International Peace Day

On the 21st of September…

News media has long been known to be a bit of a balancing act. The media shows us things it knows we want to see. It tailors its content to its market guided by years of finding out from its customers “what interests you?”.  But the media doesn’t just react to its readers, listeners and viewers. It plays a rather more elusive and pervasive role. The media also tells us what it thinks we we ought to know. As well as giving us what we want, it manages our expectations and tells us what we should want to read about, watch on our televisions and hear on our radios.
From looking at the front page of a newspaper we get a heady and hard to distinguish mix of what we want and what we should want.
Today is the International Day of Peace. A global day of celebration of cooperation, nonviolence, justice and equality. This event doesn’t feature on the top stories of news sites or radio shows. It isn’t a national holiday or the subject of much activity like a religious holiday might be. But all is not lost.
From looking at news sites and newspapers the top stories for planet Earth today are very much about peace.
News of the terrorist murder of Afghanistan’s peace envoy features as the top story. News of Mexico’s ongoing drug war, their state of negative peace is discussed. Stories of a typhoon in Japan threatening the Fukushima Daichii nuclear plant gives the headlines an environmental edge. Hopeful news of another Gaddafi stronghold falling to the Libyan government and their acceptance at the United Nations as the official representatives of the Libyan people are reported. Finally Obama’s peace mission to the middle east concludes global top stories.
Peace is about terrorism. Peace is about drugs and law and order. Peace is about protecting our environment and sustainability. Peace is about humanitarian intervention and global governance. Peace is about diplomacy and interstate conflict. Although there is no mention of this important date in today’s headlines every story leading the news today is fundamentally about peace. Murdoch doesn’t control the news, we do and today the news was about peace. That means that we the consumers of the news are desperate for news about peace. Not only that but the media executives agree with us. They think that we ought to know about peace.
Although no one has mentioned International Peace Day the outlook isn’t bad. Happy Peace Day, keep up the good work.


The recipe for peace, the Libyans deserve it.

One of the things I try and impress upon people is that peace isn’t a default state. It isn’t the absence of violence. It isn’t a vacuum situation that just happens when people aren’t fighting. Peace takes time, it takes effort, it requires resources. It needs people to want it, desperately and to be passionate about it. What does it take for peace? What is the recipe?

Libya has lived under the rule of one of the most unpleasant dictators in history for more than 40 years. In all fairness Gaddafi has never quite been a Kim Jong-Il or Stalin but the stories emerging from Libya about his treatment of some sectors of society are gruesome. Libya deserves better.

The National Transitional Council (NTC), now recognised by the United States, Britain and France amongst others as the legitimate government of Libya, swept into Tripoli overnight to a joyous welcome from residents.

This is a moment of great possibility. As Fawaz Gerges at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics described it on the live stream of BBC news this morning “a moment pregnant with possibilities”. Libya and the NTC have an enormous task ahead of them. Democracy, human rights, peace and justice are all within reach, but it won’t be easy. We mustn’t expect things to happen over night.

So what will it take? How can we make sure that this works, that the Libyans get what they so deserve? What are the ingredients?

Libya needs reconciliation. Saif Al-Islam and Gaddafi need to be sent to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Evidence needs to be collected, the cold light of day needs to shine upon their crimes. The Libyan people need to know what happened to their brother, or mother or daughter who disappeared one day many years ago. They need to know about the money embezzled, about the dodgy deals with foreign governments and oil companies. They deserve honesty and openness.

The NTC needs absolute unity. It cannot fracture apart into warring sides. The Libyans need an interim government that represents the East as well as the West. Rumblings about dissatisfaction between the two have emerged but they need to put tribalism behind them, they’ve come too far for that. The Libyans deserve an interim government that will open a constitutional dialogue with them, that will immediately respect their universal human rights and promise speedy elections.

The Libyan police under the new authority need to be deployed to the streets as a single, national, cohesive force. They need to be monitored closely and instructed to maintain law and order and to protect United Nations and other humanitarian aid convoys. The Libyan people desperately need electricity and clean water so the police need to ensure that engineers and experts can work safely to bring them those things. The Libyans deserve law and order and justice and a police force that polices with the consent of the people.

The Libyans deserve peace, it is our intrinsic human right. As human beings we have an absolute and unquestionable right to life and liberty and a life of peace. The NTC armed forces must not resort to punishing pro Gaddafi Libyans. They deserve peace too. They may have made unwise decisions but to punish them now is to guarantee the seeds of unrest, resentment and negative peace be sown.

