Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Barefaced Hypocrisy

Self-serving politicians have an amazing capacity to endure, yet they occasionally cross the line and shoot themselves in the foot.

Such, I suspect, is the case with the current MEPs expenses scandal where the European Parliament's already shoddy reputation in national capitals has been further tarnished by its refusal to publish the report.

Following emergency discussions in the Conference of Presidents and the Parliamentary Bureau, the Budget Control committee voted yesterday not to make their findings public - a move supported by President Hans-Gert Pottering.

Everyone is hoping the story can be brushed under the carpet if they simply keep stum. Either because a) they are exploiting the system and fear the electoral consequences or because b) they fear a low turnout at next year's European elections, and thus, the electoral consequences.

Everyone, that is, except for a small band of feisty, media savvy MEPs who have openly aired their views to the press and are calling for those who defraud the public exchequer to be 'named and shamed'. Small wonder so many of their fellow parliamentarians are out to get them.

Sources tell me our esteemed representatives consider the threat to their livelihoods so great that they have requested large chunks of next week's Group Week to be put aside to discuss 'disciplining' these traitors.

This is the worst case of outright hypocrisy and shamelessness I have seen for some years from the peoples' representative. May they reap what they have sown when this becomes more widely known.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Thrilled to Bits :)

OMG was thrilled to discover my article on the Olympics was published in Le Monde today...just after we got a letter in the Independent on the same issue. Not, of course, in my own name, but still...Guess my journalistic talents are improving...

Here is a copy of the text: in translation, natch

"En confiant à la Chine l'organisation des Jeux olympiques de 2008 (8-24 août), l'espoir était grand, renforcé par les promesses des officiels du Parti communiste, que cet événement conduirait le pays vers plus d'ouverture, de liberté et de respect des droits de l'homme. Du reste, il s'agissait quasiment d'une obligation morale, puisque la Charte olympique indique explicitement que les villes hôtes, en l'occurrence Pékin, doivent être des exemples vivants des "principes éthiques fondamentaux" des Jeux. Force est de constater que, six mois avant le début des Jeux, ces principes sont bafoués. Les prisons s'ouvrent devant les dissidents, la liberté se ferme pour les médias.

Un peu tard, secoué par le refus de Steven Spielberg de rester le consultant artistique pour la cérémonie d'ouverture - dénonçant ainsi le soutien chinois au régime soudanais massacreur du Darfour -, le Comité international olympique (CIO) prend la mesure de son erreur. Erreur répétée d'ailleurs, car l'échec de la confiance mal placée en Chine va se réitérer en 2014 avec les Jeux d'hiver que l'on a cru bon de confier à la Russie. Qui peut croire que Sotchi, la station balnéaire de luxe des serviteurs zélés du Kremlin, pourra mieux répondre que Pékin aux exigences de la Charte olympique ? Les mêmes causes dictatoriales produiront les mêmes effets répressifs.

Car tout montre que la Russie devient un régime autoritaire, non seulement en ridiculisant la démocratie à travers des élections truquées, mais aussi en renouant avec des pratiques politiques de censure des médias, d'intimidation des contestataires, d'emprisonnement, et même parfois de meurtre, des opposants. L'arrogance russe devient telle que même une enceinte aussi diplomatique que l'Organisation pour la sécurité et la coopération en Europe (OSCE) est obligée d'en tirer les conséquences et de boycotter la présidentielle du 2 mars.

Lorsque le CIO et son président, Jacques Rogge, ont accepté la candidature russe en 2007, c'était, disaient-ils, pour des raisons pratiques et logistiques : Sotchi était l'endroit idéal en termes d'infrastructures d'entraînement et de compétition, et les bénéfices de cet événement rejailliraient sur la région entière de la mer Noire. Cet argument du pragmatisme est fallacieux. Les JO constituent en effet le plus grand symbole de reconnaissance internationale dont un pays puisse se targuer, et son Comité d'organisation ne peut ignorer cette dimension politique. En récompensant Moscou, le CIO, il est vrai avec la bénédiction de la communauté internationale, a de fait légitimé les dérives autocratiques de Vladimir Poutine.


Après Pékin et avant Sotchi, c'est Londres qui sera l'hôte des JO de 2012. Comme Britannique, je devrais m'en réjouir, et comme libéral-démocrate davantage encore qu'une démocratie libérale soit ainsi distinguée. Mais il n'en est rien. La démocratie libérale britannique n'est plus ce qu'elle était. Suivant docilement la doctrine sécuritaire des néoconservateurs américains, les gouvernements travaillistes de Blair et de Brown, avec la bénédiction hypocrite des Tories, ont multiplié les lois liberticides, menaçant notre habeas corpus sur l'autel de la prétendue lutte antiterroriste. Ce n'est pas par hasard que Londres a refusé de s'associer à la Charte des droits fondamentaux...

