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With a more enterprising Russia, cards are reshuffled in the Arab world

Mon, 23 Jan 2017 12:15:25 +0000

A new power structure is emerging in the Middle East as Russia uses its intervention in Syria to position itself as an important partner for regional powers as diverse and opposed to each other as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel and Iran. Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian military's General Staff speaks at a briefing at the Russian Defense Ministry's headquarters in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. In the background a map of Syria. Picture by Ivan Sekretarev AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. In North Africa, Algeria and Egypt are indulging in a form of heavy lifting that pushes the United States and the European Union to the sidelines. Some observers will welcome these changes, others will deplore them. Nobody can dispute that the European Union's and United States’ capacity to shape policy in the region is declining fast. Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt have a common interest in breaking the impasse in Libya as violence in the country since the death of Muammar Qaddafi risks spilling over the border. It already has in spectacular fashion in Tunisia with the attack on the southern town of Ben Guerdane last winter and on the attempt to torch the Algeria gas field of Tiguentourine four years ago. Matters worsened when Tuaregs from northern Mali, who had long served Qaddafi, returned to their country armed with weapons stolen from Libyan arms dumps and nearly toppled the regime in Mali. Whatever the goodwill of the UN special envoy to Libya and the European Union’s backing of the Government of National Accord in the west, the fact that control of eastern Libya rests essentially with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar means a confrontation between the two halves of Libya remains a major risk that the country’s neighbours want to avoid. Nor do they wish to become hostage to power games initiated from outside the region and that they feel are not amicable to their interests. Algeria and Egypt, at least since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power, have no objection to the Russians playing a role in the region. Russia has entered the fray in Libya, where it had docking rights in the eastern port of Benghazi at the time of Qaddafi. Haftar twice visited Moscow last year and was recently invited on board the aircraft carrier Admiral Kouznetsov, which was making its way back to Russia from Syria. While on the ship, Haftar had a videoconference with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. Although Russia said it remains committed to the UN arms embargo on Libya, this show of support for Haftar comes when his enemies are weakening. It sends a rebuke to Western powers which, after brokering the fall of the former dictator, have been incapable of preventing Libya’s slide into chaos Algeria and Egypt, at least since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power, have no objection to the Russians playing a role in the region. Algeria was very upset in 2011 as its warnings to Paris, London and Washington about the likely outcome of their intervention in Libya were treated with contempt. Further evidence of Russia’s projecting itself as a major player came when the Qatar Investment Authority decided to invest $5 billion in the Russian oil company Rosneft PJSC as part of a $10.6 billion deal that included Glencore Plc. Turkey has moved much closer to its erstwhile enemy Russia recently and Qatar has followed in its footsteps. A significant part of Qatar’s investment portfolio remains in the United States where it is committed to investing $35 billion over the next five years. Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani has decided to hedge his bets. His decision to invest in Rosneft was taken as Russian warplanes bombarded Aleppo where the countries were on different sides of the Syria divide. The strong Russian backing for Syrian President Bashar Assad has left the countries that had funded and armed the Islamist rebels -- Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia -- in the lurch. Turkey has moved much closer to its erstwhile enemy Russia recently and Qatar ha[...]



The mounting paralysis of Latin America’s Left (Part 1)

Thu, 01 Oct 2015 09:31:48 +0000

An increasingly exhausted South American Left finds itself trapped between similar contradictions to those undermining its counterparts in Europe. Español. All rights reserved.This summer, as the British Labour Party finds itself blindsided by the rise of Leftist populism, a number of analyses have sought to counterpose this against broader problems facing the Left across Europe. In power in many countries at the time of the 2008 crash, and having embraced free market economics and neoliberalism in many cases, social democratic parties have been left unable to articulate an alternative to traditional supporters enduring falling living standards, rising levels of job insecurity, and who – for the first time since 1945 – see an economic and political system which is palpably failing them. In the absence of new ideas, the Left has increasingly taken refuge in old ones, generally defined in opposition to something: most notably, austerity. Paul Mason views this as the start of a long transition signalling the end of capitalism as we know it; the trouble is, as whatever will replace it is still entirely unclear, social democratic parties find themselves trapped defending a system which they know no longer works, amid a context of what was once organised labour being dispersed, atomised, by the rise of self-employment, the digital economy and globalisation. In trouble across Europe – only in Italy, where the centre-right was humiliated by various euro-related disasters, are the social democrats still in a position of relative strength – the Left’s only (supposed) success story has been in South America: where it’s dominated over the last decade and more. But even there, its position is now dramatically weakening, for reasons which are depressingly familiar. In any case, we should note that what might seem like ‘success stories’ to unreconstructed Leftists have amounted to little more than ugly, lowest common denominator populism in too many cases. The main driver behind the Left’s rise in South America has been powerful, emotive memories of the 1970s: when the US covertly supported a whole host of murderous, fascist dictatorships, particularly in the continent’s South Cone (encompassing Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay). As democracy returned, and those who grew up under these regimes came of age, populist, socialist movements grew in influence: most of which styled themselves in opposition to the imperialist meddling of Washington. Yet when they came to power, the response of a number of leaders (particularly in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and to a lesser extent, Argentina) was to consciously divide their countries between rich and poor. To oppose the demagogue Hugo Chávez in Venezuela was to be depicted as part of some American-backed Fifth Column, trying to bring the horrors of the 1970s back; and while it’s true that the CIA have clearly tried to infiltrate the opposition at times, it’s more accurate to say that under President Obama, the State Department has simply waited for Venezuela to collapse, as it inevitably will. In August 2003, around 3.2m signatures were collected for a recall referendum against Chávez, provided for in the constitution. These were rejected by the National Electoral Council (CNE) on the grounds of being put together before the midpoint of the Presidential term; the government then raided CNE and seized the petitions. In September, the opposition collected a new set of signatures, some 3.6m: rejected by the CNE on the grounds that many were invalid. Riots which killed nine and injured 1200 followed this decision. The petitioners appealed to the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court, which reinstated 800,000 signatures, bringing the total to well over the 2.4m required; but this was overturned by the Court’s Constitutional Chamber, and again, the government seized the list. Eventually, the referendum was granted – but onl[...]



This time, it’s different

Tue, 04 Aug 2015 21:50:32 +0000

Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism is a book for our times—and the decades ahead. After the 1979 Conservative election victory in Britain and its repetition in 1983, Labour was intellectually comatose, such energy as it had mainly dissipated in factionalism, between a conservative leadership and a radical wing which yet seemed to look backwards. It was outside Labour, in a journal which had gradually floated itself off from the Communist Party of Great Britain, Marxism Today, where a serious reckoning was being made, even in advance of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, through path-breaking essays like Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘The forward march of Labour halted’ (September 1978) and Stuart Hall’s ‘The great moving right show’ (January 1979). And as the Iron Curtain was about to come down on the Communist political family—including its ‘Eurocommunist’ dissidents—in October 1988 Marxism Today published a startling diagnosis of the strange world in which the left now found itself, encapsulating a look forward into the 1990s in the phrase ‘new times’. The special issue of Marxism Today devoted to this theme slaughtered many sacred cows, essentially arguing that the left was like a beached whale in a ‘post-Fordist’ world of ‘lean’ or ‘just-in-time’ production, where the old mass-production lines were being replaced by boutique production for diverse and demanding consumers. ‘Organised’ post-war capitalism, a relatively stable world in which big corporations recognised trade unions as an institutional voice of (at least male) workers and advanced capitalist states secured relatively full employment (at least for men) with a national welfare floor, was giving way to ‘disorganised’ capitalism, where capital roamed the globe and small and medium enterprises were often at the heart of innovation. The ‘new times’ analysis extended from the economic to the cultural arena, urging the left to recognise that it now inhabited a world characterised by what Antonio Gramsci had prefigured as ‘individualistic society’.Informational Since then, what defines this new form of capitalism has become clearer. It was described as ‘informational’ by Castells (1996) and ‘cognitive’ by Boutang (2008). If Fordism raised the productivity of labour quantitatively by building upon the Taylorist disaggregation of the labour process into simple, repeatable parts, co-ordinating them via a production line whose speed management controlled, informational/cognitive capitalism pursues qualitative innovation by cultivating and capturing the knowledge in workers’ heads. But this is in no sense simply a substitution of mental for manual labour, with everything else unchanged. On the contrary, there is a fundamental distinction, which goes to the heart of the crisis of legitimacy contemporary capitalism faces—of which the explosion detonated in the financial institutions in 2008, so ably analysed in Paul Mason’s instant book, Meltdown, was merely a symptom. Taylorism and Fordism were all about enhancing capital’s control by destroying the autonomy of labour. Never again would there be workers who had the space and capacity to articulate alternative social projects like the toolmakers and other highly skilled manual workers who led the first shop stewards’ movement in Britain around the time of the first world war, so well described by James Hinton (1973). Huw Benyon’s ethnographic Working for Ford, published in the same year, painted a quite different contemporary picture of a deskilled workforce whose ‘economic-corporate’ militancy, as Gramsci would have described it, did not translate into any radical political ideas. The big difference with informational capitalism is the loss of dependence of high-competence workers on the company. A toolmaker could only acquire his skill through an apprenticeship with a firm. But today’s cognitive workers have acquired their [...]



Iran behind the conciliatory veil

Sat, 25 Apr 2015 21:34:13 +0000

Right-wing US and Israeli venom against the outline agreement is one thing; genuine concern about the Islamic regime’s Shia expansionism and human-rights record is however another. As Iran and the ‘P5+1’ (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) prepared for a new round of negotiations in late April to finalise the details of a nuclear agreement, a group of 24 executives and investors were touring the country on a ‘fact-finding’ mission. Although Iran still remains under a sanctions and American companies are prohibited from doing business there, the trip was the group’s third to the Islamic republic. So although several important differences remain between the US and Iranian interpretations of the tentative agreement on 2 April in Lausanne, some American firms are already signalling their hopes for new business opportunities with Iran. Sanctions have massively undermined Iran’s economy but that anticipated new era is a matter of mutual interest. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has implicitly supported the view of the president, Hassan Rouhani, that the nuclear issue is a “symptom” of mistrust and conflict, not a “cause”. For the first time in decades, he indicated that reaching a decent deal might lead Iran to more co-operation with the US in the region. A few days later in the New York Times, the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, underlined that “there are multiple arenas where the interests of Iran and other major stakeholders intersect … This unique opportunity for engagement must not be squandered.” It seems then, that “the waiting list” of US companies—as Dick Simon, a co-founder of the Young Presidents’ Organization and one of the executives who visited Iran put it—is expanding. Another American investor told BBC Persian that the “vast number of educated youth, a huge market in the region, a western consumer middle class and the friendly attitude of the people” had made “the prospect of a changing Iran a very interesting one”. Substantial disagreements As the US president, Barack Obama, has made clear, however, this is not a done deal and hardliners on both sides are trying to sabotage it. There are substantial disagreements between the US ‘fact-sheet’ on the outline agreement and Iran’s understanding. Iran insists that nothing has been surrendered and “none of the nuclear facilities or related activities will be stopped, shut down, or suspended” but the US summary suggests otherwise. In addition to the lack of such crucial detail, there are at least two main differences: over the inspection arrangements and the lifting of sanctions. Contrary to the ‘fact-sheet’, Iran insists that its military bases are not to be subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—as both Khamenei and the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, have reaffirmed. On the other hand, Iran maintains that all sanctions should go within days of the signing of the final agreement: “At the same time as the start of Iran’s nuclear-related implementation work, all of the sanctions will be annulled on a single specified day.” But the ‘P5+1’ are insisting that sanctions will only be suspended through verifications by the IAEA and “at the end of the first stage of implementation, not at the beginning”. According to the US secretary of state, John Kerry, this could take six months to a year.  Even more importantly, however, there is a critical suspicion as to whether the Islamic regime is genuinely changing. What puts Iran’s policy in question is its aggressive strategy, regionally and domestically. Hegemonic influence Some members of the US Congress have already discounted any agreement with Iran. The former Republican secretary of state James Baker alleged that it would “alienate all of our allies in the regi[...]