Of course this recipe is only a starter. It will take so much more. The oil facilities need to be rebuilt. The airports need to reopen. Aid, lots of it, needs to pour into the country. Roads need to be relaid and markets need to be stocked. This won’t be over for many, many years but this is a critical time for Libya and for global peace.


Of Syria and Sovereignty

The Syrian government has become enraged by the actions of the United States. Like a game of chess the US moved ambassador Robert Ford to the eastern city of Hama, the site of previous violence. With ambassador in the city the Syrian government of Bashar Assad has two problems and it’s their move next.

Firstly the US is clearly watching them. What on earth is an ambassador if not to do just that: watch and report back?

Secondly Mr. Ford has quite literally placed himself in the line of fire. He’s a knight straying dangerously close to the wrong side of the board.

It’s a dangerous game to play but imagine if the US ambassador was shot by the stray bullet of a Syrian soldier? If the Syrian armed forces didn’t know they were shelling the hotel of a powerful diplomat? That’s a worst case scenario for Assad. Although of course this game of power play hasn’t been admitted by anyone on either side but I’m going to let you in on a secret. It’s all intentional. The Syrians would not outright murder their own citizens in front of the US representative to Damascus and the chance of him getting caught in the cross fire is too high for them to make the move they wanted to. Well played Obama, check mate. Ford might as well have strapped on some kevlar and gone into the streets.

Assad knows this and he isn’t happy. Part of his cunning scheme to murder his own population has been somewhat foiled. So, what banner does he hold up to assert his authority?

In my mind one of the single most absurd and pernicious myths in international politics… Sovereignty.

The idea that, simply put, whatever happens within a nations own borders are the business of that nation alone. Sovereignty is an absolute doctrine, there is no grey area. According to sovereignty no outside body, from other states to international bodies can comment on, interfere in or forbid act on a matter that is the internal matter of a sovereign state. Regardless of what that matter might be, genocide to war crimes, persecution etc. This notion is laughable for many reasons. Notably that humanity is a single entity with common interests and rights and that borders are essentially artificial. When it comes to matters of mass life or death borders are immaterial, a smoke screen to protect the most ruthless of dictators from Gaddafi to Jong-Il by way of Jiabao and Assad himself.

If this medieval principle was excised from international law it would be the duty, the compulsion of the international community to act in the circumstances mentioned. This is known as the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect. That in situations that constitute crimes against humanity (most usefully laid out in the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court) it is not only OK for countries to intervene, sometimes militarily if all other options have been exhausted, but it is the duty, they must intervene. The doctrine asserts that the sovereignty of nations must bow to the international responsibility to defend humanity against certain crimes. This principle has even been endorsed by the 2005 World Summit of the United Nations.

What the US is doing with Mr. Ford’s move to Hama is reminding Syria that it does not exist in a vacuum. That the rest of the world is watching and we are not happy.

We’ve already flexed our liberal cosmopolitan philosophical muscles and bombed Gaddafi back to the stone age. Who knows, maybe Assad will be next.

Who’s Afraid of Foreign Aid?

What scares you? What wakes you up in a cold sweat? In the United States a Gallup poll in 2005 showed that the thing teenagers are most afraid of are terrorist attacks. Other surveys by the pollsters show similar figures amongst adults fearing pandemics affecting them or their families. Other international issues like war and nuclear war rated highly in the same surveys. What I’m seeing here is that we are petrified of things we can’t predict or gain control of. In a globalised world we’re afraid of things that are triggered far away but at some point are going to hurt us in our own homes. The things that keep us up at night are also beyond the control of our governments and outside the reach of our armed forces.

No matter how much money we plough into fighter jets and spooks there will always be terrorists. Increasingly they don’t come from some far away country on the news, they were born in the local hospital. They sat with us in a lecture theatre at University. No amount of tanks and aircraft carriers are going to stop a disturbed person putting a bomb on a rush hour London bus.

We can buy billions of pounds of vaccines. We can put a surgical mask on every person in the world but a sneeze on the tube carrying a virus from an animal on a farm in a poor country can kill millions. What we have to understand is this: that trying to stop disasters once they have started is futile. But in the past futility has never convinced our governments, and the electorate pressuring them, not to try.

To articulate it in terms prime ministers and presidents understand: it’s very expensive. For every $60 spent on resolving wars it has cost $1 to prevent them (Oxpeace). It’s indisputable in fields from medicine to crime that prevention is not only cheaper but can be easier than resolution.

We don’t need to start a glossy government programme to prevent wars. We don’t need an initiative to prevent people from becoming terrorists or an NGO to work with developing countries to improve the terrible living and farming conditions that will breed next pandemic. We already have them. They are just chronically underfunded, they are sidelined and ridiculed and targeted in state spending cuts.

