Friday, March 27, 2009

The Baha’is reply to Ayatollah Najafabadi

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

Georgia …pro-Western country?

Nino Zhgenti

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, Georgia has launched an active, pro-Western policy with the clear objectives of NATO and EU integration. Despite an active promotion of democratic principles within Georgia during the last five years, there is still a lot of debate about the honesty of these intentions. Georgia has been experiencing serious problems in a number of fields, with the Government continually introducing new policies, reforms and laws that naturally would not favour everyone. Whilst there has been a positive impact in some fields like education, opposition parties still complain about a corrupt judicial system. Moreover, looking through the last five-years of reforms and protests in Georgia, there seems to be an increasing sense of aggravation amongst the Georgian population. Naturally, this situation does not immediately suggest that the reforms and laws that were passed throughout this period have been moving in the wrong direction. However, the increasing discontent can be interpreted as the result of the Georgian Government’s lack of diplomacy towards its own public.

Lack of diplomacy has not only been visible in internal affairs, but also in Georgia’s foreign policy. There has been, for example, clear instances of unethical and at times insulting rhetoric directed at Russia which should be mentioned. Many Georgian officials have seized every opportunity to make threatening statements towards President Medvedev, Prime Minister Putin and the Russian Government. At first glance, it seems obvious that pro-Western Georgia, emboldened by the US support, was eager to rid of Russia’s influence as soon as possible. For these reasons, and in accordance with NATO and EU membership requirements, the goal was a peaceful resolution to the conflicts in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Unfortunately, what the world witnessed in South Ossetia (known to many Georgians as Samachablo region of Northern Georgia) was nothing approaching a peaceful resolution. In looking for the reasons and causes for this devastating war of August 2008, there are a variety of arguments that can and have been made. However, one thing is clear and that is that Russia’s attacks went far beyond the war zone as they bombed villages and strategic objectives that were a considerable distance from the immediate conflict zone.

In any case, it is quite obvious that despite its desire, Georgia will never be fully able to rid itself of Russian influence. Every country has its long-term goals and objectives in foreign policy, positioning its own state in a favourable way on the world stage. In planning for Russia’s future, the Russian Government definitely had, has and will have Georgia in mind. It is obvious that it is not so much about Georgia itself, but more about the games of world politics in which major actors like the US and Europe are involved and where small states like Georgia can only become subjects of interest when their strategic geographical locations are of immediate relevance. In other words, in comparison to the US who became interested in Georgia quite recently, Russia has always had political and economical calculations to make regarding the Caucasus region. Namely, one of those political calculations is the aforementioned policy regarding Georgia’s ambition to join NATO. If we look at a map of Russia’s western boundaries along the Baltic coast, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all are members of NATO. The only post-Soviet European countries which are not members of the military alliance are Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus. What makes matters even worse is that all of these states, except Belarus, are hoping for NATO membership. To many Russian politicians the tendency of NATO, which is at its heart a military organisation, toward integration of former Soviet countries might easily be interpreted as a threat to Russia.

Why does the US want NATO expansion? The first thing that might come to a Russian mind is that it could be to protect and to be used against Russia. However, at this point Europe is still partly dependent on its powerful neighbour for reasons such as energy, which means that it is difficult for certain NATO allies to be used against it. Obviously, this is a situation which Russia is keen to maintain. Apart from this, the fact that Georgia shares the border with a NATO member country, Turkey, might make Georgia even more desirable for its neighbour since in case of conflict with the US or other NATO member countries, it could provide a convenient place for strategic Russian military bases. As for economic interests, Georgia is at the juncture of Europe and Asia and naturally serves as a bridge between the North and East. It seems Russia is keen to benefit from this. There are Black Sea ports which might serve as potential routes for Russian controlled oil and gas pipelines. Furthermore, communications and pipelines linking Russia and Armenia run through Georgia. Hence, one would be naïve to think that Russia will be willing to give up Georgia so easily. So, was the whole Georgian policy towards Russia simply naivety, self-defence, miscalculation of the situation or the US initiation, it is hard to tell but it is clear that Russia seemed to achieve its goals.

In fact, Russia may well have benefited from the war in South Ossetia/Samachablo. Firstly, Georgia’s potential membership of NATO is postponed indefinitely. Secondly, Russia established its control over even more territories than those directly affected by conflict. Thirdly, the international community seems to view Georgia as the initiator of war, strengthening the Russian position. However, despite the critical perceptions of Georgia held by many in the West, politically, Russia still seems to have lost. Its actions on Georgian territory were interpreted as aggressive and disproportionate whilst international recognition of the breakaway regions was absent from everyone except Nicaragua. This should be alarming for Russia which is keen to occupy a respected and powerful position in World politics.

The extent of the potential conflict in the Georgian-Russian relationship is not limited to territorial disputes. Russia not only occupies Georgian territories but, according to Georgian media, it also exercises commercial influence over commodities such as water and electricity which are often controlled by companies with Russian ties. Moreover, appointing a Russian national as a Minister of Foreign Affairs after the August war caused further controversy in Georgian society. All this leads to the question: if the Russian Government is Georgia’s “enemy” and, as illustrated by the August conflict Russia has the power to achieve its goals, why is Russia being given even more power over Georgia?