European vs Arab revolutions: regimes, ideas, violence

Fri, 10 Apr 2015 10:59:00 +0000

Why did east-central Europe find a non-violent freedom path in 1989-91, while the Arab world failed to do so after 2011? Gennady Yanayev, the vice-president of the USSR, went on television on 19 August 1991 to declare that he and seven colleagues on a “committee on the state of emergency” were taking control of the world's second most powerful state. The usurpers, key figures in the Soviet leadership, acted in the belief that Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms were taking the Soviet Union to the verge of disintegration. The self-appointed committee - having detained Gorbachev in his holiday dacha on the Black Sea coast - emptied prisons in expectation of the need to make thousands of arrests; seized radio and television outlets; declared a curfew; and deployed columns of elite troops with mechanised infantry to city centres, most importantly Moscow. The "August coup" was underway. Within hours, thousands of citizens were gathering around the parliament of the Russian SSR (known as the “White House”). Some protesters blocked tunnels with buses belonging to the city's transport network to hinder the movement of advancing tanks. Three men facing the tanks were killed: Dmitry Komar, Ilya Krichevsky and Vladimir Usov. The military officers on the ground reported to the coup leaders that they could not achieve their objectives without confronting the crowds. A bloodbath was inevitable. The would-be rulers realised that they did not want a massacre of their own people. On 21 August, they bowed to reality, abandoned their plans, and were arrested. This was but the latest episode in the rolling drama of communism's fall across east-central Europe where local ruling elites, in face of mass demonstrations, surrendered power rather than opt for bloody repression. In 1989, escalating popular marches in the DDR (East Germany) led the party-state Erich Honecker to allow free travel to the west and thus the fall of the Berlin wall; this sealed the fate of the regime itself, in a way that made clear that the era of shooting down unarmed civilians was over. A decade later, Serbia's leader Slobodan Milošević was overthrown in October 2000 amid mass demonstrations accusing him of electoral fraud; tens of thousands dead were his legacy, but not a single person was killed in these final days. In later years, a series of similarly non-violent revolutions - the “colour revolutions” - swept Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. A double contrast At the end of the decade, in December 2010, another world-historical process began when a young Tunisian called Mohamad Bouazizi set himself on fire and ignited a series of protests that toppled the country's president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The uprising that followed in much of the Arab world led many analysts to imagine that the Middle East was embarking on its own wave of democratisation. The dominant idea was that liberal-democratic change would transform this last bastion of authoritarian regimes. The rebellion in its initial stages did resemble a democratic revolution, led as it was by a young, urban, educated, middle-class cohort opposing the old regime's corruption and nepotism, and demanding freedom (hurriyeh), peaceful transformation (selmiyeh), democracy and jobs. But more than four years on, most of the Arab world is engaged not in vigorous electoral struggles around parliaments and political platforms but burning in a series of violent conflicts. From Syria to Libya, Yemen to Iraq, war is destroying human lives and even entire civilisations. What went wrong; why was the hunger for a higher form of polity drowned in blood? A clear understanding of this issue is essential if any route out of the spiral of self-destruction is to be found. Here, a comparison with the east European revolutions, on two levels, could be useful (see "The Arab revolt and the colour revolutions", 10 March 2011).The first level [...]



When will Islamic State use its chemical weapons?

Thu, 12 Mar 2015 19:11:55 +0000

The west turned a blind eye to the possible use of chemical weapons by militant Islamists allied against the Assad regime in Syria. Now that Islamic State almost certainly possesses them, the chickens are coming home to roost. For decades the Achilles heel of the Chemical Weapons Convention was the failure of key Middle Eastern states to ratify it. Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Libya and Syria have all been known to possess chemical weapons (CW) at times, with Egypt and Israel now sharing a regional monopoly on these weapons of mass destruction. Syria’s powerful CW capability, backed up by tailor-made Russian missiles, was a threat to Israel’s population centres and would have been a major strategic factor in a war with Israel. Like other disarmament and arms-control treaties negotiated 40 or so years ago, the convention critically assumed that only governments would be capable of developing, producing and using CW. That assumption is now outdated: new technologies and production methods facilitate the production of CW in backyard laboratories, and violent, non-state organisations have become increasingly powerful, organised and well-funded. Given that Iraq, Libya and Syria have recently acceded to the convention, only Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea and South Sudan now need to join for state membership to be universal. But if non-state entities, such as al-Qaeda and the  Islamic State (IS), are capable of developing and producing CW, is the convention obsolescent? Flatly denied It was not until 2013 that al-Qaeda in Iraq and the al-Nusra Front in Syria and Turkey were suspected of having produced and used CW. At that stage of the war in Syria, the west and Turkey were providing these anti-regime militants with political and military support. So although there were allegations, mainly from the government of Bashar Assad, that the militants had used CW against his armed forces, the US and the west flatly denied them. The first major claim of CW use in Syria was made on 19 March 2013, in relation to Khan al-Assal, west of Aleppo, where a rocket killed more than 20 people, including a small number of Syrian soldiers. Just one day after the attack, the government of Syria formally requested the UN secretary‑general, Ban ki-Moon, to launch an impartial investigation. He thus ensured that the inquiry would not anger any of the five permanent members of the Security Council.Syria was convinced that the CW had been delivered by an al-Nusra rocket. Its government, then on the back foot facing the western-backed militants, would not have taken this step lightly. In the later words of Ake Sellström, the leader of Ban’s CW inquiry, “the Syrian government requested the investigation, so there was a background that makes you believe that maybe, just maybe, the government was right”. Although the finger of suspicion pointed at the al-Nusra Front, nothing was proved beyond doubt. The US vigorously protested that its militant Islamic allies were blameless. Two months later, reports emerged of the arrest by Turkish authorities of five al-Nusra militants in possession of 2.2 kg of sarin, just on the border with Syria. When Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, sardonically inquired why Turkey had seemingly buried the matter, its foreign minister declared that anti-freeze had been mistaken for sarin.  As Turkey’s sympathy for militant groups seeking to bring down Assad remains an open secret, it was probably providing its anti-Assad ally with political cover. Then, in June 2013, Iraqi soldiers arrested a small number of al-Qaeda members producing mustard gas and sarin in two backyard Baghdad laboratories. Although this news was internationally disseminated, it was not pursued by anyone—least of all by the west, which has, however, seized on every opportunity to accuse Syria’s govern[...]



Climate-chaos migrants set to face increasingly closed borders

Mon, 02 Mar 2015 15:11:51 +0000

Climate change is set to trigger dangerously soaring temperatures this century, forcing many of humankind’s most vulnerable to migrate to survive. Yet the growing global obsession with border security will stifle their safe movement. A protest at the Rafah border checkpoint. Flickr / Steve Rhodes. Some rights reserved.Anthropogenic climate change is heating the earth ten times faster than natural changes over the last 65m years. Scientists concur that our current path could lead us to a 4C rise by the end of the century, which would be cataclysmic for humanity. Even avoiding such a global doomsday with a 1.5-2C rise, a widely accepted international aspiration, would still bring widespread catastrophes and a Day of Reckoning for many. Amid environmental instability and threats, people migrate, as evident throughout human history. Due to current climatic changes, many are already silently migrating—from the Andes, the Himalayas, the Sahara. With a 2, 3, 4C rise or more, large-scale population shifts will be unavoidable, to find basic necessities to survive and to escape dangerous environmental threats. And yet still there are no effective or widespread mechanisms to safeguard the masses forced to move. On the contrary, we are entering an equally unparalleled era of border securitisation, and thus restricted cross-border movement. When they picture heightened border security, most people think of Europe, alongside America. But the trend is global: there are five times more border walls than 25 years ago—from the UK to Ukraine to Uzbekistan to Pakistan to China to Malaysia, and much beyond. In the context of extreme and rapid climatic changes, this denial of human movement could prove disastrous. Narratives in collision West and north Africa are primes examples of this collision of narratives. Straddling the Sahara and pocketed with other smaller deserts, such as the Libyan and the Nubian, this region is one of the hottest in the world. Native peoples, such as the Tuareg, Amazigh and Fula, have over thousands of years learned to exist in this most hostile of environments, often through the wanderings of nomadic lifestyles. The Sahara is already showing signs of warming and is predicted to warm considerably more quickly than the global average, as well as suffering from reduced and more erratic rain. This will push people’s ability to survive over the edge—indeed there is strong evidence to suggest it is already happening. At the same time, due to intra-regional tensions and external political pressures, various states have been barricading their borders in recent years. The 1,559km border between Algeria and Morocco is permanently closed and a sandstone barrier divides Morocco and the Western Sahara territory. A few years ago Libya bought a contract to securitise all its borders and the EU is working bilaterally with states across the region to tighten controls. Climate change is expected to affect the world’s most vulnerable first. That usually means those living in countries with weak governance whose finances, resources and infrastructure are meagre or poorly managed—as is true of much of north and west Africa. And from Egypt to the Gambia, climate change is already threatening people’s livelihoods, homes, water and food supplies. Adaptation may prove beyond the capabilities of many but increasingly impermeable borders also imply that safe passage into less threatening lands will become increasingly implausible. Ancient landscapes Similar developments are taking place in the Middle East—across the Levant, the Arabian peninsula and Mesopotamia, to the far east of Iran. This ancient and vast landscape is becoming increasingly adorned with man-made border structures, carving up swathes of arid and semi-arid lands to smother free movement. Border walls and fences divide st[...]



Ukraine ceasefire announced at Minsk summit—what next?

Thu, 12 Feb 2015 12:43:37 +0000

The ceasefire agreement in Minsk over Ukraine was better than no outcome at all. But only a little better. After all-night talks in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, the outcomes of the four-party talks in the so-called Normandy format (Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany) have neither brought a major breakthrough nor a complete disaster. As a deal, it is not a solution, but perhaps a step towards one. It almost seems to be business as usual—yet another ceasefire deal and commitments to further negotiations on a more durable political settlement—but, by the standards of this crisis, this is not the outcome Ukraine’s people may have hoped for. Not least because the deal, as soon as it was announced, ran into its first set of problems, with rebels demanding Ukrainian forces withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve before they would agree to the ceasefire. At the very least, this might mean two more days of heavy fighting before the ceasefire starts on 15 February; at worst it might mean the deal will never be implemented at all. In the run-up to last might’s summit, the crisis in Ukraine seemed to head towards a major juncture, along with relations between Russia and the West and within the transatlantic alliance. The weeks before the summit in Minsk had seen intensifying diplomacy, escalating rhetoric, increased fighting on the ground and a worsening humanitarian situation. Impossible best-case scenario A comprehensive agreement between Ukraine, Russia (and its proxies), France and Germany would obviously have been the most desirable outcome but was also highly unlikely. The military balance of power in eastern Ukraine clearly favours the rebels, who have made substantial territorial gains beyond the separation lines established in the context of the Minsk Agreement of September 2014. They and their backers in the Kremlin still have little incentive to accept the Franco-German peace plan. Ukraine had no particular reason to sign up to a comprehensive deal either. While clearly under military and economic pressure, the facts on the ground only came about after open violations of the September 2014 agreement; a peace deal would implicitly deem those violations acceptable and potentially encourage more of the same. Washington’s talk of delivering arms to Ukraine offers Kiev a ray of hope that help will be at hand if no new deal is reached and the government’s military predicament increases further. The summit avoided total collapse but fell short of stunning success. The resulting deal is hardly in line with Western interests but it’s a decent second-best option for Russia and Ukraine—at least for now. Much like the September agreements, we will probably see at least a temporary lull in violence and a stabilisation of the front lines, with each side shoring up its positions and hoping for an opportunity to make a more decisive military push. But as each side consolidates, and regroups, the likelihood of success of such an attempt at forcing a military solution will decrease. Can Europe’s relations with Russia ever be patched up? EPA / Alexander Ermochenko. This outcome does not make Ukraine a more viable, prosperous or democratic state but at least prevents its collapse. And it offers a slim chance of rebuilding, reforming and strengthening government institutions in those parts of the country controlled by Kiev—currently not remotely possible. The Ukrainian government and its Western partners still face the prospect of a giant de facto state of significantly larger proportions than Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Nagornyi Karabakh. But there are now two decades of experience—good and bad—of managing the presence of such entities in the joint Russian-EU neighbourhood. Be[...]