Sceptics will cry deficit reduction or ‘solving our problems at home before we give away money to the third world’. What these sorts of people need to realise is that countries and communities and individuals do not exist in a vacuum. Our homes and cities are vulnerable to both problems that originated far away or in a community centre 5 minutes drive from here. Prevention is the only answer.

Imagine this: instead of spending $1 trillion on the War on Terror (USA Today) we’d spent it on foreign aid. Countries that have decent schools and hospitals and better social equality don’ descend into violence. India doesn’t resent the UK for centuries of brutal oppression and strap bombs to its young people. Countries with clean, safe farming and a government food safety agency aren’t about to generate the next Swine Flu.

We need to stop seeing foreign aid as charity. We need to stop our governments portraying it as ‘the moral thing to do’. It’s neither. It’s a more pragmatic, effective and cheaper way of ensuring a world where we aren’t afraid to leave our homes. In the face of overwhelming evidence that prevention is better than cure you can’t help but look for another reason why people dislike foreign aid. It’s a sad state of affairs but even though it will make them safer, cost them less money and generally improve humanity’s lot people don’t care. If we can’t convince them with cold hard facts they’re unlikely to ever change their minds.

Killing Osama Bin Laden – justice, healing and ‘what next?’

Regardless of your feelings on the methods used to kill Osama Bin Laden or your opinions on their just nature, it is somewhat relieving to wake up this morning to a world with one less unscrupulous person in it willing to kills thousands of people.

What happens now? Will Al-Qaeda cease to exist? Will we see a dramatic fall in terrorist plots and those murdered by them?

Probably not. This is for two reasons, one structural and one symbolic:

Al-Qaeda has not got a rigid hierarchy in the form of a triangle with Bin Laden at the top presiding. Members of a broader terrorist group may be unaware of the vast majority of other members, their relative size and capability and most importantly their plans. The group is broken down into reasonably autonomous cells who have infrequent communication with leadership by which they receive often vague directions and objectives, they are not nearly as well planned out, regimented and organised as they can appear. This ‘cell’ structure has inherent benefits, it means that if one cell is neutralised by national security forces the others continue, there are no weak links in the chain to break because the cells aren’t connected by very much. The members of the cell (who may be taken off for extraordinary rendition in the unlikely event they are captured alive) are ignorant of the activities of the other cells, their members or locations. This fragmented nature serves these dangerous, isolated and undeniably disturbed people well when they have agreed to lay down their lives for a cause, they don’t feel the need to demand legitimacy from the leadership or to play a role in decision making. So killing the head of such an organisation is frankly unlikely to derail their plans for long, the cells have their orders and some may even be unaware of the news of the loss of their leader.

The symbolic effect of murdering Bin Laden is much more hard to quantify or draw in a neat diagram. The people who serve the ideals he represents are not ones to feel despair at his loss. They serve a greater purpose more important than a single life, this is evidenced by their total willingness to die for the organisation. They are not going to have a mourning period or take some time to reflect on their next steps. They are psychologically damaged, brainwashed, radicalised, angry and isolated from society. They will lash out at the nearest target or if they had existing plans that could be sped up the one they feel will hurt the people who murdered him most. This is not good news for the Global North, we may have incurred the wrath of very dangerous people who have been driven into a frenzy of hatred and are now more than willing to take risks and try untested plans. They may reach out their feelers into countries like the United Kingdom or the USA and activate cells lying dormant, we cannot be complacent or expect reprisal to take place in a small town north of Islamabad, it may well take place much closer to home, if at all.

I wanted to discuss the nature of the incident that resulted in Bin Laden’s murder. Notice I have chosen to use the word murder, I did so to imply the lack of justice in yesterday’s events. He was killed by soldiers, in secret and without trial. This smacks of extra-judicial killing, of ignoring the judicial process and of failing to take the opportunity to kick start the process by which people can come to terms with the horror that he caused them. Make no mistake, I am by no means upset at hearing of his death, quite the opposite, but I cannot be completely satisfied at the way it was conducted. Yes Bin Laden is a military target so by international law his murder was legitimate and legal but he has committed crimes against humanity and for that simply being shot in a firefight just isn’t good enough. I would have much preferred to see him dragged to the International Criminal Court to stand trial, televised across the world, and receive thousands of consecutive life sentences. Why would I have preferred this option? For three reasons, one is that it is justice, it is how international  law works, the second is that the imagery of the Coalition’s capture of Bin Laden is a potent tool in the fight against terrorism and thirdly because without truth, openness and accountability the people that Bin Laden hurt will struggle to heal.

