Wednesday, October 28, 2009
We are at last about to draw a line under the ‘Lisbon saga’ that has overshadowed the EU for the past seven years. When Tony Blair promised a referendum on the old European Constitution in April 2004 he created a “referendum repository” in Britain that was filled with every conceivable anti-European argument. Debates about the internal structures of the EU were mangled with wild claims about immigration; arguments about the Euro were complimented by frenzied rhetoric about a super-state and a European army – all these claims were given cover by those who rightly cried: “You promised us a referendum”. Those of us that believe that we need a strong outward looking Europe, and more and better internationalism, have been stuck behind this repository. So now is the time to seize the opportunity to make the positive case for the EU and learn the lessons of the past seven years.
The two biggest lessons to be taken from this is not to produce a constitution which is so far reaching, inward looking and esoteric that the people give it a big raspberry (as happened in the European constitution); and not to promise a referendum on an issue that need to be discussed as part of the mainstream of political debate.
How right was Chris Patten when he heard of the Prime Minister’s promise to hold a referendum: “They [referendums] undermine Westminster……if you have a referendum on an issue politicians, during an election campaign say oh we're not going to talk about that, we don't need to talk about that, that's all for the referendum. So during the last election campaign , the Euro was hardly debated. I think referendums are fundamentally anti-democratic…”
For those of us who believe that the enactment of the Lisbon treaty is well overdue and that it should not be put to a referendum there are two points that are worth making for just one final time: it is inconsistent to be against the Lisbon Treaty and in favour of enlargement – as the Lisbon Treaty is the enlargement treaty (take note the Conservative Party). A political party can’t claim to be acting in the interest of British parliamentary democracy if it wants a treaty to be put to a referendum (take note UKIP and the Conservatives) as the right to negotiate and agree treaties is earned by whichever party wins a general election to form a government. But these arguments - which never cut the mustard, and were only half heartedly made - will no longer be part of the debate.
As we leave the referendum repository and all its corrosive arguments behind, the political parties have the opportunity to make an election issue out of what sort of role we want Britain to play in Europe and what sort of role we want Europe to play in 21st century.
If voters can link the promises made in election manifestos with their actions on the international stage (particularly within the EU itself) then there are plenty of dividing lines that are ripe for a general election campaign. For example, if reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change is in the Conservative Party’s manifesto then it is essential they answer how they will able to achieve this if they do not have the influence of all the related legislation that passes through the European Parliament.
Though there is still little widespread enthusiasm for the EU itself in Britain there is growing recognition amongst the electorate that issues have to be addressed internationally. So it’s not just on the issue of climate change where the Conservatives are vulnerable. We can not protect Britain from terrorism by acting alone; and most importantly - where this is now best understood - the health of our economy can not be preserved by our acting alone.
The challenge has always been how to illustrate that EU is responsible for some popular successes and more crucially how to show voters that if we had a Eurosceptic government then the consequences would be damaging to the British interest.
Two factors could help the government here. Firstly, and the difficulties involved in this can not be underestimated, it would be of great benefit if Government Ministers were to take the time and initiative to praise the EU and other member states individually when there is a success. It has always been the way that ministers blame ‘Brussels’ when something goes wrong and take the praise for the government when something is a success. But because we are faced with a Eurosceptic party which might form a government for the first time the risk of ‘losing’ a success to Brussels is actually diminished if the case is properly made.
For example if Ed Miliband returns from Copenhagen in December with a report on what has been achieved it would be a perfect opportunity to show how cooperation with the other EU member states and more specifically the action to be taken at EU level will contribute towards a climate change agreement. When Peter Mandelson engages with the European Commission on manufacturing it would be an opportunity to say. “We kept this plant open because of the way we worked with the EU and because of the influence we have – if we did not have such influence then British jobs would have been lost”. Rhetoric which praises the EU and incorporates ‘British interest’ story would help make the case for the EU and make the Conservatives open to attack on their European policy, and there are many opportunities: capping bonuses, closing European tax loopholes, stopping people trafficking and preventing ships carrying goods bound for Britain being hi-jacked. In all these areas there are likely to be positive developments over the next few months because of action taken at EU level but it will be up to individual ministers whether they take the opportunity to show the value of a positive relationship with the EU.
Secondly, the appointment of a permanent president of the Council is a moment that has rightly been seized by the Foreign Secretary to lay out the choice for Britain in 21st Century. A British office holder in one of the two key positions would be a tremendous boon for pro-Europeans in Britain today. Whether it Tony Blair as President of the Council, David Miliband, Paddy Ashdown or Chris Patten as the Representative on Foreign Affairs, it would reinforce how a strong Europe is in Britain’s interest. Again the Conservatives are vulnerable – while the Lib Dems and Labour have put forward candidates of the highest calibre, the Conservatives have attacked both the position and all potential candidates from anywhere. If a British official is chosen then the time between their appointment and the general election can then be used to show how the Conservatives refusal to support the office holder was damaging to the national interest and an attempt to reduce Britain’s influence in the EU and on the world stage.
Chris Ostrowski was Labour’s Candidate in the Norwich North By-election and a candidate for the East of England in the 2009 European Parliament Election
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Thursday, July 23, 2009
(N.B this article was written in mid-June but published late July at http://www.publicservice.co.uk/feature_story.asp?id=12331)
Amid all the hoopla of cabinet resignations, alleged plots and general infighting that threatened to unseat Gordon Brown, the actual results of the European Elections somehow seemed something of an afterthought. The lowest share of the vote for the Labour Party since Keir Hardy was in short trousers was duly noted alongside real anger, though not surprise, at the election of BNP MEPs for the first time. What the result means for the UK's relationship with Europe has been mostly overlooked in the commentary.