Pékin n'est donc pas simplement un mauvais moment à passer. C'est une première étape vers un relâchement général des moeurs olympiques. Si les Jeux veulent conserver une certaine crédibilité, basée sur ses valeurs et ses principes fondateurs, il est temps pour leurs promoteurs de se poser les vraies questions. A l'avenir, toute ville hôte ne devra être retenue que sur la base de normes élevées en matière de respect des droits fondamentaux et des libertés. L'idéal olympique, avant toute autre considération, devra être le critère ultime. Les JO doivent redevenir un modèle pour le monde et non plus servir à masquer ses bas-fonds.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

European Parliament Must Clean Up Its Act

The Daily Telegraph has just blown the whistle on the widespread and criminal abuse of expenses by MEPs in the European Parliament.

So endemic is the extent of the fraud, it is claimed, that the Report which documents it can only be seen by Members of the Budget Control Committee in a secret Bond-style room accessable by having your thumb prints and eyeballs scanned, or some such.

I asked around. It's on PHS Second Floor, if office gossip is to be believed. Maybe someone will leave the door open. It wouldn't be the first time security here were lax.

But I digress. Keeping something secret is one thing. All governments do that. But what is disgraceful is Parliament's subsequent behaviour when it came to light in the press.

The Torygraph reports that "Harald Rømer, the secretary-general of the European Parliament, was asked late on Monday night by Hans-Gert Pöttering, its president, and a group of senior Euro-MPs, to take measures to ensure that there was no "collateral damage" from the report".

"We want reform but we cannot make this report available to the public if we want people to vote in the European elections next year," said a source close to the decision.

Well I would have to take issue with that. Only a few months ago MEPs - the only parliamentarians in the Western world not to be held accountable for their spending - voted against plans for an annual audit of their expenses.

That they could make such a cynical move and then protest that highlighting the "criminal abuse" being perpetrated by - I'm willing to bet - a massive majority of the people's representatives would damage the image of European democracy before the 2009 elections is hypocritical in the extreme.

What they really mean of course is that, were the names to be published, the public would be so pissed at their behaviour that they might *gasp* be deselected and lose all their privileges. What a disaster for democracy.

While making this report public might be painful for Parliament in the short term it would ultimately earn it respect from even the most eurosceptic quarters, particularly if it were accompanied by a raft of radical proposals for Parliamentary Reform.

As it is, by covering up - badly - for colleagues who are essentially criminals, the good name of all, not to mention the European Project as a whole, could be damaged beyond repair.

And that would be a disaster for Europe's future influence and place in the world, whatever Torygraph propaganda might say to the contrary.


Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The Happy Teetotaler

Well I never thought I'd find myself saying this, but I'm becoming a happy teetotaler :)

I first tried the no alcohol experiment during Lent last year and it was, quite frankly, one of the most psychologically horrendous experiences of my entire life.

Counting the days and hours to go before I could next indulge in my preferred tipple, I wound myself up to the extent that I was conscious 24/7 of what I was missing out on.

Then I'd fall off the wagon, have a couple, feel guilty, and fantasise some more about the day there'd be no arbitrary limit to my G and T consumption...

Of course, come the end of Lent there was a counter-reaction of major proportions.

All the pent up desires for champagne cocktails, Belgian beer, single malts, or a simple pint of ale, resolved themselves in a six-month long fiesta that probably inflicted more damage on my poor liver than if the month and a half of abstention had never happened.

Notwithstanding last year's false start I decided to do the same again, if only to attempt to break the cycle of receptions and dinners that was adding metres, not centimetres, to my waistline.

And I'm pleasantly surprised to find it's a lot easier this time around.

Perhaps I'm just more self-aware, more mature, or just tired of over-indulgence. Perhaps it's because the calorie count of a glass of Chardonnay has finally been rammed home. Perhaps it's just because I hate hangovers even more than I love alcohol.

Whatever the reason, I feel like I don't want to go back to those old ways. I had a beer the other day - cheating I know! - but I didn't feel guilty unlike last year, when I mentally chalked up all my black marks and flagellated myself with them. I want to be in a position where a drink is just a drink, not two, three or four.

And as I was sitting in a Sushi place last night sipping green tea with a friend who's the life and soul of the party but a confirmed teetotaler for well over a year now (black outs and bad boys put an end to that apparently) I realised I was actually a lot happier like that than rolling into bed after my traditional 'few'.

