Friday, 14 March 2008

Update: Kazemi Case Reconsidered

Good news for Mehdi Kazemi, the gay Iranian teenager first refused asylum by the UK authorities and then by the Netherlands - countries whose rhetoric on fundamental rights is belied by politically motivated anti-immigrant policies.

Mercifully, widespread public condemnation of Mr Kazemi's possible deportation, where he could face death by hanging, has forced the British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to reconsider his case.

According to the BBC she said: "Following representations made on behalf of Mehdi Kazemi, and in the light of new circumstances since the original decision was made, I have decided that Mr Kazemi's case should be reconsidered on his return to the UK from the Netherlands."

New circumstances? What new circumstances?

The only new circumstances I can see are that no one knew or cared about Mehdi Kazemi's case when it was originally heard, but, following media coverage, they do now.

But then we all know that the only truth the Labour spin machine cares about is opinion polling. So well done to all those who put pressure on this cowardly government to half-way adhere to its Human Rights obligations.

Now what are they going to do about the 1400 rejected asylum seekers who will be made destitute if they don't 'voluntarily' agree to move back to oh-so-safe-Iraq in three weeks time?

Most of these, incidentally, are Iraqi Christians who are currently undergoing a wave of repression so severe that it has been dubbed in some quarters as attempted genocide.

Unlike in Mehdi Kazemi's case, the UK government has CAUSED these people to become asylum seekers in the first place, by invading and occupying their homeland, and creating a civil conflict of mammoth proportions.

Surely we owe them, and the translators we are also failing to protect from crazy jihadists who treat them as traitors, better?

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Save Mehdi Kazemi

Mehdi Kazemi, a gay Iranian asylum seeker, has just been refused asylum in the Netherlands. He will be sent back to the UK within 72 hours.

The UK authorities had already turned down his request for asylum on the basis of sexual orientation, despite the fact that his partner was executed for the same said 'crime'.

The Home Office claims a gay person can return to Iran and avoid persecution by being "discreet". As Simon Hughes has noted, what that means in practice is denying your identity: an infringement, in and of itself, of a basic human right.

In any case, it's a bit late for a man whose sexual orientation has made him a cause celebre. I can't imagine he would outfox Iranian intelligence for that long. If he ever made it past passport control his dad would probably kill him, if the Vice Squad didn't get him first. After all, he has already threatened to do so.

A lot of rot, frankly, is talked about European Values like Human Rights in Europe and our governments are guilty of the most flagrant disregards for the ECHR.

Article 3 of the European Convention on Human rights, as well as the Charter of Fundamental Rights and international human rights law, prohibits the removal, expulsion or extradition of persons to countries where there is a serious risk they would be subjected to the death penalty, torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Furthermore, EU law recognises sexual orientation as a ground for Member States to grant asylum.

As such, given the Iranian regime has a well-known penchant for executing homosexuals, it beggars belief that we can stand aside and watch this happen.

If you want to pressurise the powers that be to take their Human Rights obligations seriously please write to Gordon Brown and Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini demanding they ensure Medhi Kazemi be granted asylum or international protection on EU soil, instead of being sent back to Iran, thus ensuring that article 3 of the ECHR is fully respected.

The UK migration policy is such a mess that convicted criminals are 'lost in the system' and left to run free, but legitimate claimants, like this man, are essentially thrown to the wolves. Time for a change...

You can reach them, by email or snail mail:

Gordon Brown
10 Downing Street

Vice President Franco Frattini
+ 32 (0)2 298 75 00

email or

Neologisms of Note

It was over two hundred years ago that the Brits gave up on the idea of policing the English language, as the French continue to do with their Academie Francaise, and let usage reign supreme as the arbiter of whether something is, or isn't, acceptable.

So let's start using some of the new words below, many of which seem DESIGNED with the EU institutions in mind, and see if they make it into next year's updated edition of the OED!
I got this as a foward and have posted all the non-crass suggestions it contains...Further suggestions very welcome in comments!