The election campaign by the main parties was perhaps most notable for its almost complete lack of European content with occasional Conservative attacks on the government's decision not to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty the only issue gaining significant coverage. John Prescott, not the most devout of pro-Europeans, was stinging in his attack on the government's 'non-campaign' saying it lacked a clear message. The retreat from making a positive case for Europe by the Labour Party, although perhaps for tactical reasons at this election, is part of a longer term trend that leaves the way open for a strategic defeat for pro-Europeans at the hands of Eurosceptic media and parties.
Even before the first vote was counted the Conservatives' decision to leave the EPP-ED to create a new Eurosceptic group 'European Conservatives and Reformists' meant it was always likely that Britain's delegation for the first time would have a clear majority of MEPs (43 MEPs) sitting in explicitly Eurosceptic groupings in the Parliament. The actual result gave the Eurosceptic camp 43 members and with 29 UK MEPs remaining in the main groupings or smaller pro-European coalitions. The Tories move from the EPP is likely to preclude them from gaining high ranking positions in the Parliament's Committees, reducing their ability to directly influence legislation. When the poor result for Labour and the PES across Europe that reduced their bargaining power for committee posts is taken into account it is clear that the UK will have considerably less clout in the new Parliament than it has previously been able to exercise.
While the corrosive effect of the drip drip revelations on MPs expenses clearly helped to depress both the turnout and support for the main three parties, the scandal simply added to an anti-establishment sentiment seen in several European Countries. In Western Europe the hard right strengthened its position in some countries including the Freedom Party in the Netherlands led by recently banned from the UK Geert Wilders, the True Finns Party in Finland and the Freedom Party in Austria. On a more positive note the Front National fell back in France from 7 to 3 seats while the German far right failed to make a breakthrough.
The trend was perhaps most pronounced in Eastern Europe, where the economic crisis hit hardest, seeing a significant rise in support for anti-EU parties and large falls in turnout in many countries, amid complaints that the EU is not doing enough to assist them. Among them include the anti-Roma Hungarian nationalist JOBBIK party achieved 3 MEPs and 14.8 per cent of the vote, while the Greater Romanian Party whose pet hates include ethnic Hungarians will join them in Brussels after also gaining 3 seats.
While commentators have pointed out that the elections were a bad day for Europe's Centre-Left, looking at the relative successes and failures it seems that the overall trend in the election may be seen as a setback for openness and internationalism rather than a post-crunch endorsement of free market values in the face of a socialist critique. The election saw call for greater economic nationalism, protectionism, restrictions on immigration and opposition to Turkish accession grow louder. However for the most part the parties of the right were able to respond to the economic crisis by co-opt the criticisms of 'Anglo-Saxon' capitalism, arguing that they had always preferred a more continental capitalism with an activist, regulating state.
The challenge across Europe is to reverse this nationalist, insular trend while holding a measured debate about the EU's future economic direction. However here in the UK there is a pressing need for pro-Europeans to start making the case about why we benefit from EU membership and the damage a diminished relationship with other European partners or withdrawal would do to Britain.
The pro-European camp in the UK has been without a focus for several years lacking an issue such as Euro membership to unite behind and since the decline of the 'Britain in Europe' campaign. There is a clear need to re-establish a broad based coalition in favour of the European Union, not for any new grand projet, but to reassert the importance of the European Union for the UK's long-term economic prosperity and its status as a key player on the world stage. Politicians of all parties, business, trade unions, NGOs and grass roots activists must unite to make the case that only by working together with our European partners can we effectively address the cross-border challenges we face such as climate change and repairing the global economy.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
One by one the diplomats are returning to Damascus. In the wake of Barack Obama's decision to appoint a new ambassador to Syria, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has followed suit. However, a new Saudi ambassador represents more than a mirroring of western rapprochement with the Ba'athist regime – it is an olive branch between two states that have been locked in opposition for the last four years.
While Washington seemingly steps up its attempts to woo President Bashar al-Assad away from Iran, Saudi Arabia is working in conjunction to lure him into the so-called moderate Arab camp. With King Abdullah himself expected to visit Syria soon, could this ambassadorial appointment mark the first step in ending the latest round of the Arab cold war?
Malcolm Kerr described the 1950s and 1960s in the Middle East as an "Arab cold war" pitting Nasser's Egypt and allies against conservative Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Though the actors and ideologies have changed, some form of cold war in the Arab world has remained ever since, whether Cairo's temporary exclusion after making peace with Israel in 1979, or Syrian-Saudi-Egyptian collusion with the US against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1991. Its latest embodiment is well known: Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, under the patronage of Iran, face allies of the US in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. While verbal attacks have dominated, with the "moderates" stoking fears of a "Shia Crescent" challenging Arab Sunni hegemony and the "radicals" lambasting Egypt's inaction during the Gaza war, violence has erupted too, notably when Saudi and Syria's proxies fought gun battles in Beirut last year.
So why is Saudi, arguably the bitterest of Syria's Arab rivals, extending a hand to end this cold conflict now? Riyadh has three priorities that promote reconciliation with Damascus. Firstly, it wishes to contain Syria's close ally, Iran, and particularly fears its nuclear programme. The Sunday Times recently reported a green light from Riyadh for an Israeli attack on Iran through Saudi airspace. Though this has not been confirmed, it is fair to say Riyadh would shed no tears over an Israeli strike. However, it would fear a domestic backlash should Hezbollah and Syria retaliate against Israel, and prying Assad from Ahmadinejad's embrace seems the best way to avoid this. The uncertainty in Tehran following the recent post-election protests has catalysed Saudi's renewed effort to detach Syria from Iran.