If only I could transfer that attitude to my smoking habit. But noone's perfect, right?

Tuesday, 19 February 2008


I am pleased to note that leading think tank the International Obesity Task Force, has backed my calls for a revolution in urban planning to halt the growing obesity epidemic (!!).

In previous posts I argued there was a fundamental contradiction between the pressures put on individuals to take responsibility for their health and weight issues while the social structures which surround them act simultaneously to discourage exercise and encourage over-consumption.

Decrying the "“obesogenic environment” promoted by most modern cities, the task force says simply encouraging more leisure activities is not enough to compensate for the sedentary hours we spend in our cars, at our desks, or in front of the tv.

It believes advocating more leisure activities and healthy eating is insufficient to combat the problem, and that governments must take far greater responsibility for "sustained additional changes to town planning and transport”.

Oslo and Amsterdam were both cited as examples of 'slim cities' where the built environment discourages car use and promotes walking and cycling, which in turn lowers obesity rates.

I'd like to make further recommendations in this regard. I've never liked suburbs, seeing them as sterile ghettos for social climbers, enclaves of the priveliged, and dull dull dull. Now I have a more objective reason to hate them, since living far from the office, school, or whatever means people rely on the car for just about everything.

It's clearly better for us to reinvent suburbs as out of town villages, with proper local shops (not just giant shopping malls off the motorway), decent rail access to the city centre, and schools within safe walking distance for kids. After all, we don't just need better public transport so people can cover fifty miles a day. It would be much better if everything were just that bit more local.

But how can that be engineered? Simple, I reckon. Petrol is getting dearer by the minute, and oil levels have already peaked. The resulting downturn in production should make cars a lot more expensive to own and run (think 1973 oil crisis). Which will make it unprofitable for businesses to locate themselves in the middle of nowhere, to transport goods long distance, and for people to live far from the office.

There's also an environmental factor which should be taken into account. At the moment it's houses that are unaffordable (though thankfully not houses in city centre slums, which is the end of the market I'm currently aiming at with my baseline salary). But why should cars cost nothing when they are ruining our physical health and the environment? The polluter should certainly pay in this case.

If people werent so fixated with car ownership - if they couldnt afford it - the revolution would take place almost instantly. We could relocated offices from those horrible retail parks to places employees might actually want to spend time after hours, next to parks, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, other people they know.

I can vouch for the extra productivity this will produce. My best ever job was at the Scottish Parliament, in the centre of Edinburgh, where me and my pals would spend lunchtime hiking around Holyrood Park, feeding the swans, or sitting in a ruined chapel at the top of hill having a picnic.

Sometimes the whole team would go sit under a tree brainstorming and planning. Or we'd go for a quick hours shopping on Princes Street, returning at a fast trot so as not to be out the office all afternoon. It made all the crap of the working day fade benignly into the distance, and us healthier and happier in the process. And then we got to walk home, past the magnificent Old Town architecture, to our central apartments.

It could be the norm, not the exception, if government made the incentives right.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Protecting Debate: a Right not a Privilege

Think what you will about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the outspoken critic of fundamentalist Islam. Agree or disagree with what she has to say. Refuse to acknowledge her opinions, if you like. Fly into a 'murderous' rage, if you must. But do not dispute her right to live out her life in freedom and security and leave her opinions as a matter for debate, not violence.

Those were my conclusions after listening to the notorious Ms Hirsi Ali speak before the European Parliament today, pleading with MEPs to extend her the EU's protection now that her own country, the Netherlands, is refusing to pay for the round-the-clock security necessary to shield her from would-be assassins.

Europe should not defend her because it agrees with her opinions. It should not defend her to make a statement against Islamic violence. It should not even agree to defend her because of her high profile. It should agree to defend any and all European citizens who, because of their views - however distasteful - are menaced with death.

As Benoit Hamon, the French Socialist MEP in charge of the initiative to extend EU funding to protect her, said, this is not a debate about Islam but a debate about Europe's values, and how it puts them into practice.

By forcing the former MP to choose between a living death in the Netherlands and a fuller, yet less secure, existence in the US the Dutch government has abdicated its responsibility for implementing the European Charter of Fundamental Rights which expressly states that 'everyone has the right to liberty and security of person'.

While demands for an EU protection fund might seem unrealistic at present, it clearly makes sense for EU citizenship to be linked much more closely to citizenship rights, as laid down in the Charter and Lisbon Treaty, amongst others.

With the increase in extremism on both the left and the right of the political spectrum (not to mention amongst those who have no allegiance to Europe's democratic values) it is important to assure citizens that the values Europe likes to voice in theory, are actually available in practice.

