poem off for linguistic analysis, and were vindicated in their conclusion. The expert assessment carried out by Oryol University lecturer Lyudmila Vlasova concluded that:

‘The hostile nature of the poem’s statements regarding Russians is clear from the references to Russia’s state organs and to President Putin (“Not an inch of Crimea to Putin’s goons”).

‘The said statements contain direct and indirect calls to Ukrainian patriots to carry out the following physical and other actions in relation to the enemy (Russians): to greet the enemy in the same way as their ancestors (‘Greet the foe as your forefathers did’); have their arms ready and to hand (‘It’s early to put your bullets away’); believe that their (Ukrainian) mission is sacred (‘And let the Lord lead you on!’).

In short, writes Vlasova, ‘the text of the poem ‘To Ukrainian Patriots’ contains statements of a derogatory nature about Russians.’

‘The poem contains statements of a derogatory nature about Russians.’

On 16 April this report was sent to the Investigative Committee, Russia’s main investigating authority, and a criminal case opened.

The investigators are always right

When Byvshev and his lawyer Vladimir Suchkov received a copy of the accusation statement, they applied to the court for a second linguistic analysis of the poem to be produced - they disagreed with Vlasova’s conclusions.

The court granted their application and the poem was sent to the Guild of Linguistic Experts in Documentary and Information Disputes (GLEDIS), whose experts Igor Zharkov, Aleksandr Mamontov and Galina Trofimova analysed the text once again and came to the following conclusions:

‘The text in question may be seen as the author’s contribution to a discussion – a free and open debate on subjects of public interest [...] The text contains many statements of various types (factual, judgmental, analytical, generalising) [...] The text contains no statements, which could be read as incitements to hatred or disparagement of individuals or groups on grounds of gender, race, ethnicity, language, origins, religious beliefs (or lack thereof ) or membership of a social group.’

In October 2014, the GLEDIS experts’ conclusions were presented to the court. After studying their report, Judge Yelena Gudkova refused to admit it as evidence, thereby accepting the validity of the charge against Byvshev. The poem was declared ‘extremist’, and Vlasova’s report remained the only expert evidence in the case.

Judge Yelena Gudkova refused to admit the second report as evidence.

‘Quake at the slightest sound’

On 16 December 2014, Byvshev received an envelope containing an anonymous note through his letterbox. It read:

‘On 8 March 1944 all the members of my close friend’s family were savagely tortured by a group of Banderovites in the village of Nova-Brikulya in the Ternopil region of Ukraine. I have spent my life looking for an opportunity to avenge them. And now the moment has arrived. Are you hoping for a humane trial and help from the human rights fifth-columnists? Pray to God that you will live to stand trial. Because you are more likely to hear my sentence first. And my sentence will be a very harsh one. And you will hear it on your knees. For the moment, I am giving you time to say goodbye to your poor old parents. But as you go around, look about you and quake at the slightest sound. I will appear before you without warning, and the time and place of our meeting is still undecided.’

‘Pray to God that you will live to stand trial!’

‘I have taken the threat seriously’, Aleksandr tells me. ‘The envelope was in my letterbox, so someone knows my address. The sender also mentions my parents, both of whom are in poor health, so he knows about my family circumstances. I showed the letter to Sergei Bazhenov, the local Chief of Police, and he promised to look into it, but I’m under no illusions about whether this will happen.’

The Kromy police refuse to comment on the threatening letter.

‘Clinical russophobia’

On 2 February 2015, Aleksei Pushkov, chair of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, discussed Byvshev’s case on a TV show on the state-owned TV Tsentr channel.

‘We have a new scandal going on with writers like [Ludmila] Ulitskaya, [Viktor] Erofeyev and company. They support the right to express hatred towards our country and extremist declarations such as “Make the Russians eat lead porridge!” This is what Aleksandr Byvshev, a teacher from Oryol, has called for in his poetry.’ Byvshev’s line, just to remind you, did not mention Russians specifically – it referred to ‘enemies’ and ‘invaders’.

‘Prominent writers are supporting the right to hatred in our country’.

The TV show included an item accusing Byvshev of russophobia. ‘It’s a clinical case’, Yury Poliakov, editor-in-chief of The Literary Gazette, an influential intellectual publication (if of the old guard), told the interviewer. ‘To have such hatred for the country he lives in and whose language he speaks!’

The climax of the show was a misquote from another of Aleksandr’s poems.

‘And here’s what Byvshev wrote about the tragedy in Odessa!’ announced the programme’s host, referring to the incident in May 2014, when 48 people were killed during a standoff between supporters and opponents of EuroMaidan:

‘The only way to kill these pests is with fire,

The beetles burn up quite happily.’