Now excuse me while I stop testiculating and go and perform some percussive maintenance on my computing device, so I can return to my vital 'work' in the adminisphere.


SALAD DODGER. An excellent phrase for an overweight person.

TESTICULATING.Waving your arms around and talking bollocks (accurate description of parliament's plenary sessions).

BLAMESTORMING.Sitting round in a group, discussing why a deadline was missed or a project failed, and who was responsible.

SEAGULL MANAGER. A manager who flies in, makes a lot of noise, craps on everything, and then leaves.

ASSMOSIS. The process by which people seem to absorb success and advancement by sucking up to the boss rather than working hard.

SALMON DAY.The experience of spending an entire day swimming upstream only to get screwed and die.

CUBE FARM.An office filled with cubicles.

PRAIRIE DOGGING.When someone yells or drops something loudly in a cube farm, and people's heads pop up over the walls to see what's going on. (This also applies to applause for a promotion because there may be cake.)

SITCOMs. Single Income, Two Children, Oppressive Mortgage. What yuppies turn into when they have children and one of them stops working to stay home with the kids or start a 'home business'.

SINBAD. Single working girls. Single income, no boyfriend and desperate (applies to most girls I know in matter how gorgeous or talented)

AEROPLANE BLONDE. One who has bleached/dyed her hair but still has a 'black box'.

PERCUSSIVE MAINTENANCE. The fine art of whacking the crap out of an electronic device to get itto work again.

ADMINISPHERE.The rarefied organisational layers beginning just above the rank and file. Decisions that fall from the 'adminisphere' are often profoundly inappropriate or irrelevant to the problems they were designed to solve. This is often affiliated with the dreaded 'administrivia' - needless paperwork and processes (believe me, this strikes a chord)

404. Someone who's clueless. From the World Wide Web error message '404 Not Found' meaning that the requested document could not be located.

OH - NO SECOND. That minuscule fraction of time in which you realize that you've justmade a BIG mistake (e.g. you've hit 'reply all').

JOHNNY-NO-STARS. A young man of substandard intelligence, the typical adolescent who works in a burger restaurant. The 'no-stars' comes from the badgesdisplaying stars that staff at fast-food rest au rants often wear to showtheir level of training.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

No Cojones

Britain won't have a referendum on the EU Constitution, sorry, Lisbon Treaty after all.

Last night the government and its supporters defeated a loose coalition of Tories and Lib Dem and Labour rebels by 311 votes to 248 to ratify the European Union treaty. The debate will now go to the Lords but is expected pass into law this summer without a hitch.

All parties found themselves in a pretty pickle over this issue, though for different reasons. As Simon Hoggart said in the Guardian

"Labour knows that it should have held a referendum, but won't because it would lose.

The Tories know a referendum would be catastrophic; it would set us back in Europe for years.

And the Lib Dems want a referendum on whether we should stay in at all because they can't think of anything else."

However, although I agree with his overall judgement I dont agree with this analysis.

Lib Dems supported the - in my opinion, rather ludicrous - suggestion that the UK hold a referendum on being in or out of the EU because they had already committed to a referendum in previous manifestos, much like Labour.

They were faced with the choice of letting the issue quietly drop and voting with the government - on the basis that we are the most europhilic party in the UK - or headlining the 'in and out' issue in an effort to move the debate onto different ground.

In the end, Clegg opted for an abstention, after the Lib Dem amendment on a referendum on EU membership was dismissed last week. Yet after ordering a three line whip to ensure party unity he was immediately undermined by 15 pro-referendum Lib Dem MPs who voted with the Tories.

This included three front bench spokesmen including the environment spokesman, Tim Farron, the Scotland and Northern Ireland spokesman, Alistair Carmichael, and the justice spokesman, David Heath. All later resigned. What a cock-up.

This is the angle the press has chosen to focus on. Yet the real reason this vote was such an unmitigated disaster is because, having imposed the whip, the Lib Dems found themselves in a position of undermining the one thing they have long fought for, namely European reform and progress.