In truth, an EU right to protection (whether imposed on Member States or presented as an EU competence) is clearly in the best interests of all citizens. For, as Tom Paine famously pointed out, 'He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself".

Even Ms Hirsi Ali's most virulent detractors might like to reflect on what could happen to them were she to be murdered by a Muslim fanatic. The likelihood is that a shock wave far stronger than that which rocked Holland after the killing of Theo Van Gogh, would reverberate across Europe, making Muslim communities (innocent men, women and children) a thousand times more vulnerable to racial abuse and violence.

Failure to establish the principle of protection in law could lead to two possible outcomes. One, that Europe's prized attachment to freedom of expression would cease to be meaningful, since people would auto-censure through fear of reprisal. And two, that future governments, God forbid, future right wing xenophobic governments of the type promised by the Vlaams Belang or the Front Nationale, could put ethnic minorities at risk of reprisal - without needing to provide protection to those that stand up for minority interests.

Instead of focussing on whether Hirsi Ali is right or wrong in her depiction of Islam - as most people on either side of the secularist/islamist agenda have tended to do - Europeans must be prepared to extend freedom of speech to everyone, however tasteless their views may be.

The debate Ayaan Hirsi Ali triggered will rage on. But it should stay at the level of debate, and not descend into violence. Although her views may not always be 'sensitively' expressed, Muslims would do better to respond to her suggestions through better arguments and clearer questioning, instead of accusations and cries of offence.
For this is simply the first taste of what is to come. Religion - whether Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, or any other ism - is taking an ever more prominent place in political debate across Europe, so it is vital we create conditions where its implications be discussed openly, honestly, and frankly, under the banner of freedom of speech. And if religions can't accept occasional offence, they may have to accept the far greater prohibition of fundamentalist secularism, which would curtail all religious advances into the public realm.

Through their actions shall we know them.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Welcome to Greater Scotland?

Scottish imperialism is thriving, apparently. Not satisfied with getting their paws on the reigns of power within our current borders the Scottish National Party is busy formenting rebellion in what were Scots lands in days of yore...Bring on the battle for Berwick upon Tweed. According to the newswires,

"Christine Grahame, MSP for southern Scotland, has "invited" the people of Berwick to "come back into the fold" and swap their allegiance from England to Scotland.

Historically, the town has been a battleground between England and Scotland for centuries.
It has changed hands between the two nations no less than 13 times and was last won by the English in 1482.

But in a poll, organised by local newspaper the Berwick Advertiser, 77% of all those who voted said they would like to be governed by Scotland once more.

Keith Hamblin, deputy editor, said: "I was surprised by the result. I am a Berwick man born and bred and I regard myself very much as English.

"I think, though, that people feel the quality of life is better in Scotland since devolution.

"Also, we are losing our borough council next year. It's being replaced by a new unitary authority, so all our administration wil be run 60 miles away further south. So people feel they're going to be left out even further on the frozen north."

The town already has Scottish loyalties when it comes to football. Its team, Berwick Rangers FC, has played in the Scottish league for years.

Ms Grahame hopes the rest of the town will also become fans of the idea of being Scottish."

Watch out England. It'll be Newcastle next!!

Opening Pandora's Box

Congratulations go to the Archbishop of Canterbury for opening the Pandora's Box of our time: what it means to be a multicultural society.

A lot of fluffy nonsense has been spoken about multiculturalism in recent years, partly through ignorance. For many of those who employ the term prefer to use it as a catch-all for feelgood liberal inclusiveness while overlooking what the logic of applied multiculturalism means in practice.

Wikipedia defines multiculturalism as a "de facto state of both cultural and ethnic diversity within the demographics of a particular social space" - merging it with the concept of pluralism tout court.

Yet rather than simply referring to the existence of diverse cultural groups, official multiculturalism policies "aim at preserving the cultures or cultural identities - usually those of immigrant groups - within a unified society. In this context, multiculturalism advocates a society that extends equitable status to distinct cultural and religious groups, no one culture predominating".

Although this seems a straightforward desire for mutual respect at face value, in reality it is anything but. If no one culture predominates then it makes it very difficult to argue for 'one law for all' as the Home Secretary has repeatedly done.

For Britain's Laws (many of them ancient), as Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali has rightly said, derive from Judeo-Christian principles for all the 'secular' spin that is put on them. Thus, in a truly 'multicultural society' they must be considered culturally biased rather than neutral, and thus open to opposition from other communities.