‘That poem was written a year before the Ukrainian crisis began’, says Byvshev. ’I wrote it when I was collecting Colorado beetles off my potatoes and set them alight on some newspaper’.

Aleksandr Byvshev’s trial began on 30 March. The presiding judge, Margarita Gridneva, has never been involved in a political trial. Prior to the trial, Byvshev and his defence lawyer Vladimir Suchkov were far from optimistic about the outcome: ‘I don’t think the case will end in an acquittal, despite the absurdity of the accusations’, Suchkov tells me. ‘But the offence he is being charged with doesn’t automatically entail a prison sentence if he’s found guilty; he could get off with a heavy fine, of up to 300,000 roubles [£4,000]. I hope the judge will take into account the fact that his elderly parents depend on him.’

Aleksandr Byvshev himself was less positive: ‘I’m prepared for the worst’, he says. ‘The punitive machine is already in motion’.

The accusation file on Byvshev is based on the evidence of 43 witnesses. But one is struck by the fact that many witness statements are almost exactly the same, word for word.

Straight to the prosecutor's office

Byvshev's trial is going ahead without much press coverage. There are only two journalists in the courtroom. On the first day, the prosecutor read out the accusation, and on the second, eight witnesses were called – teachers from Kromy's high school, former colleagues of Byvshev. Headteacher Ludmila Agoshkova was the first to take the stand.

'A Crimean patriot sent us Byvshev's poem. He asked himself: “How can this kind of person work in a school?” When I read the poem, I had an immediate negative reaction. I took it immediately to the former prosecutor of our neighbourhood, Maksim Grishin.”

According to Agoshkova, after having read the poem, she organised a survey of her students. She asked them whether Byvshev talked about politics during lessons. One student recalled that their teacher had said 'Putin's really lost it now – invading Crimea' during a lesson.

On 8 May 2014, the school's teachers' council met on the recommendation of the local prosecutor's office. All of Byvshev's colleagues publicly condemned the poem in support of Ukraine.

'I thought that Aleksandr Mikhailovich [Byvshev] was incredibly annoyed that no one stood up for him. After the council meeting, he stood up and said: "My mum is Ukrainian. What do you order us to do?"

Agoshkova couldn't remember neither the poem's content, nor its title: "I read it once, and that was a year ago."

'But what about inciting hatred towards the Russian people, or only towards the state?' – the prosecutor inquired.

'Of course, towards the Russian people,' said the headteacher confidently. 'You understand, for us, Putin – especially after the return of Crimea – is someone who has forced Russians to believe in themselves. We felt his power, and his resolve. And when Crimea returned – we all welcomed it: "Crimea is ours!" And it always was ours. And only Byvshev wrote: "Occupiers!"

History teacher Valery Sukhorukov, the second witness, was no less harsh on his colleague. 'I liked Aleksandr Mikhailovich's poems about our town. Then there were some poems with criticism of Putin, Medvedev – I read them too. But those about Ukraine, that was the limit.'

'I noticed his liberal views long ago'

Ludmila Agoshkova's son Aleksandr accused Byvshev of 'russophobia' in court. 'Byvshev and I started arguing fiercely back in 2008, when the conflict in South Ossetia broke out. I'd already noticed Aleksandr Mikhailovich's extreme liberal views. I already understood what he represents. After all, he was arguing in favour of Georgia.'

Judge Margarita Gridina inquired in response: 'What are extreme liberal views?'

'Well, what does the word "liberal" mean in our country? It implies all russophobes.'

'The word Libero means freedom. Are freedom and russophobia one and the same thing?'

'When it comes to our liberals ... Well, you can basically put an equals sign between them.'

Speaking about Byvshev's poem, Agoshkov admitted that he did not understand it, seeing as he does not know Ukrainian.

'But I did understand one or two things. The call to kill the "Putin Chekists," for example.'

'There's no such call in the poem,' parried Vladimir Suchkov, Byvshev's legal counsel. 'There's a call not to give an inch of Crimea to Putin’s chekists.'

'I understand,' answered the witness. 'If you're not going to give up the land, it means you're armed. And if you're armed, you're going to kill.'

Conspiracy theory

The icing on the cake, however, was the testimony of Vyacheslav Kostyakov, an English teacher. 'Byvshev openly supports splitting up our people. He supports the right of Ukrainians to independence and European choice. I believe that we cannot allow that. We are one people: Ukraine, with the possible exception of Galicia, is Russia. With the help of his sponsors, Byvshev is promoting the murder of Russians.'

'With the help of which sponsors?'

The witness fell silent.