From the current perspective, it seems that everything that happened in Georgia recently has made Russian control more stable and strong. Despite a hostile attitude between the leaders of the two countries at the time, there is every reason to assume that Russia might be comfortable with Saakashvili being in power. There is a difference between rhetoric and action and the events that have unfolded, whether completely intended or not, have for the meantime fulfilled Russia’s wishes with regard to Georgia.

The Battle for Serpent Island

Alex Jackson

On February 3, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) gave its ruling on a long-running dispute between Romania and Ukraine over the delimitation of the Black Sea, and the oil and gas reserves that lie beneath it. The ruling, which although marketed as a compromise essentially favoured Romania, was intensely politicised in both countries. Indeed, it has already claimed one scalp in the form of Ukrainian Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko who was criticised for, inter alia, his poor handling of the Black Sea dispute.

The Background

The dispute originated after the Second World War, when Serpent Island, a 0.17 km2 speck off the Danube delta, was omitted from the Paris peace treaties which reshuffled territory after the Axis collapse. The island was nominally under Bucharest’s control until 1949, when a technical document – not, it should be noted, an official treaty - on border delimitation ceded the island to Soviet control. This document did not, however, deal with the matters of an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or the continental shelf around the island. Negotiations over the official maritime boundary continued until 1991, when the USSR’s place in the talks was taken by newly-independent Ukraine, with an intensive new delimitation process begun in 1998. The matter was finally taken to the ICJ in 2004.

The significance of Serpent Island lies in its status. If, as Kiev claimed, it was indeed an island, then Ukraine would control 370km of open sea around it. Since the island lies more or less parallel to the land boundary, this claim would have given Ukraine access deep into what Romania viewed as its waters. Romania claimed that Serpents Island was merely a rock, and thus was not a factor in maritime delimitation. Energy gave the dispute additional importance. The 12,000km2 contested area is estimated to hold around 100 billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas, and 10 million tons of oil equivalent– the dispute has so far prevented anything but tentative exploration of the deposits.

The Ruling

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 Romania. This was significant, since in subsequent treaties (as recently as 2003) the two sides had agreed to accept previous demarcation documents and protocols. The ICJ ruled that the 1949 agreement, despite confusion in the original sketch maps, did support Romania’s case.

The crux of the matter, the relevance of Serpent’s Island to the formation of an EEZ and continental shelf entitlements, also went in Romania’s favour. The ICJ stated that whether or not it constituted a ‘rock’ or an ‘island’ was essentially irrelevant: the areas subject to delimitation were already within the EEZ and continental shelf generated by Ukraine’s mainland coasts, and so Serpent’s Island would be unable to add to them. Furthermore, since the southern edge of the area to be delimited had already been agreed upon, no entitlements arising from Serpent’s Island could have affected the southern line.

The ICJ assessed other relevant circumstances, such as pre-existing conduct (Ukraine claimed that its oil licensing and exploration activities – which were uncontested by Romania at the time – should be taken as a post facto justification of its claim) and security requirements, but found no reason to adjust the provisional boundary line which it had drawn up initially (see Map 1). The ruling gave Romania nearly 80% of the contested area.

The Implications

The ruling was greeted with understandable satisfaction in Bucharest, and the Romanian Prime Minister, Emil Boc, congratulated his foreign ministry on its efforts in the negotiations. Officials in Kiev were more downbeat, although they accepted the ruling as a ‘wise compromise’, although this did not stop the Deputy Foreign Minister expressing his frustration that the ICJ had disregarded Serpent’s Island. The Communist Party also demanded that the Prosecutor-General file charges of ‘high treason’ against relevant officials, including President Viktor Yuschenko. The angry response from nationalists, and the sacking of Foreign Minister Ohryzko, illustrates the current volatility of Ukraine’s politics.

The loss of oil and gas concessions will be a bitter blow for Kiev’s struggle to free itself of dependence on Russian gas. Relations between the two states soured after the Orange Revolution in 2004 brought a clutch of pro-Western politicians, including Mr. Yuschenko, to power. Ukraine’s moves towards the West, and particularly NATO, further angered Russian nationalists, for whom Ukraine is an integral, historic part of Russia. Relations hit a new low in January, when Moscow turned off the gas flow to Ukraine, officially for unpaid bills, but the highly visible role of Prime Minister Putin in the dispute clearly demonstrated the tangled nexus between business and politics. Without Black Sea gas deposits to develop – even if Kiev had the finances to do so, which is currently not the case – Ukraine will continue to rely on Russian gas.

For Bucharest, the decision constitutes a clear victory. Quite aside from the oil and gas deposits, which may be too deep to be financially viable with current energy prices, the ICJ ruling will be interpreted by the government as ‘a triumph for Romanian diplomacy’, in the words of Mr Boc. The ruling will help to increase Romania’s stock among EU diplomats sceptical of corruption and political deadlock. But perhaps such scepticism is warranted, after all: in the aftermath of the ICJ ruling, a scandal broke in Bucharest over the role of the previous administration in allegedly granting concession rights to a Canadian energy firm. Mr Boc has threatened to revoke the agreements, and the head of the natural resources agency, Bogdan Gabudeanu, has been sacked. The ICJ victory may just be the start of a new political fight.