Knowing that Labour rebels could swell the Tory ranks and defeat the government line we should have thrown ourselves behind Brown to ensure we carried the day.

Instead, after the much-dramatised 'walk out' from the Commons last week, we sat on our hands during the vote, drawing predictable criticism that the party has 'no cojones' and is simply a standing joke.

Clegg did all this despite overwhelming advice from Lib Dems in Brussels that the party should vote for its principles, namely an effective and reformed EU, instead of micro-managing its members.

Liberal Democrats know that without the Lisbon Treaty in place an enlarged EU will lack the necessary institutional tools to make effective decisions on matters of great importance from counter-terrorism, to energy security, and completing hte single market.

We know that we need to end unanimity in Council, which has blocked essential dossiers and reduced EU influence on the world stage.

We know that extending democratic scrutiny of legislation to all policy areas, including the CAP and the EU budget, is vital to ensuring decisions are made in the European, not just national, interest. And that those decisions are accountable to the public.

Yet we were prepared to play with fire for the sake of engineering a unity which
never transpired.

However Clegg should not take all of the blame for this unholy mess. It was extremely irresponsible for the party to put referendum promises in our previous manifestos, particularly in the current eurosceptic climate, where media misinformation makes having a rational debate on Europe all but impossible.

This naive gesture goes against our party's, not to mention the citizen's, best interests and is simply pandering to eurosceptic populism.

Don't give me the response about giving power to the people and acting democratically. We need to get it out of our heads that referenda are an answer to difficult questions. We were right to oppose a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty because it is far too complex a question for a plebicite.

Complex questions require thoughtful answers, not someone's (however cherished) gut reaction at the ballot box. Resolving complex questions is, indeed, why we bother electing our representatives in the first place, since few of us have the time or inclination to dedicate ourselves to reading the reams of paper required.

For Britain to have a real debate about Europe, it needs to open its eyes and eschew the kind of puerile propaganda that has passed for argumentation over the last decade or so. It is the responsibility of all political parties, regardless of their stance, to ensure this debate is carried out openly, honestly, and fairly.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Taiwan in Dire Straits?

On March 22nd Taiwan is braced for a Presidential election whose outcome could have significant repercussions for cross-strait relations and international security.

After eight years in opposition, the pro-Beijing Kuomintang (KMT) is mounting a strong challenge to President Chen Shui-Bian's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Chinese authorities are quietly confident that KMT candidate Ma Ying-Jeou can carry the day.

Early signs show that the Blue Alliance, led by the Kuomintang, will replicate its landslide victory in January's legislative elections where it won 86 of 113 seats halving the DPP's representation in the Legislative Yuan and leaving it with less than a quarter of the seats.

However, a Kuomintang victory would not necessarily mean the Taiwanese people's desire for independence has in any way diminished.

According to recent data provided by the Election Study Center more than 62% of Taiwanese voters support independence, while many others remain in favour of retaining the status quo instead of closer political ties with China.

The answer to this conundrum lies in the fact the election is being fought predominantly on economic rather than cross-strait issues, with the KMT campaigning on an "open door economic policy" towards Beijing to win voters round, particularly the one million who currently reside on the mainland.

By contrast, the ruling DPP has made itself increasingly unpopular with investors due to Chen Shui-Bian's restrictive policies on trade with China, designed to protect Taiwanese industry, which have been roundly criticised for contributing to the recent recession.

Nevertheless, the independence issue is still live and has been stoked by threats of military retribution if a planned referendum on Taiwan's application to join the UN under its own name goes ahead on the same day as the Presidential election.

China regards the decision to hold a referendum on U.N. membership as a move toward formal independence and has said that the vote "could threaten peace in the Asia-Pacific region".

Not coincidentally, the Beijing authorities chose this month to unveil plans to increase military spending by an unprecedented 18% this year, in contravention of international norms, to a total of 417.8bn yuan or 59 billion dollars.