'Perhaps you mean Yatseniuk or Turchinov?' continued Suchkov, barely holding back laughter. The prosecutor and judge were also looking at Kostyakov with a smile.

'No. I mean the members of the Russian PEN Centre. I saw the programme on television. They are against Russia.'

'Do you have any evidence of PEN Centre's involvement in sponsoring Byvshev?'

'No. But the director of our housing maintenance company said that some gang gave 1.5 million roubles [£20,000] to Byvshev.'

'Which gang?' The accused could barely hold himself back from laughing. 'Is that the Cosa Nostra or the masons?'

'Well, I heard that Byvshev goes to Unistream Bank and receives bank transfers there.' Kostyakov suddenly became rather unsure of himself. 'Although you know, you can probably just strike all of that from the record. It's all hearsay.'

Room for optimism

After the witnesses were questioned, Vladimir Suchkov was optimistic: 'There are no concrete pieces of evidence to suggest the accused is guilty. The witnesses don't even remember the poem. Of course, in terms of Article 282, the judge can still not only send Aleksandr to jail, but also fine him – up to 300,000 roubles [£4,000]. But we hope that he will be acquitted.'

Byvshev abstained from commenting on the proceedings. And so do I. But we are waiting the judge's verdict.

Standfirst image: Graffiti in Luhansk, Ukraine. (c) Qypchak / Wikipedia. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  A guide to political persecution in Russia Russians resisting war and repression Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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A tale of two men

Open Democracy News Analysis - 16. Avril 2015 - 4:31

The experience of fighters on opposite sides of the "war on terror", marking the 700th column in this series.

A view from Hoboken

You are a young man in your late 20s who grew up in Hoboken, in the "garden state" of New Jersey just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Your family was blue-collar Italian and staunch Republican, and in the fall of 2001 you had graduated from High School and were planning to go to college after a year earning some money. On that Tuesday morning you were already at work at Jimmy John’s sandwich bar on the corner of First and Hudson when, just before nine, everyone turned to look at the TV as a shot of the World Trade Center’s north tower came on screen, burning fiercely as an agitated newscaster tried to explain what had happened. Half the staff rushed out across to First Street but the view was blocked by buildings. The manager saw there was no point in carrying on with trade and locked up as everyone rushed along First to the waterfront, crossing Sinatra Avenue to the small park on the Hudson River.

You were one of the first there, just in time to see the second plane hit the south tower and you all knew at once that this was no accident - America was under attack. To add to the horror you then watched with crowds of stunned and silent people as first the south tower and then the north tower collapsed. Making matters far worse, you learned later that day that one of your uncles, a New York firefighter, was among those missing. It was at that moment that you decided to ditch plans for college and join up.

With your sporting skills and high-school education, enlisting in the Marines was no problem and your training took you all through the early months of the war in Afghanistan. Like all the others in your group you were hugely determined to confront the terrorists, and the early collapse of the Taliban and President Bush’s brilliant state-of-the-union address in January 2002 gave a boost to your entire class. 

By the time you were in your unit and fully trained it was very clear that the next target would be Iraq, where the Saddam Hussein regime was part of an axis of evil, supporting terrorism and, worst of all, working as fast as it could to get weapons of mass destruction. By the end of 2002 your unit was already forward-based in Kuwait and on the following 20 March you were part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit crossing into Iraq. Within days you had had your baptism of fire as your unit, along with British and Polish troops, met full-scale opposition from Iraqi terrorists as you tried to capture the key port of Umm Qasr. 

Even so, elsewhere everything went much better and you were heavily involved in the move up the Euphrates to Baghdad, watching with delight when the president gave his “mission accomplished” speech at the beginning of May. That early experience outside Umm Qasr, though, was a taste of what was to come, and your unit was right at the centre of the bitter fighting around Fallujah nearly a year later. You were due for leave but were determined to stay on, only to be involved in one of the toughest firefights of the year when your convoy, moving to reinforce a unit in the city, was caught in a terror ambush. 

You all survived as the relief force came through but some of the injuries were horrific. You were in a Humvee hit by an RPG when one of the crew lost both legs and another his jaw and much of his face. The trauma for the whole unit was huge and everyone involved was utterly delighted when the unit commander called in AC-130 gunships that night and destroyed that part of the city.  For you, also, it was some recompense for the loss of your uncle.

You did three more tours of Iraq, including a key period in 2006 supporting SEAL Team 6 in Operation Arcadia and while peace seemed at last being restored to Iraq by 2010, you were not convinced it was over. Even bin Laden’s death was not enough since you had seen at first hand just how determined the Iraqi extremists were. You would never admit it outside your unit but you, and some of the others, even had a grudging respect for their fighting abilities and willingness to die. Perhaps your own religious upbringing helped.