Another key factor is Lebanon. Saudi has long backed Saad Hariri and his supporters in the "March 14" group who emerged victorious in June's elections. Yet despite their victory Syria's allies – Hezbollah and the "March 8" group – remain powerful and some kind of compromise is needed if a functioning government is to be formed in Lebanon. Having already tried and failed to neutralise the opposition by military force, when Saudi-backed Sunni militants were swiftly defeated by Shia gunmen in May 2008, Riyadh understands it must enter dialogue with Damascus to keep the peace with Hezbollah and consolidate Hariri's electoral victory.
The final and arguably greatest priority for Riyadh is to toe Washington's line. Under George Bush, when the US's tone was confrontational, Saudi was similarly demanding of Syria. In contrast, following Obama's less antagonistic approach, Saudi and other Arab allies are softening their stance. King Abdullah of Jordan, the inventor of the "Shia Crescent" theory, has been in Damascus recently trying to sell Obama's peace initiative to Assad. Egypt has similarly invited Syria to help moderate Palestinian reconciliation talks, while Saudi's new ambassadorial appointment is the latest of several gestures of reconciliation during 2009.
So will these measures win over Syria and end the latest Arab cold war? Ostensibly Damascus is weak and in need of allies: Hezbollah is still reeling from electoral defeat and Iran is subdued domestically and isolated internationally. Moreover, US sanctions are starting to have an impact on the Syrian economy, and Obama's support is crucial if the long-occupied Golan Heights are to be recovered. Surely ditching Iran and embracing the Arab moderates is the best way to ensure the dual goals of economic development and returning territory?
Yet from a position of seeming weakness Assad is proving to be increasingly shrewd in foreign relations. He has turned the Lebanese defeat to his advantage by emphasising Syria's lack of interference – something that has won plaudits from the French president Nicolas Sarkozy among others. Similarly, a recent interview on western television has helped his British-born wife Asma present a more positive view of the country. Yet, at the same time as promoting western and Arab rapprochement, Assad has shored up the Iranian alliance by being the first leader to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his re-election.
Contrary to American and Saudi wishful thinking, it is the Iranian alliance that has given Syria its regional importance and allowed it to confront the moderate Arab states despite military and economic weakness. Assad has spoken of a desire to be the bridge or back-channel for the west to Tehran – and for this he needs to retain the alliance, not abandon it in some grand bargain for diplomatic realignment and economic investment. While his strategy of playing both sides to maximise gains for Syria might include welcoming Saudi's advances, this won't permanently end the latest Arab cold war and may ultimately make it slightly colder.
Monday, July 13, 2009
Swat residents have my sympathy if they are skeptical at the Pakistan Army’s announcement of imminent victory there. No post-conflict plan has been outlined; Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid recently said people are afraid the government will strike another deal with the Taliban.March’s ceasefire deal, giving effective judicial power to sharia courts in line with Taliban demands, excited much chatter. Was the Pakistani government so weak that it would risk international opprobrium? Or trying to move away from the American-sponsored Musharraf era? Some detected the nudging hand of the ISI, the secret service notorious for undermining the government to empower its client militias.
What many missed, though, is that sharia law was only a small part of the story. Partial sharia already operated over parts of northern Pakistan, including Swat - brought in by the dictator Ziaul Haq in the 1980s and never lifted. The recent deal therefore represented an expansion of powers – certainly not an ideological or systemic shift.
Sharia itself is not behind people’s fears. Popular relief at the deal did not necessarily express a pro-sharia groundswell – only 3% of votes in the 2008 elections went to parties advocating it – but people welcomed an end to fighting, and many found the new sharia courts quicker and cheaper than state courts.
But relief quickly evaporated as the army left Swat and the Taliban’s grip on judicial systems returned. The resulting lack of rule of law explains the fear now - not of sharia but of chaos. Emboldened not by an ideological underpinning to their dominance but by the withdrawal of the only effective opposition, the Taliban seek not true sharia but pure power - and they got it with the last deal.
With the renewed army operation, the government can’t claim that the deal was likely to bring reconciliation. Soon after the ceasefire there were several skirmishes involving insurgents loyal to Mullah Fazlullah, a Taliban commander whose father-in-law, Pakistani Taliban leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad, had signed the deal. Although the government may have had little choice of broker, their mistake was to trust too much in Sufi Muhammad’s authority over Fazlullah.
As another ceasefire looms, crucial questions remain unanswered. Where are the results of the army operation? Who has been killed or battered into submission, and who brought into agreement; what is different this time? There is widespread suspicion that after the army’s withdrawal the area will revert to de facto Taliban control, proving the military operation worthless. Is this really all 60% of Pakistan’s budget can achieve?
The collapse of the previous deal may or may not exemplify the government’s incompetence (let’s not forget the scale of the problems), but it does show the emphasis on high-level political deal making which consumes so much of its time. Pakistan, a society so status-ridden it makes Victorian Britain look like Big Brother, suffers particularly acutely from this. As in Numeri’s Sudan in 1983, sharia law has been used by the top to squeeze support from an opposing faction. Ideology has never mattered less: had the Taliban demanded that their role in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan be justified by compulsory pink ra-ra skirts, the government would most likely have complied.