Bin Laden is an international criminal and frankly being shot by a marine isn’t how the judicial system works, he needed to stand trial and accept his punishment. The former is an easy way out for him. However the United States struggles with the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court so would probably have refused to allow him to stand trial there and Bin Laden himself would have dismissed it and had a greater opportunity to appear as a martyr.

The imagery of the Coalition’s capture of ‘public enemy number one’ could have been extremely useful from a publicity perspective. I have noted before his followers are unlikely to be put off by his loss, quite the reverse, but his being brought to justice would have shown the public, from Afghanistan to America and every where in between that the Coalition is in control, succeeding and that terrorism will always fail and you will always lose.

Finally the question of healing is very important. His standing trial and being sentenced would have acted as closure. His questioning and the presentation of evidence would have shed light on the mystique around him. He would have been shown as ‘just a person’ or ‘a damaged, frightened and angry man’. The friends and families of those murdered by him would be able to look at his face in the dock, and think ‘we won, justice will be served, it wasn’t futile’. A moment of ecstasy, as demonstrated by the parties erupting across the United States, or a burst of jubilation isn’t going to help them recover emotionally from the damage he did. What we need is truth – why did he do those things? Even if the answer is nonsensical, then at least we know he is insane and can close the book psychologically on the pain and loss and move forwards.

Osama Bin Laden’s killing is good because it has slightly reduced the number of terrorists in the world, but it wasn’t justice, it won’t help the people he hurt recover and it was a missed opportunity to show the world how effective anti-terrorist military activity can be.

Cuba and the right to property – capitalism or equality?

The Cuban Government announced last week that it was going to allow its people to own property for the first time. This is a huge change in what is arguably the only country in the world that still runs a centrally planned socialist economy.

Marxism demands the abolition of private property as one of the most important points in the move away from the free market so allowing it is surely a sign that Cuba is now moving closer to capitalism.

In all fairness Cuba does allow people to ‘sell’ for example their house but it more closely resembles a complicated system of bartering and government monitoring through officials that usually need to be bribed. It’s more like a state sponsored trade where the government acts like the mafia and demands a cut of the profit.

What does this mean for the Cuban people? For the first time since the revolution Cubans can now they say they own their house or a piece of land. This could trigger the most rudimentary market, cause Cubans to recognise this as their right and cut out the state from the process of allowing individuals to buy, sell and exchange their property for goods or services.

I’ve just inadvertently made an assertion that is pivotal in the next section: that Cubans have the right to own property and the state should be cut out of the process of buying or selling it.

There are several human rights that would support the presence of a free market in property, the right of individuals to own things and the right to be left alone by the state when you’re conducting private business.

Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states our right to privacy and to a home, denying the state the right to interfere with the process of buying or selling things or owning our home at all.

Article 17 of the Declaration explicitly states we have the right to own property; therefore there is no reason why we cannot buy and sell things, the basis of the free market.

I am unimpressed by the Cuban Government’s statement that it will ‘allow its people to own property’. It simply isn’t empowered to say which human rights Cubans do or don’t have. Cuban people have always had the right to own property and the right to be left alone by the state; the Cuban Government just didn’t respect it. I don’t think we should dismiss this important move towards greater freedom for Cubans simply because ‘they’ve always had it’ but I don’t think we should stand up and applaud Raul Castro for not denying his people their human rights. We wouldn’t say ‘well done’ if he announced that the Cuban Government had decided not to deny the people the right to life would we? It’s an extreme parallel to draw but human rights are indivisible, you can’t have one without the others. The right to life is part of the right to property and vice versa. They are also interdependent, they rely upon each other.

The right to property is one that comes up against attack from left of centre governments and ideologues more often than the others. They claim ‘property is theft’, ownership is taking away from the environment or property instead of being an individual right is a collective right belonging to society. All of these arguments have their merits but simply put, guaranteeing the right to property, with all its inherent connotations such as buying or selling goods or services, is guaranteeing equality in a market economy. Let me give some examples, the right to property prohibits a person of one ethnicity refusing to sell their home to a person of another. The buyer is human being therefore has the right to own property. It prohibits a gay person being refused service in a restaurant, that person is a human being therefore has the right to buy a service. It prohibits women being denied inheritance, she is a human being therefore has the right to own land and to receive and pass it on without interference. A wheelchair user can expect an access ramp into a cinema because they have an equal right to use the service as someone who can take the stairs. To paraphrase: the right to own property is not just the right to acquire a house, it’s the right of all human beings to participate in a market as equals, irrespective of any personal defining characteristic. The right to own property might be arguably the most capitalist of our human rights, it’s inextricably tied to the market and ownership, but it is also a great equaliser and without knowing it I am sure many of us invoke it every day.