After ten years in the Marines you left to take a highly paid job with a private military company - serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen in a series of ultra-low-profile operations. From all your many contacts you could see that al-Qaida might be much reduced but the new threats arising in Iraq and Syria were a very different matter. You watched in horror as Islamic State was formed and took over much of northern Iraq including, unbelievably, even Fallujah.

The war started up again with the airstrikes in August 2014 but you knew they could never work on their own. To you it seemed your country was walking into a disaster, with all the efforts to turn things round in the decade after 9/11 coming to nought. Then, in April 2015, you heard that the director of the CIA, John Brennan, was restructuring the entire agency to prepare it for an extended war against the terrorists. Someone, at least, had his head screwed on and you applied to join the company. This, you knew, would be a long war, but that experience fourteen years ago on the Hoboken waterfront of watching the twin towers collapse was more than enough to motivate you. You were, and are, in it for the long term in the defence of freedom and democracy.

A view from Fallujah

You are a young man in your mid-20s and you were born and brought up in Fallujah, the “city of mosques” in the heart of Sunni Iraq to the west of Baghdad. Your family - mother, father, two brothers and two sisters - lived comfortably enough under the Saddam Hussein regime and even the sanctions that followed the 1991 war did not have too much effect, given that your father was a high-ranking municipal engineer in charge of water supplies for the whole of the city and the surrounding area, including the key irrigation systems leading south from the Fallujah barrage.

When you were just into your teens the regime was terminated by the American crusaders, supported every inch of the way by the Zionists. This was supposedly in response to the 2001 attacks even though you and all your friends knew full well that those massacres were staged by the American government to provide an excuse to go to war and take full control of Middle East oil, especially in Iraq where your leader had been the only person in the region to stand up to the Americans. The evidence was everywhere - after all, hadn’t Bush actually said that Iraq must be dealt with and the regime destroyed, even before the New York and Washington attacks, and hadn’t the Americans been absolutely clear that the whole world should follow their way and be part of the "new American century"? It was all so obvious.

Once the war had started, you watched as the resistance formed even as the city authorities tried to maintain a tolerable existence for the people. You remember your father working eighteen to twenty-four hours a day and coming home utterly exhausted as he and his staff tried to repair the damage being done by the constant bombardment of the city. You remember one occasion in particular when an American convoy was attacked by the resistance and beaten back, only for them to send in their gunships that night and destroy hundreds of houses in reprisal, killing your elder brother’s young wife, two of your closest friends and wiping out all three families.

That, alone, was enough to make you utterly convinced that you must join the fight, that the Christian crusaders were at the root of the problem and they must be expelled from the country. A few months later, though, much worse was to follow. That autumn the Americans came back with overwhelming force to take the city, and you and most of your family hurriedly left to take refuge with friends in Ramadi. Your father and eldest brother were determined to stay - your father because of the need to try and protect not just what was left of the city’s public works but also the Fallujah Barrage and the extraordinary network of canals downstream from the city that used the Euphrates water to irrigate some of Iraq’s richest croplands. For your brother, though, the aim was to fight and defend the city against the Christian invaders, killing as many as he could, even if he died. 

That was the last you saw of them and it was weeks later that you all learned that your father had been horribly burned when his Nissan pick-up was hit by a missile as he and his crew drove out in three trucks to try and repair a key part of the barrage just south of the city.  May be it was a crazy thing to do, given that they were in the middle of a war-zone, but he feared that if the irrigation system was wrecked and the land dried out it would do as much damage as scores of bombs. To the Americans, no doubt, his truck was full of “terrorists” and was probably “taken out” by a Hellfire missile fired by an F-16, or rockets fired from an Apache gunship.  He died in appalling pain three days later, trapped in the city where all the medical facilities had been destroyed.

The fate of your brother was a mystery for many months but you eventually heard that he had been wounded, captured and taken to a prison twenty miles east towards Baghdad along the old Highway 10 at Abu Ghraib. You found out that, in spite of his injuries he was waterboarded repeatedly for information by the CIA and special forces but refused to say anything. Reduced to little more than a human wreck he was handed over to the ordinary American troops and along with hundreds of others was repeatedly abused. After a few months a deep-rooted infection of one of his wounds flared up and he died of septicaemia, his body dumped in a mass grave.

The next five years were sheer hell as the Americans tried to take control of the whole country, handing over power to the Iranians and Maliki and his Shi’a lackeys and allowing them to use any force they wanted to crush your people. Resistance was strong but the Americans and the British used every conceivable method to suppress dissent, with hundreds of night raids, inevitable “kill lists”, incarceration and torture. Within a year of the deaths of your father and brother you were already a seasoned urban fighter with a growing reputation even though still in your mid-teens. Their deaths had made you fearless and your willingness to take huge risks was widely admired.  Even so, like so many of your friends who weren’t killed, you were eventually captured, tortured and ended up in Camp Bucca to join 20,000 others in one of the world’s largest prisons.