The cynical use of sharia shows deep confusion in Pakistan’s identity, starting with the use of Islam by a supposedly secular state as the primary reason for its existence. As such, Islamic law has been sporadically and arbitrarily thrown into a mish-mash of hangovers in Pakistani law, including the still-used Frontier Crimes Regulation introduced by the British in 1901. The largely secular elite seems to think that the people need occasional tidbits of Islamic rule to prevent them revolting while it carries on its game of high-level musical chairs. While a small minority with AK47s is talking to a small minority with an electoral mandate, everyone else has been sold short.
The preponderance of power politics means that rulers of Pakistan seem to exist to posture rather than to govern. After the Mumbai bombings, in the context of various border skits, warlike press statements by both governments and an infuriatingly pointless press debate over whether or not the surviving bomber was Pakistani, the Swat deal was struck just as most of the army was redeployed to the Indian border. The ceasefire was not brokered with the local situation foremost in mind.
The Swat deal may also have been an attempt to distract attention from the anti-government lawyers’ movement - one that grew ever more ridiculous as the removal from office of the movement’s champions the Sharif brothers in late March enflamed it further. Amid threats of revolution and the deployment of container blockades on all roads into Islamabad, the government announced that the national kite-flying festival, Basant, would be held the same day as the lawyers’ march into the capital. Basant should have happened in February, when it was fairly successfully banned by the government because of the lethal habit of covering kite strings with broken glass to cut down rivals’ kites.
So anything the government does now in Swat will be deeply distrusted, and probably too myopic to make any difference. As Ahmed Rashid said, the army is not fulfilling its duty to protect civilians in Swat by simply telling them to leave before it bombs their houses. Civilians are being treated as inconvenient dust on the agenda of defeating whichever ‘enemy’ best serves the maintenance of power today. This means not only that the army has the wrong mentality and the wrong type of warfare to defuse the Taliban, but also that it doesn’t seem to care.Because of this, sharia law - or indeed any real reform - is inconsistently implemented and barely integrated, and the government is not taking responsibility for oversight. This hands-off, high-political rather than legal approach is the root of the government’s troubles. If it took sharia more seriously, as law rather than bargaining chip, and integrated sharia into an accountable and functioning legal system, it might manage to dent the Taliban’s power.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Until very recently, the political climate regarding Syria's relationships with Israel, US and the West improved considerably, and an agreement on the Golan Heights issue seemed likely. However, elections in Israel changed the whole rationale, and the main question now seems to be whether the West-Syria rapproachement is possible, without negotiations and the improvement of relations with Israel.
The view from Damascus has improved recently. The twilight years of the Bush administration saw European and American politicians gradually end the White House's diplomatic boycott to court President al-Asad. At the same time, indirect negotiations with the departing Israeli government of Ehud Olmert signalled that peace talks with Tel Aviv could soon be revived. Finally, on assuming power in January, Barack Obama spoke of engaging with pariah states and indicated a desire to promote a regional multi-lateral peace, perhaps in the shape of the 2002 Arab peace initiative. There were whispers in Damascus that a reengagement with the US and peace talks with Israel were a real possibility.
Unfortunately, the Israeli electorate did not read the script. The right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu elected in February, though stating its willingness to negotiate with Syria, has already ruled out returning the Golan Heights - Asad's precondition for talks. The Syrian President has long wanted to tie any Israeli talks with a renewed engagement with the US, and waited for a compliant US administration to mediate peace negotiations. However, with Asad now facing an uncompromising partner in Tel Aviv and President Obama already showing more contempt for Israeli procrastination and inaction than his predecessors, this article considers how the Syrian-US-Israeli triangular relationship is changing and the consequences for peace negotiations.
Syria's relevance to US Middle East policy since 9/11 has been curiously paradoxical, becoming both weaker and more important. Ostensibly, the Ba'ath regime has less regional power under Bashar than under his father, Hafez al-Asad. The armed forces have continued to decline following the collapse of their Soviet sponsor and are no longer anywhere near the 'strategic parity' with Israel that Hafez once dreamed of - a position emphasised by Israel's unchallenged recent air raids deep into Syrian territory. Internationally, Syria was forced out of Lebanon in 2005 and has only recently circumnavigated the subsequent diplomatic boycott from Western powers. Financially, market reforms have been limited and, aided by US sanctions, the economy has developed sluggishly.
Yet in its relative isolation, Syria has found new levers to ensure it remains too great an irritation for Washington to ignore - a situation compounded by America's increased involvement in the region. Now that containing Iran has emerged as a US priority, Damascus' three-decade-long alliance with Tehran has become a useful bargaining chip for Asad. As Obama tries to stabilise and exit the Iraq quagmire, the extent to which Syria tightens its border to prevent the passage of insurgents has become another lever of negotiation. The degree of intervention in Lebanese politics since the 2005 withdrawal has similarly emerged as a bone of contention with Washington. Whilst continuing to press for an end to Syrian support of Hamas and Hezbollah remains a priority, Obama finds himself needing to engage with Damascus on a myriad of issues away from the exclusively Israeli track.