Despite claims that "China's limited military capability is solely for the purpose of safeguarding independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity" the government has already confirmed Taiwan will pay a 'dear price' for supporting independence, since it considers the island an integral part of its territory.

The outcome of the election could thus depend markedly on how the Taiwanese people respond to China's strong arm tactics.

Defiance would work in favour of the DPP candidate Frank Hsieh and could mean that the Kuomintang's dominance in the legislative elections is not replicated in the Presidential poll.

In contrast to the KMT line which advises retaining the name 'Republic of China' for an eventual UN seat, he continues to advocate Taiwan's full and unambiguous inclusion in the organisation as well as a robust Human Rights policy that goes against the grain of closer ties with China.

However, given the international community's opposition to the referendum which US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has branded as 'provocative', citizens may think twice before invoking the wrath of their powerful neighbour, particularly since Japan has also expressed strong reservations.

In the end, pragmatism, and Ma Ying-Jeou's clear support in the Taiwanese media could hold the day. However, Taipei's ambitions to play a greater role in global governance should not stop there.
One of the major problems with the UN's current set-up is, as is the case with the World Health Organisation, it provides no forum for non-state actors, or states which are not recognised by the whole international community.
Such a forum is vital for ensuring peace and stability in volatile regions and encouraging diplomatic solutions for conflicts that threaten our collective security.

Establishing criteria for Taiwan to participate in the essential work of the UN without creating a political crisis with the People's Republic is essential to ending Taiwan's international isolation and allowing it to work in partnership with other nations on matters of mutual concern.

This should be the international community's current priority with regards Taiwan, regardless of the outcome of the referendum and Presidential election on March 22nd.

Revealed: Contents of MEPs Expenses Report

Dutch MEP Paul van Buitenen has defied the Parliamentary Authorities and published an executive summary of the controversial report highlighting abuses of MEP expenses on his personal website.

This clearly states that the current system of staff payments, which can take numerous different contractual forms which alter depending on the MEP's nationality, is far too complicated for the Directorate General for Finance "to monitor effectively the legality, regularlity, and sound financial management of the Members' contractual arrangements".

It goes on to cite a variety of abuses, including payments of the 186000 euro staff allowance to dubious service providers who carry out irrelevant activities like child caring or trading in wood, or, in one case, no activity at all. In some cases, these providers have registered only one or indeed NO assistants to manage the MEPs office, well below the average staff ratio, and include payments to wives and family or the MEPs themselves.

In one exceptional case, an MEP was found to be the sole owner of the service provider to which he paid his allowances. This service provider was registered in a different country and did not figure in his declaration of interests (go figure!). He is now under investigation by OLAF, the EU's anti-fraud bureau.

In other forty two cases, Members who did not get re-elected paid generous 'lay-off payments' to their assistants to exhaust their budgets, one of whom received a total payout of 8890 euros from five separate MEPs over a three month period, in breach of the PEAM rules.

Other abuses related to non-payment or registration of VAT for which they are liable and inflated travel expenses for assistants (in one case, amounting to three times their annual salary).

Small wonder few wanted this to be published.

However it must be said that, if the sample of 167 MEPs is representative of the whole, the number of extreme abuses are relatively few. The really worrying thing is the fact that the vast majority of MEPs fail to register or protect their staff, fuelling fears that working for a parliamentarian often amounts to outright exploitation, particularly for stagiaires.

The audit shows that in 80% of cases, MEPs failure to register assistants with a social security scheme to protect them against unemployment or illness - a slap in the face for the majority of staff who are not recipients of their chief's largesse.

It is time the Parliament stopped trying to hide the evidence of abuses and faced up to its responsibilities, both to the staff it employs and the citizens it represents - whose tax dollar, lest we forget, is paying for these scams.

The new Members' statute, which comes into force next year, will represent a major step forwards in terms of fairness and transparency. It should be accompanied by a beefed-up assistants' statute which ensures all staff are paid a reasonable wage, through a less complex and more accountable system.

Then, and only then, can we iron out the discrepancies that make working in politics such a lottery.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Losing our Religion

I came across a comment in today's Times by Britain's Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks which struck me as true.