That was the making of you as the close confinement of the prison and the complete lack of control by incompetent guards gave free reign to the inmates. You had learned in school that prisons only ever function with the consent of the prisoners and Bucca was no exception. Here, though, the prisoners were increasingly organised and educated by enlightened and charismatic preachers who were brilliant at renewing in your own mind the value and supreme relevance of your religious beliefs.

You, and many hundreds of others, understood in those months and years of detention that true Islam, returning to the early days, was the only way forward and that those freedom-fighters who had avoided death or capture were now quietly building up what they called al-Qaida in Iraq, AQI, ready for the day when the Crusaders would eventually leave.

When that time came, most of the prisoners were released but several thousand who were considered dangerous were handed over to the Maliki government. You were one of them and ended up in early 2011 with hundreds more at Abu Ghraib, now a high-security government jail housing the “worst of the worst”. Conditions were appalling and the Shi'a warders brutal, but it was not to last long. By the end of the year AQI under Baghdadi had been reinvigorated, was already linking up with fellow freedom-fighters in Syria, and was embarking on a brilliant programme of prison breaks right across central and northern Iraq. This started towards the end of 2012, with Abu Ghraib a priority, and the following July you were one of the hundreds released in one of the best of all the operations.

Because of your reputation you were moved to Raqqa and took part in many operations, but within a year you were back in Iraq leading a platoon that helped retake first Fallujah and then Mosul. To see your home city back in rightful hands was one of your greatest joys, almost as good as the leader’s declaration of the Caliphate in the Mosul mosque a few months later.

As everyone expected, the Crusaders finally recognised what was happening and started their air attacks in August, intensifying them in the following months and bringing the French, British and other Christian forces as well as apostates from across the region. The air and drone attacks had little effect which is hardly surprising since there were hundreds of able officers and NCOs who had had years of experience of the Crusader ways of war. They certainly lost some, but many ordinary people were also killed, further stirring up anger directed not just at the Crusaders but the Iranians as well.

As the not-so-young man now sees it:

“Our resilience and capabilities are remarkable, born out of our complete conviction and absolute belief that ours is the rightful path. Since we are the vanguard protecting the whole of true Islam we welcome the attacks and are utterly sure that we will wear the enemy down.  Indeed much of what we do is to incite them to attack us - an element they simply cannot understand. Do they think we killed that Jordanian pilot out of sheer brutality? No, it was to provoke. For me, though, it has an added element - as I watched him I thought of my own father, also burned to death but taking three days, not three minutes, to die. This war will take many years for victory. I will most certainly not survive it here on earth but will still witness it with joy.”

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

Department of peace studies, Bradford University

Oxford Research Group

Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (Verso, 2015)

Remote Control Project

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

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

Long War Journal

Related stories:  A tale of two futures The thirty-year war on terror A tale of two paradigms A tale of two towns The thirty-year war, continued A thirty-year war The thirty-year war, revisited A tale of two insurgencies The thirty-year war: past, present, future Topics:  Conflict International politics Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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Gotcha! the ‘bait and switch and bait again’ of US anti-trafficking policy

Open Democracy News Analysis - 16. Avril 2015 - 4:00

American understandings of trafficking concentrate on so-called ‘sex trafficking,’ however existing laws address many forms of labour exploitation. Too little is known about the effects of such laws on all workers.

The US’s current anti-trafficking policy, which produces a tangle of finite good and possibly infinite harmful effects, is the product of a very modern twist on the classic ‘bait and switch’ game of law-making. The ‘bait’ of sexual harm—stories of ‘sex slaves’ produced by some advocates and propagated with alacrity by the media and accepted by some US law makers—has permitted a constantly changing ‘switch’, an incoherent spectrum of immigration and criminal law enforcement operating without much critical oversight, let alone public understanding. Laws and practices ostensibly targeting trafficking can either benefit or negatively affect a wide range of domestic and border-crossing workers in vastly different labour sectors, ranging from door-to-door magazine sales, to domestic work, sex work, agricultural work, and construction.

It is my contention that we—including progressive critics of the (American) Trafficking Victim Protection Act or TVPA—know too little about the impacts of state and NGO practices carried out under the ‘switch. ’ All of us, critics and proponents alike, are still talking too much about the ‘bait’: the sex side of anti-trafficking work. Despite the now multi-pronged reach of the TVPA, the public understanding, the press and the vast majority of research and scholarship remains stubbornly focused on the sexual aspects of the practices covered by the crime of ‘trafficking’. When the ‘switch’ occurs—the actual application of the TVPA to non-sexual labour in the U.S.—it goes relatively unnoticed, and relatively un-critiqued.