The shift in the international climate has prompted a change in priorities in Damascus as well. Whilst the return of Golan and the need for a 'just peace' with Israel remain a fundamental concern for the regime, immediate worries are economic. A limited embrace of the free market has failed to counter the impact on Syria's economy of either the present economic crisis or US imposed sanctions. Whilst the orthodox view in Damascus has previously been that a peace with Israel would eventually bring an economic windfall from the US - though more in terms of investment than Jordan and Egypt's direct aid - regime figures are now suggesting immediate capital with or without an Israeli peace is essential. Deputy Prime Minister and economic planner Abdullah Dardari recently admitted in an interview to Reuters that sanctions were having an impact and that the economy was not growing at the anticipated rate. With almost 20% unemployment, a bloated inefficient bureaucracy, and decaying infrastructure, Syrian policy planners seem now to recognise that mending ties with the US and the investment and ending of sanctions that comes with it, is of greater priority than negotiating with Tel Aviv.
Conversely, were Damascus able to secure US goodwill in the short term without negotiating with Tel Aviv, it might suit the regime domestically. Whilst the return of the Golan Heights will never cease to be a priority for the government, its continued absence provides an excuse to maintain authoritarian rule. The 'war' with Israel is used to justify the continued state of Emergency since 1963, the suspension of the rule of law and the delay in Bashar's promised political liberalisation. Having promised 'bread before freedom' on coming to power in 2000, if US rapprochement and investment can secure greater material wealth, the status quo with Israel might prove a useful way of avoiding calls for domestic reform.
Much hangs on the approach taken by the new White House. Though Washington recently extended sanctions on Damascus for a further year, much to the dismay of pro-Obama figures such as Dardari, diplomatic contact is becoming more regular. Hillary Clinton and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry have made several recent phone calls to Damascus, and Special Envoy George Mitchell is rumoured to be visiting soon. At the same time, whilst the administration seems more willing to force Tel Aviv into action than past US governments, pressure thus far seems to be limited to settlements and engaging with the Palestinians rather than the Syrians.
In the Syrians' favour it seems that the administration is willing to renew contact and enter dialogue with Damascus without relating it to a renewal of talks with Israel. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the strong anti-Syrian pro-Israeli voices on Capitol Hill will allow sanctions to end without linking it to peace talks with Tel Aviv. Obama might be willing to overrule such critics and fully restore economic and diplomatic ties with Damascus anyway. Alternatively, he might adopt the same strong-arm approach to pressure Israel into negotiations with Syria as he seems to be adopting with their settlements in the West Bank. Yet to do so he will want something in return. Syria has successfully acquired a decent arsenal of bargaining chips with Washington in recent years. If negotiations are to progress with either Israel or the US, it needs to start playing them.
Friday, March 27, 2009
Geoffery Cameron is a Foreign Policy Centre Research Associate and writes here in a personal capacity as a member of the Baha'i Community. This was first posted on his blog Jeune Street.
On February 11th, Iran’s Deputy Prosecutor-General announced charges against seven detained Baha’i leaders, which included “espionage for Israel, desecrating religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” The charges were made almost a year after the arbitrary detention of the seven, who were not permitted to see their families for months and have still not been provided access to a lawyer.
The Baha’i International Community has just sent a remarkable public reply to Ayatollah Najafabadi, systematically refuting claims that the Baha’i leaders or the community have transgressed the law.
What does the letter say?
The letter speaks truth to power. In a tone both polite and direct, it reviews the history of the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran before addressing the charges made against the seven Baha’is. The letter reiterates basic Baha’is beliefs and the record of the Baha’i community — both well known to the authorities in Iran — in the context of the charges:
In whatever country they reside, Bahá’ís strive to promote the welfare of society. They are enjoined to work alongside their compatriots in fostering fellowship and unity and in establishing peace and justice. They seek to uphold their own rights, as well as the rights of others, through whatever legal means are available to them, conducting themselves at all times with honesty and integrity. They eschew conflict and dissension. They avoid contest for worldly power.
The letter closes with a moving challenge to the Prosecutor General, to justify the accusations that the Baha’is are “manipulative” and “deceitful,” “dangerous” and “threatening” as more than blind prejudice:
Do you consider dangerous the efforts of a group of young people who, out of a sense of obligation to their fellow citizens, work with youngsters from families of little means to improve their mathematics and language skills and to develop their abilities to play a constructive part in the progress of their nation?
Is it a threat to society for Bahá’ís to discuss with their neighbors noble and high-minded ideals, reinforcing the conviction that the betterment of the world is to be achieved through pure and goodly deeds and through commendable and seemly conduct?
In what way is it manipulative for a couple to speak in the privacy of their home with a few friends confused by the portrayal of Bahá’ís in the mass media and to share with them the true nature of their beliefs, which revolve around such fundamental verities as the oneness of God and the oneness of humankind?
The letter calls for fairness in the judiciary’s treatment of the detained Baha’i leaders, “for the sanctity of Islam and the honour of Iran.”
Noteworthy aspects of the letter
Several aspects of the letter are worth noting:
1. It places the case of the Baha’is within the context of more general issues of law and governance in Iran. Najafabadi has justified the detention of the Baha’is on the grounds that basic freedoms outlined in the Constitution may be proscribed at the will of the government. This arbitrary approach to the application of law has implications for other persecuted groups in Iran by raising questions about the very integrity and fairness of the legal system. The case is fundamentally about the freedom of conscience in Iran, and its outcome will have implications far beyond the Baha’i community.
2. It notes that the government has been fully informed of the activities of the Baha’i community since the administration was banned in 1983. The sudden arrest and detention of the seven Baha’i leaders on the grounds that they were conducting secretive or illegal activities are, in this context, absurd. Those in government making slanderous accusations against the Baha’is have full knowledge of the beliefs and practices of the Baha’i community, which bear no relationship with claims that they are ‘dangerous’, ‘threatening’ or ‘manipulative’.