In Ukraine, NATO has ceased to be an instrument of US foreign policy

Wed, 21 Jan 2015 21:32:11 +0000

In the renewed cold war over Ukraine, while Russia’s economy has been weakened by European sanctions, the US is no longer the hegemon it once was—and NATO is under strain. Europe's new dividing line. Demotix / Igor Golovniov. All rights reserved.A recent article on the crisis in Ukraine by Josh Rogin, a prominent member of the US foreign-policy establishment, proceeds from the premise of US exceptionalism which is at its heart. Rogin does not once mention the European Union, whose member states are neighbours and key trading partners of Russia—though the sanctions they have imposed are hindering their own sluggish economies, whereas US trade with Russia is relatively limited. It is almost as though, where American interests are at stake, the interests and views of other key players are of little or no consequence. The EU states which make up the great bulk of NATO have recently shown that they are no longer willing to support US attempts to extend its mandate to non-members. NATO has recently bowed out of Afghanistan and declined to support Obama’s ‘coalition of the unwilling’ in Iraq and Syria.  The EU sanctions will almost certainly not be renewed in the middle of 2015, as they already lack the required consensus. The party of the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, received fewer votes than that of the right-wing firebrand and prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in last October’s elections. And the deadlocked negotiations to fulfil the Minsk accord will grind on, in spite of the most recent setback with the heavy fighting around Donetsk airport. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, made clear she would participate in a meeting of heads of state only when ministers of foreign affairs and others had submitted a draft proposal reflecting a high degree of consensus. The efforts of the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia in particular have, however, so far produced nothing resembling a breakthrough. Lack of success in negotiations will slowly undermine Poroshenko, while strengthening the hand of those seeking confrontation with Russia. Meanwhile, Republican Party factions supporting a new cold war with Russia over Ukraine are temporarily muted, as they struggle to define their short-term domestic and international priorities now that they control the US Congress. It would be useful if the EU could broker a Ukraine deal before their strident war cries inflame the political environment. Covert Thanks to a leaked telephone conversation, never denied, involving Victoria Nuland of the State Department, we know that the US covertly pumped $5 billion into the hands of sometimes right-wing Ukrainian opposition groups, encouraging and possibly masterminding the unconstitutional overthrow of the democratically elected despot Viktor Yanukovych as president in February 2014. Nuland and the US ambassador to Ukraine were discussing who they favoured to replace Yanukovych, with Yatsenyuk, or ‘Yats’, their favourite. We still do not know whether Nuland’s activities were approved by her superior, the secretary of state, John Kerry, or the president, Barack Obama, or whether the US is still providing covert support to right-wing factions in Ukraine. If it were, it would be fanning the flames of conflict just as the EU is trying to extinguish them. It is time for Kerry, not normally at a loss for words, to state clearly whether Nuland and the ambassador were acting with his knowledge and consent and whether any such covert activities are continuing. Ukraine is a political, economic and military basket-case.The US can act effectively in Ukraine only with the agreement of Germany and other EU states. In today’s increasingly complex world, its only superpower is no longer all-powerful and must a[...]



Space shrinking for freedom of expression in South Korea

Tue, 20 Jan 2015 17:54:09 +0000

‘National security’ is often the card played by states denying human rights. With the North Korean dictatorship next door, in South Korea it is a regular trump. That was then—the UPP candidate in the presidential election of 2012, Lee Jeong-hee, defeated by Park Geun-hye, daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-hee. Demotix / Jeonggon Sim. All rights reserved.The right to freedom of expression in South Korea is under renewed attack. On 19 December, the Constitutional Court dissolved the opposition Unified Progressive Party (UPP), finding it had violated the country’s “basic democratic order”. The court also ordered that all UPP lawmakers in the National Assembly should lose their seats. The court found that the UPP had the “hidden objective of realising North Korean style socialism”, based on party activities which purportedly included “assemblies to discuss insurrection”. The court’s decision referred, among other things, to “acts of refusing the national anthem and not raising the national flag” as indicative that the UPP “advocates the positions of North Korea”. The last time a political party was disbanded was in 1958, by the government of the then president, Syngman Rhee. But this time the blow came from a court, the highest in the country, following the first such request from a South Korean government since the end of dictatorial rule in 1987. The UPP judgment has to be seen in conjunction with the widened and arbitrary application of South Korea’s infamous National Security Law (NSL) over recent years, which has diminished the space for freedom of expression. The government request in late 2013 went hand-in-hand with the start of criminal prosecutions against the then-parliamentarian Lee Seok-ki and six other UPP members. South Korea’s Supreme Court will soon rule on an appeal of their convictions, for “inciting an insurrection” and violating the NSL. The latest clampdown involves two women who organised and talked about North Korea during a speaking tour in South Korea in November. The US national Shin Eun-mi was deported earlier this month for speaking positively about North Korea, while the South Korean citizen Hwang Seon was arrested on 14 January and has been charged under the NSL for causing “social confusion” by holding the talks, and praising the North Korean regime on YouTube and in blog posts. The vague wording of the NSL and its overly broad application, to intimidate and imprison people simply exercising their human rights, are not new problems. But the increased reliance on the NSL by the previous and the present government, and now the ruling by the Constitutional Court, raise serious questions over the authorities’ willingness to fulfil their international human-rights obligations. Refusal In 2012 Amnesty International published a report detailing its concerns about the NSL. In 2014 Amnesty wrote to the president, Park Geun-hye, on a range of human-rights issues, including the individual cases against the seven UPP members and their potential effect on the government request that the Constitutional Court should dissolve that party. In response the government only said it was aware of the longstanding criticism from the international community and confirmed its refusal to abolish or amend the NSL in line with international law and standards. Vaguely drafted laws can lead to a chilling effect and ultimately self-censorship in public debate, including online.In fact, the government has widened the application of the NSL in recent years. According to official sources, the 2013 figures for cases received and individuals detained and indicted for possible violations of the NSL were the highest in a decade, having almost tripled since 2008. A[...]



After the demonstrations ...

Sun, 11 Jan 2015 21:42:05 +0000

The popular outpouring in France, taken with the climate marches in September with which it would not at first be bracketed, may be a harbinger of change. The wisdom of crowds—massing for freedom in Paris. Flickr / Antoine Walter. Some rights reserved. These are, it goes without saying, troubling times. A generation across much of the globe has known nothing other than growing insecurity, rising inequality and a declining sense of collective political efficacy—the very goals of the neoliberal True Believers who sought to replace post-war democratic governance and the production of public goods by restoration to untrammelled power of the owners of capital, masquerading as anonymous and unchallengeable ‘market forces’. Equally dispiritingly, since advanced capitalism easily saw off a backward socialism as the USSR collapsed, the alternative pole of opposition has fallen by default in many places—particularly where that failure was compounded by disillusionment with the secular Arab nationalism which the Soviets supported during the cold war—to the even more backward forces of authoritarian Islamism. Unprecedented But there is a stirring. While these are early days, two unprecedented episodes in recent months have been suggestive of a swing in the political pendulum back in the progressive direction for the first time since the late 1960s. True, there have been false dawns. The ‘anti-globalisation’ movement which peaked with the ‘battle in Seattle’ at the World Trade Organisation meeting in 1999 was one, the more recent ‘Occupy’ movement another. Both ephemera shared too much the fundamental characteristic identified by the great, late Fred Halliday of the six major 20th-century revolutions—a negative, ‘stop the world, we want to get off’ oppositionalism which defied the original, Marxian understanding of revolution as a radical emancipation going with the grain of social change. But the ‘people’s climate marches’ across the world in September, coinciding with the United Nations summit on climate change, represented an historic first in the global co-ordination of political protest: the organisers claimed 2.642 events took place in 162 countries, with 400,000 marching in New York alone, to assert the claim of popular sovereignty to save the planet over the rapaciousness of corporate capitalism. And the vast demonstrations in France today in defence of liberty against the Islamist assassins of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, with officially 3.7m taking part, were the largest in its history—and, surely, in almost any state—as #JeSuisCharlie became one of the most popular hashtags ever. And it’s a safe bet that many of those who joined the climate marches would have marched for Charlie Hebdo too. Many on the other side would, meanwhile, have been equally bewildered by these public outpourings—from the Masters of the Universe still hoping that the (second) Wall Street crash would not disrupt ‘business as usual’ to the discomfited Front National leaders, missing from the manif, no doubt initially rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of cashing in on last week’s atrocity. FragileBelief in progress remains, as always, a fragile wager. Can the hope of solidarity among strangers outweigh the fear of the ‘other’, particularly in a stretched social hierarchy? The internet is awash with misanthropic messaging, even hate speech, and yet New York in September and Paris today were unthinkable without it.   And this for a critical reason. It is to provide no apologia for the ‘revolutionism’ of the last century, which only saw in new, authoritarian Leviathans, to say that Lenin’s ‘withering away of the state’ was q[...]



Latin Americans pay price for corporate environmental destruction

Thu, 11 Dec 2014 17:59:09 +0000

As the COP20 conference comes to a close in Lima, can the corporations whose ‘externalities’ foster climate change ever be brought to book? Public asset, private depredation--the global carbon sink that is the Amazon rainforest. Flickr / Phil. Some rights reserved.The UN COP 20 climate negotiations in Peru have been focusing on what nation-states need to do to reach a binding climate agreement a year from now. What is not on the table is how corporations are to be called to account for the climate damage they cause in developing countries—damage for which those countries are, however, held accountable.A new report  details how multinational corporations are destroying the environment and causing serious climate damage in Latin America. The report describes the destruction caused by three European corporations, which it says is typical of the damage caused by multinationals throughout the continent. “Multinational corporations are relentlessly expanding their operations into ever more vulnerable and remote regions of the world,” says the report, written by three public-interest groups: the Democracy Centre of San Francisco, the Corporate Europe Observatory of Brussels and the Transnational Institute of Amsterdam. The corporations under the spotlight are the Spanish fossil-fuels giant Repsol, the Swiss-based mining and resources conglomerate Glencore-Xstrata and Enel-Endesa, an Italian consortium. In the case of Repsol, it says that “the relentless pursuit of new gas and oil reserves in Peru takes direct aim at the region’s indigenous territories and forests, leaving social destruction and environmental decimation in its wake”. Of the copper-mining operations of Glencore-Xstrata , it claims: “Scarce water resources, already stretched by climate change, are being contaminated with impunity.” And it says Enel-Endesa is attempting via its Latin American subsidiary Emgesa to portray a massive hydro-electric dam as a “clean energy” project, yet “rather than benefitting local people, the electricity is destined for dirty industry at discount prices”. Hardship The results in Latin America of such poor corporate behaviour are environmental damage, overuse of water resources, increasingly high carbon emissions and often hardship for indigenous communities. But most developing-world governments are not capable of forcing corporations to be more respectful of the environment and climate. And nor, back in Europe, are corporations held accountable for what they do in developing countries. The Latin Americans lose in three ways: their climate and environment are severely damaged, they have to pay for their carbon surpluses and practically all the profits from intrusive mega-projects go back to rich countries. This irresponsible corporate behaviour is further reason for northern countries to agree to commit billions of dollars to the Special Climate Change Fund, which is intended to compensate the global south for damage done by the north.indigenous people from various parts of the world made a strong appeal  for UN leaders and national governments to address the damage suffered by their communitiesWith profits down at many northern corporations since the 2011 recession, they are ‘invading’ every country in Latin America. In particular, Spanish corporations have become so well known for their numerous and ambitious development projects that they are often called the ‘corporate conquistadors’—recalling how the Spanish conquered much of Latin America centuries ago, in search of gold, silver and cheap labour. Repsol—one of the largest of the many Spanish companies involved—is criticised for[...]