US press reports on a recent ‘victory’ under the TVPA makes this continued thrall to the sex-side of trafficking clear. In February 2015, five Indian welders and pipefitters employed by Signal International in the US though the H-2B visa program were awarded $14 million in compensatory and punitive damages as victims of ‘labour trafficking’—i.e., through the application of the US anti-trafficking law. They had been promised but denied green cards, held in sub-standard living conditions and inhibited in their movement, among other harms. Over 200 more workers are part of a follow up action, claiming to be similarly situated. A national coalition of groups—including the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, the Louisiana Justice Institute and two firms—carried out this campaign and litigation. These groups have made an assessment that the TVPA has some potential to benefit this set of exploited workers.

But the headlines, such as those of The New York Times, trumpeted not that they were ‘trafficking victims’ but that they were exploited guest workers—a characterization that readily plays into an equally vexed but different, racially charged immigration policy. This media mis-characterization of the victims occurred even though spokespersons for the workers were careful to remind journalists that ‘human trafficking’ can take many forms, and press materials stressed this fact. Nonetheless, the media here followed the general advocacy template of treating exploited (male) workers as migrant labours while reserving the term ‘trafficking’ for (female) ‘sex trafficking victims.’

Over the last decade, there have been dozens of press accounts of prosecutions using the TVPA that mis-characterize the affected victims, in both headline and text, as ‘smuggled' or solely as victimized migrant worker cases. In general, the only cases using trafficking in the headlines are those of ‘sex trafficking,’ with a smattering of domestic worker cases attracting the term. Interestingly, the line of cases called into view after the 2014 high-profile arrest of an Indian diplomat were called ‘trafficking’ in their text but headlined as other forms of mis-treatment of domestic workers.

The public understanding of ‘trafficking’ as a contemporary crime remains over-determined to see it as a gendered/sexed crime in part because rhetorically and symbolically, it is the direct inheritor of the mantel of ‘white slavery’. The persistent casting of all trafficking in line with the narratives of ‘white slavery’—tales of girls and women tricked into prostitution in the late 19th/early 20th century—forecloses public engagement with anti-trafficking law as relevant to other kinds of workers. Many sex worker advocates warned in the late 1990s, as these laws were being adopted, that the crime of trafficking could never be extracted from tales of prostitution/horror, regardless of what the content of the law says. But what are scholars and advocates doing to counter this preoccupation with sex?

Therein lies the rub. Despite the serious concern among some labour advocates regarding the usefulness of the anti-trafficking framework overall, precious little of this garners the publicity it needs to affect the discourse. As Nandita Sharma, Sealing Cheng, and Judy Fudge have all argued on this site in different ways, anti-trafficking initiatives are always subject to countervailing state interests and ad hoc, politically driven enforcement because they are based in criminal law rather than labour rights. They are not organically organized to generate better working conditions as demanded by workers. An increasing number of advocates and scholars are now debating whether and how to mitigate the dangers of this, slices of which are reflected in the published work of Janie Chuang and Jennifer M Chacon. The Freedom Network is endeavoring to synthesize and publicize recent work on civil litigation, for example regarding the recovery of back wages for trafficked persons over and above the high profile stories of sexualized victims. But I would hazard a guess that few Americans know about this work, even as all my US students know about the ‘trafficking of women for prostitution’.

When Congress initially passed the TVPA in 2000, it was as part of an awkward right-left compromise between broader human rights and narrower anti-prostitution policies. Both groups of policies operated in an over-heated atmosphere redolent of stories of Eastern European and South East Asian ‘sex slaves’ being bought and sold in the US. Despite the limited data on the actual needs of exploited workers in all the sectors covered by the TVPA—such as agricultural, factory, or domestic work—Congress re-authorised and revised the act in 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2013. Each time they tweaked the content of the crime of trafficking, and the remedies so that it both concretized the range of crimes beyond forced movement into sexual commerce AND remained tethered to sex. It also remained a criminal prosecution statute but added civil remedies. As the work of anthropologist Alicia Peters and law professor Dina Haynes has shown, the dominant narrative and the ideal trafficked victims remains the ‘innocent/duped sex slave.’ At the same time, the dominant understanding of the law in the media and in the public remains prosecution and not wage redress.