3. It repeatedly praises the Iranian people, drawing attention to the courage and commitment to justice shown by those who have stood in solidarity with their Baha’i peers and colleagues. The Iranian government has tacitly encouraged the informal Baha’i leadership in its activities in the past, such that they were said to protect the Baha’i community from a prejudiced and violent population. The letter responds by saying “our vision of the Iranian people does not correspond with the one projected by such officials.”
A bellwether for Iran
The case of the Baha’i leaders in Iran is a bellwether for the direction to be taken by the Iranian government in the coming years. Recent signs of escalation in the persecution of Baha’is, the detention of student activists, and clamping down on women’s rights advocates are indications that Iran is descending into an unstable authoritarian regime. The government is increasingly out of sync with the wishes of its people, and force, coercion and mass deception are the tools of a regime unsure of its popular support.
If Iran is to reverse course and begin to re-build its position as a stable government and credible member of the international community, the first step will be to extend basic citizenship rights to all of its citizens. This course of action has been endorsed by several senior clerics, and such a step would be a move toward the country’s maturation into a universally respected nation.
Iran possesses a long history of diversity and tolerance of religious diversity. In a theocratic state such as Iran, the protection of the freedom to believe is a key benchmark for fairness and equity in governance.
The case of the detained Baha’i leaders is a test case for Iran. Let us hope that it chooses the path of justice.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
The FPC will be showcasing a range of different views from commentators across the Georgian political spectrum as part of it's 'Spotlight on Georgia' project.
The FPC will be showcasing a range of different views from commentators across the Georgian political spectrum as part of it's 'Spotlight on Georgia' project.
Since the Rose Revolution,
Lack of diplomacy has not only been visible in internal affairs, but also in
In any case, it is quite obvious that despite its desire,
Why does the
The extent of the potential conflict in the Georgian-Russian relationship is not limited to territorial disputes.
From the current perspective, it seems that everything that happened in
On February 3, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) gave its ruling on a long-running dispute between
The dispute originated after the Second World War, when
The significance of
The sides disagreed on whether or not the 1949 document did delimit the maritime boundary around Serpent’s Island in a 12-mile arc, as claimed by
The crux of the matter, the relevance of Serpent’s Island to the formation of an EEZ and continental shelf entitlements, also went in
The ICJ assessed other relevant circumstances, such as pre-existing conduct (
The ruling was greeted with understandable satisfaction in
The loss of oil and gas concessions will be a bitter blow for
Friday, February 13, 2009
The news from Iran seems to get worse every day.
Most recently, the regime announced that it will be trying seven Baha’is for “espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” It is presumed that the Baha’is being tried are the imprisoned group of leaders who were arrested and jailed in a raid last year. The spurious charges against this group are not new, and they represent the slippery application of law that passes for justice in Iran. As articles of faith, Baha’is honour Islam as a divine religion and are obedient to their government, and the presence of the Baha’i World Centre in Israel is an historical consequence of Baha’u'llah’s exile to Acre by the Persian and Ottoman Empires.
The legal process in Iran is so opaque that the facts in this case will be obscured if it ends up in court.
The charges against the Baha’i leaders are the latest in a series of escalating steps taking by the Iranian government to implement its official policy of “blocking the progress and development” of the Baha’i community. Most worryingly, lists of Baha’is have been drafted and circulated with the intention of monitoring members of the community. Dozens of Baha’is have been arbitrarily arrested and detained without charge, anti-Baha’i campaigns have been carried out by state media, Baha’i cemeteries have been destroyed, and Baha’i homes have been burned down. It is a chilling pattern of state-sponsored action.
The political backdrop to all of this is the instability of the conservative power alignment in Iran. Power is concentrated within the hands of several dozen families, and more specifically within the hands of Ayatollah Khamenei; the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad simply reflects the broader rise of conservatives who espouse a rigid and narrow interpretation of Islam. The historical pattern in Iran (even under the Shah) has been that when the government is unstable or threatened it inflames deep-rooted anti-Baha’i prejudice to mobilize mass support. Recent discussion of Mohammad Khatami’s possible campaign for the presidency (and a broader challenge from reformists) is an indication that the government feels threatened.
The question of diplomacy
This all raises the question of how the international community — most specifically America — should respond to Iran. Diplomacy is urgently needed. Past relations with the US have been afflicted with a lack of trust, related to an underlying suspicion that the US does not accept the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic as Iran’s government. Saber rattling over the nuclear question can be seen in this context: the desire of the Islamic Republic for the world to accept its legitimacy. Iran gets attention every time a nuclear announcement is made — achieving the desired aim, to bolster its perceived standing in the community of nations.
Rather than ignoring the appalling human rights conditions in Iran, western states need to push a broader standard of state sovereignty — one that has been echoing in the halls of the United Nations. This is a notion that states have a sovereign responsibility to uphold the rights of their citizens. The world should not preach to Iran, but states should be clear that their respect for Iran depends upon its treatment of its people.
Upholding this standard requires constant pressure, but it also requires open dialogue and basic respect. Underlying this dialogue must be an acceptance that the Islamic Republic is a legitimate government, and that the respect for civil rights is fully compatible with Shi’a Islam. By negotiating within these terms, America and other nations will win allies within Iran and constrain the room for hostile factions to maneuver.