Myanmar: the human-rights story behind the spin

Wed, 12 Nov 2014 10:21:49 +0000

The authorities in Nay Pyi Taw are steering the former authoritarian pariah state to open engagement with the world. Well, that’s what they say. Measured words: process is "stalled", says Aung San Suu Kyi. Krzystof Kuczyk / Flickr. Some rights reserved.This week, Myanmar is in the spotlight as world leaders—including the US president, Barack Obama, and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping—descend on the country for two key regional summits, the East Asia Summit and that of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The foreign dignitaries will gather in Nay Pyi Taw, the country’s capital and seat of government since the then-military rulers moved it there from Yangon in 2005. It’s a remarkable turn of events for a country that just over three years ago was considered an international pariah, politically and economically isolated from most of the rest of the world. But since the transition from military rule started in 2011, international acceptance has come quickly. This week is Myanmar’s chance to show the world that it is a new country that has turned a corner on human rights and is very much open for business.   Scratch the surface just a little, however, and the flaws in this narrative become all too apparent. Far from a country transformed, Myanmar continues to face a catalogue of human-rights concerns which the authorities seem unwilling or unable to tackle. It may be convenient for the international community, eager to engage with the resource-rich country, to take at face value the government’s talk of having turned the corner on human rights. But reality on the ground tells a very different story. Rohingya Some 300 kilometres west of Nay Pyi Taw is Rakhine state, home to most of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority—a community which has faced institutionalised discrimination for decades. In June 2012, religious tensions erupted into vicious violence between the state’s Buddhists and Muslims, disproportionately affecting the latter. Clashes have continued sporadically since and spread to other parts of the country, leaving more than 200 people dead. Yet there has been no independent or credible investigation into any of this violence. Serious allegations that security forces took part in attacks or failed to protect those targeted have gone uninvestigated. Instead, Muslims continue to be disproportionately picked on for arrest. The violence has forced tens of thousands of mainly Rohingya to flee their homes. Almost 140,000 men, women and children live in official camps for internally displaced people (IDP) or informal settlements around Rakhine. They face a growing humanitarian crisis in often appalling conditions, without sustained access to necessities like food or medicine. The situation has grown even more desperate since February and March, when a number of humanitarian organisations and international aid agencies were forced out of Rakhine. Long considered by many locals as biased towards the Rohingya, some organisations faced attacks and others chose to leave, fearing they couldn’t guarantee the safety of their operations. Although many of them have begun to return, operations are still below par. Following a visit in July, one senior UN official described witnessing "a level of human suffering in IDP camps that I have personally never seen before". The anti-Muslim violence has to be seen in a broader context of discriminatory laws and policies towards the Rohingya. Often disparaged as “Bengali settlers”, they are denied citizenship under Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which effectively renders them stateless. They face severe restrictions on their freedom o[...]



Choosing the next UN leader should not be left to three people

Tue, 11 Nov 2014 23:28:14 +0000

The secretary-general of the United Nations holds the world in his hands. It shouldn’t be possible to count those who decide who that is on the fingers of one. "Inoffensive": Ban Ki-moon takes a steer from one of the men who picked him. Eric Draper / Wikimedia. Creative Commons.Climate change, Ebola, IS, Ukraine … The world is not short of crises which cry out for a collective response. That is why, for 69 years, we have had the United Nations. People still expect it to provide that response, yet they are often disappointed. Blame falls on the secretary-general (SG)—often unfairly, since he is really only the top civil servant. Political decisions are taken by the member states, in the General Assembly or the Security Council.  Still, among those decisions, choosing the right SG is one of the most important. He leads more than 40,000 staff, and oversees the work of 30 UN funds, programmes and agencies, dealing with a wide range of global issues. The UN Charter allows him to alert the Security Council to “any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security”. Behind the scenes, his “good offices” can be crucial in preventing or resolving conflict. In recent decades he has played an important public role, reminding the world of the UN’s basic principles, suggesting ways to apply them to new problems and mobilising world public opinion to confront major challenges. He’s the nearest thing we have to a world leader. When the incumbent, Ban Ki-moon, steps down in two years’ time, a new SG will be needed. How will he be chosen? Might it even, for the first time, be a she? The charter says only that the SG “shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council”. It was the assembly which decided, in 1946, to ask the Security Council to “proffer one candidate only” and that the first SG should be appointed for a five-year, renewable term. So those practices could be changed without amending the charter. Only since 1981 has it been generally accepted that no SG should serve more than two terms. And the idea that the post should rotate among the assembly’s five regional groups has never been clearly defined or fully applied.Nothing to say In practice, it’s the five permanent members of the Security Council who have effectively made the decision, since each can veto a recommendation to the assembly. Last time, in 2006, Russia nixed the idea that it was eastern Europe’s “turn” (because it did not want a Latvian or Polish SG), while China insisted that it was Asia’s “turn”. The US quietly agreed with China on Mr Ban as the most inoffensive Asian candidate. The other two permanent members, the UK and France, had nothing to say. That was a shameful abdication of responsibility. Among the privileges of permanent membership, the chance to influence such an important choice is hardly the least. One might have thought there would be a vigorous debate in both countries about how this influence should be used. Their governments could have been urged, perhaps obliged, to set out clear qualifications required of any candidate seeking to secure their support. In fact, there was almost no public discussion. Probably few people in either country even knew a choice was being made. He’s the nearest thing we have to a world leader.So it was left, in effect, to just three people: George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin and Hu Jin Tao. The General Assembly and world public opinion woke up to that fact much too late and missed the chance to insist on a better process. This time round we must not make the sa[...]



Climate summit, climate justice

Tue, 23 Sep 2014 10:05:15 +0000

The climate summit called today by the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, will not bring the commitments needed to avert global chaos. Only popular mobilisation for climate justice can do that. Voice of the future: joining the climate march in Delhi. Flickr / South Solidarity Initiative. Some rights reserved.On Sunday, from New York to Kathmandu to London to Delhi to Amsterdam, hundreds of thousands of citizens and environmental activists took to the streets. In advance of today’s climate summit at the United Nations, they joined the People’s Climate March, the largest climate action in history, endorsed by more than 1,200 organisations representing 100 million people worldwide. The voices of those hardest hit by climate change must be heard. At the heart of every climate solution must be an impetus urgently to transform energy and food systems and the way forests are managed, and to build the power of people everywhere to take action. The numbers and science are clear. As a planet and a civilisation, we cannot let average global temperature rise by more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. The voluntary pledges by governments and business at the summit are laughable in the face of the climate crisis. Non-binding pledges are an insult to the hundreds of thousands of people who are losing their lives and livelihoods due to climate change, including extreme weather events, more floods and droughts and failing agriculture. What we need are ambitious, equitable, science-based and, most importantly, binding emissions-reduction targets for developed countries. Undue corporate influence Yet developed countries’ leaders are neglecting their responsibility to prevent climate catastrophe. Their priorities are increasingly driven by the narrow economic interests of wealthy elites, the fossil-fuel industry and multinational corporations. They are listening to the polluters instead of the people. The summit for business held on the eve of the climate summit highlighted the undue corporate influence at the UN. Dirty energy companies and other polluters and their financiers are co-opting democratic governments and the UN, where the voices of ordinary people should be heard. Business used this year's UN Private Sector Forum on “a fair valuation” of carbon to profit even more from carbon trading and offsetting, which have proven false solutions to the climate crisis. Carbon trading’s basic premise is that polluters can pay someone else to soak up their pollution, so they don’t have to do any work to reduce it. It isn’t working to reduce emissions—it's only making profits for elites while further dispossessing vulnerable communities in the developing world of land and other resources. Similarly, the “climate smart agriculture” initiative, yet another push for offsetting being launched at the summit, is a new empty phrase used to greenwash the worst practices of industrial agriculture; synthetic fertilisers, industrial meat production and genetically modified crops. The proponents of this dangerous solution—the corporations which stand to benefit and the World Bank, among others—are seeking to turn the carbon in farmers' fields into carbon credits. It would be another excuse to grab lands and resources from communities, as has already been happening in other multi-billion-dollar carbon-credit schemes. Real solutions The list of false solutions to climate change is long and includes nuclear energy, mega-dams, natural gas, “clean coal”, carbon capture and storage, genetically modified organisms, agro-fuels, carbon trading, offsetting and mechanis[...]



On Israel-Palestine and BDS

Mon, 04 Aug 2014 19:48:32 +0000

Those dedicated to the Palestinian cause should think carefully about the tactics they choose. The misery caused by Israel’s actions in the occupied territories has elicited serious concern among at least some Israelis. One of the most outspoken, for many years, has been Gideon Levy, a columnist for Haaretz, who writes that “Israel should be condemned and punished for creating insufferable life under occupation, [and] for the fact that a country that claims to be among the enlightened nations continues abusing an entire people, day and night”. He is surely correct, and we should add something more: the United States should also be condemned and punished for providing the decisive military, economic, diplomatic and even ideological support for these crimes. So long as it continues to do so, there is little reason to expect Israel to relent in its brutal policies. The distinguished Israeli scholar Zeev Sternhell, reviewing the reactionary nationalist tide in his country, writes that “the occupation will continue, land will be confiscated from its owners to expand the settlements, the Jordan Valley will be cleansed of Arabs, Arab Jerusalem will be strangled by Jewish neighbourhoods, and any act of robbery and foolishness that serves Jewish expansion in the city will be welcomed by the High Court of Justice. The road to South Africa has been paved and will not be blocked until the Western world presents Israel with an unequivocal choice: Stop the annexation and dismantle most of the colonies and the settler state, or be an outcast.” One crucial question is whether the United States will stop undermining the international consensus, which favours a two-state settlement along the internationally recognised border (the Green Line established in the 1949 ceasefire agreements), with guarantees for “the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of all states in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries”. That was the wording of a resolution brought to the UN Security Council in January 1976 by Egypt, Syria and Jordan, supported by the Arab states—and vetoed by the United States. This was not the first time Washington had barred a peaceful diplomatic settlement. The prize for that goes to Henry Kissinger, who [as national security adviser] supported Israel’s 1971 decision to reject a settlement offered by the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, choosing expansion over security—a course that Israel has followed with US support ever since. Sometimes Washington’s position becomes almost comical, as in February 2011, when the Obama administration vetoed a UN resolution that supported official US policy: opposition to Israel’s settlement expansion, which continues (also with US support) despite some whispers of disapproval. It is not expansion of the huge settlement and infrastructure programme (including the separation wall) that is the issue, but rather its very existence—all of it illegal, as determined by the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice, and recognised as such by virtually the entire world apart from Israel and the United States since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who downgraded “illegal” to “an obstacle to peace”. Egregious crimes One way to punish Israel for its egregious crimes was initiated by the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom in 1997—a boycott of settlement products. Such initiatives have been considerably expanded since then. In June, the Presbyterian Church resolved to divest from three US-based multinationals involved in [...]