This in turn throws into relief what it means for something to have a universal value. Human Rights, for example, are often claimed to be fundamental and indivisible - acting as the framework around which all legal systems should be constructed.
Yet the concept of Human Rights derives from certain channels of thought which, while not necessarily 100% Western in origin (and here I doff my hat to Amartya Sen's critiques), certainly does not have a universal provenance. Hence one reason that the OIC drew up its own 'Islamic Bil of Human Rights' back in the day.
If we are prepared to admit that multiculturalism entails "equitable status to distinct cultural and religious groups" then our cultural relativism must extend as far as this framework of first principles, if policy making is to be coherent. Which leaves little to nothing that can be deemed suitable for legislation for society at large, based even on the principle of reasonable pluralism.

Of course, there is one further problem with a policy which requires every cultural community to make its own rules - schism and minority viewpoints. Every culture, every organisation, no matter how small, has its renegades, its leaders, and its followers. Thus the question of who makes the rules and who is bound by them is crucial.

Too often, experience across all religions shows that elderly bearded men have the monopoly on this position, giving others little say in writing the rule book. If a completely homogenous group cannot be defined it will be difficult to make legitimate law on all of their behalfs.

Not only is Sharia neither static nor homogenous (as the Archbishop acknowledges) but different schools of fiqh have differing interpretations of what it requires, to which individual Muslims adhere.
Indeed some scholars like Tariq Ramadan believe that even the shariat provisions on which these schools agree cannot be implemented because today's conditions are unlike those of the umma in the time of the prophet - poverty, for example, could be an excuse for stealing while at that time social organisation meant no one was without sufficient food - so the debate is entirely hypothetical.
And then there is the question of dissenters. The Archbishop says that those who decide to pursue justice through Sharia Councils (as in Jewish courts or Somali customary courts) must agree with the punishment meted out or their case will be referred to the Supreme Court.

Yet this is simply one more example of multicultural window dressing which is logically incoherent. If the whole point is respecting the equality of different cultural traditions it is clearly absurd to put British Law on a pedestal.
If the point is giving people choice it could well turn to the advantage of the strong, as it gives plaintiffs the opportunity to pick the version of justice which suits their interests - and pressurise the weak into accepting decisions for cultural reasons, as Earthquake Cove correctly points out in this post.

So we have a choice: either package people as community members and leave it up to their communities to dispense justice - or acknowledge we are all members of one society so we must live under one set of rules which (while open to discussion and debate) must be applied to all, with few exceptions, as is currently the case.

The truth of the matter is that the Archbishop's comments on the place of Sharia in Britain simply reflect what is already happening, since Sharia Councils, like other advisory bodies, seek solutions on non-criminal matters pertaining to their faith which, if disputed, go straight to the high court. That's what he means when he says it is an already accepted part of Britain's legal-political landscape.
What is problematic is not this kind of culturally-sensitive problem solving but the concept of parallel legal systems which is what multiculturalism entails.

Monday, 11 February 2008

No Room To Breathe

I've lived outside the UK for three out of the last five years and every time I return I notice the change.

Everything is monitored. Everyone is checked. Everything and everyone is part of a growing system of government control which has moved beyond traditional parameters of law, order, and welfare provision into the private sphere where it hopes to create and enforce the concept of the 'model citizen'.

Increasingly, there is no more room to breathe in British society. No room to live according to different norms, to espouse different beliefs, or simply exist outside the ever-extending scrutiny of the state.

We live in a country where the fingerprints of thousands of innocent schoolchildren are kept on file by the police, where an electronic snapshot of our lives can be obtained by everyone from the local authority to the Egg Marketing Board - without our permission ever being asked.

A country where the phonecalls of MPs are tapped, where people can be fired from their jobs (or never employed) for 'misconduct' in their private life, ranging from drunken pranks with their pals to an unfortunate facebook photo.

Where ID cards containing all our personal information will so be required to access any public service, at any time. Where nothing we say do or think can be kept private.

It's just a step away from the situation depicted in 'The Lives of Others', which was so well received at last night's BAFTAs. The director claims enough time has passed to critically depict East-Germany's past under the Stasi.

Yet the surveillance state is not in the past. It is alive and well in modern Britain and the film contains a warning of what could lie ahead if Britain doesn't wake up to what liberties we allow our government to take away in the name of the 'common good'. For while the current political climate may still be reasonably open there may come a time when that is no longer the case - and it will be too late to change anything.

Successive Home Secretaries have accused critics of state surveillance for being paranoid, stating that if citizens have nothing to hide they have nothing to fear.

Yet as Dan Kieran points out in his book 'I Fought the Law', even respectable middle class citizens canfind themselves blacklisted, or even arrested, for engaging in the right to protest, whether over the war in Iraq or building a ring road in an environmentally sensitive area.