To start with, however, America and other states need to engage Iran on the treatment of the Baha’is.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
By Rayhan Haque
Today, whenever people hear or think about international affairs, immediately what springs to mind is the recent war in
There may be some hope, as the UN brokered peace talks in
There are several reasons why this would be an effective strategy. Firstly, it would ensure the deployment of national troops throughout the country. This is very important, as the opposition forces have been able to prosper by stoking and feeding off the national hostility that exists for foreign forces in
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
By Mariam Ghorbannejad
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire in Gaza on January 18th could not have come a day too soon. A 22-day campaign has witnessed the death of 1,250 Palestinians, an injury count reaching 5,500 and the killing of 13 Israelis. A humanitarian catastrophe has been halted.
In his address, Olmert said that Israel had achieved its targets; namely that Hamas’ military capabilities and infrastructure had been reduced and many of the tunnels used to transfer weapons into the coastal area had been destroyed.
A matter that in all probability helped bring about an end to the fighting was an agreement signed between Israel and its greatest ally, the United States the previous day. In the Memorandum of Understanding the American government pledged to take the necessary steps, alongside other members of the international community, to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Without such an assurance, the Israeli operation could have continued into a fourth week.
The role of the Egyptians in securing peace in Gaza should not, however, be overlooked. An international conference on Gaza co-chaired by President Hosni Mubarak and his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh pressed parties concerned to consolidate the fragile ceasefire.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was in attendance, as was Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Earlier on Sunday, Hamas had agreed to a week-long ceasefire with Israel to allow it to withdraw its troops from Gaza. Telling, exiled deputy chief of the Islamic Resistance Movement Moussa Abou Marzouk had declared that the Palestinians: “are ready to cooperate with any efforts, especially those of the Egyptians, Turks, Syrians and Qataris, to reach an agreement that meets our known demands, which are a permanent lift of the blockade and the opening of all the crossing points, including the Rafah crossing.”
Egypt’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has often been at odds with other Arab countries. President Hosni Mubarak had claimed that Hamas invited attacks from Israel on the Gaza Strip when they failed to renew the six-month long ceasefire (brokered by Egypt) that expired in December 2008. This remark did not go down well with Arab leaders like President Bashar Assad of Syria who is staunchly against the Israeli military campaign. Another point of contention is Egypt’s support for Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which has also angered its own population.
Gaza provides a policy challenge for the Egyptians. Geographically, it is the only Middle East country besides Israel to share a border with the Gaza Strip, to the north-east. Its history of control of the Palestinian enclave, which it seized after Israel declared independence in 1948, staying until 1967, means that it is reluctant to be seen to be interfering in Palestinian affairs.
The signing of the peace treaty with Israel in 1979 by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in exchange for Israeli forces withdrawing from Sinai drew widespread criticism in the Arab world. Relations have therefore been strained with Arab countries on the Palestinian issue ever since.
It could be argued that Egypt’s role in bringing about the ceasefire in the latest Gaza offensive has been pivotal. Israel is unwilling for direct talks with Hamas and the US Department of State has already branded the organisation ‘terrorist’ so a go-between who could engage with all parties was needed. Enter Egypt; one of the only Arab nations who are on friendly terms with Israel (next to Jordan), and a solution to end the fighting was forthcoming. Whether this ceasefire holds is yet to be determined.
What does Egypt have to gain by adhering to the Israeli blockade of Gaza?
Firstly and perhaps most importantly for the government, allowing Rafah to comply with the blockade effectively forces Israel into assuming humanitarian responsibility for the people of Gaza.
If Rafah were to be opened, Egypt would be burdened with an influx of Palestinians seeking work and needing housing, putting a strain on Egyptian finances. Israel could hold Egypt to account for any rocket attacks from Gaza. This would push the country into policing the porous border, a task fraught with difficulty. Stability in the region could be threatened by such a move.
One of the biggest fears of the Egyptian government is the close link that Hamas has with its own Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamic Resistance Movement look to the banned but tolerated opposition group in Cairo as their mentor. Similarly, the institutions of the Palestinian Authority, dominated by Fatah, are based on those of the Egyptian government. A caveat for the reopening of the crossing is that Hamas recognize the authority of the Palestinian Authority. Internal security threats in Egypt could be heightened if Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood collaborate.
Should the blockade be lifted, the Egyptian state risks the $1.4 billion-a-year aid package it receives from America. The US has put pressure on Egypt to maintain the blockade in the hope of causing submission of Hamas.
Gaza and Egypt’s history is intertwined and their future is likely to be shared. Palestinians, who come together in a unity government, will ultimately be in the strongest position to negotiate with Israel in realising a viable Palestinian state. Should this occur, Egypt’s role in patrolling the Gaza border will diminish along with the need for Palestinian resistance.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
The vitriolic reaction in India to David Miliband’s comments in a recent Guardian article arguing that a political solution to the stalemate in
The recent crisis in Gaza is a ready reminder that over many years we have seen similarly robust responses given by Israeli commentators to international discussion and criticism of its approach to Palestinian terrorism: ‘you don’t understand the situation’ and ‘this a fight for the security of our people’. Irrespective of rights and wrongs of the Israeli approach or the criticisms levelled against it, a decision taken in
While anger and disaffection on the ground can be channelled locally into the mechanisms of nation state terrorism by any group of any faith with a grievance, we know that ‘internal issues’ across the world are banging the recruiting drum for transnational market state terrorism, as publically typified by Al-Qaeda and at present predominately amongst the Muslim community. It is clear that what happens in the hillsides of Kashmir and Helmand or the streets of
The Foreign Secretary has made an important attempt to remind people of the national roots of much of today’s terrorism and that this fact has been distorted by some of the rhetoric of the ‘War on Terror’, however we must resist the temptation flowing from this analysis towards parochial responses typified by the Indian media. David Miliband is right to raise the need to resolve the political disputes that encourage those on the ground to seek to resolve them through terrorism, however this not only for the sake of those directly involved but for us all. For while it is right to move beyond some of the language and methods of the War on Terror we must not forget that some of the terrorist threat across the world, particularly facing the West, is not drawn directly from nation state terrorism but that which feeds upon it and other conflict across the globe, from other countries ‘internal issues’.