Twenty-first century protest: social media and surveillance

Sun, 29 Jun 2014 13:06:44 +0000

The internet is a two-edged sword—a vehicle for mass surveillance on the one hand and the organisation of civil-society protest on the other. The new horitonalism: protesting in Istanbul. Bünyamin Salman / Flickr. Some rights reserved.A little over a year ago, on 6 June 2013, Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the mass-surveillance programme Prism sent shockwaves around the world. The American systems administrator laid bare the extent of illicit interception and monitoring of telecommunications at home and abroad by the United States’ National Security Agency. A startling revelation was the level of collusion amongst the Five Eyes alliance, involving the governments of the US, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Snowden’s exposé also highlighted the willingness of many corporations to accede to and profit from unconstitutional and unethical requests. This was shocking but not surprising. Environmental groups in Canada, the UK and the US engaged in acts of civil disobedience have been the subject of ideologically-motivated surveillance and abusive political rhetoric for several years. Yet if the internet has been a means for and object of surveillance, it has also become—social media in particular—a critical component of contemporary protest. It is nearly impossible to organise a physical protest in Azerbaijan, to set up a pro-democracy organisation in Saudi Arabia or to establish a radio station critical of the government in Ethiopia. And even in countries with media freedom and diversity, progressive voices do not always have outlets: in 2011, there was a de facto media blackout of the Occupy movement in the US, with similarly apathetic coverage of the indignados in southern Europe. In many countries, cyberspace is the only refuge for dissent and the only arena where individuals can freely come together to express themselves. Protest resurgent Over the past year, there has been a resurgence of protests on the streets of Bangkok, Cairo, Caracas, Kiev, Istanbul, Phnom Penh and São Paulo, reminiscent of the wave of citizen activism which swept the world in early 2011. In many of the key sites of protest this year, such as Venezuela and Turkey, freedom of expression has been under threat, through weak media pluralism and authoritarian mechanisms respectively. While concerned citizens and civil-society groups are finding new means of organising in cyberspace, they are also having to contend with shady corporations and the machinations of the security arms of democratic and authoritarian governments.A report by CIVICUS highlights how the non-hierarchical organisation and underlying values of the 2011 protests are still being replicated across the world.  Many young, first-time protesters are employing similar techniques of satire, parody, popular slogans and symbols. Guy Fawkes masks, synonymous with the popular anti-authoritarian film V for Vendetta, have become part of the universal language of protest. In our highly connected world, social capital and personal connections are ever more important. Social media, as well as word of mouth, have been key to organising protests, whether in Kuala Lumpur or Manama. This cross-pollination is fuelled by social networks. Forty-eight percent of 18-34 year-olds who use Facebook login when they wake up in the morning. In Turkey the average age of Gezi Park protesters was 28 and the bulk of the Outono Brasiliero protesters in Brazil were below the age of 29. It is therefore not surprising that roughly 85 percent of Gezi Park protesters heard about[...]



A great unravelling, and a new map

Fri, 27 Jun 2014 17:40:32 +0000

The crisis around Iraq-Syria reflects the weight of a past that is no longer relevant to the region's peoples, says Hazem Saghieh. Some observers are looking at Iraq and Syria and making a hasty and facile argument: namely,  that events have shown the only alternative to tyranny in the region is Islamist ultra-radicalism and chaos. It is a form of posthumous vindication of Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad. Many living in the region are justified in being afraid of the radical Islamist threat, which encircles them from every side. They may also be certain that a tyranny like that of Saddam and Assad will ultimately meet a wretched end, after which everything around it collapses. But the logical conclusion is not to pine for their tyranny, but to realise that entities able to survive only through tyranny are after all unviable.Hence, assuming that a dictator like Bashar al-Assad or a proto-dictator like Abdel Fattah al-Sisi or Nouri al-Maliki will defeat terrorism is also an absurdity that leads back to square one.Yet it would also be delusional to think that saving these entities, and also preserving international security, can be done through the “war on terror” that emerged after 9/11 and led to two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with their vast human and material costs. Neither can the remnants of that war, such as drone-strikes, ever accomplish what the original war failed to do.  A blocked legacyBut while it is easy to criticise the narrative of the war on terror, it is not easy to come up with alternatives that can benefit the peoples of our region and the world. There are many perenially good ideas, from economic development and poverty reduction to parliamentary democracy and representative institutions. But when the societies concerned are deeply divided, in a way that prevents them from reaching even the minimum level of consensus, such ideas remain closer to being empty rhetoric. Moreover, the countries where al-Qaida and its ilk have spawned are also those where ruling elites have identified with particular groups, religious communities, regions or ethnicities to the exclusion of others. In the absence of traditions of coexistence, or ways to resolve disputes through political institutions, these countries have often been dominated by tyrannical regimes. In such cases the ruling power worked to repress society's unacknowledged contradictions, only to find the latter metastasizing in the shadows. The resulting deformities were reinforced by the cold war from the late 1940s until the late 1980s, which guaranteed the survival of these regimes and the political units on which they were built.  To escape from this dysfunctional inheritance, the solution can only come from a reconsideration of existing national and societal arrangements. The latter, after all, are the true incubators of the conflicts that have now erupted in full. They too did much to contribute to later disasters, by curbing healthy interaction among religious, sectarian, and ethnic groups; forestalling any potential change; closing down avenues of public expression; and quickly turning even small-scale protest into open-ended civil conflict. In Syria, for example, the national framework soon pushed the popular uprising of 2011 towards civil war. In Iraq, the chance of an inclusive nationwide movement against a corrupt government with authoritarian tendencies was thwarted by a centrifugal landscape of Sunni, Shi'a, and Kurdish questions. The same applies, albeit with different labels, to the situation in Libya, [...]



They got up, they stood up: the Global Day of Citizen Action

Thu, 12 Jun 2014 16:52:16 +0000

Activists around the world have been standing up for their rights and freedoms. Photoessay.

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On 7 June 2014 individuals and organisations from around the world took part in the first Global Day of Citizen Action, a participatory campaign asking people if they feel free to speak out, organise and take action within their country.

The campaign, conceptualised and co-ordinated by CIVICUS, came as part of the Civic Space Initiative, through which CIVICUS, the World Movement for Democracy, Article 19 and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law seek to raise awareness of increasing threats to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Civic space is as an essential element of democratic societies, a public arena allowing individuals and civil-society organisations the freedom to speak out, organise and take action.

This campaign comes at an important time. Countries around the world are increasingly restricting citizen freedoms. In some the surveillance of ordinary citizens, activists and civil-society organisations is commonplace; in others there has been repression and arrests. To combat these restrictions it is vital that all individuals understand their freedoms and strive to protect them.

The Global Day of Citizen Action inspired more than 40 events and activities in more than 25 countries around the globe. Citizens mobilised in villages, towns and cities to draw attention to the rights and civic freedoms they should enjoy.

Photos from individuals around the world were taken and shared using Twitter, Facebook and the Global Day of Citizen Action webpage. There was also an online participation platform, where individuals could log on to upload a photo of themselves and share their views.

• To join the global conversation, share stories and become part of a growing global movement for positive social change visit Be The Change. To see more photos people have shared throughout the campaign visit the Global Day of Citizen Action page or the CIVICUS Facebook page.




How do we change the global nuclear order?

Mon, 05 May 2014 21:32:01 +0000

The Non-proliferation Treaty has survived for nearly half a century but it has not fostered nuclear disarmament—and it could be facing decay Whenever diplomats get together to address the really big global issues of our time, the already daunting challenges of co-ordination are made more complex by their governments’ competing policy commitments—to economic growth (simplistically conceived), special-interest groups, “national security” and prestige. But even bigger problems lie hidden and unsaid, deeply buried within the operating model that governs international relations. To challenge these is to be seen as unrealistically radical or, worse, naïve. While governments recognise the need for agreement, their attachment to established ways of seeing the world and doing business traps them in a game of competition governed by threat and bargain, and the common interest suffers. We all share an interest in avoiding nuclear war. It was this concern, deepened in the terror of the Cuban missile crisis, which led to the negotiation of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. We are into the second week of this year’s Non-proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee, meeting at the United Nations in New York for a fortnight in preparation for next year’s Review Conference. Representatives of the vast majority of states have addressed the challenges of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, urging fellow members to fulfil their commitments under the treaty—be it to disarm or demonstrate more transparently their intention never to acquire nuclear weapons. And there is no shortage of ideas on how member states can move in the right direction towards disarmament and reassurance. The European Leadership Network, for example, summarised its recommendations in a statement on 1 May. They include: greater transparency around the ‘P5 process’ engaging the permanent members of the UN Security Council and commitment by them to the next international conference on the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, convening the conference on a middle-east zone free of weapons of mass destruction and renewed efforts to bring into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and to continue to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme. Such statements are essential to establish the diplomatic agenda for change. But change will be elusive unless we tackle the more fundamental challenges. Inescapable reality The NPT is a bargain. In return for commitments by the non-nuclear-weapon states to demonstrate clearly the peaceful nature of their nuclear programmes, through International Atomic Energy Authority inspection and verification, the nuclear-weapon states would promise to negotiate nuclear disarmament. The treaty may better be seen as an expression of an inescapable reality—that we will not achieve disarmament if nuclear weapons spread to more states (it would be seen as too risky) and we will not prevent such proliferation if some states continue to derive status and security through possession of nuclear weapons at the expense of others (why should those other states accept such discrimination in perpetuity?). While state parties did gradually find some form of communication and accommodation in the middle of cold-war confrontation, and some notable arms-control successes, this was limited and far from what is demanded today in an age of accelerating climate change, fina[...]



How to end child marriage in a generation

Thu, 01 May 2014 22:28:14 +0000

Reports that more than 200 girls kidnapped in north-eastern Nigeria have been forced to marry members of the rebel group Boko Haram bring home the brutal human-rights abuse—and, increasingly, security concern—that is child marriage. 15 year-old Usha participated in a leadership programme for girls in Nepal. When her parents started to plan for her marriage she was able to persuade them to delay it. “I thought: ‘I am the class leader. If I can’t prevent my own marriage, who will speak up for my classmates?’”. Flickr / UNFPAsia. Some rights reserved.The issue of the marriage of children—typically girls—under the age of 18, has captured the attention of global leaders, academics and development practitioners. The practice is widespread, affecting 14 million girls per year. One in three women aged 20-24 were married as girls in the developing world. Child marriage not only harms girls’ health and human rights—it is a severe impediment to global security, equality and development. When girls marry at a young age, they often face dire consequences. Early marriage leads to early childbearing, which is associated with higher rates of maternal and infant mortality as well as more children throughout a women’s lifetime. Girls who marry young are more likely to be exposed to domestic violence and have a heightened risk of contracting sexually-transmitted infections, including HIV-AIDS. Child marriage is also associated with poorer education and thus lower earnings throughout girls’ lives. In 51 countries the rate of child marriage is 25 per cent or greater—meaning that 51 countries are losing their potential productively to engage all members of society in advancing their development. Drivers of child marriage are complex and varied but common threads include poverty, “tradition” and insecurity resulting from conflict or disasters. Girls from poorer and rural communities tend to be at greater risk. The practice takes place in diverse countries and cultural milieu—from Brazil to Bangladesh, from Mali to Malaysia. While religious beliefs can perpetuate child marriage, no single faith is associated with the practice, which cuts across Christian, Muslim, Hindu and other religious communities. Wherever it is prevalent, however, the core of the problem is the low value society places on girls and women. If we are to ever eradicate the scourge, we must confront the fundamental gender inequalities and discriminatory norms that underpin child marriage and its insertion into cycles of poverty and violence.  At the same time, we must remember those girls—nearly 70 million—who are already married, who are among the most marginalised individuals in the world. In many cases, they have been taken away from their families and out of their schools to live in isolation from friends and peers. Proven solutions Daunting as the challenges are, there are solutions to ending child marriage, while meeting the needs of married adolescents. The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) conducted a systematic review of programmes, measuring associated changes in awareness, attitudes and/or behaviours. ICRW’s review of the evidence demonstrated tremendous potential for raising the age of marriage by building on several proven practices. Five common strategies have been used successfully to delay girls’ marriage in a variety of contexts: • Empower girls with information, skills and support n[...]



Libya, Syria and the “responsibility to protect”: a moment of inflection?