In the shadow of this sex/crime narrative, revisions of the TVPA have altered the priorities for prosecution as well as the programmes for its prevention and amelioration. Notably, on the side of ‘tethered to sex’, the most recent revisions redoubled the TVPA’s powers to reach under 18s. The new category of innocent victim is the under 18-year-old harmed through sexual commerce in the US. Globally, the TVPA is expanding its focus on kids and sexual harm has also expanded (possibly unconstitutionally, as research and analysis by one of my students is suggesting) its reach to child sexual exploitation through the ‘Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today (PROTECT)’ Act of  2003.

While many revisions continued the focus on sexual harm, there have been some interesting shifts in the actual law of the TVPA vis-a-vis other forms of labour: in 2008 the TVPA reconciled its definition for the crime, removing the higher threshold for the use of force in the crime of labour trafficking vs. sex trafficking for example. If the TVPA has found use for other non-sexy forms of labour trafficking now, scholars are in a good position to understand the effects of that change—if we wanted to pay attention to the actual scope of the ‘switch’. But scholarship and research haven’t fully kept up with the changing scope of the TVPA.

Under these circumstances, I think it is fair to say that the progressive critiques by academics on the sexuality side of the problem have become part of the problem—scholarship on ‘trafficking’ remains remarkably lop-sided. The academy approached the issues of the anti-trafficking framework—rightly I think—with a strong critique of the ‘bait’ side. A strong cadre of critical race/feminist and post colonial scholar/advocates—myself included—sought to take apart the way that racialized and sexualized melodramatic tales of sexual violation were presented as facts of migration and labor (as melomentaries, to use Carole Vance’s term). Our entry points were often concerns about the conflation of all sex work with ‘trafficking’; the use of rescue and raids to disrupt the sex sector regardless of evidence of actual harm, the colonialist assumptions about ‘brown women’ being unable to show agentic movement etc.

But we have not moved substantially from the ‘bait’ side. This has happened in part, I suspect, because the academic institutional apparatus of sexuality, queer studies and feminism with which we approached our initial critique has now trapped us: critiques of the anti-trafficking framework resonate in gender studies classes, not in migration and labor studies programs. Many of us are now stuck to the bait of criticizing sex trafficking. Sadly, it is a knotty problem that continues to produce bad effects in practice as well as in the academy. The press seems to cover fights within feminism over sex work and prostitution law as much as it covers what they are fighting about: their attention to these struggles seems a bit like the superior attitudes of watching ‘girl fights’.

Our own theories about the power dynamics in and around sexuality tell us that ‘sex is sticky’. We need a way out that will respect both the continuing bad effects of the ‘sex panic’ but also fully engage with how sex diverts attention away from exploited workers outside the sex sector and fails to help folks in the sex sector. To do this we need grounded, longitudinal and snap shot research on many different labor sectors that asks whether or not the TVPA is a useful tool for workers of all types. The numbers of people engaged in this side of study are smaller than the numbers buzzing around sexual hysteria (both generating it and critiquing it).

Moreover, more than increasing numbers, we need to think hard about the range of different scholars and advocates who need to be in the room. In 1998, Barbara Limanowska, a feminist activist from Poland, told me that most of what needed to be known about the migration patterns of women from eastern Europe could be gleaned from currency fluctuations, yet she had never been to an anti-trafficking conference that included micro and macro-economists, or fiscal policy analysts.

This is changing. It now appears that researchers of migration and scholars of informal labour and labour rights are increasing in the room in international conferences on trafficking. We need more support for their presence in our debates on anti-trafficking policies here in the U.S. It would be important to organize more of those conferences alongside the critical race feminist scholars and advocates. It won’t be easy, in part because the funding for this kind of cross-disciplinary, theoretically rich and empirical research at the intersection of borders, labor and sex is not obvious in the US, nor is the route to shifting public understandings. But without the theory and research, we have no chance against the mis-use of anti-trafficking law. Sadly though, we must keep reckoning with the fact that we cannot keep contributing to the frisson of fights over ‘white savours’, raid and rescue, and ‘girl fights within feminism’ that has made the sex-framed anti-trafficking work so attractive as the bait. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  EU’s approach to migrants: humanitarian rhetoric, inhumane treatment Domestic sex trafficking and the punitive side of anti-trafficking protection Human trafficking: a parasite of prohibitionism?
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Foreign aid is not dispensable. It’s the condition for a fairer future

Open Democracy News Analysis - 15. Avril 2015 - 23:11

UKIP among others treat foreign aid as if it were inconsequential charity. Cutting this budget, however, effects us all - rendering the world a more unequal place. 

Refugees in the Mediterranean, Image: NBN

Yesterday UKIP announced as part of its manifesto pledge that it would radically reduce aid spending from the 0.7% that it currently is, to just 0.2% of Gross National Income. It’s true that too much aid money is spent on consultants and free market privatisation schemes, but UKIP’s solution – simply to cut it massively – is a recipe for a more unequal world.