Friday, January 9, 2009
With an aerial bombardment, Israeli troops on the streets of Gaza, a humanitarian crisis and frustrated diplomats, the parallels between the current crisis and the events of summer 2006 are pretty clear. That history has repeated itself with added ferocity and loss of life is testament to the diplomatic and political failure to which Israel, the Palestinians, the US, EU and neighbouring states have all been party. The bitter cycle of rocket attacks and economic blockade set against a backdrop of warring factions and glacial progress towards a final status agreement gives little credit all round.
The pressure from within the Israeli Government for mission creep to achieve the complete obliteration of Hamas appears to be subsiding as Egyptian and French diplomacy begins to make some progress, the scale of the humanitarian crisis and its global political impact becomes clearer to the Israelis and the task of finding suitable Hamas targets becomes progressively more difficult. As hopes of a possible resolution begin to flicker into view, thoughts are turning to what must be done to prevent this happening again.
Central to improving the situation in Gaza and across Palestine is the need for an agreement that enables Fatah and Hamas to find a working relationship. For while undoubtedly Hamas has been damaged as a military force in this operation, it remains a political organisation with the support of a significant minority of the Palestinian people with a legacy of its 2006 parliamentary election victory. An agreement would not only bring greater stability to Palestinian society, it would provide the basis for a return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza, an essential requirement for long-term peace and security between Israel and the strip. The bitter infighting in the wake of Hamas’ 2006 victory that lead to the schism between Gaza and the West Bank in 2007 was not only the result of inflexible positions of Hamas, Israel and Fatah combined with the clumsy nature of international community’s response which damaged Palestinians economically without undermining Hamas politically, it was also the result of a wider systemic problem within the Palestinian Authority. The PA’s strongly presidential system created for President Arafat, watered down at the height of Second Intifada under intense international pressure to enable Mahmoud Abbas to take up the newly created post of Prime Minister, which in turn provided a platform for Hamas to form a government lacks the necessary separation of powers to operate with competing parties controlling differing institutions. The situation is further complicated by the international negotiating role on behalf of the Palestinian people everywhere being operated through the PLO.
There is a pressing need to come up with a successor to the Mecca Agreement that briefly offered hope of reconciliation between the two parties in 2007. The agreement called for the creation of a national unity government and would have allowed Hamas to join the PLO while allowing President Abbas, as Chairman of the PLO to continue negotiating a long-term settlement with Israel on the basis of previous agreements. A new deal might enable fresh presidential and parliamentary elections to be held, a significant bone of contention between the two parties, with Hamas arguing that President Abbas’s term expires at the end of January. It may ultimately lead to Hamas being able to join the PLO, enabling final status negotiations to move forward on behalf of a unified Palestinian platform. An agreement could also limit the level of friction in future situations where the presidency and legislative council are split between the parties.
Not only is a new deal an important step to enable an eventual final status agreement, progress is needed now to enable the PA’s return to Gaza in some form which may well be a requirement of any ceasefire agreement. PA control of the border crossings, potentially alongside the return of EU monitors or a new international force if Egyptian and Hamas objections can be somehow be over come, is seen as an essential step to enable the regular opening of Gaza’s borders in the long-term. Furthermore as Israel understandably will not tolerate continued weapons smuggling at Rafah so the PA or international force in coordination with Egypt must have the necessary power to identify and destroy tunnels, which may only achievable in the context of a wider agreement.
There is an element of wishful thinking that the incoming Obama administration will completely transform US Middle East policy from its current chilling detachment. However expectations are high that the new administration will be significantly more engaged in pushing for a peace agreement and ensuring Israel pays greater attention to the humanitarian situation facing the Palestinians over the longer-term. Increased diplomatic pressure will be required to shape a political environment where the Israeli public is willing to accept the necessary steps on settlements and Jerusalem.
Until the recent conflict Israel seemed destined to elect a hard-line rejectionist block in elections due on February 10th headed by a rejuvenated Likud Party, led by former PM Benyamin Netanyahu one of the key contributors to the failure of the Oslo Process. The current conflict has boosted the chances of the Kadima-Labor coalition although a Likud victory remains the most likely outcome given the continued strength of the religious and ultra-nationalist parties.
Obama’s team will have to move hard and fast to make clear that the US will not welcome an Israeli Government that rejects or seeks to indefinitely postpone the creation of a Palestinian State. It must make clear it will not placidly accept further delay in reaching a final status agreement based on the ‘Clinton Parameters’ established in the final days of the last Democratic administration.
Although the Israeli public does not take direction from the White House it would help shape the political environment in the 21 days from the inauguration to the Israeli elections. While a fresh Kadima-Labor victory would give the new administration hope that progress could be made on final status issues, a hard-right coalition would require a more radical shift in US policy to achieve any discernible progress in the coming years. Whether the Obama administration would be willing to use US economic and military assistance as leverage to bring a rejectionist Israeli government to the table, a tactic last used meaningfully by George Bush senior in 1991, may prove one of the most important foreign policy challenges facing the new administration come February.