Sun, 13 Apr 2014 22:15:31 +0000

Since the Rwandan genocide and the wars in former Yugoslavia, the idea of a “responsibility to protect” vulnerable populations has acquired currency. The Libyan and Syrian crises have, however, seen the value of that currency recalibrated. Creating a semblance of order where none exists—Syrian refugees in Crete posing for a family photo a few days ago. Flickr / Giannis Angelakis. Some rights reserved.In 2011 the United Nations Security Council legitimised a no-fly zone over Libya under the normative rubric of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P). As the Libya intervention gained steam, another crisis broke out in Syria. There, however, discord between western actors and emerging powers underpinned a standstill at the Security Council. With the spiralling Syrian war now into its fourth year, the Security Council has seen three failed resolutions which, far from mandating intervention, had merely sought to condemn violence, threaten sanctions and call for a political transition. It has mustered consent on only three others: endorsing an (ultimately unsuccessful) unarmed observer mission, scheduling the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons and calling for humanitarian access. What explains such radically different outcomes? The international responses to the crises in Libya and Syria may look like evidence of a tipping point in an international system undergoing a profound power shift. Yet the two crises unfolded almost in parallel, in tandem comprising a moment of inflection in the liberal order pioneered and diffused by the “West”, with the normative recalcitrance of the “Rest” now becoming meaningful. The international responses to the Libyan and Syrian crises have not validated a broad-brush claim of a systemic power shift from “West” to “Rest”.In Libya, the US, the EU and NATO deployed significant coercive measures. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), all represented at various points in the Security Council during the two crises—albeit  playing more modest coercive roles—rowed in the same direction, complying with the arms embargo and recognising the Libyan Transitional National Council by the summer of 2011. In Syria, however, not only has the west’s capacity to force the desired outcome been much lower in light of the fragmentation and radicalisation of the Syrian opposition but Russia’s support for the Assad regime has contradicted rather than complemented western pressure. The degree of regional embeddedness of the two regimes contributes to the explanation. While at first sight Muammar Gaddafi had stronger international connections than Bashar al-Assad, on closer inspection the Assad regime is far more ensconced. Colonel Gaddafi had no true friends: no sooner had the winds changed than his former international partners turned to his opponents. Maintaining good relations with Libya, rather than with the Gaddafi regime, was the priority for many. The Assad regime, given what it represents—anti-Islamist, anti-Israeli and anti-western—has staunch opponents but also genuine friends: Iran, Hizbullah and Russia have been instrumental in sustaining it. Scepticism In both crises, the BRICS expressed concern for the plight of civilian populations and clear preferences for political, non-coercive solutions. In the case of Libya such scepticism, particularly on the part of the veto-yielding Chinese and Russians, trans[...]



Tunisia, from hope to delivery

Sun, 06 Apr 2014 14:38:41 +0000

Tunisia has turned a political corner. But great economic problems remain which require careful management and good government, says Francis Ghilès. Tunisian assembly approves new constitution. Demotix / Mohamed Krit.Tunisians have reasons for optimism. For any regular visitor to Tunis, the change of atmosphere in the capital in the first months of 2014 - compared even to autumn 2013, and certainly to 2012 - is striking. The underlying reason for the change is the adoption of a new constitution in January 2014, which enshrines the equal rights of men and women and the rule of law. Tunisia thus represents a rare example in the Arab world: a revolt against a dictator which, a turbulent three years on, has ushered in a period of progress and, since the appointment of Mehdi Jomâa as prime minister, of good government. There are continuing, grave problems: the country’s economic situation has hardly improved, and the fight against terrorism claims regular victims. Many of these, say the prime minister, are the legacy of the previous two years of Islamist government.  Mehdi Jomâa is an impressive figure: for the first time since independence in 1956, a Tunisian prime minister speaks frank language of economic truth to those he serves, in vernacular Arabic rather than the pompous classical version usually preferred by leaders of Ennahda party that dominated the previous government. His tone is quiet and businesslike, characteristic of the people of his hometown, Mahdia, down the coast from Tunis. Jomâa's message is as brutal as are the bare statistics. Tunisia's GDP growth has averaged 2.3% annually since the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011; but this falls to 0.8% if government wages are subtracted (100,000 new recruits, often lacking in qualifications, have joined the civil service and state companies - and many of the latter post huge deficits). That is the price paid for the political-economic expediency of the "Troika" (the three leading parties: Ennahda, the CPR and Ettakatol). Wages overall have grown by 40%, productivity by 0.2%. The cost of state subsidies to oil-and-gas products and foodstuffs has rocketed by 270% over three years. The budget deficit was 7% in 2013 and is expected to rise to 9% in 2014. Foreign debt has risen by 38% over three years to over 50% of GDP. Such figures are unsustainable.Strikes, many of them illegal, are increasing exponentially. The UGTT trade-union federation, emboldened by its success in convincing the Islamist government to leave office, now seems to be acting as a government-in-waiting. Its national leaders are happy to denounce inflation, but recoil at the idea of any austerity measures. Some UGTT members, notably regional leaders, seem to think that nationalising or renationalising loss-making industries will save them. The Groupe Chimique-Compagnie des Phosphates de Gafsa symbolises the economic position: its staff has trebled in three years, its production has collapsed by more than 75%, many of its export markets have gone, and its workers seem to work one day every ten. The UGTT section in Gafsa, the main town in south-west Tunisia, appears to have become a state within a state. If Tunisia does not get back to work, the economy could well derail the political process.The explosion of the informal sector, caused by the failure of the formal economy to provide [...]



After Snowden: UN takes first small step to curb global surveillance

Tue, 17 Dec 2013 14:50:27 +0000

The debate on international electronic spying, blown open by the US National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden, moves this week to the United Nations General Assembly. It begins what is set to be a long battle to affirm the privacy rights of global citizens Taking to the global stage: Dilma Rousseff, president of Brazil, was enraged to discover that the NSA was monitoring her office calls. Wikimedia: Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR. Creative CommonsOn Wednesday, December 18th, the UN General Assembly was set to adopt a resolution on ‘the right to privacy in the digital age’. The text before member states was the result of a compromise crafted to overcome stiff resistance from the US and fellow members of the ‘five eyes’ surveillance alliance, Canada, the UK and Australia  (New Zealand was not active in the negotiations), to an initial proposal from Brazil and Germany.   Although watered down, the resolution represents a significant achievement. The text puts the issue on the UN agenda: it is the first major statement by the organisation on privacy and surveillance in almost a quarter of a century.  More importantly, the resolution is a first step in a (probably long) process which human-rights defenders hope will ultimately result in internationally agreed legal curbs on the kind of mass surveillance the US and others have been carrying out domestically and internationally. The resolution’s political resonance is obvious: Brazil and Germany were understandably angry over the reported US spying on their leaders. The main objection by the US (and reportedly also Australia, Canada and the UK) to the original proposal was its suggestion that extraterritorial surveillance—spying on foreign soil—could constitute a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The US does not accept that it is obliged to respect the covenant abroad, taking the view that the rights it affords its own citizens don’t apply to foreigners outside its territory. The resolution’s provision on ‘extraterritoriality’ was modified to bring the US and others on board and keep the nascent process on track: the direct link between foreign espionage and human-rights violations was broken. The US welcomed the amended text, accepting the link between the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. The resolution still says however, in inimitable UNese, that the General Assembly is ‘deeply concerned at the negative impact that surveillance and/or interception of communications, including extraterritorial surveillance and/or interception of communications, as well the collection of personal data, in particular when carried out on a mass scale, may have on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights’. The US cannot ignore the fact that a considerable number of countries, as well as rights and privacy groups, strongly believe that when states conduct extraterritorial surveillance, thereby exerting control over the right to privacy and related rights of persons, they have obligations to respect those rights beyond their borders.  Nor can the US or any other country—including those like Cuba and North Korea which have supported the resolution as a political stick with which to beat Washington—gloss over the fact that the text also calls on countries to make sure any domestic surveillance or intercepti[...]



Mandela: explaining the magnetism

Thu, 12 Dec 2013 11:24:58 +0000

While the world stops for Nelson Mandela’s departure from it, his iconic status is unquestioned. Yet there is a more complicated underlying narrative to tell. Mandela: symbol of heroic fortitude already cast in stone. Flickr: G Milner. Some rights reserved.As South Africans prepared for the huge funeral of their former president, Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela, in the eastern Cape on Sunday, the memorial service in Johannesburg spoke volumes: 52 presidents and 16 prime ministers attended to share in the global political stardust attaching to the man, while his successor, Jacob Zuma, was booed by a section of the domestic crowd. A more perfect embodiment of Max Weber’s transition from ‘charismatic’ to ‘bureaucratic’ leadership could hardly be imagined than that between Mandela and Zuma. The one who emerged from 27 years imprisonment, morally upright with no concern to be a crowd-pleaser, the other a populist tainted by corruption and misogyny who emerged only from the African National Congress machine. Yet the Mandela magnetism is not so straightforward. Yes, he withstood the ignominy of his prolonged incarceration by a brutal regime with an iconic fortitude. But out of the enhancing spotlight of the global media, that glittering bronze political statue has a little tarnish. This for two reasons nothing to do with any personal blemishes but all to do with the very particular and extraordinary context in which he found himself. Cold war First, apartheid South Africa was a key locus of the cold war. While leftists argued over whether the regime was or was not the best possible political shell for domestic and transnational capitalism—epitomised by the glittering gold and diamond mines with their super-exploitation of black workers—there was no doubting how much investment right-wing western cold warriors like Margaret Thatcher had in its survival and the Soviet Union in turn had in its demise, as with the neighbouring Portuguese colonies. Hence the rather embarrassing recollections of what some of those who now offer obeisance at Mandela’s grave thought of the ‘terrorist’ in earlier times. This polarised international context and intense repression at home meant that the main intellectual force opposed to the regime—the South African Communist Party—was a defensive Stalinist entity quite unlike the liberal-socialist Eurocommunists who emerged in the more open political atmosphere of western Europe in the 1970s. Through its ‘triple alliance’ with Mandela’s African National Congress and the trade union federation, Cosatu, it carried an influence way beyond its small size. Secondly, Mandela’s exclusion from the world on Robben Island coincided with decades of its most intense ever globalisation. The man who emerged from prison on that day in 1990 when he was previously the centre of a global emotional outpouring—just months after the fall of the Berlin wall—may have had his fist raised in confident assertion. But that very gesture indicated how metaphorically he was coming out of a deep pool of darkness, squinting and blinking in a new world he would struggle to comprehend. After protracted constitutional deliberations, in which the ANC’s main antagonist was the formerly ruling National Party, Mandela was to become South Africa’s first post-apartheid president five years lat[...]