Last weekend I raised concerns about Britain’s aid spending in the Daily Mail. The Mail is right to be scandalised that more than £1 billion of the aid budget ends up in British and American private consultancy firms, even more so when you realise that those consultants are often ideologically driven to put private interests ahead of public benefit. That politicians involved in making decisions on aid receive campaign donations from those same consultancies, only adds to the grubbiness.

But for Global Justice Now, our solution is quite different from that put forward by The Mail. The problem is not an excess of generosity by successive British governments who have too much sympathy, but not enough intelligence to make our taxes work to reduce poverty. Nor can the problem be laid, as it so often is implicitly, purely at the feet of a corrupt African elite. 

Rather, the problem is that aid is administered in a very similar way to the rest of our economy, which puts the interests of big business and the market ahead of those of ordinary people, decent public services and human rights.

UKIP believes the increase in the aid budget is at odds with austerity, asking why would the government spend so much on foreigners when people here are suffering? But even if you accept the need for cuts, a decent society would shelter the poorest and most vulnerable from those cuts. The whole purpose of foreign aid is that it should primarily benefit those at the bottom of the economic pecking order. It should therefore be the last thing we look to reduce.

The Mail and UKIP would prefer us to spend money on military spending, a strange choice given the chaos and poverty our foreign wars have left the world. But even a more genuinely difficult decision, say between a new school in Ghana or hospitals here in the UK, misses the point about austerity. The decimation of our public services in recent years isn’t driven by some abstract lack of money. We now have more private control of our society than at any time since the Second World War, and this has continued in boom times and bust times. Look at those examples of privatisation, from healthcare to the railways, and it becomes clear that the state is spending more money on those services today than it did before privatisation. The difference is that now a handful of contracts, free from any meaningful competition, are also making huge profits out of our taxes.

We are dealing with a dogma so powerful that simple facts are unable to dislodge it from its throne. That’s because the dogma is making certain powerful people in our society very rich. No wonder, then, that it has also infected aid spending. No wonder that it is being spent on an ideologically-driven project to support private healthcare and education in some of the most impoverished countries in the world. No wonder the Department for International Development is working with the likes of Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Diageo and Monsanto, believing they can help Africa (which grows a good proportion of our food) to develop a healthy and sustainable food system. No wonder they are helping Nigeria to privatise its electricity system, even though anyone who has lived through privatisation here could have predicted higher prices and fewer jobs, both of which have happened there.  

Aid has become a tool, then, for driving forward the interests of big business and the market. But it doesn’t need to be that way, and simply abolishing it, allowing people to turn inwards, will make society a worse, not a better place.

So let’s instead imagine what it could look like.

Many people in Britain believe the NHS is the crowning glory of our achievement – taking healthcare out of the hands of the market and big business and running it democratically. It is the lynchpin of a fair society, which encourages equality and democracy, as well as the idea that caring for others is important.

Today we could build on that achievement, not only be turning back privatisation in the NHS before it’s too late. We could also help governments around the world to build decent health systems – not to mention sustainable energy that everyone has access too, good schooling for all and the rest. Spending our taxes building decent public services and democratic food systems should be something we are proud of. 

But if we’re ever to get to there, we also need to change the way we talk about aid. We need to stop thinking of aid as the government equivalent of ‘giving to charity’. It isn’t – or shouldn’t be – considered charity, any more than funding the NHS or our education system is charity. It’s about redistributing from those who have, to those who don’t. It’s about building a fair and decent global society where we don’t watch people starve through lack of resources. It’s about starting to put right the damage our governments have done to world over decades and centuries – through wars and unfair trading systems and outright plunder. And that can only be done when priorities aren’t driven by our own government, but by democratic decisions made in the countries which is receiving those funds.

The current amount spent on aid is a pittance compared to what’s necessary for this task. Moreover, as long as people see aid in isolation from the wider struggle for social justice, or as a charitable donation, it won’t be possible for aid to become something bigger. Neither will it be possible as long as supporters of aid gloss over the fact that those currently in charge of the aid budget are committed to using it to fill the coffers of consultants and big business.

If you’re concerned with making the world fairer, you support real redistribution of income from the richest to the poorest, you use this money to help build decent public services around the world. What you don’t do is pretend climate change isn’t happening, cut taxes on the richest, and bung the money into the military. 

A version of this post was first published on Global Justice Now 

Sideboxes Related stories:  OurKingdom rolling election blog The politics of aid: pie in the sky or feet on the ground? Is aid working? Is this the right question to be asking?
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