Isaiah Berlin famously defined liberty as 'an answer to the question: 'What is the area within which the subject — a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons'.

Totalitarian regimes corrode the space of negative liberties (where our freedom of action is uninterupted as long as it does not interfere with the freedoms of others) to the extent that all actions (no matter how private) become politicised and fall under the jurisdiction of the state.

That is what seems to be happening in the UK, with the active collusion of many unwitting and 'upright' British citizens. And before you accuse me of being paranoid, let me refer you the following article by Simon Carr in the Independent.

As he says: 'What we have emerging in Britain is a general cultural movement in favour of surveillance. There is a growing sense that society generally and the state in particular should take an active interest in all individual activity. And that this is right, proper and inevitable.

...We're witnessing something like Rousseau's "general will" in a preliminary stage of development. Polls, politics, television, public opinion, the insurance industry, the state sector, they are all combining to exert public "general will" rights over the private sphere.

Laying down an approved way of doing things is one expression of this. "Best practice" it is sometime called. Or "directives" or "targets" or "operational guidance".

The State has a powerful incentive and logic driving it: it is spending so much of our money to help us that it has the right to demand appropriate behaviour in return."

Efficient public spending requires model citizens. So be prepared to conform - or be convicted.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Questionable Facts

At last!! Proof that a taste for expensive restaurants, drinks receptions, and sedentary office life does not lie at the heart of my weight control issues. It's not my lifestyle that's to blame for being a few pounds overweight - it's my genes. Thanks Mum. That should keep her quiet the next time she gets on at me for not being a size 10...

Except that it doesn't add up. After all, almost noone was obese fifty years ago - and the gene pool hasn't changed much in that time. Even if some people find it harder to control weight than others genes can hardly explain the obesity epidemic that's hit the country.

Facts are facts. Sixty percent of British people will be obese by the year 2010 because modern life is bad for our health. The majority of people exist off diets permeated by rich, fatty, nutrition-free convenience food - because they are too busy to sit down and cook. We live lives of sloth, trapped in offices like those mice scientists use for experiments, and then express surprise at the expanse of flab around our middles.

Fad diets won't change that. Only a lifestyle revolution can. And that has got to start with challenging the efficiency epidemic that encourages these characteristics in the first place

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Why Do We Bother?

I just don't understand it. While we expend vast amounts of energy frustrating Turkish attempts to join the European Union - despite Erdogan's best efforts to reform it in line with our rigorous standards - we approach Serbia, that hotbed of xenophobic nationalism and protector of war criminals, with open arms.

Indeed, if all goes 'well' the Slovenian Presidency will sign a Stablisation and Association Agreement with the Serbs this Thursday, offering them closer trade relations and relaxed visa requirements.

My question is, in exchange for what? Why exactly are we handing all of this to Serbia on a platter when there is precisely 'no evidence', according to Serge Brammaerts, the new Chief Prosecutor for the International Tribunal tasked with bringing war criminals to justice, that Serbia is cooperating in the search for Mladic?

This is the first and only main requirement the EU imposed on Belgrade for the SAA to be signed - and now we are all but ignoring it. So much for the EU commitment to upholding Human Rights.

The Presidency defends its decision on the basis that pro-Western President Boris Tadic has just been re-elected, as opposed to the pro-Moscow nationalist Tomislav Nikolic. But I'm afraid that doesn't really cut the mustard.

Firstly, the contest was exceptionally close, with almost half the population voting for closer ties with the Ruskies and in favour of ultra-nationalist sentiments. That's hardly evidence of a revolutionary change in mindset.

Secondly, both candidates came out against independence for Kosovo - one of the EU's main objectives.

And thirdly, ties with Russia have been effectively institutionalised after the same said Tadic allowed Gazprom and others to buy up almost all of Serbia's industry and major enterprises.

What we are looking at is a new Russian Satellite whose infrastructure, economy, and legal institutions are in need of nothing less than a major shakeup. Of what possible advantage could a country like this be to the EU?

However, thanks to Kostunica, we may not have to worry about that, at least for a while. He has come out against the planned agreement, accusing the EU of "directly undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia and its constitutional order" through a planned peace mission to Kosovo.

As the government coalition relies heavily on support from his faction, his move could topple the government by the end of the week. And that would mean forming a new coalition with none other than uber nationalist Tomislav Nikolic. Good to see that times have changed so definitively.
Instead of pretending that Serbia is yet in a fit state to join the Union we should focus on countries that can offer us something in return.