Afghanistan: beyond ethnicity

Thu, 05 Dec 2013 19:28:16 +0000

The international community has addressed Afghanistan through an ethnic prism. As anxiety grows about the future after international forces leave in 2014, a trajectory needs to be established towards a post-ethnic society--and the dispersed diaspora can play a role. The current situation in Afghanistan—as Winston Churchill once said of Russia—is ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. While a legacy of proxy wars, the Afghan conflict has been sustained through exploitation of deep-rooted ethnic and social frictions. Afghanistan is at the hub of ancient civilisations stretching back at least 5,000 years. Its richness and strategic importance have meant that across the centuries it has attracted many invaders and merchants. The country has witnessed decades of war since modern-day Afghanistan came into being in 1747, when the Pashtun tribe united to fight for independence from the Persian empire. Today, the country is an ethnically diverse mix of many tribes and ethnic groups, the largest of which are the Tajiks. Via the Northern Alliance, Tajiks came to dominate the government installed by the west following the Bonn agreement of 2001. The president, Hamid Karzai—due to be replaced in elections in 2014—comes from the Pashhtun tribe, concentrated in the south of the country and from which the Taliban is principally drawn. It is therefore no surprise that for the last 30 years Afghanistan has been in turmoil, leaving it one of the world’s least developed nations. Though 13 years have passed since the Nato invasion, the promised peace and democracy remain a receding horizon in an ambiguous socio-political scenario. Institution-building Although since the downfall of the Taliban there have been major contributions by the international community to help the country out of instability, big issues remain. The Afghan public, having endured the severest agony and the worst possible economic, social and political crisis, yearn for a stability which will provide opportunities for prosperity and progress. Yet after more than a decade of war, the institutions responsible for administration, development and security are still immature. The purpose of a democratic system is to reach the common people of a society and provide facilities on their doorsteps. But the system in Afghanistan has not been able to represent the people as a whole: accommodating the diversity of Afghan society has not been compatible with a focus on strengthening the central government. A federal system, with authority delegated to the provinces, would provide better representation for members of all the ethnic groups in the country while favouring the general will. Key institutions like the legislature, executive and judiciary have not been adequate to the task: instead of serving the country, they have tended to fan the flames of controversy. The government has focused on accruing authority, not facilitating democracy, and the parliament has not been given any priority. There have been many improvements in security but a lot still needs to be done. The international forces that have been so predominant since 2001 are in the process of withdrawal, leaving a vacuum to be filled by their Afghan counterparts. Unless there are speedy developments in building the[...]



Gulf states and Iran: don't moan, act

Fri, 29 Nov 2013 05:33:27 +0000

The international deal over Iran reveals the weakness of Arab Gulf diplomacy. It's time for a new approach, says Khaled Hroub. Many politicians in the Arab Gulf countries have a straightforward view of the famous (or notorious) phone-call between Barack Obama and Hassan Rowhani in late September 2013, and the ensuing American-Iranian rapprochement that on 24 November produced a landmark agreement on Iran's nuclear programme and the sanctions regime. They regard it all as a "stab in the back" - a betrayal by their United States ally. Their governments may feel obliged to offer lukewarm support, but privately the same judgment can be heard.All Gulf governments see the United States as the main guarantor of their survival, against what is perceived to be the main threat to their national security: Iran. Their fear, not without reason, is that any "grand bargain" between Washington and Tehran could be at their expense. The Gulf’s dismay at the turning of a new page between the US and Iran is widely understood, even by those who take a more positive view of the diplomatic process between these bitter adversaries. Where there is less sympathy is the Gulf states' combination of moaning and inaction. True, Saudi Arabia's refusal to take up its long-sought seat on the United Nations Security Council is a form of negative action, but it is also part of a pattern of endless, random, angry statements which amount to no more than a venting of frustration. If Washington's "turn" over signals a shift in its policy in the region, there is a need for careful consideration of what actually can be done to offset it. But what could and should the Gulf states do regarding potential US-Iran reconciliation, beyond complaining? Here are four suggestions.Two steps...The first step is for Gulf states to stop issuing empty and unrealistic threats that they will downgrade links with the US and steer toward the east - China, and maybe Russia - for strategic alliances and security guarantees. This is pointless, as everyone knows it is not going to happen. Instead, their strategy should be focused on forceful engagement with both the US and Iran. A new, assertive Gulf strategy should abandon perch-on-the fence-and-hope-for-the-best as an approach; anchor itself on the notion of "accepted differences within the alliance"; and take a much firmer approach toward foreign-policy disagreements, even with the US, where necessary. The second step follows: that the Gulf states should be an integral part of any international bargain with Iran (exactly as Iran demands to be part of any solution of the Syrian crisis). If Gulf states continue to accept a mere observer role, leaving Washington effectively in charge of their destinies, they will be perpetuating a deep strategic mistake. Both recent and longer-term events in the region show that the Gulf states' carte blanche (perhaps unwitting) to the US over regional issues has proven disastrous. These states did nothing to prevent military intervention in Iraq in 2003 or to correct the mismanagement of the country in the aftermath, believing that the US administration knew what it was doing. The result was in practice to hand Iraq strategically to Iran. More recently, the same timid approach has repeated the error in Syria. The Gulf states first rallied[...]



Typhoon Haiyan: natural disaster meets armed conflict

Tue, 26 Nov 2013 15:07:50 +0000

The huge destruction in the Philippines in the November typhoon hit a poor region already long affected by violent conflict. The two are deeply related, says Colin Walch, who was conducting research in the area when the typhoon struck. There is agreement among scientists that, in strict terms, there is no such thing as a "natural disaster". Why? Because the phenomenon has two main components: the hazard (the natural part) and the vulnerability (the human part). The impact of a “natural disaster” on a community - who dies, and who survives - is largely contingent on the socio-economic vulnerability of the affected society. Indeed, it is well known that the greatest impact of "natural disasters", in both developed and developing countries, is on vulnerable groups; examples are the poor African-American communities in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and now the marginalised communities in the central Philippines' islands of Samar and Leyte in the wake of typhoon Haiyan.Typhoon Haiyan (known as typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines itself) hit Samar and Leyte on 8 November 2013. Over the last forty years, the same region - one of the country's poorest - has been affected by an internal conflict between the New People’s Army (NPA) and the Philippines' military. The two islands have become strongholds of the NPA as a result of three factors: the absence of state forces and institutions, widespread poverty and increasing marginalisation among many rural communities. To a large extent, the impoverishment of rural people in Leyte and Samar is at the root of both the conflict and the high death-toll of typhoon Haiyan. If the islands' people were richer, they would be less likely to support the NPA and better equipped to manage natural hazards.Responding to a natural disaster in a conflict situation adds further challenges that the international community tends to overlook - although many organisations are now drawing on conflict analysis more often than before. Armed conflict complicates natural disaster relief in at least five ways:* It diverts national and international financial and human resources that could be used for disaster risk reduction and prevention* It means that measures to prepare for disasters and introduce early-warning systems may be neglected* It disrupts transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, railroad systems, electricity and communication links, reducing the ability to rapidly distribute relief* It may undermine social cohesion, which is critical for a community's response to natural disaster* It can create a high level of insecurity, limiting the ability of humanitarian actors to access certain communities. Moreover, humanitarian actors can themselves become targets of violence if rebel groups see them as partial and too close to the government.The military dimensionSome of these challenges are present in the response to typhoon Haiyan. A few days after the typhoon hit, NPA combatants allegedly attacked some aid convoys and many cases of looting were reported. This led the government to establish checkpoints to restore order and ensure that the NPA was not diverting the aid for its own purposes. However, these checkpoints have also slowed relief efforts. The NPA justified its attack by saying that the reli[...]



Sharing our future: how the world can avert climate chaos

Wed, 20 Nov 2013 23:15:58 +0000

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report calculated a ‘budget’ for greenhouse gas emissions  if global average temperature rise is to be contained within 1.5-2C. Amid fractious debates between rich and poor at the UN climate talks in Warsaw, Phil England spoke to Christian Aid’s expert, Mohamed Adow, about how countries could agree to share the remaining allowable emissions. NGOs walk out from climate talks protesting at lack of ambition. Friends of the Earth / Luka Tomac www.lukatomac.comPhil England: [The executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)] Christina Figueres said in the Guardian that it would be politically very difficult to even talk about how to fairly share the remaining safe emissions budget. She said: ‘I don’t know who would hold the pen.’ But until we see a carbon budget embedded in the UN talks, all our efforts to stay within two degrees will come to nought. Mohamed Adow: If we continue at our current emissions levels we will have used up the remaining carbon budget within about 25 years—which means, if we are serious about the two-degrees [Centigrade ceiling on average global warming] objective, we need to engage with the carbon-budget approach so that we are in line with what science says is required. We’re in a situation now where the less well-off developing countries are actually leading the world towards curbing climate change and the developed world—Canada, Australia and Japan—are breaking their climate promises. These countries are cowed by the dirty energy industries. They are setting the world on a race to the bottom. We must stop them. We need to be able to protect the planet for current and future generations. We need to protect our food-production systems that are threatened by climate change. We need to protect people in the Philippines and other countries who are already feeling first and worst the impacts of climate change. We need to shift the world from the dirty-energy pathway we are on to a clean and sustainable pathway. If we are serious about climate change—and I believe we are—it’s time we actually rose to the challenge. Let Typhoon Haiyan be a wake-up call for the world to act in a way that is ambitious and also fair. PE: In sharing the effort, both to reduce emissions and to fund developing countries to develop cleanly and adapt to climate change, what principles are you using? My understanding is that the principles are actually coming out of language that is in the original Framework Convention of 1992 that everyone is signed up to. MA: That’s right. In 1992, countries agreed to co-operatively prevent dangerous climate change, to be able to adapt naturally to climate change and ensure food production is not threatened and the world economy can progress in a sustainable manner. The core principles in the convention [include] the adequacy principle. which requires countries to undertake emissions reductions to avoid dangerous climate change and to provide effective adaptation to the poorest and most vulnerable countries. The second important principle in the convention is the idea of the right to sustainable de[...]



Revolution in the revolution: a century of change

Thu, 14 Nov 2013 05:45:31 +0000

A continuing cycle of revolutions, albeit irregular and unpredictable, is a feature of the modern world. But comparing experiences across the decades reveals a transformation in the nature of revolution itself, says Hazem Saghieh. The 20th century witnessed many revolutions across the world, from Russia in 1917 to Iran in 1979. Across this six-decade span, numerous predictions made in the 19th century were to materialise. In parallel, many precursory "dry runs" (as they appeared in retrospect) also unfolded on a larger and much more comprehensive scale. The latter included the fascists' rise to power in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, albeit in the German case the seizure came via parliament, which was then eliminated. The pattern of revolutionary upheaval outside Europe is reflected in the Chinese revolution of 1949, followed by Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution in the 1960s. Revolutionary waves in Asia transformed Vietnam, Cambodia, and North Korea; in Latin America, Cuba; in Africa, Angola and Mozambique; and in the Arab world, South Yemen (as it then was). This is but a partial list.The ideological rationales as well as the geographical locations of many of these events differed greatly: some were dominated by nationalist themes, others by state capitalism (often called "socialism"). But there are common or overlapping traits, of which five help to define the specific character of revolution and how its meaning has changed.  Five traits...First, revolutionary action in all cases was linked to an ironclad organisation and/or a charismatic leader and a strong ideology; after the revolution's triumph, this ideology was defined as the official, exclusive truth, with all else proscribed.Lenin’s two most prominent works, What Is To Be Done and The State and Revolution, were for many the "bibles" of subsequent revolutionary activities. To his ideas - of the centralised if internally democratic party, professional leadership, and the vanguard that has no room for economic and trade-union spontaneity - Mao added notions of guerrilla warfare and philosophical musings on “practice” and “contradiction”. For their part, Benito Mussolini developed theories on the state, and Adolf Hitler on race, as two absolute facts that could not be compromised.Hitler did not accept a situation where the leading party is just one among others. Instead, he as Führer (leader) sought fully to transform all facets of public life in accordance with his Nazi party’s ideology, and insisted that there would be no coexistence with any other party or ideology. A decade earlier, the October revolution in Russia had been followed by the banning of liberal and centrist parties, then of others until only the Bolshevik party was left. The Bolsheviks went on to proscribe factions within the ruling party itself. In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini added a twist by declaring all parties opposed to him - even those that had participated in the revolution - as “enemies of God” that should be uprooted.The leaders of these revolutionary waves were all very charismatic figures - or at least, this is how they were portrayed, in order to project an image of infallibility. This trend, which reached a level [...]