I respect the Rabbi greatly because he is one of the few religious leaders whose writings provide a cogent critique of modern Western ethics and can appeal to readers beyond narrow sectarian confines.

This is what he has to say on the relationship between belief in God and what it means to be a human being which, in turn, has major implications for each individual's sense of purpose and of moral responsibility.

Religion claims human beings were granted dominion over all the earth. And while many would take issue with this interpretation in today's secular climate, the fact of the matter is that our dominion has never been so noticeable, so widespread, nor so destructive as it is today.

Fish stocks are almost exhausted.

Rising sea levels and global warming bring flooding and desertification in equal measure, reducing the amount of available farmland and forcing record numbers to migrate from their stricken homelands.

Species and languages are dying at unprecedented rates as globalisation's ugly cousin, homogeneity, attacks the world's natural diversity in the search for a quick profit or a sous to feed a growing family.

This is dominion all right. But it is thoughtless tyranny, dominion of the worst kind. Human beings, many argue, have a moral responsibility to themselves, to future generations, to the planet itself, to preserve the fruits of nature and cease their destructive behaviour.

But on what basis?

Rabbi Sacks points out that in the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam,
dominion is and must be interpreted as stewardship: the recognition that living things are to serve humanity but human beings, as part of their dominion, are required to look after all living creatures.

On this reading, failure to care for the thing we exert power over is equivalent to acting inhumanly, to being inhumane in our treatment of other living things. For Rabbi Sacks, a God-centred view of human existence is one in which man (through his intelligence, his judgement, and his love for creation) can elevate himself to the viewpoint of the divine.

Failure to harness this spiritual side, however, results in an abasement that puts us on a par with non-sentient creatures.

An abasement born, if you will, of wilful ignorance because mankind's capacity for intelligent thought and forward planning is far far greater than that of other mammals. They exist. We order existence. Failure to exercise what clerics call God-given reason is thus the equivalent of acting against our (better) nature.

By contrast, modern scientific thought - as it is used by humanists and other secular groups - defines humanity as something far more limited and, fundamentally, pre-programmed: as Rabbi Sacks points out, "we are part of nature; nothing more".

A statement published in 1997 by members of the International Academy of Humanism, and distinguished scientists, philosophers and novelists, defines homo sapiens as a member of the animal kingdom stating:

"Human capabilities appear to differ in degree, not in kind, from those found among the higher animals.

Humankind's rich repertoire of thoughts, feelings, aspirations and hopes seems to arise from electrochemical brain processes, not from an immaterial soul that operates in ways no instrument can discover.”

This in turn gives rise to questions about the nature of our responsibility towards the planet and its creatures.

If we are programmed to be selfish, greedy, and destructive what possible reason could we have for stopping such tendencies for moral reasons rather than reasons of self interest?

I am not suggesting for one moment that the non-religious don't have a sense of ethics. I am simply saying that different definitions of humanity lead us to employ different forms of rationale.

Note that much of the current discussion on climate change is not about the rights and wrongs of exterminating animal and fish species, it's about ensuring their sustainable use for economic growth.

Under this way of seeing it does not matter much if the salmon comes from a salmon farm or lives wild. The essential point is that it is there for human consumption.

The modern view of human beings stresses our biology. In turn, we objectify animals, seeing them only as the source of meat or leather, as opposed to beings which have an equal right to inhabit the earth and are deserving of reasonable treatment.

If you have ever looked in a cow's eyes, let alone stroked your neighbour's cat as it sits on your knee, you will have had the feeling that a being, any being, is a good deal more than that.

Rabbi Sacks writes that "When human beings lose faith in God they lose faith in human beings" and indeed, the sacredness of creation.


Because without an extra-biological purpose informing our actions, he claims, "We will have knowledge without wisdom, technology without reticence, choice without conscience, power without restraint".

Only when we rediscover life as a miracle of creation, instead of trying to maximise its returns, will we rediscover our full potential as human beings.