Turkey, with its access to and influence over Central Asia and its gas reserves, its highly educated labour force, growing economy, and potential for overcoming regional security issues, is far and away a better prospect than countries like Serbia who would simply take and not give.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Choosing the Right Way Forward

One of the main purposes of my work is convincing people that democracy and human rights are universally applicable, anywhere in the world. What I write is very black and white - because that is what my job demands. Propaganda isn't propaganda otherwise. However in private I have always -been slightly suspicious of the 'democratisation agenda': partly because it has been hijacked by American neo-cons in their quest for world dominance and partly because of an instinctive dislike of 'universalisms' which I have come to associate with thinly veiled cultural imperialism.
I don't think that makes me a cultural relativist on the other hand. I do not, for example, believe that all cultural practices are equally good. I do believe that better and worse decisions can be made and that in order to know which is which we have to make comparisons.

Yet I am also quite convinced that all cultural practices have a certain validity (that is they 'make sense') within the internal logic that governs every civilisation. Whether we are aware of it or not most of us operate on auto-pilot within our own societies, either conforming to or reacting against the unwritten rules which govern our understanding of right and wrong action.

Living within the parameters of these rules provides us with our sense of normality. We do not question why we behave a certain way, most of the time, nor do we try to justify it in our own terms. And if we are dissatisfied with the rules of the game, we react against them instead of putting in place alternative systems to govern our lives.

A good example would bethe sexual revolution which swept the West in the sixties and seventies where people swept away the suffocating social norms that governed relationships only to replace them with their diametric opposite - with little or no attempt to make sense of this seismic shift from one extreme to the other.

So we all operate within closed cultural systems mitigated only if and when we are exposed to alternative ways of living. In the past this happened rarely - through trade, or cultural exchange amongst the educated elite - but today alternatives to our own cultural norms are increasingly evident and accessible.

Migration, instant communication, the internet, even the availability of cheap foreign travel have all enlarged our horizons. Very few people alive today can claim to live culturally hermetic, homogenous lives. However it is equally true that our understanding of other ways of life remains superficial, even disneyfied.

Eating Chinese food, watching a foreign film, speaking another language, even hanging out with foreign friends, is rarely sufficient to give us more than a window onto another world. It's a bit like showing a photo of a tropical island to someone who has never been there.

They can exclaim at the beauty of the scene, perhaps remark on what people are wearing, eating, or doing, but they will not understand why those things are taking place - why they 'make sense' within the logic of that society . In fact, even if we went to that tropical island, most of us wouldn't understand a lot more about the scene in question - we would see, but we would not see clearly.

For most of us, 'our way' of doing things remains the best way. We view those who dissent from our norms - especially in our own society - on a spectrum ranging from the bizarre, to the suspect, or at worst, downright frightening.

This reaction differs from the reaction conventional people (and I speak as a British person here) have when confronted with an alternative cultural practice which is indigenous in origin, such aspeople acting like Punks, Goths, or whatever.

We are aware of where these practices come from and what they represent. And even if we dont like them we do understand them. What makes unknown cultural norms so frightening is that they don't make the remotest bit of sense to us.

So if a woman is veiled, if a Hindu refuses to eat meat, if an East Asian refuses to loosen up in our company, we don't understand why. We don't understand why these things are normal for the person in question and why any attempt to do otherwise would constitute a painful act of rebellion against their inner instincts.

It's a bit like telling your average British person to stop drinking alcohol, stop watching the football, or start going to church again, when they're an avowed atheist. These are simply things the average person does in today's Britain. They are normal. They are everyday. But are they right?

If we want to understand how best to live our lives we must put our own assumptions in question. While it may be normal for British people to drink to get drunk it certainly isn't in France. So who is right? Surely, when we make the comparison, we have to conclude that the French way of moderate drinking is preferable.

Yet other countries do not have a drinking culture. So which is better - the French way or their way? When we truly compare the effects of living with alcohol to the effects of living without we might well conclude that not drinking at all is essentially better for us even if it is, to our way of thinking, alot less fun.

So when deciding if you want to drink or not you can make a choice. You can say 'do I want to have fun and relax - and take the consequences if I cannot be moderate' or you can say 'to prevent overindulgence and its unpleasant effects on myself and others, I would do best to avoid alcohol'.

One argument derives from personal preference 'I want to have fun', the other from a qualitative, objective fact, which is personal health. As such, the best choice is probably not to drink - even though that goes against what most of us are culturally tuned to believe.

It's hard to make the 'right' choice from within British culture where not drinking is mocked as the preserve of the uptight and self-righteous. But it's much easier to make when looked at from the perspectives and norms of other cultures where the idea that you cannot 'have fun' without alcohol is an alien concept.