Young Afghans in the UK: deportations in the dead of night to a war-zone

Mon, 24 Jun 2013 09:03:33 +0000

Each year around 400 children forced by war to leave their families and homes in Afghanistan seek sanctuary in the UK. Lisa Matthews writes for Young People Seeking Safety Week on the young adults who, having rebuilt their lives, are now at threat of return.  ‘You want to send me back to a country that does not know me, to a country that will hurt me. I only know my life now. Nothing else. In Afghanistan they are not in life. That's not life. I have no family. I have no home. My life was torn apart. I was a child when I came here. I am not an adult now. Oh, these are not the answers you wanted? What more can I say? I want a bright life. More than this.'These are the words of Asef, the young Afghan protagonist in a new play called Mazloom. Mazloom is a portrait of a young asylum seeker, alone in London, whose life is being torn apart by the impending prospect of deportation to Afghanistan, where indiscriminate violence and Taliban intimidation await.Each year around 400 children are forced by war to leave their family and home in Afghanistan to seek safety in the UK. Mazloom draws on original testimony to explore the experiences of those who, having arrived as children and spent several years in the UK, are now at risk of deportation. The script was written by Sara Masters, after working with young people who attend Merton and Wandsworth Asylum Welcome, and directed by Kieran Sheehan for several shows around London last year. This year, Mazloom is being taken on tour to six cities around the UK by the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) and film-maker Sue Clayton as part of Young People Seeking Safety Week, which begins on 24 June. Young People Seeking Safety Week, which is organised by the national YPSS network, aims to bring positive attention to the issues of young asylum seekers; to encourage conversation and action across the nation; to provide a platform for young people to share their experiences and express their concerns; and to act as a showcase for the talents, creativity and diversity of young people seeking safety and those that support them. Mazloom. Photo: Themba LewisLives shattered simply by turning 18Several audience members at a public rehearsal of Mazloom have looked after young people in a situation not dissimilar to that of Asef. They spoke of the cruelty of lives shattered simply by turning 18.If a young person's asylum claim has been refused but there are not adequate 'reception arrangements' allowing them to be returned to their home country, they are given a short period of leave to remain in the UK and are usually looked after by foster carers or social services. These young people have been sent from their homes (sometimes as young as twelve and thirteen, or even younger) by their families for their own safety. Many have made perilous journeys lasting months and even years to reach the 'sanctuary' of the UK. They are then faced with a hostile asylum system, and find themselves disbelieved about their age, about their past, about the dangers they have been through.Alone in the UK, unaccompanied asylum seekers often forge very strong bonds with their foster carers. They become their[...]



The Rohingya: bargaining with human lives

Mon, 03 Jun 2013 08:51:33 +0000

One year on from the violence of June 2012, new empirical evidence about the treatment of the Rohingya in Rakhine State, Burma, has taken the issue from the realms of international human rights and humanitarian law to that of international criminal law, says Amal de Chickera. On 3 June 2012, the massacre of ten Muslim pilgrims in Rakhine State marked the beginning of a series of terrible pogroms against the Rohingya, a stateless minority of western Burma. One year on, much has been said and written on this human rights crisis – the systematic and prolonged brutal violence against - and equally brutal denial of humanitarian protection to - the Rohingya. The impunity with which such acts are being carried out calls into strong question the much touted ‘democratisation’ of Burma. Contrary to the ‘official’ version which is couched in the language of democracy, human rights, rule of law and open economy, Burma’s trajectory continues to be one of abuse, impunity, corruption and exclusion.Amidst the growing evidence of abuses (the gathering of which in itself is a monumental achievement given the absolute control exercised by the Burmese authorities in North Rakhine State in particular, but also in the southern part of the state), the Burmese response has been one of distortion, denial and deflection. Distortion by mischaracterising the violence as ‘communal’, the Rohingya as ‘illegal immigrants’ and the present human rights and humanitarian crises as ‘under control’; denial by grossly underplaying the extent of the violence, the role of the state and security personnel in committing abuses themselves and the impunity with which it is all happening; and deflection by setting up flawed and toothless procedures such as the Commission of Inquiry so as to appease calls for protection, investigation, accountability and justice.Such a response from the state is not surprising, both to preserve their new found status as the ‘darlings of the world’ and to continue their decades long programme to push the Rohingya out of Burma. The response of the international community has been - perhaps equally unsurprisingly - disheartening and irresponsible. UN Agencies stubbornly continue to endorse the Burmese characterisation of the violence as ‘communal’, the US and EU lifted sanctions on Burma as if to imply that what happens in Rakhine State has no relevance to Burma’s human rights obligations, and the International Crisis Group – an international NGO - went as far as to congratulate Thein Sein, the Burmese leader under whose watch this has all happened, by awarding him the ‘In Pursuit of Peace’ award in April 2013.Every time the international community endorses a watered down description of the situation, or prefixes any criticism of Burma with a litany of praise for progress made, or endorses the lifting of sanctions, or awards a peace prize to a man who must answer allegations of crimes of the most serious nature; it constitutes a massive metaphorical slap in the face of the Rohingya community. Such praise is ‘premature and dangerous’, and is likely to undermine not only the rights of the Rohingya, but[...]



Paths to change: peaceful vs violent

Tue, 05 Feb 2013 05:38:21 +0000

The diverse experiences of the Arab spring renew the question of whether non-violent movements are more effective than armed struggle in achieving the overthrow of authoritarian regimes, says Martin Shaw. It is now two years since the "Arab spring" spread popular protest across the one world-region still overwhelmingly dominated by authoritarian rulers, and thus heralded a major new phase of the democratic upheavals that have transformed the world over recent decades. These largely peaceful mass movements achieved remarkable, if qualified, successes in Tunisia and Egypt: qualified, because their transformation remains conflicted, their aspirations to fundamental political change have been contained, and their very impact has released many new social problems that they are not yet in a position to solve. In two countries, moreover, non-violent protests were largely overtaken by violent campaigns. In Libya, activists took up arms after peaceful protests were brutally repressed,  improvising an insurgency that the west first saved from defeat and then aided to victory; and in Syria, an initially peaceful uprising equally met with repression slowly turned into a destructive and messy civil war that ended hopes of peaceful change and, after two years, offers an increasingly bleak prospect. If Libya can be counted a success of sorts, Syria's suffering represents a terrible failure that casts a shadow over the hopes for democratic change in the entire Arab world.The experiences of Libya and Syria, in the context of the Arab spring as a whole, pose questions about the relationship between violence and non-violence in political change, and whether alternative roads and results were possible:* Could the original peaceful Libyan opposition have survived Gaddafi's violence and re-emerged, either in the short or medium term, to remove the regime without taking up arms? * Why did the Syrian opposition, which followed a peaceful course much longer, finally succumb to violence? Did this shift genuinely improve the chances of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad's regime? If it did, has it been worth the additional suffering caused to so many people? Was there another, better path that could have been based on expanding the non-violent opposition?Choices and costsThe questions are too complex for short or easy answers. But what these intractable situations make clear is that peaceful movements have offered no guarantee of change, and that violent opposition has succeeded only with substantial external help, which brings its own problems. This very lack of clarity is an invitation to revisit the fundamental choice between peaceful and violent methods in political change. In this respect, a timely academic study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan - Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict - offers valuable insight.The authors use the methods of political science to test the strategic alternatives of violent and non-violent resistance across 323 cases from 1900-2006. They both attempt to quantify "successes" and "failures" (defined according to the stated goals of resistance movements, and [...]



Convincing suicide-bombers that God says no

Sat, 19 Jan 2013 23:26:14 +0000

The dominant perception of suicide-attackers has paid too much attention to the unchallenged assumptions of past experts and too little to the clinical evidence, says Adam Lankford. Imagine that Islamist suicide-terrorists could be convinced that God disapproves of their actions. Would that matter; would it even change the world?Surely, it would. But it is only worth discussing if it's a realistic goal. Otherwise, it's just a fantasy - one that global leaders and counterterrorism officials seem to have given up on years ago.Perhaps understandably so. The horrors of 11 September 2001 were widely condemned, yet the ten years that followed saw over 1,800 suicide-attacks - nearly nine times more than the previous decade. Moreover, Pew Research Center surveys from 2011 indicate that millions of Muslims around the world believe that suicide-bombings are justified. True, most respondents are simply expressing their opinions; they pose no direct threat to anyone. But if many non-violent Muslims are still not convinced that God disapproves of suicide-attacks, sceptics may reasonably conclude that changing the minds of Islamist terrorists is simply not possible.However, a closer look suggests that the failure of the argument that God disapproves of suicide-attacks was not because the goal itself was unachievable, but because the wrong approach was pursued. The sheer complexities involved meant that the argument was never going to be won on the basis of, for example, "just war" theory or the moral distinctions between intentionally and unintentionally killing civilians.Instead, those responsible for prosecuting the case against suicide-terrorism should have capitalised on a much simpler and more powerful belief that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all agree on: God disapproves of suicide. This should have been the launching point for changing perceptions about suicide-terrorism worldwide. And it still can be.The wrong track In the past, Islamic scholars have carefully examined the practice of “martyrdom” operations and determined that they were not acts of suicide, because the individual attackers did not seek death due to psychological pain. One of the key documents to stake out this claim was “The Islamic Ruling on the Permissibility of Self-Sacrificial Operations: Suicide or Martyrdom?” written by Sheikh Yusuf ibn Salih Al-'Uyayri, an al-Qaida leader in Saudi Arabia. Uyayri insisted that “martyrdom” attacks were motivated by the desire to sacrifice one's life for Allah, and thus did not constitute suicide.Remarkably, rather than challenge this contention, government experts and leading scholars all around the world have spent the last decade agreeing with it. For instance, a University of Chicago professor and former adviser for two presidential campaigns has been insisting that suicide-terrorists are driven by “a strong sense of duty and a willingness to sacrifice all for the common good.” A University of Nottingham psychology professor has declared, “Suicide terrorists are not truly suicidal.” And the head of psychiatry at Ain Shams University in Cairo has asser[...]



Refugee studies: the challenge of translating hope into reality

Tue, 08 Jan 2013 08:24:54 +0000

It is one thing for rigorous research to influence policy, and another for that policy to then go an and achieve its intended positive outcome. James Souter argues that Refugee and Forced Migration studies has an important, yet ultimately subsidiary role in the task of improving the lives of refugees and forced migrants David Turton once argued that ‘there is no justification for studying, and attempting to understand, the causes of human suffering if the purpose of one’s study is not, ultimately, to find ways of relieving and preventing that suffering’. Many researchers working within Refugee and Forced Migration Studies agree, and seek to fulfil what has been described as a ‘dual imperative’ within the discipline: to produce rigorous research, while at the same time influencing policy and practice in ways which ultimately improve the lives of refugees and forced migrants. Citing both ideas in his speech at the 30th Anniversary Conference of the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) at the University of Oxford, James Milner underscored the centre’s aim of bridging the divides between scholarship, policy and practice. Similarly, a journal set up by students of the centre’s MSc course, the Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration, sees its ultimate goal as ‘protecting and advancing the human rights of individuals who have been forcibly displaced’. Refugee and Forced Migration Studies clearly has the strong potential to influence policy and practice in ways which ultimately improve the lives of refugees and forced migrants. There are strong links between academic institutions such as the RSC and bodies such as the Policy Development and Evaluation Service (PDES) of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and researchers often move between research, policy and field-based positions, thereby blurring the boundaries between them. Abstract and theoretical work on refugees and forced migration can potentially make an important contribution to improving debates and informing the development of better policies. Despite being somewhat removed from the practical and political constraints which shape refugee policy-making, normative work rooted in moral and political theory can, as Joseph Carens has argued, provide a critical standard against which to evaluate current policies. In a panel discussion at the RSC conference, both Alexander Betts and Matthew Gibney argued that restricting the definition of the refugee to those fearing persecution is morally arbitrary, given that other harms from which refugees flee, such as severe socio-economic deprivation, are as worthy of protection and moral concern as persecution. Removing this bias towards the persecuted may not be politically feasible in the current climate, but such critiques serve to ensure that we do not confuse the politically possible with the ideally desirable. Yet despite the strong potential for such research to contribute to improvements in the lives of refugees and forced migrants, it is important to recognise a number of risks and limitations which are inherent within [...]