So we can see that enhanced cultural awareness can help us make choices and decisions about our own lives - by deconstructing our own norms and exposing much of our behaviour as the result of cultural conditioning instead of personal decision making or logic.

Once we realise this we can start to look for better ways forward. And it is here that I would like to return to democracy and human rights. Many people say that they're Western imports, a form of cultural hegemony that doesn't work for certain civilisations. That we should, de facto, respect every and all decisions made within the logic of other societies.

But that is not the case. As Amartya Sen has pointed out in 'La Democratie des autres' the idea of public debate and decision making is by no means confined to the West. Indeed, even that tradition which derived from the Athenian demos was more thoroughly reflected on in Asia Minor, the Middle East, and India many centuries ago, than it ever was in Western Europe until the current age.
Every society has had its open and closed periods, every society has times of freedom and times of dictatorship. Every society has its successes and failures. The Arab world today is a good sight less developed - both materially and culturally - than it was five hundred years ago when it was by far the most developed, open, and tolerant civilisation in the world. That is why it flourished. And why it has now ceased to flourish.

Realising this, we must be aware that certain practices are - when considered relatively - qualitatively better than others. And of all the worst qualities a society can exhibit, closedmindedness and intolerance must be amongst the worst.

That is why not only concerned foreigners but all Muslims and Afghans should be so affronted by what is happening to Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the student of journalism who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy for downloading material on women's rights and distributing it for the purpose of stimulating debate on the Qu'ran's meaning and interpretation.

This is not only wrong because Afghanistan is now a democracy, and democracies allow pluralism, but because - from the perspective of openness and critical debate which allows all societies to move forward - it is illogical to execute someone for questioning norms: even if these are religious norms, and the society in question is a religious society.

For if we question something its truth, or logic, will either be revealed or denied. Truth (maybe not absolute truth, but internal consistency, lets say) can only be established through debate and discussion. And inconsistency - or falsehood - can only be exposed that way. So please, everyone, sign the petition to free this poor man - not because you believe a bunch of secular Westerners are right but because it is the right, and the only, thing to do.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Stop The Traffik

Trafficking in Human Beings is a very clinical term for what is essentially modern slavery: the buying and selling of human beings for profit.

Every year up to 120 000 women and children are brought into the European Union by people traffickers. Most are tricked into leaving their homes with promises of a better life. Some are simply abducted. All are destined for exploitation.

Once here, they are forced into prostitution or used as a source of cheap labour by unscrupulous employers, in sectors ranging from domestic work to farming, manufacturing and construction.

Many of these vulnerable people never see a cent for their labours. Too often, their passports are confiscated and they are deprived of their basic rights, held against their will in poor conditions, beaten, sexually abused, or subjected to other degrading treatment.

Worldwide, the figure is even higher. Although it is difficult to gather accurate statistics, because the victims cannot, or do not want, to reveal themselves to the authorities it is believed that millions of people are trafficked every single year, making human trafficking the fastest growing form of international organised crime.

Yet despite the terrible human cost to its victims, trafficked people are frequently treated as criminals or unlawful aliens when they come to the attention of the authorities.

Too often their ordeal is confused with ‘people smuggling’, where migrants pay middlemen to bypass border controls and enter the European Union illegally.

As such, non-nationals without rights to residence in the country in which they are found are given little or no access the justice system and are simply deported back to their home countries with little or no assessment of the risks they may face.

Where assistance is given, it is often made conditional on victims cooperating with the police to locate their traffickers, which can put both them and their families in grave danger.

For all our talk of fundamental rights, it is rare that victims of trafficking are given access to the support they need to overcome their ordeal.

As a result of these short-sighed strategies, the psychological, medical and social consequences of trafficking, not to mention the underlying root causes, are never addressed.

And for every trafficker put behind bars, there are many more willing to take the risk. Indeed, reports suggest that some criminal gangs are making the switch from drugs to human beings, in search of higher profits at lower risk.

This makes it more important than ever to tackle this problem in a holistic and humane manner taking into account the needs of the victims and the factors which encourage trafficking in the first place - a major departure from current practice.

The entry into force of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings on 1 February 2008 will mark a major step forwards by committing participating states to criminalise trafficking, not the victims of trafficking.

However to date only fourteen Council of Europe Member States are party to this Convention, of which six - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Moldova and Norway - are non EU members, while thirty three are yet to ratify.

If the European Union is serious about its desire to promote and protect fundamental rights throughout the world it is imperative that all countries ratify and implement this convention without delay.

You can pressure our leaders to do so. Sign the petition to stop the traffik - with any luck millions of signatures will be presented to the UN in less than two weeks time - and raise awareness of this terrible crime against humanity.